A guide to La Rambla, Barcelona
Originally, La Rambla was the river bed (the Latin name arenno was replaced by the Arab word ramla) that marked the exterior limits of the city fortified by King Jaume I. But when Barcelona expanded during the 15th century, La Rambla became part of the inner city. In due course, a number of religious houses were built in the surrounding areas and the river bed came to be known as the “Convent Thoroughfare”. Only at the beginning of the 18th century did La Rambla become a more clearly defined street, after permission was granted to build on the ancient walls in the Boqueria area. In 1775 a section of the city walls was torn down and a central walkway built, lined with poplar trees and higher than the roadway that ran along either side.
Within the small and densely populated area of the ancient fortified city, La Rambla was the only street of any significance, and it became the city’s focal point. Renovations were constantly under way during the 19th century, and the street settled down to become more exclusive and aristocratic; this change of status was aided by the disappearance of some of the surrounding buildings and convents, creating space for new squares and mansions.
La Rambla today
La Rambla assumed its present shape between 1849 and 1856 when all the remaining fortifications were torn down. The first plane trees, brought from Devesa in Girona, were planted in 1851, and the street became “the fashionable promenade route, where the cream of Barcelona parades on foot, by carriage or on horseback”, according to the 19th-century journalist Gaziel.
Today’s promenaders are more mixed and more cosmopolitan, though the “cream” can still be spotted wrapped in furs on their way to the opera at the Liceu. Since the regeneration of the Old Town in the 1990s, more uptown residents are venturing down to these “lower” parts to visit art galleries and trendy boutiques or eat in the eclectic selection of new restaurants. They mingle with tourists, hen parties, pickpockets, petty criminals cheating at dice tricks and prostitutes assailing northern European businessmen. The local youth move in large crowds looking for cheap beer before going clubbing.
And while the fun continues, out come the municipal cleaners in force, like some kind of eco-angels, sweeping, collecting rubbish and vigorously hosing down the gutters in preparation for a new day.
How to explore La Rambla on your holiday
Distance: 1.5km (1 mile)
Time: 1.5 hours
Start: Plaça de Catalunya
End: Port Vell
Ideal Insight Guides' trip: Our Cultural Cities of Spain tour begins with a 3-night stay in Barcelona
Points to note: This is an easy stroll that can be done at any time of day. Unfortunately, you need to be on your guard against pickpockets on this popular stretch.
This leafy pedestrian avenue was once a river running beside the old city wall to the sea. On the left as you head down to the port is the Ciutat Vella, the Old Town, with tempting lanes and alleys, while signs to the modern Museu d’Art Contemporani (MACBA) and Palau Güell, the only Gaudí building in this area, beckon on the right (southwest), in the old working-class Raval district. Traf crumbles over the cobbles either side of the wide, plane-tree-shaded promenade, and you will cross back and forth, as sights and attractions entice.
Plaça de Catalunya
At the top of La Rambla is the Plaça de Catalunya, where the Old Town ends and the new city (the Eixample), laid out during the early 20th century and extending inland, begins. A pavement star in the middle of this large open square marks the geographical heart of the city. Plaça de Catalunya is the city’s main transport hub, with a warren of underground passages leading to both FGC trains (for the suburbs) and national Renfe trains; several metro lines also stop here.
The 1925 El Corte Inglés (The English Style) department store is on the northeast side of the square. The airport bus stops beside it, and nearby is the ‘i’ sign of the underground tourist information centre. An angular monument by local sculptor Josep María Subirachs commemorates Francesc Macià (1859–1933), president of the Generalitat before the Civil War. Chess players tend to gather nearby. Flanking the square to the south-west is the popular Café Zurich (see 'Places to eat around La Rambla' below).
Rambla del Mar, Barcelona. Photo: Shutterstock
From here the Rambla begins, a 1.2km (1-mile) promenade of colourful stalls selling such items as birds, flowers, newspapers and magazines, with pavement cafés sheltered beneath its established plane trees. Musicians, mime artists, tango dancers, fire eaters, fortune tellers and other entertainers add to the diversion day and night.
A fashionable place to stroll since the 19th century, La Rambla is in fact made up of five different rambles: Canaletes, Estudis, Sant Josep, Caputxins and Santa Mònica, the last three taking their names from convents that lined the southwest (right-hand) side of the street, giving it the name of ‘Convent Way’. Until the 15th century, the city wall ran down the southwestern side of the avenue.
