Les Rambles & El Raval
If you’re not jazzed walking up and down Les Rambles (Las Ramblas in Spanish), check to make sure you still have a pulse. You can spend a day here just exploring the street life, cafes, and shops. But you’ll want to take some of that time to turn into El Raval on streets named Nou de la Rambla, Sant Pau, Hospital, Carme, and Elisabets. You’ll find both the wonderfully récherché world of old Raval, and the modern, hip neighborhood of the arts. Get to Les Rambles by one of three Metro stops: Drassanes at the waterfront, Liceu halfway up, and Plaça de Catalunya at the top.
Barcelona came into its own as a Mediterranean power in the 12th century when the Aragonese King Jaume I erected a defensive wall around the city. This area—roughly from Les Rambles east to Via Laietana and from the waterfront north to Plaça de Catalunya—is the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), which retains much of its medieval street pattern. It’s a fascinating neighborhood of narrow streets and pocket squares, most fronting on Gothic churches. Plan on spending at least a half-day exploring, knowing that you will get a little lost, no matter how good your map. The area assumes a special magic on Sunday mornings, when you can emerge from a warren of small streets onto a square where a musician may be playing for change. Metro stops for the Barri Gòtic are Liceu and Jaume I.
La Rivera & El Born
With streets a little wider, buildings a little newer, and street patterns that at least approach a grid, La Ribera and El Born push the Barri Gòtic eastward, still obviously part of the old city, though both districts have become gentrified since the 1990s (there’s little or no laundry hanging from the balconies in Born these days, replaced in most cases by flower planters). Both neighborhoods have sprouted gelaterias and tapas bars every few steps. Metro stops include Jaume I, Arc de Triomf, and Urquinaona.
Where Les Rambles meets Plaça de Catalunya, the tangled web of streets of the old city are released into the orderly grid of L’Eixample. Strolling its wide boulevards can seem like a breath of fresh air, which was precisely the effect Ildefons Cerdá envisioned when he designed and built it between 1890 and 1910. The Eixample will enthrall you with its major sites of 19th-century architecture, but don’t overlook the small details like the Modernista light posts designed by Gaudí, and the hexagonal paving tiles with floral patterns (also Gaudí-designed) which you can still spot on some of the sidewalks of Passeig de Gràcia and nearby cross streets. Take a break on one of the gracefully styled tile benches on the street corners. Modernisme was one of the first movements to emphasize “design for living,” and those designs still bring delight more than a century later.
You can escape the tourist throngs by venturing a bit north (via an easy metro ride to Fontana) into a “real neighborhood,” the former village of Grácia, now a charming low-rise neighborhood full of lovely plazas, cafes, and shops run by designers and local entrepreneurs.
La Barceloneta & the Waterfront
Barcelona has always lived by the water, and fishing boats, trade vessels, and ferries continue to come and go in its harbor. But there’s new vitality along the waterfront, from the Mirador de Colom east to Port Olimpic along the Passeig de Colom and the pedestrian Moll de la Fusta. Starting in the late 1980s, Barcelona built new quays and waterfront paths and even constructed new islands to house a world-class aquarium and a shopping and entertainment complex. At the same time, it preserved the barrier-beach sand-spit of La Barceloneta, the former fishermen’s village that also boasts the city’s finest recreational beaches.
Spend some time exploring the back streets of La Barceloneta, where the residents still hang their laundry on the balconies. As you tromp the length of Moll de la Fusta, you’ll find two playful pieces of public art: the giant fiberglass lobster that Xavier Mariscal created for the restaurant Gambrinus, and pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s Barcelona Head at the foot of Via Laietana (not his best work, but still a splash of color on the waterfront). Continue east up the beach to Port Olimpic, and you’ll encounter Frank O. Gehry’s abstract sculpture Peix (Fish), which has become the de facto symbol of Barcelona’s rejuvenated waterfront. This district is the place to enjoy a casual seafood lunch and catch some rays at the beach. Plan on spending a full day, with time to take a boat tour and to see some of the sights. Three Metro stops provide access to the sites below: from west to east, Drassanes, Barceloneta, and Ciutadella/Vila Olimpica.
Residents of Barcelona used to quarry stone, harvest firewood, and graze livestock on this flat-topped hill southwest of the old city. Montjuïc began to assume its current shape in the early 20th century, when parks were planted and the 1929 International Exposition was held here. Many of the park’s structures, including the Palau Nacional (now the National Art Museum of Catalunya), and the popular and kitschy Magic Fountain (Font Màgica) date from this period. The 1992 Olympics brought even more structures to Montjuïc, including world-class pools that are still used for international swimming meets. The biggest attractions on the mountain are two stunning art museums, Fundació Joan Miró and MNAC, the National Art Museum of Catalunya. (It takes some effort to reach MNAC, but it’s worth it.) The most useful bus lines are Route 55 from Plaça d’Espanya and the small buses that route around the Montjuïc roads. The funicular (mostly underground) from the Paral.lel Metro station delivers you to the Telefèric de Montjuic station, a stone’s throw from the Miró Foundation; the funicular train is included in your metro fare. The Bus Turistic also visits Montjuïc, making stops at all the attractions. If you’re up for a moderately steep climb, you can also walk from Plaça d’Espanya through the Magic Fountain and up the ceremonial staircase of the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. There are also outdoor escalators that make the climb less daunting.
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.