Barcelona’s Old City: Discover the Gothic Quarter, El Born & The Other Barrios

ornate gothic stone bridge over a narrow alleyway in the Barcelona Old city

Barcelona’s Old City is steeped in history and soaked in charm. Wandering its streets and alleys is a delightful thing to do in Barcelona, but there’s more to the Old City than just the Gothic Quarter. Read on for a guide to the Barcelona Old City neighbourhoods (or barrios), including the Gothic Quarter, Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera, El Born, El Raval and La Barceloneta.

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What Is Barcelona’s Old City?

The Old City, or Ciutat Vella, is the oldest part of Barcelona, its historic heart. There has been a settlement here since Roman times when it was known as Barcino. Once hemmed in by medieval walls, which were taken down in the 19th century, Barcelona’s old city remains a dense network of streets, alleys and historic buildings. But it’s not just for pretty walks and sightseeing: Barcelona’s Old City remains a vibrant, humming community, full of life. And it’s not all the same – the historic neighbourhoods (barris in Catalan and barrios in Spanish) each have their own distinct personality and appeal.

What Are The Barcelona Old City Barrios?

There are four main barrios within Barcelona’s Old City:

  • The Gothic Quarter (or Barri Gòtic in Catalan andBarrio Gótico in Spanish). Some people use ‘the Gothic Quarter’ and ‘Old City’ interchangeably, but the Gothic Quarter is a distinct neighbourhood within the Old City. The Gothic Quarter is the oldest part of the city, and while it was redeveloped in the 19th century, it contains many roman and medieval remains and landmarks.
  • Sant Pere, Santa Caterina I La Ribera, is named for several neighbourhoods that sit close together. It is sometimes simply called La Ribera and sometimes called El Born – but actually, El Born is a neighbourhood within Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera. This is the most eastern barri, an expansion from the Gothic Quarter in the middle ages – it was the richest part of the city in the 13th century.
  • El Raval, the western-most neighbourhood, was once a rural area outside the city walls, before it was enveloped by the city in the middle ages and then crammed with working-class families during the industrial revolution. It has a seedy history, has historically been home to the red-light district and it retains a reputation for street crime – but is also very edgy and cool.
  • La Barceloneta is to the south and borders the sea. This district was built in the 18th century to house people pushed out of La Ribera by the construction of the Ciutadella of Barcelona. These days, the main attraction is the beach and the marina.
a round archway through to a narrow pedestrian street with balconies and hanging plants and a blue and white flag flying
Alley in Barcelona’s Old City

Barcelona Old City Map: The Barrios

I struggled to find an existing map with the old city barrios mapped, so I had a go at creating my own. I might not have gotten the boundaries 100% right, but this is pretty close. I’ve also included markers for things to do in the Barcelona old city barrios, plus places to eat and stay.

How To Use This Map: click the tab in the top left-hand corner of the map to view the layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each one.  If you click the star next to the title of the map, it will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu, go to ‘Your Places’, then click Maps and you will see this map in your list.

Guide To The Barcelona Old City

Exploring the old city is one of the best things to do in Barcelona, so here’s my guide to each of the Barcelona Old City barrios.

Guide To Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter

The Gothic Quarter is probably the best-known of the Barcelona Old City barrios. And it is, well, gothic – haha! In the Gothic Quarter, expect medieval landmarks and Roman ruins, plus plenty of historic churches and squares. 

narrow alleyway with a glimpse of a gothic cathedral spire at the end - in the Barcelona old city
A glimpse of Barcelona cathedral in the Gothic Quarter

Barcelona Cathedral sets the tone – this gothic-style cathedral from 1058 dominates the northern part of the barrio, and the surrounding streets and alleys contain many ancient remains. This area is also very charming. As such, this is a very touristy part of the Barcelona Old City, and it is often busy with visitors and walking tours. Close to La Rambla, you’ll find a lot of souvenir shops and brightly coloured gelato etc.

Further south in the Gothic Quarter, below Carrer de Ferran, it becomes quieter. And by the time you hit the southern boundary of Passeig de Colom, it is quite a different place: grand hotels overlook the palm-tree lined promenade, the marina and its glitzy yachts.

