A Journey Through Catalan Modernism, Uncovering a Hidden Synagogue Beneath an Electronics Emporium, and the Dynamic Raval District Alive with Skaters and Squatters
I have been living in Barcelona for over ten years and during this time, I have gone through all stages – from sincere romanticization to equally sincere irritation – and finally, I have reached a balanced and calm attitude: this is my city, it has a lot of beauty, strangeness, wonder, and imperfection, like any other city, and I constantly live here. After dozens of visits from friends and thousands of kilometers walked through Barcelona, I am ready to talk about the places where I love to be myself and advise my close ones to visit when they come to stay.
Barcelona consists of different neighborhoods, which vary greatly in architecture, layout, and inhabitants. In the north of the city, above Diagonal Avenue, live well-off Catalan families with children. In El Born, located near the sea and Ciutadella Park, expats and digital nomads reside. In El Raval, one can encounter noisy students and numerous immigrants from North Africa. The districts along the central avenue Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes have neat square shapes with rounded corners, and under Gran Via, the streets intertwine in a complicated tangle. I will tell about each district that is worth visiting separately.
Las Ramblas Boulevard: Pickpockets, Boqueria Market, and Crowds of Tourists
Guidebooks usually recommend starting a visit to Barcelona with Las Ramblas Boulevard. However, locals tend to think the opposite, considering Las Ramblas (which is actually in the plural because it comprises five boulevards flowing into one another) as a rather unpleasant place, inhabited only by pickpockets and silly ‘guiris’ (a mocking term for typical sunburned tourists with cameras around their necks, wearing sandals with socks). Having lived in Barcelona for a very long time, I partially agree. But for those visiting Barcelona, a walk along Las Ramblas is inevitable. After all, the boulevard has a long and interesting history, and it’s a convenient starting point for getting to know the city. The main thing is to watch your pockets and to come early in the morning when it’s not so crowded. This way, you can enjoy the architecture without jostling through crowds of tourists. And of course, the most people on Las Ramblas are in July and August.
The city’s main square, Plaça de Catalunya, is not particularly remarkable in itself. Additionally, it is surrounded by rather unsightly Franco-era buildings such as the El Corte Ingles and El Triangle shopping centers. On one side of it lies the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic), and on the right is the Raval district (El Raval). In times when ancient Roman settlements were located where Barcelona now stands, where Las Ramblas now runs, there was the Cagalell River, which literally translates as ‘Shitstream’. The name gives a clear idea of the cleanliness and appearance of this river. In summer, however, the riverbed would dry up, and locals strolled leisurely along it. Over time, the river disappeared, and the boulevard was laid in its place.
Rambla de Canaletes. On its right side, there is a small drinking fountain. It is said that if you drink from it, you will surely return to the city. Be careful with your wishes — I ended up living here because of that. The fountain also serves as a meeting place for FC Barcelona fans. That’s the abbreviation used for the Barcelona football club. The city is abbreviated as ‘Barna’.
Rambla del Estudis. Here you can find the Poliorama Theater, which George Orwell wrote about in his memoirs of the Civil War (‘Homage to Catalonia’), and two palaces. The neoclassical Palau Moja and the Palau de la Virreina in Baroque style. Both palaces look quite modest from the outside, which is characteristic of Catalan architecture (except for Catalan Modernism, but more on that later).
Rambla de Sant Josep. This section is home to the famous Boqueria food market. It’s the only place on the boulevard where even locals stop by to snack on ham or oysters and drink a glass of cava — Catalan sparkling wine. The traders of Boqueria, one of the oldest markets in Europe, pass on their stalls as an inheritance, much like a noble title. The market was officially opened in 1836 on the site of the inner courtyard of the Church of Saint Joseph. However, it is known that trading in this location dates back to the beginning of the 13th century.
Almost opposite the market is the Casa Bruno Cuadros, decorated with Chinese umbrellas and dragons. On the sidewalk in the center of the boulevard is a mosaic by Joan Miró. A little further down is the majestic Gran Teatre del Liceu, built in 1847 and almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1994. The theater was restored and reopened only a few years ago.
Rambla de los Capuchinos. It is named after the Capuchin monastery of Santa Madrona that once stood here and was burnt down in 1835. On the left side of the boulevard is Plaça Reial — a beautiful square plaza with galleries around its perimeter and a fountain in the center. The design of the lampposts in the plaza was created by a young Antonio Gaudí. Plaça Reial is bustling at any time of the day: if you suddenly feel like dancing, for example, at two in the morning on a Tuesday, the only open bar can be found here. In the Jamboree club, they play classic R&B and hip-hop, and a few years ago Pete Doherty liked to hold spontaneous surprise concerts in Sidecar. Nearby, on neighboring streets, is the tiny Macarena club for techno lovers, and Marula plays anything from reggae to disco. The Plaça Reial area is generally lively and safe, but at the same time noisy, fairly dirty, and notorious for pickpockets.
Rambla de Santa Monica. This place is known for its living sculptures and caricaturists. The endpoint of the boulevard is the Columbus statue, erected for the 1888 World’s Fair. By the way, Columbus is considered more of a conqueror and colonizer here, rather than an explorer. On Spain’s National Day, for instance, far-right groups and supporters of the traditional monarchy gather under the statue. The only thing that is really worth seeing on this boulevard is the Maritime Museum, located in the only medieval shipyard in Europe. The museum has a truly rich and interesting exhibition dedicated to shipbuilding and maritime culture. And by the way, I’m writing this article right in the cozy courtyard of the Maritime Museum’s café.
The drawbridge, leading from the square with the monument to the Maremagnum shopping center, is also considered a part of Las Ramblas (Rambla del Mar). You can walk onto it to admire the view of the moored yachts and the port.
