On your right as you walk down La Rambla, El Raval is not the most obvious area in which to sightsee, but during the day at least, you'll find it a fascinating place to wander round.
Bordered by La Rambla, Carrer Pelai, Ronda de Sant Antoni, Ronda de Sant
Pau and Avinguda del Paral.lel, the barri forms an irregular diamond shape.
In medieval times, it was open fields that served as Barcelona's market garden, which explains the strange location of La Boqueria Market, today in the city centre but a thousand years ago a convenient place for farmers to bring their produce just outside the city walls.
Similarly, El Raval's main religious building is Monestir de Sant Pau del Camp, the Monastery of Saint Paul of the Fields, and was a Romanesque monastery located on the road south of to the River Llobregat.
In fact, the word raval derives from the Arabic rabad, which means outside the city walls.
In 1357, during the reign of Pere III the Ceremonious, Barcelona City Council - the Consell de Cent - decided to enclose El Raval in a new set of walls partly to protect the city's food supply in case of attack.
Now part of the Barcelona, the area remained mainly agricultural over the next few centuries and religious orders, unable to acquire land in the tightly packed Barri Gòtic, took advantage of the space to build convents and churches, many of which have survived to this day.
arrival of the industrial revolution in the second half of the 18th
century, El Raval became the site of the first textile factories and a
century later was a densely populated working class neighbourhood home
to early trades unionists and left-wing thinkers.
Following the demolition of the city walls between 1854 and 1873, the textile factories moved out to Sants, Poblenou and Sant Andreu
and El Raval became home to the first floods of immigrants, who a century
ago were mainly Spanish-speaking but these days tend to come from the
Due to its proximity to the port and the music halls along Paral.lel, by the early 20th century, it was a red-light district known as the Barrio Chino, or China Town, not because of Chinese residents but because its sleazy bars, clubs and brothels were reminiscent of similar areas in other cities.
When I arrived in Barcelona in 1988, the neighbourhood was definitely still the Barrio Chino, where drugs abounded and any excursion into the backstreets meant being accosted by a prostitute of indeterminate age and gender.
Since the 1990s, the area has been cleaned up considerably, recuperating its traditional Raval name and becoming home to progressive arty types.
However, it's still got a very funky feel to it and it's clear that many of the original residents remain.
Apart from great bars and restaurants, the Raval is home to important museums, medieval churches and hospitals, modernista gems but what I really love about the neighbourhood is that it's full of contrasts - ancient meets modern, scruffy meets sublime and religious meets raunchy.
The Raval is an area where you can find a medieval monastery, a modernista bar and a graffitied shop doorway sitting next to each other as if it was the most normal thing in the world.
I think the best way to see the barri is by making forays along the the main streets that branch into it from La Rambla.
Although you could enter El Raval by almost any of these streets and find something interesting, I've chosen to describe Carrer Tallers, Carrer Hospital, Carrer Nou de la Rambla and Avinguda de les Drassanes partly because they are representative of the top, middle and bottom sections of El Raval but mainly because they are the streets I know best.
Carrer Tallers is the first street on your right as you walk down La
Rambla from Plaça Catalunya and is one of my favourite streets in
On your left as you enter the street, you could easily miss Boadas Cocktails, one of Barcelona's oldest and most celebrated cocktail bars.
But the reason why I've always gone to Carrer Tallers wass to pay a visit to the
legendary Discos Castelló, the best place in town for vinyl collectors
and record buffs, which sadly closed its doors in early 2016.
Because of the Discos Castelló legacy, this slightly claustrophic street has more record shops and plenty of guitar stores, which means it's full of rock 'n' roll types and you can generally discern a vague scent of marijuana.
After about 300 metres, Tallers opens out into a square and if you make your way left down Carrer de Valldonzella and then Carrer dels Àngels, you'll find yourself stumbling first across the CCCB - the Centre de Cultura Contemporànea de Barcelona - and then the magnificent MACBA - Museu d'Art Contemporànea de Barcelona
CCCB, housed in the old Casa de la Caritat, opened in 1994 and the purpose-built MACBA a year later and both should be on your 'must visit' list.
Back on La Rambla again, you walk down past Carrer del Pintor Fortuny and Carrer del Carme and just after El Mercat de Sant Josep, better known as the Boqueria Market, you come to Carrer Hospital.
The first section is nothing special but after about 50 metres the
street opens out into the lovely Plaça de Sant Augustí and the 18th century
church of the same name is in the corner next to a trendy bar called
If you turn right into any of the backstreets that branch off Carrer Hospital here, you can enter the Boqueria by one of the back entrances - much the best and quickest way to get your shopping done.
Further down Carrer Hospital, you come to L'Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu, the Old Hospital of the Holy Cross, from which the street takes its name.
The Hospital dates from 1401 and was Barcelona's main hospital in medieval times.
Nowadays, the buildings house the Insitut d'Estudis Catalans and the Catalan National Library amongst other things but you really must go in and walk round the gardens, a lovely escape from the hustle and bustle of the city especially in the late evening when there is something about them perfectly suited to lovers.
A little further down Hospital on the corner of Junta del Comerç you come to the marvellous open air Bar Mendizábal, which commemorates the 19th century politician Juan Alvarez Mendizábal, who during a process called the desamortización managed to strip the Catholic Church of much of its wealth and property.
Now there's something to drink to!
The next street down Carrer Hospital on your left is La Rambla del Raval, a bustling multicultural tree-lined avenue that is the heart of the neighbourhood.
Apart from Botero's famous Gat del Raval sculpture, La Rambla del Raval has brought space and light to the centre of what was once a claustrophic den of thieves.
A couple of streets further down La Rambla is Carrer Nou de la Rambla, which you'll definitely walk down to visit Gaudí's superb Palau Güell.
Built by Gaudí between 1889 and 1890, it was one of his first major buildings and its brilliance hints very strongly at what was to come.
The Palau Güell is a tall narrow building crammed into a Raval street but once inside Gaudí creates the sensation of being inside a broad three-storey palace - it really is a miracle of design!
Further down Nou de la Rambla at number 34, you come to the legendary London Bar still decorated in modernista style and one of the best places for live music in this part of town.
If you carry on till you've almost reached Avinguda Paral.lel, you'll stumble
across one of the many sublime contrasts that make El Raval so magical.
In the backstreets on your right, you have the gardens and buildings of the Monastery of Sant Pau del Camp, which dates back to AD 911, whilst on your right you'll see Sala Bagdad, home to by far the raunchiest live sex shows in town.
Right at the bottom of The Ramblas, you'll come to Avinguda de les Drassanes, where for me the atmosphere of El Raval has begun to peter out.
However, you should definitely call into the Maritime Museum housed inside Les Drassanes Reials, the best preserved medieval shipyards in Europe.
When you are done, you should make an effort to wander round the corner and take a look at the only remaining section of Barcelona's Medieval City Walls and the Portal de Santa Madrona.
Given its proximity to the port, it is not just history that you'll find here, but a if you pay a late night visit, you are likely to find examples of the world's oldest profession in action.
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