My first visit to Barcelona (and Spain in general) was in 2010, and the impression I got after 4 days of wandering around town in all types of weather was that it was a fascinating city I had to return to, sooner or later. It was not the Spain I expected and that I later on learned to know, but there was something about the city that urged me to return and rediscover it.
When I finally did come back again, last year, the feeling of excitement was still present: despite the familiarity of the city, it felt fresh and new and there were so many things to see! Adding to my excitement was the fact that this time I was visiting the city with my boyfriend Teo, and I was curious to know whether his experience of the city would be similar to mine.
Although it has a well-developed public transport network, Barcelona is a wonderful town for walkers. So that is what we did, walked around wide avenues and small, hidden streets, admiring beautiful architecture wherever we looked, witnessing private scenes of everyday life seen through open windows and balconies, seeing large department stores, small cafes and even smaller terraces with only enough space for a table or two.
Different neighborhoods, districts and parts of the city have different trademarks and gave out different atmospheres, and through visiting some of them we got the chance to discover some pieces of the complex puzzle that is Barcelona.
La Barceloneta, once the home of fishermen and people connected to the fishing trade and the metal industry, is nowadays one of the most popular districts of Barcelona. It was our first destination upon arriving to the city: we wanted to toast the beginning of our holiday next to the sea, with warm sand between our toes.
As we walked the entire length of the beach one of the following days, we got to experience different atmospheres of Barcelona’s seafront: from beaches full of young, hip people, with attractive beach bars offering cold sangrias and tasty tapas, to the modern marina, with high glass buildings and family oriented beaches further away from the city center.
All along the waterfront, there are many cafes, restaurants and nightclubs, as well as interesting examples of public art, such as Rebecca Horn’s “Homenatge a la Barceloneta”, a landmark at the beach, or Frank Gehry’s “Peix d’Or”. In La Barceloneta, Barcelona feels very cosmopolitan and open – a city for tourists and endless activities on the beach.
We decided to climb up the Tibidabo, the mountain overlooking Barcelona, primarily because of the magnificent views over the city that we were promised by almost all guidebooks and travel websites. Since we were in Barcelona during a very hot July, we were also looking forward to a cooler, breezier air up there. We reached the mountain with the Tibidabo Funicula, which was the first of its kind in Spain, in a short ride among nice houses and lush greenery.
The first thing that struck us as a bit strange about Tibidabo was the visual and emotional contrast between the massive, imposing Catedral del Sagrat Cor from the 20th century on top of the hill and the amusement park underneath it: the hill is at the same time peaceful and spiritual, as well as loud, lively and full of children’s laughter. What is constant in that strange juxtaposition is the beautiful, expansive view of the city.
The cathedral on top of Tibidabo is quite a spectacular sight: designed by Enric Sagnier, its construction began in 1902 and was finished 60 years later, in 1961. It is made even more impressive with the large sculpture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus by Josep Miret Llopart on top of its dome.
For relatively flat Barcelona, the effect of this church is similar to that of the Sacre-Coeur in Paris: it can be seen from many different parts of the city and used as a landmark and help in orientation. There is a lovely plateau in front of the cathedral where we tarried for quite some time, enjoying the cool mountain breeze and iconic views of the Tibidabo ferris wheel and Barcelona, spread out in front of us in all of its size and glory.
Although we knew that original, authentic Barcelona is much more visible in less touristy areas of the city, we could not and did not want to avoid walking up and down Las Ramblas almost on a daily basis. There is something magnetic in this central boulevard that runs for some 1,2 kilometers from Plaça Catalunya to Christopher Columbus Monument at Port Vell that makes you feel like you are missing out if you don’t check what is going on there every once and a while.
When walking down Las Ramblas, among the street artists, vendors, cafés and restaurants, there are some unmissable details around you, such as Joan Miro’s playful mosaic on the pavement, photogenic Boqueria Market with its tidy, colorful stalls offering different products and tasty juices we couldn’t resist in our attempts to cool down from the hot Spanish summer weather.
When we got overwhelmed by the busy atmosphere of Las Ramblas, we would drift into small side streets and quieter squares off the boulevard that offered a glimpse of a more tranquil, less touristy side of the city. One gem among those squares is popular Plaça Reial, a closed-off square which, with its palm trees, surrounding architecture and Gaudi’s lanterns, feels somewhat exotic. We really enjoyed it as a place to sit down, relax and cool off, enjoying the sight of the picture-perfect square, people passing by and street artists and performers using the square as their playground.
The Gothic Quarter of Barcelona is a historic quarter whose beginnings can be traced back to Roman times. However, because of the transformative building activities that took place in the late 19th and early 20th century, the neighborhood does not feel old at all. It is very clean, tidy and airy, peaceful at daytime, lively at night time.
We loved getting lost in the network of small streets, without following the map, enjoying the photogenic details, balconies rich with flowers, architectural details, interesting windows or doors. Narrow streets open up onto peaceful squares with bars, restaurants, shops and spectacular buildings, such as the beautiful Cathedral of Santa Eulalia.
Since our accommodation was located close to this quarter, we especially enjoyed taking little walks at dusk, when the colors of the sky were more subdued and the streets got a more mysterious air to them.
Eixample: Ruta de Modernismo
One thing that definitely gives that special something to the city of Barcelona is its Modernist architecture. This style was a general trend that emerged in Europe at the turn of the 20th century and found its idiosyncratic elements in different European countries. In Catalonia, the aim of the Modernist movement was to revive Catalan culture and identity through a unique, at times quirky expression. Some of the most notable architects of the movement whose buildings embellish the streets of Barcelona include Antoni Gauid, Lluis Domenech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch.
Catalan modernism left its trace in all parts of Barcelona, but a great way to get to know some of the style elements of its architecture is to take a walk in the beautiful, airy Eixample district, which holds the biggest concentration of modernist buildings in the city.
We took a walk from the Sagrada Familia to Plaza Catalunya, following Ruta de Modernismo marks on the pavement, and marveled richly ornate, very imaginative buildings along the way, each one prettier and more creative than the one before. Buildings such as La Casa Terrades, Casa Marfà or famous Gaudi’s Casa Battlo and La Pedrera all impress with their facades and ornaments that come to life and move in front of you.
With its relatively flat terrain, openness, feeling of security, many places for rest, and beautiful details wherever you turn, Barcelona is a wonderful, friendly city for walkers. During our five days in the city, we didn’t use its metro system once. Everything is fit for the wanderers, even when the length of the city’s boulevards and avenues overwhelms, the city offers rest in its many benches, park areas and cafés with small terraces whenever you need one. It is also a city that you can never get tired of: no matter how many times you visit Barcelona, there is always something new to see or a previously unnoticed detail to discover. It is a city one can return to, over and over again.