Barcelona: Everything you need to know before you visit!
Article updated 25 November, 2019.
Vibrant, cosmopolitan, sunny and packed with culture, Barcelona is one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations. Read on to find out more about the Catalan capital!
Barcelona: whether you’re strolling down the long, elegant avenues or wandering the narrow side-streets of the Gothic quarter, in the bustling heart of the city or out along the sea front, you’re certain to feel like you’re on holiday… but also, somehow, at home. The friendly, approachable vibe means that no-one is really a stranger: life, in the charming and historic Catalan capital, is good. Whether you’re planning a trip to the city or just curious, read on to find out more!
Barcelona: geography, language and society
Barcelona is the capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia in north-eastern Spain, south of the Pyrenees and on the Mediterranean coast.
Covering a surface area of 101 km², Barcelona is almost the same size as Paris, but is much less densely populated, with “only” 1.6 million inhabitants.
In Barcelona, the regional language, Catalan, is spoken alongside Castillian (“conventional” Spanish). The city is a modern, cosmopolitan, international hub, so you’ll hear plenty of other languages being spoken, too – and you shouldn’t have too much trouble making yourself understod!
Barcelona: a spot of history
Some time during the 1st Century BC, the Romans established a colony by the name of Barcino on the site of what is now Barcelona. Remains of the walls constructed to protect the inhabitants during this period can still be seen in the old town. Later, the city was conquered by the Visigoths, then by the Arabs in 715.
The 3D video below gives you an idea of what the Roman city of Barcino might have looked like in the 3rd Century.
Following the Reconquista, where the Arabs were ousted from the peninsula by the Christian Kings, Catalonia became an important region of Spain, and Barcelona became a county in its own right. The city rapidly evolved into a major trading center, enjoying a period of prosperity and even opulence, particularly during the 13th – 15th Centuries.
The marriage of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469 marked a turning point for Catalonia, with the transfer of power to Madrid. Nevertheless, the Generalitat – the Catalan political body – retained political and legal sovreignty for a time, allowing the region to keep its own currency, language and fiscal system.
Economic decline, epidemics, crime and the growing gulf between town and country all bred resentment, which erupted into a revolt against central power in the late 16th Century, In 1714, the Generalitat was abolished by King Felipe V, who built the citadel at Montjuic to watch over and intimidate the population of Barcelona.
Catalonia did not recover until later in the 18th Century, developing local agriculture and trade with the Americas.
The Catalan renaissance
The 19th Century was marked by a movement known as the “Renaixença”, similar to the Romantic wave sweeping across Europe. This “Catalan renaissance” was both economic and social, a cultural blossoming and an affirmation of identity. It centered on a desire to re-establish Catalan as a literary, cultural language.
Revolutions and tensions
The Catalan population rose up in protest against government policy once again in 1842, demanding self-government. The first general strike occurred in 1855, and Catalonia played a central role in the 1868 September Revolution. Queen Isabella II was deposed, and Spain was declared a republic for the first time in 1873. The republic was short lived, however, and the monarchy was restored a year later under Alfonso XII.
In spite of these political upheavals, Barcelona continued to flourish, and even hosted the 1888 Universal Exhibition.
However, the political context continued to be a source of tension between Catalonia and the central government. Following a series of bloody clashes, notably during the “Tragic Week” of 1909, the Mancomunitat Catalana was created in 1914, the region’s first attempt at forming an autonomous government.
In 1923, General Primo de Rivera exploited a situation of political instability and widespread strikes to organise a coup d’état, establish a dictatorship and repress Catalonia.
The Second Spanish Republic was declared in 1932, and the central authorities in Madrid accepted the Catalan Republican Party’s proclamation of a Catalan Republic. This organisation rapidly developed into the Generalitat of Catalonia. However, the conflict was far from over.
The Civil War
The Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, between the left-wing Republicans and the rebel nationalists under General Franco. The nationalist troops, better-equipped, succeeded in taking Barcelona, a former Republican stronghold.
Franco took power in 1939, establishing a dictatorship which would last for 36 years. Many people fled the country, and all expression of Catalan cultural identity was banned. The Generalitat was abolished, its president executed, and Catalan was no longer allowed to be spoken in public. Catalan culture only began to re-surface in the 1950s-60s.
The return to democracy
General Franco died in November 1975, and Juan Carlos was crowned King of Spain. The Union of the Democractic Centre party swept to power, with Adolfo Suarez as president.
