One of the most popular tourist activities in Barcelona is a stroll along La Rambla, Barcelona’s best known street; some say it’s the most famous street in Spain. Like its counterparts the Champs Elysee in Paris, or Orchard Road in Singapore, a visit to Barcelona isn’t complete unless you’ve strolled down La Rambla at least once.
Las Rambla: A Little Background
La Rambla is a wide, tree-lined thoroughfare, about twenty blocks long, extending from the Placa de Catalunya down to the port of Barcelona. With only one narrow lane of traffic in each direction, the avenue is mostly a pedestrian walkway.
Properly speaking, La Rambla isn’t one, but five separate boulevards which run continuously one after the other, each
with the ‘Rambla’ in their name and each with very distinct characters. A little history: centuries ago, a streambed ran over where the boulevards marched. More often than not however, the stream was dry and the locals used the streambed as a roadway. Eventually, the stream diverted and the bed was paved over to form a new road. The new road eventually came to be known as La Rambla, for the Arabic word for riverbed, but because there are five boulevards sharing the same name, it is also known by the plural form, Las Ramblas.
To walk La Rambla, it’s probably best to start at the northern end of the thoroughfare at the Plaza Catalunya (which you can just see as the wide space at the bottom left of the picture above), for the simple reason that its downhill all the way from here. If you’re not up to walking, you can even take the tourist bus here; it’s EUR 20 for a two day pass to hop on and off, and you even get a book of discount vouchers for various attractions!
La Rambla: The Northern End
Before you start your ramble down the boulevard, take a moment or two to admire the Placa itself and appreciate its most salient feature: its sheer size. The square is about fifty thousand square metres in size, which makes it as large as Saint Peter’s Square in Rome. Dotted about the great expanse of paving stones are fountains, gardens, sculptures and monuments. On the many seats scattered about the square, the people of Barcelona like to gather, sometimes to chat, other times to protests, but always adding to the colour and spectacle of the city’s most famous square.
Leading off the Placa is La Rambla de Canaletes, which is named for the Font de les Canaletes. Legend says that whoever drinks from this fountain will always return to Barcelona. Along this stretch, street performers ply their trade: the minstrels and of course, the ‘living statues’, a signature icon of La Rambla. There are many specialty shops and dozens of restaurants lining La Rambla, and the streets leading off into the narrow alleys of the medieval Barri Gòtic (Barrio Gothico).
A short stroll further brings you to the section formally known as La Rambla dels Estudis, as in times gone by it was the site of the Estudi General or University. For most people however, it is better known as La Rambla dels Ocells, or the avenue of the birds. The name might be because the sparrows in the trees here make so much noise, or might be courtesy of the many bird and small animal vendors which set up their shops and stalls along this stretch. Here, there’s everything from baby ducks to bunnies and snakes for sale. Animal rights activists regularly protest against the displays but for all their efforts, the vendors have stayed put and the visitors still ‘oohhh’ and ‘aahhh’ over the adorable pets on display.
The Middle Stretch of La Rambla
Then its off to Rambla de Sant Josep, also known as La Rambla de les Flors, where colourful bouquets and vases filled with every kind of blossom imaginable give ample evidence of why this section is so named. Though many people come here for the blooms, even more are attracted by the draw of the colourful La Boqueria market, the oldest in Barcelona and well worth a visit just to see the tempting array of fruits, vegetables, pastries, breads and other foodstuffs, all at a reasonable price. It is situated in an arcaded square known as the Placa de la Boqueria, which was, once upon a time, the centre of the city.
In the square you’ll also find another La Rambla landmark, right under your feet — the famous Miro mosaic. One of Barcelona’s most famous painters, Joan Miro, left his own personal touch on La Rambla when he designed the large circular mosaic pattern which sits rights in the centre of the boulevard, near the Liceu metro station. Look carefully and you might even see the one tile signed by the man himself.
At the side of the square, don’t forget to look up and say hello to the Dragon. One of the most famous landmarks on the thoroughfare, this sinewy green sign was used as an advertisement for, of all things, an umbrella shop. The umbrella shop has long since disappeared but the Dragon still remains: the one time it was taken down (during a remodeling of the building), public outcry broke out and the Dragon was quickly returned to its perch high over the boulevard, where it has been ever since.
The Southern End of La Rambla
Moving steadily southwards, we next come to La Rambla Del Centre, which is known for its street-side bars, where people go to look and be looked at. Here, we also find the fame Gran Teatre del Liceu, the largest Opera house in Europe. Lavishly decorated and popular for its impressive program of operas, dance performances and concerts, the Theatre is a major landmark in the city and a popular attraction in its own right.
Nearby is the Placa Reial, a very popular square where people from all walks of life gather in the many bars and pubs to chat, drink and generally relax. Many artists ply their trade here and on Sunday mornings, a coin and stamp market springs up beneath the palm trees.
The final stretch of the La Rambla is La Rambla de Santa Monica, which brings you to Barcelona’s port area. Here, towering over the boulevard, is the Columbus Monument, an 80 metre high memorial to the man who is officially credited with discovering the Americas. High overhead is a viewing platform and for only a couple of euros, visitors can ride the escalator up for splendid views over the city.
Technically, the La Rambla stretches only from Placa de la Catalunya to the Columbus Monument at the end of La Rambla de Santa Monica, but some prefer to consider La Rambla de Mar as the terminus of the thoroughfare, as many visitors are drawn to the many attractions of the area: the beach, the aquariums, its plentiful restaurants and night-clubs, all overlooking the harbour.
Visitors should note however that the southern end of La Rambla, doubles as the city’s red light district after dark, when the ladies of the night come out to ply their trade. Even so, it’s still perfectly safe during the day and a slightly seedy reputation is no barrier to enjoying the colour and curiosity of Barcelona’s most popular attraction.