Barcelona is rightly famous for Gaudi’s amazing architecture, and you absolutely must see his incredible architectural feats, but if it’s the beating heart of Barcelona you want, the 1.2 kilometer long tree-lined pedestrian mall, known as Las Ramblas and its surrounding districts is where you need to spend time.
This iconic street (actually a series of five shorter streets) bisects the three most important neighborhoods in the old city—the newly gentrified El Raval to the west and El Born and Barri Gòtic to the east. The promenade is crowded from until late at night, with people flocking around restaurants, street performers and kiosks that sell flowers, gelato, souvenirs and even birds.
Start your journey at the Placa de Catalunya, just down from Gaudi’s Casa Mila and Casa Battlo and head down the gently sloping street to soak up the atmosphere. Most of the really interesting stops you should make are at least half way down.
The first should be The Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria, (usually referred to as La Boqueria market) is the city’s most iconic street market, jam-packed with huge colourful and exotic food stalls of every kind. It has a permanent roof over it that seems to help add a buzz to the market and makes it weatherproof. There are several places to sit and eat or have a coffee if you already want to take a break.
When you walk back out the market, turn right, and you’ll pass a charming corner shop Escriba. It is one of the oldest patisseries in Barcelona, and although it isn’t quite as impressive as say, Laduree in Paris, it is quaint and charming and you can buy small cakes or macaroons to take away.
Then cross back onto the pedestrian walkway, and while you’re munching your macaroons, look down for the Miró Mosaic. It’s a stunning piece of art that many people seem to walk straight over without realising its significance.
A few more steps and you’ll come across the Gran Teatre sel Liceau (or simply, Liceau) Barcelona’s renowned opera house. It has hosted many greats including the likes of Placido Domngo, Jose Carreras and Montserrat Caballe, who debuted here in 1962 in Richard Strauss’s Arabella.
The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca apparently once said that Las Ramblas is “the only street in the world which I wish would never end.” But end it does, at the Christopher Columbus Monument at Port Vell. Which is where you can either head on to look at the port, or turn around, walk up a little and right into the Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter, where Barcelona began its life as a walled city 2,000 years ago. Its easy to get lost in its delightful side streets and alleyways and there are a number of interesting architectural sites, including the famed cathedral, La Seu, one of the finest Gothic buildings in Barcelona.
Keep walking and you’ll reach the equally charming and fashionable (but slightly calmer) area, El Born. At its heart is the Passeig del Born square where medieval jousting once took place and which is now a popular evening hangout for the hip young local crowd.
If you’re hungry, try the ever-popular Cal Pep restaurant (Plaça de les Olles 8), considered one of the city’s best tapas bars. You can’t make a reservation unless you have a party of at least four, so you may have to hustle your way in. But it’s worth the effort because their menu has more than 70 tapas for you to try.
After lunch, join the inevitable queue at the nearby Picasso Museum (Montcada 15 – 23), which occupies five large town houses or palaces on a narrow medieval street. It can be quite difficult to find down the winding alleys, so make sure you have a good map. The museum focuses on the early years of the Spanish genius’s life and has more than 3,800 works in its permanent exhibition.
As the afternoon winds down, head back to Las Ramblas and cross over into Barri del Raval, once the red-light district of the city, now filled with dozens of small restaurants and bars where you settle in for a while. Or else try Placa Reial, off Las Ramblas, a plaza with palm trees and porticoed buildings filled with pubs and restaurants, where you can rest your feet and people watch as the sun sets.