Top of the avenue
The first section, Rambla de Canaletes, takes its name from the 19th-century Font de Canaletes drinking fountain, now a popular meeting place. Jubilant Barça fans traditionally gather here to celebrate their team’s victories. The story goes that if you drink from the fountain’s waters, you are sure to return to Barcelona. If, however, you would prefer a taste of something less puritanical, make a brief detour left into Carrer dels Tallers, for Boadas (see 'Places to eat around La Rambla' below).
Back on the main street, the next stretch is the Rambla dels Estudis, named after the university that was here until 1714. At No. 115, on the right, is Poliorama, a 64-seat theatre, where comedies and musicals are the mainstay. Its upper floors house the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts. Look up to see the city’s first clock, erected in 1888 and inscribed Hora Oficial (Official Time).
Opposite, beyond the Hotel SERHS Rivoli, is the colonnade of the bookshop of the Generalitat (Catalonia’s autonomous government), which has maps and lavish books on the city and region. The shop occupies part of the ground floor of the 18th-century, neo-classical Palau Moja, belonging to the Generalitat’s Department of Culture. It hosts temporary exhibitions and is worth dipping into to see the fine first-floor Grand Salon’s Baroque murals by Francesc Pla (1743–92). The main entrance to the palace, and to the courtyard, is in Carrer de la Portaferrissa, once one of the main alleys into the Old Town. Today the lively shopping street is popular for shoes, fashion and leather goods.
Mare de Déu de Betlem
Opposite the palace across La Rambla is the Mare de Déu de Betlem, a 17th-century Baroque church, bare since being burnt out in the Civil War and renovated only a few years ago. This was part of a Jesuit convent, and a statue of the order’s founder, the Basque-born saint, Ignatius Loyola, is joined by St Boromeu to flank the entrance. Since 1963 the church has staged charming displays of carefully crafted nativity scenes (pessebres), from mid-November until February.
Palau de la Virreina
Beyond the church, the pavement is set back to give a grand vista of the Palau de la Virreina, an imposing rococo building with lavish masonry and metalwork decoration. It was completed in 1777 for Manuel Amat, Spain’s pleasure-loving viceroy to Peru, but he died shortly after taking up residence. His widow lived here for many years hence the name: ‘Palace of the Viceroy’s Wife’.
Built around two courtyards, it is now called the Virreina Centre de la Imatge, and partially open as a centre for cultural events and major exhibitions. At the front of the building is a box office for events in the city.
Beside the palace is the dinky Modernista Casa Beethoven, which has been selling sheet music since 1920. On the other side of the street, at No. 96, the first-floor Museu de l’Eròtica MEB showcases saucy artworks, photographs and sculptures, also offers themed guided tours.
The 19th-century Mercat de Sant Josep, better known as La Boqueria, is named after the convent that stood just past the Palau de la Virreina. Here, top restaurateurs and other gourmets do their early-morning shopping. Look out for fungi in season, super-fresh vegetables and fruit, delectable ranges of olives, cheeses and nuts, butchers’ stalls selling all you need for nose-to-tail eating, plus seafood glistening on ice.
Just beyond the market on the corner of Carrer Petxina is an attractive mosaic-fronted Modernista shop, the Antigua Casa Figueras. It now houses the Pastileria Escribà owned by the Barcelona chocolate-producing dynasty, the Escribà family.
People cross La Rambla at the Pla de la Boqueria; the mosaic here was created by Joan Miro. Photo: Shutterstock
Pla de la Boqueria
In front of the market is the square of the same name, Pla de la Boqueria. At the point where it breaks up the line of trees, lanes on the left lead into the Barri Gòtic. Pla de la Boqueria was once the place of public executions. Nowadays, it is a considerably more pleasant place, enlivened by a colourful mosaic pavement by Joan Miró (pictured above).
Beside it is Casa Bruno Quadras, built in the Oriental style, decorated with fans, lanterns and an elaborate coiling green Chinese dragon by Josep Vilaseca. It was originally designed to house an umbrella shop in the mid-1880s, but now shelters a savings bank.
Gran Teatre del Liceu
The block from Carrer de Sant Pau to Carrer de la Unió is taken up by the Gran Teatre del Liceu. The limited facilities inside this classic, plush 19th-century opera house were improved when the building was reconstructed following a major fire in 1994. One of the city’s great institutions, it attracts world-renowned opera stars and also hosts jazz, cabaret and film (including some free entertainment in the foyer). There is a shop and café in the basement, though the historic Cafè de l’Opera opened in 1929 and one of the few remaining traditional cafés in the city, is just on the other side of La Rambla.
