The Finest Medieval City Centre In Europe
The Barri Gòtic is a remarkable concentration of beautiful medieval Gothic buildings and forms the very heart of Ciutat Vella – Barcelona’s Old Town.
It is also the oldest part of Barcelona and where you will find most of the streets and monuments of historical significance and many of Barcelona’s political and administrative buildings.
El Gòtic can be further divided into the even smaller neighbourhoods of El Call, Sant Just i Pastor, Santa Maria del Pí, La Catedral, Santa Anna, La Mercè and El Palau.
These finer distinctions are really for the locals because, as a tourist, you’re likely to be wandering around taking in the architecture and atmosphere.
As you can see from the map, the Barri Gòtic stretches down from Plaça Catalalunya like a slightly misshapen rectangle with the section of Carrer Fontanella between Catalunya and Uriquinaona metro stations at top.
Bordered by La Rambla, which is normally known as The Ramblas in English, to your right as you walk down the hill and Via Laietana to your left, the heart of the Gòtic and the whole of Barcelona for that matter is Plaça de Sant Jaume, which you’ll find yourself passing through again and again as you explore the labyrinth of Gothic backstreets.
The best way to reach it from La Rambla is by turning left into Carrer Ferran just after you pass Liceu Metro station.
From Via Laietana, you reach Plaça Sant Jaume by turning left into Carrer Jaume I at the entrance of Jaume I Metro station.
Along with Catalunya, Jaume I and Liceu, by the way, are the two main metro stops for Barcelona City Centre and will become important points of reference as you make your way around El Gòtic.
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Plaça de Sant Jaume
If all roads seem to lead to Plaça de Sant Jaume, that’s not surprising.
The square is the peak of the ancient Mont Tàber*, where the Romans found the colony of Barcino and had their administrative centre.
It is crossed by the Roman streets Cardo and Decumanus, now Carrer Ciutat and Carrer Llibreteria but many more streets wind into it.
With the buildings of the Ajuntament – Barcelona City Council – and the Generalitat – Catalan Autonomous Government – facing each other across the square, Plaça Sant Jaume remains Barcelona and Catalonia’s political centre.
Located just behind the Palau de la Generalitat, La Seu or Barcelona Cathedral is one of the great Gothic buildings of Spain.
It was begun in 1298 and finished in 1448 on a site previously occupied by a Roman temple and later a Moorish mosque.
Despite its authentic appearance, the facade, however, wasn’t completed until the 1880s.
The interior is a little gloomy and in my opinion, the best part of the cathedral is its cloister, which looks over a lush tropical garden with soaring palm trees and honking geese.
Plaça Nova in front of the cathedral is a lovely space used amongst other things on Sundays for Sardana dancing and is home to the Santa Llúcía Fair just before Christmas in Barcelona.
Plaça del Rei and Around
Right next to the Cathedral, you’ll find the Plaça del Rei – once the courtyard to the palace of the Counts of Barcelona.
Climb up the steps and visit the breathtaking fourteenth century Saló de Tinell, which was the main hall of the Palau Reial Major.
Walking back towards Plaça de Sant Jaume, stop off at the Museu de la Historia de la Ciutat and walk round the musty underground Roman ruins.
Make sure to have a beer in El Antiquari on the corner, one of Barcelona’s coolest bars and a favourite watering hole of mine since the 1980s.
A Walk Round the Roman Walls
I suppose that Plaça de Sant Jaume, the Cathedral and Plaça del Rei, along with Plaça Reial, are the most obvious stopping off points in the Barri Gòtic but the best way to get to know the neighbourhood is by just wandering around.
I recommend wandering down Carrer de la Ciutat next to the Ajuntament and exploring the area around the Church of Sants Just i Pastor off to your left before making your way down the port
Equally, you could explore the old Jewish neighbourhood of El Call off Carrer de la Boqueria and if you want to live a little dangerously, you could head down Carrer dels Escudellers towards Plaça de George Orwell.
However, perhaps the easiest way to get a feel for the neighbourhood is to take a Walk Round the Roman Walls, which will take around 45 minutes to an hour and give you an idea of how medieval and modern Barcelona have grown up superimposed on the old Roman city.
Some sections are in better condition than others but more Roman ruins are being discovered and the time, and in reality, the idea of doing the walk is as much about getting off the beaten tourist track as really learning about Roman history.