Like Paris, London, and Rome, Barcelona is now considered a must-see on the European circuit—particularly for those in search of inviting weather and warm people. It’s hard to say if it’s the cosmopolitan culture, Mediterranean nightlife, or fascinating history that keeps the people coming; but rest assured they do. More than three million people visit Barcelona every year, and growth in tourism shows no signs of slowing.
Any first stay in Barcelona will likely include visits to the age-old Barri Gótic, the city’s central promenade (Las Ramblas), and architect Antoni Gaudi’s exemplary and almost-complete Sagrada Família cathedral. But Barcelona offers plenty off the beaten path as well. Bars, restaurants, cafés, and all-night clubs wait around every corner, and the city’s ancient, narrow streets invite a destination-less wander.
If Barcelona is your only stop in Spain, don’t expect flamenco dancers and fighting bulls in the streets. Barcelona is the capital city of Catalunya, which, like many regions in Spain, has a distinct history, culture, and its own language. Catalan people are proud of their traditions and a little cultural awareness will enrich your visit to Barcelona. So save the bulls and flamenco for Madrid or Seville, and instead seek out a Sardana (the Catalan national dance) or a precarious exhibition of castellers (human castles).
The independent spirit so evident in Barcelona has produced some of western Europe’s most influential modern artists: architect Antoni Gaudi, artist Joan Miró, and the surreal Salvador Dalí are three of the most recognizable. The Gothic Quarter’s Museu Picasso will guide you through the cubist master’s early art classes and up to his final series of lithographs. Weigh Barcelona’s vibrant arts scene, theaters, and musical concerts and you’ll quickly find more than enough extracurricular entertainment.
Barcelona encompasses several neighborhoods, some more distinct than others. The most prominent of these areas are the Ciutat Vella (Old Town), which includes the Barri Gótic, El Raval, La Ribera, and El Born, and the vast grid of the Eixample. You’re likely to spend a large portion of your time in these two areas. To explore a bit more, venture up or down—up to the Zona Alta beneath Tibidabo’s carnival-topped peak or down to the post-mod waterfront. To assist your explorations, we’ve divided Barcelona into five geographically distinct areas.
What to See
It’s not uncommon to hear the story of the one-time tourist who first visited Barcelona ten years ago and has been here ever since. And it’s not a difficult tale to believe when you consider the variety of sightseeing options and entertainment that this enchanting city affords.
Any premier trip to Barcelona should begin with a lazy saunter down the world-famous Las Ramblas. The promenade is a flowing river of humanity: human statues, street musicians, camera-toting tourists, locals, flower venders, bird sellers, La Boqueria shoppers, and people of every race, color, and orientation.
Just east of Las Ramblas is the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), an area of narrow and sometimes-maze-like streets and towering stone buildings. Created during Barcelona’s Golden Age, this area was extensively remodeled during the 1920s. It’s also where two of Barcelona’s most notable cathedrals, the massive Catedral de Barcelona and the more-refined Santa Maria del Mar, hold court. For a taste of Catalan government, head to Plaça St. Jaume, where the Ajuntament (City Hall) and Generalitat (Regional Government) both have their headquarters. The Museu d´Historia de la Ciutat, which contains the largest underground Roman excavation site in Europe, offers a window into the city’s history.
Architecture-lovers craving Barcelona’s famed Modernisme designs should press into the north, into L’Eixample. Not to be confused with modernism, which usually refers to 20th-century functional styles, Modernisme is a flamboyant, free-flowing architectural style that emerged during the 19th and 20th centuries. Often compared with Art Nouveau, the Modernisme style is inextricably connected to the city’s most-renown architect, Antoni Gaudi. La Pedrera, Parc Güell, and Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia are Gaudi’s best. If you’re planning to visit them all (and other Moderisme works), invest in a pass for the Ruta de Modernisme. The 1,500-peseta ticket grants entry into all publicly accessible buildings as well as a map and written guide to the city’s 50 Modernisme sites.
Barcelona is no Paris when it comes to the museums, but there are plenty to choose from. The Museu Nacional d’ Art de Catalunya (MNAC) atop Montjuïc and the Museu d’Art Contemporani (MACBA) are filled with recognizable works. But the recently expanded Museu Picasso, which features works from the artist’s earliest years, Blue Period, Pink Period, and Cubist stage, is your surest bet. High-endurance culture buffs will want to try out the Fundació Joan Miró on Montjuïc, which features works from one of Catalunya’s most notable contemporary artists, as well.
Sun-worshippers should head to the city’s biggest park, Parc de la Ciutadella, or down to the waterfront. Barcelona’s beaches, which stretch for 4 kilometers from the seaside Barceloneta past the Olympic Port Marina. Bikini tops are optional so prepare yourself accordingly.
