Many times a country’s “second city” is more vibrant and unconventional than its capital – think of New York, Liverpool, Marseilles, or Naples. Barcelona is certainly one such city and it has quickly overtaken Madrid as the “go-to” city for many travelers looking for a stimulating Spanish holiday. This might seem a bit ironic, since Barcelona natives, who are residents of the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia, are known to want to break away from Spain altogether, but this of course does not stop millions of visitors who flock to this famous city from enjoying its numerous attractions.
Barcelona is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with fine boulevards, squares and parks, impressive buildings, museums, restaurants, and great nightlife. Most of the city’s characteristics are undeniably unique to Barcelona – the architecture of Antonio Gaudí, the narrow winding streets of the old quarter, and the modern cable car that offers a spectacular view of the city. Another major distinction, for those who can tell the difference, is the Catalan language that is still widely spoken and written in the region. Prepare yourself to discover a city that has become a favorite European city amongst international travelers.
Route 1: The Historical Center
Even though the Romans settled in Barcelona as early as 15 BC calling it Barcino, it served as little more than a seaport for the Empire’s maritime commerce; its history as the capital of Catalonia didn’t begin until the 9th century. While no structures of that era remain to be seen, a walk through the center of Barcelona provides an insight into much of the city’s history. Many museums, by the way, not singled out in these routes, display collections that illuminate various aspects of this history.
Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar
The ideal place to start this journey through time is with the city’s oldest surviving church, the one dedicated to Saint Mary of the Sea. The original church dedicated to Saint Mary existed on this site in the late 10th century but the present grand cathedral dates from the 14th century, a time when Catalonia thrived as a commercial and maritime center. Compared to the many Gothic cathedrals built throughout Europe at that time, Saint Mary was erected in record time – only 54 years, from 1329 to 1383. Some elements such as the stained glass windows, the main altar, the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament (off the apse), the west façade, and the northwest tower, date from later on. When approached through the adjacent narrow streets, the church appears to be an austere and not an especially aesthetically pleasing structure, but withhold judgment until you see the interior. Before entering, walk around and examine some of the fine sculptures, such as those of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the niches by the west door, or the doors of the main entrance, note that the figures stooping over with heavy stones are an unexpected tribute to the workmen who actually built this church. Once inside, the light that pours in through the many glass windows and the sheer brightness of the structure will astonish you. With its three aisles, it is a classic basilica with no transept, and slender octagonal columns – said to be the slenderest stone columns in theworld – that support the ribbed vault at the end of the nave. All in all, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar is a unique church that is worth a visit.
At the other extreme of Barcelona’s history of cultural prominence is this ambitious museum devoted to the works of the 20th century’s greatest artist, Pablo Picasso. Although he was originally from Malaga on Spain’s southern coast, he spent most of his formative years – from 1895 to 1905 – in Barcelona and he himself approved of establishing a museum here. The Picasso Museum opened in a medieval mansion in 1963, while donations of major collections from friends and art galleries led to the museum gradually expanding to include four adjacent medieval mansions. With some 4,250 works in all media, including sculpture and ceramics as well as paintings, engravings, drawings, even posters, the diversity of the work displayed is such that no matter what one thinks about modern art, there is something here for everyone to enjoy. Of particular interest are the works of his childhood, where Picasso exhibited his mastery of traditional techniques and styles of painting before moving on to expand the very notion of what constitutes art. Also, although Picasso did not deliberately set out to do so, the range of his materials and subject matter in many ways ended up reflecting the history of Spain.
Mercat de Santa Caterina
Literally meaning The Market of Saint Catherine, the market houses vendors of all sorts of fruits, vegetables, fish, fowl, and meat, however, the word “market” hardly suggests what lies under the spectacular multicolored ceramic roof that undulates over the numerous interior structures. The old 19th century market on this site had been in decline both in its structure and clientele when in 1997 two prominent local architect/developers won a competition to redesign and revive it. It took seven years before the present structure was finished, partly because unknown remains from the Bronze Age and ancient Rome were discovered on the site. These have now been retained for display along with remains of the 15th century St. Catherine’s Dominican Order’s cloisters. As such, visitors are treated to what is virtually a museum of Barcelona’s past alongside the bustling market stalls, tapas bars and restaurants – all sheltered by a truly amazing roof.
