Finding your way around Barcelona isn’t difficult; a glance at any map shows the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) squeezed into a crooked oval shape at the heart of Barcelona. It is one of the best preserved Gothic quarters in Europe, a dizzy maze of palaces, squares and churches piled on top of the remnants of the original Roman settlement.
But it’s just as important for the locals, with a noisy, chaotic maze packed with shops, bars and clubs which cater for every possible taste, and where the streets are just as crowded at midnight as they are at midday.
It is divided from the once-sleazy, now hip and multi-cultural, Raval area by the famous Rambla promenade.
Part impoverished ghetto, part boho-chic barri, the Raval’s fortunes have improved immensely over the last decades, although it remains one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. It’s still poor, but the construction of the glossy Museu d’Art Contemporani has brought in trendy new galleries, fashion shops and arty bars, and, with the arrival of immigrants particularly from north Africa and Pakistan, it’s also becoming multicultural, with halal butchers and curry houses rubbing shoulders with old-fashioned haberdasheries and grocers.
On the other side of the Barri Gòtic is La Ribera – once an old artisans’ district, a funky, fashionable neighborhood. It boasts some of the city’s trendiest bars, restaurants and shopping, as well as its most popular museum (the Picasso Museum), its most beautiful church, and a string of elegant palaces along the Carrer de Montcada.
Spreading inland from the old city is the elegant grid of Eixample, (pronounced Ai-sham-play) where the Modernistas left their fanciful mark on the bourgeois mansions and monuments. This is Barcelona’s most upmarket neighborhood, with its finest restaurants and designer boutiques. Ironically, this elegant district was created by a utopian socialist, Ildefons Cerdà, who won the commission to create a new extension (‘Eixample’ in Catalan) in the 19th century.
Beyond the grid lies a ring of traditional towns including Gràcia, which was independent until 1897 when it became part of Barcelona, albeit reluctantly. It’s now a mildly bohemian, traditional neighborhood of narrow streets and charming squares. Plaça de Sol is the hub of the area’s nightlife, with dozens of bars and cafés. On the edge of Gràcia is Gaudí’s magical Park Güell, a dreamy wonderland which looks over the whole city and out to sea.
Tibidabo and the Outlying Districts
The city is ringed by the Collserola hills, of which the highest and most famous peak is Tibidabo, with its funfair, from where the whole city is spread out at your feet on a clear day. There’s a vintage tram that takes you to and from the city.
The ancient promontory of Montjüic rises up above the sea to the west of the city. A green, park-filled oasis, it’s undergone a series of dramatic face lifts in the last century or so: palaces, museums and gardens were constructed for Barcelona’s International Exhibition of 1929, and the upper reaches were entirely revamped to create the Olympic Ring, a string of dazzling sports complexes used during the 1992 Olympics. Despite all the development, in some ways nothing much has changed: it’s still a popular weekend destination for locals, who come to wander through the parks and gaze down across the city from the hilltop castle.
Port Vell, Barceloneta and Vila Olímpica
Along the seafront are the spanking new developments of the Port Vell and the Port Olímpic, crammed with beaches, restaurants and bars. For the 1992 Olympic Games, the brash, glistening development of the Port Olímpic was erected in all its towering, neon-lit splendour, and the old port was utterly transformed. Now, yachts and gin palaces bob in the harbor, and smart restaurants have spread their awnings on to broad boulevards. Behind Port Vell sprawls the old fishermen’s neighborhood of Barceloneta, a shabby, old-fashioned district of narrow streets and traditional bars serving fresh seafood tapas. Beyond Barceloneta stretch the city’s beaches, packed in summer. They edge past the glitzy Port Olímpic and culminate at the seafront of another quiet old workers’ district, Poble Nou.