Places of Interest in Barcelona
Barcelona is the second-largest city in Spain and the political and economic capital of the "autonomous community" of Catalonia. The city has played a complex role as the center of Catalan language and culture within Castilian-speaking Spain. The selection of Barcelona as the site of the 1992 Olympics underscored its revitalization after the end of Gen. Francisco Franco's authoritarian regime in the 1970s.
Since Roman times the city has functioned as a Mediterranean port for the rich lands of Catalonia. By the Middle Ages it had also emerged as a commercial, industrial, and cultural center for the Mediterranean basin. In the 18th and 19th centuries Barcelona developed new strengths in textile manufacturing, transportation, and finance. Afterward it underwent many changes as a progressive industrial center within a slowly modernizing country.
Today the economy reflects Barcelona's multiple roles within the European Community. Tourism, services, administration, and cultural activities have eclipsed the city's industrial and commercial sectors, despite the continued importance of manufacturing (automobiles, chemicals, textiles), construction, and trade. Barcelona also serves as the arena of Catalan politics, the see of a Roman Catholic archbishop, and the home of Catalona's major universities, research institutes, hospitals, cultural foundations, and museums. Most of the metropolitan area's 4 million inhabitants are bilingual in Catalan and Castilian.
Barcelona is situated on a coastal plain between the Besós and Llobregat rivers, roughly 70 miles (115 km) south of the French border and 315 miles (505 km) northeast of Madrid. Its climate is mild, with a hot, dry summer, but with the other seasons moderate and wet; snow is rare. The city originated on a rise (Mt. Táber), surrounded by imposing mountains to the west (Tibidabo) and south (Montjuïch). Its well-preserved medieval core, flanking the port, was enclosed by walls that stood until the mid-19th century; the Rambla, a tree-lined promenade of shops, theaters, and cafés that replaced an internal wall, provides a lively central artery.
Many traditional institutions retain their headquarters downtown, although banks, businesses, and some sections of the University of Barcelona have moved into modern zones. In the 19th century the streets and buildings of the Eixample ("Expansion") spread out beyond the medieval walls according to a rigidly geometric design; works by major architects line its prominent boulevards, the Passeig de Gràcia and the Diagonal. The burgeoning city also incorporated nearby villages and industrial towns such as Sants, Gràcia, and Poble Nou, while elite suburban construction spread up the slopes of Tibidabo. A ring of industrial satellite cities now surrounds Barcelona, and residential-tourist development has covered nearby coasts.
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Barcelona provides a sweeping panorama of Catalan history in its streets and museums. The central Gothic Quarter includes ruins of the Roman city, the Cathedral (begun in 1298), and public buildings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance that now function as museums and archives. On the Plaça Sant Jaume the 15th-century palace of the Generalitat (from 1977 the seat of the Catalan government) faces the 14th-century city hall. On the Rambla stand the Boqueria (central market) and the Liceu (opera house). Nearby are the Plaça Reial and the Güell Palace, designed by Antonio Gaudí.
To the north of the Gothic Quarter lies another medieval district, the Ribera, where artisans and the merchant patriciate lived. On the Carrer de Montcada, Gothic palaces and the magnificent church of Santa Maria del Mar contrast with the modern art of the Picasso Museum. Farther north, Ciutadella Park derives from the conversion of a hated citadel into the International Exposition of 1888; the park houses the Catalan parliament, museums, and the zoo. The Barceloneta, an 18th-century housing project established for workers, fishers, and sailors who had been displaced by the Ciutadella, offers beaches and restaurants.
Across the Rambla, urban reforms have altered the once notorious Barrio Chino (Chinatown), a red-light district within the industrial area of the Raval. To the south runs the Parallel, with its music halls. Montjuïch, site of the Art Museum of Catalonia and other facilities from the Universal Exposition of 1929, rises above these residential zones.
Outside the walls, which intersected in today's Plaça de Catalunya, the 19th-century bourgeoisie imposed a new order on the suburbs through densely constructed blocks of mansions and shops. These areas remain notable for their art nouveau (modernista) architecture, including major works by Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and Josep Puig i Cadafalch. Gaudí's Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia) dominates the northern sector of the Eixample; his Güell Park lies farther away, in the foothills, although both are accessible by public transport. The summit of Tibidabo offers an amusement park as well as panoramic vistas.
Barcelona's cosmopolitan shops and cultural events are complemented by its active street life, day and night. Major festivals include the Cavalcade of the Wise Men (January 26); the feast day of St. George, the patron of Catalonia (April 23); the Catalan national holiday (September 11), recalling the siege of the city in 1714; and the patronal feast of Our Lady of Mercy (September 24). Neighborhoods celebrate their own festivals with fireworks and Catalan folk dances such as the Sardana. Highly competitive soccer and basketball teams, as well as active media, arts, and literature, contribute to the city's life.