With its signature red and white brickwork, the Arc de Triomf of Barcelona stands tall in the center of a wide boulevard as a unique piece of architecture in a creative city. Designed by Catalan architect Josep Vilaseca, it was originally meant for an exhibition entrance to the 1888 Universal Exposition, which took place at the nearby Parc de la Ciutadella. It was created with Islamic style influences in the Neo-Mudéjar style, which originated in 12th-century Iberia, and now stands in tribute as a memorial.
Various friezes in stone and tile along the sides of the arch represent advancements in technology, the arts, and agriculture. At the top of the arch are the coats of arms for 49 provinces of Spain, overseen by the coat of arms for Barcelona. Another relief is a symbol meaning "Barcelona welcomes the nations." It now marks the passage of a promenade which is pleasant for long walks. Classical in shape, it now stands as a landmark for the city of Barcelona.
Before La Pedrera, before Parc Güell, and certainly before the still-under-construction La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi conjured up a mansion called Palau Güell. This palatial home was built in the 1880s for one of Gaudi’s main benefactors, Eusebi Güell. The goal was to accommodate the wealthy industrialist’s private and social life, and, after you explore the home, it’s not hard to imagine that Gaudi must have lived up to the task.
Acclaimed for the innovative use of space and light, the Modernist palace is especially loved for its main hall, formed by a parabolic arch design, and which comes complete with a star-pricked ceiling (an illusion created by holes in the roof) and sneak-peek windows from which residents above spied on newly arrived guests below. Given its lower entrance fee (with included audio tour) — as compared to other Gaudi sights — and convenient old town location in El Raval, it makes a worthy addition to any Barcelona sightseeing itinerary.
Explore Spain’s seafaring past by visiting the Maritime Museum, or Museu Maritim, in Barcelona. Located just steps away from the waterfront, the museum takes visitors on a journey through one of the country’s richest areas of history: exploration at sea.
The museum experience begins with the Gothic building itself, which once belonged to the former Barcelona Royal Shipyard. Within the cavernous brick structure, which dates back to the 13th century, expect to find all manner of sea-related treasures, ranging from maps to weapons, paintings, and even surfboards. Then, of course, there are the boats, which include model-sized versions, and, most notably, a life-size galley warship replica.
One of the most famous points of interest on Montjuïc is the Poble Espanyol. The so-called "Spanish Village" was built for the 1929 International Exhibition to show off models of the architecture specific to each region in Spain.
Visitors ambling through the mixed-and-matched village will find themselves one minute walking down a street characteristic of the Basque region, and the next, standing before a home reminiscent of the Andalucian style. Also included are copies of Galician and Castilian architecture and, of course, Catalan dwellings.
Filling these buildings are various craft shops left over from the International Exhibition that are still churning out keepsake crafts. There are also several bars, cafes and shops throughout to quench every thirst, appetite and need for a souvenir.
Get closer to Barcelona’s vibrant art scene by perusing the masterpieces of one its most famous artists, Antoni Tapies. Born in Barcelona, Tapies specialized in contemporary art that was dominated by social themes. His work, which was influenced by the likes of fellow Catalan artist Joan Miro, is imaginative and abstract, employing elements beyond just paint and canvas but also rags, paper and other scraps.
Founded by Tapies himself, the foundation serves to promote and provide education around contemporary art. While there, you can explore a collection of his creations, an impressive library, as well as revolving exhibitions by other artists. The building itself is a work of art too: Constructed in the late 1800s, it was considered a pioneer of Modernisme architecture. Meanwhile, you won’t be able to miss the cloud-and-chair sculpture that tops it, which is meant to represent meditative attitude and aesthetic contemplation.
Barcelona's Aquarium is one of the largest in Europe and boasts one of the most impressive collections of Mediterranean sealife in the world. You will marvel at the sharks and other creatures swimming above their heads as they walk through the glass tunnels that give a unique view of the animals. You will also have the opportunity to pet a stingray at the touch pool and get an upclose look at nearly 8,000 fish through the floor-to-ceiling glass displays.
