From its beginnings as a Roman-era harbor and garrison to today’s exuberant capital of Catalonia, the northeastern-most region of Spain, Barcelona has developed into a fascinating patchwork of architectural styles.
Once the seat of the medieval kings of Aragon, it remained an austere gothic city until the industrial revolution generated a Modernist rebirth. Today, these successive metamorphoses can be followed along its various barrios (neighborhoods), wooing tourists with an embarrassment of riches that makes this sunny Mediterranean city one of the most visited in Europe.
Begin along Las Ramblas
It’s Barcelona’s most famous street, a 1.2 kilometer-long (0.75 mile) pedestrian artery that runs through the center of the city from the waterfront statue of Christopher Columbus to the Plaça Catalunya (Catalonia Square), where the old city meets the Modernist 19th Eixample neighborhood. In recent decades, to cater to the throng of visitors strolling in the shade of its venerable plane trees, it has become overrun with café terraces, living statues and street vendors of all kind. But never mind that it is mainly shunned by locals these days, if you are a tourist, it’s the first landmark you identify, if only for its no-fail access to most of the major attractions of the old town.
From the waterfront, a right turn into any of the narrow side streets gets you into the labyrinthine alleys of the Barri Gòtic.
The Gothic Quarter
The oldest part of Barcelona, the Barri Gotic includes remains of the roman city wall as well as a number of medieval landmarks going back to the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. However, the most damaged of these ancient monuments were extensively restored in early 20th century, which transformed the original somber neighborhood into a neo-Gothic tourist delight.
The maze of narrow lanes now leads into inviting squares, most notably the elegant Plaça Reial (Royal Plaza), built in the mid-19th century as a luxury residential complex on a site once occupied by a Capuchin convent. Inspired by French neo-classical squares, the rectangular plaza is surrounded by identical four-story buildings raised on vaulted semi-circular arches. Today, with its soaring palm trees, central fountain and arcades lined with restaurants, bars and popular night spots, the pedestrian square is a favorite meeting venue for locals and visitors alike.
The Cathedral of Saint Eulalia
Meander northward from Plaça Reial and within ten minutes, you come to a sprawling gothic confection rising from the highest point of the neighborhood. It’s the Barcelona Cathedral, officially knows as the Cathedral of the Holly Cross and Saint Eulalia, after a local girl who defied Roman Emperor Diocletian by refusing to recant her Christian faith. Built on the site on an earlier roman temple, its origins reach back to the early days of Christianity. The present cathedral stands on the remains of a succession of sanctuaries, with most of the current structure from the 13th century, when the construction of Gothic basilica began. As for the grand façade, it’s a flamboyant example of neo-Gothic style added in the early 20th century.
Inside, the most notable elements are the Gothic choir stalls, the crypt with its elaborate Renaissance tomb dedicated to the eponymous saint, and the 15th century cloister. In addition to its series of side chapels, the elegant cloister includes a garden, a fountain, the Font de les Oques (Fountain of the Geese), and a pond that is home to a gaggle of 13 white geese. They have been squawking here since medieval times, when they warned against intruders and thieves. Their number is explained variously as representing the age of the saint when she was martyred or that she suffered 13 tortures during her persecution.
Leaving the cloister, it’s only a few steps to the Plaça Nova (New Square), which traces back to 1358, when it was the site of the city’s hay market. It is still flanked by two of the defense towers that protected the fortified Roman colony.
The Palace of Catalan Music
Another short walk northward from the cathedral to the street that bears its name but is far too narrow to do it justice, the Palau de la Mùsica Catalana stand it all its glory. Built at the turn of the century for Orfeó Català, a presitigious Barcelona choral society, this architectural jewel is the crowning creation of famed local Art Nouveau architect Lluis Domènech I Montanier.
