Down by La Ribera

For years, the small neighborhood of La Ribera stagnated. Bordered by the Old Port and the Parc de la Ciutadella, it includes the even smaller neighborhood El Born, historically the home of merchants, and the gothic basilica Santa Maria del Mar, near which sailors once had their own neighborhood.

El Born is a polished bit of the Old Town with boutiques selling designer clothing and housewares from medieval buildings and workshops. For a day in a fairyland blending old and new, a shopping excursion to El Born with lunch at an outdoor cafe is ideal.

La Ribera is located across the busy Via Laietana and south of Calle Princesa. And it contains the nouveau-classy El Born, a renovated section of Old Town where you’ll find designer clothing and pricey housewares sold out of buildings that were once medieval homes and workshops. At the center is the Santa Maria del Mar, a beautiful Gothic basilica built by retired merchants who once lived here in mansions and palaces along the Carrer de Montcada. Today, those old homes play host to museums like the Museu Picasso. Many of these homes were built in the 1200s and 1300s, and today give the neighborhood almost an otherworldly feeling of age.

Recently, La Llotja, the first stock exchange in Barcelona, was remodeled, and is quite a place to see. In the north of El Born, the Mercat del Born was once the principle wholesale market of the city, and today is a living archaeological exhibit, with streets and homes excavated sealed behind glass floors and walkways, where visitors may see them. And behind the Mercat is a lovely oasis, a man-made lake and wide leafy walkways through more museums.

What to Do
The Picasso Museum is one of the primary stops to make in La Ribera. Composed of five large mansions connected together to house the Spanish artist’s works, it contains the best collection of early Picassos anywhere, left to the city of Barcelona by Picasso’s personal secretary. Picasso added to the museum afterward until his own death. Wandering the rooms of this museum will give you insight on how Picasso started, and why he wound up with his very avant-garde art style.

For the other end of history, the Santa Maria del Mar was built in the 14th century to serve the sailors of this part of the city. Traditionally, seagoing men left models of their ships at the foot of the altar to invoke the protection of Mary. Today, you’ll still find some models there. During the Spanish Civil War, Santa Maria del Mar was burned out, and you can see the scars of the damage in its Gothic interior.

Nightlife
After visiting the dozens of little museums in this part of town, go to the square nicknamed El Born for an evening of fine dining, people watching, and dancing. You’ll have plenty of restaurants and nightclubs to choose from in this part of town.

Where to Stay
Perhaps the best hotel in the area in the Hotel Duquesa de Cardona, at the seafront promenade with views of the marina as well as the Gothic Quarter. The hotel itself is a historic 19th century building, and an excellent choice if you like your amenities: free internet, room service, babysitting, a lounge, a business center, coffee shop, restaurant, solarium, swimming pool, and plenty of other things to keep you busy or relaxed.

Like many Barcelona hotels, the Gran Hotel Barcino Barcelona offers beautiful marble bathrooms among its other amenities. With great air conditioning, televisions with plenty of channels, good soundproofing, and an onsite restaurant, breakfast buffet, and snack bar, you can relax here while you prepare for the next phase in your trip.

The Hotel Regencia Colon Barcelona was renovated in 1999, and is very close to the Cathedral and the Ramblas as well as Catalunya Square and the Harbor. La Carabela, the hotel restaurant, has excellent Mediterranean cuisine, and the hotel itself has reasonably good amenities, though it cannot match many of the better hotels in Barcelona.

The Hotel Hesperia Metropol has a warm and welcoming atmosphere. It was also renovated recently, in 2001, and is located convenient to almost everything in La Ribera.

Where to Eat
Among all the wonderful restaurants in La Ribera, you shouldn’t miss Espai Sucre, where they focus on wonderful desserts. It’s tiny, seating only 30, and you’ll find delights like ginger couscous with pumpkin and grilled stingray. Salads of green apple matchsticked and topped with cubes of spicy milk pudding, with peppery caramel, kaffir lime and lemon curd, a line of toffee. Soup of litchi, celery, apple — and eucalyptus. You can satisfy your sweet tooth and get a great meal all at the same time. For less exotic fare, consider vanilla cream with coffee sorbet and caramelized banana.

Se Portes is huge, but always crowded with locals and with tourists from all over the world, giving an international air to what would otherwise be a fairly ordinary restaurant. Gastronomes should skip Se Portes, but those who love watching people should go at least once.

Map of La Ribera in Barcelona