Overview

Barcelona, Spain's second-largest city, is inextricably linked to the architecture of Antoni Gaudi. His most famous and unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, is the emblem of the city.

Like the basilica, Barcelona takes traditional ideas and presents them in new, even outrageous, forms. And the city's bursts of building and innovation give the impression that it's still being conceived. Both the church and the city can be tough places to get a handle on, yet their complexity is invigorating rather than forbidding.

Since it hosted the Summer Olympics in 1992, Barcelona has been on the hot list of European destinations. The staging of the Universal Forum of Cultures in 2004 also raised the city's profile. Over the past decade, better infrastructure, increased cruise ship traffic and a reputation for gastronomic excellence have put Barcelona at the forefront of European city destinations. Such popularity may make it harder to land a hotel room, but it has only added to the sense that Barcelona is a place to visit as much for its energetic, cosmopolitan character as for its unique attractions and lively beach culture.

Geography

Barcelona is a large city with many districts, but the most popular attractions are found in a handful of areas that, for the most part, flow into one another. Beginning on the waterfront, Port Vell (Old Port) encompasses the harbor area and Barceloneta, a neighborhood that was once home to fishermen and has been renovated. The Vila Olimpica (Olympic Village) lies just east of Port Vell; it has its own marina and dozens of bars, restaurants and night clubs. The Old Port, too, has undergone extensive renovation in the past decade or so and is now the city's seaside recreation area.

La Rambla, Barcelona's famous boulevard and almost a district unto itself, begins at Port Vell and extends inland to Placa Catalunya. La Rambla is the heart of the central city, and it forms the boundary between El Raval, the neighborhood to the west of the boulevard, and the Barri Gotic (the Gothic Quarter), which lies to the east.

The Barri Gotic, the oldest part of Barcelona, has many bars, restaurants, museums and historic sites. Adjoining it on the east side of Via Laietana are the old quarters of Sant Pere and La Ribera, with its fine medieval mansions and trendy shopping and nightlife around the old Born market (now closed to shoppers but preserved as a historic site).

Continuing inland from the Barri Gotic, you'll enter the Eixample, an upscale shopping and residential area, crisscrossed by wide avenues, where many of the modernisme buildings are located. Adjoining it to the northwest is the chic villagelike district of Gracia, which has many pleasant restaurants and eclectic shops and galleries. Beyond Gracia, the city climbs the lower slope of Mount Tibidabo.

Montjuic, a prominent castle-topped hill covered with parks, gardens and pathways west of Port Vell, is easily visible from the central city. Museums and other attractions are found on this high ground.

The renovated district of Poblenu is more detached from the other areas and is found on the beachfront farther to the east at the end of the T5 tram line.

History

As with many places in Europe, Barcelona's history has much to do with invasions and conquest. The Romans founded the original settlement, named Barcino, in 133 BC, and the town was later held by the Visigoths, the Moors and the Christian Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne's son, Louis the Pious. In AD 988, Barcelona won independence from the Carolingian kings and became the dominant political and military force in the region of northeastern Spain later known as Catalonia—or Catalunya, in the native Catalan tongue. (Much of the city's character stems from the fact that it identifies itself more as part of Catalonia than of Spain.)

By the late 1400s, Catalonia was politically linked with other regions of Spain, but the region continued to enjoy autonomous rights and privileges until the early 1700s. That changed after the War of Succession, when Catalonia backed the losing side led by Archduke Charles of Austria. Spain's King Philip V abolished Catalonia's government and laws and made Castilian (Spanish) the language of official business, rather than Catalan. This was but one of many conflicts between Catalonia and the central authority of Spain.

