Las Ramblas is the backbone of Barcelona's downtown area. A large commercial avenue whose median strip is lined with trees, it stretches from Catalonia Square to the north, to Plaza de la Paz to the south. A column topped with a statue of Christopher Columbus towers over the avenue and a replica of the Santa María floats in the nearby marina. The Royal Arsenals, located on the esplanade and dating back to the 14th century, are home to the excellent Marine Museum.
East of Las Ramblas is the superb historic city centre (Barrio Gótico). Narrow lanes lined with venerable palaces and small churches make way for its spire-topped cathedral. The old town is renowned for its numerous historical monuments, alleys and bohemian atmosphere: it's the ideal spot for a stroll. A walk through its ancient streets is essential to grasp the city's different historical periods and to get a glimpse at its most beautiful sites: from the remnants of Roman ramparts and well-preserved Gothic buildings to the Jewish neighbourhood that witnessed the industrial growth of the 19th century and the design styles of the 20th. The musicians that play in its medieval streets supply the perfect aural backdrop. Several of the area's buildings are built on the ancient Roman walls of the city. This is the case of the Casa de l'Ardiaca, built during the 11th century and flanked by two towers. The Palau de la Generalitat dates from the 15th century and presents a mix of Gothic and Renaissance architectural styles. Its monumental staircase leads to an orange tree courtyard.
On the eastern side of town, the Plaza del Rey, one of the city's most beautiful squares, is in fact one of the interior courtyards of the old Royal Palace. It is home to Santa Agueda chapel, pretty Casa Clariana-Padellás (which houses a historical museum) and the immense Salo de Tinell hall. The nearby Federico Marès Museum features religious and "sentimental" art. City hall, located on San Jaime square, features a splendid gothic façade. Several of old Barcelona's most striking houses are located on Montcada street, in the southwestern part of town. Among these, Aguilar Palace is home to the Picasso Museum, which focuses on the painter's early years. Santa María church is a jewel of Gothic art. Also of note in the area are Lonja Palace, the old Marine Trade Building (14th century) and, to the east, Citadel Park and the Museum of Modern Art.
Towering over the city's southern side, the hill of Montjuich was fortified during the 17th century and hosted Barcelona's World's Fair in 1929. The Pueblo Español, a reconstitution of several of the nation's monuments, remained after the fair and now occupies the western side of the hill. The summit of Montjuich, which can only be reached by cable car or funicular, offers a great view of the city and port. There are several museums on Montjuich: the Fundació Miró, the Archeological Museum and the Museo de Arte de Cataluña, one of the world's best for Romanesque and Gothic art. Also located on the hill, Joan Miró Park is worth a visit to see the artist's Dona i Ocell (Woman and Bird), a gigantic phallic-shaped sculpture located in the park's western corner.
The emblem of Barcelona lies in the northern part of the city, in the Eixample district: the Sagrada Familia basilica. Its construction was undertaken in 1884 and it remains unfinished. This stunning testament to the genius of its architect, Gaudí, is topped with spindle-shaped towers and bears witness to its creator's taste for outlandish symbolism and the exuberant shapes of nature. Further north is Güell Park, which was also designed by Gaudí. Declared a historical and artistic national monument in 1969, it is the city's best-known park and another good example of the creativity of its Catalonian architect.
The middle of June is a good time for music lovers to visit Barcelona, as this is when the city hosts the Sonar festival. From its humble beginnings in 1993 as a small electronic music and multimedia arts festival, it has grown to become the world reference in its genre. The most renowned DJs and electronic artists bring the beats while several avant-garde artists present their more cutting-edge projects.
Where on earth
Barcelona is located on the Mediterranean Sea's coastline, between the mouths of the Besòs and Llobregat rivers, 180km from the French border. The city is the capital of both the province of Barcelona and the autonomous community of Catalonia. Barcelona's population numbers 1.5 million inhabitants, while the greater Barcelona area has a population of more than 4.6 million.