We take an overview of some of the city’s best loved neighbourhoods
By Duncan Rhodes
Whether you’re planning a short visit or long stay, here’s a brief introduction to Barcelona’s most interesting barrios…
A city of 39 square miles, ten administrative districts and countless more neighbourhoods, one of the joys of visiting Barcelona is exploring the unique characters of each of these surprisingly diverse zones.
It’s no secret that La Rambla and the Ciutat Vella (Old Town) can feel like a tourist circus at times, particularly in high summer, and the savvy traveller, perhaps on their second or third visit to Barcelona, will no doubt look to spend their time in the less-frequented districts (at least by foreigners). After all no one in their right mind would prefer dodging pickpockets and drunks on La Rambla to sipping a cerveza on the Placa del Sol in Gracia, or opt for an afternoon of fending off hawkers on Barceloneta’s beach, when the quieter sands of Poblenou are just a couple of metro stops further down the line.
For governing purposes their are ten districts to Barcelona (see map below), which are the Ciutat Vella, Eixample, Sants–Montjuic, Les Corts, Sarria-Sant Gervasi, Gracia, Horta-Guinardo, Nou Barris, Sant Andreu and Sant Marti.
The Old Town (Gothic Quarter, Born and Raval)
The Ciutat Vella, literally ‘Old Town’ in Catalan, is the core of the city and comprises the ancient Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) as well as El Raval, La Barceloneta and Barri de la Ribera (which in turn includes El Born District).
Even within this small geographical space the character of each neighbourhood is entirely different to the others; from the winding lanes of Barri Gotic packed with antique shops, centuries-old cafes and upmarket restaurants catering to tourists, to El Raval with its downtrodden but hip vibe, full of students, skateboarders, beatniks and immigrants happily whiling away the hours on street corners. El Born currently seems to strike a happy medium between being tourist-friendly and retaining a strong air of local authenticity, while La Barceloneta is a delightful ex-fishing quarter, going about its business surprisingly sleepily considering the throngs of sun-burnt tourists that skirt its borders on the way to Barceloneta beach or the Port Olimpic every day between May and October.
After the Old Town walls threatened to burst, and with the wealth being generated from the industrial revolution, city officials commissioned Ildefons Cerda to plan the future of Barcelona… the result was the vast L’Eixample district, a grid patterned new swathe of the city, intersected by diagonal avenues and blocks of parkland, much of which was built in the Modernista style of architecture of the day. The area is so large that it is often split up into Eixample Left, lying south of the Passeig de Gracia, and Eixample Right, north of the Passeig de Gracia, containing La Sagrada Familia. Because of its unique style of architecture and the relative lack of tourists – Eixample is made up of mainly blocks of flats (although this being Spain there are naturally plenty of bars and restaurants underneath) – the district is considered by many residents as the ‘real Barcelona’.
Bordering Eixample and sometimes considered part of it, is the Sant Marti district. Sant Marti was once a separate village to Barcelona but Ildefons Cerda’s plan incorporated this rapidly developing area into his vision of Barcelona and you’ll see the same grid layout stretch nearly throughout this expansive stretch of land between the Port Olimpic and Park Forum. Today the neighbourhood is usually referred to as Poblenou and is one of the most fascinating districts in Barcelona. Where once Catalonia’s heaviest concentration of factories belched fumes you’ll discover 21st century parks, space-age office blocks and industrial spaces turned into hedonistic nightclubs. You’ll also find a long stretch of beaches up the coast.
Back on the other side of town (to the south) and you needn’t be too observant to spot a huge hill rising above the city, overlooking the commercial port. Montjuic mountain is both a place of natural beauty and cultural value as upon its slopes you’ll find at least two dozen sights of interest from the Olympic Stadium to the Joan Miro Foundation, and not forgetting Montjuic Castle itself. Descend the mountain to the West and you’ll find more treasures, like National Museum of Catalan Art and the Magic Fountain and then past Placa Espanya you’ll be entering the area of Sants.
Another residential area, favoured by students as it’s a little cheaper, Sants is a pleasantly low-key place to escape the rest of the city. One neighbourhood that is all too easily overlooked in the Montjuic-Sants administrative district is Poble Sec. Wedged between the famous Paral-lel avenue and the bottom of Montjuic, Poble Sec is bursting with charismatic neighbourhood bars, as well as an increasing number of hipster hang outs, whilst rent remains relatively cheap.
One district that has been receiving a lot of travel press recently, as an alternative to hanging around the Old Town, is Gracia. Like Sant Marti it was once a separate town to Barcelona, and even today it maintains its own vibe… seemingly a peaceful village compared to the city downtown. Nonetheless there’s plenty going on in the districts narrow alleys and open squares, with literally hundreds of little bars and trendy restaurants catering to the twenty and thirty somethings that flock to live here. Gracia is also home to Gaudi’s Parc Guell.
The remainder of Barcelona’s districts perhaps have less in the way of immediate tourist interest, but Les Corts is home to FC Barcelona‘s famous 99,000 seater stadium – Camp Nou. Sarria i Sant Gervasi is a tranquil district and a nice place to see how the other half live – it’s littered with expensive mansions. Visitors often come here for the famous patatas bravas of Bar Tomas. Horta is sleepier still, feeling almost like a Southern Spanish village during permanent siesta, whilst Nou Barris is most famous for its Council Offices located in a former mental institution, whereas the best time to visit Sant Andreu is during its district festival which kicks off in November each year with a “hellish awakening” courtesy of devils, blunderbusses and papier-mâché giants.
Of course flanking the whole of the Western side of the city is the Collserola mountain range, which, whilst it might not count as a ‘district’ per se, is definitely an area worth visiting, with the Tibidabo mount proving particularly popular on account of its association with the film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. On this imperious hill you’ll find the Tibidabo fairground and the Sagrat Cor Church.
For more info about any of the above districts click on the relevant links in the text, or check the right hand side of this page for more links to specific feature articles.