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Barcelona is divided officially into districts but most people tend to refer to their “barri”, the neighbourhood in which they (and most probably all their family) live. Barcelona is a real mix of ancient and modern often side by side. There is no land left to build on, so the only way to expand is to pull something down and build something higher. Barcelona seems to be constantly renewing itself. The most recent example being the new development at Diagonal Mar / Fòrum on former industrial land at the very edge of Barcelona.
Ciutat Vella and Barceloneta
The Old Town or
Ciutat Vella is subdivided into Barri Gòtic / Barrio Gotico, El Born-La Ribera and El Raval. All three areas are densely populated and consist of very narrow streets, interspersed with small squares.
Barri Gòtic is the oldest part of the city with
Roman remains to be seen round Plaça del Rei / Plaça Sant Jaume. Many buildings have
a medieval core, including behind the classical façades of the Town Hall and Palau de la Generalitat. The streets behind the Palau de la Generalitat constitute the medieval ghetto, the Call, where the old synagogue can now be visited. The Cathedral (Catedral de Santa Eulalia, La Seu), Santa Maria del Pi and the Basilica of La Mercè are the most striking of the
churches in Barri Gòtic. This area has become the heart of Tourist Barcelona, so many apartments are now aimed at tourists that the locals have chosen or have been forced to move elsewhere.
The Rambla, the stream-bed for water coming down from the hills, was just beyond the line of the medieval walls and is the divide between Barri Gòtic and El Raval. Walking on the Rambla is perhaps the epitome of Barcelona experience (not least with the need to beware of pickpockets!). To many tourists the Barcelona experience is to walk up (or down) the Rambla, stopping to watch the human statues, to look at the birds and other pets, to admire the flower stalls and the displays in Mercat de Sant Josep o La Boqueria (Boqueria Market). To others the Rambla is a packed tourist trap, with pavement cafes overcharging for drinks and poor quality food. At the top of the Rambla, near Plaça de Catalunya there are several upmarket hotels, however at the opposite end at night the red light district expands out from El Raval to incorporate its lower half and it becomes very unsavoury. Many locals now shun the Rambla.
El Raval is the "barri" beyond the Rambla towards Montjuic hill. In that area in medieval times there were fields and some religious foundations such as Sant Pau del Camp and the complex of Hospital de Santa Creu ( both of which can still be visited). However gradually housing was built too and a second wall was added (the line of Ronda Sant Antoni, Ronda Sant Pau and Parallel).
El Raval is sometimes referred to as the "barri xino" (Chinatown, even it has nothing to do with China, it's slang for red-light district).
It used to be Barcelona’s traditional red-light district, and still it is in parts, especially at the lower end near the port. The upper part around MACBA was gentrified in recent years, with some urban interventions as the new Rambla del Raval. The upper part of Raval is now a lively, colorful and trendy area, partly as a result of the presence of the MACBA museum and Centre of Contemporary Culture (CCCB) there and also the location of some university faculties in the area. Some smart new hotels have also recently opened. Many tourist apartments are located in the Raval and this can lead to conflicts with the permanent residents. However, still many of the side-streets are unappealing and can be (relatively) dangerous at night and there is also, as elsewhere in Barcelona, a problem with graffiti and litter.
La Ribera / El Born
On the other side of Barri Gòtic, Via Laietana was constructed at the turn of the twentieth century thus producing another divide: the area beyond it is La Ribera. Part of La Ribera is referred to as El Born because El Born wholesale market was there. The building is currently being developed as a museum showing archaeological remains of the city destroyed by the Borbons in 1714, uncovered recently. Carrer Montcada boasts various museums and art galleries in the medieval palaces including Picasso Museum, Textile Museum and Barbier-Müller Museum. Nearby is the Gothic gem of Santa Maria del Mar church on Passeig del Born. A new attraction in La Ribera is the Santa Caterina market, designed by Enric Miralles (architect of the Scottish parliament building) who was clearly inspired by Gaudi’s work. El Born area has boutiques, bars and restaurants and has become trendy, and is becoming increasingly touristy, whereas heading up towards Plaça Urquinaona in Sant Pere area near Palau de la Musica Catalana, there are more traditional shops and a concentration of textile wholesalers.
Going from El Born towards the harbour and the beaches you come to Barceloneta , the area where traditionally Barcelona’s fisherman lived and which today is famous for its fish restaurants . The area was developed on a grid pattern and the narrow streets hanging with washing give it a certain air of Naples. Many of the flats are very small as the dwellings were gradually divided up, the smallest being a "quart de pis" (quarter of a flat, under 30sq.metres). The original Barcelona beach is here.
On the other side of the old town, next to the Raval area , and nestled at the foot of the Montjuic hill is the
Poble Sec area. This area is mostly residential, and the peaceful, tree-lined streets are a breath of fresh air after the busy centre. Built mainly at the end of the late 1800s and early 1900s it has some lovely arquitecture, and because of it's location slightly off to one side of the tourist areas, it's one of the few places in the centre you can still eat and go out amongst mainly locals. The main street, Calle Blai, is a tree-lined pedestrian street with lots of restaurants, bars and cafes which spring to life at night. A 15 minute walk away from Las Ramblas, It's a great choice if you want to be centrally located, but still get a good nights sleep in a quiet apartment and not be jostling your way through crowds first thing out the door.
The Eixample and Uptown
The Eixample/Ensanche or “widening” was the area of the city developed when the walls of the Old Town were pulled down in the mid nineteenth century. Built on a grid-pattern following plans by Ildefons Cerdà, whose original idea was that the blocks should have buildings on two sides only, with gardens in the middle but economics meant that in the end all four sides of the block were built on. Some interior squares have in recent years been opened up to become small neighbourhood parks.
