Capital of Catalonia, 2,000-year-old Barcelona commanded a vast Mediterranean empire when Madrid was still a dusty Moorish outpost on the Spanish steppe. Relegated to second-city status only in 1561, Barcelona has long rivaled and often surpassed Madrid's supremacy. Catalans jealously guard their language and their culture. Barcelona has long had a frenetically active cultural life. It was the home of architect Antoni Gaudí, and the painters Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí. Pablo Picasso also spent his formative years in Barcelona. Native musicians include cellist Pablo (Pau, in Catalan) Casals, opera singers Montserrat Caballé and José (Josep) Carreras, and early-music master Jordi Savall. One of Europe's most visually stunning cities, Barcelona balances its many elements, from the medieval intimacy of its Gothic Quarter to the grace of the wide boulevards in the moderniste Eixample. In the 21st century innovative structures, such as the Ricardo Bofill vela (sail) hotel, demonstrate Barcelona's insatiable appetite for novelty and progress.
Barcelona's Old City includes El Barri Gòtic (the Gothic Quarter). Although this section of the city is being cleaned up, bag snatching is common here, so keep your wits about you, and if at all possible, carry nothing in your hands. Nearby is Sant Pere, which was once Barcelona's old textile neighborhood.
Barcelona's best-known promenade, La Rambla, is a constant and colorful flood of humanity with flower stalls, bird vendors, mimes, musicians, and outdoor cafés. Federico García Lorca called this street the only one in the world that he wished would never end; traffic plays second fiddle to the endless paseo (stroll) of locals and travelers alike. The whole avenue is referred to as Las Ramblas (Les Rambles, in Catalan) or La Rambla, but each section has its own name: Rambla Santa Monica is at the southeastern, or port, end; Rambla de les Flors is in the middle; and Rambla dels Estudis is at the top, near Plaça de Catalunya.
North of Plaça de Catalunya is the checkerboard known as the Eixample. With the dismantling of the city walls in 1860, Barcelona embarked upon an expansion scheme. The street grid was the work of urban planner Ildefons Cerdà; much of the building here was done at the height of Modernisme. The Eixample's principal thoroughfares are Rambla de Catalunya and Passeig de Gràcia, where the city's most elegant shops vie for space among its best art nouveau buildings.
Once Barcelona's pungent fishing port, Barceloneta retains much of its maritime flavor. Nearby is La Ciutadella, once a fortress but now the city's main downtown park. Montjuïc, a hill to the south of town, may have been named for the Jewish cemetery that was once on its slopes.
La Boqueria. Barcelona's most spectacular food market, also known as the Mercat de Sant Josep, is an explosion of life and color sprinkled with delicious little bar-restaurants. A solid polychrome wall of fruits, herbs, wild mushrooms, vegetables, nuts, candied fruits, cheeses, hams, fish, poultry, and provender of every imaginable genus and strain greets you as you turn in from La Rambla and breathe air alive with the aromas of fresh produce and reverberating with the din of commerce. Within this steel hangar the market occupies a neoclassical square built in 1840 by architect Francesc Daniel Molina. Highlights include the sunny greengrocer's market outside (to the right if you've come in from the Rambla), along with Pinotxo (Pinocchio), just inside to the right, which has won international acclaim as a food sanctuary. The Kiosko Universal, over toward the port side of the market, or Quim de la Boqueria offer delicious alternatives. Don't miss the herb- and wild-mushroom stand at the back of the Boqueria. Rambla 91, Rambla.
Fundació Miró. The Miró Foundation, a gift from the artist Joan Miró to his native city, is one of Barcelona's most exciting showcases of contemporary art. The airy, white building, with panoramic views north over Barcelona, was designed by Josep Lluís Sert and opened in 1975; an extension was added by Sert's pupil Jaume Freixa in 1988. Miró's playful and colorful style, filled with Mediterranean light and humor, seems a perfect match for its surroundings, and the exhibits and retrospectives that open here tend to be progressive and provocative. Look for Alexander Calder's fountain of moving mercury. Miró himself rests in the cemetery on Montjuïc's southern slopes. During the Franco regime, which he strongly opposed, Miró first lived in self-imposed exile in Paris, then moved to Majorca in 1956. When he died in 1983, the Catalans gave him a send-off amounting to a state funeral. Av. Miramar 71, Montjuïc. Admission charged.
Manzana de la Discòrdia. The name is a pun on the word manzana, which means both apple and city block, alluding to the three-way architectural counterpoint on this block and to the classical myth of the Apple of Discord (which played a part in that legendary tale about the Judgment of Paris and the subsequent Trojan War). The houses here are spectacular, and encompass three monuments of Modernisme-Casa Lleó Morera, Casa Amatller, and Casa Batlló. Of the three competing buildings (four if you count Sagnier i Villavecchia's comparatively tame 1910 Casa Mulleras at No. 37), Casa Batlló is clearly the star, and the only one of the three offering visits to the interior.
Museu d'Història de Catalunya. Built into what used to be a port warehouse, this state-of-the-art interactive museum makes you part of Catalonian history from prehistoric times through more than 3,000 years and into the contemporary democratic era. After centuries of "official" Catalan history dictated from Madrid (from 1714 until the mid-19th century Renaixença, and from 1939 to 1975), this is an opportunity to revisit Catalonia's autobiography. Explanations of the exhibits appear in Catalan, Castilian, and English. Guided tours are available on Sunday at noon and 1 pm. The rooftop cafeteria has excellent views over the harbor and is open to the public (whether you visit the museum itself) during museum hours. Pl. Pau Vila 1, Barceloneta. Admission charged.
