Things to Do in Barcelona
Overlooking the southwestern portion of Barcelona, Parc de Montjuic is the city’s green hilltop getaway that is packed with both history and a host of sights. Indeed, it is there that you’ll find the Jewish Cemetery, after which it is believed that the “Mountain of the Jews” is named. Montjuic is also the site of its namesake castle, a military fortress dating back to the 17th century.
But it’s the last century that has brought particular interest to Montjuic: first there was the International Exhibition in 1929, and then the Olympics in 1992. Both of these affairs contributed to the urbanization of this elevated land, and as a result you can expect to find a slew of related sites. These include the water-show-style Magic Fountain, which sits in front of The Palau Nacional, now home to the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. And then there’s also the Poble Espanyol, a replica of Spanish villages and their various architectural styles.
The 1992 Olympics were transformative for the city of Barcelona. With the arrival of the games, areas were restored and construction for new structures was initiated. As such, the city was updated and rejuvenated in many ways. One such structure, which remains a draw for visitors today, is the Olympic Stadium — which is now home to the city’s second futbol team, Espanyol. It was originally constructed in 1929 for the International Exposition, and was updated in preparation for the games. It can seat more than 65,000 people. A visit now offers a glimpse into sports history, as well as some great views of the city. It was the venue for both the opening and closing ceremonies of that year’s Olympics. Walking through the competitor’s tunnel, you can really get a feel for how athletes must have felt as they experienced the vastness of the grounds.
One of Barcelona’s most dazzling attractions, the Magic Fountain, or Font Montjuic, was built in 1929 for the city’s World Exhibition, taking 3000 people almost a year to complete, and later restored during the 1992 Olympic Games. Taking center stage in Plaça Espanya at the foot of Montjuic Mountain, the Fountain is celebrated for its spectacular illuminations display, set against the majestic backdrop of the Montjuic Palace.This is no ordinary lightshow – the Magic Fountain does its name justice with a kaleidoscope of shimmering fountains, syncing light, motion and music to dramatic effect. The breathtaking display is held throughout the year on weekend evenings (from Thursday to Sunday during summer), when the series of fountains spring to life each half-hour from 9.30pm until 11.30pm, for a vibrant 20-minute show.
The historic heart of Barcelona is the Cuitat Vella, or Old City, home to the majority of the city’s tourist attractions and encompassing the districts of El Raval, Barri Gotic, La Ribera and Barceloneta. With its abundance of iconic architecture, world-class museums and historic sights, most visitors to the city find themselves spending the majority of their time in the Cuitat Vella.
Las Rablas is the Old City’s main thoroughfare, separating the residential neighborhood and red light district of El Raval from the largely pedestrianized Barri Gotic, or Gothic Quarter. The Barri Gotic makes a popular starting point for a walking tour of the city, with sights including the historic Placa del Rei; the 14th century Palau Reial Major; the Gothic Barcelona Cathedral; the glitzy shopping street of Portal del Angel; the lively La Boqueria food market; and several Gaudi masterpieces, including the Palau Güell.
Get closer to Barcelona’s vibrant art scene by perusing the masterpieces of one its most famous artists, Antoni Tapies. Born in Barcelona, Tapies specialized in contemporary art that was dominated by social themes. His work, which was influenced by the likes of fellow Catalan artist Joan Miro, is imaginative and abstract, employing elements beyond just paint and canvas but also rags, paper and other scraps.
Founded by Tapies himself, the foundation serves to promote and provide education around contemporary art. While there, you can explore a collection of his creations, an impressive library, as well as revolving exhibitions by other artists. The building itself is a work of art too: Constructed in the late 1800s, it was considered a pioneer of Modernisme architecture. Meanwhile, you won’t be able to miss the cloud-and-chair sculpture that tops it, which is meant to represent meditative attitude and aesthetic contemplation.
The Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) will give you goodreason to head into the gritty streets of the El Raval neighborhood, just west of the tourist-filled Las Ramblas. Partially located in a 19th-century almshouse, the urban culture center is a hub for discovery, debate and reflection.
The multidisciplinary institution is noted for its impressive offering of everything from debates, concerts, readings, festivals and exhibitions. Indeed, it’s those conversation-worthy rotating exhibitions that will draw the everyday visitor, so be sure to check the center’s schedule in advance to see what might be of interest to you. And, since the CCCB sits in the El Raval neighborhood, you have all the more reason to wander this often-unexplored part of Barcelona.