Designed around a central metal structure covered in glass, it exploits natural light to create an exquisite harmony of sculpture, mosaic, stained glass and ironwork inside and out. The rich glazed mosaic decor of the façade, which incorporates traditional Spanish and Moorish architectural elements, is especially striking. The interior is equally flamboyant, particularly the main concert hall with its inverted stained glass domed ceiling. The Palace remains to this day an exceptional venue for opera and symphonic as well as folk music, and an essential landmark in the cultural and social life of Catalonia.
Graze at La Boqueria
Barcelona is famous as one of the foodie capitals of Europe and the Barri Gotic, one of its most visited neighborhood, offers plenty of attractive eating options. But the first de rigueur stop for connoisseurs is just across Las Ramblas, at the edge of the El Raval neighborhood. Arguably the most famous food market in all of Spain, the Mercat de Sant Joseph de la Boqueria (a.k.a La Boqueria) traces its origin back to the 13th century when it started out as a cluster of meat stalls. It settled in its current location in 1840, on a space previously occupied by a convent dedicated to St. Joseph. Its graceful Art Nouveau iron and glass structure was added in 1914.
In its current iteration, la Boqueria is a grid of some 200 permanent stalls selling all manners of local and exotic foodstuff. They converge on an oval plan from colorful local vegetable and fruit displays to cured meats and cheeses to fresh-out-of-the ocean seafood in the center. Those who are shopping for provisions come early, before the aisles become clogged with tourists. For the rest of us, it’s fun to graze through La Boqueria, munching on slivers of Jamón Iberico, the famed dry-cured ham from the Iberian breed pigs, or grab a stool at one of the many tapas bars sprinkled around the market. They are hugely popular so you may have to hover a while before scoring one. Then order whatever looks good in the plates of your neighbors, a glass of cava(local bubbly) or cerveza(beer) and watch the world go.
Good to Know
- Getting there – By air:A number of low cost carriers, including easyJet, Germanwings, Ryanair, Transavia and Vueling connect Barcelona International Airport with most major cities in Western Europe and beyond. The airport is located 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the city center and easily accessible by public transportation or taxis. By train: there are multiple daily high-speed-rail connections between Barcelona and Madrid (travel time between 2.5 and three hours) and several major cities in France (travel time from Paris is 6.5 hour, Lyon 5 hours, Marseille 4 hours and Toulouse 3 hours). By sea: the city is one of the busiest ports in the Mediterranean for cruise ships and ferries. There are ferries from the Balearic Islands, North Africa – Tangier and Algiers, and Italy – Genoa, Civitavecchia, Livorno and Sardinia. The ferrys dock at Port Bell, at the bottom of Las Ramblas.
- Getting around –The city center is best explored on foot and easily walkeable. However there is also a good public transportation network of buses, trams and a modern metro system with twelve lines that provide efficient access to all parts of the city.
- Visiting – The Cathedral, Plaça de la Seu, Barcelona, is open Monday through Friday, 12:00 pm to 7:30 pm, Saturday, 12:30 pm to 5:00 pm and Sunday, 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Nearest metro stop: Jaume I. If time allows, a short elevator ride to the roof offers a panoramic view of the city. Palau de la Música Catalana, Carrer Palau de la Mùsica Catalana. Nearest metro: Concert times vary throughout the year. There are guided tours daily from 10:00 am to 3:30 pm. La Boqueria, Las Ramblas, 91. Nearest métro: Liceu. Open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 am through 8:00 pm.
- Staying– On this recent visit, we stayed at the Eurostars Grand Marina Hotel, Moll de Barcelona, s/n, 08039 Barcelona, my son’s favorite hotel in Barcelona, and now mine, for its unique central waterfront location within a 5 minute-walk from Las Ramblas. Built by famed Chinese-American I.M. Pei (think the Musée du Louvre Pyramid in Paris, or the J.F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston). In addition to all the amenities and services one expects from a 5-star hotel, this luxury property offers exceptional panoramic views overd the entire city and the mountains to the horizon. Contact: e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, tel. +34 936 03 90