A muse for artists, a playground for bon vivants and one of the hottest travel destinations in Europe, Barcelona really does have it all. But despite its fame and fortune, the Catalan capital of cool still has its secrets!
1. Catalonia and England Share the Same Patron Saint
Celebrated annually on April 23rd, El Día de Sant Jordi is one of Catalonia’s most important national holidays. Oddly enough, Sant Jordi (Saint George) is the patron saint of both Catalonia and England. In Barcelona the day is celebrated with great vigour by people of all ages. Much like Valentine’s Day, men traditionally gift their loved one with a rose, while women gift their loved one with a book. Today, however, books and roses are given by one and all, among friends, family and sweethearts. Funnily enough, Valentine’s Day is more or less ignored by the Catalans (and Spanish in general) – seemingly they’d prefer to save the romance for their beloved Día de Sant Jordi!
2. The Beaches are Man-Made
Today, Barcelona is considered one of the world’s greatest beach cities – it was even named as the world’s “best beach city” by National Geographic! But it wasn’t always like this. In fact, Barcelona didn’t even have any beaches up until it hosted the 1992 Olympic Games. The city used the huge investment that came along with the Games to do a little bit of home improvement. Importing tons upon tons of sand from Egypt, they created almost 5 km of beautiful beaches and transformed Barcelona into the waterfront metropolis it is today.
3. Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia is Nowhere Near Completion
Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church is Barcelona’s most recognisable icon, but its construction is not actually finished yet. Construction began in 1882 and when Gaudi died in 1926, the building was only 20% complete. Funded entirely by donations and visitor tickets, progress continues at a relatively slow rate. It is hoped that the structure will be officially complete by 2026, which will mark the centenary of Gaudi’s death – and 140 years since construction began.
Bonus fact: Egypt’s imposing Pyramid of Giza took only 20 years to build, and that was with ancient tools, technology and knowledge!
4. Barcelona FC is the King of Catalan Culture
Barcelona is a mecca for art lovers and culture vultures, but despite being home to countless museums and galleries, including the world-famous Picasso Museum and MACBA museum of contemporary art, the most visited museum may surprise you. The FC Barcelona Museum at Camp Nou Stadium regularly receives more visitors than any other cultural centre in the city. In 2011 it was the third most-visited museum in Spain!
Bonus fact: Barcelona’s Camp Nou is the largest football stadium in Europe and can seat up to 100,000 spectators at a time!
5. The Most Famous Street in Barcelona is Not Quite What You Think
Las Ramblas is Barcelona’s most famous boulevard and stretches through the heart of the city for over 2 km. What most visitors don’t realise, however, is that Las Ramblas (plural) is actually made up of five separate ‘ramblas’, each with a unique name.
6. The Metro Service Harbours a Host of Secrets
As one of the world’s cleanest and most efficient subterranean transport services, Barcelona TMB metro network is a joy to use. However, most travellers don’t know that it conceals 12 abandoned ‘ghost stations’. If you’re ever riding the L5 (blue) line between Sagrada Família and Sant Pau Dos de Maig, keep an eye out the window for ‘Gaudí’ station. Legend has it that it’s haunted by the ghost of Antoni Gaudí himself!
7. ‘La Pedrera’ is Actually a Nickname
Antoni Gaudí’s iconic La Pedrera building may be considered a work of genius today, but it wasn’t always so. Designed and built for the wealthy Milà family, its real name is actually Casa Milà. However, upon unveiling the structure in 1912, the media and residents of Barcelona did not take too kindly to Gaudi’s sinuous and progressive design. Many argued that it resembled a ‘stone quarry’, or ‘pedrera’ in Catalan. The nickname stuck and today most people still refer to it as La Pedrera, albeit with love and respect for its curvaceous good looks.
8. It May Be Even Older Than Rome
Although it’s impossible to know for certain, some historians believe Barcelona may have originally been founded by Hercules – some 400 years before Rome!
Bonus fact: Barcelona was founded by the Romans in the 1st century BC and was originally called Barcino.
9. It’s the Largest City on the Mediterranean Sea
Covering more than 100 km2 and with a population of over 1.6 million, Barcelona is the largest city on the Mediterranean Sea and the second largest city in Spain (after the capital, Madrid).