Meaning “extension,” L’Eixample neighborhood was built in the 19th century to enlarge the city of Barcelona so that it connected with smaller surrounding towns, such as Gracià (now a neighborhood itself). Ingeniously designed, the upscale district displays long avenues with cut-corner, octagonal blocks that allow for openness, light and ventilation.
The area is also home to some of the city’s most popular tourist draws, particularly along its bustling avenue, Passeig de Gràcia. This is where you’ll find Gaudi’s famous La Pedrera, a building known for its undulating façade and spectacular rooftop views. Then, not too far away await more architectural favorites, including Gaudi-designed Casa Batlló, as well as the Flemish- and Catalan-styled Casa Amatller. Meanwhile, the masses come here for more than just sightseeing but also for shopping, as Passeig de Gràcia is packed with Barcelona’s top high-end shops.
Santa Caterina was the first covered market in the city of Barcelona. Since being completely renovated in 2005 with a modern design and colorful, curved rooftop, it has become a celebrated sight in Barcelona. Yet, it stays true to its traditional Catalan market roots. Over 325,000 ceramic pieces were used by architects Benedetta Tagliabue and Enric Miralles to create the kaleidoscope roof, with more than fifty different shades of colors representing the fruits and vegetables sold within. The mosaics recall the Modernista style of architecture Gaudi made famous across the city.
The market sells every type of quality produce and meat imaginable, including fresh pastries and breads. It’s a great place to pick up or simply view the colorful fruit, vegetable and flower stands, along with local meats and fish. Once you’re done browsing the stalls, check out the remains of the 15th century Espai Santa Caterina, the Gothic church the market was built on top of.
More Things to Do in Barcelona
Lying just to the west of Barcelona’s famous Las Ramblas Boulevard, and home of the gleaming Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), the Raval is a once-tatty ‘barrio’ (district) that is rapidly cleaning itself up. Historically working class, today new boutiques, art galleries, bars and restaurants are springing up in this inner-city neighborhood at a rate of knots but neglected corners still retain an earthy air and a multicultural blend of Catalan, Arabic, Romanian, Indian and Indonesian cultures. Besides MACBA, the narrow alleys of El Raval are home to the ornate Gran Teatre del Liceu – one of Europe’s foremost opera houses and adorned with Japanese-style decoration – which opened in 1847, Antoni Gaudí’s twisting, fluid Palau Güell and the Romanesque beauty of ninth-century Sant Pau del Camp, the oldest church in the city.
Barcelona’s main bullring was built in the smart Eixample district of the city with a flamboyant Neo-Mudéjar and Byzantine façade by Catalan architect Domènec Sugrañes i Gras, a disciple of Gaudí. Embellished with typical Iberian white-and-blue tiles and towers topped with onion-shaped domes, the bullring was the largest in Barcelona and could seat 20,000, plus another 5,000 standing. The site was inaugurated in 1914, and over the decades, it has featured Spain’s top toreros (bullfighters) – who were nationwide pin-ups – in corridas (bullfights) that reached their height of popularity in the 1950s. However, bullfighting eventually grew increasingly unpopular in Catalan Spain, and it was eventually banned in January 2012, to the disappointment of many local aficionados.
From Roman times to the present day capital of Catalonia, the city of Barcelona has hundreds of years of history and many stories to tell. The Barcelona City History Museum preserves and communicates the historical heritage of the city for locals and visitors alike. There are multiple exhibitions throughout the city with present findings, as well as facilities for ongoing research.
The museum conserves many of the Roman sites of Barcelona as archaeological sites — while others like the city's Palau Reial Major and the Jewish Quarter date back to the Middle Ages. There are also a fair number of sites related to more modern significances, including Franco and the Spanish Civil War or iconic architect Antoni Gaudi. The museum itself was inaugurated just after the end of the Spanish Civil War, in 1943. Its headquarters at Casa Padellas is a prime example of a Catalán gothic courtyard, and contains an entire preserved quarter of the ancient Roman city of Barcino.
One of the most famous points of interest on Montjuïc is the Poble Espanyol. The so-called "Spanish Village" was built for the 1929 International Exhibition to show off models of the architecture specific to each region in Spain.
Visitors ambling through the mixed-and-matched village will find themselves one minute walking down a street characteristic of the Basque region, and the next, standing before a home reminiscent of the Andalucian style. Also included are copies of Galician and Castilian architecture and, of course, Catalan dwellings.
