Ciutat Vella (Old City)
Barri Gòtic Next to the excesses of the 19th-century moderniste period, Barcelona's golden age was between the 13th and 15th centuries, the Gothic period. The city expanded rapidly in medieval times, so much so that it could no longer be contained within the old Roman walls. So new ones were built. They originally ran from the port northward along what was to become La Rambla, down the Ronda Sant Pere to Calle Rec Comtal, and back to the sea again. Except for a few remaining sections along the Vía Laietana, most of them have now been destroyed. But the ensemble of 13th- to 15th-century buildings (or parts of) that remain make up the most complete Gothic quarter on the continent. These include government buildings, churches (including the main cathedral), and guild houses.
Guilds (gremis) were a forerunner of the trade unions and the backbone of Barcelona medieval life. Many of their shields, which would have denoted the headquarters of each particular trade, can be seen on buildings dotted around the Barri Gòtic. Tiny workshops were also enclosed in the area, and even now many street names bear the name of the activity that went on there for centuries -- such as Escudellers (shield makers), Assaonadors (tanners), Carders (wool combers), and Brocaters (brocade makers), to name a few. El Call, the original Jewish quarter, is also located within the Barri Gòtic. A tiny area around the Carrer del Call and L'Arc de Sant Ramón del Call was the scene of the sacking of the Jews by Christian mobs in the late 1400s.
Apart from the big attractions such as the Cathedral de la Seu, the Plaça Sant Jaume (which contains the two organs of Catalan politics, the Ajuntament and the Generalitat), and the medieval palace of the Plaça del Rei, where Columbus was received after returning from the New World, the Barri Gòtic's charm lies in its details. Smaller squares, such as the Plaça Felip Neri with a central fountain, the oasis-like courtyard of the Frederic Marès Museum, gargoyles peering down from ancient towers, and small chapels set into the sides of medieval buildings -- this is what makes the area so fascinating. Most of them can only be discovered on foot, ideally at sunset when the fading Mediterranean light lends the stone buildings a warm hue, and musicians, mainly of the classical nature, jostle for performance spaces around the cathedral.
Some of the sites in the Barri Gòtic are not medieval at all (architecture and history purists argue that the name has remained simply for the sake of tourism) but of no less merit. The most famous of these is the so-called Bridge of Sighs (nothing like the Venetian original) in Carrer del Bisbe, built during the city's Gothic revival in the 1920s. But even modern additions do nothing to diminish the character of the Barri Gòtic. The abundance of specialist shops, from old fan and espadrille makers to more cutting-edge designer ware, is another attraction, as are the dozens of outdoor eateries where you can enjoy a coffee or two looking out onto an ancient edifice.
The sprawling Barri Gòtic is hemmed in on one side by the ugly, ever-busy Vía Laietana and on the other by La Rambla.
The most famous promenade in Spain, ranking with Madrid's Paseo del Prado, was once a riverbed. These days, street entertainers, flower vendors, news vendors, cafe patrons, and strollers flow along its length. The gradual 1.5km (1 mile) descent toward the sea has been called a metaphor for life because its bustling action combines cosmopolitanism and crude vitality.
La Rambla actually consists of five sections, each a particular rambla -- Rambla de Canaletes, Rambla dels Estudis, Rambla de Sant Josep, Rambla dels Caputxins, and Rambla de Santa Mónica. The shaded pedestrian esplanade runs from the Plaça de Catalunya to the port -- all the way to the Columbus Monument. Along the way you'll pass the Gran Teatre del Liceu, on Rambla dels Caputxins, one of the most magnificent opera houses in the world, restored to its former glory after a devastating fire in 1994. Watch out for the giant sidewalk mosaic by Miró halfway down at the Plaça de la Boqueria.
El Raval On the opposite side of La Rambla lies El Raval, Barcelona's largest inner-city neighborhood. This is where the ambitious plans for the post-Olympic "New Barcelona" are at their most evident as entire blocks of dank apartment buildings were bulldozed to make way for sleek new edifices, squares, and boulevards. El Raval has recently been cited as the neighborhood with the greatest multicultural mix in Europe, some still living in the old buildings, some renovated, some untouched. A quick stroll around its maze of streets, where Pakistani fabric merchants and South American spice sellers stand side by side with traditional establishments selling dried cod and local wine, confirms the fact. The adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) wafts from ground-floor mosques next to neo-hippie bars, yoga schools, and contemporary art galleries. The largest of the galleries is the MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art), a luminous white behemoth designed by the American architect Richard Meir. It resides on a huge concrete square that has, since its opening in 1995, become the neighborhood's most popular playground. At any time of the day, the space will be inundated by kids playing cricket and soccer, skateboarders cruising the ramps of the museum's forecourt, and housewives on their way to the nearby Boqueria market. Another favorite stomping ground is the Rambla del Raval -- a wide, airy pedestrianized avenue dating from 2000 and lined with cafes and multinational (mainly Asian) eating spots.
