Walking Tour 3: El Raval

Start: Monumento de Colom (Metro: Drassanes).

Finish: Universitat (Metro: Universitat).

Time: 2 to 3 hours.

Best Times: Any sunny day or early evening.

This tour takes you through El Raval, a once run-down and deprived corner of Old Barcelona that has reinvented itself as an earthy cosmopolitan quarter with international eating spots and cutting-edge cultural centers.

Walk north up the main La Rambla paseo and then turn left onto the Carrer Nou de la Rambla. Almost immediately on your left is:

1. Palau Güell

Gaudí's first architectural creation -- in reality an extension of his parents' old house, which has since been turned into a hotel -- was this citadel-like moderniste building located just a stone's throw from La Rambla. Partial renovation work has been completed, but the whole place won't be totally finished until 2012. In the meantime you can enjoy free entrance to the ground floor and admire its Venetian facade, entrance archways, and rooftop array of bizarre chimneys from the street.

Continue along Carrer Nou de la Rambla. When you reach the wide, busy Avinguda del Paral.lel, turn right onto Carrer de l'Abat Safont and then right again onto Carrer de Sant Pau. On your immediate right is:

2. Església de Sant Pau del Camp

This rare urban example of Romanesque architecture (officially declared a national monument) is in fact Barcelona's grandaddy of all churches, filled with fascinating small sculptures and grotesque figures. When it was originally built by monks in the 9th century, the surrounding area consisted of fields and woodlands (hence its name, "Saint Paul of the Countryside"). Today's rather squat building is a delightfully intact blend of 11th- to 14th-century styles, including some Visigothic decor, and highlighted by a beautiful, tiny cloister with Moorish archways and a stone fountain.

Continue along Carrer de Sant Pau to the:

3. Rambla de Raval

This is one of the city's newest paseos, created in 2000 when a large quadrangle of congested alleyways and insalubrious tenements was removed as part of a commendable and necessary "Raval open to the heavens" plan. Today it's a sunny, pedestrianized area where children play and locals can relax in the shade of the palm trees. Surrounded by a new blend of nifty hotels and eating spots -- including various ethnic cafes and restaurants owned by immigrants -- it exudes an international atmosphere, although some of the earlier grittiness remains. Similar changes are continuing to take place as the area becomes increasingly gentrified and cosmopolitan. Look for the huge black Gat (cat) statue at the southern end of the Rambla.

At the northern end of the Rambla de Raval, turn right into Carrer de l'Hospital. Ahead on your left is the:

4. Antic Hospital de Santa Cruz

The name is misleading, as the famed former hospital -- one of Spain's biggest in the Middle Ages -- ceased to cater to the bodily sick and needy over 80 years ago, when one of its last patients was the dying Gaudí. Today, instead, it provides sustenance for the mind. Its blend of Gothic, baroque, and neoclassical styles is spread throughout several buildings, which were converted in 2001 into a variety of cultural institutions including the main Catalan National Library and the Massana Art School (tel. 93-485-99-13).

On the right of the Antic Hospital is the:

5. Carrer d'en Robador

This narrow, winding, and sunless street in the heart of the old Barrio Chino (or Barri Xino, as it's known today) was once the notorious focus not of robbers (robadors), but of posturing prostitutes of all shapes and sizes who filled every doorway and lined every corner. Today it's more low-key, a mildly risqué corner of unadorned medieval Barcelona; just take sensible precautions when walking here at night.

At the end of Carrer d'en Robador, turn right onto Sant Pau and continue to the end, where you meet La Rambla and the:

6. Gran Teatre del Liceu

Tragically destroyed over a decade ago by fire, this magnificent, traditional opera house overlooking La Rambla has risen phoenix-like from the ashes and today once more hosts some of the best classical performances in the world. Its new facade belies the opulent interior of rich, dark colors and intricate carvings where a 19th-century setting has been revived alongside various modern accoutrements.

Carry on left up La Rambla to:

7. Mercat de la Boqueria

In a class all its own, this ever-colorful, ever-dynamic food market is among the biggest and best in Europe. Under its high, wrought-iron ceilings, countless stalls sell a kaleidoscopic mix of Atlantic and Mediterranean seafood, Castilian meat, Valencian fruit, and local vegetables. The picture-postcard stalls at the front tend to be more expensive, so take an admiring look and then head farther back for the better-value stuff.

8. Take a Break -- La Boqueria

Inside the market you'll also find several good-value bars and cafes where locals come for early breakfasts or a snifter, or where chefs from top restaurants pause for a cafe solo between their purchases. These outwardly unassuming bars serve some of the best coffee and tapas in the city. Look out in particular for Pinotxo and El Quim.

Almost adjoining the Boqueria is the:

9. Palau de la Virreina

Built in 1770, this classical baroque palace is named after the widow of a wealthy former viceroy of Peru. Today it's a cultural-events center, mainly private but with occasional public exhibitions dedicated to Barcelona history and traditions. The downstairs photographic displays are usually worth a look. You can also buy souvenirs here, and consult the information desk for up-to-date cultural events.

Turn left away from La Rambla along Carrer Carmé and take the fourth left onto Carrer del Angel, to arrive at the Plaça dels Angels, where you'll see a trio of avant-garde arts centers. Straight in front of you across the square is the:

10. MACBA (Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona)

Opened in 1995 with a rather tentative display, this American-designed, glass-walled contemporary art museum -- with its bright white walls, intricately planned ramps, and triple atrium -- illuminates its now adventurous collection of modern-art masterpieces with natural light. Alongside international favorites such as Klee, there's a strong presence of Catalan artists, reflecting various reactionary movements in both painting and photography. Displays are constantly changing and temporary exhibitions feature new creative works.

To your left is the:

11. FAD (Foment de les Arts i del Disseny)

Located in the old Convent dels Angels, opposite the MACBA, this essentially administrative body, which promotes talented artists and awards grants to promising newcomers, organizes many exhibitions of its own. Workshops and art markets also give burgeoning artists a chance to sell their own offerings.

Behind the MACBA, reached by Carrer Montealegre, is the:

12. CCCB (Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona)

Built on the site of a spacious former casa de caritat (almshouse), this is Spain's biggest cultural center. Its design -- by Viaplana and Piñon, who also created the Maremagnum commercial center by the port -- is mainly a modern conglomeration of steel and glass, although the patio and facade of the former building remain. It offers an eclectic blend of movie and video shows, art exhibitions, conferences and courses, music and dance performances, and even organized walks around offbeat areas of the city. There's also a well-stocked bookstore and a bar/restaurant.

Turn right onto Carrer Valldoncella and then left along Carrer dels Tallers past Plaça de Castella for Plaça de la Universitat and the Metro stop.

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.