Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter
Cathedrals, Roman ruins and quiet squares await…
By Duncan Rhodes
Let’s Go to El Gotico!
The Gothic Quarter is where it all started for Barcelona. The land was settled as far back as Neolithic times, but it was the Romans who gave “Barcino” as it was known then, city status, building a forum, city walls, an aqueduct and a temple to Caesar Augustus. The former sits underneath the site of Plaça Sant Jaume, while remnants of the latter three are still visible today.
After the Roman Empire fell, Barcelona weathered the dark ages to prosper in the medieval ones, developing into one of the most important economic and political centres of the Western Mediterranean. It was during these affluent times (13th to 15th century) that the Gothic Quarter we know today took shape, a district full of palaces, plazas and places of worship.
But warning, my dear naive tourist, not everything you see today is authentic medieval masonry!
As Barcelona prepared for the 1929 Universal Exhibition (held in Citadel Park), there were concerns that the Gothic Quarter was not Gothic enough! So the city had a whip round and paid for an extensive remodelling of the district. The once drab and squat cathedral got an epic Neo-Gothic facelift, the insta-famous bridge of Carrer Bisbe was built, and spangly new street lighting were all added…. not least in the freshly-delineated Plaça Reial, where Gaudi was commissioned to design them.
But whether you’re viewing Gothic or Neo-Gothic greats, who cares! This part of the district is a wonder to wander, with its labyrinthine streets, hidden squares, cute cafes, romantic antique shops and hundreds of great restaurants and bars.
Many of its thoroughfares will be choked with tourists, but follow your nose (which will doubtless inhale Barcelona’s rather pungent odour of grime, urine and weed combined) into dark allies and uncover its secrets. There are few places more likely to reward the curious traveller.
Things To Do & See
Needless to say there are plenty of things to see and do in El Gotic. Let’s take a look at the unmissables, as well as the too-easily-missed-ables.
The Main Attractions
1. The Gothic Cathedral
Foremost on your Gothic hit list should be the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia (also known as Cathedral La Seu and not to be confused with Gaudi’s bruiser La Sagrada Familia in the Eixample district). An open space in front of the Cathedral enables onlookers to admire the church’s grand neo-Gothic facade, which was added between 1882 and 1913, as part of the aforementioned bid to make the Gothic Quarter look much more, erm, ‘Gothicky’. Venture inside the cloister at the back to discover the 13 geese representing the 13 years of the virgin martyr Saint Eulalia herself.
2. Roman Aqueduct & Temple
Right by the cathedral the sharp eyed tourist should be able to make out the remnants of a Roman aqueduct which once ferried water supplies to thirsty toga-wearers all those centuries ago. In fact, the historically inclined tourist should be able to find several other interesting Roman remains, including the pillars of what was once a temple to Emperor Augustus – head to Carrer Paradis 10 to see them. More Roman remains can be seen under the City History Museum.
3. Plaça Sant Jaume
Wandering from the Cathedral further east into the Barri Gotic and you should come across Plaça Sant Jaume. A significant square indeed, as this used to be Barcelona’s ancient Roman forum and has kept its political role – today you can behold the magnificent Renaissance façade of the Palau de la Generalitat, the headquarters of the government of Catalonia. It’s the one with the surly-looking guards out front. Opposite is the Adjuntament, or Barcelona City Hall. Come to think of it, it’s also got surly-looking guards out front.
4. Plaça Reial
Exceeding the Plaça Santa Jaume in beauty, and for me the cynosure of the entire Gothic Quarter, is Plaça Reial (Plaza Real). This resplendent space was actually fashioned in the 19th century on the site of a demolished convent, and comes replete with palm trees, Gaudi-designed lampposts and central fountain. Always packed, not always with salubrious characters, this is prime people watching territory and it’s worth paying the mark-up on a beer to sit on one of the bar or restaurant terraces for a while. Later on the plaza becomes a centre of Barcelona’s nightlife.
5. Plaça del Rei
The King’s Square actually dates back to the 14th century, so is arguably the best example of a true medieval square in the Gothic Quarter. It’s quite an imposing place, fenced in by The Royal Palace, the 15th-century Mirador del Rei Martí (“King Martin’s Watchtower”), the Royal Chapel, the Casa Padellàs, home to the History Museum, and a small section of the old Roman walls. For a bit more background and info, I suggest you check out the Barcelona Turisme website.
