Five separate streets strung end to end, La Rambla (also called Las Ramblas) is a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard packed with buskers, living statues, mimes and itinerant salespeople selling everything from lottery tickets to jewellery. The noisy bird market on the second block of La Rambla is worth a stop, as is the nearby Palau de la Virreina, a grand 18th-century rococo mansion, with arts and entertainment information and a ticket office. Next door is La Rambla’s most colourful market, the Mercat de la Boqueria. Just south of the Boqueria the Mosaic de Miró punctuates the pavement, with one tile signed by the artist. The next section of La Rambla boasts the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the famous 19th-century opera house. Below the Plaça Reial, La Rambla becomes decidedly seedy, with strip clubs and peep shows. La Rambla terminates at the lofty Monument a Colom (Monument to Columbus) and the harbour. You can ascend the monument by lift. Just west of the monument, on Avinguda de les Drassanes, stand the Reials Drassanes (Royal Shipyards), which house the fascinating Museu Marítim. It has more seafaring paraphernalia than you’d care to wag a sextant at – boats, models, maps, paintings, ships’ figureheads and 16th-century galleys.
The Barri Gotic contains a concentration of medieval Gothic buildings only a few blocks northeast of La Rambla, and is the nucleus of old Barcelona. It’s a maze of interconnecting dark streets linking with squares, and there are plenty of cafes and bars, as well as the cheapest accommodation in town. Most of the buildings date from the 14th and 15th century, when Barcelona was at the height of its commercial prosperity and before it had been absorbed into Castile. Around the Catedral, one of Spain’s greatest Gothic buildings, you can still see part of the ancient walls incorporated into later structures. The quarter is centred around the Plaça de Sant Jaume, a spacious square, the site of a busy market and one of the venues for the weekly dancing of the sardana. Two of the city’s most significant buildings are here, the Ajuntament and the Palau de la Generalitat.
The Museu Picasso is Barcelona’s most visited museum. It’s housed in three strikingly beautiful stone mansions on the Carrer de Montcada, which was, in medieval times, an approach to the port. The museum shows numerous works that trace the artist’s early years, and is especially strong on his Blue Period with canvases like The Defenceless, ceramics and his early works from the 1890s. The second floor shows works from Barcelona and Paris from 1900-1904, with many of his impressionist-influenced works. The haunting Portrait of Senyora Canals (1905), from his Pink Period is also on display. Among the later works, all executed in Cannes in 1957, are a complex technical series (Las Meninas), which consists mostly of studies on Diego Velazquez’s masterpiece of the same name.
La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia is truly awe-inspiring – even if you don’t have much time, don’t miss it. The life’s work of Barcelona’s favourite son, Antoni Gaudí, the magnificent spires of the unfinished cathedral imprint themselves boldly against the sky with swelling outlines inspired by the holy mountain Montserrat. They are encrusted with a tangle of sculptures that seem to breathe life into the stone. Gaudí died in 1926 before his masterwork was completed, and since then, controversy has continually dogged the building program. Nevertheless, the southwestern (Passion) facade, with four more towers, is almost done, and the nave, begun in 1978, is progressing. Some say the shell should have been left as a monument to the architect, but today’s chief architect, Jordi Bonet, argues that the task is a sacred one, as it’s a church intended to atone for sin and appeal to God’s mercy on Catalunya.
Another Gaudí masterpiece, La Pedrera was built between 1905 and 1910 as a combined apartment and office block. Formerly called the Casa Milà, it’s better known now as La Pedrera (the quarry) because of its uneven grey stone facade that ripples around a street corner – it creates a wave effect that’s further emphasized by elaborate wrought-iron balconies. Visitors can tour the building and go up to the roof, where giant multicoloured chimney pots jut up like medieval knights. On summer weekend nights, the roof is eerily lit and open for spectacular views of Barcelona. One floor below the roof is a modest museum dedicated to Gaudí’s work.
Montjuic, the hill overlooking the city centre from the southwest, is home to some fine art galleries, leisure attractions, soothing parks and the main group of 1992 Olympic sites. Approach the area from Plaça d’Espanya and on the north side you’ll see Plaça de Braus Les Arenes, a former bullring where the Beatles played in 1966. Behind it lies Parc Joan Miró, where stands Mir?’s highly phallic sculpture Dona i Ocell (Woman and Bird). Nearby, the Palau Nacional houses the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, which has an impressive collection of Romanesque art. Stretching up a series of terraces below the Palau Nacional are fountains, including the biggest, La Font Màgica, which comes alive with a free lights and music show on summer evenings. In the northwest of Montjuic is the ‘Spanish Village’, Poble Espanyol. At first glance it’s a tacky tourist trap, but it also proves to be an intriguing scrapbook of Spanish architecture, with very convincing copies of buildings from all of Spain’s regions. The Anella Olímpica (Olympic Ring) is the group of sports installations where the main events of the 1992 games were held. Down the hill, visit masterpieces of another kind in the Fundacio Joan Miro, Barcelona’s gallery for the greatest Catalan artist of the 20th century. This is the largest single collection of the his work.
At 542m (1778ft), Tibidabo is the highest hill in the wooded range that forms the backdrop to Barcelona. If the air’s clear, it’s a great place for views over the city. The locals come up here for some thrills at the amusement park Parc d’Atraccions, which has rides and a house of horrors. As hair-raising as anything at the Parc, however, is the glass lift that goes 115m (126yd) up to a visitors’ observation area at Torre de Collserola telecommunications tower. The more sedate can find solace in Temple del Sagrat Cor, Barcelona’s answer to Paris’ Sacré Coeur; it’s even more vilified by aesthetes than its Paris equivalent. Looming above Tibidabo’s funicular station, it is actually two churches, one on top of the other. The top one is surmounted by a giant Christ and has a lift to the roof.