Along the Mediterranean shore of eastern Spain lies Barcelona, one of the great cities of Europe to put high on your list of places to see. It will make the perfect start to our tour of the Mediterranean.
Although its sprawling metropolitan area is home to 4.2 million residents, you can easily see the main attractions of Spain's second-largest city in just a few days by walking through its square-mile historic center and visiting nearby sites. We will be sure to see Barcelona’s most famous building, Sagrada Familia, the fantasy church designed by that eccentric architectural genius, Gaudi, along with some of his other creations.
We shall spend most of our time in and around the old section of town, called the Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter, a giant pedestrian zone surviving from ancient days. Barcelona has a large number of historic sites, museums, shops and tourist destinations, but the best attraction for many visitors will simply be this large pedestrian district. It is perhaps the most extensive automobile-free district in Europe (except for Venice, which has no roads at all). Of course, Barcelona has plenty of cars, trucks and buses on the busy main streets, but it is easy to get away from them.
Indeed, one of the most enjoyable activities in Barcelona is simply taking a walk through the many narrow lanes, away from the traffic. They wander, bend and curve like the maze of a travel mystery that leads to the overwhelming question: what’s coming up next? Remember to look left and right as you pass the smaller alleys intersecting with the main lanes. You don’t need to walk down every one, but they are worth a glance, and some might tempt you to probe their depths. It really is a lot of fun.
This pattern of narrow streets has survived for 2,000 years, ever since the city was established by the Romans, who built a wall around what would later become the Gothic Quarter. Some of the street pattern we see today was actually established way back then by those clever Romans. Their clustered town surrounded by the wall became what is the heart of today’s Gothic Quarter. Earlier, around 500 B.C., the Phoenicians and Carthaginians created a harbor for merchants in the area. During the Middle Ages the basic urban design was preserved and somehow, in the modern period, this Gothic Quarter was ignored and neglected while the rest of the city developed around it, preserving the center by default. In recent decades the city realized what a treasure they had with this intact medieval core and have done a great job renewing it to create the city’s main attraction.
Many of Barcelona’s 35,000 stores are packed into this pedestrian zone -- small, independent boutiques in the traditional European manner, much different from the American system of identical shops in every mall. Barcelona’s retail zone continues north from the Gothic Quarter along what is called the 5KM Shopping Line, a 3-mile corridor extending along trendy boulevards, especially Passeig Gracia. This more modern zone was developed from the late 19th century in the Modernista style. Also called “modernisma,” it is a richly-decorated version of Art Nouveau architecture that developed in Barcelona as a means of expressing the Catalan identity.
Barcelona is a bicultural city, with influences of Spain and Catalunya mixed together freely, adding to the allure of this exotic place. Catalan culture rose here in the 9th century and thrived during the next eight centuries in the independent kingdom of Catalunya. Its native language is surprisingly not a pure Spanish, but Catalan, a mixture of French and Spanish which follows its own rules. Barcelona has always had close ties with the rest of Europe -- for example, while most of Spain was occupied by Moslems during the Middle Ages, this region was not, but was allied with the Franks. These historic differences are flourishing today in Barcelona’s exotic mix of cultures and styles, after being repressed by Franco’s dictatorship which outlawed the local language and many customs.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say the residents consider themselves Catalan first and Spanish second, although hardly anyone is pushing for independence anymore. Four TV stations broadcast exclusively in Catalan and most street signs are also in the native language. Enough shop and restaurant workers speak a tiny bit of English for the visitor to get by just fine.
Barcelona is such a cosmopolitan city that it has attracted a lot of foreign immigrants to come and live here, the main group coming, not surprisingly, from South America, especially from Ecuador and Peru, which together account for nearly one-third of all immigrants. Of course Barcelona is a very popular city for tourists, especially with its convenient location near the border with France, along the beautiful Mediterranean, and its many wonderful attractions as you will discover during your visit. Population of the city is 1.7 million, with 4 million in the broader metropolitan area, but most attractions are concentrated in one square mile of the historic center, making this an easy city to explore.
We planned this itinerary specifically to be in Barcelona during the Mercè Festival, which is a major cultural extravaganza featuring dozens of music and dance performances throughout the center of town for the four days we are here. These events are all free and lots of fun. The festival, held in honor of Mare de Deu de La Mercè, the Patron Saint of Barcelona, officially first took place in 1902, bids goodbye to the summer with a bang and welcomes in the cooler months of autumn. There are hundreds of activities that will be occurring in the Merce Festival: The streets will be filled with events, parades, fire runs (Correfoc)- and people!