6. Santa Maria del Pi
This squat, virtually unembellished brute of a basilica is what true Catalan Gothic architecture looks like. Preventing it from completing an imitation of a large cardboard box is an impressive 54-high octagonal bell tower that visitors can climb for fantastic views over the old town – which works out cheaper than ascending the towers of La Sagrada Familia (although I’d recommend doing that too!). The church overlooks two delightful squares, so it’s well worth wondering over to take a photo or two.
Those that prefer sampling the vibe over taking in dates and details can still have plenty of fun simply wandering the Barri Gotic’s labyrinthine passages and uncovering their secrets… throw away your map and get lost and before you know it you’ll be in a tiny forgotten plaza sipping a quiet cerveza and reflecting on just how good life can be!
7. Ancient Synagogue of Barcelona
Jewish people made an important contribution to the growth and prosperity of Barcelona from as early as the 3rd century AD to medieval times, before the massacre of 1391 and then later the infamous Spanish inquisition meant they were either killed, expelled or converted to Christianity. This 9th century synagogue is one of Europe’s oldest and reopened in 2002 as a place of worship, and the home of a small museum. If you’re interested in Jewish history in Barcelona, I’d recommend going on a tour, because the traces of culture they left behind are extremely easy to miss.
8. Plaça Felip Neri
This picturesque plaza is well hidden amongst the Gothic Quarter’s meandering streets, but nonetheless many seek it out specifically for the sad story it has to tell. On 30th of January 1938 two bombs were dropped on this square by Franco’s fascist forces, killing a total of 42 people, mostly school children. The school remains open today and you can often see the pupils at play on the square in front of the shrapnel-scarred walls of the plaza’s church. Despite its tragic past the square remains a jolly place to pass through, and is usually an oasis of calm compared to the nearby Ramblas and co.. You may even choose to stay at the Hotel Neri, one of the Barcelona’s best boutique hotels, which has a terrace on the square.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to link to emo-rockers Evanescence’s My Immortal video, which features the plaza, in a knowingly poignant tribute to its past. Barcelona locals will also spot a couple of other iconic locations in the shoot.
9. Frederic Mares Museum
Frederic Mares was a renowned Catalan collector whose amassed treasures fill the vaults of this worthy museum. Given that Mares was a sculptor himself, it’s small wonder that a large part of this museum (near the Cathedral) is given over to the three-dimensional arts, with beautiful sculptures on display dating right back to antiquity. All good stuff, but for me the joy of the museum is to be had on the top floor, where thousands of 19th century household and artisan objects, such as keys, fans, playing cards, pipes, clocks and combs are on display. If the museum legs kick in, then there’s a rather romantic cafe set in the museum’s courtyard. If you’ve invested in a Barcelona Card, then you can access the museum for free.
10. Plaça George Orwell
Yep, that’s right… there’s a square in Barcelona named after the man who penned Animal Farm and 1984, two terrifying tales of the horrors of totalitarian thinking. Believe it or not, the English reporter actually came to Barcelona to fight FOR the communists, against the rising tide of fascism in Spain, later penning his memoirs in Homage to Catalonia. What he learnt about both sides went on to inform his ideas and the creation of arguably the two most important novels of the 20th century. When I first came to Barcelona this square was a hang out for drunks and druggies, and ironically enough there was a sign demonstrating that CCTV was in action (yes Big Brother was watching George Orwell, long after he died!). Thankfully a refit, featuring a kid’s playground, has cleaned the area up, and it’s a great place to grab a beer at one of the cafe / bars on the plaza.
6 Recommended Restaurants
You won’t be surprised to hear that the Gothic Quarter is replete with great eateries, most of them surprisingly affordable. These days they are more full of tourists than locals, but with massive competition and Tripadvisor keeping them honest, you are likely to eat very very well, for a very reasonable price. Especially if you follow my suggestions below…
The glass front of this charming little nook of a restaurant beckons you into its cosy interior for delicious creative tapas. The menu is a great mix of some Catalan and Spanish classics, often with a twist, such as the slow cooked pork cheeks with Peruvian sauce. Each tapa (shared plate) is around €5 to €10 euros. They take reservations via their website.
This typical Catalan restaurant is so old school it doesn’t have a website and is closed at weekends (wtf!? Haha!). A favourite with staff from the Generalitat and Ajuntament around the corner, it has also been discovered by tourists who enjoy its old world charm and seating out on the secluded Plaça Sant Just. The owner has his own vineyard, so expect a good drop too. You can book a table via Tripadvisor.
