- In a city not exactly famed for its dear green places, the mountain of Montjuïc stands out in more ways than one. At just under 700 feet high, you could argue that the ‘mountain’ is really more of a hill, but it dominates the city’s skyline nonetheless, as well as being a handy navigational reference point. This welcome zone of gardens, parks, Olympic installations and museums holds a special place in the hearts of many Barcelonans and visitors alike.
The eastern side of Montjuïc is a steep cliff that overlooks the port below, and one of the best places to get a bird’s eye view of the city. The long coastal road, the Ronda del Litoral, runs directly beneath it. The other three sides of the hill slope down to the districts of Poble Sec, Sants, and an area to the south known as the Zona Franca (between the city’s port and El Prat airport).
Montjuïc has been heavily landscaped twice in Barcelona’s history. The first time was for the 1929 Universal Exhibition, when the Palau Nacional, Magic Fountain and Poble Espanyol were built, and the second was for the all-important 1992 Olympic Games. Most of the Olympic buildings can be found roughly in the middle of the Montjuïc area, while the Castell de Monjuïc sits strategically positioned at the summit.
There are umpteen ways of accessing the slopes of Montjuïc, but first-timers usually head for the trade fair area, between the twin faux-Venetian towers beside the Plaça de Espanya. From Parallel metro station you can use your normal metro ticket to climb on board the funicular train, which sweeps you up to the Avinguda Miramar. Or, if you find yourself down at the port area, you could opt for the most fun - and hair-raising - option and climb into one of the cable car cabins ready to ferry you up to the Torre de Miramar on the hill.
Know your neighbours
Accommodation in the district of Montjuïc centres around the streets just south of the Gran Via, as well as the Zona Franca, to the southern side of the mountain. This is a fairly industrialised part of the city, and has quite a different identity to the rest of the metropolitan area. The local population here is mainly working-to-middle class Catalans, who tend to have been born and brought up in the area. An advantage of being based in the Montjuïc zone is that you’re much closer to El Prat airport, which sits directly to the south.
A family-friendly option
The grassy slopes, gardens and open spaces of Montjuïc are perfect if you’ve got kids who need to let off some steam after a few days touring the city. They’re bound to love the cable car ride up to the Castle, where they can explore battlements and climb on canons to their heart’s content. The open-air museum of the Poble Espanyol (a full-scale replica of houses representing different Spanish regions) is another interesting option. Ask for the ‘visita gincana’ (gymkhana visit) at the Information Point, and your ticket will include a treasure trail around the complex. The 9pm Magic Fountain show is another big hit with kids (as well as leaving many adults entranced).
If you like a hike, you’ve come to the right place. Part of the reason Montjuïc is perfect for escaping the crowds is that many of said crowds can’t be bothered making their way up the somewhat taxing slopes. That said, there are convenient short cuts to make life easier. Several open-air escalators have been built into the steepest parts of the most visited areas (such as around the Palau Nacional). There are also plenty of buses, as well as the tourist bus, that will drop you off at various practical points.
The roads criss-crossing Montjuïc were formerly used to host the Spanish Grand Prix, and are well maintained. If you’re coming with your own car you’ll find it a pleasant experience to drive around, without the normal hassles of city-centre traffic. All of Montjuïc’s sights are well signposted, so finding the main attractions isn’t tricky. If you’re planning on exploring by foot, make sure you’ve got a decent map – you’ll be glad of it as you get to the higher-up areas. And for visiting the castle, you could always hop on the cable car (telèferic) from the funicular station on the Avinguda Miramar. The views over the city and harbour are incredible, and your legs will thank you for it.
- The legacy of the 1992 Olympics very much lives on all over Montjuïc, and sporting facilities are dotted all over the place. If you’re keen to try out a former Olympic venue you could pack your swimsuit and head for the Piscines Bernat Picornell, just along from the main stadium. It’s got both an indoors and roof-top outdoors pool, so is good for a dip all year round. Music concerts are often held at the Olympic Stadium, and it’s worth keeping an eye out for what’s on when you’re in town.
If you’re here over the summer, you might also be interested in the open-air cinema that takes place in the former moat of Montjuïc Castle. A massive screen is hung from one of the battlements and original language films are projected up on to it under the starry Spanish sky…a novel way to spend a summer evening.
There are honestly too many to do justice to here. For art lovers, there are a couple of world-class museums – the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC), which houses Catalan art from the last thousand years, and the Fundació Joan Miró. Hundreds of the artist’s paintings, drawings and sculptures are displayed here in a custom-built building.
For scenic gardens, there’s plenty on offer. The large Jardì Botànic (Botanic Gardens) are situated some way up the hill, and are often neglected by tourists as a result. A lovely spot to take a picnic or just sit and relax is the Laribal Gardens, which boast flower beds, bowers, fountains and just the right amount of shade to give you a break from the sun. Another stunner is the cactus gardens on the eastern side of the hill, overlooking the port. Known as the Jardins Mossèn Costa i Llobera, the garden is located on the site of a former quarry, which is sheltered from the cool north wind. Hundreds of species of cacti flourish here, in an incredible display of shapes and colours. Again, this spot tends to be largely ignored by the crowds.
For an entertaining tour of Spanish villages throughout the ages, there’s the Poble Espanyol – a real-life model of typical architecture, crafts and cuisine of the various regions of the country. It’s also known as ‘the City of Artisans’, and contains more than 40 craft workshops, including one of the only two traditional glassblowing furnaces left in Spain. Ideal for picking up a couple of original holiday gifts.
Montjuïc is definitely not the place for epicureans or those eager to enjoy Barcelona’s nightlife (but you probably knew that already). There are a few noteworthy venues, though, scattered around. If you think you’ll want to stop in somewhere on route, it’s a good idea to plan in advance where the eateries are and how to reach them. The whole area is deceptively large and walking from one place to the next can take longer than you might think.
Top-of-the-range is the restaurant of the 5-star Miramar hotel, which sits imperiously at the eastern side of Montjuïc. The très chic Forestier restaurant offers a choice of traditional and gourmet Mediterranean menus, with dishes served up by attentive staff in a luxurious setting. A good, and not exorbitant, option for a romantic meal out. Another place you might like to try is El Xalet, which also includes phenomenal views of the city below. Some visitors maintain that the views make up for the somewhat modest portion sizes – something to keep in mind if you’ve got your heart set on enjoying a big feast.
The influence of Modernisme even reached Montjuïc as well. La Font del Gat (fountain of the cat) restaurant sits a little further down the hill from the Joan Miró museum, and was designed by Modernista master Josep Puig i Cadalfach. It offers a good-value lunch menu amid a lovely, lush setting, although the fountain itself is on the unassuming side.
If you’re up near the Castle, it’s worth taking the 20-minute clifftop walk along the Camí del Mar, which will bring you into a pine-clad glen that’s home to the outdoor café of the Caseta del Migdia. Live music accompanies the barbecue that sizzles with sausages, chicken and corn-on-the-cobs, and the whole place has an enviably chilled-out vibe. There’s also a picnic area with plenty of space for kids to run around.
Or, of course, you could just do what the locals do, and pack a picnic to enjoy on one of Montjuïc’s secluded grassy slopes. There’s no better spot to enjoy a wedge of tortilla and some plastic cups of Cava than overlooking the city of Barcelona sparkling below.
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