Other sights to see: El Bosque de las Hadas (‘The Fairy Forest’) is a bar beloved by tourists and locals alike, with a 30-year history. Its decorations resemble an enchanted forest. Casa Fajol, a prime example of Catalan Modernism, is adorned with mosaics and a depiction of a reaper. Originally, the building housed a pasta factory.
The Old Town is located between the sea and the large avenue Gran Via. This part of the city consists of a chaotic network of narrow streets, alleys, passages, and squares. In the past, the fortification walls of Barcelona ran approximately along the perimeter of the Old Town. This small area, measuring about 400×400 meters, is one of the most touristic spots in the city. But despite the crowds, noise, and dirt, I tenderly love it for its abundance of unexpected details, legends, and alleyways.
The modern name of the Gothic Quarter only appeared at the end of the 19th century in preparation for the 1929 World’s Fair. It was conceived to attract tourists to a gradually declining region. Only a year and a half was allocated for its preparation. Catalan Gothic architecture is quite simple and restrained and would hardly have attracted anyone. Therefore, the government, without much regard for historical accuracy, began to urgently renovate the quarter to make it look old, beautiful, and rich.
For example, it was decided to rebuild the facade of the Cathedral of Saint Eulalia and the Cross. The original building was constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries and was architecturally quite simple. For the Exhibition, they managed to add stained glass windows and decorations in the style of French Gothic, and over time, two bell towers and a central tower, which were not part of the original cathedral, were added to the facade.
To the left of the cathedral’s entrance is the house of the archdeacon, which now houses the archive. It’s not accessible to the public, but you can visit the beautiful inner courtyard. To the right of the entrance to the courtyard, there is a stone mailbox for complaints and wishes on the wall, decorated with swallows and a turtle. The swallows symbolize the speed of spreading the truth, while the turtle represents the slowness of the law and bureaucracy. The mailbox was created by architect Domènech i Montaner in 1895, but Spanish bureaucracy remains just as slow.
Around the corner is the famous hanging bridge Pont dels Sospirs (Bridge of Sighs, also known as the Bridge of Kisses, Lace Bridge, and Episcopal Bridge). It was built between the government building and the building where priests lived at the time. Now, happy tourists take photos at the gothic bridge. But in 1929, when it was built during the period of gothicization and embellishment of the area, people joked about the stylized bridge and even openly criticized it. The renowned architect Le Corbusier called the bridge a ‘vulgar novelty’.
Further along, this street leads to Sant Jaume Square, where two important buildings face each other: the City Hall and the Government of Catalonia. Catalans are a warlike and noisy people, so the square often hosts demonstrations of all kinds: from monarchists to supporters of independence, from defenders of women’s rights in Iran to environmentalists, and sometimes all at once, the main thing being the process.
My advice: don’t follow the guidebook, but instead get lost in the labyrinth of streets behind the cathedral and around the square. Pay close attention to the surroundings, for instance, to the buttresses of the cathedral, where you can spot a unicorn and an elephant. Also, there’s a sculpture of a brutal man with a club, the famous Catalan count Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred the Hairy). He is renowned, among other things, for the four red stripes on the Catalan flag supposedly being written with his blood. The labyrinth of streets will eventually lead you to Plaça del Rei (King’s Square), where the large Royal Palace, the wide staircase leading to the Tinell Hall, and the Chapel of Saint Agatha are located. It is said that right on these stairs, Columbus reported to Isabella and Ferdinand about the discovery of the western route to India.
Even if you’re not a fan of historical museums, I highly recommend visiting the Barcelona History Museum (MUHBA). The most interesting part of its exhibition is the opportunity to descend in an elevator to the level of the cultural layer and wander among the Roman traces of Barcelona. After all, it was the Romans who built the city in 15 BC. With the same ticket, by the way, you can also access the Tinell Hall and the Chapel of Santa Agata.
In the building at Carrer del Paradis 10, there is a hidden curiosity. Previously, the Taber Hill with a temple of 34 columns stood on this site. When the Roman Empire fell, the columns were dismantled for building materials. Today, only three of them remain. In 1922, the Catalan architect Domènech i Montaner demolished the temple ruins and created a sort of courtyard around these columns.
Wandering through the streets of the Gothic Quarter, you might stumble upon the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, a very intimate and cozy square. Incidentally, this is the square shown in the film ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ when the characters are sitting at a table in a bar by the central fountain.
The same square was also a filming location for a scene in Tom Tykwer’s ‘Perfume,’ where the main character sees a girl with yellow plums. On the walls of the Saint Philip Neri church, you can notice many marks and indentations. During the Civil War, on January 30, 1938, Barcelona was bombed by Franco’s forces, and 42 people who were hiding in the church died. Most of them were children.
On the terrace of the Neri Relais & Chateaux hotel in the square, there is a very cozy bar, Roba Estesa, one of my favorites in the city. You can access it by taking the hotel elevator, even if you are not staying there.
The square is located in the center of the Jewish quarter, El Call, one of the most intricate and interesting quarters of the Old Town. In 1391, there were massive pogroms here, resulting in the destruction of almost all Jewish homes. And in 1492, after the unification of Spain, the Jews were expelled from Barcelona. But to this day, remains of ancient bas-reliefs and medieval inscriptions are continually found in the quarter. For example, in 1995 it was discovered that an ancient synagogue, documented as the oldest in Europe (believed to have existed since the 3rd century), was previously located in the basement of an electronics store. The premises were purchased, and the synagogue was partially restored, but I am sure that El Call still holds many undiscovered secrets.
What else to see: the Els Quatre Gats restaurant with its 125-year history, the square named after George Orwell, the 14th-century Gothic cathedral Santa Maria del Pi, and the La Merce church with its pompous Rococo interiors.
