Sightseeing in Barcelona
Updated April 2016
Barcelona’s old town or Barri Gòtic is claimed to be the largest medieval quarter in Europe. Its churches and palaces are fine examples of Catalonian architecture from the Middle Ages. Moreover, Barri Gòtic preserves sections of the Roman walls from the time when they encircled the town of Barcino (the name given by the Romans to the area that grew into the modern Barcelona). These, along with the ancient buildings and some of the surviving underground passages provide visitors with a glimpse into the life of Barcino in the early centuries of the first millennium AD.
The Museu d’ Historia de Barcelona (Barcelona History Museum), is a museum of museums, to be found in seven different locations of the old citadel. They seek to represent the history of Barcelona from pre-history, through the heydays of the Middle Ages, to more recent events, like the Civil War in the 1930s. Of particular interest, is the archaeological site under Plaça del Rei, with a system of tunnels dating from the Roman occupation. The tunnels go from underneath Plaça del Rei all the way to the Cathedral.
Back upstairs, the museum occupies the Palau Reial Major, the residence of the ruling dynasties of Catalunia, built in the 14th-15th centuries. The exhibits in the former palace tell the history of Barcelona from the 8th until the 13th century, a period when the city experienced rapid growth. The guided visit ends at the St. Agatha Chapel and at the Tinell Hall. The latter was used as a throne room, and to receive important guests. It is believed that Columbus reported his discovery of America here to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Nowadays, the hall hosts temporary exhibitions.
The building of Barcelona’s Cathedral ("La Seu", not to be confused with the iconic Sagrada Familia) took over 600 years to complete. Its main construction started in 1298 and was completed by 1460, but the neo-gothic features of the façade were only added in the 19th century, and the central spire in 1913. The five main windows of the cathedral, three of them, splendid, dating from the 14th century, are reached by walking around the right side.
The Cathedral is known for its peculiar tradition of keeping thirteen geese in its cloister! This number corresponds to the years that St Eulalia lived before she died as a martyr of Roman oppression. Legend says that she was stripped naked by Roman solders, but that miraculously a sudden spring snow fall covered her body. The nearby "Baixada de Santa Eulalia" (St Eulalia's Slope), recalls that in the story, afterwards, the Romans placed the young girl into a barrel and rolled it down the steep street. Later, they decapitated her. She is considered a saint and patron of Barcelona, which honours her with an annual feast every February.
Another emblematic church of Barri Gòtic is Santa Maria del Mar. In contrast to the Cathedral its construction went on uninterruptedly for 55 years from 1329 to 1384. In the Middle Ages, Santa Maria del Mar was praised as one of the most beautiful churches, and is nowadays considered to be the best example of the Catalan Gothic style. The church stands in the "La Ribera" quarter, which in the distant past, used to be mostly inhabited by fishermen and town guild workers. Santa Maria del Mar replaced an earlier Romanesque church, as by the 14th century the population of the parish had grown rapidly due to its proximity to the port. Barcelona’s port had become the centre of Catalan influence in the Mediterranean region as a result of the intensive sea trading and maritime expansion.
Santa Maria del Mar was built exclusively with the financial donations and voluntary labour of local people: the merchants, guild workers, and port labourers. Spiritually, this church represents a monument to the Virgin Mary. In its simple interior, the stone columns rise into the ceiling and the light comes through the high-arched gothic windows creating a special atmosphere, which delights visitors.
La Rambla is the most famous street in Barcelona. This wide promenade connects the busy Plaça de Catalunya with the Columbus Monument and the city waterfront. Rambla means “sand” in Arabic. In the medieval times, Rambla was just a small stream flowing outside the city walls during the rainy season that vanished in the dry season leaving the silt behind. That sandy place was a popular spot for local commercial activities: butchers had their stalls here; day-labourers came to look for work, etc. In the 14th century, the area was paved, and in the 16th century convents and a university were built along the stream. At the end of the 18th century, when the Barceloneta had been laid out, it was decided to establish a tree-lined lane in this part of the town. Then, in the 19th century, the old city wall was torn down and buildings sprang along the, by then, dried up area. The original buildings are no longer there, but they are remembered in some of the names of the five different parts of La Rambla: Rambla de Santa Monica, Rambla de Sant Josep, Rambla des Caputxins, Rambla des Estudis, and Rambla de les Canaletes.
Even though it is one continuous street, it consists of five 'ramblas'. That's why the street is also referred to in the plural: Las Ramblas (Spanish) or Les Rambles (Catalan).
Antoni Gaudí is the architect who shaped our perception of Barcelona with his major works, which are now listed as UNESCO World heritage sites: Park Güell, Palau Güell, Casa Milà, Casa Vicens, Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló, and the Crypt in Colònia Güell.
Palau Güell is in the old theatre district of Les Ramblas. It was the first big project undertaken by Gaudí for his main patron, the financier Eusebi Güell. The building was completed in 1890 as a residence for the Güell family. It included spaces dedicated to social activities, such as concerts and art exhibitions. Gaudí’s mix of traditional and innovative styles in this project features the use of “trencadis” (broken tiles), parabolic arches at the entrance, and individually sculptured rooftop chimneys. In his later works for Güell and other clients Gaudí developed further this unique architectural approach.
Casa Batlló was a renovation project of a 19th century property that Gaudí turned into a distinctive house of a mystic character incorporating the story of St George and the Dragon into its interior and exterior design. The building is known locally as “Casa dels Ossos”. It means literally “the house of bones” and refers to the various organic elements in its design, specifically, the bone shaped window frames on the outside, and a rib caged cellar.
