Much is made of Sants’ working-class, manufacturing roots, and it’s true that the odd remnant of its 19th-century industrial heritage can still be seen today. Unless you’d been specifically told about its past producing textiles and housing the workers, though, you might be struggling to notice. For the most part, Sants, which was once a stand-alone town completely separate from Barcelona, is modern – a combination of residential and commercial. It’s not the most aesthetically rewarding neighbourhood, but it’s accessible, really well-connected via public transport, occasionally Modernista and above all, authentically Catalan.
Laid out on the map, the district of Sants is almost a perfect square. The Gran Via forms one edge, as does Carrer de Tarragona, while the other two sides are made up by the Avinguda de Madrid and the Riera Blanca. The large train station, handily named Estació de Sants, is the main reference point of the district, while the Carrer de Sants (which later turns into Creu Coberta) is the major thoroughfare. It leads diagonally up through the area from Plaça de Espanya, and is Sants’ main commercial street. The little grassy crossroads of Plaça de Sants, with its metro station, is roughly halfway up this street.
Neighbouring districts include the left side of l’Eixample, FC Barcelona’s stomping ground of Les Corts (Camp Nou), and the verdant Montjuïc, where you can see the Olympic installations and catch a cable car down to the old port.
Know your neighbours
The residents of Sants are typically of nationalist and socialist persuasion. Expect to see both Catalonian and FC Barça flags flapping off quite a few balconies. The protest marches of the ‘indignados’, sparked off in May 2011, found strong support in this district, as the traditionally blue-collar population clamoured to add their voices of dissent to the movement. Not many foreigners have made inroads into Sants, although you might see the odd kebab takeaway or Chinese restaurant in the district.
The area has quite a few decent hotels, so you may well encounter guests trudging along with luggage, or business travellers who might be in town for a conference or trade fair at the nearby Fira de Montjuïc. But Sants generally is not a touristy-type barrio. If you’re renting an apartment here, you’re guaranteed to be living alongside the natives in their home environment.
There are plenty of small, local shops in the area, particularly along the Carrer de Sants, where you’ll find shops selling shoes, low-end fashion, household goods, as well as all the essential groceries. For fresh produce, you’ve got the large Hostafrancs covered market, which is like a more orderly version of the famous Boquería market just off the Ramblas. Offering everything from ham hocks to hake to honey dew melons, it’s a good way to get some first-hand experience of a real Catalan shopping experience.
For more conventional shopping, there’s the large converted bullring of Las Arenas, just on the corner of Plaça de Espanya. It has fashion and footwear stores, a basement supermarket, a cinema and restaurants on the top floor where you can enjoy a panoramic view over the city.
The biggest public transport hub in the area is the Estació de Sants train station, which is also connected to the Sants metro station. National and international trains run from here, and if you’re arriving into Barcelona by train there’s a good chance it will be into this station. From here you can catch a high-speed AVE train to Madrid, or hop on a regional train to the likes of Sitges and Tarragona for a day trip. You can also catch the train directly to Barcelona’s El Prat airport.
Otherwise, the gods of the metro have been generous to Sants. Smack bang in the middle, straddling the blue and red lines, is the Plaça de Sants, from which you can go directly to the Sagrada Família or to Plaça de Catalunya. The metro stops of Badal, Mercat Nou and Hostafrancs are also within the district. Getting oriented on foot is fairly straightforward, with the reference points of the Gran Via slicing along the bottom and the long Carrer de Sants (which turns into Creu Coberta) cutting the area diagonally. Plenty bus routes service the area as well.
As an established residential area, Sants isn’t home to any of the major landmarks within the city, but in August it comes into its own as a riot of colour and characters take to the streets for its annual street festival. Its Festa Major comes hot on the heels of the district of Gràcia’s celebrated street party, and the residents of Sants take barely disguised pleasure in competing with their rivals for the prize of best decorated barrio.
Within Sants itself, the most picturesque part you could visit is the not too auspiciously named Parc de l’Espanya Industrial, which is very close to the train station. Dating from the mid 1980s, it’s a strangely compelling space, dominated by the artificial lake in the centre. Series of stone steps rise up from the water, in a sort of faux amphitheatre set-up, and it’s a lovely place to sit with a packed lunch or take the kids to play. Sliding down the chute in the shape of a dragon might be a particular highlight (for the kids, that is).
Skirting around the periphery of the neighbourhood are various other sights of interest. Just off the Plaça de Espanya you’ll find the entrance to Montjuïc, with the grand spectacle of the Magic Fountain and escalators leading up to the Palau Nacional, where the art museum MNAC is housed. Up in the other direction is Camp Nou, for any ardent football fans, while towards L’Eixample Esquerra is the green Parc de Joan Miró, presided over by his iconic statue ‘Dona I Ocell’ (‘Woman and Bird’).
Restaurants in Sants tend to concentrate largely on Catalan cuisine, although there are a few good Italian and Mexican places too. A good choice for a romantic dinner is Blau, on Carrer de Tenor Masini. A small, intimate place with starched white tablecloths, it offers exceptionally friendly service. If you’re heading out in a group, you could try Taverna La Parra, which is down a side street just off the main street of Creu Coberta. With its vine-clad terrace and casks of wine, it has a cosy and authentically Catalan feel, and the food is always good value. On Carrer Galileu you’ll find Àtica, whose set lunch menu is particularly good value. It doesn’t look like much from outside, but the food is beautiful, with a surprisingly creative choice of dishes.
Sants isn’t really known for its nightlife, but there are plenty of clubs in the neighbouring L’Eixample Esquerra for you to choose from. Within Sants, the little square Plaça d’Osca is earning a name as an alternative, cool place to go for a drink, with its open-air cafes and bars. If you do fancy going to a club not too far from your hotel or apartment, there’s Privilege on Carrer de Tarragona. Hailing originally from Ibiza, it’s a large venue that specialises in house music.
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