Shortly before my first trip to Barcelona, I purchased a travel guide – a good one, with detailed map of the city center, huge list of must-visit shops, museums and restaurants – and by the time I have stepped out from the airport shuttle bus on Plaςa de Catalunya, I knew almost an entire book by heart, excluding only the chapter on day trips, since I was not planning any just yet. I marked all those places I would have to go no matter what; and I also had an itinerary for every day of my 4-day stay. There was just one tiny problem. I knew the information; but somehow I found it difficult comprehending the map. It took me a while to find my hostel even though it was located in Eixample – symmetrically perfect, with the streets running at right angles to one another. When I turned left from La Rambla and found myself squeezing through the hordes in El Gòtico; I literally felt lost both in time and space.
Twisted narrow streets, old faded tiles, antique shops border with cheap supermarkets, tiny designer boutiques and world’s famous brands. When you think, you are heading away from La Rambla, La Rambla finds you; when you turn to what you think is the seafront, you suddenly find yourself facing busy highway Via Laietana. Whenever I left my hostel, I always made sure the guide was with me; although, a few times I still managed to get lost. And you know what? That is not an entirely bad thing in Ciutat Vella. I might have had big plans, and the list of places I should have visited; but I got the very best of the city on those several occasions when I truly had no idea where I am heading, and what I am going to find behind the next corner.
So, while I will be sharing with you tips on interesting spots, my advice is to simply forget the guide (and my tips if you wish) at your hotel and discover the old city on your own. Don’t be afraid to get completely lost – chances are, after a few hours wandering back and forth, you’d still end up on La Rambla.
Geographically, Ciutat Vella comprises 4 neighborhoods: El Raval; El Gótico; Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera and Barceloneta. The name “ciutat vella” means the old city in Catalan; and this is literally the essence of the area – all of the 4 districts are the oldest in Barcelona, with history tracing back to the Middle Ages. However, looking at each of them separately, you would not exactly say that they belong to the same district – well, El Gótico and Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera sort of look-alike; Raval and Barceloneta are completely different stories. Raval, a former red light district, is now one of the city’s most thriving neighborhoods, with zillions of trendy bars, cool stores and tempting cultural scene, centered in MACBA and CCCB. Barceloneta, on the other hand, lullabied by rustling sea breeze, was historically a quiet and residential barrio. There is not much to see here, other than Frank Gehry’s El Peix and of course, sparkling gold beaches (tremendously overcrowded, but still better than nothing, if you don’t feel like leaving the city).
The first time I traveled to Barcelona, I took an early flight and at 9am local time I left my luggage at Locker Barcelona premises at Carrer d’Estruc, 36 and headed into the maze of pebble-paved cramped alleys of El Gótico, steeping back in medieval past of the city.
My first memory of Barcelona (aside from the crowd waiting outside the El Corte Ingles department store – could have been the first day of sales) was a strong and irresistibly delicious smell of… chocolate. I was just on my way to La Rambla, when I stopped by Carrer Petritxol – the source of the smell was clearly somewhere there. Small queue had gathered by the entrance to what apparently was some kind of café; and as I figured out later, the chocolate was only a prelude to popular here churros, crunchy twisted into knots deep-fried pastries, which are meant to be dipped into silken rich hot chocolate (the Spanish put corn starch in theirs, to make it a tad thicker, and the end result is almost pudding-like smooth texture). That café was Granja La Pallaresa (Calle Petritxol, 11) – and I am not ashamed to admit, even though on the very same street there are half a dozen of other chocolaterias I always come back to this one. There is one more reason why under no circumstances should you miss Carrer Petritxol – Conesa (Carrer de Petritxol, 10), right in front of Granja La Pallaresa, is a fairy stationery parlor with thousands of beautiful postcards, notebooks, ceramic dolls and craft supplies.