By the late 1800s, Barcelona had become one of Spain's most industrialized areas, and the factories spawned significant wealth and a dynamic middle class. Industrial profits underwrote the modernisme movement in architecture—Barcelona's version of art nouveau that was spearheaded by architect Antoni Gaudi. The industrial riches did not trickle down to the working class, however, and radical movements—especially anarchism—found willing converts in the city's poorer districts. A violent uprising in 1909 was a precursor to the upheaval unleashed by the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, when Barcelona was ruled by leftist trade unions for several years. The city remained a stronghold of the losing Republican cause until the end of the war and paid the price afterward. During the long reign of Francisco Franco (1939-75) the Catalan identity and language were viciously suppressed.

Catalonian home rule was restored after Franco's death in 1975, and the Catalan language was declared co-official with Castilian. Beginning in the late 1970s, a forward-looking urban policy was adopted in Barcelona, and the regeneration reached its peak in preparation for the 1992 Summer Olympics. Since then, its popularity as a tourist and recreation center has continued to grow.

Politically, the city and region have become increasingly detached from Madrid's centralist rule; in 2010, more than a million Catalans demonstrated in favor of independence from the rest of Spain. That same year their official abolition of bullfighting—effective from 2012—was in effect a further rejection of deep-rooted Spanish traditions.

Sightseeing

Sooner or later, you must take a walk down La Rambla, Barcelona's famous thoroughfare, so you may as well make it sooner. It's a great introduction to the city, and it will put you in good position to see other nearby attractions.

If you head northeast from La Rambla, you'll enter the twisting, ancient streets of the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter). Find your way to the grandiose La Seu cathedral as you explore the district. Nearby is the Museu d'Historia de Barcelona (City History Museum). The Barri Gotic also holds several other treasures, so you may want to plan more than one day in the area. The highlights are the Museu Picasso (get there early to avoid the lines) and another magnificent Gothic church, Santa Maria del Mar. It's fun just to amble through the streets, however, especially in the evening, when you can sample many restaurants and bars in the contrasting Raval (earthy-international) and Born (avant-garde chic) districts.

You'll need at least a day to take in the famous sights from the modernisme movement in architecture. Before you start, stop in the tourist office in Placa Catalunya (and other locations), where you can get maps, a guidebook and discount vouchers to the city's 115 modernisme monuments. For more information, visit http://www.rutadelmodernisme.com.

Begin at Manzana de la Discordia, on Passeig de Gracia in the Eixample district, where you can see three adjacent buildings designed by the best-known architects of the movement. Next, head a few blocks north to Antoni Gaudi's amazing building La Pedrera (or Casa Mila), which houses residential apartments, offices and an exhibition center. Plan at least two hours to see them and to walk around among the rooftop sculptures. From the roof, you'll be able to see the spires of Sagrada Familia in the distance, and that's your next stop. (You can walk there in a leisurely half-hour jaunt or catch the metro's Blue Line at the Diagonal Station near La Pedrera.) Close out the day at Gaudi's intricately surrealistic church. Be sure to go up in the spires for a vertigo-inducing look at the church and the city. A visit to Gaudi's Parc Guell, on the northern side of the city, is also recommended, though you will probably have to fit it into another day. An hour-long audio tour of Gaudi's Barcelona is available for free from the official tourist authority website and can be downloaded to your mobile phone or MP3 player. It also contains information about the buildings, complete with photographs and maps. http://www.barcelonaturisme.com/wv3/en/page/1464/mobile-apps.html?.

Montjuic, the hill rising southwest of the city center, merits a day of its own. Both the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya and Fundacio Joan Miro are found on Montjuic, as are several less cultural and more hedonistic attractions, including Poble Espanyol (a theme "village" incorporating architectural styles from all over Spain and a host of shops and restaurants), the Olympic stadium and Pavello Barcelona. Just strolling around this multifaceted green area is pleasant, and it offers some splendid panoramic views of the city and the Mediterranean coastline. Figure your route ahead of time, however, as Montjuic covers a lot of territory and the attractions are widely spaced.

Nightlife

Barcelona has always had a reputation as a party town. It's still true, though the emphasis now has more to do with trendy designer bars than seedy sailor dives. The rougher places are still there, though, especially in earthy districts such as Raval, should you wish to find them. Like other parts of Spain, Barcelona's club scene hits its peak in the wee hours and doesn't end till morning—many dance venues remain open until 5 am, though quieter bars close around 3 am.