Somewhat more impressive remains from Barcelona’s past are the Roman walls that can be found a few blocks southeast of the Mercat de Santa Caterina. The Romans erected these walls in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD to fend off the Germanic tribes and at their peak included 78 towers. The two most imposing sections are at the southeast side of the Ramon de Berenguer Square – note the column from a Roman temple encased in the wall – and at the northern end of the Carrer del Sots-Tinent Navarro. However, most interesting is the Chapel of Saint Agatha on the Plaça del Rei (the King’s Square), as much of this 14th century chapel was built using stone from the Roman walls.
Formally the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, the seat of the archbishop of Barcelona is an impressive Gothic church that was erected from the late 13th into the 15th centuries over the remains of earlier churches. The façade that makes it so impressive at first sight was added in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The church was named after Saint Eulalia, a young local virgin who became a martyr for her Christian faith under the Romans; her body is buried in the church’s crypt along with other notables from Barcelona’s past. The church’s roof is renowned for the gargoyles representing both real and imaginary animals, so it’s worth taking the elevator up to the top. The church belongs to the so-called hall style, with a single vault roof over the five aisles and chapels occupying the two outside aisles. Attached to the church is the 15th century cloister that encloses the Well of the Geese, where 13 white geese have always been kept – allegedly because Saint Eulalia was only 13 when she suffered martyrdom.
Plaça Sant Jaume
Plaça Sant Jaume, or Saint James’ Square, occupies the very center of the old Roman city where the main north-south and east-west streets crossed. Located here were the Forum and a Temple of Augustus, while today the square is the site of Barcelona’s City Hall and the Palace of the Generalitat of Catalonia – Catalonia’s own government headquarters. Because of its role in Catalonia’s history, it is sometimes known as Constitution Square and has often been the site of demonstrations over present-day Catalonians’ desire to achieve independence from Spain. The square’s name refers to a church that stood at this location from medieval times until it was demolished in 1823 to allow for the much larger square that exists today. Aside from being a site for political demonstrations, the square is where many Catalonians gather on Sunday mornings to dance the sardana, their national dance, and also where the Castelleras of Barcelona occasionally form the human towers that since the 18th century have been a tradition among Catalonians: level after level of people, mostly men, standing on each other’s shoulders until, eventually, one man reaches the top and can raise one hand.
Ciutat Vella (Old Town)
The walk around the Historical Center ends with the Ciutat Vella (Old Town), a relatively large section of Barcelona that is the city’s most picturesque, atmospheric and distinctive quarter. Even in the strictest historical sense, it is “old” as it is the location of the original Roman Barcino settlement, although it is the many buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries that provide a sense of an “old town.” The buildings and the mazelike narrow streets are often shaded and thus offer relief from Barcelona’s sweltering heat. You will instinctively absorb the history here as you stroll through the quarter – not only by visiting the museums and palaces, but also by simply admiring the façades of the family run stores and boutiques. Countless tapas bars, cafes, and restaurants will provide refreshment and conviviality to this journey through time.
Route 2: La Rambla
One of the most famous streets in the world, La Rambla, offers 1.4 kilometers of sites and sights, and one can spend many hours walking from one end to the other. The name La Rambla comes from a seasonal stream (raml in Arabic) that once ran through here. Today it is primarily a pedestrian walkway with narrow lanes for traffic running down either side; it is packed with people enjoying street performers, artists and musicians, or sampling the offerings of the numerous cafes and restaurants. Along with the diversions of the street scene, La Rambla has several sites and structures that at the very least require some historical background.
Plaça de Catalunya and the Font de Canaletes
At the top of La Rambla is Plaça de Catalunya or “Catalonia Square,” where several of Barcelona’s major streets converge to-and-from the city center. Although originally proposed as a large public space in the mid-19th century, it was not actually developed in its present form until 1929. Now occupying some 50,000 square meters (about 12.4 acres), it is where Barcelonians usually gather to protest against the government in Madrid or to feed the many pigeons. Visitors can ignore the former and enjoy the latter while taking in the many fountains and statues. The most impressive monument is the large stone memorial of Francesc Macia (1859-1933), a Catalonian who tried to make Catalonia independent but settled for serving as the first president of an autonomous Catalonia under the Spanish Republic. As you leave the square to start down La Rambla, be sure to note the rather bizarre lamppost with a fountain at its base, the Font de Canaletes; dating from the 19th century, it is where fans of Barcelona’s best-known football team gather to celebrate victories, although visitors typically prefer to hear the legend that if you drink from this fountain, you will be sure to return to Barcelona.
