A continuation of the waterfront area, La Barceloneta was built in the early eighteenth century to house dispossessed families when La Ribera district was demolished to make way for the Ciutadella fortress. A robust barrio inhabited by fishermen’s families, its beaches were scruffy and dominated by flimsy wooden restaurant shacks (chiringuitos), but the area was virtually rebuilt in preparation for the 1992 Olympics and today, the area is altogether more salubrious.
Befitting an area that used to be a fishing district, Barceloneta is all about the fishy treats. You don’t have to follow your nose, though – head to the local market, the Mercat de la Barceloneta, home to a couple of excellent bars and restaurants or start at the harbourside Passeig Joan de Borbó, where most of Barceloneta’s famous seafood restaurants are found, although there are good ones spread across the neighbourhood.
You can cut through the grid of narrow streets or walk along the beach to the Passeig Marítim and the landscaped promenade running alongside the wooden walkways and scrupulously clean sands of Platja Barceloneta.
Several modern chiringuitos – beach bars running the gamut from seriously stylish to rustic – make the most of their beach-side locations with enticing lounge seating and simple menus of tapas, sandwiches and quesadillas, light bites well suited to hot weather and informal dining. There are also bars and some good restaurants on the beach, all of which make popular hangouts on summer nights, when the balmy temperatures and sound of lapping waves nearby can make you feel like you’re in an entirely different part of Spain – except for the fact of Barcelona city centre's proximity and its relentless urban stylishness.
Keep walking north and you will come to the 1992 Olympic Village, the Vila Olímpica, an award-winning development that has blossomed into a smart and vibrant neighbourhood. It is recognisable from afar by two high-rise buildings – one the prestigious Hotel Arts – and Frank Gehry’s enormous, shimmering copper fish. As you approach, passing a small park, the gleaming Hospital de Mar and a modernista water tower, the promenade here and in the Port Olímpic just beyond starts to be increasingly lined with bars and restaurants again.
A series of sandy beaches stretches for four kilometres north of Port Olímpic. Split into different named sections (Nova Icària, Bogatell etc), which boast showers, playgrounds and open-air café-bars, it’s a pretty extraordinary holiday resource to find so close to a city centre. It can feel like you’re in a resort area as well as one of the world’s most stylish cities – a perfect package. A sunny day, even in winter, brings the locals out in force, and the sands are regularly swept and replenished. Check out some of our favourite beaches in Barcelona.
If the idea of stretching out on a towel or lounging at a chiringuito doesn’t float your boat, there’s no shortage of more active things to do from the beach area in Barcelona. Want a small exertion? Challenge your companions to a ping-pong game. Looking for a full-on thrill? Try parasailing! In between these extremes, you can work out on free outdoor gym equipment, hire a bicycle for a promenade ride, or simply go for a swim. If you don’t fancy hitting the waves, Club Natació Barcelona is a beachside pool lined with loungers.
Beyond the Olympic Port, a line of metal poles follow a path inland to El Poblenou district, once known as the ‘Manchester of Catalonia’ for its textile production. Today the factories have been replaced by design studios, craft breweries, pop-up concept stores and start-up offices, as well as stylish new apartments, making this one of the most up-and-coming spots in the city. The area’s gentrification continues as you head north and west to meet Avinguda Diagonal.
While you're in the area, the Museu del Disseny is definitely worth a visit if you're a design enthusiast. Regular exhibitions take place and permanent collections include fashion, textiles, product design and decorative arts.
Lodged between the Olympic Village and La Ribera is Parc de la Ciutadella, the city’s largest park. This was the site of the 1888 World Exposition.This popular park is always a relaxing refuge from the intensity of the city’s streets. It’s a lovely place,with a lake where rowing boats can be hired, and shady benches beneath towering trees where parakeets have taken control. The large baroque fountain, La Cascada, was designed by Josep Fontseré, whose assistant was a young architecture student named Antoni Gaudí. In the Plaça d’Armes is the Parlament de Catalunya. The autonomous government debates the issues of the day in a handsome building.
Housed in a splendid modernista building designed for 1888 World Exposition is the Laboratori de Natura, a branch of the Natural Science Museum, now housing its library and research centre. Nearby stands the Museu Martorell, which used to house the geological collection. Now it’s also a branch of the Natural Science Museum, which features the fully renovated ‘Land of Dragons’. It recreates the natural habitat of the terrifying komodo dragon and allows for panoramic views of the various levels of the enclosure.
From the park’s exit on Pujades a broad promenade sweeps up to the imposing Arc de Triomf, built as the entrance to the 1888 Exposition. On the sea side of the park lies the grand Estació de França railway station, and along Avinguda Marquès de l’Argentera is La Llotja, a centre of Barcelona’s trading activities for more than 600 years and former Stock Exchange. It is a striking building with an attractive courtyard and a Gothic hall.
Almost opposite is the splendid arcade of Porxos Xifré, a complex that houses the Restaurant 7 Portes, a Barcelona institution. If you head back towards the Rambla past the city’s monumental Correus (Post Office), along Passeig de Colom, you will pass the baroque splendour of the Mare de Déu de la Mercè church. It is best known because the sculpture of the Madonna on the dome can be seen for miles around and is something of a local landmark.
The dazzling Edifici Fòrum building is the work of Jacques Herzog (architect of London’s Tate Modern), while the main open space is claimed to be the second-largest square in the world after Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. This immense expanse spreads towards the sea, culminating in a giant solar-panelled canopy that overlooks the marina, beach and park areas. In summer, temporary bars, dancefloors and chill-out zones are established at the Parc del Fòrum, and the city authorities have shifted some of the bigger annual music festivals and events down here to inject a bit of life outside convention time.
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