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Barcelona Old Town District
The Old Town of Barcelona is a maze of historical wonders, arranged like a living museum overflowing with artifacts and atmosphere. Wherever you go in this iconic beating heart of the Catalan capital you will find narrow, winding streets offering endless opportunities for exploration and discovery.
The ‘Cuitat Vella’, as it is locally known, dates back to 133 B.C and while it may not be Europe’s oldest old town it is definitely one of its most popular, and it’s easy to see why. Every corner is endlessly fascinating, with ancient and modern combining in a bustling soup of daily life and tourist activity.
Prestigious apartment conversions overlook historic plaças, while independent boutiques and vibrant bars are shored up by Roman walls that are beautifully preserved and incorporated into the fascinating urban landscape. The city’s foundations are on show beside (and often under) bustling markets and amongst the trendy restaurants and boutiques.
The Old Town is made up of four different quarters, each with its own strong personality. Three of them are found within the original city walls – the mysterious Barri Gòtic, vibrant up-and-coming Raval and bohemian Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera.
The fourth quarter is the rapidly-transforming Barceloneta, uniquely set outside the city’s protective cordon. This barrio has changed personality as the once thriving local fishing industry has given way to modern city beaches, boardwalks and stylish hotels.
Across from the museum over Via Laietana, the colourful mosaic roof of the Santa Caterina market artistically announces the 3-in-1 neighbourhood of Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera (the port-side neighbourhood of La Ribera is also known as El Born).
This is where you’ll find The Picasso Museum and the beautiful church of Santa Maria del Mar, originally built by the sea but engulfed by the city as it grew. Around the corner from the church you’ll find El Born’s Centre de Cultura i Memòria, which literally exposes the city’s history with the spectacular real life diorama of Roman settlement Bàrcino.
These impressive ruins were uncovered under the local market during renovations, plans were changed and the huge building is now a spectacular memorial to days gone by, lined of course with modern bars and restaurants.
Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera also hosts the largest park in town, Parc de la Ciutadella, which provides a rare opportunity to enjoy grass, trees and even a boating lake.
When it’s time to stock up on provisions, take a wander down La Rambla to where the Boqueria market awaits. This global Mecca for foodies has a dual personality of tourist hot spot and working market, where tapas can be enjoyed sitting at tiny bars and famous chefs negotiate groups of tourists to test the produce.
Head down La Rambla towards the sea and as its salty smell hits your senses, the grand Museu Marítim announces the arrival of Barceloneta.
The city beaches provide a recreational alternative to the cultural side of town, a bright and breezy place to enjoy a sunny beachside lunch or relax and watch the waves roll in behind toasting tourists.
For an even better view across the city, braver souls can take the Teleférico high across the harbour to Montjuïc mountain. Built in 1929 this is an unnerving but unbeatable way to see the Cuitat Vella and far beyond, and place Barcelona’s Old Town in context as the heart of the city, overflowing with character and charm.
Barcelona’s iconic, geometric, noughts-and-crosses Eixample neighbourhood was the brainchild of Catalan engineer Ildefons Cerdà, whose 19th Century architectural vision was not only ambitious, but also way ahead of its time.
This globally recognisable residential project is found north of Plaça de Catalunya and made up of ‘Eixample Right’ and ‘Eixample Left’, divided by the block between the beautiful boulevard of Passeig de Gràcia and the more intimate Rambla de Catalunya, with its myriad street cafés and residential feel.
Cerdà’s simple, bold plan was to increase the size of the city ten-fold by building residential blocks that were efficient, appealing and functional. But his innovative urban living spaces would also offer hidden oases of calm and greenery as an antidote to the stresses of city life.
Cerdà intended to make this residential harmony available to both rich and poor, all of whom could enjoy easy access to local amenities from schools and shops to parks and playgrounds.
This unique landscape now fuels some of the most viral aerial Internet content around, and Cerdà would no doubt delight in this fresh and high-definition 21st Century perspective of his creation.
Today, life in Eixample is still built around a feeling of space and gives passers-by a perfectly-framed view of some breathtaking architecture and magnificent showpiece apartments that are some of the finest in the world.
Eixample enjoys easy access to Barcelona Old Town and the beachfront with all its world-renowned attractions. Despite its proximity to the buzzing cultural centre, the Eixample bravely shrugs off the tourist invasion and retains its own overarching identity as a sweeping residential neighbourhood of zones with a common physical connection but different characters.
Eixample has its own world-class attractions too. Gaudí’s Modernista masterpieces – the Casa Milà and Casa Batlló – nestle among global retail brands and corporate HQs, and you’re never far from a photo-worthy building as you explore the metronomic layout that continues across Diagonal to the Sagrada Família and beyond, and leads down towards Plaça de Espanya and Montjuïc.