Proceeding down the Rambla, the first building of interest is the Teatre Poliorama. It is on the right side after the Carrer del Bonsucces, and is today a venue for many types of theatrical entertainment. It was built in 1894 as the headquarters of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts and when that dissolved, the building was converted into a cinema; then during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), when the Rambla was the scene of considerable fighting, a communist group was based here. George Orwell, the British author who was reporting on the war, was trapped in this theatre for several days and describes the violence he witnessed in his Homage to Catalonia. Today visitors can enjoy one of the many productions at this historic building.
Iglesia de Betlem
Down the Rambla from the Teatre Poliorama is Bethlehem Church dedicated to the Holy Family that is depicted in a relief sculpture. Built in Baroque style during the late 17th early 18th centuries, it was long regarded as the finest of the several churches that once lined the Rambla. Unfortunately a lot of its ornate interior was destroyed by fire during the Spanish Civil War.
Palau de la Virreina
Just down from Bethlehem Church is the unmistakable Palace of Virreina, a grand mansion in the Baroque/Rococo style. It was built between the years 1772 and 1776 for Manuel de Amat y Junyent, who had returned to Spain after serving as the Viceroy of Peru; the name “Virreina” was his coinage to honor his wife, the “vice-reine” or vice-queen. It has long served as the headquarters of the city’s Cultural Commission and is now the Image Center featuring displays of photography and other types of visual arts.
Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria
Its entryway is located practically adjacent to the Palau de la Virreina, this market is an appendage of La Rambla. It is so large and so full of fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and meats, edibles of all kinds, and various other wares, that it can effectively be an independent destination – just ask for La Boqueria (pronounced bu-ké-ria). Open-air markets existed on this site since the 15th century, but it was not until 1840 that construction of an enclosure began. The original building was modified over the years and the metal roof dates from 1914. The name “St. Joseph” reflects the fact that the market is on the site where a Convent of St. Joseph was once located. As for “Boqueria,” it is a word that does not exist in Catalan and there is no official explanation for its origin, although it appears to refer to some type of market. Step into the Boqueria and prepare to be overwhelmed by its plenitude.
Gran Teatre del Liceu
This aptly named “Grand Theater of Liceu,” is Barcelona’s opera house, built in 1845-1847 on the site of a former convent. Unlike other such venues in Spain of that era, it was not paid for by the monarchy but by public subscription. When it opened, its 3,500 seats made it the largest opera house in Europe. A major fire in 1861 left only the façade, entrance hall and foyer intact so the auditorium and stage were rebuilt. Under the Spanish Republic of the 1930’s the theater was nationalized; it was returned to its private owners in 1939, but financial difficulties led to the need for support from the governments of Barcelona and Catalonia. Then in 1994 another major fire once again left little more than the façade, entrance hall, and foyer untouched, so the present auditorium and stage date from its reopening in 1999. Many architectural and ornamental elements are reproduced in conjunction with the original theater. Over the many decades of its existence, the Liceu has hosted countless notable opera singers, dance companies, and symphony orchestras of the highest distinction, as it does to this day, and aficionados of such should consider returning for an evening’s performance.
Having paid tribute to these many historical and cultural sites, continue strolling down La Rambla and simply enjoy the many diversions along the boulevard until arriving at its climactic plaza with its monument of Christopher Columbus. Known in Spanish as the Mirador de Colom, meaning the viewing point of Columbus and reflecting its location overlooking the harbor and sea, this monument was constructed in 1882 and completed in 1888 in time for the Universal Exposition that was held in Barcelona that year. The column itself is 40 meters/131 feet tall and at the top stands the 7.2 meter bronze statue of Columbus, allegedly pointing to the New World – although he is actually pointing toward Algeria. The pedestal is embellished with eight portrait medallions of individuals associated with Columbus’ voyages, while the plinth has eight bas-relief panels depicting events in these voyages, alternating with coats-of-arms of locations he visited. If you are wondering why Catalan Barcelona would want to honor an Italian who sailed under the auspices of Spanish monarchs, it was in Barcelona that Columbus first reported to Ferdinand and Isabella after returning from his first voyage. Incidentally, there is a small elevator inside the column that allows a few people at a time to ascend to enjoy the view.
