Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is a major metropolis. It is located in northeast Spain and includes a large port in the Mediterranean Sea, sitting between the mouths of the rivers Llobregat and Besos. One of Europe’s most influential cities with regard to art, culture, history, economy, and technology, to mention just a few, Barcelona captures your attention from the first moment you set foot on her soil, with an endless offer of attractions and things to do and see that could easily occupy you for a week or more.
I have visited many times and always find something new, be it an interesting restaurant that’s sprung up, a new fashion shop or luxurious spa, or the ever-changing art exhibitions, but there are a few favorite experiences and sights that I am drawn to again and again. Being a great fan of art and history, my favorites tend to be away from the most famous landmarks, like the buildings of Gaudi and Dali, and are mostly located in Barcelona’s most picturesque area, Ciutat Vella, or the “old city.”
This part of Barcelona is big and comprises the Gothic Quarter, El Raval, Borne, and the old fishermen and sailors’ quarter near Olympic Village, La Barceloneta. I’ll take you to my favorite experiences in this fantastic area.
1. The Gothic Quarter: Plaza Del Pi
The Gothic Quarter, one of my favorite parts of Barcelona, is a warren of narrow, medieval streets that invites you to drift along from one to the other, discovering new sights at every turn. One of those streets, Carrer Petritxol, opens up into the delightful rectangular square, the Plaza del Pi.
The square gets its name from the pine tree that has stood there since 1568; well, when the current tree dies, it is replaced. On one side stands the gothic church Santa Maria del Pi, which features an interior dripping with gold. On the other, Casa dels Tenders Revenedors, with one of the few remaining Baroque facades of the city.
Make it a point to visit on the first or third Friday of each month, when an artisan market is held in the square, visited by locals and tourists alike. There are not that many stalls due to the restricted space, but they sell the best honey, cheeses, cakes, chocolates, and wines you can possibly buy.
On weekends, the square features an art and craft market. The artists sit next to their works and are happy to explain (and sell) them to you.
All the surrounding streets are dotted with chocolate, art, and craft shops. Whilst wandering them, look down, not up. You will notice plaques on the pavement, indicating the names and history of some of the most historic and traditional craft shops in Barcelona; for instance, the oldest bakery in the city, or a shop full of handmade baskets and other wicker products.
Pro Tip: Be aware that most churches in Barcelona charge admission to enter.
Another treasure of the Gothic Quarter is the Major Synagogue of Barcelona, a minuscule building with a great history. Although it is temporarily closed as of May 2022, it is worth finding your way there, reading the inscriptions, and looking at it from the outside.
2. La Boqueria: A Feast For The Senses
Barcelona has many markets, but the most colorful is, no doubt, La Boqueria in the Gothic Quarter. The vast, covered market is located in an Art Deco wrought-iron building with a distinctive black, pitched roof. It is accessible from La Rambla.
Upon entering, you come to the fruit and vegetable section that assails your senses with the scents of every imaginable local and exotic fruit, many already cut up in handy portions or being prepared for you as juices or smoothies. Further down the aisles, you find cheeses, charcuteries, meat cuts, fresh fish and seafood, and a great selection of spices. There are also a few little restaurants where you can sample freshly cooked seafood.
Pro Tip: Walk with care as the floors can be slippery, especially around the fish stalls. There are restrooms at the back, but you need to buy tokens to use them.
3. Barcelona Night Ghost Tour
As you can imagine, with a history as long as Barcelona’s, there is no shortage of legends and ghost stories associated with the darker parts of the Gothic Quarter.
One of my favorite experiences is to go on a night ghost tour. I have been on several and found this one by ICONO Barcelona Cultural Services the best, most instructive, and entertaining with a knowledgeable, enthusiastic guide with a sense of humor. The meeting point is at the Arc de Triomf, and the tour is conducted in English and Spanish and requires approximately 2 hours of walking. If you are lucky, the night will be foggy, which makes the experience even more mysterious. In the course of the tour, you hear stories of apparitions, witchcraft, and other supernatural events. You also come across the Mercado de Santa Caterina, where you can see Roman excavations through the large windows, and the Santa Maria del Mar church, also known as the Cathedral of the Sea.