The signs of gentrification are everywhere, and while this still attracts its fair share of criticism, no one can deny the life-enhancing benefits of the above-mentioned developments for a neighborhood that has been historically deprived of light and breathing space. The neighborhood's former reputation as a seedy inner-city slum is gradually receding, though the area still has its rough edges.
Change has been slower to come to the so-called Barri Xinès or Barrio Chino, the lower half of El Raval between the waterfront and Carrer de l'Hospital. Despite the name ("Chinese Quarter"), this isn't Chinatown. In fact, most attribute its nickname to an imaginative writer by the name of Francisco Madrid who, influenced by a fellow journalist who'd just returned from a visit to the States where he felt New York's Chinatown reminded him of this area, published a 1926 book on these lines called Sangre en las Atarazanas (Blood on the Dockyards). A decade later the French writer Jean Genet wrote A Thief's Journal during a stint in one of its peseta-a-night whorehouses. In some pockets of the Chino, little has changed: While drug dealing has been largely shipped out to the outer suburbs, prostitution still exists openly, as does the general seediness of many of the streets. But, as with all of the Old City, the times they are a-changin' and you may find yourself wandering down here at night to attend the opening of a new bar or club. Petty thieves, prostitutes, drug dealers, and purse-snatchers are just some of the neighborhood "characters," so exercise caution. Although Barri Xinès has a long way to go, an urban renewal program has led to the destruction of some of the rougher parts of the barrio.
La Ribera Another neighborhood that stagnated for years but is now well into a renaissance is La Ribera. Across the noisy artery Vía Laietana and southward from Calle Princesa, this small neighborhood is bordered by the Port Vell (Old Port) and the Parc de la Ciutadella. Like the Barrio Chino , El Born is La Ribera's "neighborhood within a neighborhood." But far from being a rough diamond, El Born is a polished pastiche of the Ciutat Vella where designer clothing and houseware showcases occupy medieval buildings and workshops. The centerpiece is the imposing Santa María del Mar, a stunningly complete Gothic basilica built with funds from cashed-up merchants who once lived here. Many lived in the mansions and palaces along the Carrer de Montcada, today home to a trio of top museums including the Museu Picasso. Most of the mansions here were built during one of Barcelona's major maritime expansions, principally in the 1200s and 1300s. During this time, El Born was the city's principal trade area. The refurbished La Llotja, the city's first stock exchange, lies on its outer edge on the Plaça Palau; although the facade dates from 1802, the interior is pure Catalan Gothic.
The central Passeig del Born got its name from the medieval jousts that used to occur here. "Born" is Catalan for "lists" in the sense of "jousting tournament lists (i.e. competitions)." At the northern end, the wrought-iron Mercat del Born was the city's principal wholesale market until the mid-1970s. Recent excavation work has revealed entire streets and houses dating back to the 18th century, sealing the edifice's fate as a new museum where these ruins can be viewed via glass flooring and walkways. Behind the Mercat del Born, the Parc de la Ciutadella is a tranquil oasis replete with a manmade lake; wide, leafy walkways; and yet more museums.
The Port & Waterfront
Barceloneta, the Beaches & the Harbor Although Barcelona has a long seagoing tradition, its waterfront stood in decay for years. Today, the waterfront promenade, Passeig del Moll de la Fusta, bursts with activity. The best way to get a bird's-eye view is to take an elevator up the Columbus Monument in Plaça Portal de la Pau, at the port end of La Rambla.
Near the monument are the Reials Drassanes (Royal Shipyards), a booming place during the Middle Ages. Years before Columbus landed in the New World, ships sailed around the known world from here, flying the yellow-and-red flag of Catalonia. These days, the shipyards are home to the excellent Museu Marítim. Across the road, the wooden swing bridge known as the Rambla del Mar takes you across the water to the Maremagnum entertainment and shopping complex.
To the east, the glitzy Port Vell (Old Port) was one of the main projects for the city's Olympic renewal scheme. Its chic yachting marina is similar to those of other great Mediterranean ports like Marseilles and Piraeus, and there are large expanses of open recreational areas where people get out and enjoy the sun. It is also home to the city's Aquarium. On one side it is flanked by Passeig Joan de Borbón, the main street of Barceloneta (Little Barcelona). Formerly a fishing district dating from the 18th century, the neighborhood is full of character and is still one of the best places in the city to eat seafood. The blocks here are long and narrow -- architects planned them that way so that each room in every building fronted a street. The streets end at Barceloneta beach. Like all of the city's beaches, this was neglected to the point of nonexistence pre-1992. The harborfront was clogged with industrial buildings -- many of them abandoned -- and tatty but well-patronized chiringuitos (beach bars). Today these are some of the finest urban beaches in Europe. From Barceloneta, separated by breakwaters, no fewer than seven of them sprawl northward. The Port Olímpic, dominated by a pair of landmark, sea-facing skyscrapers (one accommodating the five-star Hotel Arts and the city's casino), boasts yet another marina and a host of restaurants and bars. Take them all in at your leisure as you stroll along the Passeig Marítim (seafront promenade).
