One of the most popular neighborhoods in Barcelona, both among travelers and locals, is without a doubt El Born (or El Borne). This barrio can be found in the Old City’s district and is known for its charming medieval streets, laid-back atmosphere, art museums, galleries, designer boutiques, the city’s best park and for being strongly connected to the Catalan nationalist sentiments.
As Barcelona gained more importance as a trade city El Born was founded, which between the 13th and 15th century was the commercial heart of the city. The gothic quarter was just too small and El Born was well located close to the sea and port. Several street names still refer to historical activity. For example, Carrer dels Sombrerers is the street where the hat makers were located.
With increased trade, money was made and a new upper class of rich merchants were born. They were not allowed to build their palaces next to the ‘old rich’ who lived in the gothic area so they had their mansions built in El Born, many of them on Carrer the Montcada. The famous Picasso museum found its home in one of those old palaces centuries later.
In the 16th century the district lost its economic importance with the arrival of the new port, today known as Port Vell. In 1714 a big part of El Born was demolished after the Spanish Succession War and, at the same time, the Catalans had to give up their hope for independence. The area where houses were destroyed was destined to become the Ciutadella fort built to defend the city.
In the 19th century, during the World Expo in 1889, that same area became a park, Ciutadella Park. A bit earlier the Mercat del Born had been constructed and, at the same time elsewhere in the city, the extended Eixample neighbourhood was being built. For the bourgeoisie at that time this new, modernist district was the place to be. El Born and the old city centre were forgotten. People would still come from other parts of town to relax in the park, but in the eighties El Born was a poor area where junkies were sleeping on the streets and on the steps of the Santa Maria del Mar church, which today is one of the show pieces of area.
Independent designer boutiques and workplaces
The 1992 Olympics turned this around. Part of the games took place on the Montjuïc and to get from the city’s hill to the Olympic port and village, people had to pass through El Born, resulting in this part of the city being cleaned up. After the Olympics Barcelona became more and more popular as a tourist destination and El Born was one of the areas that started to reinvent itself. Locals turned their back to the Ramblas and found in El Born the relaxed atmosphere they were looking for. More and more shops, bars and restaurants opened their doors here. Big chains were kept out and this area is still known for its independent designer boutiques and many art and craft workplaces.
The area never lost the small scale and intimate feel. Visitors often compare it to New York’s Soho or Lower East Side and London’s Covent Garden or Notting Hill. Here the locals enjoy long lazy afternoons in the Ciutadella park or on one of the many terraces. During the night they have dinner with friends or go for cocktails, for example on the beautiful Passeig del Born.
The most important tourist attraction is the Picasso Museum. Pablo Picasso lived not far from his actual museum as a youngster. Another highlight is the modernista concert hall Palau de la Música. Also worth a visit is the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar. This church was built in the record time of just over sixty years in the 14th century. The locals that were living here at that time all contributed their grain to ensure the upcoming neighbourhood had a church of its own. Some call the Sagrada Família the church of the tourist, but think of the Santa Maria del Mar as the church of the people.
The local connection with El Born still goes further. The former fresh market is now a wonderful museum (El Born Centre Cultural) where the Catalan nationalist sentiments predominate. Some years ago archaeological remains of the houses that were demolished in 1714 were discovered. The city council decided to share the discovery with the public and opened its doors on 11th September 2013. The date of 11th September is an official bank holiday in Catalonia, a day the Catalans remember that they lost their hope to freedom on 11th September 1714. Every year on that date the inhabitants of Barcelona descend in large numbers to El Born but the neighborhood remains popular all year round. So if you want to hang out where locals do, go to El Born.