Barcelona has three defining features: the sea, the city and the hills. The Collserola range echoes the coastline with the metropolis tucked between. That urban playground has nine Unesco Heritage Sites, more than any other city on earth.

Barcelona’s buildings come from a trio of defining eras. The Gothic old town was built by bullish merchants as Barcelona flourished as a trading port, the Eixample grid coincided with the emergence of the modernisme movement, and the 1992 Olympics brought new facilities and enough reinvigorated confidence to ensure future projects stayed true to Barcelona’s adventurous spirit.

The Olympics came at a time when the city needed reinvigorating. Prior to 1992, the seafront, in particular, was a dilapidated industrial wasteland. Olympic investment brought better beaches, a ring road, new airport terminal, revamped public spaces and world class sporting venues. The games were a huge success, and Barcelona rode the momentum, continuing to renovate the port and open up Raval. In 2004, the Avinguda Diagonal was extended down to a neglected zone around the mouth of the Besos River, as the World Forum came to town. Next on the agenda is the clumsy Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes, where a new Design Museum should provide a boost.

Since 1992, tourism has more than tripled and Barcelona is now the third most popular European city to visit, after London and Paris. The visitor mix of conference attendees, stag and hen parties, couples, clubbers, music lovers, foodies and cultural visitors is synonymous with the makeup of the city itself. The repressive Franco years still weigh heavy, and so Barcelonins are a very tolerant bunch, embracing all forms of freedom of expression. This makes for a cosmopolitan city, where the old brush shoulders with the young, Catalans with immigrants, and businessmen with artists.

Barcelona is comprised of ten districts, each subdivided into separate barrios (note that compass points describing their location in this section refer to how Barcelona appears on a city map, with the coastline to the south, as opposed to how it geographically lies, with the coast to the east). The barrio concept is very important here. Local people shop at the local market, convene in the local square and residents are proud of the barrio they live in. This spirit is strongest in the suburbs, comprised of former villages: Sants, Sarrià, Horta, Les Corts, Gràcia, Sant Martí, Sant Andreu and Sant Gervasi. Each one is its own little universe. A visitor to Barcelona is more likely to start with the central districts: the Barri Gòtic for its historical sites, Montjuïc for its sports and culture facilities, Eixample for its architecture, Barceloneta for its beaches and the Raval for its nightlife. All find a magic formula of being boldly innovative while nurturing tradition.

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