Afternoon arrival and rest at hotel, then orientation walking tour of the historic center of town. We found the Hotel Colon to be an excellent hotel. It is a four-star property facing the cathedral right in the heart of the Gothic Quarter a few blocks over from Rambla, and we’ll describe that later when we are walking in that vicinity.
Begin in the main square, Plaça de Catalunya -- a patch of greenery, with trees, lawns, fountains and benches, and flanked by two large department stores, El Corte Ingles and FNAC. Barcelona’s modern shopping district is just north, and the Old Town is just south. Catalunya is a transit hub, with several metro and commuter trains underneath, major bus stops all around, and nine streets leading into it.
Stroll from Catalunya along the famous Rambla, a broad pedestrian promenade extending from the southwest corner of the square and continuing for ¾ of a mile to the waterfront and column in honor of Columbus. The Rambla is Barcelona at its best, day and night, so plan to come back to this stretch many times during your visit. The Rambla is always busy with people walking past its flower shops, newsstands, bars, cafes and is alive with activity throughout the day and night, making this one of the top venues for strolling in all of Europe.
All but one of the lanes extending from the east side of the Rambla into the Old Town are for pedestrians only, so take the plunge. Rather than walking the full length of the Rambla straight to the waterfront this first time, detour into the Gothic Quarter and explore the gold mine of little lanes. Half the fun of this experience is just wandering and getting a little lost, although it always helps to have a map and general itinerary for guidance. Some of the main sights you want to be sure you cover are outlined here, but the network of walking paths is so continuous and compact you could follow your own instincts and have a good time exploring it.
An excellent place to turn east from La Rambla is the pedestrian lane called Carrer de la Portaferrissa, lined with fascinating shops and old buildings. It leads to a small but strategic intersection where you will probably end up at numerous times in your wanderings because the three directions of this unassuming triangle take you to major destinations: the cathedral; Plaça dei Pi; and l’Angel shopping street.
Naturally, in the center of the oldest section you are going to find a gothic cathedral, the pattern of many ancient European towns. Catedral de Seu was first built in the 13th through 15th centuries in the traditional gothic style, with a soaring nave, pointed arches, tall columns, 28 side chapels and a spectacular cloister that is home to a flock of noisy geese with an attitude.
Nobody knows where the geese came from but they have been here for centuries and are said to represent purity, fitting right in with the atmosphere of this wonderful church. Take a ride up the elevator and venture onto the roof for a stunning view across the center of town, which helps orient you for the walks to come. This prime location atop a low hill was the earlier home of a Roman temple and then a 6th century church, so it’s no wonder the narrow lanes immediately adjacent are dense with historic structures and small plazas.
Standing in front of the cathedral on Placa de la Seu, you are flanked by two medieval structures: the former Pia Almoina on the left, which had been a monks’ residence and almshouse for the poor and is open now as the Diocesan Museum with medieval religious treasures and changing exhibits, and on the right, the fascinating Archdeacon’s Palace, Casa de l’Ardiaca, worthy of closer examination.
From the outside you can see the Archdeacon’s Palace with three towers which were part of the original Roman fortified wall. Walk around to the entrance and notice the elaborate mail box next to the entrance, with an incised carving of flying birds and a turtle, symbolizing how fast the mail should travel but how slowly it actually moves. This also refers to the wheels of justice, for legal offices were here in the 19th century. Walk into the patio to enjoy the quiet, cloister atmosphere complete with arcaded columns around the central fountain and noble palm tree in the center. You are free to enter the building lobby and admire the beautifully-preserved Roman wall that stands inside.
Naturally the cathedral is in the heart of the Old Town, so there are lovely strolls to be enjoyed all around it day and night. Many shops and restaurants are clustered in the nearby blocks, with lots of people out for a stroll and probably several sidewalk musicians providing entertainment.
One block east you will find the former home of kings and queens, the Palau Reial or Royal Palace, now a history museum, the Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat. In 1493 Columbus reported his great discovery to Ferdinand and Isabella in the palace’s spectacular Banqueting Hall, “Salo del Tinell,” whose roof is formed by the largest medieval stone arches in Europe. Several other halls and chambers exhibit period paintings, furnishings, weapons, altars and artifacts.
Don’t leave the museum yet because a more ancient world waits for you below street level. The elevator is a time machine whose button says ‘-2,000 years’ rather than ‘basement,’ and brings you 30 feet down to the original Roman streets where you can see foundations of buildings that once were houses, wineries, bakeries, leather factories and fortified towers. Smooth paving of the streets and sewers attest to the Roman engineering skills which created the world’s most sophisticated cities in those days of long ago. If you don’t want to pay to go inside you can peek in a few windows to see in bit of the underground remains, and visit the gift shop to look at pictures of the site and buy souvenirs.