If you’re looking for a panoramic view, choose one of the local peaks, Montjuïc or Tibidabo. Tibidabo (“Temptation” in Catalan) is Barcelona’s highest peak and provides the best view around. From its top, you have a limitless view of the city and Mediterranean. If the air quality is good, Montserrat and Montseny are even visible to the north.
The vast gridiron of L’Eixample (“Extension” in Catalan) was built in the mid-1800s to give the Old Town´s growing population a bit of much-needed breathing space. It eventually grew outward to incorporate the once-separate towns of Sants and Gràcia.
The monied interests were the first to move to L’Eixample, and with them came the modernista architects who needed funding for their building projects. Because of this, the area has become a bit like a museum of Modernisme architecture, particularly along the Passeig de Gràcia. That’s where you’ll find the works of Barcelona´s greatest architects: Antoni Gaudi, Lluís Doménech i Muntaner, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Check out the famous Manzana de la Discòrdia (“Block of Discord”) and Gaudi´s La Pedrera, and further up and out, his masterpiece (and yet-unfinished) cathedral, La Sagrada Familia.
L’Eixample is the city´s main district for shopping, and many stores line the Passeig de Gràcia and the pedestrian thoroughfare La Rambla Catalunya. Both run parallel from Plaça Catalunya to the traffic-throttled arterial Avinguda Diagonal. Restaurants, bars, clubs, and cafés lie scattered throughout the neighborhood, but you may have to do a bit of exploring to find them.
Until 150 years ago, the Ciutat Vella (Old Town) is all there was to Barcelona. The city has since expanded in all directions, but the Ciutat Vella—which encompasses Las Ramblas, Barri Gòtic, El Ravel, and La Ribera—is still the heart and soul of this town.
Barcelona’s main drag, Las Ramblas, cuts straight through the middle of the Ciutat Vella, from Plaça Catalunya to the Mediterranean seaside. The produce-filled Mercat Boqueria (Barcelona’s most famous market), scores of cafés, and most of the city’s budget accommodation options can be found along this busy, pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare. Las Ramblas also divides the medieval Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) from its seedier counterpart, El Raval.
Just west of the Parc de la Ciutadella, which sits in Ciutat Vella’s southeast corner, are the up-and-coming El Born neighborhood and Picasso Museum, which contains some of the artist’s first and final works. Restaurants, bars, and clubs are plentiful throughout the area; if you’re out for tourist haunts, stick near Las Ramblas. For trendier options, veer east to El Born. Those in search of a more colorful and potentially dangerous experiences should meander into El Raval (just watch your pockets).
The Zona Alta—Uptown—refers to an area that includes the Sant Gervasi, Serrià, and Pedralbes neighborhoods. We’re including Grácia in this area as well, though this once-autonomous neighborhood could easily stand on its own.
Like Sants, Grácia was incorporated into Barcelona when the Eixample stretched out to the suburbs. Some residents still feel Grácia deserves independence from Barcelona, but few believe it will ever happen. Reflecting the independent spirit, anarchist groups, artists, and musicians all make their home in this area. With its tranquil plaças and haphazard, narrow streets, Grácia feels quite distinct when compared with the rest of the city. The best plaças are the popular Plaça del Sol, Plaça Rius i Taulet (with a tall clock tower at its center), and Plaça Virreina, which is guarded by a stone church.
To the west and north of Grácia, the Zona Alta really begins—in both senses of the term. Altitude and income begin to increase in the San Gervasi neighborhood. You’ll find many of Barcelona’s upper-middle-class restaurants and clubs here, including the renowned Otto Zutz nightclub. Expect to dress well and pay more.
The 170-meter Montjuïc (Hill of the Jews) holds the Estadi Olímpic. The Olympic Stadium was built that year in a bid for the 1932 Games as was the popular Poble Espanyol (Spanish Village), which showcases notable examples of Spanish architecture (and plenty of tourist traps). By nightfall, Poble Espanyol turns into a night-owl destination; its two massive multi-floor discoteques draw dusk-til-dawn partygoers from all over the city.
Montjuïc also contains 15 palaces-turned-museums, including the National Museum (MNAC) in the Palau Nacional. The 18th-century fortress atop Montjuïc, which has been historically occupied by Barcelona’s ruling power, contains the military museum and affords great views of the city as well.
In the foothills of Montjuïc lays the Poble Sec neighborhood and the Avinguda de Paral·lel. A number of fine dance clubs as well as Barcelona’s most-notorious live-sex theater, the Bagdad, call this area home. The primary entrance to Montjuïc, Plaça d’Espanya, looks up the hill to the Palau Nacional. Above Espanya is the Sants neighborhood, most well-known for its independent history. Like Grácia, it was an autonomous town until the mid-1800s when a fast-growing Barcelona swallowed it whole. Seldom visited by tourists, (unless they’re heading for the train station), Sants is a good place to experience a quieter slice of Barcelonenses life.