Route 3: Gaudí’s Barcelona
Few cities are distinctly associated with a specific architect as Barcelona is with Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926); and if not regarded as one of the greatest modern architects, he is certainly one of the most original. Although he is usually placed in Spain’s modernista movement of the late 19th, early 20th century – analogous to art nouveau – his works really defy categorization. Committed to sound engineering and craftsmanship, he was greatly influenced by the neo-Gothic movement of the 19th century, as well as his personal interest in Asian art. He was also committed to translating natural forms into structures, while the main element that underlined all his work was his Catalan heritage and his Catholic faith. The best way to understand how all these elements come together is to view his works. Even if you have not given much prior thought to Gaudí or architecture in general, we highly recommend visiting a small selection of his masterpieces around the city. The route starts at the edge of the Rambla and ends at Gaudí’s masterwork, the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, just in case you’d like to head directly there. Several of these buildings are open to the public during set times and for a set fee.
Eusebi Güell was a wealthy Catalan industrialist who was both a major patron and personal friend of Gaudí. Located just off the Rambla, this palau, which literally means “palace” but is more like a mansion, was the first work he commissioned from Gaudí. Built between 1886-1888, it is distinguished by its unusual entryway that was designed to allow horse-drawn carriages to enter through one door and exit through another, as well as its colorful chimneys and the ornate interiors.
The Lanterns in Plaça Reial
Located off the other side of the Rambla, the “Royal Square” is one of the most popular gathering spots in Barcelona, especially in the evening when its many cafes, restaurants and nightclubs attract both tourists and native Barcelonians. The “Royal Square” is renowned for its arcades and central Fountain of the Three Graces (1876), but on this visit you should focus on the two lanterns that Gaudí designed – his first commission from the city. Observe the coiled dragon, which Gaudí intended to represent medieval Catalan warriors.
Probably the best known and most exotic of Gaudí’s residences, both its facade and interior are characterized by their swirling forms and bright colors. Gaudí designed the original building here in 1877, a conventional town house, but in 1904 the new owners, the wealthy Batlló family, commissioned Gaudí to redesign it and gave him free rein. The result is the flowing façade with its undulating balconies and windows and the multicolored tiles; the interior is equally dynamic and colorful, if not even more so. The curved roof is said to represent the dragon killed by St. George who is the patron saint of Catalonia. Also, notice the pavement in front of the house with its Gaudí-designed images of octopus and starfish. All in all, Casa Batlló is one of the most bizarre works of architecture in the world.
Just up the street from the Casa Batlló is another Gaudí mansion, formally the Casa Milà, named after the family who commissioned it, but soon dubbed La Padrera (the stone quarry) due to its façade’s rocky texture. Completed in 1912, it has the wavy façade similar to that of the Casa Batlló, but it is not quite as exotic. The interior is worth visiting as it contains furniture of his design, but a must-see is the roof with its undulating chimneys that symbolize helmeted knights.
Completed in 1899, this was commissioned as a commercial building on the basement and ground level with apartments above. The most conventional of Gaudí’s major buildings, because it had to fit between two adjacent buildings, it nevertheless has distinct elements such as the mushroom-shaped ornaments on the top that reflect Gaudí’s quirky taste.
The same wealthy Eusebi Güell who commissioned Gaudí to design his mansion, went to Gaudí in 1900 to design both the landscaping and houses for a large then tree-covered hill on the edge of the city’s center. Güell’s plan was to entice other wealthy families to move there, but despite Gaudí’s usual inventive and inviting contributions, the scheme failed and the city ended up buying the property in 1922 and making it a public park. The only person who ended up living there was Gaudí himself, who spent most of his final 20 years in a house that was, ironically, designed by another architect! However the house is worth a visit to see furniture designed by Gaudí. The main entrance to the park is pure Gaudí, with its two picturesque gatehouses and the mosaic dragon guarding the steps. These lead to the Hall of the Columns (88 of them), and above this is the large open area with a great curved bench designed by Josep Maria Jujol, a colleague of Gaudí’s. Gaudí also laid out the 3 kilometers of walkways and roads that wind through the still-wooded park. Presumably Gaudí would take great satisfaction in knowing that millions of people now come to this park each year.
