A quick orientation guide to Barcelona's diverse destination districts...
The medieval heart of the Old City, the Barri Gòtic is a spider’s web of narrow alleyways and secluded squares and the best introduction to the city, combined with a wander down La Rambla, frenetic and shamelessly commercial, but with a certain charm. For a taste of Barcelona’s more grandiose architecture, Plaça Sant Jaume is flanked by the Renaissance palace of the Generalitat (Catalan government) and the neo-classical façade of the Ajuntament (City Hall).
The Born’s main artery, the Passeig del Born, is a former jousting ground and one of Barcelona’s prettiest boulevards, bookended by the magnificent wrought-iron 19th-century market building and the glorious 14th-century Santa Maria del Mar church. Highlights of the slightly scruffier Sant Pere are the swooping polychromatic roof of the Santa Caterina market, and the Modernista Palau de la Música.
Once a no-go area for tourists, the Raval is being transformed. Some of its gems have been around for years – Gaudí’s medievalist Palau Güell was an early, brave attempt at gentrification. But others are newer: the revival began in 1995 with Richard Meier’s monumental MACBA, housing the city’s main collection of modern art, and carried on with the creation of the wide Rambla del Raval.
The city’s seafront was ignored until 1992, when it underwent a massive transformation for the Olympics. Despite initial resistance, it was wildly successful: the city now has seven kilometres of golden sands from the bustling Port Vell to the upscale Port Olímpic and beyond. Inevitably, this is also where you’ll find some of the city’s best seafood restaurants.
It's often left off visitors' itineraries, but the hill of Montjuïc merits a wander. In summer, the hill is a few degrees cooler than the city below, and its many parks and gardens are excellent places for a shady picnic. There are also plenty of museums: the Fundació Joan Miró is as impressive for its Corbusier-influenced building as its collection.
With the demolition of the medieval walls in 1854, the fields beyond the city became a blank canvas. The Eixample (literally, 'Expansion'), with its grid layout, became a Modernista showcase, with buildings such as the Sagrada Família, La Pedrera and the Hospital de Sant Pau. Bisecting the area is the elegant Passeig de Gràcia; the area to its right is the fashionable Dreta, while to the left is the more down-at-heel Esquerra.
Beyond the Eixample lies the low-rise barrio of Gràcia. Like workaday Sants and well-heeled Sarrià, it was an independent town that was swallowed up as the city spread, but it retains its own identity and is one of the most popular and vibrant districts in the city. You can't think of Gràcia without thinking of its 'Festa Major', a district-wide weeklong street fair and party that takes over the barrio every August, complete with neighbourhood decorating competitions that are taken very seriously, and activities all day and into the wee hours. Architecturally, Gràcia can hold its own with the likes of the clock tower in Plaça de la Vila, the modernist Casa Fuster, Gaudí's Casa Vicens and, stretching the boundaries a bit, Park Güell.
A neighbourhood in the Sants district, Poble Sec runs from Av. Paral•lel to Montjuïc and was the first expansion of the city. Paral•lel is known for its theatres, music bars and cabaret clubs, including the inimitable El Molino.
Sarrià was own independent town until 1921, when it was gobbled up by Barcelona and became the city's new uptown area, not only for its geographical location but also for its more posh homes, shops and restaurants.