El Born – the district of digital nomads
If you cross the Gothic Quarter, you’ll find yourself on Via Laietana, which literally bisects the tangle of narrow streets. It is believed that before the Romans, the semi-mythical tribe of the Laietans lived here. As with La Rambla, Via Laietana runs along the course of a former river, which separated the artisan district of Ribera from the royal palace at Plaça del Rei. The street, as we know it today, was also built for the 1929 exhibition. Construction of the avenue took place from 1908 to 1926 to connect the port and the new part of the city, L’Eixample, as there was no direct road between them before. The construction was completed under the military dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera, who was not particularly concerned about the ancient heritage: 2,199 old buildings were demolished, and the avenue consists of tall majestic neoclassical buildings, uncharacteristic of Barcelona. However, it should be noted that some historical buildings were literally moved to the Gothic Quarter (like Casa Padellás, for example), which further contributed to its deliberate gothicization.
Between Via Laietana and Ciutadella Park lies the El Born district. Formally, it is divided into three parts: Sant Pere, Ribera, and Santa Caterina. El Born is home to Scandinavian digital nomads, young designers, and creative directors working from trendy coffee shops. The place attracts with avocado toasts, specialty coffee, and bright photos for social networks. According to 2017 statistics, 42% of El Born’s residents were expatriates. And now, I’m sure, this figure has only increased, as digital nomads have been moving to Barcelona even more actively after the end of the pandemic.
Until 1926, the Gothic Quarter and El Born were almost a single entity, but tourists visit here less frequently. This quarter is entirely pedestrian, and it’s pleasant to walk around, peeking into cozy shops and bars. One could write an entire guidebook on ‘Where Digital Nomads Go in El Born This Summer,’ but establishments here are constantly opening and closing, so my advice is to get lost and pop into any cafe that catches your eye. Authentic Catalan food is not guaranteed here, but the atmosphere and beautiful interiors are a definite.
When walking from Plaza Catalunya towards the sea, it’s a must to see the Palace of Catalan Music — a masterpiece of Catalan Modernism by architect Domènech i Montaner. It remains a mystery to me why the works of Antonio Gaudi are known worldwide, while the Palace of Catalan Music, a bright building as if adorned with corals, remains relatively unnoticed. If you’re lucky, get tickets for a concert on the main stage — the interior of the palace is as impressive as the exterior, and the program can include anything from tourist flamenco tributes to Paco de Lucia to guest performances by living classical composer Philip Glass.
On the way down to the sea, you’ll pass another market, Santa Caterina, not as beautiful as Boqueria but famous for its colorful metal roof. In El Born, you will likely stroll down the medieval street of Montcada (Montcada) — one of the most touristic in the area, where the Picasso Museum (Palau Berenguer d’Aguilar) is located. Surprisingly, Barcelona isn’t particularly rich in art museums, so getting into them is not easy, especially the Picasso Museum. There are queues on any day of the week. Next to the Picasso Museum is the private Moco Museum. In my opinion, it’s not worth visiting: the collection is a mix of the most famous artists like Banksy and Koons, put together without much logic but with a large marketing budget. Moco is more like a bright backdrop for selfies than an art museum.
Founded in 1148, Montcada Street became one of the most prestigious avenues of the medieval city, where wealthy merchants built palaces (modest-looking, as befits Catalan Gothic). With their massive walls, they resemble fortresses more than palaces. Montcada ends at Passeig del Born (in Catalan) or Paseo del Borne (in Spanish), a small boulevard that comes alive closer to the night — there are many bars in the vicinity. To the right of the boulevard is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar (14th century), dedicated to Mary, the patron saint of sailors. It is another example of typical Catalan Gothic, which is much stricter and more restrained than the French. The cathedral was built by virtually all Barcelona guilds: sailors, craftsmen, and workers, the common people who had the worst seats in the cathedral and decided to have their own cathedral. The construction of the cathedral and 14th century Barcelona is described in Ildefonso Falcones’ novel ‘Cathedral of the Sea.’ Although a work of fiction, the book is notable not for its plot, which is quite primitive, but for its detailed descriptions of the city at that time, including the daily life of the guilds and the pogroms of the Jewish quarter.
At the other end of the Born Boulevard is the El Born market. When they began its restoration, the plan was to convert the building into a library, but, as I already mentioned, Barcelona was built on the site of a Roman settlement, so during construction, more excavations were found, and the construction was halted. You can enter the pavilion to see the ruins of the medieval Ribera district, destroyed in the first quarter of the 18th century after the War of Spanish Succession.
If on one side El Born is bordered by La Rambla, on the other it opens up to the shady Ciutadella Park, where the ‘Grand Cascade’ fountain, rich in decor, is located. Many prominent Catalan sculptors of the late 19th century contributed to the creation of the fountain. The fountain was inaugurated in 1881, at that time it was only adorned with small medallions featuring lizards by Antoni Gaudi. But by 1888 (of course, in preparation for the World Exhibition), it was embellished with many other sculptures: the chariot of Aurora by Rosende Nobas, the birth of Venus by the Valmitjana brothers, cupids, Danaë, Leda, and Neptune. It is in this form that the fountain has reached our time.
On the site of the current park, the occupying troops of the Spanish Bourbon king (Catalonia has been fighting for its independence for ages) built a fortress in 1714 to suppress any attempts of rebellion in the city. In 1869, the symbol of the occupation regime was finally demolished. Over time, both Antoni Gaudi and Lluis Domenech i Montaner worked on the park. The park and its surrounding area became the venue for the 1888 World Exhibition, for which the Triumphal Arch and the Castle of the Three Dragons (originally intended as a cafe, now closed) were built. The park is always bustling, with a lake, numerous small sculptures, and elegant buildings of former greenhouses. From the seaside, the park leads to the zoo.
What else to see: the optical illusion sculpture ‘Carmela’ by Jaume Plensa and the modernist railway station.