The Generalitat was re-established and obtained autonomous status in 1979. One year later, Jordi Pujol was elected as its president, a post he went on to hold for 23 years. The 1978 Constitution, establishing the separation of powers between the State and autonomous communities, was ratified in 1982.
1992: a key date for Barcelona
In 1992, Barcelona played host to the Olympic Games, putting on a spectacular show in the process. The city underwent major renovations for the event: façades were cleaned and repaired, the seafront was redeveloped, and the transport infrastructure was totally reorganised, alongside work on sports facilities and accommodation for the thousands of tourists.
1992 marked a true turning point for Barcelona, as the Catalan capital became a renowned and prestitigous tourist destination on the world stage.
The Financial Crisis
Following a long period of economic growth, Spain was hit hard by the financial crisis in the late 2000s, with unemployment rates of over 25% in 2010.
In this tense climate, debate on the status of Catalonia erupted once more.
Politics in Catalonia
Spain is a constitutional monarchy (like the UK), divided into 17 autonomous communities. The central State is responsible for decisions concerning defence, justice, currency, taxes and foreign policy. Catalonia, the Basque Country and Navarre all have special status, with a higher degree of autonomy.
A new statute of autonomy for Catalonia was adopted by referendum on 18 June 2006. However, in 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal revoked around ten articles, notably those relating to language and the autonomy of the judiciary. The concept of the “Catalan Nation”, present in the preamble, was judged to be anti-constitutional. This decision was met with resistance in the form of a major demonstration, with over 1 million people taking to the streets of Barcelona.
In 2012, the centre-right Partido Popular came to power, with Mariano Rajoy as president.
In September 2013, an immense human chain was organised in Catalonia, demanding a self-determination referendum in the region.
In June 2015, Ada Colau was elected Mayor of Barcelona, with the support of Podemos (a left-wing, anti-austerity party).
2017: a Landmark Year
The Referendum of 1st October 2017
Tensions between the Catalan government and Spanish central power reached boiling point again in 2017, and a referendum – banned by Madrid – was organised in Catalonia on 1st October 2017.
The majority of voters did not participate in the illegal referendum, but turnout still reached 43%, with 90% of these individuals voting “Sí” to Catalan secession.
The Unilateral Declaration of Independence
On 27th October, the Catalan parliament issued a unilateral declaration of Catalan independence.
Madrid reacted swiftly to the proclamation, bringing the region under direct state control by invoking Article 155 of the Constitution.
The Catalan governent was disolved and several ministers were arrested. An arrest warrant was put out for Carles Puigdemont (head of the Catalan government) and four of his ministers, who had left Barcelona for Brussels.
Elections of 21st December 2017
During the regional elections of 21st December 2017, mandated by central authority, the Ciudadanos party – in favour of continued attachment to Spain – came in first. However, it has so far been impossible to form a coalition, as the three independentist parties together have the absolute majority.
In terms of percentages, Catalonia is divided into two more or less equal parts, split between independentists and unionists.
It’s hard to imagine an easy way out of this political struggle, and the issue of Catalan independence is still a touchy subject as no consensus between the central Spanish government and the region has yet been reached.
Barcelona: what to eat
Discovering Catalan cuisine should be high up on your list of things to do in Barcelona. Typically mediterranean but with rustic, mountain influences, Barcelona’s food is honest, full of soul, and (mostly) well-doused in olive oil!
Tapas time? Enjoy fish and seafood alongside fresh and cured meats. And there’s no escaping the famous “Pan con tomate”, delicious slices of toast rubbed with garlic and tomatoes, topped off with – you guessed it – a drizzle of olive oil.
Make sure you try fuet (a type fo salami), black pudding, ham, fideuà, and any number of other Catalan specialities, which you’ll find in most of the city’s restaurants.
Wine lovers will be in heaven, as Catalonia is one of Spain’s biggest wine-producing regions, with vineyards in the Penedès, Priorat and Montsant regions.
Beer is also something of an institution, enjoyed with tapas, on its own or to accompany a meal.
Vermouth, a fortified, sweetened wine with herbs and spices, is also very popular in the region.
Catalonia is also the home of Cava, the Spanish answer to champagne, which you’ll find in all good restaurants.
To finish your meal in style, why not opt for Crème Catalane? A variant on crème brûlée, flavoured with vanilla and lemon zest, it’s incredibly popular in Barcelona – just taste it to understand why!