Filling these buildings are various craft shops left over from the International Exhibition that are still churning out keepsake crafts. There are also several bars, cafes and shops throughout to quench every thirst, appetite and need for a souvenir.
At the heart of Barcelona, the Gran Teatre del Liceu is one of the most important opera houses in all of Europe and one of the most impressive sights of the city. Since its opening on La Rambla in 1847, it has been a cultural, artistic, and political hub for Catalonia. The theater was originally opened as a music conservatory and performance venue for students. It was kept up by private shareholders as opposed to government or monarchy for many years. It survived a major fire in 1994, after which the building was fully restored, updated, and transferred to public ownership. The original foyer, staircase, and main facade are still intact.
The theater is a major venue for classical music, opera, and dance in Barcelona. Many of the world’s most famous opera singers have performed on its stage. Its beautiful interior is worth seeing even if you’re unable to attend a show.
Plaça de Sant Jaume’s Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya is much more than just a building with a pretty neoclassical façade: this is the seat of the Catalan government, from where 100 presidents have governed. Constructed between the 15th and 17th centuries, the building is a symbol of Catalan perseverance, having stood the test of time through many historic challenges.
It’s not just special because of its history, either. Apart from the attractive dome-topped exterior, its interior is perhaps even more impressive. It features a Gothic chapel, elaborate ceremonial halls, loads of paintings and sculptures, and a sunlight-filled Courtyard of Orange Trees, or Pati dels Tarongers — among other Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance elements.
One of Barcelona’s coolest neighborhoods, the student and art quarter of Gràcia showcases a different side to the city, with its laid-back bars and restaurants, and traditional Catalonian feel. Connected to the city by the Passeig de Gràcia, the residential area is popular among those looking to rent cheap accommodation on the outskirts of the city and a number of travelers escape to Gràcia to sample the city’s most bohemian haunts.
Placa del Sol is at the heart of Gràcia, where clusters of tapas bars and terrace restaurants serve up an array of traditional Catalan cuisine, but the area is most famous for the Parc Güell, one of the city’s most celebrated parks. The iconic gardens perched on the hill of El Carmel were designed by Antoni Gaudi between 1900-1914 and form a key part of Barcelona’s UNESCO World Heritage listed ‘Works of Antoni Gaudi’.
One of the most popular districts in Barcelona’s Cuitat Vella, or Old City, La Ribera is a charming maze of streets at the forefront of the city’s design, entertainment and fashion trends, earning itself the nickname ‘Barcelona’s SoHo’. Located just east of the central Barri Gotic area and encompassing the historic sub-neighborhood of El Born and the picturesque Parc de la Ciutadella, La Ribera is one of the city’s hottest destinations, teeming with intimate cafés, bijou bars and traditional restaurants.
A number of key architectural masterpieces lie in La Ribera, most notably the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palau de la Musica Catalana, a modernist marvel designed by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner and the domineering Gothic Santa Maria del Mar, or St Mary of the Sea Cathedral, built in the 12th century by Berenguer de Montagut and renowned as one of the country’s finest examples of Catalan Gothic architecture.
Many come to Barcelona to see the structures of the city designed by famous architect Antoni Gaudi, with his distinct vision and trademark use of intricate mosaics (called trencadis.) Not many get to learn about the process and create their own mosaics, which is where the Mosaiccos workshop comes in. With classes and activities suited for all ages, participants learn the technique, choose their design, and then craft a unique handmade souvenir. The most popular workshop is called the “Gaudi Experience,” which allows visitors to not only see but create the art itself.
There is also a shop on site with unique gifts all crafted in this broken tile and glass style. Culturally decorative mosaics have been a tradition for more than 1,000 years. It’s a hands-on way to experience the distinctive design and style that has shaped the city of Barcelona.
Barcelona visitors keen to have a shopping experience beyond the hustle and bustle of Passeig de Gracia or the tourist shops of Las Ramblas will find just what they’re looking for at Diagonal Mar. This shopping center, located north of the city’s tourist center, offers 150 different stores, including a range of Spanish and international brands.
The mall also has loads of other mall amenities, from an upper-level food court to kid play area, and even free WiFi. You can also to there for entertainment, too, by catching a flick at Diagonal Mar’s movie theater (which features movies in original, English-language version). The center’s location also provides a good excuse for you to explore this less-touristy part of town by taking a short walk to the nearby beach, or even by heading southwest along the coastline, toward the city, to explore Barcelona’s industrial-meets-innovation Poblenou neighborhood.
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