Though hard to imagine today, there was a time when Barcelona was just a small Roman village (named Barcino) encircled by protective stone walls. Over the centuries, the village grew, culminating in a building boom in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), a beautifully preserved neighbourhood of Gothic buildings, medieval places (squares) and atmospheric alleys, exists today as a splendid reminder of Barcelona’s medieval heyday. The web of ancient, treasure-filled streets in this compact area is best explored by aimless wandering. The barrio’s centrepiece – and its religious and social heart – is the 13th–century Cathedral and surrounding complex of period buildings. Nearby, the stately Plaça del Rei is ringed by some of the best preserved medieval buildings in the area. Extending east of the Barri Gòtic is the ancient barri of La Ribera, which includes El Born. Here, the lovely Carrer Montcada is lined with medieval palaces – five of which house the must-see Museu Picasso.

El Born

If you’re hankering for a proper martini or perhaps some alternative jazz, then look no further than El Born, a musty-turned-hip neighbourhood, which was “reborn” several years ago. Students and artists moved in, attracted by cheap rents and airy warehouses, fostering an arty vibe that now blends in with the area’s old–time aura. Experimental design shops share the narrow streets with traditional, balconied buildings strung with laundry. The bustling Passeig de Born, lined with bars and cafés, leads onto the lively Plaça Comercial, where the cavernous Born Market (in operation 1870–1970) is now being converted into a cultural centre and exhibition space.

Roman Arch, Carrer Paradis

  1. Barcelona Cathedral

    Soaring over the Barri Gòtic is Barcelona’s mighty Cathedral dating from 1298.

    Cathedral spire
  2. Museu Picasso

    Discover the youthful repertoire of one of the 20th–century’s most revered artists. 

  3. Palau de la Música Catalana

    The city’s most prestigious concert hall is a monument to both la musica Catalana and to Modernisme

    Mosaic pillar, Palau de la Música Catalana
  4. Plaça de Sant Jaume

    The site of the Plaça de Sant Jaume was once the nucleus of Roman Barcino. With these roots, it seems fitting that the square has become home to Barcelona’s two most important government buildings: the Palau de la Generalitat (seat of the Catalan government) and the Ajuntament (city hall). Look for the detailed carved relief of Sant Jordi, Catalonia’s patron saint, on the 15th-century Generalitat façade. Within is the lovely 15th-century Capella de Sant Jordi, designed by architect Marc Safont. A highlight of the Gothic Ajuntament is the lavish red-and-gold Saló de Cent, where the Council of One Hundred ruled the city from 1372 to 1714. Also of note is the Pati dels Tarongers, a graceful patio with orange trees.

    Palau de la Generalitat

    • Pl de Sant Jaume

    • Open 10:30am–1:30pm 2nd & 4th Sun of month for guided tours (ID/passport required)

    • Free


    • Pl de Sant Jaume

    • Open 10am–1:30pm Sun for guided tours

    • Free

    Italianate façade, Palau de la Generalitat
  5. Conjunt Monumental de la Plaça del Rei

    In the heart of the Barri Gòtic is the beautifully preserved, medieval Plaça del Rei, presided over by the 13th- to 14th-century Palau Reial (royal palace). The impressive palace complex includes the Saló del Tinell, a massive hall crowned by Gothic arches, where Ferdinand and Isabel welcomed Columbus after his 1492 voyage to the Americas. The medieval Capella de Santa Àgata has a beautiful 15th-century altarpiece by Jaume Huguet. A visit to the Museu d`Història de la Ciutat gives access to the Palau Reial and to one of the largest underground excavations of Roman ruins on display in Europe.

    Pl del Rei

    • Open 10am–8pm Tue–Sat, 10am–3pm Sun (Oct–May: closes 2–4pm, 7pm)

    • Adm

    • DA

  6. Plaça Reial

    Late 19th-century elegance meets sangria-swilling café society in the arcaded Plaça Reial, one of Barcelona’s most emblematic and entertaining squares. The plaça is planted with towering palm trees and encircled by stately, 19th-century buildings. The Modernista lampposts were designed by a young Gaudí in 1879. At the square’s centre is a wrought-iron fountain representing the Three Graces. The square is the best place to start a big night out, with a cluster of restaurants, bars and cafés that draw the hoi polloi – including all sorts of shady pickpockets.

  7. Museu Frederic Marès

    This fascinating museum houses the life collection of wealthy Catalan sculptor Frederic Marès. No mere hobby collector, the astute (and obsessive) Marès amassed holdings that a modern museum curator would die for. Among them, an impressive array of religious icons and statues – dating from Roman times to the present – and the curious “Museu Sentimental”, which displays anything from ancient watches to fans and dolls. Also worth a visit during the summer months is the inviting Cafè d’Estiu on the museum’s sun-dappled patio.

    • Pl de Sant Iu 5–6

    • Open 10am–7pm Tue–Sat, 10am–3pm Sun

    • Adm

    • Free Wed eve & 1st Sun of month, free guided visits on request, call 93 256 35 00

    Medieval arch, Museu Frederic Marès

  8. Església de Santa Maria del Mar

    The spacious, breathtaking interior of this 14th–century church, designed by architect Berenguer de Montagut, is the city’s premier example of the austere Catalan Gothic style. The church is dedicated to Saint Mary of the Sea, the patron saint of sailors, and an ancient model ship hangs near one of the statues of the Virgin. Dubbed “the people’s church”, this is the city’s most popular spot for exchanging wedding vows.

    • Pl de Santa Maria 1

    • Open 9am–1:30pm & 4:30–8pm

  9. Disseny Hub

    Housed in a pair of adjoining medieval palaces, the gallery features temporary exhibitions showcasing aspects of architecture, graphic and communications design, product design and fashion design. The small but ultra-cool museum shop sells funky clothes, accessories and design collectables, while the café beckons with outdoor tables in a shady courtyard. In 2011 the collection will be moved to a new museum currently under construction in Plaça de les Glories.

    • C/Montcada 12–14

    • Open 10am–6pm Tue–Sat, 10am–3pm Sun

    • Adm

    • DA

  10. Museu Barbier-Mueller d’Art Precolombí

    Pre-Columbian art and artifacts, spanning 3,000 years, are exhibited in the 16th-century Palau Nadal. Sculpture, ceramics and detailed gold and silver pieces represent the rich artistic traditions of the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas. Temporary exhibits explore the diversity of these civilizations.

    • C/Montcada 12–14

    • Open 11am–5pm daily

    • Adm; free 1st Sun of month

    • DA

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