Barcelona Travel Guide


Barri Gòtic
Barri Gòtic, the enchanting centre of old Barcelona, is a maze of dark streets crammed with cafes, bars and the cheapest accommodation in town. Spend a day wandering among wonderful, medieval buildings and some of the most awe-inspiring architecture ever to leave a draughtsman's desk.

Most of the buildings date from the 14th and 15th centuries, when Barcelona was at the height of its commercial prosperity and before it had been absorbed into Castilla. A masterpiece of its medieval heritage, the Barri Gòtic's catedral, is one of Spain's greatest Gothic buildings.

The quarter is centred on the Plaça de Sant Jaume, a spacious square, the site of a busy market and one of the venues for the weekly dancing of the sardana. Two of the city's most significant buildings are here, the Ajuntament and the Palau de la Generalitat.

A fully fledged suburb since the end of the 19th century, Gràcia is home to a combination of artists, students and intelligentsia mixed with average Joseps, who lend it a down-to-earth atmosphere. There are lovely parks to enjoy during the day and at night the square becomes a popular and vivacious meeting place.

Once a separate village north of L’Eixample, and then in the 19th century an industrial district famous for its Republican and liberal ideas, Gràcia was incorporated into the city of Barcelona in 1897. In those days it had some catching up to do, as the town had poor roads, schools and clinics, and no street lighting or sewers.

In the 1960s and '70s the area became fashionable among radical and bohemian types, and today it retains some of that flavour – plenty of hip local luminaries make sure they are regularly seen around the bars and cafés of Gràcia.

Plaça del Sol is a pleasant place to sit during the day, surrounded by cafes and serene 19th-century architecture.

La Pedrera
La Pedrera was designed by Gaudí and built between 1905 and 1910 as an apartment/office block. Formerly called the Casa Milà, it's better known as La Pedrera (the quarry) because of its uneven grey stone facade that creates a wave effect, which is further emphasized by elaborate wrought-iron balconies.

Visitors can tour the building and go up to the roof, where giant multicoloured chimney pots jut up like medieval knights. On summer weekend nights, the roof is eerily lit and open for spectacular views of Barcelona. One floor below the roof is a modest museum dedicated to Gaudí's work.

La Rambla
La Rambla is a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard packed with buskers, mimes and itinerant salespeople selling everything from lottery tickets to jewellery. It's actually five separate streets strung end to end and covers the entire sightseeing gamut from sublime to seedy.

The noisy bird market on the second block of La Rambla is worth a stop, as is the nearby Palau de la Virreina, a grand 18th-century rococo mansion with arts and entertainment information and a ticket office. Next door is the Mercat de la Boqueria, which has been voted Europe's best produce market. Just south of the market, the Mosaïc de Miró punctuates the pavement, with one tile signed by the artist.

The next section of La Rambla boasts the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the famous 19th-century opera house. Below Plaça Reial, La Rambla becomes decidedly seedy, with strip clubs and peep shows. It terminates at the lofty Monument a Colom (Monument to Columbus) and the harbour. You can ascend the monument by lift.

Just west of the monument, on Avinguda de les Drassanes, stand the Reials Drassanes (Royal Shipyards), which house the fascinating Museu Marítim. It has more seafaring paraphernalia than you'd care to wag a sextant at - boats, models, maps, paintings, ships' figureheads and 16th-century galleys.

La Sagrada Família
La Sagrada Família is truly awe-inspiring. Even if you don't have much time, don't miss it. The most ambitious work of Barcelona's favourite son, Antoni Gaudí, the magnificent spires of the unfinished cathedral imprint themselves boldly against the sky with swelling outlines inspired by the holy Montserrat.

The spires are encrusted with a tangle of sculptures that seem to breathe life into the stone. Gaudí died in 1926 before his masterwork was completed and, since then, controversy has continually dogged the building programme.

Nevertheless, the southwestern (Passion) facade, with four new towers, is complete, with only decorative detail to be added, and the nave, begun in 1978, is progressing. Some say the shell should have been left as a monument to Gaudí, but today's chief architect, Jordi Bonet, argues that the completion of La Sagrada Família must progress, as the building is intended to atone for sin and appeal to God's mercy on Catalonia.

