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Barcelona’s Streets: The Supreme Public Life Of a Great City

Jay Walljasper / Oct 24 2010

For Release Sunday, October 24, 2010

Jay WalljasperBARCELONA — Once dismissed as a grimy, dull town, this Mediterranean city is now mentioned in the same breath as Paris, London and Rome as a must-see destination for anyone seeking to experience Europe at its best. What happened?

The city sports gorgeous architecture, both in the charming tangle of medieval streets and turn-of-the-19th-Century masterpieces by Antonin Gaudi and other geniuses of the Modernisme movement. The Mediterranean Sea splashes right at its doorstep, creating a vibrant downtown waterfront where you can stroll past a harbor full of tall-mast sailboats and broad beaches crowded with well-toned sunbathers. Barcelona is ringed with mountains, laced with Parisian-style boulevards and dotted with lively nightspots. And there’s no doubt — the 1992 Summer Olympics and an outpouring of civic inventiveness has boosted its international reputation by leagues in the last two decades.

But what struck me as its greatest asset on a recent visit was the exuberant public life that sweeps everyone up in the festivities. Even with great cathedrals, museums, cafes and the delicious Sant Josep Market, walking the streets of Barcelona remains the highlight of my trip. In addition to enjoying a sublime urban landscape, you are treated to top-flight entertainment — with no cover charge unless you want to drop a half-euro coin into their baskets.

Particularly intriguing are the human sculptures that stare down from their pedestals on La Rambla, the pedestrian street that is the heart of the old city. Just when you almost believe they really are statues, they suddenly break into a dance or a shriek or a song.

Statues in Barcelona

Other pedestrian promenades around the city — both winding medieval lanes closed to cars and wide walkways in the middle of an avenue with slender traffic lanes on either side — also showcase talented tango dancers, gypsy jazz bands, tai chi masters, dulcimer pluckers and much more.

But the most heartwarming of the public performances were circles of people dancing the traditional Catalan sardana in front of the cathedral and other squares. The beaming smiles I noticed, particularly on the faces of older dancers, is explained by the fact that the sardana was illegal during the Franco dictatorship — one of his many efforts to quash any signs of Catalan culture.

In fact, the joyous embrace of public life in Barcelona, where even walking down the sidewalk in the company of others feels like a celebration, can be traced back to Franco’s 40-year reign, when any public gathering outside of religious rituals was forbidden. In the spirit of liberation following the end of the Franco dictatorship, local people created new squares and public spaces all across the city and suburbs to heal the scars of political and civic repression. Some of them fit so well with the urban fabric of the old city that visitors often assume they are centuries old.

People coming together in a congenial public space for any reason is one of the most basic expressions of the commons — which Franco and other totalitarians understood was necessary to repress. A vibrant public life is not only a source of pleasure but an essential element of democracy.

One note of caution: A few pockets of Barcelona’s center city may display a bit too much streetlife for many people’s taste. Tourists are warned not to carry their passports or much cash in certain areas close to the waterfront on account of the city’s deft pickpockets (some of the world’s most skilled), and to avoid backstreets in the rundown Barrio Chino district unless they seek the company of prostitutes.

I followed that advice and encountered no trouble, with the exception of being ushered away from the Catalan version of a shell game on La Rambla after trying to take a photo. It did not escape my notice that the man angrily shooshing me down the street was the same one who, posing as passer-by, had just won a jackpot.

Jay Walljasper, a Citistates Associate, has a new book appearing in January: All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (New Press). He is editor of and a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. John W. Milton
    Posted October 24, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I enjoyed the piece on Barcelona. When I did my historical novel on Catalan pianist Enrique Granados, who lived most of his life in Barcelona, I was delighted to discover that the places and scenes I was describing for the period 1900-1915 were nearly all intact, preserved in all of their splendour. Thank you for publishing the piece.
    — John Milton, author of The Fallen Nightingale, Swan Books, 2005

  2. Posted November 1, 2010 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    You forgot to mention the excellent and ubiquitous public transportation, somewhat hidden by the plague of a gajillion motorcycles and scooters. And as I recall, the Ramblas was pretty crowded with folks out for a stroll even under Franco. It’s just that the beggars were also more numerous – whole starving families in rags importuning the elegant folks showing off their camel hair and suede outfits. Beggars are still there today, but they tend to take lunch breaks. And yes, a pickpocket got me last year on the subway.

  3. Posted November 1, 2010 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    Agreed, the city has much to offer. But when one’s pocket is picked not once but thrice in a 3 days stay, one remembers Barcelona with such bitterness that all the sights are forgotten.The famed pickpockets of Barcelona employ some ingenious tricks like stalling on the escalator by “spilling” coins and in the melee pick pockets! I have been along with my wife and son suffered the misery of loosing money, credit cards and documents. While I may visit Madrid again sometime ,Barcelona never!

  4. Betty Holloway
    Posted November 2, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    We (daughter, granddaughter and 2 grandsons) enjoyed several days in Barcalona in June 2009. Appreciated the ease in traveling the city as we like to do things on our own. Great restaurants were found before we boarded ship.