10. The Cruise Port is One of the World’s Largest
With over 3 million cruise travellers passing through Barcelona’s port every year, it is Europe’s busiest cruise port and the world’s 6th busiest. The port is ideally located within walking distance of the city centre, with especially easy access to the famous Las Ramblas.
11. It’s Home to the World’s Largest Metropolitan Park
Sprawling across the mountain that box Barcelona in from the rear, Parc de Collserola covers a vast area of 84.65 km², making it the largest metropolitan park in the world. To put it into perspective, it’s 22 times larger than Central Park in New York City!
12. It’s a Mecca for Michelin-Star Dining
Revered the world over, Catalan gastronomy draws on the region’s proximity to both sea and mountain to create beautifully progressive dishes. Barcelona is home to no less than 20 Michelin-starred restaurants, the most famous of which belong to the Adrià brothers.
13. It’s a Cyclist’s Paradise
Barcelona is on a mission to become one of the world’s greatest cycling cities and has some 300 km of dedicated bike lanes. Whether cruising the beach or exploring the city streets, you’re never far away from a bike rental shop or bike lane.
14. It Boasts a Wealth of UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Barcelona is home to no less than 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 7 of which are, unsurprisingly works of Antoni Gaudi.
The full list includes:
- Park Güell
- Palau Güell
- Casa Milà (La Pedrera)
- Casa Vicens
- Sagrada Família
- Casa Batlló
- The Crypt of Colonia Güell
- Palau de la Música Catalana
- Hospital de Sant Pau
15. It Has its Own Language
Barcelona is the capital city of Catalonia, which is one of the 17 autonomous regions of Spain. As well as having their own regional traditions and cultural quirks, Catalan people have their own language, called Catalan. It’s important to note that Catalan is not merely a regional dialect, but is in fact an entirely unique language. Don’t worry if you speak Spanish as almost all Catalan people also speak Spanish (and some can even converse in English).
16. It’s Celebrated as the “Cradle of Spanish Blues Music”
The Spanish love their rock & roll and Barcelona in particular is famous for its electrifying blues bands. There are several great music venues and blues-focussed clubs in and around the city. True blues fans definitely won’t want to miss the annual Barcelona Blues Festival, which gets the city groovin’ every summer!
17. It Has its Own Version of Flamenco
When you think of Spanish music, it’s likely that you think of flamenco. However, the origins of this famous music and dance can be traced to Andalucia in the south of Spain, many miles away from Barcelona. And although you will find plenty of great flamenco shows in Barcelona, it’s definitely worth exploring the local version, called Rumba Catalana. Fusing flamenco with pop, folk and rock & roll, Catalan Rumba tends to be more upbeat than flamenco (just think of the Gypsy Kings’ ‘Bamboleo’). Visit Cala Rumba for updates on local concerts and events.
18. It’s Home to One of the World’s Oldest Theme Parks
Perched atop the dramatic mountain of Tibidabo is the vintage Tibidabo Theme Park, which dates back to 1900. Its privileged setting at the peak of Barcelona’s highest mountain grants it dramatic views over the city, while the old world roller coasters makes it a fun day out for kids and grown up kids alike.
19. Park Güell Was Another of Gaudi’s Uncompleted Projects
Though it is Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia that is most famous for not being completed (yet), it wasn’t the first. Park Güell was originally intended to be an exclusive residential estate where the rich and wealthy could live away from the smog of the city below. However, due to difficulties with planning, and the fact that it was so difficult to access at the time, it was never completed. Only two houses were ever built. Eusebi Güell, the patron of the project, lived in one and Gaudi lived in the other (which now houses the Gaudi House Museum).
20. Barcelona Used to Be a Walled City
Barcelona was once encircled by three sets of walls that were built to defend the city from attack between the 12th and 14th centuries. The walls were demolished in the 1850s to allow the city to expand and develop. The design was entrusted to urban planner Ildefonso Cerdá, who created the “extension”, or “Eixample” in Catalan, which now covers the majority of Barcelona.
Want to discover more stories and cultural secrets in Barcelona? Join one of our food tours and we’ll introduce you to the best the city has to offer.
January 22, 2019 | Words by Ben Holbrook for Eye On Food Tours