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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Short History of The City of Barcelona (& 68 Top Attractions)


Introduction to the city of Barcelona

Bathed by the restless blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea and cradled in the Collserola mountains, Barcelona is a vibrant city with a striking ability to reinvent itself. Throughout its history, the city has served as a Roman colony, a Medieval port, the lodestar of Spain’s Industrial Revolution, and host of the Olympics. Today, Barcelona has become one of Europe's most cosmopolitan and renowned cultural hubs, a city synonymous with eclectic and inspiring architecture, a strong sense of civic identity, friendly people, and excellent food and wine.

Planning a trip to Barcelona? We recommend you grab tickets to the top attractions from

barcelona sunset

Brief History of Barcelona, Spain.

The Evolution of Barcelona: A Collage City

The Catalan capital is a collage city, a fortuitous assemblage of styles and influences. It’s named after the Iberian settlement of Barkeno that eventually became a Roman colony in the 1st century BC; Rome was the first, but certainly not the last, of the cultures that shaped today’s city. Over the next thousand years the settlement would expand and develop under the control of various peoples: Visigoths; Moors (the European name for Muslim settlers of the Iberian peninsula); Franks; and the Counts of Barcelona, who, in the 12th century, inherited the wider Kingdom of Aragon.

Expanding Beyond the Walls: The Creation of the Eixample District

Until the mid-19th century, Barcelona was confined within the bounds of its old city walls, though these had gradually expanded over the years. From the 1830s, however, Barcelona grew increasingly populated and polluted; industrialisation, especially in the textile sector, was gathering pace in what would become one of Europe’s first industrial revolutions. Barcelona was living at a faster pace than the rest of Spain and the city’s population density was far higher than its European neighbours. To tackle this, the city walls were demolished and engineers were appointed to formulate an expansion plan for the city. The result was an open and airy grid-like district outside the old walls, rich with green areas to ensure citizens’ welfare. This new area, the Eixample (or Expansion) district, contrasts with the winding, cramped streets of the Ciutat Vella (or Old City) and attests to the wave of social advancement – and the hardship and chaos it was required to solve – in Barcelona during the 19th century.

Barcelona's Industrial Revolution and Cultural Progress

Although unevenly distributed, the economic prosperity engendered by Barcelona’s Industrial Revolution encouraged vast infrastructural and cultural progress during the last decades of the century. Motivated by the 1888 and 1929 International Exhibitions held in the city, the city council developed the Ciutadella and Montjuïc areas. Local authorities improved street sanitation and lighting, before turning their attention to the city’s symbolic appearance, commissioning public monuments and buildings from Barcelona's most renowned architects. Many of the resulting structures still stand to this day, like the Arc de Triomf and the Font Màgica de Montjuïc. The drive for artistic and architectural development spurred a new school of architecture unique to Catalonia – Catalan modernism, or Modernisme. Inspired by French Art-Nouveau, architects like Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and the poster child of Modernism, Antoni Gaudí, created bold masterpieces that shocked and astonished the city’s dwellers.

Catalonia's Struggle for Cultural Identity in Barcelona

For centuries, Catalonia had to contend with its strategic and political significance. The region is defined by its cultural and linguistic separation from Spain’s other autonomous communities, which has spurred conflicts throughout history. Mementoes of this struggle are found scattered across Barcelona: from the Parc de la Ciutadella, the site of the old citadel that terrorised Barcelonans for 150 years, to Montjuïc Castle where thousands were executed and imprisoned from the 19th century until the 1950s, Barcelona's history is one of cultural resistance, even in the face of economic prosperity. Most recently, the region's rights and Catalan language were banned during General Primo de Rivera's dictatorship in the 1920s and again during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, which lasted from 1939 to 1975, after a relentless Civil War where 44 tons of bombs were dropped on Barcelona. Nevertheless, Barcelonans have always found forms of resistance, be it building anti-air raid shelters during the war or advocating for their independence to this day.

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Barcelona Today

Today, Barcelona is united by its strong sense of identity, community and love for culture and food. In Catalan, amar al mercat means both ‘to love the market’ and ‘to go to the market’; this is no coincidence. For centuries, artists, architects, politicians and intellectuals, like Gaudí, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró, gathered in cafés like the famous Els Quatre Gats or La Boqueria market for conversation and inspiration. Good food and drink are ubiquitous in Barcelona. Fishermen selling their catch in the Barceloneta neighbourhood, and excellent white wine and vermouth are as much landmarks of Barcelona as Gaudí's buildings.

Hans Christian Andersen once claimed that ‘Barcelona is the Paris of Spain’. But this hardly does justice to the unique qualities of this lively city. Every step of Catalan history has left its creative trace on Barcelona. Its streets are proof of its prolific past and ever-changing present. From its astounding architecture to its sensational cuisine and cultural sites, the Catalan capital is undoubtedly one of the most dynamic and impressive cities in Europe.

Barcelona’s Top Cultural Attractions

In no particular order, here’s our list of the top 68 cultural tourist attractions in Barcelona.

Enhance your visit to Barcelona with our Barcelona audio tour guide app.


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