Beautiful Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city and home port for many Mediterranean cruise ships. But how much can you see if you’re just in town for a few hours? Thanks to the Old City’s walk-ability, the answer is “Quite a bit.”
If you’re arriving by plane, there are many options for making the transfer from Barcelona airport into the City Centre, including bus, train and taxi. If you’re headed directly to the Cruise Port, I recommend you take a taxi or pre-book a private transfer, because the public transportation option of train/subway/bus can be exhausting if you have more than just carry-on luggage. The first link gives you detailed information on each type of transfer; the second one provides up-to-date taxi fares, including supplementary airport, cruise port and baggage charges.
Most large cruise ships dock at Moll Addosat, approximately 2 km from the City Centre. The T3 Portbus will take you from the pier to the foot of Barcelona’s celebrated La Rambla. Fares are €2 one way/€3 round trip (cash only); the bus runs approximately every 30 minutes from the Cruise Terminals to the Colon Monument. Buses are wheelchair accessible.
There are Tourist Information Points inside the Colon Monument (Open 8:30 to 8:30 daily), in the Plaça de Catalunya (Open 9:30 to 9:30 daily) and in the Plaça de Sant Jaume (Open Mon-Fri 8:30-8:00, Sat 9:00-7:00, Sun & Holidays 9:00-2:0), as well as Tourist Information Booths in each of the Cruise Terminals (hours vary with ship arrival schedules).
This link takes you to the official site for Barcelona tourism, and provides comprehensive information on all things Barcelona: http://www.barcelonaturisme.com/
I’m also including links to maps of the Ciutat Vella and the Gothic Quarter to help you with advance planning: http://mapseu.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/map-of-barcelona-spain.jpg
La Rambla is undoubtedly Barcelona’s most famous street, and more or less divides the Old City (Ciutat Vella) in half. To the west is El Raval, a multicultural district that is currently undergoing gentrification; to the east are the Gothic Quarter and La Ribera (El Born).
With a wide, tree-lined pedestrian mall at its center, La Rambla stretches 1.2 km from the Colon Monument to the Plaça de Catalunya. A walk up this busy avenue is a pleasure enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. Have a bite in an open-air café and watch the world go by; browse for magazines and books at a newsstand; be amazed and amused by the costumed buskers who pose as living statues. And stay alert – the avenue is notorious for pickpockets.
Perhaps the best-known attraction on La Rambla is the Mercat de la Boqueria (La Rambla, 89/Plaça de la Boqueria). An open-air market existed on this site as early as the 13th century. The present building stands on the site of the former Convent of St. Josep, and was constructed in 1840. The market expanded into the site of the former Convent of Jerusalem in 1869; the metal roof was added in 1914, giving the market it’s present appearance. Inside are a host of vendors selling everything from bread, meat, eggs and fish to produce, chocolate, spices, candy and wine. There are also several stands selling cooked food, either to eat-in or take-out. In 2005, La Boqueria was named “Best Market in the World” by the World Market Congress. (Market open Mon-Sat, 8:00am-8:30pm; Closed Sunday)
Just next to La Boqueria is the Palau de la Virreina, (La Rambla, 99), a Baroque/Rococo fantasy built between 1772-78 for Manuel d’Amat i de Junyent, Viceroy of Peru. Amat returned to Barcelona in 1779 and married for the first and only time at age 72; his bride was 24. He died in 1782, but his widow – “La Virreina” – remained in the palace until her death in 1791. Today the building houses the Barcelona Cultural Institute and the Centre de la Imatge; temporary art and photography exhibits are held there. (Open Tues-Sun, Noon-8pm, Closed Monday; Admission free)
Another city landmark, the Gran Teatre del Liceu (La Rambla, 51-99) is home to opera, ballet and symphonic music in Barcelona. Built in 1847, the Liceu was severely damaged by fire in 1861. It was rebuilt in 1862, but only parts of the original remained – the façade, entrance hall and vestibule. The building was once again ravaged by fire in 1994 and, once again, the original façade, entrance hall and vestibule survived. The rebuilt Liceu reopened in 1999 with state-of-the-art technical, rehearsal and educational facilities, as well as more public space; with 2,292 seats, it is one of the largest opera houses in Europe.
In-depth guided tours of the Liceu’s public areas are available daily at 10 am: Mon-Fri, €11.50, Sat-Sun, €10.50. 20-minute guided “express” tours are also available at a cost of €5.50, and take place at 11:30, Noon, 12:30 and 1 pm.
For information on performances, tickets and tours, follow this link: http://www.liceubarcelona.cat/en.html
Just a few steps off La Rambla is one of Antoni Guadi’s earliest commissions, the Palau Guell (Carrer Nou de Rambla, 3-5). Designed in 1885, the house was completed in 1888, though the last of the signature Guadi chimneys was not in place until 1895. The northern façade on Nou de la Rambla is distinguished by two ornate parabolic arches: carriages entered via the arches, allowing guests to ascend a grand staircase to the hall while their horses were taken down a ramp to the basement livery. The walls and ceiling of the reception hall, with its soaring 55-foot dome, are intricately decorated with wood, iron, glass and ceramic. (Open Apr-Oct, 10am-8pm; Nov-Mar 10am-5:30pm; closed Mondays. Admission €12)
Barcelona’s famous Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic) extends from La Rambla to the Via Laietana, and from the seafront to the Plaça de Catalunya and the Ronda de Sant Pere. While many of the buildings here date to the Middle Ages, much of the Quarter’s appearance owes to renovations in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the area was transformed into a tourist attraction in advance of the 1929 International Exposition. In fact, one of the most-photographed elements in the Quarter – the Flamboyant-style bridge that spans the Carrer del Bisbe – was built in 1928.
