Barcelona’s celebrated cosmopolitanism is possible thanks above all to the very Mediterranean tradition of using the street as a place for interrelating. In the old days, one mingled with friends and neighbours. Nowadays one does so with the entire world. Over the last decade, Barcelona has become a destination whose mind, hotels and windows are open all year.
Beyond all doubt, the Ramblas are Barcelona’s most internationally famous thoroughfares and its first unmissable destination. This lively succession of streets crosses the old city from top to bottom. Their course is marked by human statues looking as though they were cast in bronze, who will accompany the walk from Plaza Catalunya to the Columbus Column on the sea front. They seem immobilized until someone throws them a coin, whereupon a shout or a brusque movement makes all the passers-by jump…they’re alive! The Ramblas also is an incessant spectacle of caricaturists, clowns, musicians and craftsmen; with a soundtrack consisting of thousand tongues mixed up in a multi-ethnic and polyglot swarm of humanity.
Spanish, English, Catalan, Arabic, Mandarin, Urdu, Hindi and Italian are the main languages that fill the streets. There are tourists, students, hustlers, artists, businessmen and vendors. The famous stationers’ kiosks sell newspapers from all over the world. Their reports transport us in our imagination to distant lands aided by the equally extravagant aromas wafting out of establishments in the adjacent streets.
The city smells of curry, arrays, shawarmas and coriander; though it also preserves the Catalan food essence. Fresh fish, meat, vegetables and seasonal fruit are the principal ingredients of Catalan cuisine, whose chief characteristics are simplicity combined with quality. The sausage meats of Catalunya are very famous, especially fuet and butifarra. Also very famous are peus de pork (pork legs), wild boar, partridge, rabbit and snails. Also seafood and magnificent fish, which can be grilled or served with simple sauces includes recipes like fideuà (with noodles and fish), suquet de peix (fish stew) and cod a la llauna (with tomatoes, garlic and wine).
On the other side of the Ramblas, ancient alleyways lead visitors and locals alike to enchanting little squares, excellent museums and countless bars and restaurants with pleasant outdoor tables. This is the way to Plaça dels Àngels in the Raval district, the icon of avant-garde and the home of MACBA (Contemporary Art Museum) and the neighboring CCCB (Centre for Contemporary Culture). The luminous MACBA building contains an important collection of the 20th and 21st century art, but no less contemporary of the human spectacle outside it. Congregated in the square day and night are young skateboarders who share a common aesthetic. The inner courtyard of the CCCB is a refreshing version of the classical Roman forum or Athenian agora, a link with the old Mediterranean tradition of using public areas as meeting places.
There are other courtyards in the city with similar characteristics. Wonderful places for conversation and relaxation far from the city’s bustle and the noise of motor vehicles. These gems includes the old Museum of Textiles and Clothing (in Montcada Street), that of Frederic Marès Museum (Plaza de Sant Lu), and that of the hospital of La Santa Creu i Sant Pau (Hospital Street). All have a bar serving drinks in the open air.
If time is short, the essential cultural itinerary to do is the one with the Art Nouveau masterpieces. Barcelona is the only city in the world with nine buildings classified as World Heritage and most of them are Art Nouveau. At the very least, you should see the Parc Güell, Casa Milà also known as La Pedrera, Sagrada Familia, Palau de la Música Catalana, the Santa Creu i Sant Pau’s hospitals and Casa Batlló.
The city’s main shopping area is around the streets and squares of the historic centre like Portaferrisa, Pelayo, Rambla, Portal del Angel and Plaça de Catalunya. Design has a home in the alleyways of the Borne neighborhood, which has been growing popular since the late nineties. Also worth visiting are the shops on Gran de Gracia and Sants, the shopping centers of La Illa, La Maquinista, Les Glories and Diagonal Mar. Second-hand bargain hunters should go to Mercat de Les Encants, a market on Plaza Las Glories which opens on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays where books, music, films, stamps, collectables and so much more are bought and sold.