Roman ruins are also visible at street level just around the corner on Carrer de Paradis, in a little patio where four Corinthian columns still stand from the temple of Augustus from the first century, and traces of the Roman wall can be seen a few blocks away along Carrer Tapineria.
For another taste of history you might visit the Museum Frederic Mares, on the cathedral side of the Royal Palace on Carrer dels Comtes, or at least walk into its magnificent patio surrounded by a loggia arcade. This private museum contains religious sculpture from the Romanesque through the Renaissance, along with household items from the late 19th century.
PLAÇA DE SANT JAUME
The principal Roman street intersection in the underground museum is the same approximate location today of a major plaza above, Sant Jaume, where the City Hall and regional Catalan parliament, Palau de la Generalitat, face each other. This was originally the site of the ancient Roman forum, which was the center of their ancient town. Two thousand years later this is still a major center of activity, with nine streets leading from the plaza, each worthy of exploration on foot. The main Tourist Information Office is also here, providing helpful free advice, maps, brochures, assistance in booking accommodations and entertainment suggestions. On Sunday afternoons the plaza is filled with locals dancing the graceful Sardana, a thousand-year-old Catalan celebration, and most other times of each day and night, music of all kinds will captivate you in the streets of this central part of town. The many people walking about make a good audience for the buskers, who rely on tips for their income. When you hear some decent sounds be sure to stop a while and tune in to the magical ambience. And don’t forget to drop a few coins.
Carrer de Ferran is the main road running through Sant Jaume, and while some cars are allowed, the street is mostly for pedestrians and is the busiest street of the entire Gothic Quarter, with many shops and restaurants along both sides and numerous side alleys extending out to form one of the town’s best networks of lanes to explore. This area can provide an excellent focus for the next major portion of your walking tour. Then, come back again at night, for this neighborhood is filled with throngs drawn to the many restaurants and the small shops which stay open until 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. (they close in the afternoon for siesta).
NETWORK OF ALLEYS
This dense labyrinth of attractive alleys is bracketed by another major pedestrian lane that also passes through Placa de Sant Jaume and runs roughly parallel to Carrer de Ferran, extending from Rambla, where it is called Carrer de la Boqueria, then continuing for a mile all the way across the district, changing names eight times as it winds to the Palace of Justice, making another great route to explore, enhanced by detours into various side alleys and little plazas. Rather than attempting to walk the full length of this eight-part street in one pass you might find it more convenient to focus first on the network of lanes between Jaume and Rambla, then cover the other half extending into the Ribera district tomorrow.
Nearly every little lane is worth exploring in the broad area bounded by Sant Jaume and the Rambla, and between Carrer Portferrissa and Placa Reial, an area filled with bustling shopping lanes, small plazas, a major gothic church, picturesque fountains, innumerable eateries and a constant stream of locals passing by, all within a manageable, quarter-square-mile package. Because of this concentration of attractions, you could easily meander through this section by turning this way and that, depending on what direction looks best at each corner, which could give you a totally satisfying experience. To methodically cover it from one end to the other without missing anything, you could try the following more organized route, then maybe once you have covered the territory, dive back in again for a rediscovery, perhaps in the evening when it takes on a different character, filled with people shopping and heading for dinner.
Begin the exploration in Placa de Sant Jaume facing the parliament, then take Carrer de Sant Honorat, the street on the parliament’s left side, which soon leads under a fancy pedestrian bridge, built in 1928 neogothic style, connecting the parliament with the palace of the Catalan president. After the bridge turn left past the Church of St. Sever, whose elaborate baroque altar can be seen through the glass of the locked front doors. You cannot go in normally, but you are always welcome to stand outside the glass doors and have a look inside at the beautiful gold altar.
Passing the deluxe, boutique Neri Hotel, take the first right into the small plaza of St. Felip Neri and drop anchor for a moment here to soak up the peaceful atmosphere, which contrasts with a violent role this space played during the 1930s Civil War when it was scene of executions and skirmishes. Notice all the holes on the church façade blasted by bullets and bombs during that turbulent time, preserved as a memorial.
The church of St. Felip Neri is one of the only significant baroque buildings in Barcelona because during the 16th and 17th centuries very little development was going on in this city. It was the period of colonial conquest of the New World which saw great economic growth, where Spain was plundering a lot of the gold and other riches of the Americas, bringing back important crops like sugar and tobacco, but for political reasons this wealth was all directed towards Castille in the central and southern parts of Spain centered around the port of Seville -- not to Barcelona, which fell into a long period of economic decline as a result. Queen Isabella was supporting her home territory of Castille to the exclusion of the Catalan area, which suffered as a result. This is a major reason why we have such a well-preserved gothic town to enjoy today, since little construction has taken place since the Middle Ages in this central part of town. It has seen very few changes, so we are blessed today with this intact medieval pattern.