Montjuïc, the hill overlooking the city centre from the southwest, is home to some fine art galleries, leisure attractions, soothing parks and the main group of 1992 Olympic sites. Approach the area from Plaça d'Espanya and on the north side you'll see Plaça de Braus Monumental, a former bullring where the Beatles played in 1966. Behind it lies Parc Joan Miró, where stands Miró's highly phallic sculpture Dona i Ocell (Woman and Bird). Nearby, the Palau Nacional houses the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, which has an impressive collection of Romanesque art. Stretching up a series of terraces below the Palau Nacional are fountains, including the biggest, La Font Màgica, which comes alive with a free light and music show on summer evenings. In the northwest of Montjuïc is the 'Spanish Village', Poble Espanyol. At first glance it's a tacky tourist trap, but it also proves to be an intriguing scrapbook of Spanish architecture, with very convincing copies of buildings from all of Spain's regions. The Anella Olímpica (Olympic Ring) is the group of sports installations where the main events of the 1992 games were held. Down the hill, visit masterpieces of another kind in the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona's gallery for the greatest Catalan artist of the 20th century. This is the largest single collection of his work.

Museu Picasso
Barcelona's most visited museum shows numerous works tracing the artist's early years and is especially strong on his Blue Period, with canvases like The Defenceless, as well as ceramics and early works from the 1890s. The rest of the museum traces Picasso's life and travels.

The stunning stone mansions that house the museum are situated on the Carrer de Montcada, which was, in medieval times, an approach to the port. The 1st floor is devoted to Picasso's Blue Period. The 2nd floor displays his impressionist-influenced works, produced in Barcelona and Paris between 1900 and 1904. The haunting Portrait of Señora Canals (1905), from his Rose Period, is also on display. Among the later works, all painted in Cannes in 1957, is a complex technical series entitled Las Meninas, which consists mostly of studies on Diego Velázquez's eponymous masterpiece.

Off the Beaten Track

Monestir de Montserrat
Montserrat, 50km (31mi) northwest of Barcelona, has weird rocky crags, ruined hermitage caves, a monastery and hordes of tourists taking a break from their holidays on the Costa Brava. The Monestir de Montserrat was founded in 1025 to commemorate visions of the Virgin Mary. Today it houses a community of about 80 monks, and pilgrims come to venerate La Moreneta (the Black Virgin), a 12th-century Romanesque wooden sculpture of Mary with the baby Jesus; La Moreneta has been Catalonia's official patron since 1881. The most dramatic approach to Montserrat is by cable car, which arrives just below the monastery after a thrilling whoop up the sheer mountainside.

Parc Güell
Parc Güell is where Gaudí turned his hand to landscaping, with spectacular results. The park is laid out on a hill with fantastic views of the city. Huge ceramic benches, giant decorative lizards, ceramic mosaics and pavilions of contorted stone all combine into a brilliant swirl of the imagination. In the park grounds, the Sala Hipóstila is a forest of 84 stone columns, originally intended as a market. Above it is a broad open space whose centrepiece is the Banc de Trenadís, a tiled bench curving sinuously around its perimeter. The spired house to its right is the Casa-Museu Gaudí, where Gaudí lived for most of his last 20 years.

At 542m (1778ft), Tibidabo is the highest hill in the wooded range that forms the backdrop to Barcelona. If the air's clear, it's a great place for views over the city. The locals come up here for some thrills at the amusement park Parc d'Atraccions, which has rides and a house of horrors. As hair-raising as anything at the Parc, however, is the glass lift that goes 115m (377ft) up to a visitors' observation area at Torre de Collserola telecommunications tower. The more sedate can find solace in Temple del Sagrat Cor, Barcelona's answer to Paris' Sacré Coeur; it's even more vilified by aesthetes than its Paris equivalent. Looming above Tibidabo's funicular station, it is actually two churches, one on top of the other. The top one is surmounted by a giant Christ and has a lift to the roof.

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