La Sagrada Familia
The Basilica of the Holy Family – formally in Spanish, the Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family – is not only Gaudí’s great masterpiece but also one of the most recognizable and most visited buildings in the world and effectively the very symbol of Barcelona. Gaudí actually began to plan for this church as early as 1883 but construction didn’t begin until 1912. However, by the time of his death in 1926 only a small part had been completed – partly because the project was constantly lacking financial support. Construction continued until the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, which put a halt to it, and anarchists destroyed much of the interior as well as Gaudí’s designs. Construction began again in the early 1950s but it was the 1980s before it moved into high gear. It was not completely roofed over until 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the church. Construction continues to this day with the goal of completion in 2026 – the hundredth anniversary of Gaudí’s death.
Its style really has no single precedent but evokes both Gothic cathedrals and Gaudí’s peculiar modernism; all now compounded by ongoing debates over how much of Gaudí’s original concept survives. Practically the entire exterior surface is covered with carvings of everything from animals and gargoyles to the Nativity and the Crucifixion. Eventually there will be three major entrances with facades and 17 towers; two of these have elevators that carry visitors up to get an impressive view. The interior all but takes one’s breath away with its columns, stained glass windows, and light. Gaudí intended virtually all elements of the church to represent his deep Christian faith – thus the 17 main towers represent the 12 Apostles, the Virgin Mary, and the 4 Evangelists. He is buried in a chapel below the church, and since the Vatican began to consider sainthood for Gaudí in 2000, some visitors pay homage to his tomb. Whatever one’s beliefs, La Sagrada Familia is inspiring to all visitors.
Route 4: Montjuïc
The name of both a hill and its surrounding area, Montjuïc’s name is said to mean “Mount of the Jews” in medieval Catalan, but inasmuch as there is no firm evidence to link Jews to the site, it is also proposed to be derived from the Latin, Mons Jovicus, “Mount of Jove.” Whatever the origin of its name, it is an unmistakable landmark, flat-topped and relatively broad given its height, only some 185 meters (610 feet) above the city. It offers quite spectacular views of the harbor and city, as well as several major attractions that make it a popular destination for both locals and out-of-towners. Just getting there can be exciting, as there is a choice between a funicular railway and twin aerial cable cars as well as a regular bus service.
Castell de Montjuïc
The mount remained largely wooded, its slopes used for agriculture and animal grazing right through the 19th century, but there are also fortifications on the hill as it was an ideal site for protecting or dominating the city. The present fortress dates from the 17th and 18th centuries and over the years usually served as a prison, often just for political opponents and in some cases the site of executions. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), as the fortress changed hands between the Republicans and Franco’s Nationalists, each side used it to execute its enemies. Given its architecture and history, it may not seem especially attractive – to Barcelonians of today, it in fact evokes the worst of the past – but it does provide fine views and its gardens are quite beautiful.
Palau Nacional and the National Museum of Art of Catalonia
The development of the hill as it is today began when it was selected as the site of the 1929 International Exposition. The land was cleared and ambitious structures were erected, the most extravagant of these being the National Palace and the entrance to it – a grand staircase from the Avenue of Queen Maria Cristina that leads up to the Magic Fountain. It houses mostly Catalonian works from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, and if you wanted to limit your time here to just one distinctive collection, it should be the 11th-13th century Romanesque frescoes salvaged from churches throughout Catalonia.
The Olympic Stadium and the Olympic Ring
Another structure originating from the 1929 Exposition was the stadium for its athletic events, known as the Olympic Stadium after the Republican government announced it would hold the “People’s Olympiad” here in 1936 to protest against the regular Olympics being held in Hitler’s Berlin. The outbreak of the Spanish civil war caused the cancellation of the 1936 games, and the stadium was completely renovated for the 1992 Summer Olympics held in Barcelona and, with seating for 65,000, was the site of track and field events as well as the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies. Also dating from the 1992 Olympics is the so-called Olympic Ring (Anella Olimpica), which is the facility for various sporting events, including the Palau Sant Jordi and two pools, one for swimming and the other for diving. Also on this site are two modern structures designed by two of Spain’s major contemporary architects: Ricardo Bofill’s National Institute of Physical Education and Santiago Calatrava’s telecommunications tower.
