The most famous sights in the Catalan capital are within easy reach of an afternoon’s walk, with a little help from the subway. Mark Caswell offers a whirlwind guide to the best of Barcelona
1. La Sagrada Familia
Much of central Barcelona is within strolling distance, but the Sagrada Familia is slightly too far if your time is limited, so it’s faster to take the subway to the appropriately named Sagrada Família Metro station. The Temple Expiatori de La Sagrada Família is undoubtedly Gaudí’s most famous work and yet, 80 years after his death, it is still far from finished. Work began on the project nearly 125 years ago, originally under the direction of architect Francisco de Paula del Villar, but Gaudí took charge after a couple of years, and continued to labour over the building until his death in 1926 (his body is buried in the crypt of the basilica). The technical drawings for the project were lost to fire during the revolution of 1936, but building recommenced at the end of the 50s, amid criticism by some that Gaudí’s original plans have been ignored in the more recent additions. Either way, the church is a magnificent example of Modernista architecture, with 12 soaring spires each representing one of the apostles. If all goes to plan, a 170m central spire dedicated to Christ will eventually tower over them. Visitors can learn more about the history and construction of the building at the Museu de la Sagrada Família, located in the crypt. The church is open 9am-8pm during the summer months, and costs €8. Visit sagradafamilia.org.
2. Passeig de Gracia/Eixample
Take the L2 Metro line a couple of stops west to Diagonal, where the Eixample district (pronounced “Shampleh”), and in particular Passeig de Grí cia, is packed full of snazzy shops and Modernista architecture. Gaudí features heavily here, with both the Casa Batllí³ and Casa Milí (more famously known as La Pedrera) providing some light relief from the Gucci, Versace and Armani shops. The Casa Batllí³ building had the ultimate in facelifts when Gaudí was commissioned in 1904 to spruce up an otherwise dull-looking facade. The result is a curving, restless mixture of ivory-coloured balconies and blue and green tiling that Dali once compared to “the tranquil waters of a lake”. Close by but on the other side of the boulevard, La Pedrera (“Stone Quarry”) has been a World Heritage site since 1984. Viewed as an eyesore by many when it was completed, the building resembles an undulating coastal cliff, and the curves continue inside, with barely a straight line in sight – particularly in the attic, which now houses an exhibition of Gaudi’s work. Both buildings are open to the public (visit casabatllo.es and lapedreraeducacio.org for more information).
3. Las Ramblas
You can walk or take the subway three stops south on the L3 line to Placa de Catalunya at the top of Las Ramblas. Barcelona without Las Ramblas would be like Paris without the Champs Elysí©es. The name of this wide, tree-lined avenue is derived from the Arabic word ramla meaning sand (after the deposit left by a stream that once flowed along the same route). It is actually made up of five separate streets stretching from Placa de Catalunya to the Monument a Colom (a 50m high plinth topped with a statue of Columbus pointing towards America) by the city’s port. Pedestrians rule here, with cars restricted to narrow roads on either side of the central walkway, and this traffic-free haven has resulted in a mix of flower sellers, street performers, newsagents and stalls selling birds, fish and assorted animals in worryingly cramped conditions. Shopaholics will find plenty on offer in the two huge department stores on either side of Placa de Catalunya: El Corte Ingles and the entertainment heaven that is FNAC (think HMV, Waterstones, WHSmith and Dixons all rolled into one).
4. Placa Reial
About two-thirds of the way down Las Ramblas, an archway takes you through to Placa Reial, an attractive square dotted with palm trees and lit up at night by street lamps decorated by a young Gaudí. If you are looking for a place to kick back and enjoy the Catalan sunshine with your café con leche then this is a great spot. There are numerous restaurants with outdoor seating – just keep one eye on your possessions as light-fingered pickpockets have been known to do the same.
5. Barri Gotic
The city’s old town is sandwiched between Las Ramblas to the west and Via Laietana to the east, and is an area of winding narrow streets containing some of the best examples of Gothic architecture in Spain. The most interesting buildings are clustered around Placa Sant Jaume, where a public display of sardana (Catalonia’s national folk dance) takes place every Sunday evening. Overlooking this square are two buildings dating back to the 15th century: on the south side is the Ajuntament, the city’s town hall, while to the north is the Generalitat, seat of the Catalan government. The tourist information office, inside the entrance to the Ajuntament (open Mon-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 10am-2pm), has more information and visiting hours for both buildings. Adjacent to the Generalitat is La Seu, Barcelona’s main cathedral, worth visiting just for its beautiful cloisters filled with magnolia, palm trees and the odd white goose. For €4 visitors get combined access to the cathedral, cloisters and a lift to the roof for great views across the old town. There are also numerous museums in this district, including the City History museum (museuhistoria.bcn.es) and the Frederic Mares museum (museumares.bcn.es), which is dedicated to the sculptor and collector of the same name. It contains an eclectic mix of exhibits from Romanesque crucifixes to pocket watches and tarot cards.
“Little Barcelona” (Metro stop Barceloneta) may not be the most spectacular of beaches in Catalonia, but it is certainly the most convenient to its capital, and during the summer months the strip is packed with locals and holidaymakers. Starting at the south end of the beach, work up an appetite by strolling along the boardwalk towards the Olympic Port area – you can’t miss it as Frank Gehry’s huge copper “Fish” statue stands proud near the water’s edge. The port area has a large number of restaurants and bars, but if you flag before then, there are plenty of seafood and tapas restaurants, all of which are great places to watch the mixture of roller bladers, runners and families enjoying the Catalan sunshine.
Spellings of place names vary between Catalan and Castilian Spanish so may differ slightly from those given here. A ticket allowing 10 single journeys on Barcelona’s Metro and buses costs f6.65 and is available at all Metro stations. For more information visit barcelonaturisme.com.