L'Eixample To the north of the Plaça de Catalunya is the massive section of Barcelona (known as the Ensanche in Spanish) that grew beyond the old medieval walls. In the mid-1800s, Barcelona was bursting at the seams. The dank, serpentine streets of the old walled city were breeding grounds for cholera and typhoid and habitual mass rioting. Rather than leveling the Ciutat Vella, the city's authorities had a sloping sweep of land just outside the walls at their disposal and contracted the socialist engineer Idelfons Cerdà to offer a solution. His subsequent 1856 work, Monograph on the Working Class of Barcelona, became the first-ever attempt to study the living, breathing landscape of a city: Urbanization to you and me, a term Cerdà himself coined in the process.
Cerdà visited hundreds of Old City hovels before he drew up plans for Barcelona's New City. Needless to say, his fact-checking led him to the bowels of human suffering; he discovered that life expectancy for the proletariat was half that of the bourgeoisie, they were paying exorbitant rents to ruthless landlords for their decaying houses, and mortality rates were lower in the narrower streets. Above all, he concluded that air and sunshine were vital to basic well-being.
Today little is in evidence of Cerdà's most radical plans for L'Eixample, apart from the rigorous regularity of its 20-m (66-feet)-wide streets and famous chamfered pavements. The modernistes were the neighborhood's earliest architects, filling the blocks with their labored fantasies, such as Gaudí's La Sagrada Família, Casa Milà, and Casa Batlló. His works aside, L'Eixample is a living, breathing museum piece with an abundance of Art Nouveau architecture and details not found anywhere else in Europe. La Ruta del Modernisme is a specially designed walking tour that guides you to the best of them.
In accordance with Cerdà's basic plan, avenues form a grid of perpendicular streets, cut across by a majestic boulevard -- Passeig de Gràcia, a posh shopping street ideal for leisurely promenades. L'Eixample's northern boundary is the Avinguda Diagonal (or simply the El Diagonal), which links the expressway and the heart of the city and acts as Barcelona's business and banking hub.
Gràcia This charming neighborhood sprawls out northward of the intersection of the Passeig de Gràcia and the Diagonal. Its contained, village-like ambience stems from the fact that it was once a separate town, only connected to central Barcelona in 1897 with the construction of the Passeig de Gràcia. It has a strong industrial and artisan history, and many street-level workshops can still be seen. Gràcia's charm lies in its low-level housing and series of squares -- the Plaça del Sol and Plaça Ruis i Taulet are two of the prettiest -- rather than in monuments or museums. The residents themselves have a strong sense of neighborhood pride and a marked independent spirit, and their annual fiestas are some of the liveliest in the city. For the casual visitor, Gràcia is a place to wander through for a slice of authentic barri life.
Montjuïc & Tibidabo Locals call them "mountains," and while northerly Tibidabo does actually rise to over 488m (1,600 feet), the port-side bluff of Montjuïc is somewhat lower. Both are great places to go for fine views and cleaner air. The most accessible, Montjuïc (Catalan for "Hill of the Jews," after a Jewish necropolis that once stood there), gained prominence in 1929 as the site of the World's Fair and again in 1992 as the site of the Summer Olympic Games. Its major attractions are the Fundacíon Miró, the Olympic installations, and the Poble Espanyol (Spanish Village), a 2-hectare (5-acre) site constructed for the World's Fair. Examples of Spanish art and architecture are on display against the backdrop of a traditional Spanish village. Opposite the village lies the CaixaForum, one of the city's newer contemporary art showcases, housed in a converted moderniste textile factory. In a recent push to raise Montjuïc's status even further, new parks and gardens (such as the Jardí Botanic) have been laid out. At the base of Montjuïc is the working-class neighborhood of Poble Sec and the Ciutat del Teatre, location of the city's theatrical school and a conglomeration of performing-arts spaces.
Tibidabo (503m/1,650 feet) is where you should go for your final look at Barcelona. On a clear day you can see the mountains of Majorca, some 210km (130 miles) away. Reached by train, tram, and cable car, Tibidabo is a popular Sunday excursion in Barcelona, when whole families head to the fun-fair of the same name.
Pedralbes At the western edge of El Diagonal, next to the elite districts of Sant Gervasí and Putxet, is the equally posh residential area where wealthy Barcelonans live in stylish blocks of apartment houses, 19th-century villas behind ornamental fences, or stunning moderniste structures. Set in a park, the Palau de Pedralbes (Av. Diagonal 686) was constructed in the 1920s as a gift from the city to Alfonso XIII, the grandfather of King Juan Carlos. Today it has a new life, housing the Ceramic and Decorative Arts Museums. The Finca Güell is also part of the estate, the country home of Gaudí's main patron, Eusebi Güell. Although not open to the public, the main gate and gatehouse, both designed by Gaudí, are visible from the street. The pride of this zone is the 14th-century Gothic church-cum-convent of Monestir de Pedralbes, where you can view lovely cloisters and well-preserved kitchens.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.