By Margaret M. Johnson

Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's Cathedral of the Holy Family, is not expected to be completed until 2030
Gaudi's Sagrada Familia

Barcelona -- forgive me, but I think it should be renamed "B-art-celona (more on that in a minute) -- is Spain's second largest city and the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia. Enjoying a privileged position in the northeast triangle of the Iberian Peninsula, it has sometimes been called a northern European city in a southern Mediterranean country -- Hans Christian Anderson even called it the "Paris of Spain," presumably for its wide boulevards, beautiful squares, great devotion to art, and forward-thinking attitude. More contemporary writers have said, simply, "it has one foot in Europe and the other in Spain."

Great climate, beautiful beaches, and a zest for outdoor life, the Barcelonese know how to combine the best of these worlds with a reasonable dose of seny (common sense) and a hefty spirit of sabor (flavor). Add six universities, countless museums paying homage to artists from Miro and Picasso to FCB (Football Club Barcelona), the citywide "museum'" of Antoni Gaudi's architecture, and you might say Barcelona has it all.

The city began as a primitive Roman colony known as Barcino, the area presently called Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter. A visit to this lovely neighborhood of preserved 13th-, 14-, and 15th-century buildings, winding streets and alleyways, including the ancient barrio of La Ribera, is a "must." In the mid-19th century, the expansion project known as Eixample began, developing a neighborhood outside the medieval city walls.

By the turn of the century, Barcelona was moving full throttle into a period of industrialization and a flourishing of the arts. The period known as "modernism" (Catalonia's version of art nouveau) has left an unmistakable mark on the city, which brings me back to "B-art-celona," where you don't really need much of an interest in either art or architecture to be duly impressed with the city's "modernista" landscape.

Chief among the artists who lived and worked here is Antoni Gaudi, considered by many to be "modernista's" genius. Although his architecture appears within the framework of the period, the unique character of his creations and his own mystical personality set him apart. To view some of Gaudi's signature style -- series of columns, parabolic arches, domes, use of diverse materials and trencadis (broken pieces of tile on rooftop chimneys) -- walk from Placa de Catalunya up Passeig de Gracia (also delectable for shopping), where you'll encounter Casa Batllo, built between 1904 and 1906 on the famous "block of discord," so named because of the dramatic contrast between the three buildings. Actually designed by three architects, including Gaudi, only his building (No. 43) is open to the public (9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily; admission 11 euros/$16.50).

A few blocks further on is Casa Mila, commonly known as La Pedrera (the Stone Quarry). The residential apartment building stands on a corner of Passeig de Gracia (No. 92) as if it were a gigantic curving sculpture. You can visit the building, now a museum dedicated to Gaudi, and walk around the startling loft formed by 270 parabolic arches of flat-laid brick. Open daily 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in low season; admission 8 euros/$12.

The city's most famous landmark though is Gaudi's Basilica of the Holy Family (La Sagrada Familia), a project to which he devoted more than 40 years of his life. At his death in 1926, he had completed only one of the four original towers of the Nativity facade, but construction continued after his death, even to this day, with other sculptors and architects adding personal touches. The building has been financed exclusively with donations from anonymous donors and from the more than 1 million visitors annually. Expected completion is not until 2030, so there's still time to see Gaudi's work-in-progress. Open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in low season; admission 10 euros/$15. If walking is not for you, you can catch all of these Gaudi sites and more on the Red Route of Barcelona's "Bus Turistic" and enjoy discounts on admissions.

Head back to Placa de Catalunya via metro or bus if you're not on the tour bus, stop for cafe con leche or cortado (Spanish coffee drinks) at Cafe Zurich, then begin your long stroll down La Rambla, the 1/2-mile long pedestrian thoroughfare that cuts through the old town and ends up at the harbor. La Rambla is many streets in one, and its name changes at each different section, one of the reasons it's popularly called "Las Ramblas." Some stretches are best known for stalls selling small animals and birds; others for flower stalls, others souvenirs and snacks.

Wander off to the side streets of Barri Gotic to visit La Boqueria, the city's oldest food market and the most authentic of the more than 40 municipal markets located throughout Barcelona. You'll be impressed, too, by the landmark pavement mural by Joan Miro, the Gran Teatre del Liceu (opera house), and the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, also known as the Cathedral of La Ribera. If you're interested in high-quality crafts, you'll want to spend some time in La Ribera, an old quarter of the city that was once the center of the trade guilds. Some of the original shops now house charming bars and restaurants.