A highlight of the aquarium is the Planeta Aqua (Water Planet) exhibit, which features animals, such as the crowd-favorite penguins, that have adapted to changing climates over time. There are also mini aquariums set up throughout the building to allow visitors to appreciate the amazing small details of the ocean's flora and fauna that tend to get lost in the bigger tanks.
As the capital of Catalunya, Barcelona is the center of the region’s history; and there is no better place to take it all in than the History Museum of Catalonia. Catalonia has long struggled with preserving its culture and independence, and this museum seeks to raise awareness about the heritage and identity of the Catalan people.
In-depth interactive exhibits focus on the development of Catalonia from prehistory through the growth of various industries to present day. The exhibits focused on the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s rule are particularly well done. The museum explains the occupation of the region throughout the years by the Romans, the Moors, and others — each leaving their own mark on the culture. In addition to the permanent collection, there are consistently good temporary exhibitions as well as a library, restaurant, and open-air rooftop. The museum is housed in the Palau de Mar, which has a history and significance of its own.
One of Barcelona’s coolest neighborhoods, the student and art quarter of Gràcia showcases a different side to the city, with its laid-back bars and restaurants, and traditional Catalonian feel. Connected to the city by the Passeig de Gràcia, the residential area is popular among those looking to rent cheap accommodation on the outskirts of the city and a number of travelers escape to Gràcia to sample the city’s most bohemian haunts.
Placa del Sol is at the heart of Gràcia, where clusters of tapas bars and terrace restaurants serve up an array of traditional Catalan cuisine, but the area is most famous for the Parc Güell, one of the city’s most celebrated parks. The iconic gardens perched on the hill of El Carmel were designed by Antoni Gaudi between 1900-1914 and form a key part of Barcelona’s UNESCO World Heritage listed ‘Works of Antoni Gaudi’.
Whether you like your animals fluffy or ferocious, they’ll be something that fits the bill at the Barcelona Zoo, one of the city’s most family friendly attractions, spread over 14 hectares within the Parc de la Ciutadella. Over 7,000 animals and 400 different species call the zoo home, with everything from dolphins to rhinoceros living in quarters that mimic their natural habitats.
Since opening its gates in 1892 to showcase the private fauna collection of Lluís Martí, the zoo has expanded its scope to include dedicated breeding programs and preservation work with species under threat of extinction. The zoo’s most famous resident, Snowflake – the world’s only known albino gorilla – sadly died in 2003, but there are plenty of other creatures large and small to entertain the crowds. Bornean organutans, a Sumatran tiger, a giant anteater, hippopotamuses, giraffes, elephants, flamingos and even miniature Shetland ponies all call the zoo home.
Montjuïc is the hill situated on the southwestern border of Barcelona. The name of the hill translates to "Mountain of the Jews," which refers to the Jewish cemetery and possible settlement there at one time. Home to Barcelona's World Exhibition in 1929 and then the 1992 Olympics, Montjuïc has been developed to include a number of attractions, including museums, theatres and clubs. An old castle still stands on the hill as well, dating back to days when political prisoners were executed en masse by the Spanish government.
Popular attractions include the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and CaixaForum, both of which house interesting collections of art, ranging from medieval to modern. Other famous points of interest are the Poble Espanyol - Spanish Village - and Joan Miro museum. Come nightfall, find people from all over the city perched on ledges to watch the spectacle that is La Font Magica show, a colorful water display in the main fountain that is set to music.
Though Egypt may not come to mind when you think of Barcelona, think again, as the city’s Egyptian Museum displays an impressive collection of some 1,000 ancient artifacts from the African country. The pieces once belonged to the museum’s founder, Catalan Jordi Clos, and are now on display in the intimate and relatively crowd-free galleries found just off the main drag of Passeig de Gracia.
The diverse permanent collection spans everything from ceramics to jewelry, mummies, and a host of items related to the culture and funeral practices. Meanwhile, rotating exhibitions offer other themed looks into Egypt’s distant past. Cap off your visit with a snack at the outdoor terrace and a visit the museum’s Egypt-inspired store.
