Rambling Barcelona's Ramblas
By Rick Steves
Barcelona is Spain's second city and the capital of the proud and distinct region of Catalunya. With Franco's fascism now history, Catalan flags wave once again and the city is vibrant as never before.
The spine of the tourists' Barcelona is its main drag, the Ramblas. More colorful than the Champs-Élysées, this grand boulevard takes you on a one-mile downhill stroll — from ritzy at the top to rough-and-tumble at the port below. You'll raft the river of Barcelonan life past elegant cafés, street mimes, pickpockets, a chirpy bird market, chic shops, and a chance to pay more for a shoeshine than you paid for the shoes. The Ramblas (Rambla means stream in Arabic) exerts a powerful pull, causing many visitors to spend a major part of their time here doing laps. Here are the highlights:
Barcelona's vast central square, Placa de Catalunya, caps the Ramblas. Cluttered with skateboarders and statues of Catalan heros, it divides old and new Barcelona. Kick off a Ramblas ramble from here. Got some change? As you wander downhill, drop coins into the cans of the human statues (which often jumpstarts them into entertaining motion). But beware: wherever people stop to gawk, pickpockets are at work.
You'll know when you've entered a stretch called the "Rambla of the Little Birds." Traditionally, kids bring their parents here to buy pets, especially on Sundays. Living quarters in Barcelona are tight. Local apartment dwellers find birds, turtles, and fish easier to handle than dogs and cats.
Halfway down the Ramblas at #91, a century-old iron gateway to La Boquería — Barcelona's lively produce market — invites explorers with an appetite for edible adventure. The Boquería is a commotion of chicken legs, bags of live snails, stiff fish, sugary cafés, and sleeping dogs. One shop sells 25 kinds of olives, the next sells full legs of ham. And be warned: the huevos del toro are bull testicles — surprisingly inexpensive... and oh so good.
For a quick bite, visit the Pinotxo Bar (just to the right as you enter the market), where flamboyant Juan and his family are busy feeding shoppers. (Getting Juan to crack a huge smile and a thumbs-up for your camera makes a great shot...and he loves it.) The stools nearby are a great perch for enjoying both your coffee and the people-watching.
Or, for something more exotic, Taverna Basca Irati serves 40 kinds of hot and cold Basque pintxos for €1.80 each. These are open-faced sandwiches — like sushi on bread. Muscle in through the hungry local crowd. Get an empty plate from the waiter, and then help yourself. Every few minutes, a waiter prances proudly by with a platter of new, still-warm munchies. Grab one as they pass by...it's addictive. You pay on the honor system: you're charged by the number of toothpicks left on your plate when you're done. Wash it down with a €2-3 glasses of Rioja (full-bodied red wine), Txakolí (sprightly Basque white wine), or sidra (apple wine) poured from on high to add oxygen and bring out the flavor (a block off the Ramblas, behind arcade at Carrer Cardenal Casanyes 15, Metro: Liceu, tel. 933-023-084).
An arcaded lane at #46 leads to the palm tree-filled Plaça Reial. This elegant, neoclassical square comes complete with old-fashioned taverns, modern bars with patio seating, a Sunday coin and stamp market (10:00–14:00), Gaudí's first public works (the two colorful helmeted lampposts), and characters who don't need the palm trees to be shady. Herbolari Ferran is a fine and aromatic shop of herbs, with fun souvenirs such as top-quality saffron or safra (downstairs at Plaça Reial 18). The small streets stretching toward the water from the square are intriguing, but less safe.
Return to the Ramblas. The towering Columbus Monument marks the trendy, restaurant-packed place where the Ramblas hits the Mediterranean. Your Ramblas ramble's over. Rest on the steps leading into the sea and imagine the scene right here as Ferdinand and Isabel welcomed Columbus home after that 1492 voyage.
A sweep through five centuries returns you to the present, listening to the faint roar of thousands of happy Barcelonans enjoying one of Europe's liveliest cities. Over your shoulder, Columbus points toward the New World...America. Looking up at his floodlit face, tell him, "Not yet, sailor."