El Raval — skaters, squatters, and a bar where Hemingway loved to drink
Guidebooks often write that El Raval is dangerous and not worth visiting. In reality, the dangerous areas of Barcelona are very far from the center (in my 11 years living in the city, I have never been to them). El Raval has many homeless people, it’s dirty, sex services are offered at every turn, and abandoned buildings are occupied by squatters. It’s indeed not the best place to rent an apartment or to wander carelessly at night with your phone in hand, but El Raval is lively. It’s full of life, noisy bars, for example, on Joaquim de Costa street, vintage shops on calle Tallers, small shops, cafes, urban crazies, and skaters. It was in El Raval that Hemingway drank absinthe in the Marsella bar, open since 1820, and Picasso visited his favorite brothel La Suerte Loca (unlike the bar, it has closed).
Sometimes, especially in English-speaking sources, El Raval is referred to as the ‘Barrio Chino’ (Chinatown). This name was given to the district by American journalists when comparing El Raval with San Francisco’s Chinatown. Chinese people have never lived there, although the population of El Raval has always been the most multicultural. Thanks to its central location and cheap, albeit not high-quality housing, it is popular with students from other countries, and many families from Morocco and Pakistan.
At some point, the district began to be vigorously gentrified. As part of a project by avant-garde New York architect Richard Meier, the MACBA contemporary art museum was built, and in a neighboring former monastery, the CCCB contemporary culture center was opened. On Rambla del Raval Boulevard, for the construction of which several blocks were demolished, a sculpture of a cat (its eggs polished to shine) by Colombian artist Fernando Botero was installed. You have probably seen his paintings and sculptures, where all characters, from Mona Lisa to ballerinas, are large and round. Both museums are often empty, as they rarely host famous exhibitions, but the square in front of MACBA is famous as one of the best spots in the world for skateboarding.
For those who prefer more traditional attractions in this area, they can visit the tiny 11th-century Romanesque church Sant Pau del Camp or go into the courtyard of the former hospital. Once a hospital for the poor, it is where Antoni Gaudi died after being hit by a tram; now, it houses an art school. In its courtyard, under orange trees, people play chess, and there is a pleasant bar with a terrace.
Also in El Raval is the Palau Güell, a private mansion and one of Gaudi’s early and lesser-known works, built during a period when the master’s style was just beginning to emerge.
El Raval smoothly transitions into the more groomed but less colorful district of San Antoni (San Antoni). In San Antoni, it’s worth seeing the restored market and Parliament Street (Parlament), famous for its large number of bars and brunch spots. San Antoni ends at Parallel Street (more about Parallel, Meridian, Diagonal and other Barcelona geometries later). Beyond it begin the Poble Sec district and Montjuïc hill.
Montjuïc and Poble Sec
For about ten years, I’ve joked that Montjuïc hill is a portal to another dimension: here, there are slides instead of stairs, abandoned chapels, stables, tennis courts carved into the cliffs, a cave with a wall for rock climbing, strange bridges to nowhere, and mysterious gardens. Additionally, for some reason, GPS on Montjuïc works poorly, so I usually can’t see all these wonders for a second time and never manage to explain how I got there. Therefore, I’ll start the description with more traditional attractions, but know that you can wander around the hill practically all day, stumbling upon yet unseen corners.
On Montjuïc, there are 300 hectares of greenery: both manicured gardens and wild pine forests. Actually, until 1929, the hill was a continuous forest, with only a military fortress at its top. Montjuïc began to be actively developed (yes, again) for the 1929 World Exhibition. The ceremonial entrance to Montjuïc is Plaza España, on one side of which is the Fira exhibition center, and on the other, a bullfighting arena converted into the Arenas shopping center.
Bullfighting and bullfights have long been legally banned in Catalonia. By the way, it’s not worth paying to use the external elevator to the roof of the shopping center; instead, you can use the absolutely free escalator inside. The view from the roof will be exactly the same: you will see the Queen Maria Cristina Avenue leading to the Magic Fountain, and two towers – and yes, you’re not mistaken, these are replicas of the tower from Venice’s San Marco Square (built, naturally, for the 1929 World Exhibition). The only difference is that they are half the size of the original.
In essence, the aforementioned Magic Fountain is just a fountain with a sound and light show, something that is hardly surprising anymore, but somehow it still attracts crowds of tourists. The staircase behind the fountain leads to the National Palace, but before climbing up to it, it’s worth noticing the pavilion of the German modernist architect Mies van der Rohe, located to the right of the staircase (of course, the pavilion was also built for the exhibition). The pavilion had no enclosed spaces, no doors, and, actually, no exhibits. It itself, along with the sculpture ‘Morning’ by Georg Kolbe, was considered an exhibit. After the exhibition, the pavilion was dismantled and taken back to Germany, where it disappeared without a trace. The current version was reconstructed from the original drawings in the 1980s.
In fact, many structures on Montjuïc at different times were planned to be dismantled or demolished, but in the end, they were decided to be preserved or repurposed for other needs. In the National Palace (higher up the slope behind the fountain), built for the Exhibition, for example, there is the quite impressive National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC), whose collection includes Romanesque and Spanish art.
In the building of a textile factory at the foot of the mountain is the CaixaForum art museum, owned by the “La Caixa” bank. Good and interesting exhibitions are rarely brought to Barcelona, but when they are, they are usually hosted here. Moreover, the factory building itself is a typical example of Catalan modernism, built by the famous architect Puig i Cadafalch.
Just above the factory is the entrance to the Spanish Village (Pueblo Español), where each house is a full-size replica of typical buildings from different regions of the country. Now these houses host souvenir shops and artisan workshops, as well as concerts and festivals. For example, the popular Brunch in the City parties and the Alma music festival.
