Gràcia – the closest neighbourhood to the Eixample – was a village for much of its early existence before being annexed as a city suburb in the late nineteenth century. There’s still a genuine small-town atmosphere here, very distinct from the old-town neighbourhoods, while Gràcia’s vibrant cultural scene and nightlife counters the notion that Barcelona begins and ends on the Ramblas. That said, there’s not that much to see, but wander the narrow, gridded streets, catch a film or hit one of the excellent local bars or restaurants, and you’ll soon get the feel of a neighbourhood that – unlike some in Barcelona – still has a soul. Most of the boutiques, galleries, cinemas and cafés are near pretty Plaça de la Virreina, with c/Verdi in particular always worth a stroll. A short walk to the southwest, Plaça del Sol is the beating heart of much of the district’s nightlife, while Plaça Rius i Taulet, the “clock-tower square”, a couple of minutes to the south, is another popular place to meet for brunch. However, the one unmissable attraction is just on the neighbourhood fringe, namely the surreal Parc Güell, by architectural genius Antoni Gaudí.
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Antoni Gaudí’s extraordinary urban park on the outskirts of Gràcia, Parc Güell was originally planned as a private housing estate of sixty dwellings, furnished with ornamental paths, recreational areas and decorative monuments. Gaudí worked on the project between 1900 and 1914 but in the end only two houses were actually built, and the park was officially opened to the public instead in 1922. Laid out on a hill, which provides fabulous views back across the city, the park is an almost hallucinatory expression of the imagination. Pavilions of contorted stone, giant decorative lizards, a vast Hall of Columns (intended to be the estate’s market), the meanderings of a huge ceramic bench – all combine in one manic swirl of ideas and excesses.
Casa Museu Gaudí
One of Gaudí’s collaborators, Francesc Berenguer, designed and built a turreted house within the park for the architect. In the Casa Museu Gaudí, his ascetic study and bedroom have been kept much as they were in his day, while other rooms display a diverting collection of furniture he designed for other projects – a typical mixture of wild originality and brilliant engineering.