Barcelona: climate and weather
Barcelona enjoys great weather all year round, thanks to the Mediterranean climate, with mild winters and hot summers. Nestled between the mountains and the sea, the city is often breezy, with winds coming either from the sea or from further inland.
If you’re a beach-lover or a sun-seeker, spring or summer is probably the best time to visit.
Autumn is also a great time to visit Barcelona; the days are still fairly warm, and the city’s tree-lined streets are decked out in all their autumnal finery.
Alternatively, avoid the tourist crowds and visit in the winter. The weather remains mild and sunny, and you’ll be able to enjoy the city in peace!
Barcelona is an easy city to get around, by bike, metro, tram, bus or taxi. If you’re arriving by plane, there are several options for getting into town. The Aerobus shuttle between the airport and the city centre is a fast and comfortable option, getting you to the heart of Barcelona in 25 minutes.
The quickest way of getting around Barcelona itself is the metro, which boasts 9 lines and runs from 5am – midnight on weekdays, 5am – 2am on Fridays and all night on Saturdays.
The city has no les than 80 different bus routes, covering the whole of Barcelona – a great option if you want to enjoy the scenery while you travel! The tram network is of limited interest to leisure travellers, as it doesn’t cover the main tourist areas.
If you prefer to travel by taxi, simply look out for the black and yellow cars, which can be found all over town at all hours of the day and night. A trip within the city centre generally costs between 5 and 10 euros.
If you’re on a tight schedule, you might want to consider the tour bus.
The Barcelona City Pass is another great way of getting straight to the heart of things without too much effort!
Barcelona: the essentials
Barcelona holds the record for the number of buildings on the UNESCO World Heritage list, with no less than eight sites. As you might expect, Gaudí has something to do with that… in any case, there’s plenty to see and do!
The main examples of the architect’s work in Barcelona, spectacular examples of Catalan modernism, include the spectacular Sagrada Familia, begun in 1883 and still not finished (the end is in sight, however: construction may be completed in 2026). The iconic basilica is one of the city’s most recognisable sights.
Other works by Gaudí include Parc Güell, with its spectacular mosaic decorations and fantastic views of Barcelona; Palau Güell, with its colourful chimneys; Casa Milà, with its undulating, sinuous façade; and Casa Batlló, a masterpiece of quirky and off-beat architecture.
There’s more to Barcelona than Gaudí, though: visit the colourful covered markets, the pretty Parc de la Ciutadella, the stunning Hospital de Sant Pau, the grandiose, baroque Palau de la Música, the ancient Gothic Quarter and the cathedral, the fascinating Picasso Museum and, last but not least, Montjuïc, overlooking the city. The mountain is home to beautiful parks, the Miró Foundation, the Olympic Park, the Palau Nacional or MNAC, and the spectacular magic fountains.
Staying in Barcelona
Barcelona isn’t short of places to stay. There are youth hostels for travellers on tight budgets, campsites for nature-lovers, a full range of hotels, from cheap and cheerful to exclusive and luxurious, and apartment rental options for those looking for a real “home from home”.
- Remember to book ahead, especially during the high season, as the best options sell out quickly!
- “Free” camping is prohibited in Barcelona (and elsewhere in Spain) – so you can’t just plant a tent on the beach. Sorry!
Barcelona FC: the stuff of legends
Barcelona wouldn’t quite be Barcelona without its legendary football team. The city lives and breathes Barça, possibly Spain’s most popular club. Since its creation over 100 years ago, Barcelona FC has gone from strength to strength, winning the most championship titles of any team in the 21st Century.
Football fans would be well-advised to check out the Barça match calendar when planing a visit. If you can’t make your trip coincide with a home game, however, all is not lost: make the pilgrimage to the mythical Camp Nou, home to Barcelona FC since its inauguration in 1957.
On big match days, some shops even shut early, and many bars set up big screens to attract fans from the whole world over. If you’re lucky enough to be there, join in with the festivities and let yourself be carried away on the waves of passion and enthusiasm sweeping the city!
So there you have it. Where the land meets the sea, tranquility rubs shoulders with flamboyance and tradition combines with modernity, Barcelona is a city of many colours, sure to charm any visitor.
To end this article, we thought we’d share a superb timelapse video by Rob Whitworth – a great illustration of the magic of Barcelona!
Thanks to Ramiro Torrents, photographer and professor at Paso de Luz for the fabulous cover photo!
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