Barcelona was recently voted TripAdvisor’s 5th best travel destination in the world, after Paris, New York, London and Rome. But just thirty to forty years ago, Barcelona was nowhere near as popular as those other historic megacities, which have been top destinations for over a century.
Besides being one of the world’s most popular cities, Barcelona’s reputation is that of a pioneer, especially in fields of creative expression. From architecture and design to cuisine and fashion, Barcelona has positioned itself as an international trendsetter.
So… what happened? Why did Barcelona boom?
In a word: Olympics! The 1992 Olympic Games held in Barcelona gave the world the opportunity to re-discover a city that had been hidden beneath a gray cloud of industrial smoke for much of the 20th century. Not to mention, 1992 was the first real chance for the city to open up to the rest of the world after 40 years of an oppressive fascist regime under Franco, which ended only in 1975.
When the world showed up to re-discover Barcelona, they were blown away by what they saw: First and foremost, the out-of-this-world art nouveau—or moderniste—architecture, unique to this region of the world. Together, the buildings of Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domenech I Montaner, and countless others—many of which have been declared World Heritage Sites—combine to form Barcelona’s most distinctive and spectacular attraction.
But aside from the modernisme, visitors were surprised to find that there was much more to this seaside capital: imposing gothic cathedrals and medieval palaces, 2000-year-old Roman ruins, unique boutique shops, and beautiful beaches, parks, mountains, and harbors. And let’s not forget the hundreds of museums, specifically those founded by three of the 20th century’s most ground-breaking artists: Dalí, Picasso, and Miró.
People were also surprised by the many fantastic day-trip options, all within an hour or two of Barcelona. Everything from white-washed coastal towns set in gorgeous turquoise coves, to cliff-top monasteries, to ancient stone villages, to national parks with snow-capped mountains, to a wine country boasting hundreds of world-class family-run vineyards. Indeed, Barcelona and its immediate surroundings seemed to have it all.
And what about the food? The presence of “molecular cuisine”—a concept invented in Barcelona—was showcased in restaurants such as El Bulli and El Celler de Can Roca, each at one time ranked as the Number One Restaurant in the World by Restaurant magazine.
Adding to Barcelona’s impact on visitors was the tremendous city-wide beautification that took place in preparation for the Olympics, far more pervasive than that of other host cities. After a fairly dreary 20th century, Barcelona used the ’92 Games as an excuse to re-invent itself completely, carrying out decades’ worth of improvements—a lost cause during the Franco years. New highways were built, new neighborhoods created, and vast new telecommunications networks installed. The most dramatic of all these changes was the development of the coastlines. Until 1992, Barcelona’s entire coast was murky and covered with abandoned smokestacks and factories, with one large industrial port, but no leisure-time marinas. Barcelona is now Europe’s largest beach city, with multiple sandy beaches, palm-tree-lined boardwalks, and three marinas
It was also in preparation for the ’92 Games that the city created the brand “Barcelona: City of Design.” With this initiative, Barcelona would welcome the world’s most renowned artists to decorate its public parks, beaches, and plazaswith whimsical sculptures and installations, while it called upon the most avant-garde international architects to adorn the city with daring new edifices. All of this has persisted ever since, helping to make Barcelona one of the most creative and colorful cities in the world.
Not to mention… The Barcelona Games were themselves some of the most television-friendly and emotion-provoking of the modern era. From the footage of Olympic divers doing summersaults through the air with views of the entire city as a backdrop; to the archer who lit the Olympic flame with his bow and arrow; to the Games’ powerful theme song, “Barcelona”, an unlikely duet by the recently-deceased Freddie Mercury and the Catalonian opera legend, Montserrat Caballé…. The Barcelona Olympics never failed to dazzle.
1992 Summer Olympics
Since the ’92 Olympics, Barcelona has managed to hold onto its reputation as one of the most original and invigorating of the world’s megacities.
In short, Barcelona boomed (and continues to do so) due to its wealth of prominent historical monuments and impressive natural landscapes, and its rich cultural and artistic heritage, which was all re-discovered by the world with the 1992 Olympics. The Olympics provided the energy boost needed to catapult the city into the hearts and eyes of the world, who ever since, can’t seem to get enough.