Montjuïc was rebuilt not only for the World Exhibitions but also for the 1992 Olympic Games. Actually, the games were supposed to take place in 1936 as an alternative to the games held in Nazi Berlin, but a day before the opening, Franco’s rebellion occurred, marking the start of the civil war. In the Olympic Ring ensemble with the stadium from the 1929 project, only the façade remained; everything else was rebuilt according to modern requirements. A similar story happened with the indoor sports palace Sant Jordi, which is now mainly used as a concert venue. In front of the palace lies the vast Plaza de Europa with a futuristic tower by Santiago Calatrava. In the evening, it offers one of the best views of Barcelona.
You can take a funicular to the middle of the northern slope from the ‘Paral·lel’ metro station. However, I recommend walking, if it’s not too hot, as the route passes through green parks. Near the funicular terminus are several museums: Archaeological and Ethnological, as well as the foundation of Catalan artist Joan Miró. Even if you’re not a fan of non-figurative painting, the museum and its building are impressive in themselves. Below, on the same slope, is a Greek amphitheater, albeit built in 1929. Around it, a rose garden with beautiful terraces is laid out. The location for the amphitheater was chosen deliberately: previously, there were the temple of Julian and many pagan structures. By the way, there is a version that Montjuïc is not actually ‘Jewish Mountain,’ but Mont Jovis, Jupiter’s Mountain.”
Another important attraction of Montjuïc is the fortress at the summit, built around a watchtower in the 17th century and later rebuilt by the Bourbons. Under Franco, the fortress held political prisoners and long remained a symbol of a grim past. Now, it hosts open-air cinema screenings and offers a beautiful view of the port. You might be lucky, and on the day of your visit, the tiny bar La Caseta del Migdia at the mountain’s summit might be open. Its schedule has been a mystery to me for years. They serve Catalan sausages — butifarras. Or you can bring your own food and not rely on the bar: there are picnic tables set up on the mountain.
What else to see: the absolutely Martian-looking cactus garden (Jardí de Costa i Llobera), the Olympic swimming pool, which is known to many from Kylie Minogue’s music video for ‘Slow’. You can buy a ticket to the pool for one day, and it’s cleaner and more comfortable than the city beach. The eponymous Montjuïc Cemetery, famous for its beautiful old mausoleums. Although my attention there is always drawn to the graves of Gypsy barons: you can tell them by the large number of plastic flowers and the design reminiscent of the gangster 1990s. Often the names and fascinating life stories of the deceased are easily googlable and worthy of a separate crime series. Guidebooks usually recommend taking the cable car ride from Miramar Hotel to Barceloneta, but you can skip it. The ticket costs about 18 euros, and the views from the mountain are no worse than those you would see from the cable car.
Eixample — where you find the most Barcelona-like layout with uniform square blocks
It’s hard to imagine that even in the 19th century, the city was still confined within the fortress walls of the citadel, and beyond the walls lay settlements like Poble Sec or Gràcia. The wall was demolished only in 1854, and it became clear that Barcelona needed to be rebuilt: it was more a collection of villages than a proper city.
The competition to reorganize this chaos was won by Ildefons Cerdà. The architect drew three main thoroughfares, without giving much thought to their names: Paral·lel (Avenida del Paralelo), Diagonal (Avenida Diagonal), and Meridiana (Avenida Meridiana). Between them, he began to construct square blocks, which are so clearly visible on maps or satellite images of the city and which eventually formed the Eixample district. It is quite large, with one-way traffic on each street, and the corners of the blocks are cut off for better visibility.
It’s important to note that in the 19th century, Barcelona became an influential trading city. Businessmen brought rum, coffee, and chocolate from America and Cuba. The rapidly growing affluent class wanted to escape the cramped Old City and willingly moved to the spacious Eixample, which is now considered one of the richest districts.
Cerdà planned that the blocks should form large districts with a park and a hospital every 20 intersections, and small districts with markets and schools every ten. The height of the buildings was limited to 16 meters, and they were built around spacious inner courtyards. He dreamed of linking architecture and health, therefore aimed to build a garden city with bright rooms, large windows, and good ventilation. Each inner courtyard with a park was to have two entrances from different streets.
However, the architect did not take into account that the new aristocracy wanted not equality and symmetry, but to stand out from their neighbors with more beautiful and wealthy homes. Therefore, the houses quickly acquired additional decor, mixing Arab traditions, Romanesque past, and ornate romanticism. In this way, the whimsical Catalan modernism, made famous by Antoni Gaudí, originated in the 1880s-1920s. The utopian courtyard-parks were eventually built over with garages and terraces and have not survived in their original form to this day. However, many vivid examples of Catalan modernism can be found precisely in Eixample.
A walk through this district should begin with the Passeig de Gràcia boulevard. While La Rambla runs down from Plaça de Catalunya, Passeig de Gràcia goes uphill. Even before the demolition of the fortress wall, the road that lay where the boulevard now is was favored by the city’s wealthy inhabitants, and to this day, the boulevard is home to the most expensive boutiques. The boulevard was laid out slightly earlier than the construction began according to Cerdà’s plan, so it deviates a bit from the perfect grid of blocks. Besides boutiques, it is, of course, famous for its architecture. However, contrary to popular belief, its wrought-iron lamps and mosaic benches were not created by Gaudí, but by Pere Falqués. But there are enough of Gaudí’s works on the boulevard. In the Block of Discord (Isla de la Discordia), three great architects – Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch – competed in their mastery.
The first building we see in this block is the corner Casa Lleó Morera. Since 1943, it has housed a boutique of the company ‘Loewe’. The house was built by Domènech i Montaner in 1905–1906. The architect gathered around him a team of the best sculptors and mosaicists. It should be noted that the owners of ‘Loewe’ significantly rebuilt the facade of the first floor for their needs. And from the facade of the ground floor, part of the original decor has disappeared. On the floor above, you can still see sculptures of girls holding the latest technological achievements of that time: they hold a gramophone, a telephone, and a camera with a flash.