4. The Opera
One of Barcelona’s most emblematic buildings is her opera house, called Gran Teatre del Liceu. The performances by national and international artists are first rate, and you should treat yourself to a night at the opera — or a recital or a ballet — if only to enjoy the magnificent rebirth of the building.
The Liceu was inaugurated in 1847, and premieres there soon became an important event on the social calendar of Barcelona’s upper crust. However, in 1994, disaster struck when a fire devastated a great part of the opera house. It took until 1999 to reconstruct the Liceu, including the hall of mirrors in the entry hall.
Even if you aren’t a fan of classical music, make time to visit the iconic opera house on a day tour. See the auditorium and all the other rooms publicly accessible rooms to marvel at the lavish details.
5. Watching A Luthier At Work
How often do you have a chance to see a master luthier create a guitar or a violin, to marvel at the skill and meticulous work that goes into creating one of these valuable instruments — instruments that delight our ears and hearts? Maybe I sound a bit poetic here, but it is indeed a rare treat, and one you can experience in the workshop of Xavier Vidal i Roca.
The workshop is in a building designed by architect Granell i Manresa in the Eixample district. Not only is the workshop an experience and education relating to a rare craft, but the building itself is also worth a visit. Manresa was one of the foremost modernist architects and created several buildings in the same style in Barcelona. The master luthier’s studio is in the mezzanine, but there are also showrooms where instruments are sold or rented.
6. Ciutadella Park
One of Barcelona’s most pleasant oases is Cuitadella Park. Nothing is more refreshing after a long day of exploring the many streets and sights of the Gothic Quarter than a visit to this lovely, green park. The easiest way to get there is to take Metro Line 1 to the Arc de Triomf station, get off, then walk through the Arc along the pedestrian avenue Passeig de Lluís Companys directly to the entrance.
The Castle of the Three Dragons houses the Zoology Museum. Next to it stands the Hivernacle, a cast-iron and glass pavilion, which is a conservatory with a particularly nice café. And then there is the Umbracle, a greenhouse for shade-loving plants.
And finally, there is a lake where you can rent boats to row around.
7. The National, A Restaurant With History
El Nacional, located in the middle of the Passeig de Gracia, is a very special food experience. It is the first restaurant in Barcelona where you can enjoy specialties from the different sections of the Iberian peninsula all under one roof. There are areas for grilled meat, seafood, and other dishes, and four specialty bars for cheeses, desserts, chocolates, and so on. There is also a wine and beer bar.
As if that isn’t an experience enough, there is also the history and decoration of the eatery itself. The building started out life as a theater-café in 1889. When that burned down, the Spanish Industrial Revolution took over and the space became a textile factory and tannery for shoes, then a high-end car dealership, and then a private parking space until it found a new life as one of Barcelona’s most extraordinary restaurants. Apart from plenty of lush, green plants, part of the decoration gracing walls and ceilings are auto parts to remind customers of the location’s colorful past.
Best Place To Stay In The Gothic Quarter
To see all the things we suggested and live all the experiences, you might want to stay in a convenient hotel in the Gothic Quarter. My home away from home in Barcelona is the Hesperia Barri Gòtic Hotel.
Located on Carrer Ample, a narrow, quiet street in the heart of the Gothic Quarter, the Hesperia Barri Gòtic Hotel is within minutes of interesting places you want to be. You’re two minutes on foot from Plaza del Pi and a few more to La Boqueria. Receptionists are extremely friendly and helpful, rooms and bathrooms are large and very clean, there are coffee machines and soft drinks in the mezzanine, and there is a small continental breakfast bar on the first floor. A café with a great selection of cakes and sandwiches is literally around the corner. Taxis pass all the time along the next street over, and if you can’t find one, reception will call one.
Even if I want to visit different areas of Barcelona, I stay there.