by Amy Knauff
If you’re trying to decide where to stay during your trip to Barcelona, keep reading for an overview of the most central neighborhoods. And keep in mind my personal rule of thumb (though absolutely not a hard-and-fast rule!): if you’re there for just a couple days, better to splurge and stay somewhere very central so you can make the most of your time and avoid any time wasted on public transport (efficient though it may be). If you’re staying for a longer period of time (say, 4 days and up), stay somewhere a little less central and a little more residential: you’ll save money and you’ll get to know the “real” city and not just the touristy parts.
The Ciutat Vella (Old City) is basically the historic center, which is subdivided into a few different neighborhoods – Gothic Quarter, El Born/La Ribera/Sant Pere, La Rambla.
These are the most central neighborhoods of Barcelona. If you stay in the Gothic Quarter, El Born/La Ribera/Sant Pere, or La Rambla, you will be within walking distance of most tourist sites and you’ll only have to take public transport to get to the Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, or Montjuïc. If you’re into walking, you can also easily get to the Manzana de la Discordia in L’Eixample. El Raval and Barceloneta are also central, but slightly less so, so you may use the metro a little more often if you stay in either of these areas.
Barri Gòtic (the Gothic Quarter) – this is the very oldest part of Barcelona. It has the ruins of an ancient Roman wall and the medieval Jewish quarter. You’ll find the Cathedral as well as Plaça Sant Jaume with City Hall and Plaça Reial (my favorite square in Barcelona!). Fairly new restrictions on accommodations in this area have forced many to close or move; you will find some here but not as many as you might think.
Where to stay in this neighborhood – The Codols Flat
El Born/La Ribera/Sant Pere – there is a confusing mess of names for this neighborhood (three of which I’ve mentioned above): the areas referred to overlap one another, or are different names for the same area. But for our purposes, we’re talking about the neighborhood on the other side of via Laietana – the main artery that basically cuts the old city in half — from the Barri Gòtic. El Born (more or less the lower part of the neighborhood) is now a very trendy area with lots of restaurants, bars, and boutiques. The upper part of the area is a little more traditional and less touristy. This area is home to the Picasso museum, and is close to the Arc de Triomf and the lovely Parc de la Ciutadella. There are more accommodations here than in the Barri Gòtic, but they’re still limited simply due to space constrictions.
Where to stay in this neighborhood – San Augustì Flat
La Rambla – also referred to as Las Ramblas, this is the big tourist strip of Barcelona. While you’re on or near La Rambla, you must be viligant about watching your wallet or bag because pickpocketers abound. La Rambla runs from north to south starting at Plaça de Catalunya and ending at the port, and divides the Barri Gòtic and El Raval neighborhoods. La Rambla itself is a tourist trap – but an interesting, not-to-miss one. A stroll down it to see the human statues and performers, and the flower, bird, and souvenir stalls, is obligatory. But I don’t recommend eating or drinking anything at the restaurants/bars: I’m sure it makes for good people-watching, but the arm and leg you will be charged is not worth it. As far as accommodations, right on La Rambla and the Plaça de Catalunya you’ll mostly find expensive hotels.
Where to stay in this neighborhood – Apartamento Boqueria
El Raval – the neighborhood on the other side of La Rambla from the Barri Gòtic. It used to have a very bad reputation as being seedy, dirty, rundown, and even dangerous (think: prostitutes and drug dealers). However, since Barcelona got cleaned up for the 1992 Olympics, like the rest of the city, it’s been revitalized. These days it’s an up-and-coming trendy, artsy, bohemian, multicultural neighborhood, full of interesting night spots and bars. Here you’ll find the MACBA (Modern Art Museum of Barcelona), the Boqueria market, and the Rambla del Raval (don’t miss the fat-cat statue!). The lower area close to the port is still more rundown looking with some litter and graffiti. More and more tourist accommodations are opening up in El Raval, from hotels to B&Bs or private apartments.
Where to stay in this neighborhood – Lleó Flat
Barceloneta – If you’re looking at a map of the city, this is the small area that juts off the bottom of Barcelona on the east side of the port. It used to be a working-class area populated mostly with fishermen and their families; today it’s a mix of local families who have been there for generations, expats, and tourists. The grid-pattern streets are narrow and in the more traditional parts of the neighborhood you’ll see laundry strung out to dry on lines stretching across the street. Closer to the water and in the squares, you’ll find some of the best seafood and paella restaurants in the city. The city’s most popular Barcelona beach is here, and you can walk up and down the boardwalk to get to other beaches. Smaller tourist accommodations, mostly rental apartments, are in this area and especially popular in the summer.
