Barcelona is one of the most popular destinations in Europe. With its sinuous architecture and vibrant centre, this city enchants with its solid traditions and history that traces back to its ancient name, 'Barcino'. So let's discover its history and explore what to see.

What to see in Barcelona?

The origins

  • Museum of History of Barcelona (MUHBA)
  • Roman city walls

Conquests and splendour

  • Barcelona Cathedral
  • Hospital de la Santa Creu
  • Plaça del Rei
  • Sant Pau del Camp

From Middle Ages to the present days

  • Sagrada Família
  • Castell de Montjuïc
  • Park Güell
  • Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

The origins

(Jay Cross CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)
(Jay Cross CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)

According to legend, the Carthaginian Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal's father, founded the city of Barcelona. However, the existence of a Carthaginian Barcelona has never been proven. Therefore, it is likely that the first inhabitants of Barcino (Latin name of modern Barcelona), founded around 300 BCE, were people of Iberian origin.

Later, the Romans reorganised the town as a Castrum (a military camp), located on Mount Tàber, a hill where the town hall and the seat of the Generalitat de Catalunya (Plaça de Sant Jaume) stand today. The Romans baptised the city as Colonia Iulia Augusta Faventia Paterna Barcino. The ancient organisation of the streets is still visible in the maps of the old town and in the Roman walls that have remained standing. It is believed that Barcino also had an amphitheatre near the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar.

1. Museum of History of Barcelona (MUHBA)

One of the most famous museums is the Museum of History of Barcelona, also known as the MUHBA, dedicated to the history and archaeology of the city. The museum is located in Plaça del Rei. However, the complex also runs several historical sites throughout the city, most of which are archaeological sites showing the remains of the ancient Roman city, called “Barcino” in Latin.

2. Roman city walls

Roman gate (Richard Mortel CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)
Roman gate (Richard Mortel CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)
In Plaça Nova and Carrer de La Palla, there are ruins of defensive towers, aqueducts and walls on the site of the ancient Roman city of Barcino. A Roman aqueduct passed through this place, and the gate (1st - 4th century CE) coincided with the “decumanus”, the main street that ran east-west in Roman cities.

Conquests and splendour

La rendición de Granada (by Francisco Pradilla)
La rendición de Granada (by Francisco Pradilla)

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the whole of Southern Europe was hit by the famous barbarian invasions, which saw the Visigoths in the 5th century CE conquer Barcelona. Subsequently, after a period of tranquillity, a new cycle of incursions from the south by the Islamic Caliphate turned Spain into a theatre of battles.

There followed a period of advances and numerous battles, pitting the armies of North Africa against the Christian kingdoms of Central Europe, who were fighting them from the north. Notably, in 801 CE, the Franks, led by Ludwig the Pious, substracted part of northern Spain from the Caliphate and made Barcelona the county's capital. This ongoing Spanish dispute between Christians and Muslims went down in history as “Reconquista”, an almost eight hundred-year period in which the progressive conquest of the Moorish Muslim kingdoms of al-Andalus (the Arabic name for southern Spain and Portugal) by Christian armies took place. However, from the 10th century onwards, Barcelona experienced a long period of prosperity. In 1137 CE, through a game of alliances, the count became king of Aragon and the city the most representative centre of the realm and capital of the Principality of Catalonia. Barcelona became a major port of the Mediterranean Sea, and its merchants and shipowners competed against the Italian Genoese. The city was enriched with sumptuous Gothic buildings, and between the 13th and 14th centuries CE, two new city walls fortified its medieval heart.

3. Barcelona Cathedral

Barcelona cathedral, known as Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia
Barcelona cathedral, known as Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia

The present cathedral was built in Gothic style between the 13th and 15th centuries CE on the remains of earlier churches. The first building was an early Christian basilica (5th-7th century) with three naves and a square baptistery housing an octagonal baptismal font. It remained intact during the Visigoth invasion, was possibly converted into a mosque during the Muslim occupation of the city (718-801), only to be restored around 877 by Bishop Frodoí. Rebuilt in the Romanesque style, it was consecrated in 1058. Smaller than the present one, it also had three naves with three raised apses, a portico in the façade and a bell tower. The construction of the present building, intended as a renovation and extension of the Romanesque church, began in May 1298 during the reign of James II of Aragon.

