There’s nowhere like Barcelona – no city in Spain can touch it for sheer style, looks or energy. For all its outrageous architecture, designer shopping, hip bars and vibrant cultural scene, Barcelona is more than just this year’s fad. It’s a confident, progressive city, tirelessly self-renewing while preserving all that’s best about its past. As neighbourhoods are rebuilt with panache, and locals and visitors alike pursue the latest sensation, there’s also an enduring embrace of the things that make life worth living – the daily market visit, strolling down the Ramblas, a lazy harbour-side lunch, frenetic festival nights, Sunday by the beach or FC Barcelona’s next big game.
Barcelona is perhaps best characterized by a remarkable fusion of economic energy and cultural expression, as epitomized by its glorious modernista (Art Nouveau) buildings, and the work of Antoni Gaudí in particular. The city also boasts a stupendous artistic legacy, including galleries devoted to Catalan artists Joan Miró and Antoni Tàpies, and a showcase Pablo Picasso museum.
Most sights of historic interest are in the ciutat vella, or old town, with the modern city beyond a late nineteenth-century addition. Much of what you’ll want to see – Gothic cathedral, Picasso museum, markets, Gaudí buildings, history museums and art galleries – can be reached on foot in under twenty minutes from the central Plaça de Catalunya, while a fast metro system connects with more peripheral attractions.
The kilometre-long. tree-lined, largely pedestrian Ramblas splits the old town in two. On its eastern side is the labyrinthine Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), with the Sant Pere and La Ribera neighbourhoods further east. To the west lies the edgier, artier district of El Raval. At the bottom of the Ramblas is the waterfront, whose spruced-up harbour area is known as Port Vell. Walking east takes you through the fishing and restaurant quarter of Barceloneta, past city beaches and the Parc de la Ciutadella and along the promenade to the cafés and restaurants of the Port Olímpic.
It is a telling comment on Barcelona that one can recommend a single street – the Ramblas – as a highlight. No day in the city seems complete without a stroll down at least part of what Federico García Lorca called “the only street in the world which I wish would never end”. Lined with cafés, shops, restaurants and newspaper kiosks, and thronged by tourists, locals, buskers and performance artists, it’s at the heart of Barcelona’s life and self-image. There are important buildings and sights along the way, but undoubtedly the street life is the greatest attraction.
The name, derived from the Arabic ramla (sand), refers to the bed of the seasonal stream that once flowed here. In the dry season, the channel served as a road. By the fourteenth century it had been paved, as a link between the harbour and the old town. In the nineteenth century, benches and decorative trees were added, overlooked by stately balconied buildings, and today this wide tree-lined swath is still given over to pedestrians, with cars forced up the narrow strips of road on either side. You can walk the entire length in about twenty minutes.
The Ramblas splits the old town areas of Barcelona in half, with the Barri Gòtic on the east flank and El Raval on the west. You’ll also notice that the streets to either side become a little less polished – even seedy – as you get closer to the harbour. The shops, meanwhile, reflect the mixed clientele, from patisseries to pizza takeaways, and stores selling handcrafted jewellery to shops full of sombreros, bullfight posters, football shirts and imitation Gaudí ashtrays. On the central avenue under the plane trees you’ll find pet canaries, rabbits, flowers, plants, postcards and books. You can buy sunglasses or cigarettes from itinerant salespeople, have your palm read and your portrait painted, or just listen to the buskers and watch the pavement artists. Human statues are much in evidence, as are card and dice sharps, operating from foldaway tables and cardboard boxes. It’s a never-ending show, of which visitors and locals alike rarely tire.
Photo by reinante on Flickr