Gràcia (Catalan pronunciation: [ˈɡɾasiə]) is a district of the city of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. It comprises the neighborhoods of Vila de Gràcia, Vallcarca i els Penitents, El Coll, La Salut and Camp d'en Grassot i Gràcia Nova. Gràcia is bordered by the districts of Eixample to the south, Sarrià-Sant Gervasi to the west and Horta-Guinardó to the east. A vibrant and diverse enclave of Catalonian life, Gràcia was an independent municipality for centuries before being formally annexed by Barcelona in 1897 as a part of the city's expansion.
Gràcia was established in 1626, by a Novitiate of Carmelites, who established a convent there, called "Nostra Senyora de Gràcia (Our Lady of Grace)". Following the loss of Catalonian independence from Spain in 1714, Gràcia remained an independent municipality in the direction of the Serra de Collserola mountains (north/northwest) from central Barcelona. Passeig de Gràcia, the street which is today home to the most high-end international fashion brands and posh hotels (Barcelona’s version of the Champs-Élysées), was back then a country road linking the town to the larger city, through the plain of Barcelona.
During the mid 1800s, Barcelona was rapidly industrialising and significantly expanding its borders from those of the Roman murallas and old city. The advent of new industry was drawing Catalonians by the thousands to abandon their farms and move to the city, spurring a shift from an agriculturally based, rural economy to an urban economy focused on manufacturing and trade.
Between 1801 and 1850 alone, the population of Barcelona grew by over fifty percent, from 115,000 to roughly 187,000 citizens. However, industrial expansion brought problems with it. Packed living quarters, densely-lined streets, and poor public infrastructure all contributed to the spreading of disease and uncleanliness that plagued the city’s poorer masses. Life expectancy plummeted to a mere 23 years old for the poor and 36 years for the rich. The sewage system was overwhelmed with the mass of people sharing cramped streets, and the poorly designed streets offered little in terms of fresh air or ventilation. The Junta de Derribo in the 1840s was a famous, published account of the conditions.
In 1854, the government of Barcelona recognised the need for an answer to the swelling population issues, and began investigating the construction of what would become the Eixample district. Situated between the old city of neighbourhoods like El Raval, Ciutat Vella, and El Born, and the outlying municipalities of Gràcia, Sant Martí, Sants, and Montjuïc, the Eixample (alternatively known as L’Eixample or Ensanche, in Catalan) underwent a number of iterations in the planning stages. In 1855, the Ministry of Development, under the authority of the federal government in Spain at the time, commissioned Ildefons Cerdà, a Catalan urban planner, to design the new district. However, when the local government changed political sides, Cerdà’s plan was discarded and as the new government held a project competition which Cerdà lost. The winning plan, supported by the local city council, was that of Antoni Rovira i Trias, another Catalan urban planner who played a central role in demolition of the 18th-century military installation, Ciutadella, that helped open Barcelona to the developments of the new century. Despite the contest, Cerdà’s plan (which was heavily criticised at the time by his contemporaries as being overtly socialist) weathered the controversy and became the basis of the Eixample district, as it retained the support of the central Spanish government.
Over the next forty years, as the plan took hold and the city began to sprawl, the Eixample rapidly pushed Barcelona’s borders closer and closer to the long-independent municipality of Gràcia. In 1897, Barcelona formally annexed the town of Gràcia, and it has existed since as a neighborhood of the Catalan capital. Although no longer independent, Gràcia has long maintained a distinct identity as a unique district of the diverse, larger metropolis to which it belongs.
Life in Gràcia
Today home to over 120,000 people, according to the Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Gràcia is both the smallest district by area, at 4.2 km2, and the second most densely populated neighbourhood in Barcelona. One of the hippest, most cosmopolitan areas in the city, Gràcia’s intimate, close-packed streets and predominately low-rise, Mediterranean architecture give it a distinct feel. Its old, one-way streets are organized around a series of plazas, including Plaça de Vila de Gracia, Plaça del Sol, Plaça de Rius i Taulet and Plaça de la Virreina. “Old-world charm” abounds.