The next two buildings do not attract much attention, but after them stands Casa Amatller, which was built by Puig i Cadafalch for a chocolate magnate in 1898–1900 (it still houses a chocolate shop today). On the facade of the building, you can find unusual animals, including a glass-blowing frog, a monkey blacksmith, and something resembling either a rat or a dog photographer.
Following Amatller is the Casa Batlló by Antoni Gaudí and his assistant Josep Maria Jujol, its scaly roof shimmering in the sun. The house is an allegory of the legend of Saint George (Jordi), the patron saint of Catalonia. The house itself represents the dragon slain by the saint, the balconies are the skulls of its victims, and a tower with a cross is thrust into the spine on the roof-like back.
Casa Amatller and Casa Batlló are privately owned, so entry to them is more expensive than to ordinary museums. Amatller is from 17 euros, Batlló from 29 euros, a full price list is available on their websites, and there are often ‘two-for-one’ deals for residents of Spain. The owners of part of Casa Batlló also own the ‘Chupa Chups’ company. Catalonia is the birthplace of the legendary lollipops, and the logo was designed by Salvador Dalí himself.
Further along the avenue, on the opposite side, stands Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera or ‘the stone quarry’), another masterpiece by Gaudí. By the way, all of Gaudí’s works are collected on the La Pedrera website. It is said that there is not a single straight line in the construction of the building. Initially, there were plans to build ramps so residents could drive their cars up to their apartments, but this idea was eventually abandoned.
On the roof of the house, a statue of the Virgin Mary was envisioned, guarded by warrior-like towers. However, in 1909, during the peak of construction, anti-church riots broke out in Barcelona. Consequently, the owners of the building prudently decided to abandon this idea, which greatly angered Gaudí. Since then, he ceased working on secular architecture and dedicated the rest of his life to the construction of the Sagrada Família. The remaining towers later inspired George Lucas in creating the costumes of the stormtroopers in ‘Star Wars’. The building still houses a couple of residential apartments. Under the terms of the deal, the inhabitants cannot pass the apartments down through inheritance, but can live there until their death. The building is now owned by ‘Caixa’ bank.
Continuing our walk along Passeig de Gràcia, we reach Avenida Diagonal, beyond which the Eixample ends and the Gràcia district begins. The most beautiful examples of Catalan Modernism are located on this boulevard and in the ‘Golden Quarter’ from Calle de Muntaner to Calle Roger de Flor, the wealthiest part of the district. It may be unnecessary to list all the houses, but one can choose one of the ready-made routes on the website dedicated to Catalan Modernism in Barcelona.
What else to see: the historic building of the University of Barcelona on the square of the same name, a modernist pharmacy at the corner of Passeig de Gràcia and Valencia with its 1896 interior, the Massimo Dutti store located in a mansion with original early 20th-century interiors, and grab a bite at one of the bars in El Nacional, a modernist building that has been at different times a café-theatre, a leather factory, and even an automobile garage.
Gràcia: Gaudí’s Park Güell and Supporters of Catalan Independence
Gràcia long existed as a separate village, and this is still evident in its layout and buildings. The area is characterized by low-rise houses with a few apartments and narrow streets. Gràcia is known for its abundance of organic stores, yoga studios, craft shops, and small bars. This district is also famous for its left-radical attitudes, reflected in graffiti by anarchists and supporters of Catalan independence.
Despite a recent cooling in the fervor of the independence fighters, the confrontation between the left-wing socialist region and the conservative right-wing center continues. While most Catalans do not seek complete separation from Spain, they fight for more favorable regional terms and greater autonomy. Locals may respond in Catalan when spoken to in Spanish, regional flags are displayed on balconies, and Catalans proudly emphasize their culture and distinctiveness from ‘Spanishness’.
Gràcia is also known for its famous Fiesta Mayor de Gracia festival, which takes place in August. Residents of each street decorate it in their own way, using readily available materials like plastic bottles, boxes, papier-mâché. It may seem like trash, but each time it turns out impressively and a bit differently. Each street chooses its own theme, some create miniature Hogwarts, others make Lenin’s armored cars, and others an underwater world. In recent years, the festival has attracted a multitude of visitors, and queues form just to walk down the street.
In the upper part of Gràcia is the famous Park Güell – another work of Gaudí. Eusebi Güell, an industrialist and patron, bought this plot intending to create an elite cottage settlement surrounded by a park. However, his idea did not work out, as the location was too far from the city center and the cottages were not selling quickly. The entrance to the park is framed by two houses (where the village watchmen sat), behind which starts a mosaic staircase with the famous lizard sculpture. The staircase leads to a terrace with a mosaic bench (work of Josep Maria Jujol) made from pieces of old ceramics. This terrace serves as the roof of a columned hall-grotto, which was intended to be used as the village market. Only two houses were built, and they were used for advertising the project. Gaudí himself lived here and walked to the construction site of the Sagrada Família. His house now serves as a museum, containing household items of the architect and a collection of furniture, drawings, and sculptures created by Gaudí himself and his colleagues. Entrance to the park is paid – from ten euros.
Sagrada Familia (or the Holy Family Cathedral) is one of Gaudí’s most significant architectural works and a symbol of Barcelona. Much has been written about the Cathedral, but it is impossible to omit its mention in a guide to Barcelona. Technically, it is located in the far northern corner of Eixample, but this corner is often highlighted as a separate district with the same name.
The history of the Sagrada Familia began in 1882 when the foundation for the previous cathedral was laid. The funds for its construction were collected by the conservative Brotherhood of Joseph, hoping to atone for the sins of society. They failed to collect much money, so the cathedral was laid on a remote wasteland where goats grazed. However, the leader of the brotherhood had issues with the first architect, and construction was halted. They then invited the young and at that time still unknown Antoni Gaudí. Legend has it that the leader dreamed that the architect should be a blue-eyed Aryan. Gaudí’s appearance matched this description — the rest, apparently, was not so important to the Josephines.