Fundació Joan Miró
A major 20th-century artist, Joan Miró (1893-1983) was a native of Barcelona, and this museum is devoted to his vast output of work and is definitely worth a visit. Although he spent much of his career in Paris, he never forgot his Catalan roots and he himself set up the foundation in 1972 in a building designed by his friend and fellow Catalan, Josep Lluis Sert. The Foundation has since had an annex designed by Jaume Freixa. Miró’s works not only include paintings and drawings but graphic art, sculptures, and tapestries. Starting out as a surrealist, Miró soon developed his own distinctive style, highly dependent on bold colors and abstract forms; and you need not be all that knowledgeable about art to enjoy the sheer exuberance of his work.
Pavello Mies van der Rohe
The then young architect was commissioned by the German government to design the country’s exhibit pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition and the result was at once considered as a masterpiece of modern architecture. Hard to believe, but it was demolished after the exposition ended. However, between 1983-1986 it was recreated using both his plans and materials, so that today it sits here, still an archetypal work of minimalist modern architecture. Anyone who has made it to the top of Montjuïc should pay it a visit.
There are actually several botanical gardens located on Montjuïc, but the one designated by the name Jardí Botànic is located near the southeast corner. Started in 1930, it has continuously maintained plants from Mediterranean climate zones, although new species from all over the world are constantly being added. With its labyrinth paths, this garden is especially pleasant to visit. To the north of this garden is the Jardins de Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer, devoted to bulbs and aquatic plants. North of this is the Jardins de Joan Brossa, specializing in Mediterranean species such as pines and cypresses. Along the eastern edge at the foot of the fortress is the Jardins de Mossèn Costa I Llobera, specializing in cacti and other desert and tropical plants, while to the south and overlooking the port is the Jardins del Mirador which is considered a masterpiece of European Landscape design. No one can expect to visit all of these in one day, but just passing through one or two offers a lovely nature break from the other sites.
Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya
The Archaeological Museum of Catalonia includes both the prehistoric finds from archaeological sites but also works from all the early phases of Catalonia’s history: Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Iberian Celtic, Visigothic. As such, this modest museum gives a fine overview of the history of the whole Mediterranean world. It is housed, by the way, in another remnant of the 1929 International Exposition, the Graphic Arts Pavilion.
Yet another survivor of the 1929 Exposition is this “Spanish Village” erected to showcase Spanish architecture. Its buildings represent all the different styles of architecture from around Spain, and since they are in full scale and have aged, they actually now look fairly authentic. Yet the place as a whole seems a bit like Disneyland, with craftsmen selling their wares and the central square surrounded by cafes and restaurants; maybe not a major destination, but a lovely enough diversion and pleasant end for weary travelers.
Route 5: The Costa Brava
The Costa Brava – variously translated either as “the rugged coast” or “the wild coast” – refers to the coast of Catalonia beginning about 40 miles north of Barcelona and extending to the border with France. The shoreline itself is distinguished by its alternating stretches of sandy beaches and pine-clad rocky headlands, now shared by small fishing villages and large resort hotels; all of which can be quite overrun in the summer by tourists seeking sun and sand. Yet the landscape and towns back from the shore remain relatively untouched by modern development and along with the coast and some unexpected sites – Roman towns and Salvador Dali’s museum for example – make for a most engaging selection of destinations.
Village of Tossa de Mar, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Palafrugell, Peratallada
These are four of the closest, most attractive, and most popular towns to Barcelona as you make your way north along the Costa Brava; they offer both beaches and medieval remains. Tossa de Mar, in fact, began attracting visitors back in the 1930’s and although its beach can be crowded in high season, the village retains its medieval feel. Sant Feliu de Guíxols is distinguished by its promenade along the beach and the Monestir de Sant Feliu de Guíxols, a 10th century Benedictine monastery. The town of Palafrugell itself is 5 kilometers (3 miles) inland but is the jumping off-point for the coastal villages and beaches. Just a short distance inland from Palafrugell is the village of Peratallada with its 12th century Romanesque church and 11th-century castle. A stop at any one of these four serves as the perfect introduction to the Costa Brava’s distinctive environment and offerings.
The second largest city in Catalonia, Girona boasts a history that dates back to even before the Romans settled here and has been regarded as so desirable a locale that it was subjected to 25 sieges by various competing powers. The last such was when Napoleon’s forces besieged it in 1809 and then held it until 1813. Perhaps the most unusual phase of its history began in the 12th century when Girona’s long-established Jewish community came into prominence with its school and rabbi. Like all the Jews in Spain, they were expelled in 1492, but their old Call (or “ghetto” in Catalan) remains, a maze of medieval streets and buildings.