The Gràcia population is an interesting mix of young professionals and artists and a growing elderly population, with a significant portion of older Catalonians who came of age as Franco came to power. Catalonian flags adorn many a Gràcia window or terrace, symbols of the neighbourhood’s fiercely pro-independence politics. Strolling down the streets, it’s easy to imagine passionate debates of republicanism taking place over sips of Moritz at a pavement café in the square.
Compared to the other classic Barcelona neighbourhoods, Ciutat Vella and the rest of the old city, Gràcia is relatively void of major tourist attractions, a veritable blessing for the bohemian enclave of Catalonian urban life. There aren't many international brands or fast-food chains. Instead, small gourmet street food outposts are common, as well as a surprising array of ethnic cuisines, from Japanese to Greek. Ubiquitous as well are the bountiful small cafes serving classic Spanish tapas and Catalonian specialties. Shopping abounds in funky mum'n’dad shops selling stylish trinkets and vintage clothing. Talented artisans and artists can be found in the squares and in small ground floor shops.
Nightlife in Gràcia is dominated by Spanish café culture, with an abundance of small bars and restaurants that host late night revelry and long conversations. At the weekends, one might hear any number of local live music acts, from a single guitarist to a four piece band. As for clubs, Otto Zutz is a famous hotspot at the Western end of Gràcia.
For transportation, Gràcia is served by the L3 (Green) and L4 (Yellow) lines of the Barcelona metro, with stops at Penitents, Vallcarca, Lesseps, and Fontana on the L3, and Joanic and Verdaguer on the L4. The Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya (FGC) also operate the Gràcia station of the Barcelona - Metro de Vallès line. Additionally, numerous bus and night bus lines in the TMB Barcelona system cover Gràcia. As with the rest of the city, bikes are very common.
The neighbourhood of Gràcia is both culturally and artistically distinct from the rest of the city of Barcelona. The neighbourhood was considered a separate municipality until its annexation in 1897, and its unique culture has persisted, rendering it a completely self-sufficient area of Barcelona. Although its eclectic charm attracts travellers from all over, unlike much of Barcelona, the majority of Gràcia’s inhabitants are locals. During the day, the “hipster” barrio is full of life, projecting a hip and edgy vibe. At night, however, the environment transforms, and although the narrow streets are quiet and peaceful, bars often host talented jazz singers, and groups of teenagers gather in the squares.
Several historic sites in Gràcia enhance its eclectic charm. For instance, Casa Vicens, designed by Antonio Gaudí, the famous Catalan modernist architect, is one of the neighborhood’s main attractions. In 1883 construction was put into effect with a blueprint consisting of ground floor buildings and a garden. Later, Gaudí approved an extension consisting of stairs and a patio, and Casa Vicens has been restored on multiple occasions in order to preserve Gaudí’s vision.
Central to Gaudí’s design philosophy was his belief that every aspect of his designs are equal in importance. The smoking room door displays this attention to detail, with many intricate coloured glass pieces that illuminate at night. Gaudí also took into account minor details such as the stairs leading to areas of the roof rarely inhabited. The fact that the design aspects often seem unrelated makes for an aesthetically interesting work of art.
Eusebi Güell, a close friend of Gaudí, commissioned him to bring into fruition the majestic Park Güell. Güell selected the beautiful area of Muntanya Pelada, where he envisioned a park modeled after the residential parks of England, with the spectacular view of the sea on display for its residents. Already blooming were carob and olive trees, and based on the weather conditions, Guadí’s design included Mediterranean plants that would not require considerable water to thrive. He also devised a fully functional irrigation system to provide the community with water resources. Interestingly, not only did Güell occupy an old mansion on the estate, but Gaudí himself resided in a home there with several family members.