Barcino, as the Romans called it, may have been founded in the 3rd century BC by the Carthaginian Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal. Some time around 15 BC the Romans redesigned the town as a military camp (castrum), and located the Forum on a small hill at the site of the present-day Plaça de Sant Juame. Today, the Plaça is still the administrative center of Barcelona and Catalonia, with Casa de la Ciutat (City Hall) facing the Palau de la Generalitat Catalunya (seat of the government of Catalonia) across the square. Some remnants of the city’s Roman past remain: the columns of the Temple of Augustus still stand in the courtyard of a small house on the Carrer Paradis, excavated underground ruins may be accessed through the City History Museum in the Plaça del Rei, and parts of Barcino’s walls have been incorporated into those of the Cathedral.
Barcelona Cathedral (Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia), in the Plaça de la Seu, is built on the site of a 4th century church which was destroyed in the 10th century by Al-Mansur, Moorish ruler of Al-Andalus. Count Ramon Berenguer erected a Romanesque cathedral on the ruins in the 11th century. Two hundred and thirty years later (1298 AD), the Romanesque structure was demolished and work begun on the present Cathedral. The main building was completed in 1460, but the neo-Gothic façade with its towers and gargoyles dates only to 1889, while the spire was not completed until 1913. Both the façade and spire were based on an original 1408 design by the French architect Charles Galters.
In addition to the body of Saint Eulalia, a 13-year-old virgin martyred in 304 AD, during the reign of Diocletian, the Cathedral holds a cross from a ship that fought at the Battle of Lepanto (1571). According to legend, the corpus on the cross shifted to avoid being hit by a cannonball, a sure sign that the Ottoman fleet would be defeated. (It was.) The Cathedral’s choir stalls retain the coats-of-arms of the knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a prestigious Order that the Holy Roman Emperor consulted before waging war.
The Gothic portico and courtyard of the Cathedral’s secluded 15th century Cloister of the Geese is home to 13 white geese, representing the 13 years of St. Eulalia’s brief life. (Cathedral open daily 9am-1pm and 5-7pm; Cloister museum daily 10am–1pm and 4-6:30 pm. Free admission to Cathedral; Museum €1. Elevator to roof 10:30am-1:30pm and 5-6pm; €2. Global ticket for 1pm-4:30pm guided visit to museum, choir, rooftop terraces, and towers €5).
Tip: If you happen to visit on a Sunday, you’ll have the chance to see the locals dance La Sardana in front of the Cathedral. This folk dance, which was banned by Franco, is a symbol of Catalan ethnicity and unity. Dancing begins at Noon.
Barcelona’s City History Museum (Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat) is located beside the Cathedral, in the 15th century Casa Padellas, a Gothic palace that was moved to its present location in 1931. The ruins of old Roman Barcino were uncovered when the foundation was dug for the transplanted palace; the entire area beneath the Plaça del Rei was excavated between 1930 and 1960.
The Museum presents the city’s history in chronological fashion. The ground floor galleries in Casa Padellas are devoted to the pre-history of the Plain of Barcelona. An elevator brings visitors to the subterranean excavations, where videos, diagrams, models and mosaics paint a picture of daily life in ancient Barcino. The excavations also include the ruins of a 6th century Visigothic church and the Episcopal complex (4th-7th centuries).
The underground galleries exit in the Royal Palace (Palau Reial Major), former residence of the Counts of Barcelona and the Kings of Aragon. The galleries here present the history of medieval Barcelona from the 8th through 13th centuries. The final buildings in the Palace complex – the 14th century Chapel of St. Agatha and the Tinell Hall (Salo del Tinell) – are used today as exhibition space. Tinell Hall was originally a throne room, and it is said that it was there that Christopher Columbus reported the discovery of the Americas to Ferdinand and Isabella. A series of 13th century wall paintings that decorate the room depict the conquest of Mallorca by King Juame I. (Museum open Tues-Sat 10am-7pm; Sun 10am-8pm; Admission €7, Seniors €5, Children free)
For a glimpse of the old Jewish Quarter of Barcelona, visit the Centre d’Interpretacio del Call (Placeta de Manual Ribe, 3). Also known as the “House of the Rabbi”, the center is located in a 14th century building in what was the heart of the Jewish Quarter. In addition to everyday objects from the 13th and 14th centuries, the Centre also showcases a facsimile of the “Sarajevo Haggadah,” an illustrated manuscript produced in Catalonia sometime in the 14th century. (Open Tues-Fri, 11am-2pm; Sat & Sun, 11am-7pm – Part of the Museu d’Historia de Barcelona, Admission included in ticket)
If you prefer a more structured approach to your sight-seeing, free English-language walking tours of the Gothic Quarter (tip as you will) are available daily, rain or shine at 11, 1 and 3. Tours meet at the TravelBar, just off La Rambla at Carrer de la Boqueria 27. (Look for the Miro mosaic on the pavement and the Chinese dragon on the building at the intersection of the two streets.)