La Ribera is a touristy bit of town, but you won’t even mind, it's all part of its charisma and charm. La Ribera is the city’s old artisan quarter and reflective of the area’s past as the heart of medieval industry and commerce. Galleries occupy medieval mansions, complementing the area’s most famous sight – the Museu Picasso – while the district is at its most fashionable in the area around Passeig del Born.
A warren of shady narrow streets with balconies stretching upwards overhead, dripping with plants, which emerge into light, convivial squares, continues to characterise the visual experience of wandering in this part of Barcelona. Fittingly for an area that’s long been home to artisans, it’s still the neighbourhood of choice for local designers and artists, whose boutiques and workshops lend La Ribera an air of creativity.
La Ribera is home to the majestic church of Santa Maria del Mar, perhaps the greatest example of pure Catalan Gothic, with unadorned exterior walls, a sober facade flanked by three-tiered octagonal bell towers, and a beautiful rose window over the portal. It was begun in 1329 but fires during Civil War rioting in 1936 consumed all the trappings of chapels, choir and altar, leaving the interior stripped to its essence. The result is a lofty hall suffused with soft light from the stained-glass windows. Stand in the church and take it all in. The acoustics are excellent, best demonstrated by the concerts held here.
The rear door of the church leads to the Passeig del Born, a pretty, rectangular plaza where jousts were held in the Middle Ages and which today is the nucleus of this fashionable, boho area. The network of streets leading from here are full of smart galleries, trendy bistros, hipster coffee shops, concept store spaces and chic boutiques, all a delight to explore. Indeed, forget the church, El Born is best known now for the people who fill its designer bars late into the night and spill out onto the streets. If you’re after a wide variety of eating options from Asian noodle joints to the hottest tapas spots and the most refined dining, this is where to come.
The magnificent El Born Centre de Cultura i Memoria, also known as Born CCM, was converted from an old fruit and vegetable market into a museum and cultural centre. It features the archaeological ruins of a medieval city and also hosts concerts and exhibitions.
One of Barcelona’s grandest streets, Carrer de Montcada, is lined with striking Gothic palaces. This quarter is the most authentically medieval part of the city. Each features an imposing door or arched gate to an inner courtyard from where an ornamental staircase usually led up to reception rooms. At No. 12, the Museu de Cultures del Món presents arts and artefacts from all over the non-Western world. The curators’ passion for collecting and sharing their artistic wealth is clearly apparent.
All the mansions along Carrer de Montcada merit a peek in at their courtyards, but one that’s always open is the handsome, baroque Palau Dalmases (No. 20). On the ground floor is Espai Barroc, an over-the-top, Rococo bar. At the end of the street, in Plaçeta Montcada, you can get wonderful Basque tapas in the Euskal Etxea bar.
It’s time for a big one. Museu Picasso is one of Barcelona’s premier attractions, occupying five palaces (two of which are used for temporary exhibitions). After the museum opened in 1963, Picasso donated sketches and paintings from his childhood and youth, so there is extraordinary coverage of his whole career. The earliest works date from his ninth year. As a teenager he produced large canvases in the 19th-century realist style, before moving onto the Cubism with which he is most associated.
The Museu Europa d’Art Modern (MEAM) is a living museum which promotes figurative art from the late 19th century to the present day. It has a great collection of visually striking and thought-provoking contemporary art – definitely worth a visit!
The Palau de la Música Catalana is one the city’s greatest modernista architecture achievements. Inaugurated in 1908, it is the perfect expression of modernisme and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is an explosion of mosaics, tiles, stained glass, porcelain enamel, sculpture and carving. You could spend all day staring at the detail, but be sure to go inside. The brick exterior, with Moorish arches and columns inlaid with floral tiles, is sober compared to what’s inside, where every square inch is embellished. The best way to fully experience the Palau is to attend a concert. The alleyways opposite lead to Santa Caterina market, a dazzling building and a great place to grab a bite.
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