Most tourists start their encounter with Barcelona at Plaza Catalunya – here, right before the entrance to multi-brand El Corte Inglés department store, cluster airport shuttle buses.
La Rambla is ten steps away, neighboring Passeig de Gràcia will take you to both Casa Batlló and La Pedrera.
But I suggest going the other way – across La Rambla, and into notoriously feared Raval. A former red light district, present-day Raval is a hip and thriving venue; with tons of trendy bars and stores, modern art galleries, ethnic eateries and roaring nightlife. Start by having a quick bite at La Perla de Oro (Carrer de la Unió, 34) – a tiny gourmet bar, with excellent selection of French and Spanish delicacies and wine (the owners are a French guy and his Extremadura-born Spanish wife, hence the menu offer) is jam-packed every evening, but during the day you’d have no problem getting a table and, if you are lucky, chatting with always amiable owners. You can do no wrong with their bocadillo de la semana (sandwich of the week) – but you can also design your own, by simply picking ingredients from the counter.
On a parallel street Palau Güell – another masterpiece by Gaudí – is a must-visit.
The interior might look a bit somber, but get to the roof – and you’d be dazzled. Of the 20 chimney pots, each is crowned with fanciful cross tiled in glittering mosaics. Gaudí at his best, for sure.
Continue walking along Carrer Nou de la Rambla until you reach the Roman Monastery of Sant Pau del Camp – bearing the title of the oldest churches in Barcelona.
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Take a walk around the church and then, enjoy few minutes of calm in a small garden, surrounding it.
There is not much point sneaking into Raval without having a stroll along the neighborhood’s liveliest street – Rambla del Raval.
Lined with bars and cafes, it is the center of Raval’s cultural scene and nightlife. Although some might insist otherwise – it is perfectly safe at night, and don’t let an occasional group of pot-smoking youngsters intimidate you.
If Rambla del Raval seems way too noisy, stop by Patio Massana hidden behind a stone arch on Carrer de l’Hospital, 56.
Get a coffee fix at Café El Jardí and then go crazy while browsing while discovering vintage treasures on the streets of Carrer de la Riera Baixa and Carrer de la Riera Alta. You might as well try luck on adjoining streets. Home on Earth (Carrer de l’Hospital, 76) has splendid selection of artisan and eco-friendly goods: jewelry, accessories, furniture, gourmet products including sea salt, tea leaves, and chocolate (check out hand-scooped bars by Austrian brand Zotter – they have some mind-blowing flavor combos like dates with mint, or goji berries with sesame nougat, and also vegan-friendly varieties).
Sunglasses-freaks would be put to the test at Wilde Vintage (Carrer de Joaquín Costa, 2) – catalogue includes vintage sunglasses by world-famous brands: Balenciaga, YSL, and Dior just to name a few.
After having spent quite a few calories while shopping, you’d need to refuel properly – how about a juicy burger at Marmalade (Carrer de la Riera Alta, 4-6)? The interior is oddly luxurious for a city where a bar would not normally give much thought to décor. Dim light, muted tunes, and impressive bar counter makes it a perfect spot for late-night dinner and cocktails. Classic burger on artisan bun is to die for; the rest of the eight varieties are just as good. The bar has also become an iconic destination for Sunday brunch – you don’t want to miss signature blueberry pancakes dolloped with yogurt and maple syrup, or for a savory treat, choose their scrumptious Benedict eggs.
As the sun goes down, you’d notice how young folk slowly flock into Raval – almost every street of the neighborhood has at least one bar to be proud of; others, like Carrer de Joaquín Costa, have them lined one after another. For more extravagant finish of the night get back to Rambla del Raval, and climb up to the top floor of Barceló Raval (Rambla del Raval, 17 – 21). Here from open-air roof terrace you’d get spectacular panoramic views of the city. Splurge on a fanciful cocktail or simply a glass of Cava and watch the sky put on a nightly gown.