Cerdà’s belief in the value of community has also been preserved in the many surviving markets. He would no doubt approve of this modern endorsement of traditional market culture that brings all residents of Barcelona within a 10-minute walk of this unique brand of fresh food, local identity and social interaction.
Eixample is busy, urban and functional, but it is also relentlessly fascinating, and surprisingly colourful. It is also spacious, harking back to Cerdà’s key motivations – a study of Barcelona’s Old Town that concluded that the narrower and darker the street you lived in, the shorter your life would be.
It’s no surprise that Eixample properties are highly sought after by those looking for a slice of history preserved in every high ceiling, Modernista detail and ornate balcony. These significant properties are known and appreciated across the world, proving that Cerdà’s beliefs match ours as much now as ever.
Gràcia is a proud neighbourhood with a strong heritage and stronger identity, one of the many independent towns absorbed into expanding Barcelona in the late 19th Century, but this time tracing its origins back as far as 1628.
Comparatively undiscovered by the tourist hordes until the Naughties, Gràcia has become a popular choice for anyone looking to take a break from Barcelona and dive into the compact, trendy streets of this very cool ‘village in the city’.
People are also moving in to stay, attracted by characterful apartment blocks, hidden terraced houses and surprisingly authentic corners that tread water against the tide of overdevelopment, for now at least.
Refurbished luxury homes are chasing out the more Bohemian and less financially qualified residents, but at least the inevitability of globalisation has been restricted by the dedication to independent businesses, one-off boutiques and specialist shops.
Each of the tree-lined plaças has its own identity and is an oasis of fascination. They are dotted with outside tables and benches where locals and tourists chatter over coffee and Vermouth, watch noisy kids kick a football and frown or applaud as musicians of varying abilities busk for a few loose Euros.
Gràcia loves to party, and rarely a month goes by without the morning alarm of giant bangers announcing another day of fully committed festival celebrations. It’s difficult to keep up with dedicated fun based on anything from saints to sweets, with papier maché giants, elaborate street decorations, colour-coded drum bands and terrifying firework-fuelled ‘corre foc’ (fire) runs.
One of the biggest annual events is the Festa Major, which takes place in the shimmering urban heat of mid-August and is at heart a battle to create the best-dressed homespun street in Gràcia and lay on the best party.
Gràcia is all about culture, and although some may frown at the commercialisation of the big ticket architectural icons downtown, the works of Barcelona’s favourite son Antoni Gaudí are also on show here. Park Güell is hardly a shrinking violet, and is a unique place to experience the iconic architect’s genius and look out across the city to the sea.
The neighbourhood starts at the point where a gentle slope up through town from the beach kicks up into a proper hillside. This can prove challenging in the upper reaches around Park Güell, but if you’re lucky you’ll find an outdoor escalator to ease your ascent.
Rich rewards await those who continue upwards and find the other urban peak of Parc Crueta del Coll with its dramatic, volcanic Thunderbirds-style outdoor pool. Keep ascending the thinning strip of Gràcia and you’ll reach the rolling hills of the Collserola Natural Park, the perfect place to enjoy some fresher air, get your bearings and appreciate how Gràcia both stands out and fits into the grand scheme of things.
Coffee, the traditional morning livener, has always been an inevitable part of the daily grind here, but Gràcia now has plenty of achingly cool cafés ready to take the money of those looking for complex coffees that take an age to ‘barista’. But ‘real’ Gràcia does not give in that easily, and you’re never more that a few paces from a quick, cheap and very tasty cortado, served by local characters for little more than a Euro.
Some local residents will tell you that Barcelona needs Gràcia more than Gràcia needs Barcelona, but really they both need each other. It’s the same with locals, newcomers and tourists. They all combine to give Barcelona its unique appeal.
Like most of Barcelona, Gràcia is not just as a theme park for Gaudí fans, but a proud, living, breathing, working neighbourhood with unique appeal and rewards for all ages – especially those willing to dig a bit deeper and join in the fun.
While the grand urban rejuvenation in and around Glòries to the east of Barcelona takes the headlines, the no less noble neighbourhood of Sants calmly retains its industrial heritage while sliding more calmly and organically into the 21st Century.
The former industrial town of Santa Maria de Sants was reluctantly absorbed by the relentless expansion of the Catalan capital in the late 1800s, and now Sants brings its own character to the city. Off the well-worn tourist trail but offering rewards to those willing to look beyond the guidebooks, Sants is a vibrant, honest and fascinating place to live.
