Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera

Undiscovered Medieval Barcelona

Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera Neighbourhood Map

The neighbourhood of Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera exists for administrative purposes but as the name suggests comprises three areas that were once inside the Medieval city walls.

Cut off from the rest of El Barri Gòtic by Via Laietana and from La Barceloneta by the Ronda Litoral main ring road, the neighbourhood is also bordered by Fort Pienc on the other side of Parc de la Ciutadella and Arc de Triomf and runs up as far as Carrer Trafalgar and the start of the Eixample.

This is one of the oldest parts of Barcelona and dates back to when Barcelona began to extend beyond the Roman walls, the remains of which you can see this day just a few yards back from Via Laietana on either side of Jaume I metro station, and the areas populated first were Vilanova de Mar and the banks of Rec Comtal.

Vilanova del Mar was a fishing village that probably existed prior to the arrival of the Visigoths in the 5th century, when the sea reached well into what is now the neighbourhood of La Ribera.

In fact, the lovely Santa Maria del Mar church was built on the site of a Visigoth church called Santa Maria de les Arenes - Saint Mary of the Sands.

Rec Comtal was a man-made water course possibly based on a Roman aqueduct but actually constructed by the younger brother of Count Ramon Borell, Count Mir between 954 and 966.

Starting out in Sant Andreu de Palomar, Rec Comtal brought much needed water from the River Besòs to Barcelona and passed by what is now the Benedictine Monastery of Sant Pere de les Puel.les, consecrated in 945.

Water always provides a source of life and the canal was first used by farmers to irrigate their lands, then water mills sprang up, followed by early textile workshops and the increasingly populated area was enclosed by Jaume I's first set of medieval city walls between 1285 and 1295.

At the time, the area was at its height and that it was home to Barcelona's craftsmen and skilled trades is shown by street names, such as Espaseria, Mirallers, Agullers, Sombrerers - Swordmakers, Mirrormakers, Needle Makers, Haberdashers - and many more which can still be seen today.

Similarly, the 14th and 15th century palaces along Carrer Montcada were residence of rich nobles, who wanted to live close to both the port and the canal workshops where the money was being made.

The shift of trade from the Mediterranean to Atlantic following the discovery of the Americas took Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera into decline in the 16th century and in the aftermath the Siege of Barcelona in 1714 much of the area was demolished by the victorious Spanish troops.


Carrer del Cecs de Sant Cugat

With the arrival of the industrial revolution, factories moved in and living conditions became increasingly squalid and cramped, which the demolition of churches following the desamortización in 1835 and the building of Carrer Princesa in the same year failed to alleviate.

Similarly, the demolition of the city walls between 1854 and 1873, the construction of the Parc de la, the razing of churches during la Setmana Tràgica had little effect on living conditions.

In 1914, when Via Laietana was being built, it remained one of the most overcrowded slums in Europe and that year Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera suffered 310 deaths from typhus, 5% of the total deaths in Barcelona that year.

With the port and the Estació de França railway station so close, conditions got worse throughout the 20th century if anything, as immigrant workers looking for jobs building the metro in preparation for the Universal Exposition in 1929 moved in, tenements grew both vertically and horizontally and families were jampacked into single room flats.

Renovation work began with the opening up Avinguda Francesc Cambó, but when I moved first into a flat overlooking Mercat de Santa Caterina and then one on Cecs de Sant Cugat in 1988, bohemians, progressives and adventurous foreigners like me had just dicovered the neighbourhood.

Legendary clubs such as Màgic and Zeleste had recently opened and the late night bars around Passeig del Born were beginning to become fashionable but the barri was pretty rough and ready and could even be dangerous if your face wasn't known.

Now nauseatingly popular with tourists, it's difficult not to feel nostalgia for the Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera of 25 years ago.

It's still a tremendous neighbourhood, though, and I get the feeling that camera-happy tourists on their tapas trips are missing delights only a local could know.

So follow me now as I guide you along four routes around the neighbourhood.

Pla del Palau to Parc de la Ciutadella

When you cross over to Via Laietana from Passeig Colom and the port, the narrow streets of the bottom section of La Ribera are to your left and in front are imposing port and government buildings dating mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Pla de Palau contains many interesting buildings but my favourites are Porxos d'en Xifre, which now houses the celebrated Set Portes restaurant, and La Llotja, a neoclassical building that conceals Barcelona's medieval stock exchange within its entrails.

A little further on, after Passeig d'Isabel II turns into Marquès d'Argentera, you see Estació de França Barcelona's most beautiful railway station and beyond that the zoo and the Parc de la Ciutadella.

Parc de la Waterfall

The park was built for the Universal Exposition of 1888 on the site of the hated Spanish citadel that housed the occupying troops after the city's defeat to Felipe V in the Siege of Barcelona of 1714.

It contains some lovely spaces, such as the hivernacle and umbracle, statues, a boating lake, a rather ostentatious ornamental waterfall shown above and the Castell dels Tres Dragons, a large iron and brick building, which was designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner for 1888 Exposition and is considered the first mature example of the modernista architectural style.

Since 1979, Parc de la Ciutadella has also been home to the Parliament of Catalonia, which, as the citadel was such a symbol of oppression, seems quite fitting.

The main exit by the Castell dels Tres Dragons takes you onto Passeig Lluís Companys, a broad pedestrian avenue named after the Catalan President executed by Franco's troops in 1940, and then up to the mighty Arc de Triomf also built for the Universal Expo.

