The city was originally founded by the Romans at the end of the first century BC. Originally known as Barcino, it was surrounded by a wall, parts of which can still be seen in the old town. For 200 years it was under Muslim rule and grew steadily, but after the Christians took it back it further jumped in size and from the 13th to the 15th centuries Barcelona dominated the West Mediterranean both economically and politically. The good times didn’t last indefinitely; until the end of the 18th century it struggled to maintain its independence and in 1714 fell to the Bourbon troops.
By the mid 19th century, Barcelona joined the industrial revolution sweeping Europe and textiles became a key industry in the region. At the same time, Catalan also became the dominant language once again. At the beginning of the 20th century, a major urban regeneration project started giving birth to the Eixample district, one of the worlds most unusual urban spaces. Today Barcelona is a modern and cosmopolitan city and its history has left it with one of the richest cultural mixes of any European city; The Palau de la Música Catalanam, Hospital de Sant Pau, Parque Güell, Palacio Güell and Casa Mila all enjoy UNESCO world heritage status.
Barcelona’s Eixample district is the result of the city’s expansion project drawn up by Ildefons Cerdà and begun in 1860. It is one of the world’s most unusual urban spaces and Barcelona’s personality lies, to a great extent, in the unique layout of this district. The modernista hallmark is centred around a relatively small area, the central hub of the Passeig de Gràcia. Known as the Quadrat d'Or, or Golden Square, is bounded by Carrer Aribau and the Passeig de Sant Joan, the Rondes and the Avinguda Diagonal.
La Rambla is a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard with street artists and various shops. The second block of La Rambla has a bird market which is worth looking at, although most airlines will have issues if you try and bring home any thing that you buy there. Nearby is the Mercat de la Boqueria, which is an excellent produce market containing anything that a backpacker would want for dinner later.
Moving on down the boulevard, the next section of La Rambla contains the Gran Teatre del Liceu, which is a 19th-century opera house. The official Barcelona tourist literature won’t point it out, but just after the opera house the mood of the boulevard takes a distinctly red light flavour, although it has nothing on Amsterdam there’s a definite seedy feel to it. It terminates at the lofty Monument a Colom (Monument to Columbus) and the harbour. You can ascend the monument by lift.
Just west of the monument, on Avinguda de les Drassanes are the Reials Drassanes (Royal Shipyards), which has the fascinating and recommended Museu Marítim. The name is a giveaway as to what it’s about; using the latest technology it has displays on artistic, historical and scientific issues relating to seafaring including some 16th century galleys.
Montjuïc overlooks the city from the southwest. It has some fine art galleries, leisure attractions, particularly good parks plus this was where most of the 1992 Olympics venues were. Nearby, the Palau Nacional contains the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, which has an sizeable collection of Romanesque art. One of the highlights of a visit to Barcelona (which is also happily free) is just below. Stretching up a series of terraces just below the Palau Nacional are fountains which come alive with a free light and music show on summer evenings. The main Olympic ring is also close by and is open to the public when sporting events or concerts are not being held. Again, this is one of the most popular attractions in the city, so bear this in mind if planning a visit there.
The Boqueria market, on La Rambla, is the city's flagship food market. Its colourful stalls, with their abundance of fruit, vegetables and fresh fish, are well worth stopping to admire. Catalan cuisine is one of the most auspicious expressions of the Mediterranean diet and consists of carefully prepared dishes using natural produce most of which are nutritious, healthy and flavoursome. The city is currently running a food festival until March 2006 to promote the local food.
If money is no object, consider either Botafumeiro – one of Barcelona’s best seafood restaurants, Neichel which has a Michelin star for treats including Consommé of black truffles, deer in red wine and honey and lavender ice cream, or Via Veneto which used to be one of Dali’s regular haunts – it still has a mirror signed by him on display.
If like me you’re on a budget most of the time, have no fear. Restaurants under €20 per head include Arrel del Born which specialises in seafood, Café Salambo which specialises in vegetarian, Mediterranean and Tapas, or the curiously named DAF Restaurant which also specialises in Mediterranean and Tapas.
At the other end of the accommodation scale, numerous hostels are available. Click here to book; recommended options include Pension Fernando, Gothic Point as well as if you want a young crowd with a party mood, Kabul.