After a week trundling through the sleepy hills and towns of southern Spain, you might board a night train to one of the country’s largest cities, determined to get your legs moving at an urban pace, to stand agape before architectural wonders, to be carried away by the undertow of big-city life.
Descending from your train, humidity embraces you with the weight of a million kisses. The subway is pristine, efficient, and near-silent, a cadre of elitist ninjas patrolling just beneath the city’s streets. Stepping onto Las Ramblas, a series of pedestrian streets cutting from the mediterranean harbor to the heart of the city – and protected by a stunning canopy of trees – you are suddenly thrust into the pulsing, bustling, exuberant pulse of city life.
Welcome to Barcelona.
Located on the northeastern shore of Spain, Barcelona proper is home to 1,6 million people. Stretch that to its outskirts and the number nearly triples to 4,7 million. It is one of Europe’s greatest cities, and you need only walk its streets to see why. To date, it is the only city to have received the highest honor from the Royal Institute of British Architects for its architecture, rather than an individual receiving the award. In Barcelona, the city itself is art.
Set Gaudi’s imaginative buildings aside for a moment, in no small part because that deserves its own post. Find your way to the harbor end of Las Ramblas, mere meters from the mediterranean, and head to Placa de Catalunya at its opposite end, the heart of the modern city and the foundation of the old.
Look up as you walk, and you see dragons.
This vibrant specimen greets visitors to Casa Bruno Cuadros, a building refurbished by Catalan architect Josep Vilaseca i Casanovas in 1883. One glance shows you what could purchase here back then. The side of the building underlines this beautifully, with clusters of open umbrellas, like a lost dance number from Singing In the Rain.
As you take in your surroundings on the boulevard, walking past flower stalls and busy cafes, remember to look down. At the halfway point, you’ll find yourself standing on a mosaic designed by none other than surrealist artist and Barcelona native Joan Miro.
Just past the Miro mosaic, you’ll notice activity to your left. That’s El Marcat de la Boqueria, a market open every day of the week except Sunday. To call it a “market,” though, is a complete understatement. What can you find there? Everything. Absolutely everything. You could spend the whole day there, shopping and snacking from one stall or cafe to the next, and have a sensory extravaganza the entire time.
The Market includes a culinary school where you can take informal classes from the best chefs in the city, cafes that have been there for decades, people deeply proud of the quality of their food. The video below provides, if you’ll forgive the pun, just a taste. (Note: click on the settings icon below to activate English subtitles.)
As you return to Las Ramblas, take a short walk east, and you’ll find a breathtaking example of art nouveau: the Palau de la Musica Catalana, offering concerts and dance performances (including flamenco, of course), several nights a week. Built between 1905 and 1908 by architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner, the building is “an architectural jewel of Catalan Art Nouveau,” and is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The inside, however, is just as spectacular. The concert hall in particular is absolutely breathtaking.
The background of the stage features multiple muses, each singing or playing an instrument, emerging from the wall as if to perform alongside the human players on stage.
Above it all, the stained-glass skylight drenches the space with natural light.
It leaves you speechless.
My first day in Barcelona passed in a blur of mesmerizing images, demanding a complete reimagining of the words building, home, city. I’ve never encountered a place with such color, so much everyday creativity, so much vibrant and joyous life. Those qualities attract thousands of immigrants each month from countries as diverse as Pakistan, Italy, China, and Honduras, creating evermore diversity and making/keeping Barcelona a truly international city.
And yet, one suspects, Barcelona stays Barcelona. It’s in the mosaics, the heat, the kilometers-long arcs of beach on the mediterranean sea sculpting the city’s shore. If anything, Barcelona has mastered the art of adaptation, embracing foreign cultures and visionary art forms, blending both into a glittering, shining, multifaceted jewel.