Park Güell is one of the tourist “must sees” of Barcelona but is tucked away north of the city centre in the long and narrow district known as Gràcia which extends from the Diagonal uphill through the hilly suburbs of El Coll and La Salut. The hills of this area are known as Les Turons and lend a peculiar geomorphological distinction to the area which makes it different from anywhere else in the city. In this urban walk downhill through Gràcia we describe a scenic route that takes in El Coll, Park Güell (which is in La Salut), and then descends through the lively bohemian southern end of the district (Vila de Gràcia) to reach the most expensive street in Barcelona, the Passeig de Gràcia: the grand boulevard lined with modernist mansions. There is no Park Güell metro station, so most visitors walk to the western park entrance from either Lesseps or Vallcarca (both L3). The Traveller’s Recommendation however is to be different and enter the park from the high ground to the north. To do this stay on metro L3 for two more stops north of Vallcarca to Vall d’Hebron and change here, descending in the lift (or down a series of escalators) to connect with the deep L5 (Blue Line) for just one stop to El Coll/La Teixonera, then follow the itinerary described below. An afternoon start (arriving at El Coll/La T. station no later than 16.00 in winter or 18.00 in summer) will invite an evening exploring the bars and restaurants of Gràcia at the end of the itinerary, followed by a stroll down Passeig de Gràcia to enjoy the illuminated facades of Gaudí’s Casa Milá and Casa Battlò. It would be wrong not to.
The exceptionally deep station of El Coll/La Teixonera lies 74 metres below Les Turons and there are three ways out to the street: be careful to choose the exit marked “Pg. Mare de Déu del Coll” (front of train), following the escalator up to a moving walkway (passing splendidly geological wall tiles) and lift. Now look for the exit marked “Beat Almató” which leads via another moving walkway to reach street level on the hillside, as if emerging from a mine adit. Once outside turn around and climb a short flight of steps leading to two escalators that bring you effortlessly up the steeply inclined street of Beat Almató to arrive at C/del Santuari, with the Mesón Can Ramón across the road in front for those in need of caffeine revival. Turn right into C/del Santuari which runs along an urbanised ridge with the wooded hill of El Carmel ahead. At the end of the street on the right is the little 11th Century church of Nuestra Señora del Coll, for long standing isolated in the wild boar-infested hills far from the city but engulfed by urbanization in the 1960’s. Despite 20th century restoration, the church preserves its simple Romanesque form with the prominent belltower still intact. The 11th century here in the County of Barcelona was a time when an increasingly powerful Catalonia was emerging under the leadership of successive Ramon Berenguers and Berenguer Ramons, guided by two of the most influential woman in Catalan history, Ermesinde and Almodis: see The Eleventh Tale of medieval intrigue entitled Creating Catalonia.
Just across the road from Nuestra Señora del Coll is a distinctive exposure of red rocks in a low cliff behind steps. For a geologist this exposure is really special, it being part of the only area in Barcelona where rocks of Triassic age are found. These red rocks were deposited under desert conditions that existed here around two and a half million centuries ago, an amount of time more than enough to remind us of the famous remark by John Playfair when commenting on the geological past: “The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time” (see The Ninth Tale).
To reach Park Güell, turn right at the church, with the red Triassic exposures now on your left, and continue straight ahead along the gently rising C/de Portell, ignoring roads to left and right. The road passes an open square with public seating and views across to the disused limestone quarry in the Parc de la Crueta del Coll. Continue curving left along the paved, semi-pedestrianised lane, passing the Escola Virolai (left), with wide views opening up across the Collserola Hills capped by the Tibidabo church and funfair up on the right, with the deep, urbanised valley of El Coll below. Further along the views expand to include southwestern Barcelona, l’Hospitalet and beyond to the Llobregat delta. The road finally curves around to the right, passing seating, until a short concrete incline comes into view directly ahead. Climb this incline and immediately after bear right to the broad viewing platform of Mirador Virolai, usually popular with tourists who have climbed up from the park below.
The view from Mirador Virolai across the city to the coastline 5km away is one of the best Barcelona has to offer. Ahead and to the right (south) rises the long green-clad hill of Montjuïc with the Llobregat delta beyond. Sweeping left the view takes in the low medieval city, the straight grid plan roads of L’Eixample running down the gentle piedmont slope (Pla de Barcelona) towards the coast and the twin towers of Port Olímpic, and the landmarks of Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia and the 38-storey Agbar Tower. On the extreme left the three chimneys of the Besòs power station can just be seen, and behind the viewing platform stands the Turo del Carmel, which at 267 metres above sea level is the highest hill in Les Turons. The hills of Barcelona (Les Turons, Collserola and Montjuïc) owe their origin to geological fault movements that have brought older, harder rocks more resistant to erosion against much younger sediments that form the low-lying urbanized coastal strip. As explained in the opening chapter of Barcelona Time Traveller: Twelve Tales some of the faults responsible for this attractive scenery are most likely still seismically active, although earthquakes along them are very rare.