The neighbourhood is close to central Barcelona and very well communicated, with excellent metro and bus links. It is also bordered by Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, the main road that cuts a swathe right through the city and bears the brunt of the peak-time heavy traffic. The Estació de Sants is the focal point of the area and is one of Barcelona’s largest and best connected train stations.
Today Sants belongs to the district of Sants-Montjuïc and is bordered by the districts of Eixample and Les Corts and the municipality of l’Hospitalet de Llobregat. It is dissected by Carrer de Sants, a long, dead straight shopping street offering residents everything they could possibly need.
These are authentic barrios with a more organic, less planned layout and a reluctance to adopt the glitz and glamour or lucrative international appeal of the city’s hotspots. That being said, close proximity to the magnetic Camp Nou ensures a steady flow of football acolytes across to this side of town.
The lack of ‘tourist’ appeal has an upside in the form of a genuine pace and atmosphere of life, underlined by living, breathing markets such as the Mercat de Sants and Hostafrancs and numerous charming plaças where working people and local families congregate relatively free of tourists and trinket sellers.
Nor does the area lack its landmarks. The stunning monument and fountains adorning the frenetic roundabout of Plaça de Espanya mark the main entrance to the urban mountain of Montjuïc, named after the Jewish cemetery on its far side overlooking the sea.
Follow the fantasmagorical path of the magic fountains and discover the many wonders of this unique park, landmark and elevated playground. These include the Castell de Montjuïc, the Palau Sant Jordi arena, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the compelling Poble Espanyol open-air architectural museum and various Olympic facilities including the iconic diving pool and the stadium itself.
While not strictly in Sants, Montjuïc is one of the barrio’s playgrounds, perfect for wandering and finding quiet corners to sit and reflect, enjoying fresher air and taking in the city’s amazing views. It also rewards exploration, and you’re likely to come across everything from a tennis, rugby or padel club to stables, a rock climbing centre or a buzzing gathering of remote control car enthusiasts.
Sants station is often seen as a place to get in and out of as quickly as possible, but take a break to enjoy the skateboarders slaloming between tourists with wheely cases, grab a café con leche in the park and study the map a bit harder and more surprises await.
The comparatively undiscovered oases of residential calm set back from the main thoroughfares defy this sense of transience and host apartments that provide welcoming spaces, a unique and appealing character and easy access to the city centre.
The working-class urban landscape also has the added character provided by buildings converted from old factories to libraries or schools scattered throughout its streets.
Head towards the sea from Plaça de Espanya down the bustling Avinguda Parallel and you’ll find a rich collection of restaurants by the brothers Adrià, who have graduated from El Bulli – notoriously once the best restaurant in the world – to create a bold and eclectic culinary empire that has food critics in raptures.
More down-to-earth entertainment can be found at the annual Festa Major, which sees the highly decorated streets thronged with happy partygoers who are gathered to celebrate Bartholemew the Apostle but also pay homage to partying, music, beer, butifarrades (sausage stalls) and xocolatades (hot chocolate stalls), not to mention a general joy at the promise of summer. If that doesn’t sound fun enough the Festa Alternativa provides an entertaining, well, alternative.
Sant Martí District
Sant Martí is a fascinating example of a major city’s commitment to the transformation of its fading industrial neighbourhoods into burgeoning centres of 21st Century character, technology and entertainment.
This large district stretches back from the sea as far as the spectacular Hospital de Sant Pau and flanks the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes to the Besós river. Its two key neighbourhoods are El Poblenou and Diagonal Mar, both fronting the sea to the west of the Vila Olímpica and the city zoo.
Whether you choose a shining new development overlooking the beach in Diagonal Mar or a warehouse loft apartment in Poblenou, these headliners of Sant Martí deliver the effortless style and freewheeling ambition and confidence of neighbourhoods on the up.
The redevelopment process was initiated when the city was awarded the 1992 Olympic Games and La Vila Olímpica grew from the reclaimed industrial landscape. This transformation has continued to spread, and today it’s the sports of business and technology that are driving growth, with the bold 22@ Project designed to make Poblenou one of the world’s most advanced and admired hubs of technology and e-commerce.
It’s working, with the rapid expansion of corporate headquarters in this precocious new Silicon Valley being enhanced by heavy hitters such as Facebook and Amazon.
The dedication to transforming Poblenou has been matched in Diagonal Mar, where the growth of hotels and apartment blocks reflects an ambitious vision of a new future. The trend is towards towering creations of glass and marble, breezy open boulevards, lush green spaces and paths that waft you down to the sea.
