El Born, Barcelona: a guide

A look at one of Barcelona's coolest barrios.



It's a gathering place, a place of worship, where watering holes and dining venues are aplenty, a place for admiring art, and a shopping destination. Betwixt Gothic buildings, Modernist structures and the occasional contemporary art piece, time stands still as you stroll through the streets of this unique district. In a word (or two) it is La Ribera, but to friends it is known as El Born.

Located east of the Gothic Quarter a few steps north of Port Vell, El Born began developing in the 13th and 14th centuries. Back then, Barcelona was a striving port city, and this neighbourhood was the main point of entry from the sea. As the city prospered so did its buildings. La Llotja (the stock exchange) is one of these beauties, though as you walk past Carrer de Montcada you’ll have a harder time picking a favourite amongst the Gothic palaces.

You can admire these architectural marvels as you make your way to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar right in the centre of the district. This gem is perhaps the only example of Catalan Gothic architecture, and it is an eloquent testimony to the power of teamwork. The cathedral was built, thanks to donations by local merchants, in just 55 years – a record in the 1300s. Its spacious interiors, symmetry, colourful rose window and unique acoustics have made it one of the most admired structures in the city. Even French architect Le Corbusier made a pit stop here on every visit to town.

Along the narrow streets you’ll come across many interesting shops and galleries. These make for great souvenirs and one-of-a-kind gifts. Photography fans should turn to The Impossible Project or Lomography. Munich, a Catalan label, offers sporty footwear; for textiles, there are several fashion shops around, but we particularly recommend the silks at Atalanta Manufactura.

El Born has always been close to the heart of many an artist, including Pablo Picasso whose museum (Museu Picasso) is one of Barcelona’s most visited. It houses (in five adjoining buildings) an extensive selection of the artist’s early works as well as his ever-popular Las Meninas. Other noteworthy museums in the area include Museu Barbier-Mueller d’Art Precolombi and the Museu Tèxtil i d’Indumentària.

In September of this year, El Born Cultural Centre will open its doors in the former Mercat del Born. From 1878 to 1971, this iron structure used to house the market, but after then it quickly fell into disrepair. The space was earmarked for demolition to make room for new retail developments, but fate had a surprise in store. When work began, excavations uncovered the ruins of the medieval city below the structure. The administration stepped in to ensure the preservation of these ruins, which are all that remain of the city that was destroyed in 1714 by Felipe IV when he defeated Catalonia during the War of Succession. Remains of these streets, homes, taverns and shops will be visible by appointment for all those who visit the Cultural Centre, now housed in the restored iron structure.

As you walk around you may find it difficult to choose from the endless selection of bars and restaurants that line the streets of this district. Here are a few suggestions: at Espai Barroc, located in the courtyard of Palau Dalmases, you’ll find chic cocktails and an exquisite musical selection; Gimlet, a timeless classic with killer drinks; and the ever-crowded El Xampanyet with its tasty tapas. If your appetite requires more than just tapas, we suggest: Les 7 Portes for traditional Catalan gastronomy, or Salero for fusion cuisine combining Mediterranean and Asian flavours.

And of course, you must save room for something sweet. We recommend a visit to the museum before you hit the gift shop at this next venue: Museu de Xocolata, yes, a museum dedicated to chocolate! Though Willy Wonka may come to mind, put the thought aside and enjoy a full immersion into the history of this scrumptious snack. Whoever thought that learning could be so yummy? The museum was created by chocolatiers as a tribute to this delectable substance.