Where to stay in this neighborhood – Natalie’s Barceloneta Flat
The following three neighborhoods are very central, though less so than the historic center. They’re all well-connected by metro and bus so you can very easily get anywhere you need to. L’Eixample is a mix of touristy and residential, being the closest of the three to the Old City. Gràcia and Sagrada Familia are the least touristy and will give you the most genuine what-it-feels-like-to-live-in-Barcelona experience.
L’Eixample – locals further narrow this neighborhood down to “L’Eixample Esquerra” (left-hand side) and “L’Eixample Dreta” (right-hand side), but it’s all part of the same residential neighborhood just north of the historic center. The main thoroughfares are the Passeig de Gràcia, the Rambla Catalunya, the Gran Via Corts Catalanes, and the Avinguda Diagonal. L’Eixample is a mix of residential apartment buildings, offices, businesses, stores, bars, and restaurants. Here you’ll find the most important Modernista buildings, including Gaudí’s La Pedrera and Casa Batlló. The neighborhood is also packed with tourist accommodations (hotels, B&Bs, rental apartments).
Where to stay in this neighborhood – Zoo Rooms
Gràcia – north and a little to the east of L’Eixample. This area is absolutely adored by young Barcelonians and expats alike. Once a very traditional neighborhood, you’ll still find older locals mixed in with the artsy, bohemian types who are flocking here. You won’t find many “tourist sites” in this area, but its charming streets and squares filled with terrace (outdoor) bars offer good nightlife and food, and the interesting little shops are great for a not-so-touristy souvenir to take home. Being less touristy than the historic center of neighboring L’Eixample, you will find accommodations here, but not nearly as many.
Where to stay in this neighborhood – Angie’s Gràcia Attic Guestroom
Sagrada Familia – here we’ve got another confusing neighborhood-name issue. The Sagrada Familia is technically in L’Eixample, but tends to be referred to anyway as its own neighborhood. Also, nearby neighborhoods that are within walking distance of the Sagrada Familia have their own names – for example, Hospital de Sant Pau, Guinardó, or Clot – but for clarity purposes here I’ll just refer to the whole thing as “Sagrada Familia”. The main tourist site in this area is, obviously, Gaudí’s magnificent Sagrada Familia Basilica, and there’s not much else there in the way of tourist attractions. That means most tourists stay in other areas and take the metro out to see the Sagrada Familia. Besides the few blocks around the basilica, the area is mainly residential, with shops, businesses, and restaurants. Like Gràcia, you’ll find some tourist accommodations (as you will all over Barcelona) but not as many as the more central neighborhoods mentioned earlier.
Where to stay in this neighborhood – Apartamento Los Wiwoos
It’s worth mentioning that there are, of course, plenty of other neighborhoods in Barcelona, although they aren’t as central as the ones mentioned above, and are less frequented by tourists. For instance, we work with some properties, like Anita’s B&B, in the Sant Gervasi area (kind of far out near Tibidabo mountain, but with an amazing view of the city), Poble Sec (a residential neighborhood close to Montjuïc), and the Olimpic Port area (a kind of industrial-looking residential neighborhood, but super close to the beaches and Barceloneta). If you’re considering accommodation in an area that’s not mentioned above, just take a look at the map of Barcelona: if it falls within the boundaries of a tourist map, or if it’s close to a metro stop, you’ll be just fine.
Some notes on Barcelona’s fantastic public transport system:
-The metro is extensive, with 11 different lines going throughout the city and into the surrounding areas. There are close to a hundred bus lines which also cover places the metro doesn’t quite get to.
-In my experience, the buses and metro are clean and safe, and staff is pretty helpful.
-The metro is super easy to navigate; ticket machines are self-evident (and you can choose English), and there are maps everywhere clearly indicating where you have to go. The bus system is a little trickier, but if you get a bus map or ask the driver or a local, you’ll get where you want to go.
-Both the metro and buses run until late. You can easily get back to your accommodations after a late dinner and a leisurely stroll around the city. If you’re planning on partying into the night, you’ll probably need to grab a taxi back (which is cheap in Barcelona).
-Both buses and metro are rather efficient. Metros go by every few minutes, with wait times updated to the second on screens over the platform. Buses go by pretty frequently too and you can use your smartphone to easily get wait time updates.
If it sounds like I’m raving… well, maybe I am just a tiny bit. After years of living in Rome, the public transport system in Barcelona really is impressive to me. The point, though, is that it’s so easy to get around the city at almost any time of day that you can really stay anywhere you want. You’re not confined to the historic center because it’s too much of a pain to get back and forth from other areas, as you are in some big cities. This, in turn, means that accommodations are spread out all over the city rather than just being concentrated downtown. In fact, from my experience and research, it seems that the residential L’Eixample neighborhood has more hotels, B&Bs, and rental apartments than the historic center does.