There are numerous other reminders of Girona’s flourishing Middle Ages, in particular the grand Gothic Cathedral that can be reached only by climbing 86 steps. The interior is most impressive, as is the cloister and, in the attached museum, the fabulous Tapestry of the Creation. The Church of Saint Feliu is also noteworthy for its mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and its eight Roman and early Christian sepulchers, the oldest dates to the 2nd century AD. An especially unusual structure known as the Banys Arabs or “Arab Baths”, but in fact built by Christians in the 12th century, was presumably inspired by the Muslim Moors who ruled Girona for almost four centuries; although looking back to the ancient Roman baths, these are the only public baths known from medieval Christian Spain. There are several museums that might appeal to some but most visitors will likely prefer to walk around Independence Square or simply admire the picturesque pastel houses overlooking the Onyar River.
Further along the coast is the archaeological site named after the original city here. As that name suggests – it is an emporium or a commercial center – founded by Ancient Greeks in 575 BC as a traders’ port town, but there were Phoenician settlers here long before that. Under the Greeks it became the largest Ancient Greek colony on the Iberian Peninsula, but after 218 BC it fell under Roman rule. The Romans built their own town nearby, but when Rome shifted its support to Barcino (Barcelona) and Tarraco (Tarragon) down the coast, Empúries declined.
While the Romans used the town as a mint, by the 3rd century AD it was also inhabited by Christian converts as attested to by the remains of a Christian Basilica. It was at this time that the Ancient Greek town was abandoned, and eventually both towns fell into ruins and became largely buried under windswept earth. Serious excavations began in the early 20th century and are still ongoing. The Greek town sits close to the shore and its remains are typical of an Ancient Greek town – the agora (town square), stoa (market), Asklepion (a shrine to the god of medicine) along with mosaics and defensive walls. The Roman town was considerably larger but has been only partially excavated; numerous houses are to be seen, some with impressive mosaics. Remains of an amphitheater lie outside the walls. A museum and visitors’ center are here to provide information to those who wish to know more about the remains they are viewing.
Figueres: The Theater-Museum Dali
If Barcelona is associated with Gaudí, the town of Figueres is effectively indebted to Salvador Dali for its presence on the map of international tourism. Dali (1904-1989), who is synonymous with the early 20th century school of art known as Surrealism, was born in Figueres and although he went on to “perform” in the world’s great cosmopolitan cities, he never forgot his roots. Thus when the mayor of Figueres proposed in 1961 that Dali establish a museum here for his works, he agreed and chose the abandoned municipal theater that was largely destroyed by fire during the Civil War as its home. Dali himself designed both the extravagant exterior and the placement of his works within. Opened in 1974, the museum continued to receive donations from Dali and the foundation he set up, and today it owns thousands of his works. Although most of his best known paintings are owned by other museums, here you will be treated to many of his most bizarre works like the “Rainy Cadillac”, a room with a flamingo amid exotic plants, striking jewelry that he designed, like a turtle with a gold coin on its back. Dali’s Russian-born wife Gala also has a major presence throughout, including the attached Torre Galatea, which is where Dali lived during his final four years. As a final tribute to his hometown, he had himself buried in a crypt beneath the former stage of the theater, which is located a few blocks from the house where he was born. Although Figueres does have an 18th century castle and a small Gothic church, there is no need to deny that you have come here primarily to have some fun with Salvador Dali.
Important Museums and Landmarks In Barcelona
- Cathedrals and Churches
Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar
Address: 1, Plaza of Santa Maria, Barcelona, 08003
With its pure Catalan Gothic style architecture, it is of no wonder why this church is labeled as one of the most beautiful in all of Barcelona.
Basilica of Santa Maria del Pi
Address: 7,Plaza del Pi., Barcelona, 08002
Standing in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter is the Church of Santa Maria del Pi that is known for its beautiful stained-glass windows.
Sant Pau del Camp
Address: 101, Carrer de Sant Pau, Barcelona, 08001
Founded around the 9th century, this former monastery is now a beautiful church that is surrounded by trees, giving it a picturesque location.
Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia
Address: Pla de la Seu, s/n, Barcelona, 08002
This church is named after Eulalia, a common girl who defied Emperor Diocletian in 303 and was persecuted for being a Christian at the tender age of thirteen.