Try to set aside one evening for a stroll through the Barri Gotic, in particular the El Born area, and see what bars and bodegas the twisting streets lead you to. In warm weather, you'll find that lots of outdoor plazas become extensions of the surrounding bars, and performers such as jugglers and musicians often stop by to put on a quick show. Those looking for a little more excitement will find the clubs of Port Vell and Vila Olimpica not too far away. The gay crowd might enjoy the bars in Eixample around the Placa Universitat.

There are more options outside the city center. In general terms, the higher up and farther away from the sea you go, the more upmarket the scene. A young, affluent crowd hangs out in bars and clubs around Santalo, Mari Cubi and Placa Francesc Macia. Tibidabo, with its wonderful views of the city, offers an incomparably elegant setting.

Regardless of where you end up going, be sure to dress up if you're going to the clubs. Men should wear a button-up shirt with collar and nice shoes or they will be turned away. Smaller bars tend not to have a dress code.

Dining

Catalan cuisine resembles that of other Mediterranean countries and makes use of nuts, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes and herbs. Truly traditional Catalan restaurants often feature many rich sauces and protein-centric dishes. One of the simplest and yet most delicious dishes (the one Catalans particularly yearn for when abroad) is pa amb tomaquet: a large slice of fresh country bread (toasted or not) rubbed with tomato and drizzled with virgin olive oil. It may be topped with Iberian ham, cheese and anchovies or served along with meat, chicken or fish a la brasa (cooked over a charcoal fire).

Other local specialties include esqueixada (a salad of raw salt cod with onions and peppers), espinacs a la catalana (spinach sauteed with raisins and pine nuts) and bacalla a la llauna (salt cod with tomato, garlic and parsley). If you have a sweet tooth, crema catalana (a cinnamon- and citrus-flavored custard) is a must for dessert.

Many restaurants advertise as serving cuina de mercat or cocina de mercado, meaning they use whatever is in season at the local market: Freshness is of the essence. There are restaurants serving dishes from other regions of Spain, as well, and places specializing in the cuisine of other countries are also common.

Tapas, one of the first items people visiting Spain want to try, are traditionally from Andalucia, in the most southern part of Spain and are not local to Barcelona. However, you will find some amazing places to try tapas in Barcelona.

Paella is a traditional Valencian dish that you can find all over Barcelona. For a more authentic dish, go for the fideua, which is a local dish much like paella but made with pasta.

You can eat well anywhere in the city, although many of the most emblematic restaurants are clustered in the Barri Gotic and the Raval, with Barceloneta and the Olympic port being a must for seafood and the sheer pleasure of eating outdoors. Eixample and Sant Gervasi are often the places for the more modern and new-style Catalan cuisine, and Gracia is full of restaurants, many of them very inexpensive and popular with students and younger visitors. Poble Sec is turning into a gastronomic theme park, thanks to the multiple restaurants owned by Ferran and Albert Adria of the famed three-Michelin-starred El Bulli. In fact, many restaurants that have opened in Barcelona over the past few years are headed by chefs that had cooked at El Bulli and created their own spaces after its closure in 2011.

Like most Europeans, the Catalans begin their day with a light breakfast that may include bollos (rolls), melindros (lady fingers) and pastries. Lunch is served about 1:30 pm at the very earliest, with peak time being 2-4 pm. Berenar or merienda is an afternoon snack taken at around 4 or 5 pm to get you through to a late dinner, which isn't served until 9 pm or later. The best bargains are available at lunch, when most restaurants offer the menu del dia or set lunch. Even the most basic (for little more than 10 euros) offer a choice of starter course, main course of meat or fish and dessert, plus a drink.

Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 20 euros; $$ = 20 euros-40 euros; $$$ = 41 euros-70 euros; $$$$ = more than 70 euros.

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