From Placa Neri walk a short block over to Carrer de Banys Nous, a former site of the Roman wall and now a busy shopping lane worthy of an extended stroll up and down its 300 yard length between Placa Nova and Carrer de Ferran. Next, make your way another block over to the gothic church of Santa Maria del Pi and its enchanting little plazas. This is another one of the great spaces of Barcelona that has it all: benches to rest, outdoor cafes, shops, statues, three interconnected little plazas, other major attractions within a few blocks, and anchored by this most impressive church with the world’s largest round gothic stained glass window. The impressive church interior features a high ceiling with gothic vaulting and many stained glass windows all around, but otherwise simple décor as it was burned out during the Civil War.
At night the three little plazas are lively with people sitting at cafes or simply walking through on the six little lanes that intersect here. The side plaza of St. J. Oriol is especially busy with its popular Taller de Tapas restaurant and nearby Meson Jesus, a simple restaurant with Catalan cuisine.
Now you might zigzag through the alley nexus including the main routes of Boqueria and Ferran, the row of lanes between them, and then arrive at the grand plaza of Placa Reial, the Royal Square built in the 19th century, surrounded by magnificent arcades on all side anchored by a grand fountain in the center. Most notable among the restaurants here is a phenomenon called Quinze nitz, where people line up for over an hour to get in for dinner, attracted by the low prices, high quality and skyrocketing fame. One way to beat the line is come for late lunch, arriving just before 3:00pm to catch their last seating. (Or you could eat at their other restaurant, La Dolce Herminia, which is as good and less crowded, located one half-mile away at 27 Magdalenes, near via Laietana. It also gets busy, so arrive for dinner by 8:00pm or make a reservation.)
Another busy street two blocks from Placa Reial towards St. Jaume is Carrer d’Avinyo, which is a pleasure to stroll during the day or at night. Take this, or the Rambla, five blocks south to Passeig de Colon, a wide boulevard along the water’s edge.
Early-birds will find that most of the city does not open until well after breakfast, except for the huge food market along the Rambla, the Mercat de la Boqueria. This busy food hall comes to life very early, starting from 6:00am when the first merchants arrive and a few coffee counters open inside the hall and just outside along the Rambla, making this about the only place in town available for a pre-dawn caffeine fix, if you happen to wake early and want to get a head-start on the day.
Even if you are not an early-bird, don’t need any food and have no interest in architectural history, simply walking through this market is an adventure for your senses, passing row after row of perfectly displayed fruits and vegetables arranged by workers who really care about visual impact, color and aesthetics, while at the same time you are immersed in the bustling atmosphere of busy shoppers and merchants calling out their specials in booming Spanish tones to grab your attention. Odors fill the air with a constantly changing palette as you walk from cheese to fish and on to the fruits and veggies. So you are getting sight, sound, color, motion, aroma and taste, for an experience not to be missed.
Mercat de la Boqieria is fully up and running by 7:00am and stays open throughout the day, making this a great place to hang out for a while, watch the colorful action, get a coffee and maybe pick up some snacks for your busy day ahead. Several small counters offer excellent, quick meals and a chance to rub elbows with some talkative locals. Eating at a simple café like this is a refreshing contrast to the long wait for table service in a typical restaurant, because everything happens immediately in front of your eyes when you sit on that stool, especially when they are not crowded.
While most of the market’s products are meant to be brought home and cooked, the intrepid traveler can certainly find fruits, nuts, cheese, breads, sweets and other great items for snacking during the day that will cost less and be more convenient than meals purchased in a restaurant. There is a lot to be said for munching on simple foods pulled out of your pocket while walking along sightseeing, and so far, no medical reports have suggested there is anything unhealthy about eating while you walk. Of course you are going to want to sit down and enjoy some great meals but not necessarily every time you get hungry, especially outside normal meal hours when your appetite and slumping energy level call for some attention.
Housed in an old-fashioned steel and glass structure first built in mid-19th century with an elaborate steel facade in the Modernista style of one century ago, the Mercat de la Boqueria resembles other great food halls once found in Europe’s major cities, nearly all of which have been torn down or converted into shopping malls. In many ways these food hall structures were the first truly modern buildings to incorporate the engineering technique of glass walls held together by steel frames which has subsequently dominated urban architecture.
