Many people who visit Barcelona may overlook Montjuïc. Often overshadowed by the over-the-top Modernista sights that the city is known for, Montjuïc offers visitors a respite from the tourist-filled streets, not to mention a great view of the city. What’s event better is that many of the sights on Montjuïc are free, making for an affordable and laid back day of sightseeing in Barcelona.
While Montjuïc has everything from recreational areas to museums, many of the sights that remain today are a result of 2 major events – the 1929 Worlds Expo and 1992 Summer Olympics.
A Fortification High Above the City
Long before these 20th century events, the hill was anchored by the Montjuïc Castle. Not your typical castle, the star-shaped fortress dates back to 1640 has served as a defensive fort, a prison, a military museum (which was inaugurated in 1963 under Francisco Franco) and now a municipal facility.
Only the shell of the original structure remains, but the Montjuïc Castle is still a worthwhile sight to explore, especially for its commanding views overlooking Barcelona and its harbor. And if you happen to visit in the summer, you can catch a movie in the moat during an open-air film festival at the castle.
Barcelona as the World’s Stage
The 1929 Barcelona International Exposition put Montjuïc on display for the world to see. This was Barcelona’s second go at hosting the Worlds Expo (the first was in 1888), and Montjuïc was chosen as the site because of its availability of space.
Planning began in 1905, led by Modernista architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch, targeting 1917 for the event, which was postponed more than a decade due to World War I. As you may expect, the Worlds Expo had a huge urban impact throughout the city – buildings were remodeled, metro lines were extended and the funicular that is still used today to reach Montjuïc was constructed in anticipation of the event.
That year, 20 countries participated in the Worlds Expo, each with a dedicated week to “show off”. While many of the pavilions and sights were never intended to be permanent and were torn down shortly after the event, a few exceptions remain today.
Starting at the top of the hill, the Palau Nacional was the grand exhibition hall for the event and is now home to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) with an impressive collection of art from the 10th to the 20th century. As you descend down the hill, notice the grab bag of architectural styles and elements, from the neoclassical columns (representative of the Catalan flag) to the Venetian towers that flank the entrance of the exhibition area (modeled after St. Mark’s in Venice). Even Plaça d’Espanya at the bottom of the hill drew its influence from St. Peter’s in Rome.
The Barcelona Pavilion designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe housed the German exhibition during the Worlds Expo. This decidedly modern building is one of the most significant pieces of architecture from the 20th century, promoting the idea that “less is more”. Simple in form, the structure includes a “floating roof” and furniture that Mies van der Rohe designed himself. Like other pavilions, the original structure was torn down but later rebuilt in the 1980s following Mies van der Rohe’s original design.
By contrast, the elaborate CaxiaForum across the street is an example of Barcelona’s Modernista architecture designed by Puig i Cadafalch. Formerly a textile factory, it now serves as a free museum and cultural center. Other sights that remain from 1929 include the Magic Fountain, with nighttime water and light shows that still wow crowds, and the Spanish Village that was designed to show off different styles of the country’s architecture. When you reach the bottom of the hill, you won’t be able to miss the Las Arenas Bullring, which was turned into a shopping mall after bullfighting was banned in Barcelona in 2010.
Let the Summer Games Begin
The 1992 Summer Olympics was a good excuse to spruce up Montjuïc for a new wave of visitors. In fact, the site was chosen because it already had a stadium that was originally built for the 1929 Words Expo.
In fact, the site was chosen because it already had a stadium. Originally built for the 1929 Worlds Expo (for games between the participating nations), the Olympic Stadium was also intended to host an anti-fascist alternative to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which never happened due to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It was also used as a staging area for cars during the Spanish Grand Prix in Montjuïc in 1975.
The exterior you see today is original, but the interior was completely rebuilt to accommodate 65,000 spectators for the 1992 games, and the stadium has since been served as a venue for events ranging from football to concerts. Fun fact: Michael Jackson performed a concert at the stadium as part of his Dangerous Tour in 1992.
Other sights in the “Olympic Ring” include indoor arenas, swimming and diving pools, as well as the 446-foot tall Communications Tower. Designed to resemble the body of an athlete, the tower was used to broadcast coverage of the games around the world. The 1992 Olympics hosted athletes from 169 countries and was such a hit that Barcelona soon became one of the most visited cities in Europe after Paris, London and Rome. Also nearby is the Olympic and Sports Museum, celebrating the 1992 games and Olympic history, and the Fundació Joan Miró contemporary art museum dedicated to Barcelona’s homegrown artist.
Getting There and Around
There are several different ways to reach Montjuïc, whether you choose to start at the top and work your way down or vice versa. Most of the sights are within walking distance of each other, but there are also several bus lines (#50, #55 and #193) that run through Montjuïc.
- Take the L2 or L3 metro line to the Paral-lel stop, then follow the signs along the path to reach to reach Montjuïc Castle (it’s about a 15 to 20 minute uphill walk). Alternatively, you can take the Montjuïc Funicular (covered by your metro ticket) from the metro station to the top of the hill.
- Take the L1, L3 or L8 metro line to the Plaça d’ Espanya stop, which drops you off at the entrance of the Worlds Expo area.
- Alternatively, there’s also an aerial tramway (which was intended to be a tourist attraction for the Worlds Expo but didn’t open in time) that runs across Port Vell between Montjuïc and Barceloneta. While a little pricy, it is a novel way to reach the hill with great views as you cross the water.
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