Santa Maria del Mar Facade

Jaume I to Passeig del Born

The main point of entry into La Ribera has always been the Jaume I metro stop, from where you walk down to Barcelona's loveliest basilica, Santa Maria del Mar.

An outstanding example of Catalan Gothic, it was built by Berenguer de Montagut and Ramon Despuig between 1329 and 1383 with money donated by the guilds so has always been considered a people's church and its construction is the central theme of Ildefons Falcones' best-selling novel, The Cathedral of the Sea.

The far wall of Santa Maria del Mar was where the Catalans who had defended Barcelona during the siege of 1714 were shot and then thrown into an open grave now known as Fossar de les Moreres, where an eternal flame burns to their memory.

Next you come to Passeig del Born and beyond it the Mercat del Born, which have become so fashionable that they have been misappropriated by Wiki-reading travel writers and applied to the whole area.

Passeig del Born

Let's get this clear! El Born is the Passeig, the streets off it to your right and the market and the area around it, the rest of this part of the neighbourhood is La Ribera and the neighbourhood as a whole is Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera. Rant over!

The Mercat del Born itself is an extraordinary building constructed between 1873 and 1878 and considered the first and possibly finest example of iron and glass structures so typical of late 19th century Barcelona.

It was Barcelona's main market until the 1970s and lay semi-abandoned when I arrived in the barri in 1988.

In 2002, when work began to convert the building into a Municipal Library, workmen uncovered the ruins of the pre-1714 Ribera that the residents had been forced to demolish with their own hands to make way for the citadel.

Archaeologists moved in and restored the site and since September 2013, the market is El Born Centre Cultural, an archaeological site with permanent and temporary exhibitions explaining the siege and life in Barcelona under Castilian occupation.

If you double back along Passeig del Born so Santa Maria del Mar is facing you, about half way along to your right you come to a small square Placeta de Montcada, which is the beginning of one of Barcelona's most noble streets.

Palau Aguilar Carrer Montcada

Look out for Carrer de les Mosques, the city's narrowest street, and a little further El Xampanyet, one of the last surviving authentic cava bars.

Carrer Montcada itself was home to the medieval aristocracy and each of its buildings is a 14th or 15th century palace with a courtyard and impressive stone staircase, many of these are museums or art galleries so its worth going in to look around.

The most celebrated of these museums is the wonderful Museu Picasso, which is located mainly in Palau Aguilar but also Palau del Baró de Castellet, Palau Meca, Casa Mauri and Palau Finestres and you can walk around most of the ground floors without going to the exhibition.

You'll also enjoy visiting the lovely Palau Dalmases, which is at Carrer Montcada 20 and hosts excellent flamenco shows most evenings in its fine baroque dining room.

Mercat de Santa Caterina

Bòria, Corders and Carders

Jaume I metro is also the point of entry to Sant Caterina but although the main Carrer Princesa marks the boundary with La Ribera and leads directly to Parc de la, I generally make my way in via the smaller Carrer de la Bòria just to its left.

After about 100 metres Bòria becomes Carrer dels Corders and any of the streets on your left will take to the Mercat de Santa Caterina.

Located on the broad Avinguda Francesc Cambó that backs onto Via Laietana and Barcelona Cathedral, Mercat de Santa Caterina occupies the site of a convent of the same name and originally opened in 1848.

It's always been an excellent little market and the rather uninspiring building was remodelled and given a colourful roof in 2006.

Back on Corders, you come to a small chapel, the Capella d'en Marcus on the corner of what used to be Carrer Montcada before it was cut in two by the building of Carrer Princesa.

Built in the 12th century, it is located at the start of the Via Franca, an old Roman road that led from Barcelona to France and was the headquarters of the Confraria dels Correus a Cavall i a Peu, Europe's first postal service.

Further along there are plenty of open spaces, such as Plaça Sant Cugat, Carrer dels Metges and Plaça Sant Augustí el Vell from where you can turn down Carrer Tantarantana and reach the Monastery of Sant Augustí and the Museu de Xocolata on Carrer del Commerç.

Palau de la Música

Sant Pere and Around

Comprising the streets of Sant Pere Més Baix, Mitjà and Més Alt - lower, middle, higher - the neighbourhood of Sant Pere just merges into Santa Caterina.

Without doubt the neighbourhood's most famous monument is the modernista Palau de la Música Catalana just off Via Laietana at the start of Sant Pere Més Alt.

Built between 1905 and 1908 by Lluís Domènech i Montaner as home to the the Orfeó Català choir, it was located amongst these cramped streets to be close to where the early chorists lived in working-class Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera.

Carrying on down Sant Pere Més Alt, make sure not to miss Passatge de Sert, a lovely residential passage, which makes a brilliant short cut into the heart of the neighbourhood.

Right at the end of the street, you come to Plaça de Sant Pere and the old monastery of Sant Pere de Puel.les, which was founded in 945, although this restoration dates from 1911.

Walking down through the square, you come to end section of Sant Pere Més Alt, which goes by the name of Rec Comtal, harking back to the medieval water course that originally brought life to the neighbourhood.

Sant Pere de les Puel.les

Staying in Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera

Given its central location and proximity to La Barceloneta, Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i La Ribera is also a great place to stay as it will provided a good base for sightseeing during your vacation.

I particularly like the hotels along Passeig Picasso facing the park but there's an excellent choice and you'll find hotels and hostels liberally distributed throughout the neighbourhood.

Despite my annoyance at the name, El Born is used by hotel booking companies to refer to the whole neighbourhood so I have created a series of pages under the title of El Born Hotels, which you can consult for my personal recommendations.

Public Transport

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