It may be a surprise to learn that much of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter (Barri Gótic) is not what it seems. During the latter half of the 19th century and just prior to the International Exhibition in 1929, the heart of the once drab medieval quarter was completely transformed through a massive restoration project. A new Neo-Gothic Quarter was created using real Gothic stonework reconfigured around seven real Gothic buildings, but it also included several new buildings constructed in the Neo-Gothic style. The quarter was essentially reinvented as a tourist attraction to help project a positive image of the city for the International Exhibition.
Some of the quarter’s most famous buildings were included among those that were part of the restoration project. For instance, Barcelona Cathedral’s elaborate façade was constructed between 1882 and 1913 and the gorgeous bridge that crosses Carrer del Bisbe was built in 1928. Sadly, many of the more fanciful gothic windows and decorative elements to be found throughout the quarter are likely fake.
Authenticity aside, Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter is now one of the most emblematic and photographed parts of the city. And, to be perfectly frank, it’s absolutely bewitching and a joy to explore. It’s hard to resist the allure of the labyrinthine warren of narrow pedestrian walkways and medieval architecture. The winding alleys are known for disorienting tourists, but losing your bearings is part of the adventure! As you wander, you’ll stumble upon a variety of charming plazas where you can stop to consult your map, if you choose. There is something to discover around every corner. Cafes, boutiques, tapas bars, restaurants, and bakeries abound.
The Gothic Quarter is bounded by Fontanella street to the north, the Via Laietana to the east, the Passeig de Colom to the south and the famous Las Ramblas to the west. We were very lucky to have rented an apartment between Fontanella and Via Laietana, so we had many opportunities to explore the quarter at length. During our frequent meandering, we happened upon many notable plazas: Plaça de la Seu, Plaça del Rei, Plaça de Sant Jaume, Plaça Reial, Plaça Sant Felip Neri, Placa de Sant Just, and Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol.
Although Las Ramblas is one of the primary tourist hot-spots, the tree-lined pedestrian mall didn’t offer much entertainment for us. Our month-long visit to Barcelona took place in the winter, so the trees were bare, the sidewalk cafes were mostly empty, and there weren’t any street performers. There were only crowds of pedestrians, and very likely pickpockets as well.
The one real draw that Las Ramblas had for us was the Mercat de la Boqueria, which is a huge open-air market. This market has existed in one form or another since the 13th century. If you are patient (or pushy), you might get a spot at one of the coveted tapas bars inside, but even if you don’t, the huge variety of fresh fruit and juices, meat, fish, cheese, and sweets makes it worth a visit. That said, we actually prefer the smaller and less hectic Mercat Santa Caterina on Avinguda de Francesc Cambó or there is also a fantastic grocery store in the basement of El Corte Inglés department store just off Plaça de Catalunya.
This quarter was also home to the Roman settlement of Barcino, establish during the reign of Caesar Augustus. It’s not uncommon to come across remnants of the old city walls, the Temple of Augustus, and you can visit excavated underground ruins at the City History Museum. There’s also an interesting sculpture/ideogram that spells out the word Barcino just in front of Barcelona’s Roman wall, where the aqueduct once entered the city.
So, perhaps the Gothic Quarter isn’t really Gothic. Nonetheless, it is a genuine pleasure to explore and it offers a great mix of history, creativity, atmosphere, and fun.