Take the long flight of steps descending from the left side of the Mirador Virolai and, halfway down turn right through a metal gate into Park Güell. Intended as an upmarket housing project developed by Eusebi Güell and designed by Antoni Gaudí, the plan failed and the park was eventually given to the city. The path leads to Casa Trías, a modernist mansion constructed in 1905. It was the son (Alfonso) of the Trías married couple owning this house who was to identify Gaudí in hospital after his fatal tram accident in 1914 (see The First Tale). Keeping the mansion on your left follow the paved snaking descent which leads to a horizontal track where you turn left, still keeping Casa Trías on your left. The wide track leads to a series of viaducts which curve down and around to reach the lower side entrance to the park (on the left). Here turn right and walk straight on to reach the normally crowded centre of the park, passing Gaudí’s house (left) then an open air bar (right) above the lower viewing plaza (left). Continue on the curving track, keeping the plaza and the lower part of the park on your left, to a ticket office just outside the southwest side entrance to the park. Here tickets can be bought (€8, less online in advance) to allow a visit to see Gaudí´s work in the enclosed lower part of the park.
Just to the right of the ticket office is a series of steps, at the top of which the view across the lower park can be enjoyed. Instead of descending these steps, follow the road that leads away from the park down towards the city. This is the Av. del Santuari de St. Josep de la Muntanya and it leads to a series of steps and escalators. After the steps, keep to the left side of the road and continue the descent, passing the Neo-Romanesque and Modernist Reial Santuari de Sant Josep de la Muntanya (right), designed by Francesc Berenguer who was a close colleague of Gaudí. The road ends at the traffic-congested Travessera de Dalt, which you cross at traffic lights just on the left.
Having crossed the lights, escape the traffic by immediately diving into C/ Massens and follow this for four blocks to turn right into C/de Providencia which you follow for three blocks to where it crosses C/de Verntallat (short distance further along on the right side of C/de Providencia is the bar Time Line, mentioned in The Twelfth Tale). Turn left into C/de Verntallat, following the signpost to Plaça Virreina, to begin enjoyment of the best that Gràcia has to offer here in its southern district known as the Vila de Gràcia. Just before entering Plaça Virreina, with the side of the Church of Sant Joan on the left, is the house where the athlete Joaquim Blume i Carreras was born in 1933 (No. 1 C/de la Santa Creu): see A Day Out on Montjuïc.
Leave Plaça Virreina to the right of the entry point, follow C/ Asturies for one block to turn left into C/Verdi which has been described as the arterial alma mater of Gràcia, a narrow street full of small shops, bars and restaurants, with the excellent Cine Verdi offering films in their original language. At the end of the street, with the Bar Canigó on your left (recommended beer stop if not too crowded), you enter Plaça Revolució de Setembre 1868, named after the “Glorious Revolution” when Queen Isabella II was dethroned and the Spanish royal family sent into exile, only to be restored in 1874 when Isabella’s son Alfonso returned as King of Spain.
Cross the Plaça Revolució de Setembre 1868, maintain the same direction by continuing down C/dels Desemparats to pass the Abaceria Market (left), built in 1892 and offering a classic example of one of Barcelona’s many local marketplaces. Turn right into C/Puigmartí (named after the industrialist responsible for building the market) which crosses the street of Torrent de l’Olla, where once ran one of the usually dry streams that, before urbanization, became raging torrents during storms (see The Third Tale). Crossing C/ Torrent de l’Olla our road changes its name to C/ Penedès and leads into another of Gràcia’s great squares: the Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia. This square is dominated by a 33-metre-high bell and clocktower designed by Antoni Rovira i Trias and constructed between 1862 and 1864. On the far left side of the square stands the old town hall of Gràcia, which was an independent municipality for centuries until becoming incorporated into Barcelona in 1897. Despite being just a part of the larger city, Gràcia still strongly retains its individual “local” character, no better expressed than here in its heartland.
It is difficult to choose from the many bars and restaurants in this area. The Traveller Recommends the two (very different) tapas bars of La Vermu and La Violeta, both of which are very close at hand. La Vermu is at No. 15 Carrer de Sant Domènec, which is the road directly ahead of where you entered the Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia. To find La Violeta, continue past La Vermu and take the first right then right again then left to enter C/ Sant Joaquim to locate the bar entrance on the right. La Violeta is a popular and historical cultural centre emblematic of Gràcia, refurbished and reopened in 2012.
Return to the Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia and head for the far side, turning right in front of Las Euras bar to enter the C/de Goya. Continue straight on, passing the popular Japanese restaurant Kibuka to cross busy C/ Gran de Gràcia at traffic lights and then carry on in the same direction for another block to locate the authentic bar El Roble (7, Carrer de Luis Antúnez), a good spot for what The Traveller refers to as “The Penultimate”. Return to the C/ Gran de Gràcia and turn right to reach the uppermost end of the Passeig de Gràcia and its parade of modernist mansions. First on the left is the Neo-Gothic Casa Fuster completed in 1911, designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner and now a 5-star hotel. Continue downhill to cross the Diagonal (careful with traffic)I and rejoin the Passeig de Gràcia. Two blocks down on the left is Gaudí’s classic Casa Milá (La Pedrera, 1910: night visit times on official website), beyond which three blocks further on the right is the grand triumvirate of casas Batlló (Gaudí i Cornet, 1906), Amatller (Puig i Cadafalch, 1900), and Lleo Morera (Domènech i Montaner, 1906): see The Twelfth Tale. The excursion ends here, in full Modernist splendour, at the subway station of Passeig de Gràcia (lines 3 and 4; Rodalies trains to Sants and Sitges).