- Sitting alongside the Ramblas, the Gótico, or Gothic quarter of Barcelona, is the still-beating heart of the old town. It’s been around since Roman times, and its knot of streets even now seems like a throwback to a different era altogether. That said, it’s no museum piece – in the 21st century the Gótico is a lively commercial district, home to the autonomous Catalan government and first on the hit list with the many tourists who visit the city. In fact, it’s precisely this blend of the ancient and modern that’s helped the area survive and thrive to this day.
Wander the warren
Part of the joy of staying in this area is the frequency with which you will get lost. Better to leave the compass at home and just accept this fact before you come. By the time you do finally get your bearings, it will be time to leave again. The Gótico is a densely packed area of narrow, meandering streets, where the sun at times finds it hard to penetrate and you’ll never see a car. Absorbing the atmosphere is all part of the fun – take in the centuries-old street signs, buskers, acrobats, architecture and charming little shops as you wander around, before stopping for refreshments at one of the Gótico’s peaceful plaças.
Know your neighbours
The Gótico’s population is quite a mix of people. Over the years, many local families in the neighbourhood have moved on, leaving elderly Catalan couples and a large number of residents from abroad. The area is also very popular with tourists, which you’ll see reflected in the amount of hostels nearby. As one of the hotspots for bars and clubs, the Gótico probably isn’t ideal if you’re planning on visiting Barcelona with a young family. Crowds milling the streets also hold a huge appeal for pickpockets, which is something to be aware of if you’re out for an evening stroll.
Running off the top end of the Gótico is the broad, pedestrianised Avinguda del Portal de l’Angel, which is commonly mentioned as one of the best shopping streets in the area. You may be disappointed, though – it’s stocked with shoe shops and mid-range, high-street brands like Zara and H&M, as well as a large branch of the Corte Inglés. For a more typical Gótico shopping experience, head deeper into the heart of the area and you’ll find one-off little boutiques whose styles aren’t replicated across countless other European cities. Both Carrer de Ferran and Carrer de Avinyó are good for this.
For stocking up your fridge, you can’t beat the Boqueria market, just off the Ramblas on the Raval side. The sights and sounds, colours and chatter, make it much more memorable than nipping down to your local supermarket for the weekly shop. For cheese aficionados, there’s also a great little shop in the Gótico called the Formatgeria La Seu. It’s run by a native Scotswoman who’s dedicated to tracking down the best traditional farm cheese that Catalonia has to offer.
Being based in the Gótico really does put you at the centre of things in the city. The district is wedged between the Ramblas to the left, with its metro stations of Liceu and Drassanes, and the long Via Laietana to the right, with the metro stops of Jaume 1 and Urquinaona. At the top of the Gòtico there’s the central Plaça Catalunya, which is a transport hub for the city (metro lines, train stations, buses, taxis as well as the Aerobus). From the bottom end it’s around a 10-minute walk to the old port, and about 20 minutes to Barceloneta beach. Many of the Gótico`s streets aren’t accessible by car or taxi, but you’ll never have to walk too far towards the area’s outskirts to flag one down.
- A good place from which to start exploring is the Plaça Nova, where you can see the remnants of one of the main Roman gates to the old city. Here, the Catalan artist Joan Brossa has spelt out ‘Barcino’ in blocks of letters – the old Roman name for the city.
Finding Barcelona’s La Seu Cathedral usually happens quite early on in your stay in the Gótico, as many of the area’s winding lanes seem to lead you in this direction. The building’s neo-Gothic façade is presided over by brooding gargoyles, and the secluded 14th-century cloister, famous for its resident 13 geese, has an otherworldly feel. Another famous Gothic church is the Santa Maria del Pi, with its huge stained-glass rose window. On the first and third weekends of the month, local farmers arrive to sell honey and goat’s cheese in the adjoining Plaça del Pi. Just round the corner is another small square, Plaça Sant Josep Oriol. The atmosphere here is a bit reminiscent of Montmartre, with artists’ paintings on display, and is a popular spot for a drink or snack.
The ambience changes significantly when you reach the Plaça Sant Jaume, which is the civic heart of the city. On one side is the Palau de la Generalitat (the government of Catalonia), while directly opposite sits the Ajuntament, or town hall. From this square you’re within close distance of Barcelona’s historic Jewish quarter, known as the ‘call’, which is signposted with a suggested route to follow. The other square you should definitely stop in at is the small but arresting Sant Felip Neri. There’s something very tranquil about it, despite the pockmarked walls that bear the scars of one of the worst bomb attacks in Barcelona’s history.
It really is a case of take your pick in the Gótico – it’s ideal for ambling around, ‘tapeando’, until you see a restaurant you fancy. You might want to start in the Plaça Reial, which is always popular as a place to enjoy a good supper while people-watching. Don’t be too put off by the inevitable queue outside Quinze Nits – it does go down quite quickly, although the jury is out on whether the food is worth the wait. Hidden away on a nearby side street is Sinatra Restaurant, which offers haute cuisine at an affordable price. A good choice of background music and movie-themed décor complement the creative tapas. Slightly easier on the wallet is the Peruvian restaurant Peimong, which offers a range of traditional dishes, together with local beer and – best of all – the infamous Inca Kola (if you’ve been to Scotland, think Irn Bru, but yellow). All presided over by the imposing views of Macchu Picchu on the wall and cheery Peruvian music in the background.
It’s hard to know where to start with a rundown of Gótico bars, there’s such a range of tastes and styles dotted around the district. For some 80s nostalgia, Polaroid is your place. Decorated with fun paraphernalia from the decade (including a life-size ET on his bike!), and doling out free popcorn, this is a good spot to meet up before a big night out on the town. One of Barcelona’s ‘secret’ bars is the Pipa Club, where you need to ring the buzzer to be allowed in. Live piano music is played during the day, and although there’s no dance floor, its very late licence ensures a smoky den-like atmosphere into the early hours of the morning. And to get you in the mood before hitting the clubs, there’s Sugar, which serves up good-value cocktails against a backdrop of crimson curtains and lights. Or, for something totally outlandish, you could try the Bosc de les Fades (‘fairy wood’). It’s fair to say this is a unique bar in Barcelona – its waterfalls and enchanted forests may make you feel like you’ve stepped onto the set for the latest Tolkien film. So uncool, it’s almost cool.
Both situated on the bustling Plaça Reial, the Sidecar Factory Club and Jamboree hold some of the best live concerts in the Gótico. When the concerts finish, the venues become nightclubs, sought out by locals and tourists alike. More live music can be found in the Harlem Jazz Club, which has blues and jazz jamming sessions amid a relaxed atmosphere. If you’re still in the mood a few hours later, you could finish your night/morning at the Marula Café, which is open till 6am every day. This is a newcomer on the Barcelona clubbing scene but it’s fast gaining a name for itself, with different DJs taking turns to keep the party going till the sun comes up.
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