The continued existence of this venerable structure is another fine example of the intact preservation of Barcelona’s historic center. Its archaic glass and steel design looks like something out of an old movie but the market continues to play an important role in the modern daily lives of shoppers getting their daily fix of fresh, healthy foods. Most shops of the Gothic Quarter have sleek, ultra-contemporary interiors behind their old facades, unlike Mercat de la Boqueria, where you step into the 19th century.
You might explore the market early in the morning before breakfast and then head back to your hotel for your morning meal. One famous hotel you might consider is the Hotel Colon, which is right on one of the main squares of town facing the cathedral. They have a lovely breakfast buffet with eggs, bacon, all kinds of fruits, cereals, juices and so on, which provides a nice chance to relax and fuel up for the busy day ahead.
After breakfast, begin your pursuit of architectural masterpieces created by Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), Barcelona’s most famous architect. A good strategy is to start at Parc Guell, a whimsical whirl of colored ceramics, sculptures, sinuous benches, weird buildings, bizarre pavilions and curved paths winding through a lush garden setting, with a view across the city from its hill-top perch.
The park’s structures are curved in a mélange of fairy-tale shapes covered with mosaics of broken tiles in a style called “trencadis.” Most of these tiles are brightly colored creating dazzling surfaces on the benches and columns, while other tiles are earth-brown fragments covering various pavilions and structures that look like they have grown out of the ground. Craftsmen worked under Gaudi’s direction to create these amazing mosaics by smashing porcelain plates and pottery into little pieces then arranging them like a jigsaw puzzle. Some sculptures are similarly covered, especially the salamander fountain on the divided staircase that leads up to the 86-column Hypostile Hall. There is usually a small crowd waiting in turn to be photographed next to the bizarre salamander.
Gaudi was the city’s most famous architect, best known for his still-unfinished Sagrada Familia church which is also worth seeing but is not as pleasing as this park. He lived from 1852 to 1926 and designed Parc Guell at the beginning of the 20th century as part of a large housing project that never got built. Instead we are left with this much more interesting and valuable 37-acre park that is one of the city’s most popular attractions. Its main section consists of a broad terrace rimmed with benches and steps leading down to the front gate, which is flanked by two small Hansel and Gretel-inspired huts topped with ice cream sundae-shaped roofs. These small areas get very crowded, making it difficult to properly appreciate this premium destination, so your best strategy is to arrive when the park opens at 10:00 a.m. in order to see the colorful sights without a thousand other tourists getting in your way.
Parc Guell is too far from the center to comfortably reach by walking but you can get there in 30 minutes by public transportation, preferably bus number 24 heading in the Carmel direction, which conveniently drops you off right next to the upper level of the park. You can catch the bus from major downtown locales including Placa Catalunia and along the Passeig de Gracia. Alternatively, the metro could bring you to the general vicinity, but requires much more walking than the bus. If you prefer rail, take the metro Green Line L3 and get off at the Lesseps or Vallcarca stations and tackle a 20-minute walk, with the last portion leading up a steep hill and then into the park along a pleasant winding path through the woods. Some of that uphill climb is alleviated by outdoor escalators running alongside the road, but overall you’ll find it easier to take the bus. The same bus route will take you back to downtown after the visit.
Gaudi lived on the property in one of the two houses that were actually constructed here. His home has been converted into a small museum of his memorabilia, for the die-hard fans. However there is not all that much in the way of attractions inside the house. They display some of the odd-shaped furniture designed by Gaudi, and visitors can enter his study, bedroom, living room and other parts of the house. There is an admission charge and the visit will take time, so you might find it unnecessary to enter this little museum, but you can certainly admire the outside of the house and garden for free, and it is conveniently located near the exit for the bus stop.
It only takes 30 minutes to see the park from top to bottom, but you might linger in the gift shop and get something to eat at one of two snack bars. The food and seating is a bit better at the lower café near the front gates, but the sandwich counter up above on the main terrace has a pleasant outdoor ambience, with a strangely entertaining way of ordering food in which you tell the clerk your sandwich choice and he barks back “five minutes” without taking your name or giving you a number, but all works out well in the end. This is not great food, but it’s a simple, inexpensive sandwich on a long, hard roll, and if you are hungry it is conveniently located in this beautiful setting which could hit the spot.
After your visit, exit the east side of the park and walk a block to the public bus stop on the park side of the street to catch a 10-minute ride bringing you close to Gaudi’s monumental masterpiece, Sagrada Familia. It is a mildly entertaining ride, taking you through some typical, non-touristic local streets, and delivers you to a convenient bus stop.
