The setting is the stuff of dreams. Curled between the last lurch of the Pyrenees and the palm-rimmed Mediterranean, Barcelona was born with the power to seduce: to her poets she was always ‘the Great Enchantress’.
But this is no languid beauty: Barcelona goes about its business and its pleasure with such ballistic intensity that it is sometimes hard to tell if it’s insanely serious or seriously insane. The city it resembles most is New York, with its gung-ho capitalism, its mania for design and fashion, its numerous art galleries and theatres, and its love of strutting its stuff. Barcelona has the restless ‘can-do’ spirit of the New World – grandiose projects and utopian schemes run through its very woof and warp.
It is a city of strong will, a work of art, and, like Paris, the shopfront of a nation. Only this nation isn’t Spain: Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a long-submerged nation which now takes the palm as Spain’s wealthiest autonomous region.
The Catalans have their own language, traditions and quirks, all fuelled by an intense energy that has in recent decades been directed into making Barcelona the hippest, slickest and boldest city in Europe. New cafés, bars, clubs, galleries, shops and restaurants spring up almost daily; its unique medieval and Modernista heritage have all been spruced up to glow anew.
It isn’t just the buildings that have benefitted from the city’s drive – Barcelona, notably after been showcased to an audience of millions in the 1992 Summer Olympics—has pushed itself into the forefront of Europe’s cultural vanguard, albeit with a dash of Catalan quirkiness: the city has a starry reputation for innovative international and homegrown music, design, theatre, dance and art.
Repressive regimes have often stuffed Barcelona like a troublesome genie into a bottle, culminating in the grey years of Franco – but ever since the day it popped every cava cork in the city to celebrate his death in 1975, it’s been fizzing, sparkling and doing everything it can to get way too big to ever be squeezed back in.
Although Barcelona's 5 million or so inhabitants (in the metropolitan area) have filled most of the available space between the mountains and the sea, nearly all the interesting bits are concentrated in an inner core of neighbourhoods.
One of Europe’s most famous thoroughfares,it’s the first place everyone heads for. Day and night the Ramblas are crowded with natives and visitors from every continent, picking up a newspaper, a canary or a bunch of flowers, or simply admiring the countless buskers and ‘human statues’. Even if it’s not the real Barcelona, the Ramblas have a big share of Barcelona’s extrovert soul. The crowds may be the main attraction, but you can also visit the city’s glittering Liceu opera house; eat oysters at its favourite market, La Boquería; or enjoy a copa on the terrace in the Plaça Reial.
This medieval time capsule of narrow streets radiating out from the spiky Gothic cathedral (La Seu) is sprinkled with palaces, churches and picturesque squares. It may have been forgotten during the great 19th-century rush for the newly fashionable Eixample, but now it’s one of Barcelona’s favourite places to shop and hang out. See the remnants of Roman Barcino at the Museu d’Història de la Ciutat, take the lift to the roof of the soaring cathedral, then head for tapas on pretty Plaça del Pi.
This laid-back neighbourhood was the artisan quarter of medieval Barcelona, and its narrow passages still carry the names of long-forgotten trades. The grand palaces of its most successful merchants along Carrer Montcada have become galleries and museums, including the popular Museu Picasso. Nearby is the austerely beautiful church of Santa Maria del Mar – just beyond, Modernisme erupts magically in Domènech i Montaner’s swirling Palau de la Música Catalana. The city’s trendiest bars and clubs are packed around the Passeig del Born, just by the gardens of the Parc de la Ciutadella.
Once notorious as the home of Barcelona’s thriving underworld, the Raval has since retired most of the brothels, bars and music halls that once made it the most piquant red light district in the Mediterranean. You can get a distant whiff of the old days in a couple of crusty, evocative old bars that remain, and in monuments from its earlier, more salubrious days including the Romanesque monastery of Sant Pau and Gaudí’s extravagant Palau Güell. These days, the barri has a new kind of underground vibe – the streets around the glassy white Museu d’Art Contemporani now boast galleries, cafés and bars that cater to the city’s hippest residents.
Together these two areas occupy the old seaside district of Barcelona, which until recently was strictly a business proposition, leaving no room for monuments or razzmatazz. That all changed a couple of decades ago during the massive face lift for the 1992 Olympics, when the business end of the port, its cargo ships and ferries were moved south of Montjuïc, leaving behind what has become one of the busiest cruise ship terminals in the Med, a new World Trade Centre and the old port, or Port Vell, now a playground for the city with shops, restaurants and bars. It features on of Europe’s biggest aquariums, while the old 18th-century fishermen's quarter of Barceloneta still draws in the crowds with its great seafood restaurants, tapas bars, beaches and the breathtaking cable car across the water to the hill of Montjuïc
This elegant grid, criss-crossed with broad avenues, was the great building project of the 19th century, when many of the city’s bourgeois residents gave their homes a theatrical Modernista makeover, best seen on a walk or bike tour. Three of the finest masterpieces are nudged up together on the elegant Passeig de Gràcia in the stretch known as the ‘Mansana de la Discòrdia’. Gaudí stamped his delirious imprint all over the Eixample, from the creamy curves of La Pedrera to the surreal spires of his unfinished Sagrada Família. The area has had another injection of life in the last few years, with the opening of many of the city’s most fashionable designer shops, restaurants, cafés and clubs.
This hill of gardens was always the unofficial playground of the hordes escaping from the confines of the Barcelona's walls. In the 20th century, it hosted both a world's fair and the Olympics. Today there are a dozen reasons to visit, including the superb art collections in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, lovely landscaped gardens, the luminous Fundació Joan Miró; a magical fountain (with a fantastically kitsch sound and light show); and the cheesy Poble Espanyol. To top it all off, there's the Olympic ring, with the Olympic stadium, Calatrava's needle tower and a new museum of sport.
This once-independent town, with its bijou squares and narrow streets was swallowed up by Barcelona long ago but still maintains a distinct, bohemian atmosphere: traditionally the home of leftists, Anarchists and writers, it puts on some of the best parties in town. Without any major attractions, it gets fewer tourists than many parts of the city: this walk takes in its highlights.
Thirty years ago Poble Nou, the large neighbourhood north of Barceloneta, was a decaying industrial slum: today it's the palette for a roster of big name architects and designers who are creating what they hope will be a hyper-cool New Barcelona out of, between and over the crumbling factories, tenements and warehouses. The once polluted sea front now draws crowds with a string of sandy beaches and many of the city's night clubs, concentrated around the former Olympic Village, the Vila Olímpica; inland one of the key anchors for development is the once ghastly Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes, now dignified (if that's the quite the word) with the Torre Agbar, Barcelona's own version of London's Gherkin.
Closest to the centre is Poble Sec, a slightly funky, authentic and increasingly hip district squeezed between Montjuïc and El Raval.
Further out into the hills, the well-to-do residential neighbourhoods of Sarrià/Pedralbes offers parks, Gaudí's unique pavillons, a royal palace and a beautiful medieval monastery, the Museu-Monestir de Pedralbes.
The mountains behind the hills, the Collserolla, are a natural park: in about half an hour from the city centre you can be high above it all, even more so atop Sir Richard Rogers' Collserolla tower. Barcelona, always prone to doing the unexpected, planted a fun fair on one of the highest peaks, Tibidabo: the views from the Ferris wheel will knock your socks off.
Image by Tania Cataldo