Things To Do In The Gothic Quarter

Barcelona Cathedral and Placa Nova – The impressive 11th-century Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia (or Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia) is located in the heart of the Gothic Quarter, opening onto Placa Nova, a broad square that gives you enough space to take in the majesty of the cathedral.

gothic cathedral with three spires and an ornate doorway in barcelona
Barcelona’s gothic cathedral

Just off Placa Nova, you can see some tall towers on either side of a narrow alley – these are the Roman Towers, built around one of the entrance gates to the city, at Bishop’s Gate (Portal del Bisbe) in the 4th century AD. If you walk between the towers, up an incline you’ll come to Bishop’s Bridge (El Pont del Bisbe) – one of the most photographed spots in the Gothic Quarter, and for good reason.

ornate gothic stone bridge over a narrow alleyway in the Barcelona Old city
Bishop’s Bridge, in the Gothic Quarter

Placa del Rei is an old courtyard where you’ll find the Royal Palace (or Palau Reial Major de Barcelona), which was the residence of Catalan counts from the 13th to the early 15th centuries, and the Watchtower of King Martí. On the other side of the Palau Reial, is Placa Ramon Berenguer el Gran, which gives a great view of more remains of the Roman walls, dating from the 1st century AD.

tall tower over a pedestrian street with some old-looking walls dating from roman times
Watchtower of King Martí near Placa Ramon Berenguer el Gran

Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi, Placa de Sant Josep Oriol and Placa de Pi – this gothic church is flanked by two lovely little squares where you can find artists and market stalls. The church has a famous rose-shaped window (but it was under wraps when I went, sadly).

Further south in the Gothic Quarter, Placa Reial feels like classic Barcelona to me: a square that is both grand and warm and charming with lots of palm trees livening it up.

fountain and palm trees in a square ringed by yellow buildings with porticoes
Placa Reial

Place del Duc de Medinaceli is on the southern edge of the Gothic Quarter, near the harbour. It feels bright and open – lovely on a sunny day.

Passeig de Colom – This palm-tree lined promenade is edged with grand buildings and offers a view over the Marina. It’s a nice place to stroll, and you’ll see plenty of cyclists and runners along the way.

I think it’s great to explore this barrio independently, but you might want to consider a guided tour of the Gothic Quarter. Another popular option is to do an e-bike tour – there were a lot of people biking last time I was in Barcelona.

Places To Eat In The Gothic Quarter

When I came to write this, I realise none of the places I ate in Barcelona’s Old City was in the Gothic Quarter. However, my research had turned up these two places – I just didn’t manage to try them myself, yet:

  • Brugarol – highly-rated tapas bar with a tasting menu
  • Bodega Biarritz – cosy tapas bar that offers a ‘surprise’ set menu

Where to stay in the Gothic Quarter

I stayed in the Gothic quarter last time I was in Barcelona, but my hotel wasn’t great so I won’t recommend it.  If I was to stay in this quarter again, I’d be very tempted to try Hotel Duquesa de Cardona Barcelona, which is a fancy-looking hotel with a rooftop pool and bar.

Guide To Sant Pere, Santa Caterina I La Ribera (Excluding El Born)

Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera feels quieter and more lived-in than the Gothic Quarter. This quarter of Barcelona’s Old City is a mix of narrow alleys and fairly open squares. I really like this area – it feels less touristy than the Gothic Quarter and less crowded.

narrow alley, with tall apartment buildings on either side, wet from the rain with one person walking down it
Alley in Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera

NB. I’ll cover El Born separately, seeing as it has its own distinct identity.

Things To Do In Sant Pere, Santa Caterina I La Ribera

Many of the ‘sights’ here are dotted around the edges of the quarter.  The real appeal of Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera, in my opinion, is to wander around. Get lost in the alleys, take a seat in the leafy squares and watch the people doing their thing.

ornate sculptural crest with many figures featured on the corner of the Palau De La Musica Catalana in Barcelona's old city
Palau De La Musica Catalana

Nevertheless, in the north of this district, Palau De La Musica Catalana is a spectacular music hall built in 1908 and designed in Catalan modernist style by Lluís Domènech i Montaner.  You can do a self-guided tour or have a guided tour of the Palau De La Musica Catalana.

To the east of Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera you’ll find the Arc De Triomf, which stands proud at the end of Passeig de Luis Companys, a gloriously showy promenade lined by palm trees and grand buildings, including the Court of Justice of Catalonia.  

red stone archway at the end of a wide pedestrian boulevard lines with palm trees and filled with people strolling in the sun
Arc De Triomf

Parc De La Ciuttadella is south of Passeig de Luis Companys and east of Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera. It is Barcelona’s biggest city park and a vibrant place with lots to see and do, including Barcelona Zoo, a boating pond and an ornate fountain.

row boats, ducks and lush green trees on a pond in Parc De La Ciuttadella in Barcelona
Parc De La Ciuttadella

Places To Eat In Sant Pere, Santa Caterina I La Ribera

  • Elsa y Fred is one of my favourite tapas bars in Barcelona (so far) – it offers an inventive seasonal menu that often blends classic tapas dishes with eclectic ingredients.
  • Santa Catarina Market is a huge food market which was refurbished with an undulating multi-coloured roof in 2005. It is right in the middle of the district and a place to buy food: produce, meat, fish etc. However, there are also several tapas bars around the edges.  

