The Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) is one of three neighborhoods in the Ciutat Vella, Barcelona’s Old Town. It is among the most fascinating areas in the city thanks to the abundance of Gothic buildings that were erected here during Barcelona’s heyday in the Middle Ages.
The Gothic Quarter is bounded by the Fontanella street to the north, the Via Laietana to the east, the Passeig de Colom to the south and the famous Rambla boulevard to the west. Its borders loosely follow the medieval city walls and completely enclose the former Roman city of Barcino, the walls of which are still partly visible.
During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the counts of Barcelona ruled over a realm that not only included Catalonia and Aragon but also overseas territories such as Majorca, Sicily and Naples, the city of Barcelona experienced strong growth. Many palaces and churches were built on top of ancient Roman foundations in a Catalan version of the Gothic architecture style.
In the fifteenth century the Crowns of Castile and Aragon were united and the center of power moved to Madrid. For centuries little changed until the late nineteenth century, when Barcelona started to regain more independence.
The buildings in the old town center started to attract the attention of historians and policymakers. They realized that the large concentration of Gothic buildings was an asset, in particular because of the unique architecture. While the Gothic architecture style was popular all across Europe, the Catalan version is distinctively different.
The revitalization of the neighborhood started in the 1880s with the construction of the cathedral‘s front facade, built to a fifteenth-century Gothic design. The following decades many more medieval buildings were restored and architects added ornaments or extensions to existing buildings in the neo-Gothic style. The most famous example is the picture-postcard bridge over the Carrer del Bisbe (Bishop street) that connects the Palau de la Generalitat with the Casa dels Canonges. The tiny covered bridge was built in 1928 by the Modernista architect Joan Rubió. It was around this time that the term ‘Gothic Quarter’ was coined.
The Gothic Quarter attracts throngs of tourists and the area is bustling with life throughout the day. The streets are very narrow and mostly devoid of cars.
It is best to spend at least a half day in this historic neighborhood so that you can discover the many small squares, beautiful churches and Gothic residences, several of which have beautiful courtyards that are open to the public. Most of the sights are concentrated around the Cathedral of Saint Eulalia, the most important tourist attraction in the Gothic Quarter.
Construction of the La Seu, as the cathedral is known, started in 1298 and it was only completed more than six hundred years later. The cathedral has a magnificent interior with stained-glass windows and beautifully carved choir stalls. Also make sure you visit the cloister, which has an authentic medieval ambulatory.
But the cathedral is far from the only interesting church in the Gothic Quarter. To the west, towards the Rambla, is the Santa Maria del Pi, a fourteenth-century church that is more representative for the typical Catalan Gothic style. It has a single, very wide nave, and no side aisles. The main highlight is the magnificent twelve-sided rose window, one of the world’s largest.
Another great Gothic church is the Church of Sants Just i Pastor at the Sant Just Square. It is considered the last of the great Gothic churches in Barcelona. Construction started in 1342 but it was only completed in 1574, by which time the Gothic style had gone out of fashion.
One church that stands out in the Gothic quarter is the Baroque Basílica de la Mercè (Basilica of the Virgin of Mercy), built in the eighteenth century near the waterfront. On the other side of the Gothic Quarter sits the Santa Ana Church, built in the twelfth century. It is best known for its magnificent Gothic-style cloister.
Yet another church, the Església de Sant Jaume (Church of St. James), was initially built in the fifteenth century but it burned down in 1822. The church was rebuilt in 1880 in the neo-Gothic style at its current location on the Carrer de Ferran.
The site where the original Sant Jaume Church stood is now a square, the Plaça de Sant Jaume. The square is bordered by two of Barcelona’s most important buildings, the Casa de la Ciutat (city hall) and the Palau de la Generalitat (Catalan government). Both were built around the year 1400 in Gothic style but they now feature front facades in a different style. The Renaissance facade of the Generalitat was added in 1596 by Pere Blai and the city hall’s neoclassical facade dates from 1847.
The square occupies the site of the former Roman Forum, which two thousand years ago formed the heart of the Roman city of Barcino. There aren’t many visible vestiges of the Roman era, but you can still see part of the old city walls and nearby, inside one of the medieval buildings at Carrer del Paradís, 10, you can see the columns of the Temple of Augustus, probably built in the early first century in honor of the Roman Emperor Augustus.
To see more Roman remains head to Plaça del Rei, where you can visit excavated ruins of Barcino in the basement of the City History Museum. The museum is housed in the Casa Padellàs, a Gothic building from the fifteenth century that was originally located on the Carrer dels Mercaders but was moved here in 1931. Opposite is the Palau del Lloctinent (lieutenant palace), a Gothic structure with a picturesque courtyard. Adjacent is one of the medieval highlights of Barcelona: the Palau Reial Major, once the residence of the counts of Barcelona. Two of the palace’s main rooms, the Tinell Hall and the Chapel of St. Agatha are incorporated into the City History Museum.
There are several more, smaller, museums in the Gothic Quarter, the most interesting of which is probably the Museo Frederic Marès, which displays a collection of sculptures, mostly from the Catalan school.