Barcelona City Guide

The capital of Catalunya (Catalonia) has always been a proud and reasonably prosperous city but since catapulting into the worlds conciousness after it hosted the 1992 Olympic games it has gone from strength to strength. Many cities find the Olympic nomination becomes a poison chalice, not so Barcelona, the huge investment made revitalised huge areas of the city and firmly placed it and its nation, Catalunya, on the map.

History

Although there were earlier settlements, the Romans were really the first to establish it as a city in the 1st Century BC. There were over 200 years of Muslim rule and a period of great prosperity in the medieval 13th -15th centuries when it became a jewel in the Crown of Aragon. There was a period of decline from the 16th to 18th centuries but the industrial revolution of the mid 19th century saw its fortunes improve and the massive expansion of the city (L'Eixample district) began. Catalunya was the last area to fall to Franco's troops in 1939 and Barcelona, as the capital, was harshly punished for this throughout his dictatorship and only after his death in 1975 did the city, as with the rest of Catalunya, begin to enjoy its freedom again. The freedom was cemented and celebrated when the city was chosen as host for the 1992 Olympic Games.

Orientation

Probably the best place to regard as its centre is Plaça Catalunya from which you can walk south east along the famous Rambla which cuts through the western edge of the Barri Gòtic and El Raval districts towards Port Vell (old Port) with its Marina, shops and restaurants and the nearby harbour where cruise ships mingle with the Balearic Island ferries. Just inland south west of here is the Montjuïc area which was the site for much of the Olympic Games and to the North another area regenerated for the Game, the Port Olímpic Marina.

North of Plaça Catalunya, heading up Passeig de Gracia, you'll find the wide avenues of the the 19th century Eixample district containing some superb examples of Modernisme architecture from the likes of Antoni Gaudi and Lluís Domènech i Montaner.

La Rambla, Barri Gòtic and El Raval

Despite Barcelona becoming a city break hotspot and the rambla its most trodden path this pedestrian tree lined thoroughfare still has plenty of charm. It's flower, pet and newspaper kiosks all add to the bustle and combined with the numerous, sometimes good sometimes not, street performers it makes for a very pleasant atmosphere. Pickpockets can be a problem in Barcelona and, because of the sheer volume of tourists, the rambla is their richest hunting ground. But being inconspicuous is the name of the game so if you leave the long telephoto lens and bright Bermuda shorts at home you shouldn't have any trouble.

To the North east of the Rambla is the heart of the Barri Gòtic are where you'll find some fabulous medieval architecture including La Seu (The Cathedral), the Palau de la Generalitat still the seat of Catalan Government, the beautiful church of Santa Maria del Mar - with the Picasso Museum nearby and numerous squares including the slightly tatty but nevertheless impressive Plaça Reial and Plaça Nova, Plaça de la Seu and Plaça del Rei which surround the Cathedral.

The other side of the Rambla is El Raval, the city's often shabby red light district but now becoming increasingly fashionable both for living and as a destination for many excellent restaurants and bars. It's well worth a wonder, day or night, but keep your wits about you.

L'Eixample

The earliest and most interesting part of this area is also known as the Quadrat d'Or, or Golden Square, and bounded by Avinguga Diagonal, Carrer d'Aribau and Passeig de Sant Joan. It was built by design rather than evolution and, following a competition won by engineer Ildefons Cerdà, construction started in 1859. Eixample simply means amplification and it was an immediate draw to the moneyed classes who were able to move out of the cramped medieval Barri Gòtic into it's wide streets and spacious apartments. The expansion also attracted young architects who came with their new ideas of Modernisme - the Catalan version of Art Nouveau. It's still a wealthy area today and besides its general elegance there are some superb examples of Modernisme including Casa Batlló (Gaudí), Casa Lleó-Morera ( Lluís Domènech i Montaner) and Casa Milà (Gaudí). Gaudí's most famous work, the incredible Temple de la Sagrada Familia, lies to the north-east of the Quadrat d'Or.

