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Barcelona has something to suit everyone and, despite being big enough to house over three million people, is a surprisingly easy place to find your way around. The modern city came into being in the late nineteenth century when a vast planning project was conceived to link the small core of the old town with the villages around it. The city remains to a large extent a series of self-contained neighbourhoods, and these have retained their separate identities and functions upto the present day. Most things of historic interest are in the old town, which - despite its confused streets and alleys - is small enough to master quickly on foot. A couple of central park areas - formerly defensive positions for various city rulers - hold the bulk of Barcelona's best museums, while beyond, in the planned new town areas, the good transport system and a decent map are all you need to negotiate your way around the regular grid-pattern of streets and avenues.

The old town - La Ciutat Vella or Casc Antíc - spreads northwest from the harbour for about 1.5km up to the southern borders of the city's nineteenth-century grid system. At its heart is the Barri Gòtic ( Barrio Gótico in Castilian), the medieval nucleus of the city - around 500 square metres of gloomy, twisting streets and historic buildings, including the cathedral and the palaces and museums around Plaça del Rei. Bisecting the old town, at the western edge of the Barri Gòtic, are the famous Ramblas , Barcelona's main thoroughfare - a succession of five short, lively streets which combine to form a continuous broad avenue. You're likely to emerge here off the train from the airport or the metro from Sants station, either in Plaça de Catalunya , at the top of the Ramblas (and the edge of the old town), or at Liceu metro station, halfway down. At the southern end of the Ramblas lies the harbour and the Port Vell (old port) development, where walkways and a swing bridge skip across the harbour to a popular shopping, restaurant and cinema complex. West of the Ramblas, between the harbour and c/l'Hospital (Carrer de l'Hospital), lies the warren of streets known locally as the Barrio Chino (China Town) and officially as El Raval de Sant Pau, or simply El Raval . On the far side of the Via Laietana, northern boundary of the Gòtic , you'll find La Ribera , whose eastern end, known as El Born , is home to the celebrated Museu Picasso.

The old town is flanked by green spaces on either side, with the agreeable Parc de la Ciutadella ( Parque de la Ciudadela ) east of La Ribera, and the fortress-topped hill of Montjuïc ( Montjuïch ) to the southwest, where the city's best museums and main Olympic stadium are sited. A cable car connects Montjuïc with Barceloneta , the waterfront district east of the harbour, below the Parc de la Ciutadella. This former fishing suburb is still noted for its excellent seafood restaurants. Beyond here to the northeast, the old industrial suburb of Poble Nou has been thoroughly transformed over the last few years from grim decay into the Parc de Mar site - a new marina (the Port Olímpic ), Olympic Village, apartment blocks and beach all now jostle for space.

Beyond Plaça de Catalunya stretches the modern city and commercial centre. Known as the Eixample ( Ensanche ), it was a symbol of the thrusting expansionism of Barcelona's early industrial age. The simple grid plan of this extension is split by two huge avenues that lead out of the city: the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes and the Avinguda Diagonal . Between the two, west of the centre, is the city's main train station, Sants Estació , now flanked by a brace of stylish urban parks. No visit to Barcelona is complete without at least a day spent in the Eixample, as it's here that some of Europe's most extraordinary architecture - including Gaudí's Sagrada Família - is located. Each block of the Eixample is known as a mansana , and originally the patio in the centre of each one was supposed to contain a garden. Lack of space - and early speculation - meant that most were eventually built over with garages and the like; part of the city's current regeneration scheme involves turning some back into open public spaces and restoring the often startling modernista buildings that adorn them.

Beyond the Eixample lie suburbs which until relatively recently were separate villages. The nearest, and the one you're most likely to visit, is trendy Gràcia , with its small squares and lively bars. Or there are the parks of nearby Horta , and wealthy Sarrià and Pedralbes way to the northwest of the city. Gaudí left his mark in these areas, too, particularly in the splendid Parc Güell , but also in a series of embellished buildings and private suburban houses which the enthusiast will find simple to track down.

The good public transport links make it easy to head further out of the city , too. The mountain-top monastery of Montserrat is the most obvious day-trip to make, though the beaches on either side of the city also beckon in the summer. With more time, you can follow various trails around the local wine country, head south to the Roman town of Tarragona , or north to medieval Girona and the Dalí museum in Figueres .

 

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