For Americans like me who are conditioned to drive everywhere, Barcelona enchants for its pedestrian lifestyle. Parisians coined the term flâneur to describe ‘saunterering’, but for diversity, history and street color there’s no finer place to stroll than Barcelona. Whether wandering the stone warrens of the Gothic Quarter, down the Ramblas to the sea or along wide boulevards past decoration-dripping modernisme buildings or super-yachts and strange sculptures, walking here is more than a means to get from point A to point B. With history, art and eye-grabbing architecture unfurling along the way, it’s a visual pleasure and you can uncover hidden courtyards, historical secrets, and keys to the local way of life. So with this in mind, here’s 10 of the best things to discover en route!
The calendar here bursts with festivals, when streets fill with parades, including of gigantes - giant figures on stilts. Among the biggest are the fabulous Three Kings parade on January 5, the Gràcia festival in August, when that neighborhood’s streets are decorated and fill with music, and La Mercè, a wild street party in September, when fireworks fill the air and firecrackers fill the streets. I prefer the smaller affairs, be they wine festivals in Ciutadella park or the Castanada festival (dedicated to the chestnut) in Plaça de Sant Just. Starting in March, be on the lookout for calçotadas—the grilling of field onions known as calçots. Strip the burnt outer layers, dip into romesco sauce, dangle above your mouth, and chomp your way up.
The Gothic Quarter is built atop a 2nd-century AD retirement community for Roman officers; hidden in basements of buildings the Romans’ wells still fill with clear water, and their wall remains - parts incorporated into stores and bars and parts exposed, as in Plaça Traginers, where in warm weather restaurant tables come out. MUHBA is built upon their ruins, but to get an instant sense of the long-ago Roman forum that stood in today’s Plaça Jaume - now home to City Hall and Catalan generalitat - dart behind to Carrer Paradis. Inside, hidden from the street, four giant Corinthian columns that were part of the ancient forum’s Temple of Augustus shoot up. Mindboggling and free.
La Rambla, as the kiosk-lined pedestrian passageway from Plaça Catalunya to the statue of Columbus is known is never the same after reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, describing how during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) this strip was a danger zone, famous for sniper shootings. Not far from the Cathedral, find hidden Plaça Felip Neri where the resident church was visited daily by Antoni Gaudí - he was heading there the day a street car hit him. A site of tragedy, it was hit by bombs during the civil war; some even say that nuns and priests were shot down in front of the church’s pocked wall. Nevertheless, the square - a backdrop in the movie Perfume - emanates tranquility.
Now home to tiny tea shops, quirky bars and the adored Satan's Coffee Corner, the narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter once housed mystics, cartographers, textile makers, bankers and writers. Jews and Muslim Moors were run out of Spain in 1492 by the Catholic rulers Isabel and Ferdinand, but the buildings they left behind remain the city’s oldest still in use. Check out the small underground synagogue discovered only a few decades ago and the Torah-filled MUHBA El Call museum; on the terrace before it you can choose between fine wines or fine infusions.
Decent vino abounds, but true Bacchanalians toast in the wine bars of Born - south of Park Ciutadella. Quaff a glass on the lively terrace of La Vinya del Senyor in front of Santa Maria del Mar church or inside the upscale El Diset which is a magnet for expats. Our favourite: the bohemian El Soplo which pours organic wines, and where your first copa comes with a generous plate of tapas.
In the streets winding off Passeig de Born - where knights once jousted - tiny ateliers are tucked away where artisans work on site. A few to check out: Alexis Fasoli's leather atelier, Natalie Capell's clothing boutique, and Mirimono, featuring Asian-inspired fashions.
Thickly blanketed by out-of-town sun worshippers on summer days, the beach is the domain of locals during mornings - be they joggers, skateboarders accompanied by bounding dogs, professional sand-castle builders or members of athletic clubs, some feasting at large tables next to the sea. The ping-pong tables scattered in nearby parks, including in front of Barceloneta’s market are usually free at that hour, too. (Bring your own paddles and balls.)
Photo credit: theguardian.com
While taking in the modernisme architecture of Gaudí et al on Passeig de Gracia, keep an eye to the block design. This section of Barcelona - called Eixample, meaning extension - was designed by Ildefons Cerdà, considered the father of urban planning and obsessed with creating functional harmony. Corners are curved to speed 19th-century transportation, and inside each block of buildings an open courtyard is built. One place to see a ‘working courtyard: the terrace bar of the gorgeous Cotton House Hotel, which once housed the cotton guild.
Photo courtesy of Barcelona Natural
Tucked away on a small street off Plaça San Just at Barcelona Natural (look for the sign that says ‘B’) you can buy customized and all-natural skincare products from herbs and organic oils. After a quick skin analysis, the owner Andreas whips up creams before your eyes.
You’ll need transport to get up to Montjuïc, where not too far from the Miró Museum and Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya you’ll find Poble Espanyol, a village showcasing enticing examples of architecture from across Spain. Entry is free if you reserve beforehand at one of the restaurants inside. In summer, it’s site of super popular ‘Electronic Brunch’ concerts.
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