Montjuïc

Since the 18th century castle was constructed on top of Montjuïc hill two events have shaped the history of this area, the first was the International Exhibition of 1929 with the construction of Poble Espayol, a rather twee example of a 'typical' Spanish village, and then the 1992 Olympic Games. Here you'll find, among many other sporting arenas, the Olympic Stadium. There is also the Palau Nacional which is home to the Catalan National Museum of Art.

Port Vell, Barceloneta and Port Olímpic

At the end of La Rambla, under the statue of Christopher Columbus gazing out to sea, is Port Vell which, besides the lovely marina, has shops, restaurants and a cinema complex. The other side of the Marina is Barceloneta which is well worth the trip for the plenty full fish and seafood restaurants and further up the coast, Port Olímpic, also home to many restaurants and bars. The beaches to the north of here provide a sanctuary from city for both visitors and locals alike.

Highlights

Temple de la Sagrada Familia

Barcelona's most famous monument is worthy of all the attention it receives. Despite Gaudí's hero status in this city controversy has surrounded this building since construction first started in 1882, but how could it not when it is not scheduled for completion until 2035 and the city is still paying handsomely for it. However few would disagree that it is a work of art and the fact that visitors are able to see this work continue where in many other countries they would be barred on health and safety grounds just add to the appeal for many. Gaudí himself spent 40 years working on the project and the last 15 years of his life lived on site. The most striking external features are the 8 towers that rise to over 100 metres of which Gaudí completed 4 though there are plans for 18 in total, one of which will reach 170 metres. The towers can be climbed if you're feeling energetic, alternatively take the lift for a spectacular view of the city. Inside is just as facinnating, with a small but excellent museum which tells the history of the temple and Gaudí's career and is worth stopping off at before you continue your tour.

Parc Güell

You can't get away from Gaudí in Barcelona but then again why would you want to. He worked on this Park, originally meant as an estate of 60 houses, at the same time as la Sagrada Familia although it has to be said with much assistance from his long time collaborators J.M. Jujol and Francesc Berenguer. It was opened to the public in 1922 with just three buildings completed amongst its mosaic seating, the occasional iconic mosaic lizard and winding paths through beautiful gardens. Its location, perched above the city looking out to sea, makes for fabulous views and there's also the Casa-Museu Gaudí, his one time residence, now a small museum. It has a vibrant, alternative atmosphere during the day but is best avoided at night. The nearest metro is Vallcarca (L3) or take bus 24. The tourist bus also stops here.

Estad Olímpic and Camp Nou

The Estad Olímpic (Olympic stadium) was originally built for the International Exhibition of 1929 but completely rebuilt to a capacity of 65,000, leaving just the facade, for the 1992 Games. These Games were actually the second planned for this venue with the first organised for 1936 as a 'peoples' alternative to the Nazi's infamous hosting of that years Olympics. However the day before the opening ceremony was due to take place Franco's army staged a coup which signalled the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Opened in 1957 Camp Nou is more akin to a national stadium than simply the home of the cities football team. It's difficult to know whether it's the world famous FC Barcelona football team or the incredible, near 100,000 capacity, stadium that draws most visitors.

La Seu - The Cathedral

One of the greatest examples of Gothic architecture in Catalunya and Spain work started on La Seu in the 13th century and went on for six centuries. Of particular note are the 14th century cloisters and gardens they overlook complete with palm trees and white geese which have reputedly been a feature for five hundred years.

La Boqueria or Mercat de Sant Josep

Frequented by tourists and locals alike this market built in the 1830's and located just off La Rambla is a feast for the senses. Beautifully presented fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and seafood will make your mouth water.

Museu Picasso

Although born in Malaga Picasso lived in Barcelona between the ages of 14 and 23 and maintained close links with the city after he left for Paris in 1904. The museum, housed in a beautiful medieval palace, is home to one of the most important and extensive collections of Picasso's work in the world.