Originally established by the Romans, Barcelona is a city with a rich cultural history. Today, it serves as the capital of Catalonia and is still one of the busiest port towns in the Mediterranean. In addition to being an economic powerhouse, it is one of the top tourist destinations in Europe, drawing sports and art enthusiasts alike. Visitors can wander through the streets of the city and experience the whimsical genius of Antoni Gaudí firsthand, relax on a boat in the sunny harbor, or cheer on their favorite sports teams in one of the city's many world-class stadiums.
Barcelona's old town, or Ciutat Vella, is the heart of the city. It's made up of many small neighborhoods, full of old-world character, linked by narrow, winding streets. Students, foreigners and artists thrive in this area, attracted by its sense of history and cosmopolitan feel along with its trendy bars, concert halls and good restaurants.
Start your tour from Plaça Catalunya and take Les Rambles (or Las Ramblas in Spanish) towards the sea. On the right, you'll find the Raval district with its museums, art galleries and notorious red-light area, Barri Xines. On your left, the medieval Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) is home to the cathedral, the peaceful Plaça del Pi , art galleries and lots of cafes serving delicious hot chocolate. If you go even further left, across busy Via Laietana , you'll come to Born Market , in La Ribera district. This trendy neighborhood is also home to the graceful Santa Maria del Mar Church and the impressive Museu Picasso .
When the old town became overpopulated in the mid-19th Century, the city expanded inland, north of Plaça Catalunya. The streets of the new suburb, called L'Eixample (The Extension) were laid out in a grid pattern. Catalan modernista (Art Nouveau) architects designed a number of striking buildings in the area around Passeig de Gràcia and Rambla Catalunya. You'll find the extraordinary Sagrada Familia on the right-hand side of L'Eixample if you're coming from the Old Town. This controversial church, unfinished because of the untimely death of its architect, Antoni Gaudí, in 1926, has become the city's most visited monument.
As Barcelona expanded further north, more new neighborhoods were built. Villages were absorbed within the city boundaries giving rise to districts like the charming Gràcia , Les Corts , Sarrià and Hortà-Guinardò, up in the hills. The working-class neighborhood of Sants marks the city's southern boundary and has excellent public transport to the center.
Montjüic Hill , in the southwest of the city, offers many attractions including the Olympic Stadium and other facilities used for the 1992 Olympic Games, along with the impressive Fundació Miró . The best way to get to the hill is to take the cable car from the nearby harbor. Barcelona's other major green area is the 1800-foot (549-meter) Tibidabo Hill to the northwest, with its panoramic views of the city, amusement park on the summit and Torre de Comunicaciones de Collserola (Collserola Communications Tower).
Both Montjüic and Tibidabo offer good sports facilities as well, like tennis, jogging, and horseback riding. It's easiest to get there by car, though you could also take the cable car to Montjüic, which the kids would love. The cable car also offers a great view of the city.
The mild Mediterranean climate and calm seas mean you can sail and windsurf all year round from Port Olímpic (Olympic Port). Little boats (golondrinas) leaving from the harbor will take you on a sightseeing tour of the city's waterfront and nearby coastline. The fishing district of Barceloneta offers excellent seafood restaurants. Ultra-modern Maremagnum has busy bars with outdoor terraces, discos, shops and cinemas. You'll also find trendy open-air music bars in Port Olímpic in the summer. Half an hour's journey to the south, Sitges' pretty beaches attract a cosmopolitan crowd. For more peaceful surroundings, head north to one of Costa Brava's deserted coves.
Sant Adrià de Besòs - El Fòrum
Constructed and remodeled to host the Fòrum de Les Cultures in 2004, this area located to the north of the city has bloomed as a new cultural center. The beautiful architecture, designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, as well as the numerous events that take place in the ultra-modern location of Parc del Fòrum , attract thousands of visitors every year.