3. Koy Shunka
If you’ve pigged out on patatas bravas one too many times on your Barcelona travels, and fancy something lighter this Michelin-starred Japanese joint is a great bet. Not cheap, but fans of sushi, sashimi and Asian cuisine in general won’t go home disappointed.
A star of the Barcelona brunch scene, this is the place to power up on pancakes, scrambled eggs and smoothies before a hard day’s sightseeing, or return at night for delicious finger food and cocktails. Best to reserve ahead on their website.
Another great tapas bar by the Sensi group, this one is larger and set over two floors, but the concept is more or less the same. Spanish tapas with international influences. I really love the murals of Barcelona’s iconic monuments, that spreads over the second floor ceiling. Reservations via their website.
6. La Cereria
Ethical eaters will love this charming, Bohemian bistro that serves up vegan dishes that delight the palate. Another website-less wonder, you can reserve via their Facebook page.
4 Brilliant Bars & Cafes
This wouldn’t be Barcelona Life without a few bar recommendations… here are some crackers.
1. Els Quatre Gats
Hard not mention this classic, even if it’s as much a tourist attraction as a bar these days. This was once the epicentre of Bohemian Barcelona, a centre of intellectual thought and also Catalan nationalism. It is also the very cafe where Picasso staged his first ever exhibition (more on the genius here!). It’s still decorated in gorgeous Catalan art nouveau style.
A cult favourite with Barcelona’s bar flies, it’s hard not to love this combination of cheap drinks and 80s memorabilia. With Blondie, Talking Heads and Duran Duran on the soundtrack, what’s not to love?
3. Flaherty’s Irish Bar
If you’re looking for an unpretentious boozer to watch the sport, or just hang out for a few jars of the black stuff, this is the best traditional Irish style pub in the Barri Gotic. They also do a decent burger and chips.
The kids these days are more likely to be queuing outside Jamboree, in their desperation to bump and grind to some commercial guff on distorted speakers… but my late night venue of choice in El Gotico is this divey rock bar, lurking down in a damp cellar on Plaça Reial.
4 Great Tours & Activities
You can have a lot of fun following your nose in El Gotico, but to really bring the district alive it can be a good idea to enlist the help of some experts. Here are some guided tours I could recommend, along with some fun activities.
1. 3-Hour Walking Tour
This highly rated three hour tour takes place with a maximum of 12 people, which is about the perfect size IMHO, to have a good experience, not be intrusive on the city, and still be very affordable. The itinerary takes in not the Cathedral, Roman Barcelona and all of the best squares, but also includes a wonder down Las Ramblas (and into Boqueria food market), plus bits of El Borne (also in the Old Town). The price is just €16 per person and you can book via Get Your Guide.
2. Private Walking Tour
Get a guide all to yourself on this 2.5 hour private tour of El Barri Gotic. As well as a guided glimpse at all the sights (I’m not going to list them again!), you’ll also be treated to some hot chocolate and churros (sticky and sweet pastry!), on an incredible charming alleyway. Leaves at 11pm and 3pm every day, and costs €55 per person (min. two people). Book via Get Your Guide.
3. Flamenco & Tapas
A great evening activity that takes place in the Gothic Quarter is this two-pronged evening, that introduces you to Spain’s passionate song and dance, before whisking you off to a local restaurant to sample a tasty spread of classic tapas. Tickets are €39 per person. More info here.
4. Paella Cooking Experience
A great activity to do instead of lunch or dinner, on this group cooking activity you help the chef prepare a vast platter of Spain’s iconic rice and seafood dish (vegetarian alternative also cooked up!). Read all about it here.
Gothic Quarter Hotels
Naturally, as this is the touristic centre of the city, there are plenty of great hotels in the Barri Gotic if this is where you’re looking to bed down. We’ll bring you a guide to accommodation in the Gothic Quarter very soon! Meanwhile you might want to try the following apartments agencies.
About the Author
Duncan established Barcelona Life in 2009, whilst freelancing for the likes of Conde Nast, The Guardian, Easyjet Magazine, CNN Traveller and many more. From interviews with Ferran Adria to revealing the secrets of the city’s poetry brothels, he knows the city inside out… and shares all his best tips right here.