The Eixample contains most of the great modernista buildings, including several works by Gaudí and his contemporaries Puig i Cadafalch and Domènech i Montaner as well as by less celebrated architects. There is a Ruta del Modernisme, developed by Turisme de Barcelona which guides you round the modernista treasures of Barcelona and other towns.
The broad avenue of Rambla de Catalunya, parallel to
Passeig de Gràcia is the demarcation between Eixample Dreta and Eixample Esquerra. The left-hand (Esquerra) side was initially where the services were located (prison, fire station, hospital, abattoir and some factories) whereas the right-hand (Dreta) was mainly residential and considered posher. Nowadays the whole of the Eixample is of mixed use: residential/offices/banks/bars and restaurants. And shops galore: designer names on Passeig de Gràcia and Diagonal and more mixed local shopping as you go further from the centre. There are also various museums, mainly foundations dedicated to the private collection of an individual (Tàpies,
Godia and Jordi Clos whose collection forms the basis of the Egyptian Museum). If you want to experience real Barcelona life, local shops, bars, restaurants, etc then L’Eixample is the area to stay.
Passeig de Gràcia leads to Carrer Gran de Gràcia, the main street of the barri of Gràcia, which was a separate township in the 19th century (and Passeig de Gràcia was the road that linked it to Barcelona). It is still village-like with narrow streets and small squares with terrace bars and cafes, and has great charm. Popular with bohemian types and foreigners (esp. singles/young couples) it is a very cosmopolitan area. Lots of facilities of interest to expats including one of BCN's first arts cinemas showing films in original version, and an English second-hand bookshop. There are also lots of bars and restaurants serving dishes from all over the world. Gràcia is also famous for its Festa Major, celebrated mid-August every year.
Just like Gràcia, there are other areas of Barcelona which developed as a separate villages or townships and were eventually “taken over” by Barcelona such as Sarrià, Sants, Horta and Sant Andreu which also have their own High Street/Main Street . Sant Andreu and Sants/Hostafrancs were traditionally working class districts with factories in their midst and with a strong local identity which they have maintained (although the factories have now gone).
Sarrià has the old village centre but has become a much more select area to live, with many newer more upmarket flats on the streets going up towards Tibidabo. Sarriá is also the area where many private clinics are located and most of the fee-paying schools. Many of the old villas built by the bourgeoisie, for their summer residence in many cases, have been taken over by companies for offices. This is part of Barcelona’s “uptown” the Zona Alta where house and flat-prices are even higher than in the rest of the city ( Pedralbes being the most expensive area of all). Zona Alta tends to be defined as being above Diagonal, but only from Passeig de Gracia westwards. Apart from its being at the top of the map, the land does slope uphill quite markedly in some areas. The market is spotless with top quality food in a beautifully modernized old structure. Walking the neighborhood has a village feel with charming shops and cafes. The pace is much slower than elsewhere in Barcelona and a great spot for a calm afternoon. Vallvidrera, el Tibidabo i les Planes is a neighborhood in Sarrià
Modern developments : Vila Olímpica and Diagonal Mar/Fòrum
Barcelona has in the last twenty years stopped living “with its back to the sea” (as used to be said). The impetus for the first urban renewal project was the 1992 Olympics when the area north of Barceloneta was redeveloped. Now you see Frank Gehry’s giant fish sculpture, the twin towers of Hotel Arts and Torre Mapfre and the Olympic Port with the Vila Olímpica (Olympic Village) where previously there had been small factories and workshops, transport companies etc, with the beach itself in a very sorry state. The houses and flats in the Vila Olímpica were designed by many different architects which makes the architecture very varied.
A major part of the project was the recovery of the beaches together with the building of the yachting marina at the Port Olímpic (Olympic Port). The kilometres of sand, the promenades which are perfect for cycling and roller-blading, and the restaurants at the port have all made the area incredibly popular with locals and visitors alike. The Olympic Village area is popular with yuppies as a place to live. The flats are not particularly big so not necessarily the first choice for families. Also, although near the beach, the sea is not on the doorstep, as roads (including underground ring-road) separate the housing from the beach. In the years immediately after the Olympics this district lacked the feel of a real neighbourhood as many shop units were still vacant but in the intervening years it has developed as a proper “barri”.
The latest project is the extension of Avinguda Diagonal so it reaches the sea . This is
Diagonal Mar. The other part of the project was and the building of the
Fòrum complex (with conference facilities and exhibition space for the Forum of the Cultures in 2004). The new conference centre and new hotels attract businesspeople and conference-goers, and Diagonal Mar is a popular shopping centre with restaurants and cinemas but, just as happened in Vila Olimpica in the early 90’s, it will take time for the area to develop an identity of its own. There are still plenty of building-sites and it is only on the Rambla de Poble Nou in
Poble Nou that you come upon a traditional barri.
Beyond the boundary of the city of Barcelona, are L’Hospitalet de Llobregat , and Esplugues de Llobregat in the west (they in turn border on to Cornellà, Sant Joan Despí, and Sant Just Desvern); to the east Santa Coloma de Gramanet and Sant Adrià (then Badalona). All are included on ordinary bus, metro and tram routes into central Barcelona.
The other side of Collserola mountain is
Sant Cugat, and beyond that
Sant Quirze and
Sabadell. Frequent suburban trains (FGC) link these towns to central Barcelona. One of Barcelona’s universities (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) is also located in this area at Bellaterra near Cerdanyola.