Unfortunately, by 1914 only these two houses had been built, forcing Gaudí to abandon his plans for some sixty houses. Nevertheless, the estate was converted into a private garden, and In 1963, Gaudi’s house was made accessible to the public with its grand opening as the “Gaudí House Museum.” In 1969, Park Güell was declared a “patrimonio del mundo,” or World Heritage Site, by UNESCO.
Graffiti tours have become a main tourist attraction in Barcelona, and Gràcia is home to some of the most intriguing pieces, adorning its serene streets with vibrant colours. For instance, Ozzy's art, appearing in many parts of Barcelona, is marked by bright poster designs, while the artist C215 produces detailed stencilled works.
The most notable event in Gràcia is the Festes de Gràcia, which goes on for eight days every August. The largest neighbourhood festival in Barcelona, the Festa Major de Gràcia began in 1817 as a celebration of the neighbourhood itself (at the time still an independent town). Gràcia’s residents compete passionately for the crown of best street or square, selecting distinct themes and extensively decorating in Spanish carnival style, and organised by a number of local associations. The selected themes range from scenes of nature, to wild animals and creatures, to characters from popular culture.
The Catalonian practice of Castellers, dating back to the 18th century, is also enacted. The inhabitants of Valls, a tiny town located on the outskirts of Barcelona, initiated this tradition of human towers, which became a competitive sport. The original structure was accompanied by a traditional folklore dance, and although the flute still accompanies the performance to this day, the dance became a separate spectacle by the 19th century.
The modern Catalan "castell" is similar to its original design: the "pinya" is a large ring at the bottom of the structure that supports the human weight, and each level consists of a specific number of people. The "tronc", meaning trunk in Catalan, is composed of several levels, and only children are permitted to make up the top level due to their lighter weight. The "anxeta", the smallest child who holds the position at the top of the tower, is the last to climb the structure, and only remains there for several seconds, saluting the crowd below. Most often, around nine people form a single castell made up of up to seven or eight rows, and each structure has its own name.
At night booths sell alcoholic beverages and an abundance of live musical acts of many genres are present. 1.5 million people are rumored to attend each August over the week, although this figure is not verified.
To the northern (mountain) end of Gràcia on El Carmel mountain (and technically outside its borders depending on who is asked) lies Park Guëll, arguably the most famous work of Catalonia’s most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí.
On "Carrer de les Carolines", between Plaça Lesseps and Fontana, lies Casa Vicens, Gaudí’s first major work of architecture and a staple in his canon of modernist design. An occupied house for decades, Casa Vicens has only recently become a tourist attraction, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Casa Fuster, a fabled, grand modernist-style hotel that lies at the edge of Gràcia’s southern (water) end on the Plaça de Nicolás Salmerón. Designed by Catalonian master architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner between 1908 and 1910, the ornate house was converted to a hotel in 2004.
In the Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia, the bell tower famously marks the old administrative centre of the former independent municipality. The tower, a 33 meter high octagonal figure, was built by Rovira i Trias between 1862 and 1864. A famous legend describes the “Campana de Gràcia” and it’s role in local conflicts from 1870.
Gràcia was the original home to the Teatre Lliure, one of Spain's most prestigious theatres (the theatre has since relocated to Montjuïc). Additionally, the Cinema Verdi is a popular cinema in Barcelona, showing both local and foreign (Western) films in their original languages.
In Plaça Lesseps, named after french diplomat and entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps who developed the Suez Canal, the Biblioteca Jaume Fuster is an attractive, modern addition to the neighbourhood. "Designed by architect Josep Llinàs i Carmona, it is one of the largest and most modern" libraries in Barcelona. It opened in 2005.
Gràcia in fiction
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Gràcia (district).|
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Barcelona/Gràcia.|
- (Catalan) GráciaNet
- The history of Grácia English written site about Barcelona.
- (Catalan) Official Barcelona District Site
- (Catalan) Festa Major de Gràcia
- bcn.travel/Grácia English Barcelona district profile by bcn.travel.