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Barcelona: 3 Hidden City Oases in Ciutat Vella

Barcelona's Ciutat Vella. So much beauty and history in one charming city. But Medieval over-construction means narrow streets with few trees and even fewer benches. Throw in millions of tourists and thousands of selfie sticks, and finding a moment of peace becomes top priority.

Barcelona's Ciutat Vella. So much beauty and history in one charming city. But Medieval over-construction means narrow streets with few trees and even fewer benches. Throw in millions of tourists and thousands of selfie sticks, and finding a moment of peace becomes top priority.

In the early 19th century, the exponentially growing population of Barcelona was still living within the limited confines of their 500-year old Medieval walls. (Barcelona, as the capital of Catalonia, was seen as a major threat to a newly unified Spain, thus the King contained the city within its earlier stone walls.)

With a growing population but a static land area, residents resorted to over-street construction and facade extensions, minimizing sunlight and airflow within the city, and eliminating all green space.

Extreme overdevelopment lead to one of the highest population densities in Europe (more than twice that of Paris at that time), and poor living conditions. Thus, 19th century epidemics decimated huge numbers of the population, giving wealthy city residents a mere 38-year life expectancy (and worse: just 20 for the lower class).

By the mid-19th century, governing powers finally allowed expansion beyond the walls, and a healthier, more planned Barcelona evolved. (history source: M. Pallares-Barbera)

But visitors to Ciutat Vella (the Old City) today will still feel the weight and oppression of the old walled city, almost 150 years after the last wall came down: narrow streets, little shade, few benches, and no greenery. And 8 million other visitors.

So what’s a tourist to do? 

The good news: even without the interspersion of green spaces or shaded benches, there are a few places tourists can escape the crowds and beat the heat.


our 3 favorite places to relax in Barcelona's Ciutat Vella :

The courtyard inside Escola Massana

After an hour or two around La Rambla and Mercat de la Boqueria, engulfed by tourists, vendors, and a full mix of smells, even the brave need a few minutes of down time. Best place to find it in the El Raval neighborhood? The inner courtyard at Escola Massana (an art and design school).

Barcelona's Ciutat Vella. So much beauty and history in one charming city. But Medieval over-construction means narrow streets with few trees and even fewer benches. Throw in millions of tourists and thousands of selfie sticks, and finding a moment of peace becomes top priority.

Shaded seating: 

Two large staircases sit opposite one another on the school's inner courtyard, meaning that no matter the time of day, there are shaded stairs on which to relax. Additionally, one end of the courtyard is surrounded by columns and half walls that act as pseudo benches. A few moveable chairs are scattered around the courtyard, and can be placed under the semi-shade of the courtyard's orange trees.

Restrooms:

Port-a-loos have been present on each of our visits, although not guaranteed.

Food & drink: 

We have witnessed a cart-style cafe on a weekend; never on a weekday. Bring refreshment from La Boqueria if you're not up for the gamble.

Entertainment: 

This changes with the day. One day a street musician (or three) might be present. Another day could find oversized lawn chess boards set up for passers-by. (And don’t be surprised if locals stop to watch your game, or even take it upon themselves to coach your plays -as has happened to us- despite an English-Catalan language barrier!).

Calm factor (scale of 1-5): 3

Given that much of the Old City might rate as a 0-2, a calm factor of 3 is pretty decent, especially this close to La Rambla, whose calm factor would be a -3. 

We rate this a 3 for its partial -but not full- shade, the moderate presence of the school's students on weekdays, and available -but not optimal- seating.

Location: Career de l'Hospital, 56; 2-minute walk from the back exit of La Boqueria


The courtyard outside Museu Frederic Marès

Barri Gòtic (the Gothic quarter) epitomizes the Medieval construction of Ciutat Vella. Its narrow streets are full of charm. But also full of tourists. And selfie sticks. When you need a break from the frenzy, head for the courtyard of Museu Frederic Marès, in Palau Reial Major.

Barcelona's Ciutat Vella. So much beauty and history in one charming city. But Medieval over-construction means narrow streets with few trees and even fewer benches. Throw in millions of tourists and thousands of selfie sticks, and finding a moment of peace becomes top priority.

Shaded seating:

Several benches around the courtyard are positioned such that they are almost perpetually shaded. Additionally, orange trees provided partial shade around a fountain where kids always enjoy a quick hand-splash. And for those indulging in a coffee break (see "Food & drink"), umbrellas provide shade near the kiosk.

Restrooms:

There are no restrooms in the courtyard. However, the nicely air conditioned Museu has restrooms. The museum can be entered free by those with the Barcelona card, as well as children under 16. Adults without the card will pay around 4, and can have their admission ticket validated for a second day free.

Food & drink:

Café d'Estiu, a kiosk in the courtyard, offers coffee and a small assortment of light fare.

Entertainment:

While we have never witnessed entertainment within this courtyard, there is a constant rotation of street musicians -usually of high caliber- just outside, performing below the steps of Plaça Sant Iu. 

Calm factor (scale of 1-5): 5

This is a spot where you could almost linger too long. Proper benches, consistent shade, and few visitors even in peak season. Just a perfect city break.

Location: Plaça Sant Iu, 5; 1-minute walk from the Cathedral of Barcelona; 3-minute walk from Plaça Sant Jaume

Note: closed on Mondays and some holidays


Caelum

Meaning "heaven" in Latin, Caelum delivers on its name. Also in el Barri Gòtic, Caelum is a small coffee and tea shop, serving pastries made by nuns and monks. (A gift counter also sells jams and wines made by the clergy.) 

Barcelona's Ciutat Vella. So much beauty and history in one charming city. But Medieval over-construction means narrow streets with few trees and even fewer benches. Throw in millions of tourists and thousands of selfie sticks, and finding a moment of peace becomes top priority.

Shaded seating: 

Indoors, soft lighting, air-conditioning

Restrooms:

A small, but clean single restroom in the cafe

Food & drink: 

Teas and coffees. Pastries and cakes. Everything you could want in an afternoon stop. Our top recommendation: the Blessed Chocolate, which looks like a mini hot chocolate, but is eaten with a spoon.

Entertainment: 

Although the calm monastic chanting is a welcome respite from the frenzy of El Barri Gòtic, people-watching through Caelum's picture window is equally enjoyable. One hour here and you'll see every type of tourist and local peer into the window at Caelum's treat display. 

Calm factor (scale of 1-5): 5

Air conditioning, relaxing music, soft-spoken service (we love Cristina!), delicious pastries, and good coffee. This rating speaks for itself.

Location: Carrer de la Palla, 8; 6-minute walk from La Boqueria, 3-minute walk from the Cathedral of Barcelona

Note: cash only


Barcelona's Ciutat Vella. So much beauty and history in one charming city. But Medieval over-construction means narrow streets with few trees and even fewer benches. Throw in millions of tourists and thousands of selfie sticks, and finding a moment of peace becomes top priority.

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How about you?

Have you found a city oasis in Barcelona? Let us know in the comments!


Preparing to visit Barcelona:

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