Casa Milà was constructed from 1906 to 1910 and is better known as La Pedrera, which means the Stone Quarry. It is the largest building that Gaudí designed for a residence. It was located, then, in the expanding part of Barcelona, on the corner of Eixample and Passeig de Gràcia. This building is unique as it doesn’t have any straight lines and rests exclusively on pillars and arches. The façade features undulated balconies decorated with distinct wrought-iron patterns. The building is partly opened to the visitors who can explore the top floor, the attic, and the magnificent roof terrace with its surrealistic colourful chimneys.
Park Güell is one of the most unusual parks in the world. It was originally planned not as a public park, but as a suburban development project. In 1900 Eusebio Güell acquired a plot of land in the Gràcia district just north of the contemporary centre of Barcelona and commissioned Gaudí to develop a residential area as a garden village. Gaudí and other architects worked on the project until 1914, by which time it became clear that there were no buyers for the planned homes. By 1918, the unfinished project became the property of the city, and in 1922 it was opened as a public park.
There are many symbolic structures in the park, like the wrought-iron gate with a dragon guarding the entrance leading to a double mirror staircase. The sculpture of a lizard decorated with “trencadi” at the centre of the staircase has become a symbol of the park and, in its smaller versions, its replicas are sold as one of the better known souvenirs of Barcelona. There are two completed houses with unusually curved roofs decorated with colourful tiles and spires. There is a snakelike endless bench adorned with “trencadi”, considered to be the longest in the world, that goes around a huge platform resting on eighty six columns. This is the Grand Plaça Circular, originally meant to be a local market. It offers spectacular views over Barcelona. Beneath the Grand Plaça is a large hall known as Sala Hipóstila. Note that from October, 2013 the park charges an access fee and allows only a limited number of visitors to view its highlights, as part of the maintenance project.
Montjuïc is a hill, 215m high, in the vicinity of the city centre. In earlier centuries, it served as a natural protection for Barcelona, but from the end of the 19th century, the area started to be used for recreational purposes. At the time of the International Exposition of 1888, a number of exhibition pavilions were built, including the Palau Nacional.
In 1914, Montjuïc’s northern slope became Barcelona’s main park area where was hosted another Expo in 1929. In 1992, when the city was chosen for the Summer Olympic Games, Montjuïc extended its sports facilities, which became known as the Anella Olímpica, (the Olympic Ring). The highlights of the Olympic Ring are the improved stadium and the telecommunication tower designed by internationally renowned architect, Santiago Calatrava.
Montjuïc deserves a full-day visit as it offers a lot to see and a lot to do. Amongst its major attractions are the Spanish Village and the Magic Fountain, as well as the National Art Museum collection in the Palau Nacional.
Tibidabo is one of the earliest amusement parks in Europe. It was opened in 1901 and still has some attractions dating back to the first two decades of the 20th century. It is a family oriented funfair, delighting the very young but with enough entertainment to keep happy older kids of all ages. The entrance price (€25.20; and €9 for kids between 90cm and 120cm tall; under that they go free) allows the use of the rides and other attractions in the lower reserved areas, past the actual gates of the park.
However, at the top where you first arrive, you are free to wonder about and can pay for individual rides like the Ferris Wheel or the plane ride in a replica of the first aircraft to fly between Barcelona and Madrid back in 1928. Still at that level, from the Skywalk Viewing Platform, you are offered a breathtaking panorama of the whole of Barcelona, all the way down to the Mediterranean Sea. The best views will be in late afternoon when the sun is lower and behind you. There is also a church, which, again, is free to visit and you can ascend to its top and get an even greater view of the city (there is a charge of €2 for the lift).
There are a number of ways to getting to the Tibidabo: the most economical is the public bus T2A that leaves from Placa de Catalunya (€2.95).
The most scenic is a combination of the romantic 1901 tramway (€5.50) and the connecting funicular (€7.70, or €4.10 if you buy the park entrance ticket). The first leaves from near Av. Tibidabo stop on the L7 line of the underground system.
If you are driving, you can use the car park at the top (5c per minute= €3 per hour, maximum €10 for the day). Alternatively, if you buy a park ticket, you can leave the car below at Val d’Hebron (parking charge €4.20 for the day) and go up on the free shuttle.
On the way back, stop at the nearby CosmoCaixa Barcelona Science Museum. A vast and amazing area with lots of interactive exhibits covering the various disciplines of the natural sciences, which are great fun for families with young children. The tropical aquarium and the 'bosc inundat' (flooded forest) offer further amazing experiences. There is also a planetarium.
Sagrada Familia became Gaudí’s life time project. Originally, the church was planned in the Gothic Revival Style by Francesc P. de Villar. When Gaudí, then 31 years-old, was chosen to take over from his predecessor, he totally changed the original plan and carried on working on the construction until his accidental death in 1926, run over by a city tram.
Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia is based on the Latin Cross with a nave 90m long by 45m wide and with the transept 60m long. By 1905, Gaudí had finished the crypt and the Nativity façade. Out of the four towers, only the one called Santa Barbara was finished by 1925, in Gaudí’s lifetime, while the other three only rose into the sky after his death, towards the end of that decade. The 1930s was a turbulent time in Spanish history; later, there was lack of funding, which brought the work to an end. It was only in 1960 that the construction of Sagrada Familia started again. It wasn’t an easy task, as during the Civil War the numerous models of the church were smashed to pieces and Gaudí’s studio was burnt. By using what was left and relying on contemporary photographs it became possible to recover Gaudí’s vision of the finished church. The work has been going on ever since with frequent stops. There are plans to finish the church by 2026, the hundredth anniversary of Gaudí’s death.