Upon exiting the bus walk along three wide blocks of Avinguda Gaudi towards the looming towers of the church. Another diversion might beckon first, however, with a two-block walk in the opposite direction to the beautiful Hospital de la Santa Creu, a gothic complex begun in 1401 containing a cloister, schools, churches, library, hospital, patios and park, listed together as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The number one attraction of Barcelona is undoubtedly Sagrada Familia. This unfinished church is a whimsical, steel-beamed mountain growing out of the landscape, a creature of the imaginative mind of Gaudi, who died while it was still under construction, run down by a tram in a tragic accident. Barcelonans have been working on the church for a century, and at this rate will probably continue for another century. There are still various political arguments about how to get the work done and how to pay for it, but Sagrada Familia is open to the public.
You can ride an elevator most of the way up one of the towers and walk a bit further to the top. From here you gain quite a view of the construction site as well as vistas across the city – a panorama of the skyline of Barcelona and some details of the towers of Sagrada Familia itself. However, there is not much of a skyline vista to see in this part of town, except for the general layout and one outstanding building, an odd round tower looking like a big, glass pickle, like the “Gherkin” in London.
Scale-model exhibits on the ground floor help you envision what the final product will look like. You can also watch the workers as they create sculptures, carve decorative architectural details and do the heavy construction on this busy site, with hard-hat laborers bustling around the site. It’s really a busy, productive area.
Alternatively, you could save time and money by just looking at this heaping pile from the outside, which gives the main impression anyway, and don’t bother paying the admission fee. Much of the building is a hectic, noisy construction site, so unless you really want the view from a tower, you are not missing much by skipping the interior visit. Of course, those with a genuine interest in this famous site will enjoy walking through it, admiring the beautiful stained glass windows and forest of tall columns finished in many different styles.
Such a strange building is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it has become a symbol of Barcelona, so you might as well come have a look. Fortunately, there is a metro stop here so we can easily get back to the center of town.
You could easily spend the rest of this first afternoon along the waterfront, visiting two major museums and Europe’s largest aquarium containing 8,000 fish. Strolling along this open, sunny area is a dramatic contrast to the more constricted lanes of the Old Town. Palm trees, outdoor restaurants with views of the Port Vell marina, wide busy streets, and a mix of modern and older buildings make this a refreshing change of pace. Leave the rest of the Old Town for tomorrow and the next day.
Nautical buffs will surely enjoy the naval history museum, Museu Maritim, housed in the original shipyard structure that partly dates back to the 13th century. Just the building alone is worth seeing, for it is one of Europe’s largest medieval, secular buildings. Centerpiece of the collection is the 200-foot-long reconstruction of an oar-powered galley, the warship manned by 400 sailors that was used in the crucial Battle of Lepanto which defeated the aggressive Turks in 1571, keeping the Moslems out of Christian Europe. Many other ships and displays of daily life in previous centuries could keep you captivated for hours.
The other large waterfront museum is the Museum d’Historia de Catalunya, which offers “a stroll through history” from the Stone Age through modern times in a huge, restored, brick warehouse. Four floors of exhibits take you on a multimedia journey covering the Bronze Age, Romans, early Christians, coming of the Visigoths, 19th century industrialization, and present times.
Barcelona comes to life in the evening more enthusiastically than during the day, so don’t stop exploring when the sun goes down. Shops generally remain open until at least 8:00pm, although most shut down for siesta in mid-afternoon for several hours, making evening an ideal time for wandering the narrow alleys. Respectable restaurants don’t open until 7:30 or 8:00pm, which is a bit late for some travelers but is the way of life throughout the country. Tapa bars and snack shops open earlier if you need a nibble, but save your real appetite for a bit later. Instead of sitting indoors eating during twilight you might find greater enjoyment by strolling during this magical time in streets filled with locals, illuminated by a special mix of light that combines the golden glow of evening with colored incandescent and fluorescent city lights. It is best to adjust your life-cycle rhythm to the local schedule and participate in the passing parade.
There is much more to see in the downtown center -- visits which could have been made earlier if you don’t have the added luxury of a third day. Spreading out the walks this way provides the pleasure of absorbing the sights at a relaxed pace while leaving time for unplanned detours.
Start out once again at Plaça de Catalunya and walk north a few blocks along Passeig de Gracia to appreciate some of the great Modernista buildings along this major boulevard, including another masterpiece by Gaudi, Casa Batlló, with curvaceous lines that seem organic, growing like a plant out of the ground, or considered by some to look like bones. The architecture is also considered a metaphor that portrays the legend of St. George slaying the dragon, evidenced by the building’s roof contoured like dragon’s skin, and the interior stairway banister shaped like a dragon’s spine.
