As a city, Barcelona is steeped in centuries of culture, art, and history. It pulses with the energy of a modern city, but its labyrinthine backstreets mark it as something other. That’s the marvel of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. The Gothic Quarter, or Barri Gòtic in Catalan, is more than just a series of winding streets strung with shops and bars—it’s actually a living history book. Founded as part of a Roman settlement in 133 B.C., the Gothic Quarter has been shaped, redesigned, and rebuilt over several thousand years. It’s not uncommon to see an ornate, ancient building sharing a wall with a Starbucks, or to see people on smartphones while leaning against a wall that’s older than some countries. The Gothic Quarter exists somewhere between local hangout and tourist attraction, with tons of amazing exploration options for any time of day or night.
1. Plaça Reial
If you enter Plaça Reial from the bustling Ramblas side, you may be surprised to find yourself smack in the middle of what appears to be a desert-style oasis, right in the heart of the city. Great palm trees stretch up to the sky. A large and beautiful fountain sits surrounded by benches. Craftspeople sometimes set up booths to sell their handicrafts, brightly-colored restaurants put out huge signs offering low-priced coffee or the menu of the day, and you’re liable to see dozens of backpackers scurrying to and from the Kabul Backpackers Hostel. Tourist entertainment isn’t the only interesting part of Plaça Reial’s story, though: if you look closely, you’ll see four enormous lampposts, each looking as if they’ve been yanked out of a fairy tale. And for good reason—these lampposts were designed by world-renowned architect Antoni Gaudí, whose other contributions to Barcelona include a famous dragon, some amazing houses, and a little-known church called La Sagrada Familia.
2. Plaça Sant Felip Neri
Tucked away from any major commotion, this romantic plaza is a peaceful place to rest on any afternoon; indeed, the area is so lovely that it was even used in the 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But, like many places in this ancient metropolis, Plaça Sant Felip Neri has a dark history. In September of 1938, dictator Franco dropped two bombs on top of the church in this square. As the church had been used as a shelter for a nearby school, many of the forty-two killed were children, and despite restoration, the stone of the church is still pockmarked from the shrapnel. Now, the area is a memorial to the lives lost in the Spanish Civil War, and the plaza has been opened up to new life: children play, citizens sip coffee and laugh, and you can walk with a friend through this testament to the resilience of the Catalonian people.
3. Barcelona Cathedral
Now, the most famous church in Barcelona is certainly La Sagrada Familia—Gaudí’s sprawling, unfinished masterpiece. But the Barcelona Cathedral is striking, as well, and remains a living testament to the patron saint of Barcelona, Santa Eulalia. Eulalia was a thirteen-year-old girl and martyr, killed by the Romans in the fourth century for refusing to renounce Christ. While her tomb is indeed on display at the cathedral, the priests have another, more lively tradition to honor their saint: in the courtyard, the cathedral houses thirteen geese, one for each of Eulalia’s thirteen years. The lively honking of the geese just outside is a sweet and welcome contrast to the hushed beauty of the church, and an excursion here makes for a lovely afternoon.
One of the most exciting things about the Gothic Quarter is its density—you can wander for hours, stepping in and out of the shops and bars available, and still never quite see all of it. But the benefit to spending an evening getting lost in the gentle, darkening streets means that you’re liable to find something amazing. Like Sugar Bar, a dive bar nestled deep in the Gothic Quarter that offers cheap drinks and a breather from the bustling streets. You can sip a cocktail or drink a beer and interact with strangers from all over the world! But, if that’s not your speed, there’s always a sweet tea room like Salterio. Enjoy a fresh pot of tea or slurp a smoothie while you listen to a cool new band. Then, when you’re finished, the Gothic Quarter will be there, ready for more adventure.
Have you ever visited the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona? Let us know what you found there!