The oldest building in the city’s grand Pedralbes quarter, dating back to 1326, the church and monastery of Monestir de Pedralbes is now a museum and remains one of the city’s most stunning examples of religious architecture. Named for its characteristic white stones (pedres albes), the complex is acclaimed for its Catalan Gothic style, featuring a central courtyard garden, herb garden and fountain. The monastery, which once housed the nuns of the Franciscan Order of Saint Clare, was commissioned by the wife of James II of Aragon, Queen Elisenda, who famously took up residence in the monastery after her husband’s death.
Those interested in uncovering some of Barcelona’s rich religious history will find wandering the museum of the Monestir de Pedralbes an enlightening experience, devoted to showcasing the lives of the nuns who served in the building during the 14th century.
The latest addition to the Barcelona Science Museum, Museu Blau opened its doors in 2011, and is housed in the landmark Forum Building - a futuristic blue building designed by architects Herzog and de Meuron.
Devoted primarily to natural history, the highlight of the Museu Blau is a vast permanent exhibition entitled Planet Life, chronicling the history of life on earth through fascinating interactive displays and multimedia exhibits. More than 4,500 items are on display, including animal fossils, dinosaur skeletons, rocks and minerals, along with the skeleton of a whale beached on Catalan shores in 1862.
The 9,000-square-meter museum also features temporary exhibition space, a kid’s discovery zone and a small Mediterranean garden, plus a café and gift shop.
The sister museum to Madrid’s popular CaixaForum cultural center, CaixaForum Barcelona was inaugurated in 2002 and has since made a name for itself as one of the city’s premium modern art galleries. With a permanent exhibition that features over 700 thematically displayed works, it’s one of the biggest modern art collections in Spain, including works by Salvador Dalí, William Turner, William Hogarth, Joseph Beuys and Sol Lewitt. Along with its 5 exhibition rooms, the center also houses a 350-seat auditorium, a children’s art workshop and a café-restaurant, and hosts a number of temporary exhibitions, art workshops, film showings and concerts.
Even the building itself is impressive, a former factory building designed by Puig I Cadafalch in 1910, which stands opposite the stylish Mies van der Rohe pavilion. Resembling a modernist castle with its intricate crenellated brickwork, the dramatic building now features a striking metal and glass canopy frontage.
Barcelona’s busiest market and arguably one of Europe’s most popular food markets, La Boqueria Market, or Mercat de La Boqueria, is a vibrant hub of Barcelonian culture. The market boasts a long history, with the spot being used as a meat market as far back as the 13th century, but today the market is held in the Mercat de Sant Josep market hall in La Rambla, a Modernist iron and glass canopy built in 1914. Whether you’re sourcing ingredients for the perfect paella or just soaking up the unique atmosphere, few experiences are as quintessentially Barcelonian as haggling for produce in the city’s liveliest market.
Over 200 stalls stand in the market and weaving through the crowds of locals and tourists, there’s a myriad of produce on display. Piles of fresh fruits and vegetables, pails of glistening olives and huge slabs of cheese and foie gras line the stalls, alongside an array of local seafood and varying cuts of meat, including the odd pig head.
The elegant Mercat de Born in La Ribera was a complex iron-and-glass structure built by Josep Fontserè in 1876 on top of the 18th-century ruins of Barcelona’s former district of Vilanova de Mar. Closed nearly 45 years ago, the market has now been granted new life as the El Born Centre Cultural, a center curating exhibitions on Barcelona’s history and celebrating three centuries of Catalan identity.
Inside the former market hall are excavations dating from the War of Spanish Succession between King Philip V of Spain and Archduke Charles of Austria. This took place in the early years of the 18th century and culminated in the year-long siege of Barcelona, which was won on Aug. 30, 1714, by Philip V and his Bourbon allies. The date is still celebrated today as the National Day of Catalonia.
Santa Caterina was the first covered market in the city of Barcelona. Since being completely renovated in 2005 with a modern design and colorful, curved rooftop, it has become a celebrated sight in Barcelona. Yet, it stays true to its traditional Catalan market roots. Over 325,000 ceramic pieces were used by architects Benedetta Tagliabue and Enric Miralles to create the kaleidoscope roof, with more than fifty different shades of colors representing the fruits and vegetables sold within. The mosaics recall the Modernista style of architecture Gaudi made famous across the city.
