To the north-west of Barcelona’s Old Town and Eixample is the district of Gràcia, which couldn’t embody the city’s spirit any more, but which has nevertheless always been a world apart. The district was formed around a parish in 1628 and was an independent village for a good part of the nineteenth century (1821-1823 and 1850-1897), which explains why, in spite of its current mix of lifelong residents, Erasmus students, gypsies and bohemian artists, the area has preserved the feel of a small village right in the heart of Barcelona. The district is made up of five neighbourhoods, which are divided into two distinct parts: Villa de Gràcia, the original village, and four neighbourhoods developed on rural land where the bourgeoisie began to build their country houses: Camp d’en Grassot-Gràcia Nova, Vallcarca i els Penitents, El Coll and La Salut—the last three situated on higher ground.
Park Güell, located in the La Salut neighbourhood, has helped to put the district on the map, as it is one of Barcelona’s most internationally-recognised symbols, visited every year by some three million people (the figure stood at around nine million before an entry fee was introduced in 2013). Spread out along the southern slopes of Carmel hill, the park is one of the finest examples of Catalan Modernism and the brilliance of the architect Antoni Gaudí: it is an artistic place in which architecture and nature combine, where everything seems to swirl and meander much like organic forms. One of its most iconic images is the ceramic mosaic dragon, made according to the trencadís technique invented by Gaudí. The upper part of Gràcia is also home to various stately homes that belonged to the bourgeoisie, such as Can Tusquets (now a convent), Can Xipreret (today, the La Salut Tennis Club) and Can Muntaner.
Heading downhill to Villa de Gràcia is the heart of the district, a maze of narrow streets and sun-drenched squares where you can enjoy terrace culture either in the day or at night. Be sure to stroll along the narrow streets of Carrer d’Astúries and Travessera de Gràcia, replete with cultural centres, small cinemas, local theatres and independent shops, where shopkeepers will proudly exclaim that they are from Gràcia before Barcelona. Be sure not to miss some relaxation on its quintessential plazas, such as that of Villa de Gràcia, with its mythical bell tower and the old town hall, the multicultural Plaça del Sol, Plaça de la Virreina, Plaça del Diamant and Plaça de la Revolució, among many others. On Plaça de Lesseps is Casa Vicens, the first modernist project undertaken by the young Gaudí, and, on Plaça del Raspall, gypsies such as El Pescaílla invented Catalan rumba, a musical genre, whist playing on the streets.
All of these places are at their best in mid-August at the Festa Major de Gràcia, an annual street party in which residents compete for the best decorated street, which takes months to prepare. The whole area fills with concerts, dancing and community dinners. And it’s no wonder, as Gràcia is a creative, community-oriented district, as evidenced by its many neighbourhood associations and civic centres, some run from abandoned buildings such as the old La Sedeta factory or the defunct Bruguera Publishing House. The neighbourhood of Vallcarca i els Penitents, famous for its viaduct, is also known for its squatter movement, although this is less and less the case after several evictions in recent years.