Basilica of the Sagrada Familia
Location: 401, Carrer de Mallorca, Barcelona, 08013
One of the most famous churches of all time, this unfinished church was designed by the famous architect Antoni Gaudí and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, honored for its beautiful architecture and paintings on the dome.
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
Location: Palau Nacional, Parc de Montjuïc, Barcelona, 08038
Visit the museum that holds collections of prestigious and beautiful art from Catalan artists from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
La Pedrera by Antoni Gaudí
Location: 261-265 Provença, Barcelona, 08008
Designed by the great Antoni Gaudí, this former apartment building is now a museum and has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Museu d' Història de Catalunya
Location: 3 Plaza de Pau Vila, Barcelona, 08003
Travel back in time by visiting the Museum of Catalan History by viewing collections and artifacts from the ancient Stone Age era all the way to the present!
Archaeology Museum of Catalonia
Location: 39-41 Passeig de Santa Madrona, Barcelona, 08038
Housed in a former palace, this museum contains exhibits with artifacts from the region of Barcelona that are from ancient times.
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a region of Spain that is constantly threatening to break away from Spain. How this has come to be requires that we take a look into Catalonia’s history. Although who exactly founded Barcelona is unclear, one theory says that Carthaginians founded the city in the late 3rd century BC, and legend claims that it received its name after their leader Hamilcar Barca. At the time is was little more than a trading post, but after driving the Carthaginians out of Spain around 200 BC, the Romans developed the settlement into a real town. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths from Germany took it over in the 5th century AD, but were later expelled by the Arabs who moved into Spain in the early 8th century.
In 801, Charlemagne’s son Louis conquered Barcelona and made it the capital of this corner of Spain under the rule of the Count of Barcelona. This area, designated as the March of Spain, was the borderland or “¬¬¬march” between France and Arab Spain. The city was also known as Gothia or “land of the Goths” and it is believed that “Gothialand” was what eventually evolved into “Catalonia.”
During the next 300 years, the Counts of Barcelona extended their rule over the northeastern corner of Spain and it was during this time that the Catalan language and the sense of a distinctive Catalonia began to develop. However, after a Count of Barcelona married a princess of the adjacent Spanish province of Aragon, their son became the ruler of the merged territories in 1162 and Barcelona began to decline in importance. This was further hastened when Ferdinand II of Aragon married Isabella I of Castille in 1469; Catalonia became little more than one of several provinces of Spain and Madrid began to emerge as Spain’s central power. Catalonians, however, did not cease to separate themselves from the rest of Spain and in 1640 actually revolted against King Philip IV. For the next decade the Catalans fought under French vassalage, but by 1652 they were back under Spanish rule.
Napoleon’s French forces moved into Spain in 1808 and before they were thrown out in 1813, they left Catalonia severely devastated. Catalonia slowly recovered and grew into the industrial powerhouse of Spain. By the 20th century Barcelona – and Catalonia overall – had become more radical than other parts of Spain. During the civil war that ensued in 1936, after Francisco Franco and his forces moved to overthrow the government, Barcelona became a center of resistance and even briefly served as the Loyalists’ capital. After Barcelona fell to Franco’s forces in January 1939, and following the final defeat of the Loyalists that April, Franco became the virtual dictator of Spain, and as such, forbade the use of the Catalan language in any public settings and abolished any institutions that reflected Catalonia’s distinctive history and culture.
All that changed of course with the death of Franco in 1975 and the restoration of democracy, but this new freedom has only motivated some Catalonians to demand total independence. Although this seems unlikely, there has been an effort to encourage the use of the Catalan language in both literary and popular writings as well as a general promotion of and pride in Catalonia’s distinctive history.
The Catalan language is more than a mere dialect, it is basically a language based on the same Latin that gradually evolved into French to Catalonia’s north, and Spanish to its west; Catalan is like a first cousin to these languages. Catalan is also spoken – and has survived to some extent – in the adjacent region of southeastern France, in what became the tiny Principality of Andorra, on the Balearic Islands, and in a few isolated cities in nearby regions of Spain. Most Spanish speakers – especially those who have learned Spanish as a second language – find Catalan effectively a foreign language, so don’t feel bad if your knowledge of Spanish doesn’t help you to understand Catalan. Don’t worry though, almost everyone in Catalonia also speaks the Spanish spoken throughout the rest of the country so you’ll have no trouble in making your way around Barcelona.