The first thing a visitor to Barcelona may notice is the time shift. At 7:30 in the morning, even the Starbucks is not open. In fact, the only people on the streets of the Gothic Quarter are the tourists streaming from their small hotels past the closed shops with the doors covered in graffiti.
Even with recent street protests connected to government austerity moves and local elections, the tourists are out in force. The pedestrian promenade of La Rambla is packed with people. The crowd undulates as it moves south or north in the wake of tour guides with small red or green flags.
Barcelona combines the history of the medieval world with the modernism of Picasso and the architectural grandeur of Gaudi. Even for those who can only spend one day in Barcelona, a visit to the Gothic cathedral, the Picasso museum and the Gaudi residences in the Eixample (The Extension) neighborhood will suffice to confirm this city’s allure.
Like Paris, there is not much new construction evident in Barcelona. The city of 1.6 million is densely populated but there are no skyscrapers. Even the commercial buildings presently under construction do not rise above the steeples of La Sagrada Familia.
Urbanists of various stripes will argue the merits of Barcelona’s status as a world class city. Jane Jacobs undoubtedly loved the preservation of the old city and the four-story buildings along Passeig de Gracia. Ed Glaeser (Triumph of the City) would probably decry the high real estate prices and the failure to offer opportunities for population growth among the middle and working classes. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani would point out the ubiquitous graffiti and the high level of street crime – pick pockets that would make even the Artful Dodger proud.
But perhaps it’s more valuable to ask average football fans what they think of the city. With Spain as the reigning champion of the World Cup and Football Club Barcelona the newest holder of the European Cup, the local pride in this city’s achievements since the 1992 Olympic Games are unshakable.
And for those who don’t enjoy the world’s most popular sport, one can always turn for validation to the legends of modernism: Pablo Picasso and Antoni Gaudi. They made Barcelona home and left an enduring legacy of art and architecture. In no other place on the planet can one visit the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia in the morning and see the paintings of Las Meninas after lunch.
In the end, Barcelona is Spain’s principle economic engine and a rich source of the human capacity for creativity and innovation. As a place, Barcelona is the center of a highly productive region that draws people to its precincts. There are few better measures of a world class city then whether or not people want to go there.