4. Plaça del Rei

(JosepBC, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)
(JosepBC, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)
Plaça del Rei is one of the most emblematic places in the city of Barcelona, located in the Gothic Quarter. It retains the rectangular layout derived from the urban development project that was carried out during the second half of the 14th century. This project aimed to build an elongated square where “tournaments” (a form of competition of medieval origin) could be held, thus eliminating the traditional market that took place here. Moreover, the Plaça del Rei was the city's historical seat of royal and municipal power.

5. Sant Pau del Camp

The monastery takes its name from the fact that it was once located in the open countryside, whereas today, it is located in the El Raval district in the centre of Barcelona. There are no certain sources on the monastery's origin, but its presence has been documented since 977 AD. In particular, it was sacked and destroyed by Almanzor's Muslim troops in 985 AD. The Romanesque monastery has lobular arches supported by double columns, the capitals decorated with biblical scenes and scenes from daily life, animals, monsters and plant motifs.

From Middle Ages to the present days

In the 15th century CE, the city entered a period of decadence that continued over the following centuries due to the trade exclusion from newly discovered America. Then, in 1717 CE, following its defeat against the forces of the first of the Bourbons of Spain, King Philip V, Catalonia lost its political independence.

Industrialisation in the 19th century continued throughout the 20th century, revitalising the economy, and the city once again became a substantial commercial, political and cultural centre. Witnesses to this are the two Universal Expositions organised in 1888 and 1929. In the second half of the 19th century, the project to demolish the ancient medieval walls made way for the "Estension", meaning "extension" ("Eixample" in Catalan), which enlarged the city's boundaries to encompass the villages in the nearby suburbs.

During the Civil War, Barcelona sided with the Republic. More specifically, the city's strong and entrenched anarchist movement gave impetus to massive collectivisations and widespread experiences of self-management in industry and public services. During the WWII that followed, the city was bombed on several occasions, mainly by the Italian Legionary Air Force and the Nazi Condor Legion in the service of General Franco. There were 385 bombings, which caused 2,750 deaths. The city was occupied on 26 January 1939 by the Francoist Army. The regime abolished the autonomous political institutions and banned the use of the Catalan language. During the 36 years of the dictatorship, Barcelona experienced a period of social and cultural transformation. Heavy immigration (essentially from southern Spain) injected large numbers of Spanish-speaking inhabitants into the city's substratum, reducing the impact of Catalan.

After the war, Barcelona began a new cultural and urban development that transformed it into the modern metropolis of the present.

6. Sagrada Família

Designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), his work on Sagrada Família is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The vastness of the project and its distinctive style have made it one of the city's main symbols, and it is the most visited monument in Spain. Work began in 1882 during the reign of Alfonso XII of Spain. The building was started in the Neo-Gothic style, but when Gaudi took over as designer in 1883, at the age of 31, it was completely redesigned. Gaudi worked on the church dedicating the last 15 years of his life to it. The church is still under construction today. As with other projects intended to last one or more centuries, the church was consecrated unfinished on 7 November 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI, who elevated it to the rank of minor basilica.

7. Castell de Montjuïc

For a panorama of the whole city, you can climb up to Montjuïc, the small mountain near the harbour, on top of which is the Castell de Montjuïc, an old military fortress that served to guard the entrance to Barcelona from the sea. This place is known to Catalans because of the execution by Francoist police, in 1940, of Lluís Companys I Jover, president of the Generalitat de Catalunya, now considered a Catalan national hero.

8. Park Güell

Barcelona has numerous parks. The best known is the Parc Güell, located in the Gracia district. Covering 17.18 hectares with gardens and architectural features, the park stretches across the upper part of the city of Barcelona, on the southern slope of Mount Carmel. Conceived as an urban complex, it was designed by the architect Antoni Gaudí, the greatest exponent of Catalan modernism, at the expense of the impresario Eusebi Güell and inaugurated as a public park in 1926.

9. Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

The Hospital de la Santa Creu in Barcelona originated in 1401 CE when the six hospitals then existing in Barcelona were united. The Council of the Hundred and the Head of the Church of Barcelona agreed to unify all six hospitals, decreeing the name Hospital de la Santa Creu. On 13 February of the same year, construction began on the new hospital, which would be completed in 1450. However, by the late nineteenth century, due to the rapid growth of Barcelona's population and advances in medicine,the hospital became too small, and it was decided to construct a new building. After eighty years of healthcare activity in the Modernista complex, in 2009 the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau moved to new premises built in the north of the precinct.