It was a long and slow construction process funded by donations, and thus the plans and forms of the Sagrada Familia evolved gradually, as funds became available. From 1912, Gaudí dedicated himself entirely to this project. By the time of the architect’s death in 1926, no more than 15% of the cathedral was built: the crypt, one tower, and the Nativity façade. There were to be a total of 18 towers: 12 towers corresponding to the apostles, four for the evangelists, a larger one for the Virgin Mary, and the largest for Christ.
The cathedral had its share of misfortune — after Gaudí’s death, many documents, including the plans, were destroyed by anarchists during the civil war. It should be noted that even without this, the architect did not document his work, but built based on momentary inspiration. Knowing he would not finish his creation in his lifetime, Gaudí didn’t even begin planning the main façade facing the sea, the Glory Façade.
In 1952, construction was resumed thanks to the Catholic-oriented Franco government, and the dictator had plenty of sins to atone for. However, the construction particularly intensified in the 1980s. It was then that the Passion Façade was built according to the design of Josep Maria Subirachs. This is one of the most controversial façades: sharp, abstract, and frightening, it has attracted waves of criticism. But this façade should not be seen as an (obviously unsuccessful!) attempt to imitate or copy Gaudí’s mastery. Since the architect left no plans for his successors, the new façades represent an evolution, life, growth, and development of the original project. Gaudí saw the cathedral as something alive and changing, so the architecture of the new façades is also significant.
On Subirachs’ façade, depicting the events of the Last Supper, the torment and death of Christ, you can see many interesting details. The snake symbolizing Judas’ betrayal, a square with numbers adding up to 33 (the age of Jesus Christ at the time of his death and resurrection), the image of Saint Veronica without a face but with the face of Jesus on the cloth — it reminds us of the legend where Veronica wiped Jesus’ face on the way to Golgotha, and his face’s imprint was left on the cloth. Interestingly, this is the only face on the entire façade; all other figures are eerily faceless. The helmets of the Roman soldiers echo the towers of Casa Milà, hence for many, the façade of the Sagrada Familia is reminiscent of ‘Star Wars’.
As of today, the Sagrada Familia is one of the most visited sites in the world, attracting up to three million tourists a year. The cathedral, run as a charitable foundation, is still being built on donations, which infuriates the Catalan government: after all, they can’t tax it. Moreover, it turned out that until 2016 the cathedral didn’t even have a construction license (which is also subject to taxes!): it was simply forgotten. In 2018, the cathedral finally obtained a license and agreed on payments to the government.
The cathedral is expected to be fully completed by 2026-2028. However, considering the Spanish laid-back attitude and love for siesta, this is hard to believe. Moreover, according to the original plan, the cathedral was supposed to be surrounded by a garden. Today, however, it is surrounded by dense and rather unsightly buildings, and the government still doesn’t know what to do about it. The completed cathedral will become the tallest Christian structure in the world — the height of the Christ tower will be 172.5 meters.
Not far from the Sagrada Familia is the Hospital de Sant Pau, one of the outstanding works of Catalan modernist architecture by Lluís Domènech i Montaner. The hospital was conceived as a modern medical complex, integrated with nature and surrounded by gardens. It consists of several pavilions, each designed for a specific medical discipline. The pavilions were connected by underground corridors. The buildings are decorated with colorful mosaics and carvings. Since 2009, the hospital no longer functions in its original capacity but is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site (like the Palau de la Música Catalana).
Barceloneta and the Old Port
Surprisingly, until the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona did not have a city beach. In the past, the entire coastal area was occupied by port facilities and warehouses. Now the industrial port has moved beyond Montjuïc, and in its place, a harbor has been developed on the sea, where private yachts are moored. The only building reminiscent of the port’s industrial past is the former Palau del Mar warehouse, which today houses the Museum of the History of Catalonia and a restaurant of the same name. Beyond the harbor is the aquarium.
The Barceloneta district was built for those who lost their homes in the Ribera quarter, demolished for the construction of the Citadel. For a long time, Barceloneta was separated from the main part of the city by a wall. The area attracts visitors with its seafood restaurants. Although many of them cater to tourists and the quality of food has deteriorated while prices have risen year by year. If you want seafood, it’s better to go to Puertecillo on Paralelo, where you can choose fresh dorado from the counter, which will be cooked for you right there. Barceloneta has a beach — a narrow strip of sand, but for a metropolis, that’s already quite good. By the way, Spaniards and Catalans are extremely open in terms of physicality, women’s right to sunbathe topless is protected by law, and they actively use this right. On the shore is the mirrored W sail hotel from ‘Marriott.’ One of the popular attractions is the statue of a smiling shrimp, a symbol of the restaurant that once stood on this site. Next to the shrimp is the ‘Face of Barceloneta’ — a monument by Roy Lichtenstein.
Despite its proximity to the beach, I would not recommend staying in Barceloneta. Narrow streets, high humidity, lack of elevators, presence of pickpockets, and crowds of drunk people returning from beach parties make this place not the most attractive for living.
Tibidabo is the mountain visible from almost any point in Barcelona, if you stand with your back to the sea. Legend has it that Satan took Jesus to the mountain and, showing the surrounding beauty, tried to tempt him to worship Satan (‘I will give you these,’ Matthew 4:9: ‘…et dixit illi haec tibi omnia dabo si cadens adoraveris me’). Jesus, as is well known, declined such an offer, and later the Temple of the Sacred Heart was built on the top of the mountain.
To get to Tibidabo, you can walk past the area with beautiful old mansions and take the funicular halfway. Or, you can avoid walking altogether by taking the 7th tram line from the FGC Avinguda de Tibidabo metro station. The route still operates old-fashioned blue trams, similar to the yellow ones in Lisbon. At the final stop, you’ll need to transfer to the funicular.