Barcelona's many restaurants and bars offer the best of Catalonia's diverse cuisine. Other Mediterranean countries, like France and Italy, have heavily influenced Catalan cooking, which features lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, seafood, pork and veal.
Catalans love cold meats or (embutidos) of all sorts, especially pork sausage (butifarra). The staple dish is butifarra amb mongetes, a stew of pork sausage and white beans. Escudella is a traditional stew made with sausage, chickpeas, pasta and a giant pork meatball. It's generally eaten at Christmas time and followed by crema catalana, a sweet egg custard topped with caramelized sugar that has become a popular dessert throughout Spain. Fish is also a major part of the Catalan diet. Zarzuela is a tasty seafood casserole that originated in Barcelona and spread to other parts of the country. Bacallà a la llauna is cod cooked in a tin dish. In summer, you can enjoy lighter dishes like escalibada (red peppers mixed with eggplant and onions) and esqueixada (red peppers with cod and onions). Or head for one of the many farmhouse (masía) restaurants on the outskirts of the city and try some traditional dishes. If you're lucky, the restaurant will serve calçotada, a sauce (calçots) made from tender spring onions served on an oven-fired tile, followed by grilled meat. Catalan dishes are usually accompanied by pan con tomate, country-style bread smeared liberally with ripe tomato, olive oil and salt.
There are eight different areas in Catalonia that produce good quality wines. The region is famous for its white wines from the Penedes area and cava, sparkling white wines. There are also quality red wines, particularly from the Priorato area.
Gothic Quarter, Raval & La Ribera
Basque cuisine is served in Irati and Zure Etxea . You'll find three famous traditional Catalan restaurants worth visiting in the area around Monumento a Colón (Columbus Monument): Ca l'Isidre , Botafumeiro and Casa Leopoldo . For bullfighting memorabilia and tapas, try Los Toreros on Calle Xuclà, close to Las Ramblas . There are also some seafood restaurants with great views in the Maremàgnum , an ultra-modern shopping center by the harbor, close to Las Ramblas.
This part of town is also great for drinks - you'll find traditional, old-fashioned bars and cafes as well as trendy, modern places with stylish interior decor, like Glaciar at the Plaça Reial . Nearby, check out Sidecar . There's a good selection of pubs on Calle Escudellers on your way into the well-known Plaça George Orwell . For pure modernist style inside and out, try El Ascensor . If you want to sit outside and enjoy an impressive view with your drinks, try the square that looks on to Santa María del Mar , Plaça del Pi or Sant Felip Neri .
This part of town has quite a few Galician restaurants like the famous Beltxenea , which offers a variety of traditional dishes. Don't miss the finger foods at Tapa Tapa .
Barceloneta & The Born
There are plenty of reasonably-priced seafood restaurants down by the harbor that specialize in paella and the Catalan equivalent, fideuà, which is noodle-based rather than rice-based. Arròs negre is a kind of paella cooked in a stock of squid's ink. Can Ramonet and Set Portes are two of the best places for rice dishes in this district. Munch on great tapas at Moncho's .
If it's drinks you seek, Passeig del Born is lined with trendy bars and the adjacent streets are full of well-preserved medieval houses and mansions. This area attracts couples and groups in their 30s and 40s looking for sophisticated, relaxing and intimate bars like the Miramelindo , Salero and Gimlet .
The seafood restaurants at Port Olímpic display their fresh fish in cases by the door and many offer sea views.
Horta, Guinardó & Alfons X
Lots of informal tapas restaurants are located along Passeig de Gràcia and Rambla Catalunya. Traditional tapas are small portions of things like pescaíto frito (mixture of deep-fried Mediterranean fish), patatas bravas (chunks of potato, deep-fried and served with spicy garlic sauce), calamares a la romana (squid rings fried in batter) and boquerones en vinagre (marinated anchovies). For the best tapas in the whole city, try La Esquinica . However, make sure you come early because there is a line every night.
It's tapas central at Ciudad Condal , but this bustling square knows no bounds in terms of culinary diversity.