Lay of the Land
“The lamps along the Ramblas sketched an avenue of vapor that faded as the city began to awake…The brightness of dawn filtered down from balconies and cornices in streaks of slanting light that dissolved before touching the ground.”~Carlos Ruiz Zafon
World-class architecture and creative city planning have always been Barcelona’s strengths. In the mid-19th century, when the city’s Gothic Old Town outgrew its medieval walls, Catalan urban planner Ildefons Cerdà designed the elegant and orderly Eixample neighborhood, with the Passeig de Gràcia (reminscent of the Champs-Élysées). Throughout Eixample, vigilant eyes will note original modernist details—Spain’s take on Art Nouveau architecture—from the iron street lamps to its carved benches. This quarter hosts some of the city’s best hotels, including the Mandarin Oriental, Casa Fuster and the Majestic, as well as high-end boutiques, excellent restaurants and Gaudi’s famed Casa Milà and Casa Batlló.
But most travelers start their explorations in the oldest part of the city – the Gothic Quarter and El Born – two neighborhoods that sit south of Gran Via and east of La Rambla, a broad, unappealing avenue lined with souvenir shops and fast food joints. The Barri Gotic’s winding pedestrian lanes, palm-lined plazas and towering cathedral invite hours of exploring during daytime hours; at night, the streets transform into nightlife central, as locals and tourists mingle in tapas bars and late-night pubs. East of Barri Gotic lies El Born, an equally ancient area, but one with a firm foothold in the present. This neighborhood is one of Barcelona’s coolest, with stylish, Michelin-starred restaurants, hip boutiques and serious culture, including the Museu Picasso. On the border of El Born is the Parc Ciutadella, a haven for families and home to the zoo.
Continuing towards the water is the Port Olympic and Barceloneta, a neighborhood originally built for fishermen but now mainly occupied by beachfront hotels and cafés. A top pick here for families visiting Barcelona is the Hotel Arts, with its steps-to-the-sand location, verdant gardens and outdoor swimming pool, and runners will love the long esplanade that curves along the sea. A word of caution, however: the more touristy areas, including Barceloneta, are also more popular with pickpockets. A stroll along the beach or a nightcap at a trendy café is wonderful – just keep a close eye on handbags and wallets.
West of La Rambla lies the up-and-coming barrios of Poble Sec and El Raval. Both are rapidly gentrifying, with a flux of cool cafés, galleries and boutiques opening every year. But both also remain a bit rough around the edges. For travelers who crave the aristocratic airs of Eixample, this part of the city may feel seedy. But for those who want to experience the core of the Catalan hipster culture – not to mention the legendary food at spots such as Ca L’isdre and Quimet y Quimet – a visit is a must.
When to Go
Barcelona’s Mediterranean climate means mild temperatures year round. The summer months can get very hot and busy with crowds, and winters are cooler and brisk.
Staff Quotable: “For people who are passionate about food and culture, Barcelona is one of the most magical cities anywhere on earth—relaxed, charming, delicious, easy to navigate, impossible not to love. Imagination, innovation and whimsy have always been embraced and nurtured here, as any Gaudi fan can tell you. Part of the fun is how unconventional and authentic so many of the dining experiences are.” ~Eliza Harris, COO