At the top of the mountain, there is an old amusement park and a temple, which is actually made up of two churches stacked on top of each other. I recommend taking the paid lift to the very top and wandering around the windy terrace right under the statue of Christ. At the base of the temple, there is a small chapel from 1886 marking the highest point of the mountain. The lower church began construction in 1902, while the upper church was completed by the Francoists as a means of atoning for sins. By the way, many consider the upper church to be unsightly, but I find this building fascinating, and the views from its terraces are definitely among the best in the city.
Catalan cuisine is distinct from Spanish cuisine, although you will also easily find traditional tortilla and jamón. For example, I always recommend to my friends to have dinner at Los Tortillez, which specializes in tortillas.
Catalans prefer to mix seemingly incompatible ingredients. For example, in the paella Mar y Montaña (‘sea and mountain’), meat and seafood are combined. They also often cook dishes with mushrooms, meat soups, and grill meat and vegetables. Compared to Andalusia, there are far fewer fried-in-oil dishes.
I will not describe Spanish cuisine: that would require a separate guide, and I will limit myself to listing specifically Catalan dishes.
- Butifarra (Botifarra) – pork sausage, usually grilled.
- Escalivada – grilled thinly sliced vegetables: eggplants, sweet peppers, onions, and tomatoes.
- Fideuà – seafood paella where thin noodles replace rice. Served with garlic aioli sauce.
- Calçot – more of a process and ritual than food. From February to March, this special type of onion is baked on coals, then the burnt skin is removed and consumed whole, held in the hands, often using a bib. Usually accompanied by wine poured directly from a special jug (porron).
- Esqueixada – soaked salted cod with vegetables. By the way, cod (bacalao) is one of the most popular fish in Catalonia in general.
- Bread with tomato (pan con tomate) – served as an appetizer, literally bread drizzled with olive oil, rubbed with tomatoes and garlic, and sprinkled with salt. Sometimes served ‘deconstructed’ so everyone can rub and salt it themselves.
- Crema Catalana – crème brûlée with a layer of toasted sugar on top.
- Honey and cheese (Mel i Mato) – soft goat cheese, similar to cottage cheese, served with honey and nuts. Catalonia is a renowned wine region, so you will most likely be served local wine, such as red from Priorat or white from Penedès. Locals usually don’t drink sangria. However, they often drink clara – beer with lemon soda, which is especially refreshing in the heat.
Among the classic Catalan restaurants and tapas bars with an interesting atmosphere and history, I love: La Cova Fumada, virtually unchanged since its opening in 1944. In the tavern Can Margarit, wine is poured directly from the barrel; L’Anima Del Vi and La Bombeta, Alegria – colorful tapas bars with natural wines. Vinitus Madrid-Barcelona – an elegant bar with classic tapas.
An obvious but useful tip: avoid ordering food on Las Ramblas (except at La Boqueria) or on Joan de Borbó Boulevard in the Barceloneta area. In tourist spots, there’s a high chance you’ll be served frozen supermarket products and overcharged.
The number of bars and restaurants in Barcelona is huge (approximately one bar for every 172 residents), so instead of listing my favorites, I’d rather share a blog that I regularly read myself when I need to pick a place for dinner.
Transportation in the City
Public transportation is well-developed. A 10-trip card costs 11.35 euros, and it’s valid for both the metro and buses. You can’t pay for two people with one card; each person needs their own pass. The V bus lines run vertically across the city, H lines horizontally, and D lines diagonally. You can also pay for the bus with a bank card, which costs 2.4 euros per trip.
Taxis can be hailed on the street or booked through the Free Now and Cabify apps. Uber and Bolt were not operational in Barcelona for a long time due to active taxi driver protests, and even now, the number of available cars on these platforms is quite limited.
The most convenient way to get from the airport is by the Aerobus, which operates from early morning until 1 a.m., stopping at Plaza Catalunya and Plaza España.
How to ger there
Traveling to Barcelona from other parts of Europe is quite straightforward with multiple transportation options available.
By Plane: Air travel is the most efficient way to reach Barcelona from different parts of Europe. Barcelona-El Prat Airport (BCN) is the main international airport serving the city. It is well-connected with major European cities.
- From Western Europe: Airlines such as British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, and KLM offer direct flights to Barcelona from cities like London, Paris, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam.
- From Eastern Europe: Carriers including LOT Polish Airlines, Wizz Air, and Aeroflot provide services from cities like Warsaw, Budapest, and Moscow.
- From Northern Europe: SAS Scandinavian Airlines and Finnair operate flights from Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Helsinki.
- From Southern Europe: Alitalia, TAP Air Portugal, and Aegean Airlines cover routes from Rome, Lisbon, and Athens.
By Train: Barcelona is also accessible by train, offering a scenic and comfortable journey. The main railway station is Barcelona Sants, which connects to various European destinations.
- From France: The high-speed TGV train operated by SNCF connects Paris to Barcelona in about 6.5 hours.
- From the UK: You can take the Eurostar from London to Paris, and then switch to the TGV to Barcelona.
- From Italy: A combination of Italian high-speed trains and the French TGV can be used to travel from cities like Milan or Rome.
By Bus: For budget travelers, buses are an economical option, though they take longer.
- Eurolines and FlixBus offer extensive bus services connecting Barcelona with various European cities. These journeys are longer but are budget-friendly and offer a unique way to see the countryside.
Each mode of transport offers a different experience and can be chosen based on time, budget, and personal preference.
When to Go
In Barcelona, the temperature rarely drops below ten degrees Celsius, even in the coldest months. However, there is high humidity. Therefore, it feels colder in winter than the thermometer shows, and much hotter in summer.
The most comfortable months to visit are May, June, September, and October. In April, it often rains, while in July and August, there is intense heat, many tourists, and bars closed for holidays.
If you’re visiting Barcelona for the first time, you can confidently plan a trip for at least a week. There are also many interesting places around Barcelona worth a separate article.