After a brief visit to Basílica de Santa Maria del Pi (Plaça del Pi, 7), I found myself window-shopping on Carrer d’Avinyo – the only thing that stopped from buying up at least half of those dainty vintage dresses and glamorous accessories was that I still had no idea how I would carry my heavy luggage to the hostel. However, I could not overlook the glass case of Sombrerería Obach hattery (Carrer del Call, 2), displaying countless caps, bonnets, berets; and after a nice chat with one of the shop assistants I left the store happily parading a brand new head piece.
My original plan was to visit the Cathedral of Barcelona, but like I said, I am not very good with maps, and I ended up on Plaça de George Orwell. The square was busy with locals enjoying late breakfast, but I went straight to bike rental Green Bikes (Carrer Escudellers, 48) – long before my trip I learnt that they have arguably the best priced bikes for rent in the city and besides, after several hours of journey, walking felt harder with every next step. After stealing my way through narrow gateways, clearly not meant to host large crowds of travelers, ride along broad Passeig de Colom was a truly rewarding experience. Of course, the most obvious destination for bikers is the seafront – what else to you need to enjoy a bike ride, other than fresh air, shimmering waves, perfectly delimited biking tracks and simply the beauty of the scenery?
I took a short ride to Port Olímpic, and on my way back stopped by Santa Marta (Carrer de Grau i Torras, 59). A friend of mine raved about their Aperol Spritz, and I should agree – the cocktail alone is worth the visit; but outside terrace overlooking the beach and amiable service make this bar even better.
After leaving the bike (there is really not much sense in trying to bike inside the walls of the old city – there is hardly enough space for people, bikers are definitely not welcomed), I finally found my way back to the Cathedral.
Before entering I spend some time simply admiring spectacular ornate façade and slender Gothic towers rising above the square. For a small fee I took the lift to the rooftop – to get wonderful views of the old city and further away, a silhouette of the Sagrat Cor church atop of the Tibidabo Mountain.
Next on my to-do list was yet another beautiful religious edifice – Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar (Plaça de Santa Maria, 1).
Finding it was much easier; all I had to do was just to take Carrer de l’Argenteria from Jaume I metro station right behind the Cathedral. By the time I got to Santa Maria del Mar, it was almost 2pm, and the restaurants were quickly filling for lunch. I looked at my map, with must-visit restaurants and bars pinned all over it, and surprisingly discovered that there were no pins near me. I walked in the area for a while; exploring what local eateries offer for menú del día – and finally chose Petra (Carrer dels Sombrerers, 13). I am not going to lie – I was merely lured by vivid colors of interior decorations, ceramic tiles, and stained glass; and then of course, a total eye-catcher – bright chandeliers with iron forks hanging down! But the food turned out to be exceptionally good, too – local fare, with a slight touch of Middle Eastern fusion, dash of spices here and there, plus top notch service.
After having awed at the beautiful basilica, I went on to discover the rest of La Ribera neighborhood.
Historically the neighborhood was popular with local craftsmen and artisans – today artists and designers choose to locate here their studios and workshops; vintage and luxurious boutiques, gourmet shops are also extremely common, especially all along Passeig del Born and around Santa Maria del Mar. Vila Viniteca (Carrer dels Agullers, 7) is a must for wine connoisseurs – the shop collaborates with some 100 Spanish wineries, and 40 international producers, and the catalogue includes some 7.000 bottles!
Carrer de la Princesa marks the northern border of La Ribera and the beginning of Sant Pere and Santa Caterina.
From here the crowd starts to disperse and voices grow silent; but with the dusk slowly falling, the neighborhood shapes into an exciting night venue. A home to beautiful romantic squares and tranquil alleys; every other bar here flaunts an outside terrace perfectly tucked away from the bustle. The heart of the barrio is the 10th century monastery of Sant Pere de les Puelles; the square beneath it is one of the most enigmatic in the city. A perfect location to enjoy a relaxing evening in the most picturesque part of Barcelona – the city’s oldest barrios of Ciutat Vella.