Places To Drink In Sant Pere, Santa Caterina I La Ribera

  • The Barcelona Edition hotel has a rooftop terrace bar, which is a great place to get a drink at sunset.  There are views over the city, with a glimpse of the towers of Barcelona Cathedral.
  • Yurbban Trafalgar Hotel also has a rooftop bar I was keen to visit – but unfortunately, it was closed on my last visit (possibly April’s weather was too unpredictable to open it)
  • I enjoyed a cocktail at the lobby bar of Grand Hotel Central Barcelona – the cocktail was well-made and the service was great.
palm leaves and a table and chairs overlook buildings and rooftops in the in the soft light of sunset
Sunset vibes at the Barcelona Edition rooftop bar

Where To Stay In Sant Pere, Santa Caterina I La Ribera

  • I stayed in the mid-range Musik Boutique Hotel, which was perfect for a city break: it is in the middle of  Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera, so easy to get to many places in central Barcelona. However, it is fairly quiet and I had a large, modern room.
  • Having been to the rooftop bar there and glimpsed the hotel, I have to say, I would be tempted to stay at the Barcelona Edition in the future.

Guide To El Born

El Born is very cool. It’s a pretty, labyrinthine neighbourhood and the part of Barcelona’s Old City with the most appealing nightlife including some amazing cocktail bars. It has also a buzzing food scene and some of the best tapas bars in Barcelona are here.

Things To Do In El Born

Like the rest of Barcelona’s Old City, El Born is great for wandering around – every street and archway is picturesque and it’s too small to actually get lost.

paved narrow alley with fairy lights strung between buildings
El Born alley

If you want some things to do in El Born, consider the Picasso Museum, which pays homage to the great painter’s formative years in Barcelona. You can also do a Picasso walking tour in Barcelona

There’s another art gallery just down the street at Moco Museum Barcelona. In fact, there are quite a lot of independent art galleries dotted around El Born – too many to mention, but you’re sure to find several as you wander around.

In the heart of the district is Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, a large church that dominates the small square that shares its name. Near there is a lovely leafy promenade, Passeig Del Born – shorter but more pleasant than La Rambla, in my opinion.

wide street lined with two rows of trees with a walkway in between
Passeig Del Born

Places To Eat In El Born

  • Cal Pep is an unassuming place, which does classic tapas but just really, really well. The best seats are at the counter, where you can watch the food being prepared – but expect to queue for the privilege.
  • El Set: another renowned tapas bar just around the corner from Cal Pep – but reserve a table in advance because this place is popular!
  • Story is not as busy as the other two, but I had some sublime tuna here – just *chef’s kiss*
plate of fried squid and sangria on a counter in front of a grill at Cal Pep restaurant in Barcelona
Perfect calamari cooked right before my eyes at Cal Pep

Places To Drink In El Born

  • Paradiso is number 3 on the list of the World’s 50 Best Bars in 2021 – and you will almost certainly have to queue to be able to find out why. Expect playful presentation, flair bartending and a convivial vibe.
  • Dr Stravinsky is another bar that takes its cocktails seriously and has hipster apothecary vibes. They make all their own mixers and their menu is organised around a complex diagram of flavour profiles.
  • For somewhere more chilled out, I enjoyed a sangria at Bornet, which was open and breezy.
red-lit shelves filled neatly with dozens of bottles with matching labels
Apothecary vibes at Dr Stravinsky

Where To Stay In El Born

I haven’t stayed in El Born, but if I did, I’d be tempted by the K+K Hotel Picasso, which has a rooftop pool and views over Parc De La Ciuttadella.

Guide To El Raval

El Raval is the gritty, edgy part of Barcelona’s Old City. In the 20th century, it was known for prostitution and pickpockets. 

Things have improved, but these days, it does still come with a warning of street crime and it certainly looks scruffier than the other barrios. You can expect to see tattoo and piercing shops, skateboarders and graffiti – lots of it, everywhere. Towards the middle, there is a concentration of middle eastern and south-Asian shops and restaurants, which might be why some have called it ‘Ravalistan’.  It is somewhere to be extra careful with your belongings, but I don’t think it is scary as such. In fact, I quite like its spiky personality (it reminded me of where I used to live in Brixton, South London) – though I‘m definitely not cool enough to blend in there.

el raval street with graffiti on walls, doors and pillar boxes
El Raval feels grittier than the rest of Barcelona’s Old City

Things To Do In El Raval

El Raval is bordered by La Rambla on its eastern side, so that could be a good place to start.  La Rambla is a famous promenade that runs between The Gothic Quarter and El Raval (but this is also somewhere to watch out for pickpockets).

wide pedestrian walkway shaded by trees and filled with people walking
La Rambla: the border between El Raval and the Gothic Quarter

Just off La Rambla is a Gaudi landmark: Palau Güell is a mansion designed by Gaudí for the industrial tycoon Eusebi Güell. Slightly further north is the Gran Teatre del Liceu, which is an opera house that opened in 1847. And a little bit further up is Virreina Palace, a grand palace now housing a museum with an attractive skylight in its entrance.

