Walking Tour 2: La Ribera (El Born & Sant Pere)
Start: Plaça de l'Angel (Metro: Jaume I).
Finish: Arc de Triomf at northern end of Parc de la Ciutadella (Metro: Arc de Triomf).
Time: 2 to 3 hours.
Best Times: Any sunny day or early evening.
This tour continues your exploration of the Old Quarter, concentrating on the eastern corner, formerly an area of tradesmen and artisans but today filled with top museums and trendy cafes.
Begin at the:
1. Plaça de l'Angel
Known in medieval times as the Plaça del Blat ("Square of Wheat"), since all grain sales were made here, this small, atmospheric square stands at the busy junction of Jaume I and Laietana on the eastern edge of the Barri Gòtic.
From the Plaça de l'Angel take Carrer Boria right; then turn left into Carrer Mercaders and immediately right again to Plaça Santa Caterina and the:
2. Mercat de Santa Caterina
This is the oldest working market in the area. It occupies the original site where the medieval convent of Santa Caterina once stood, and provides the usual rich cornucopia of Mediterranean produce. In 2005, after a protracted period of renovation, the market was reopened with a stunning new moderniste design (by the late Enric Miralles), whose colorful waved roof owes more than a little to Gaudí. It's open every day except Sunday.
From the south-facing side of the market take Carrer Sant Jacint, turn right into Carrer Corders, and then south into the Placeta d'en Marcus.
3. Capella d'en Marcus
Well worth a peek is this diminutive 12th-century chapel nestling in the tiny Placeta d'en Marcus, near the junction of calles Montcada and Carders (the latter means "Woolcomber's Street"). Originally conceived by one Bernat Marcus as a sanctuary for luckless travelers who reached the city after the gates had been closed, the chapel may have been headquarters of the country's very first postal service.
Continue south across Carrer Princesa to reach:
4. Carrer Montcada
Named after a powerful merchant, Guillem de Montcada, who in 1153 built a long-since-disappeared palace here, this charming medieval street would be interesting enough to stroll along even if it didn't contain three of the city's most interesting museums (to which, alas, you won't be able to do justice if you're to finish this walk the same day). The elegant buildings lining the street are reminders of the time it was a wealthy trading center; vast fortunes were made here by adroit and ambitious merchants.
5. Museu Picasso
Located in no fewer than five former palaces in Carrer Montcada, the Picasso is generally rated the most popular museum in town. In essence it covers the artist as a young man, and even the older works on display were created when the Malagueño was a mere 20-something. Exhibits range from notes and rough sketches to lithographs, ceramics, and oil canvases. Highlights are Las Meninas (his take on Velázquez's painting of the same name) and The Harlequin; although time will be short, keep an eye open for La Ciencia y la Caridad (Science and Charity), a masterpiece created while Picasso was at school.
On the same street is:
6. Museu Tèxtil i d'Indumentària
Over 1,000 years of fashion fill the salons of this extraordinary museum, which spreads throughout a fine period house, the Palau dels Marquesos de Llió, and features the original medieval ceilings. The oldest exhibits date from early Egypt, but it's the flamboyant baroque, Regency, and 20th-century styles that really catch the eye.
7. Take a Break -- Tèxtil Café
Carrer Montcada (tel. 93-268-25-98) is a convenient spot for a break between museums. This chic little cafe is tucked away in a secluded, cobbled courtyard on the grounds of the Museu Tèxtil itself. Ideal for relaxing over a café llet (café con leche) and Danish pastry.
On the same street is the:
8. Museu Barbier-Mueller d'Art Precolombí
Atmospherically housed in the 15th-century Palau Nadal, close to the above two museums, this branch of the great Geneva museum offers one of the best displays of pre-Columbian art and has been drawing in the crowds ever since it opened in 1997. Among its highlights is a dazzling selection of gold, jewelry, and masks.
Continue down Carrer Montcada to the Passeig del Born. Turn right onto Carrer de Santa María.
9. Santa María del Mar
Built in the 14th century during a period of just over 50 years (quick for the time), this grandiose, high-vaulted basilica, honoring the patron saint of sailors, used to stand on the city's shore when the sea reached further inland. As the welfare of sailors mainly depended on the clemency and protection of "Our Lady of the Sea," in those days large numbers of penniless people helped without pay on its construction. Bronze figures of two porters on the door commemorate this, and the west portal is flanked by statues of Peter and Paul.
Today it's one of Barcelona's most imposing Gothic structures, noted for its soaring columns and uncluttered aura of space. Look out for the superb stained-glass windows, particularly the 15th-century rose-shaped one above the main entrance. A belated 1997 addition to this is, in contrast, jarringly unimpressive. You'll want to return for an evening concert -- particularly a performance of Handel. In such a timeless setting it's an unforgettable experience.
Go back again to the:
10. Passeig del Born
This short wide paseo, or avenue, was once a center for tournaments and jousting events. (The name "Born" in Catalan means, among other things, the point of a jousting lance.) In medieval times, when Catalonia was a major naval power, the paseo's fame was such that the saying Roda el món i torna al Born ("Go around the world and return to the Born") became widespread. It was the spiritual heart of the city from the 13th century right up to the 18th century, when La Rambla took over the number-one spot. Today the Born's revelry assumes a more modern nocturnal form, centered mainly around the countless bars and cafes filling the bustling side streets.
At the end of the avenue is the:
11. Antic Mercat del Born
This massive building, with its wrought-iron roof, was formerly one of the city's biggest wholesale markets. Closed since the 1970s, during renovations a number of excavations were discovered, which can be viewed through glass flooring. It is scheduled to reopen as a museum and cultural center, but as yet there is no firm date for reopening; 2012 looks like the earliest.
Cross the Passeig de Picasso just past the eastern end of the market and you enter the:
12. Parc de la Ciutadella
Built on the site of a much-hated 18th-century Bourbon citadel, which was destroyed in 1878, this 30-hectare (75-acre) oasis of relaxing greenery came about in the late 1890s after serving as the site for the Universal Exhibition. Its many highlights include statues, fountains (one designed by a young Gaudí), a boating lake, a waterfall (La Cascada) with a giant hairy mammoth sculpture, the Domènech i Muntaner-designed Castell dels Tres Dragons (Castle of Three Dragons), which houses the zoological museum, two arboretums, and a small botanical garden. There's also a science museum and -- last, but not least -- the Catalan parliament, which is located in the former citadel's arsenal and can be visited by appointment. Stroll to the northern end of the park to view the moderniste-cum-neo-mudéjar-style Arc de Triomf, which served as the entrance to the Universal Exhibition.
There are Metro stops at Arc de Triomf and Jaume I.
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.