The Rambla de Poblenou retains a flavour of its past as a bustling local focus for trade and socialising. Stretching from Diagonal to the beach, the Rambla has a range of quirky shops, international restaurants, bustling markets and vibrant bars that seem to stand in charming and authentic defiance of the multibillion-Euro revolution going on around them.
Anyone new to the city will have no difficulty locating Sant Martí. It is easy to identify, with the towering Hotel Arts, Frank Gehry’s shining Peix d’Or (Golden Fish) and the Parc de la Cuitadella and zoo marking the threshold with the city centre.
The iconic Torre Glòries proudly mirrors London’s Gherkin on the junction of Avinguda Diagonal overlooking the triumph of urban transport planning that is the Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes.
The 10km long Avinguda Diagonal sweeps down past Diagonal Mar, lined with newly-minted buildings and culminating in a forest of five-star hotels and the Fòrum.
The faded space age glory of the Parc del Fòrum, an architectural legacy of the 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures, once represented overstretched development. But this area is now an urban ‘marine playground’ hosting world-class music and sporting events in versatile open spaces, along smooth promenades beside sandy beaches.
It’s evident that Sant Martí has changed for good. Its forward-thinking Poblenou and Diagonal Mar neighbourhoods are leading the way into a more welcoming future that promises to be cleaner, better and more user-friendly in every way.
Zona Alta District
Stretching from Avinguda Diagonal up into the rolling green Collserola hills, Barcelona’s Zona Alta is where you’ll find fresher air, a more relaxed vibe and impressive properties in well-to-do residential neighbourhoods.
Whether living in the mansions of Pedralbes, characterful townhouses of Tres Torres or impressive apartments of Sant Gervasi and Parc Turó, residents enjoy a greater sense of space, courtesy of tree-lined streets, private or communal gardens and pools and, in some cases, spectacular views across the city to the sea.
The charming residential district of Sarrià is at the heart of the Zona Alta. This once independent town was absorbed by a growing Barcelona a century ago, but retains its identity and is at ease in its role as an ‘urban village’. It provides a focus for shopping and socialising, with its pedestrian main street and chilled family atmosphere.
This part of Barcelona is able to accommodate those amenities that require a bit more space, resulting in a wealth of highly respected international and local schools and colleges, up-market hospitals and clinics and exclusive social and sports clubs.
These include Oak House, Benjamin Franklin, St Peter’s, the American School of Barcelona, AULA, the Lycée Français, Col-legi Montserrat, La Salle and Escola Pia Sarrià. The Reial Club de Tennis Barcelona is host to high-end competitions, while Arsenal, Metropolitan and DiR health clubs cater for more amateur and fitness pursuits. The highly reputed Centro Médico Teknon is also on your doorstep.
To the west, Pedralbes is Barcelona’s showpiece residential neighbourhood, nestling in peaceful privilege in the lush foothills and comprising magnificent detached homes with manicured gardens, infinity pools and high security, and dotted with exclusive blocks with penthouses and apartments taking up entire floors.
To the south, the narrow streets of Sarrià give way to a more organised layout in neighbouring Tres Torres, where neatly arranged townhouses form a relatively low-rise landscape and welcoming bars and cafés await in picturesque plazas and on street corners. In fact, Tres Torres has the city’s highest concentration of houses.
Sant Gervasi tumbles down to the city-side of Avinguda Diagonal and marks the boundary between the Zona Alta and Barcelona’s urban centre. From here, the shallow slopes of Turó Park and its exclusive parkside apartments kick upwards towards the steeper hillside, where more intense blocks and narrower streets are dissected by busy thoroughfares such as Via Augusta, the Ronda del General Mitre and Carrer de Balmes, which takes you all the way back down to Plaça de Catalunya.
Passeig de la Bonanova leads across the Zona Alta from Avinguda Tibidabo to Pedralbes, past landmarks such as the Mercat de Sarrià and the Monestir de Pedralbes and eventually leading to the leading children’s hospital of Sant Joan de Déu.
The great outdoors and its many associated activities are a central part of life in the Zona Alta. The Collserola hills form a constant picturesque backdrop to the city, with the towering Tibidabo mountain providing the perfect viewpoints from which to get your bearings.
The seemingly endless tracks and trails that criss-cross the huge natural park are perfect for hiking, mountain biking or simply getting away from it all, reconnecting with nature and soaking up the views.
The summit of Tibidabo somewhat incongruously offers the dual attractions of Spain’s first ever theme park and the Sagrat Cor, a cathedral built on a church and crowned by the huge statue of Christ that watches over the city.
Barcelona’s Zona Alta offers a variety of barrios with different characters, but all share the same sense of exclusivity, friendliness and a more relaxed pace of life.