Back on Las Ramblas, head down to the city's busy harbor and the monument to Columbus in the center of Placa del Portal de la Pau. For a bird's-eye view of the city and the harbor, you can ride the elevator to the top of monument. Those who are committed to land may walk over the pedestrian walkway to Port Vell, the oldest part of the harbor, which stretches out in front of the Ribera district. Interestingly, even though Barcelona's history has always been linked to the sea, its harbor wasn't fully developed until the city was chosen to host the 1992 Olympics.

The idea of opening the city up to the sea -- a bonus for summer visitors who want beach time along with touring -- has now been fully realized. Today, the harbor is a lively mix of residential and commercial enterprise, including the Maremagnum, a complex of shops, restaurants and bars, L'Aquarium, and Imax theater. For those who want to learn more about the history of the Catalan region, the Museu d'Historia de Catalunya is located nearby.



Omm Hotel. Rossello 265, is a hip, boutique-style hotel situated in the city center near Passeig de Gracia. With 91 rooms and suites, the hotel is light, modern, and comfortable, with some rooms overlooking Gaudi's Casa Mila, popularly known as "La Pedrera." The hotel also has a swimming pool and bar on a rooftop terrace. Moo Restaurant offers Catalan specialties and Moovida casual seasonal food. Doubles start at 280 euros/$420 in low season (October to March); phone 93-445-4000.

Le Meridien. La Rambla 111, is situated on Barcelona's iconic boulevard of leisure and entertainment. Perfect for travelers who like the comfort of a worldwide hotel chain, the 233-room Meridien offers easy access to the city's museums, architectural wonders, and restaurants. Spacious suites with private terraces grace the top four floors of the hotel and offer lovely views of the city. Its restaurant and bar, Cent Onze, is a great place to relax and listen to live jazz. Off-season rates for doubles start at 225 euros/$340; phone 93-93-318-6200.

The Claris, 150 Pau Claris, is a stunning 124-room hotel (some duplex and suites) housed in the 19th-century Palacio Vedruna. Rooms are decorated with original Egyptian, Roman, and Hindu art, while an Andy Warhol portrait collection adorns the walls of East 47, one of four bar/lounge/restaurants located in the hotel. Rooftop swimming pool, sauna and gym, free admission to Barcelona Egyptian Museum, and close proximity to bustling Passeig de Gracia are bonuses. Off-season rates for doubles start at 250 euros/$375; phone 90-233-7294.


Bar Pinotxo, Mercat de la Boqueria, occupies two stalls of the legendary market in the heart of the Gothic Quarter. With only 14 stools, first order up some patience while you wait to be seated at this very popular eatery. Open Monday to Saturday from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m., the restaurant named for Pinocchio serves terrific tapas like tomato-rubbed toast and salt cod croquettes, lamb stew, and grilled lobster (about 8 euros/$12); phone 93-317-1731.

Suquet de l'Almirall, Passeig de Joan de Borbo 65, is one of many seafood restaurants in the Barceloneta area near the harbor. Family run for more than three generations, you'll find fresh Catalan dishes including tapas, arros a la barca (rice laden with various types of fish and tomato), paella, and suquet (seafood stew). The restaurant has a cozy interior and charming outdoor terrace. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner; dinner for two without wine about 65 euros/$96; phone 93-221-6233.

El Puchero de Baralantra, Muntaner 103, is a good place to stop for lunch or dinner if you're visiting Gaudi's Casa Batllo or Casa Mila. With both indoor and outdoor dining, tapas (steamed mussels, meat and fish croquettes, omelets of all types) and other traditional Catalan, Andalusian, and Iberian specialties are served daily from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. Luncheon specials start at 10 euros/$15; dinners about 22 euros/$32; phone 93-452-4060.


For tourist information on Spain, visit; for Barcelona, visit The tourist information office is located at Placa de Catalunya in the heart of the city. Here you can get street maps, hotel and museum information, book tours and concerts, and buy tickets for Bus Turistic, Barcelona Walks, and the Barcelona Card (tickets can be purchased online). The currency in Barcelona is the euro. All phone numbers are for local calls; from the U.S., dial 011+ 34 + local number.

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© Margaret M. Johnson

Travel | Barcelona Spain: Cutting Edge Catalonia