Heading into El Raval proper, there’s a creative arts venue in an attractive frescoed building called Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona, which is around the corner from a major art museum, MACBA.  MACBA is the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, and it is both a significant gallery and also a famous skateboarding spot (so I’m told by my skateboarding husband).

crisp, curved white modern building at the end of a gritty street covered in graffiti
MACBA seen from an El Raval street

Running through the middle of El Raval is Rambla del Raval, which I’ve heard called the ‘green lung of the district’. It is another tree-lined promenade, but this one is less smart than La Rambla or Rambla Del Born and is lined by a fair few kebab shops.  In the middle of the promenade is a big bronze sculpture of a cat by Columbian artist Fernando Botero, El Gat De Botero.

cartoon-like bronze sculpture of a cat with thick short whiskers
El Gat De Botero

In the south of El Raval, you can find the Maritime Museum, which is housed in an old dockyard and is all about Barcelona’s long history of sailing.

Places To Eat In El Raval

  • Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria is a legendary Barcelona food market just off La Rambla – a great place to grab a bite to eat
  • It was closed when I tried to visit (I think because of the showery April weather), but there’s a rooftop restaurant called La Isobela in the Hotel 1898, which I was disappointed I didn’t get to try
  • Fat Schmuck is a trendy and casual café serving brunch, coffee and cocktails.

Places To Drink In El Raval

  • Two Schmucks is another bar on the list of the World’s 50 Best Bars, coming in at number 11 in 2021. They have a saying, ‘don’t be a dick – be a schmuck’, which gives you a clue about their vibe.
sign for Two Schmucks bar in black and gold art deco style
The acclaimed Two Schmucks cocktail bar is in El Raval

Where To Stay In El Raval

I haven’t stayed in El Raval but having gone looking for the Isobela Restaurant, I had a drink in the Hotel 1898 and it seemed fairly nice, so I might consider that.

Guide To La Barceloneta

La Barceloneta is the waterfront part of Barcelona’s Old City, and the beachy vibes dominate the area.

It’s not really my cup of tea – I prefer beaches that are more tranquil than city beaches. But it’s hard to deny the appeal of the ocean on a sunny day. And on a sunny day, this place can be crawling with people – on the beach and on the walkways. There’ll be both strollers and rollers: people walking and people on skateboards, in-line skates, scooters and Segways.

busy city beach with people sat on the sand, blankets laid out for sale, people strolling the walkway and a sail-shaped tower block in the background
Barceloneta beach

Things To Do In Barceloneta

The beach is obviously the main attraction: Somorrostro, Barceloneta and Sant Miquel are sandy beaches in Barceloneta, west of the Olympic Port. You can sunbathe, swim or so stand up paddle-boarding.

On the other side of the Barceloneta peninsular is Port Vell, a marina filled with expensive boats, so if you like to see how the rich people live, ogle a few of the mega yachts that dock here. If you want a taste of yachting life, consider a short boat trip from the Marina, such as a sunset cruise.

boats with masts and super yachts in a marina surrounded  y grand buildings in barcelona
Port Vell

And if you fancy a better view of Barcelona, there’s a cable car which can take you high over the city from Port Vell to Montjuïc.

Finally, there’s a museum called Casa de la Barceloneta 1761, which is a house which has been preserved in its original set-up and décor, giving a glimpse of life in 18th century Barceloneta.

Places To Eat In Barceloneta

There are lots of terrace bars and restaurants along the beachfront, but they can also get very busy. I found a few places on the harbourside of Barceloneta which were a bit calmer and shadier:

  • Barceloneta is an upmarket Mediterranean place that needs a reservation
  • La Cala Barceloneta is a popular brunch joint (which may well have a queue for tables)
  • Jerusalem is a hookah bar that offers great middle eastern mezze.

Where To Stay In Barceloneta

blue glass sail-shaped tower with a W sign seen between palm trees in La Barceloneta
The iconic W Hotel on the shore

I didn’t stay in this area, but the most obvious option to consider is the W Hotel: shaped like a sail, it is the most recognisable hotel in Barcelona and one of its few skyscrapers.  I can only imagine the view from the upper floors is stunning. 

I hope this guide to the Barcelona Old City is useful!

For ideas on the rest of charming Barcelona, I also have a post on all the top Things To Do In Barcelona.

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