Barcelona is a clutch of different cities. It's the lively, squawking, bustling energy of the Ramblas; the elegance of the Passeig de G... more »ràcia and the wide boulevards of the Eixample; the surreal splendor of Gaudí's mysterious creations; and the fun-loving, casual, beach bum's playground of the sandy beaches along the regenerated waterfront.
But before it was all those things Barcelona was the center of a confident seafaring mercantile class that traded and left its mark across much of Europe and the near East, only to dwindle in importance once the Atlantic replaced the Mediterranean as the most lucrative highway of trade (and imperial exploitation). They left behind a legacy of buildings from the 12th to 14th centuries that reflect the robust confidence that once held sway, and you can feel it as you walk past the merchants' palaces of Carrer Montcada, stand dwarfed by the watchtower of the Plaça del Rei or admire the cloisters and choir stalls of the severe yet imposing Gothic Cathedral. Scrape beyond the medieval trappings and you will find remnants of the ancient Roman city of Barcino.
Today the Gothic Quarter (and old town in general) is fun to visit because these historical markers are seamlessly integrated into the life of the city. And so the works of the greatest artist of the modern era find a perfect home within the reassuring solidity of a row of medieval palaces, and the city government and stock exchange operate from buildings in place long before Columbus returned in triumph. The streets are narrow, shady and maze-like, and sprinkled with intriguing family run shops that elsewhere were long ago dispatched by the supermarket and the mall, and there are lots of intriguing spots to stop for a drink and some food.
Follow the route—but also give yourself permission to get lost. less «