Two blocks further north you will find Gaudi’s other famous apartment house, the Casa Mila, also called “La Pedrera,” which means “stone quarry” because of the large amount of rock it took for construction. This is a former apartment house now owned by a bank and open to the public as a museum, and is still partly occupied as a private residence.
You are in a modern section of town called Eixample, a 19th century enlargement of Barcelona with many trendy boutiques, sidewalk cares, art galleries and wonderful architecture -- so if this is your style, wander and browse for a while.
Lovers of modern art would enjoy a visit to the MACBA Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in a dramatic, all-white 1995 building designed by Richard Meier, located in the Raval district on the west side of the Rambla, a pleasant five-minute walk from Plaça de Catalunya along the pedestrian Carrer d’Elizabets. When satisfied, plunge again into the Gothic Quarter.
BARRI GOTIC REVISITED
This will be another adventure of walking through more pedestrian lanes, crossing scenic plazas, perhaps visiting an art museum and seeing places not previously covered in this huge Gothic Quarter, as well as back-tracking later in the day to some of your favorite haunts.
Cross from the east corner of Plaça de Catalunya, near the Tourist Information Office, to Portal de l’Angel, one of the widest and busiest pedestrian shopping streets in town, lined with department stores and specialty boutiques, and packed with shoppers all day and into the night. In fact this street is so prominent that you have probably already discovered it earlier on your own and will end up returning here many times during the visit. Often there are outdoor craft markets set up along this mall, and El Corte Ingles, Spain’s biggest department store, has a major branch here to supplement its larger flagship back at Plaça de Catalunya.
Portal de l’Angel is generally filled with friendly shoppers, making this an ideal place for people-watching and perhaps striking up a conversation if you feel so bold. A universal ice-breaking topic is asking someone for tips on eating or shopping. Just don’t try and stop anyone who is in a hurry. This street is such a major destination that you would enjoy walking up and down its full length, exploring beyond each end and looking all around, then doubling back to the beginning of l’Angel to continue your journey.
Attractive side lanes branch off from l’Angel in both directions, leading to more shops and restaurants that are certainly worth exploring. Some fascinating hybrid shop/restaurants resembling a deli with wine bar can be found this central area, such as La Pineda, at 16 Carrer del Pi, the lower extension of l’Angel. This cozy little tapa bar sells meats, cheeses, salads, packaged foods and beverages to go, or for consumption on the spot where you can enjoy the friendly, casual atmosphere of a neighborhood gathering place for locals, standing at the tiny bar or sitting at one of the few tables. It’s the kind of friendly mixed-use hangout for socializing that we don’t see much of in America.
The Angel promenade is just a few blocks long and leads directly into the heart of the Gothic Quarter. Turn left on Carrer Comtal and walk a few blocks to Palau de la Musica Catalana. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a major music hall built in the late 19th century encrusted with statues of musicians and mythological characters in the Modernista style, a Barcelona interpretation of the Art Nouveau style that expresses the distinct Catalan identity through architecture. The Palau is busy as an active venue for the performing arts, with events staged here every week, and you can also pay to go inside for a guided tour during the day.
If you would care to veer away from the tourist path for a taste of an ordinary working-class neighborhood with a medieval atmosphere, continue east a few blocks through the district of Sant Pere, traversed by three parallel streets, all named St Pere but ending with different suffixes: mes Alt, Mitja and mes Baix. Narrow, pedestrian alleys interconnect them creating a delightful maze of ancient lanes in which to wander. The neighborhood is named for the former convent monastery of St Pere, an ancient church on the small plaza of St. Pere. The church’s dark interior features 10th century Corinthian columns, a 12th century dome and Byzantine barrel vaulting. As you walk along you will see the locals going about their business, shopping, talking, hanging out and skating by. Small grocery shops spill out onto the sidewalk with stands for fresh produce, next to alluring bakeries that will tempt you with their sweet delights. This is a quiet part of town that enjoys a slow pace of life in a world of its own. Exit this district along Basses de St. Pere, which leads to Carrer dels Corders, one of the main thoroughfares through the area.
Alternatively, if you are pressed for time you could skip that extended walk and head directly south from the music hall through a neighborhood of narrow pedestrian lanes, arriving in three blocks at the newly-renovated Mercat de Santa Caterina, with it swooping, colorful roof sheltering typical food stalls and a few small restaurants. Continue one block south to Carrer dels Corders, a main pedestrian lane worth strolling up and down, making note of the narrow, residential, side alleys with their colorful laundry hanging up above.
Entering the section of old Barcelona referred to as La Ribera, turn from Carrer dels Corders into the major walkway of Correr Montcada, which changes names a few times and basically takes you through the center of this historic zone. This was an area of deluxe palaces of rich merchants back in the 14th and 15th centuries and many of these buildings still stand today, adapted to new uses, such as the Picasso Museum.