Many historic hotels line La Rambla, among them the Oriente, just beyond the Liceu. The interior cloister of the Franciscan college on which it was built, remains intact. The first turning on the right after the Oriente is Carrer Nou de la Rambla, housing, just along on the left, at Nos 3–5, Palau Güell, the only building by Gaudí in the Old Town.
Opposite Carrer Nou de la Rambla, a faded grand arch leads into the Plaça Reial, one of the city’s liveliest squares. Beneath its colonnades are cafés and tapas restaurants. At No. 17 is the legendary jazz club Jamboree, which has been here since the 1960s. Top jazz musicians perform in its intimate vaulted basement (at 8pm and 10pm) and it also hosts club nights and Latin, funk, soul and hip-hop acts.
Towards the port
After the Plaça Reial, the Rambla opens up on the left into Plaça del Teatre, where portrait artists ply their trade and old men sit for hours over coffee in a traditional café. Barcelona’s first theatre was on this site, and Frederic Soler (1835–95), founder of its present incarnation, the Teatre Principal, is commemorated in an imposing statue. He is, unfortunately, best known these days because a public toilet has been built beneath the statue – a great relief (literally), as bars are increasingly unwelcoming to non-clients using their facilities.
Further down, at La Rambla 7, on the right, is the Centre d’Art Santa Mònica. The former cloisters have been converted into three storeys of open space, mostly for art installations. The second-floor café has a terrace with great views over the Rambla.
The old-fashioned green ticket booth in the middle of La Rambla sells tickets for the Museu de Cera. More than 360 wax-works of mainly Spanish personalities appear in this handsome former bank, along with the café El Bosc de les Fades, an enchanted ‘forest’ with magically lit gnarled trees and gnomes.
Mirador a Colom
You can’t miss the 50m (165-ft) high Mirador a Colom, designed by Gaietà Buïgas, with a crowning sculpture of Columbus by Rafael Arché, for the Universal Exhibition of 1888. Note that Columbus is not pointing towards the New World, as intended; locals claim that he is simply pointing to the sea. Take the elevator to the top for a great view of the city and the Rambla. Just south of the statue is the sea-front and Port Vell, where the Rambla turns into the Rambla de Mar, a walkway over to the marina.
You'll find some of Barcelona's best restaurants around Plaça Reial square. Photo: Shutterstock
Places to eat around La Rambla
1. Café Zurich
Where? Plaça de Catalunya
When? Mon–Fri 8am–11pm, Sat–Sun from 9am
How much? €
This city institution was rebuilt as part of El Triangle commercial centre for the 1992 Olympics. Slow down at its pavement tables, which spill onto the square, and choose from café standards of sandwiches and salads, plus delicious pastries and coffee.
Where? Carrer dels Tallers 1
When? Mon–Sat noon–3am
How much? €
Barcelona’s oldest cocktail bar, with 1930s decor and caricatures of the original owner. He mixed a mean mojito, a skill learned from
his Cuban parents; his daughter, Dolores, continues the tradition.
3. Pasteleria Escribà
Where? Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes 546
When? Daily 8.30am–9pm
How much? €
Just one outlet of the famous Escribà patisserie and chocolate makers, with fare as enchanting as its facade.
4. Café de L'Opera
Where? La Rambla 74
When? Daily 8.30am–2.30am
How much? €€
This historic café with old-time waiters, consummate professionals in traditional attire, is an ideal choice for a break all day long. It does good breakfasts, and is a favourite pit stop among the opera crowd after a performance.
The market is a great place to eat at any time of the day, but for a special experience come early for an esmorçar de cullera, a hearty breakfast. The 18-seater El Quim de la Boqueria is where local foodies gather from 7am for breakfast prepared by Quim Márquez, whose innovative dishes include fricassée of artichokes and white asparagus, fried egg with sautéed mushrooms topped with caramel foie, and tiny clams steamed in sparkling wine. Pinotxo, open from 6.30am, is a lively market tapas bar specialising in Catalan cuisine, and there is always a warm welcome here from the Bayen family. Alternatively, try the equally busy Kiosk Universal.
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This article was originally published on April 19th, 2012.