The Ciutat Vella (Old City) is where the top attractions are, and if you are short of precious time, this is where you should spend most of it. The Gothic cathedral, the Roman foundations, and the earthy Raval and funky Ribera districts are all located within this large chunk of the city's landscape, which, due to its one-way and pedestrianized streets, is best visited on foot. It seems daunting at first, but striking landmarks such as the cathedral, the MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art), and the Plaça del Rei will help you navigate around the maze. To make it easier, I have divided the attractions up into three sub-districts: The Barri Gòtic (east of La Rambla), El Raval (west of La Rambla), and La Ribera (west of Vía Laietana).
The old original Gothic quarter is Barcelona's greatest urban attraction. Most of it has survived intact from the Middle Ages. Spend at least 2 or 3 hours exploring its narrow streets and squares, which continue to form a vibrant, lively neighborhood. A nighttime stroll, when lanes and squares are atmospherically lit, takes on added drama. The buildings are austere and sober for the most part, the cathedral being the crowning achievement. Roman ruins and the vestiges of 3rd-century walls add further interest. This district is intricately detailed and filled with many attractions that are easy to miss.
Smaller than the Barri Gòtic, the La Ribera district boasts two major attractions: The Museu Picasso and the soaring Gothic church of Santa María del Mar. Additional smaller treasures abound in its atmospheric streets in the form of cafes, artisan workshops, and intimate boutiques. It's a wonderful place to stroll, window-shop, and grab a bite in its many outdoor cafes, and compact enough to cover in an afternoon. At night the bars and coctelerías open their doors and crowds roll in.
El Raval is a neighborhood of contrasts. Here, imaginative new buildings and urban projects are continuously being created in the streets of the city's largest inner-city neighborhood. Historically working-class, the district is clearly being gentrified in many districts, while other neglected corners retain a markedly downtrodden air. For many, El Raval symbolizes progressive 21st-century Barcelona with a new multicultural blend of Catalan, Arabic, Middle Eastern, and South American cultures evident at every turn.