Love him or not, Picasso was the major artist of the 20th century and lived in Barcelona during his formative years from ages 14 through 23 when his career and fame really got started. Then he left Spain, especially because of his distaste for the dictatorship of Franco, when he moved on to Paris and other parts of France where his genius continued to flourish. Founded after his death, this is the most popular museum in town, with one of the world’s largest Picasso collections spread through what had been five separate mansions now seamlessly joined. If you don’t want to pay for the museum admission, at least have a look at the series of interconnected courtyards, and you are always welcome to visit the gift shop.
Continue south along Correr Montcada, with some diversions through the numerous side streets that honeycomb this most historic neighborhood, with many little shops tucked away. When you get hungry, it pays to look carefully for the little restaurants hidden away in side alleys. Perversely, it seems the most popular eateries are trying hard to not draw any further attention to themselves and don’t post signs, menus or addresses. A good example is Nou Celler, tucked away between Carrer de la Princesa and Barra de Ferro just west of the Picasso Museum, offering Catalan specialties, good service and reasonable prices.
After lunch, head for the large gothic church, Santa Maria del Mar, with its massive interior second only to the cathedral in size. The church is really impressive, consisting of a huge nave with soaring ceiling supported on pointed arches, and brilliant stained glass. This was all built during the medieval period, in the 13th and 14th centuries, so the architectural form is pure gothic. There is no influence or embellishment here from the later period of the Renaissance, nor was it built upon an earlier foundation in the Romanesque style of thick walls, low ceiling and small windows.
Behind is the tree-lined promenade of Passeig del Born with several short shopping streets extending a few blocks south. This neighborhood was the center of town back in the Middle Ages, functioning as the financial marketplace, major gathering spot, execution grounds, and general place to be. Today it is experiencing a rebirth, with many trendy shops and cafes thriving in the blocks around the church. A major park with the public zoo, Parc de la Ciutadella, is about one half-mile further east.
Notice the beautiful small plaza in front of the church of Santa Maria del Mar. It is busy during the day as well as at night with the shops and cafes around it, and the people walking through. This is a major pedestrian thoroughfare connecting different parts of the old section of town, so there are always plenty of people to see.
When exiting this zone, follow the nice shopping street, Carrer de l’Argenteria, which extends 200 yards from the front of Santa Maria del Mar back into the center of the historic district.
If there is time remaining this afternoon consider visiting the hill of Montjuic, an enclave of museums, parks and Olympic remains, flanked on the lower edge by old neighborhoods. You can reach it by walking from Placa de Espanya, or taking a cable-car ride, either from the funicular station at Avda Miramar or directly from Barceloneta at Passeig de Joan de Borbo.
You could actually spend an entire day here, so if a fourth day is possible in your itinerary, this district alone would be good reason to extend the visit. Foremost among the museums is MNAC, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in the Palau Nacional, with a vast collection of Catalan fine art spanning the centuries from the Romanesque through modern times. The other great collection on the hill, is the Fundacio Joan Miro, especially for fans of this great abstract artist. Modern architect fans would appreciate seeing the iconic Mies Ven der Rohe pavilion, left over from the 1929 International Exhibition. This simple glass and steel structure is considered by many to be the first modern building, introducing the dominant architectural style cities have followed ever since.
A collection of replica Spanish buildings arranged into an artificial village might seem an unlikely place to end your visit to such an authentic ancient city, but you will undoubtedly find that Poble Espanyol is a completely delightful experience: 117 examples of traditional Spanish architecture representing the whole country are arrayed along dozens of tiny lanes and open plazas, with many restaurants, shops and craft displays along with great entertainment in the streets and nightclubs, including an excellent flamenco show. This fascinating collection was created as a temporary display for the 1929 world’s fair, then retained due to its fantastic popularity which has continued ever since with further enhancements, making this one of the most popular spots in Barcelona. Seventy years of graceful aging have given it that patina of authentic old age.
When done with Montjuic you can walk back to the center of town by passing through the historic neighborhood of Poble Sec, a formerly-poor district that is becoming increasingly hip, with cafes, galleries and more sights to see. From here it is an easy stroll or taxi ride back to your hotel.
Entirely devoted to participating in the Mercé Festival, with nearly one hundred different entertainment events happening all over town. Take your pick of music, dance, acrobatics, food tents, street musicians, art exhibits, and so much more, and all these street events are free. One of the biggest cultural festivals in Europe. It has been going on all week so we will also make time in the previous days to catch some additional performances.