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC, Catalonian National Museum of Art). Housed in the imposingly domed, towered, frescoed, and columned Palau Nacional, built in 1929 as the centerpiece of the International Exposition, this superb museum was renovated in 1995 by Gae Aulenti, architect of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. In 2004 the museum's three collections-Romanesque, Gothic, and the Cambó Collection, an eclectic trove, including a Goya, donated by Francesc Cambó-were joined by the 19th- and 20th-century collection of Catalan impressionist and moderniste painters. Also now on display is the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection of early masters, with works by Zurbarán, Rubens, Tintoretto, Velázquez, and others. Mirador del Palau 6, Montjuïc. Admission charged.
Museu Picasso. The Picasso Museum is housed in five adjoining palaces on Carrer Montcada, a street known for Barcelona's most elegant medieval palaces. Picasso spent his key formative years in Barcelona (1895-1904), and this collection, while it does not include a significant number of the artist's best paintings, is particularly strong on his early work. The museum was begun in 1962 on the suggestion of Picasso's crony Jaume Sabartés, and the initial donation was from the Sabartés collection. Later Picasso donated his early works, and in 1981 his widow, Jaqueline Roque, added 141 pieces. Carrer Montcada 15-19, Born-Ribera. Admission charged.
Palau de la Música Catalana. One of the world's most extraordinary music halls, with facades that are a riot of color and form, the Palau de la Música (Music Palace) is a landmark of Carrer Amadeus Vives, set just across Via Laietana, a five-minute walk from Plaça de Catalunya. From its polychrome ceramic ticket windows on the Carrer de Sant Pere Més Alt side to its overhead busts of (from left to right) Palestrina, Bach, Beethoven, and (around the corner on Carrer Amadeus Vives) Wagner, the Palau is a flamboyant tour de force designed in 1908 by Lluís Domènech i Montaner. It is today considered the flagship of Barcelona's moderniste architecture. The exterior is remarkable in itself. The Palau's interior is, well, a permanent uproar before the first note of music is ever heard. Ticket office, Palau de la Musica 4-6(just off Via Laietana, around corner from hall), Sant Pere. Admission charged.
Santa Maria del Mar. The most beautiful example of early Catalan Gothic architecture, Santa Maria del Mar is extraordinary for its unbroken lines and elegance. The lightness of the interior is especially surprising considering the blocky exterior. Built by a mere stonemason who chose, fitted, and carved each stone hauled down from the same Montjuïc quarry that provided the sandstone for the 4th-century Roman walls, Santa Maria del Mar is breathtakingly and nearly hypnotically symmetrical. The medieval numerological symbol for the Virgin Mary, the number eight (or multiples thereof) runs through every element of the basilica: The 16 octagonal pillars are 6.5 feet in diameter and spread out into rib vaulting arches at a height of 52 feet. The painted keystones at the apex of the arches are 105 feet from the floor. Furthermore, the central nave is twice as wide as the lateral naves (26 feet each), whose width equals the difference (26 feet) between their height and that of the main nave. The result of all this proportional balance and harmony is a sense of uplift that, especially in baroque and moderniste Barcelona, is both exhilarating and soothing. Set aside at least a half hour to see Santa Maria del Mar. Pl. de Santa Maria, Born-Ribera.
Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família. Barcelona's most emblematic architectural icon, Antoni Gaudí's Sagrada Família, is still under construction 130 years after it was begun. This striking and surreal creation was conceived as nothing short of a Bible in stone, a gigantic representation of the entire history of Christianity, and it continues to cause responses from surprise to consternation to wonder. No building in Barcelona and few in the world are more deserving of investing anywhere from a few hours to the better part of a day in getting to know it well. In fact, a quick visit can be more tiring than an extended one, as there are too many things to take in at once. However long your visit, it's a good idea to bring binoculars. For a €3 additional charge, you can take an elevator skyward to the top of the bell towers for some spectacular views. Back on the ground, visit the museum, which displays Gaudí's scale models. The architect is buried to the left of the altar in the crypt. Pl. de la Sagrada Família, Eixample. Admission charged.
Barcelona's prime shopping districts are the Passeig de Gràcia, Rambla de Catalunya, Plaça de Catalunya, Porta de l'Àngel, and Avinguda Diagonal up to Carrer Ganduxer. For high fashion, browse along Passeig de Gràcia and the Diagonal between Plaça Joan Carles I and Plaça Francesc Macià. There are two-dozen antiques shops in the Gothic Quarter, another 70 shops off Passeig de Gràcia on Bulevard dels Antiquaris, and still more in Gràcia and Sarrià. For old-fashioned Spanish shops, prowl the Gothic Quarter, especially Carrer Ferran. The area around the church of Santa Maria del Mar, an artisans' quarter since medieval times, is full of cheerful design stores and art galleries. The area surrounding Plaça del Pi, from the Boqueria to Carrer Portaferrissa and Carrer de la Canuda, is thick with boutiques and jewelry and design shops. The Barri de la Ribera, around Santa Maria del Mar, especially the Born area, has a cluster of design, fashion, and and food shops. Design, jewelry, and knickknack shops cluster on Carrer Banys Vells and Carrer Flassaders, near Carrer Montcada.