The market sells every type of quality produce and meat imaginable, including fresh pastries and breads. It’s a great place to pick up or simply view the colorful fruit, vegetable and flower stands, along with local meats and fish. Once you’re done browsing the stalls, check out the remains of the 15th century Espai Santa Caterina, the Gothic church the market was built on top of.
A soaring, shimmering glass and concrete edifice in the Raval, Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art was designed by US architect Richard Meier and completed in 1995, spearheading the once-tatty district’s revival. Its matt-white interior is flooded with natural light and creates the perfect backdrop for the museum’s 5,000 paintings, sculptures, images and conceptual pieces, which are shown in ever-changing temporary exhibitions running for between three and six months. Featuring avant-garde artists from the latter half of the 20th century, the collection is rich in international names such as Paul Klee, Dieter Roth and Jean-Michel Basquiat – among many others – but specializes in the works of celebrated Catalan artists including Antoni Tàpies, Miquel Barcelò, Susana Solano and Pere Jaume. The museum also has a library, a well-stocked bookshop and café as well as Saturday morning workshops for families visiting with young kids.
Lying just to the west of Barcelona’s famous Las Ramblas Boulevard, and home of the gleaming Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), the Raval is a once-tatty ‘barrio’ (district) that is rapidly cleaning itself up. Historically working class, today new boutiques, art galleries, bars and restaurants are springing up in this inner-city neighborhood at a rate of knots but neglected corners still retain an earthy air and a multicultural blend of Catalan, Arabic, Romanian, Indian and Indonesian cultures. Besides MACBA, the narrow alleys of El Raval are home to the ornate Gran Teatre del Liceu – one of Europe’s foremost opera houses and adorned with Japanese-style decoration – which opened in 1847, Antoni Gaudí’s twisting, fluid Palau Güell and the Romanesque beauty of ninth-century Sant Pau del Camp, the oldest church in the city.
Barcelona’s main bullring was built in the smart Eixample district of the city with a flamboyant Neo-Mudéjar and Byzantine façade by Catalan architect Domènec Sugrañes i Gras, a disciple of Gaudí. Embellished with typical Iberian white-and-blue tiles and towers topped with onion-shaped domes, the bullring was the largest in Barcelona and could seat 20,000, plus another 5,000 standing. The site was inaugurated in 1914, and over the decades, it has featured Spain’s top toreros (bullfighters) – who were nationwide pin-ups – in corridas (bullfights) that reached their height of popularity in the 1950s. However, bullfighting eventually grew increasingly unpopular in Catalan Spain, and it was eventually banned in January 2012, to the disappointment of many local aficionados.
From Roman times to the present day capital of Catalonia, the city of Barcelona has hundreds of years of history and many stories to tell. The Barcelona City History Museum preserves and communicates the historical heritage of the city for locals and visitors alike. There are multiple exhibitions throughout the city with present findings, as well as facilities for ongoing research.
The museum conserves many of the Roman sites of Barcelona as archaeological sites — while others like the city's Palau Reial Major and the Jewish Quarter date back to the Middle Ages. There are also a fair number of sites related to more modern significances, including Franco and the Spanish Civil War or iconic architect Antoni Gaudi. The museum itself was inaugurated just after the end of the Spanish Civil War, in 1943. Its headquarters at Casa Padellas is a prime example of a Catalán gothic courtyard, and contains an entire preserved quarter of the ancient Roman city of Barcino.
Though Barcelona’s Sants Station gets the most train and foot traffic, the city’s França Railway Station wins when it comes to overall style. Considered by many to be the most beautiful station in town, it’s a sumptuous mix of architectural styles, featuring shiny marble floors, Art Deco detailing, and sunshine-lit, domed platforms.
The station dates back to the International Exhibition in 1929, and was later renovated for the 1992 Olympics. Once serving as the terminus for trains coming from and going to other places in Europe — namely, France — it’s now a hub for local trains (with international trains now traveling in and out of Sants).