Ciutat Vella (Catalan for Old city) is, as its name suggests, the oldest part of Barcelona. Centred along the Las Ramblas boulevard, it includes Barcelona’s old port as well as parts built from the early Middle Ages to mid-19th century. Ciutat Vella is where the nightlife, as well as the tourist traffic in Barcelona is centred.
The district is divided in four quarters:
- Barceloneta or Little Barcelona was built after King Felipe V ordered the construction of a new fortress (La Ciutadella, nowadays a park) in order to control and punish the city of Barcelona, that fought against him during the war of Spanish Succession. The fortress was planned very close to the city so that a tenth of it was demolished, and the people who lived in this part had no compensation and as a bigger punishment were obliged to demolish their own houses. The people from the demolished part of Barcelona had to move, so a new quarter was planned by the French military. Therefore, the streets are straight and with a square shape. There are still some houses from this period, easy to recognize because they are much lower than the others and have a simple neoclassical decoration. Historically a fisherman’s quarter, Barceloneta was traditionally a poor quarter, with dark and narrow streets, but since the 1992 Olympics significant gentrification has taken place. Most noticeably along the seafront. There are now delis serving upscale foodstuffs and high rise office buildings going up.
- Barri Gòtic is the oldest part of the old town. It literally has its foundations in Roman times as it was built upon the old settlement of Barcino. It’s quite easy to see these portions of the Roman wall through this area and for those looking to see more, you can visit the City History museum which takes you below ground to tour the 2,000 year-old foundations. Fully pedestrian, this area is quite popular for visitors to see the history of the city. While not as active in boutique shops as La Ribera next door, it boasts its fair share of night life and shops. Most people walk through here to view the quite stunning architecture with the ancient building leaning this way and that on their centuries-old foundations. It is also the location of the Barcelona Cathedral which is a focal point of the city.
- La Ribera is a large section of the old town that encompasses everything between Arc de Triomf and Via Laietana. It is often mistakenly called the El Born after the large, 19th century market that sits in the area below Carrer de la Princesa. In reality, Born is a sub neighborhood of La Ribera much like the area around the upper, Santa Catarina market. Regardless of whether you go to the upper or lower sections, it is a very happening neighborhood with lots to do an see. By day, there are many small shops and local designers. By night, there is a thriving bar and restaurant scene. It’s easily reachable on foot and contains no end of old buildings, many of which date back to the 15th century. It’s easy to see the thriving, commercial past of the neighborhood with colorful names such as (in English): “the street of jars”, “the street of the silver smiths”, and so on.
- El Raval is the neighborhood of the old town just to the west of Las Ramblas. Historically, it’s had an incredibly seedy reputation, being a den of prostitution, drugs, and general crime. This changed on a tremendous scale right before the 1992 Olympics when the city government demolished tremendous amounts of old buildings to construct new ones as well as to open up the neighborhood to more natural light given that historically, it was known to be quite dark. This move was quite controversial as it displaced thousands of people, but for better or worse, it did change the neighborhood. These days, it’s a vibrant place for nightlife and while still very much an immigrant neighborhood, it’s home to no end of bars and restaurants. While not as historically significant as say, Barri Gòtic or La Ribera, but gradually more civic structures are sprouting in the area, such as the Filmoteca.