The Comprehensive Guide to Barcelona: A History of Barcelona

¡Bienvenidos lectores! Durante los últimos cinco días, he estado viajando por Barcelona en vez de San Luis. Sin embargo, es probable que ya lo supieras porque has visto mis fotografías en las redes sociales. En los siguientes dias, te voy a dar la guía completa de la ciudad de Barcelona, que incluye su historia, lugares para ver/visitar y lo que es más importante: la ropa debes llevar. Para hoy, empezamos la historia de Barcelona. 

Placa Espanyol-3
Placç d’Espanya

The city of Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, the northeastern-most region of Spain. Barcelona is an incredible example of the European cosmopolis: rows and columns of streets and avenues crisscross each other over 101,6 square km.  This efficient planning allows for a population of 1,6 million people only within city limits.

For comparison, St. Louis covers 160,4 square km but only has a population of 310,4 thousand people.

Today’s article is Part I of III and will cover the history of Catalonia but focusing on Barcelona. We will discuss the premodern era of the city (pre-19th century), the radical changes brought upon by an irrelevant engineer in the 19th century, the ramifications of the Spanish Civil War, and how it all results in the Barcelona we visit today.

I. The Premodern History of Barcelona

Since the age of the Romans, Barcelona has been a hotly-contested region. In 29 BC, Cesar Augustus declared a war to conquer the Iberian Peninsula which required a decade until completion. Centuries later, the Visigoths in 250 AD began raiding Catalonia as the Western Roman Empire begin its demise.  Approximately 500 years later, the Moors (Muslims who lived in the Iberian Peninsula) crossed the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa and slowly worked their way up the Iberian Peninsula until they eventually gained control of Barcelona in 711. 

Only 90 years later, Louis the Pious (son of Charlemagne) reclaimed Barcelona from the Moors and gave control of the region to the regional nobility. From this point onward there was stable rule under the Counts of Barcelona.  The later marriage of the marriage of Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona, and Petronila of Aragon in the first half of the 12th century incorporated Catalonia into the Kingdom of Aragon where it remained until the unification of Spain.

fall of granada
The Capitulation of Granada [1492], Fracisco Pradilla
From this point, the unification of Spain is well known. The marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile’s marriage in 1469 united the two dominant kingdoms of Spain. They followed this with a decisive victory over the last Moorish stronghold unified Spain into one Catholic kingdom – a 781 year long reconquista.

Throughout all this time, Barcelona remained an economic and cultural stronghold.  Despite the tumultuous rule, the region maintained a strong economy through agriculture and sea trade which allowed for it to be ready to welcome the Industrial Revolution when it arrived in Spain. 

II. 19th Century Continued Dominance

By 1844, Barcelona had reached a critical turning point. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and like most of its sister cities that meant within its walls a vile amalgamation of people, pollution, and poverty were crammed into too small alongside the nouveau bourgeoisie.

barcelona map
The original map for the expansion of Barcelona, 1844

Thus, in 1859 the city held a contest to provide a solution for their malaise.  Freshman engineer, Cedrà, proposed a radical idea: tear down the Roman Era wall surrounding Barcelona, in order to cut wide avenues and boulevards throughout the city in a grid-like manner. This would allow for orderly expansion in all directions as needed and allow egalitarian access of the city resources regardless of wealth.

Wide, tree lined boulevards were the hallmark of 19th century European planning
Wide, tree lined boulevards were the hallmark of 19th century European planning

Naturally, the entire city hated Cerdà’s plan and he promptly lost the contest.  The standard bearer of European urbanization, the Renovation of Paris by Georges-Eugene Haussman, had only begun a few years earlier and it would not be for at least another decade before it would be used as the model renovation for other European cities.

You can read more about Cerdà’s rennovation in this wonderful article from the Guardian. 

However, the central government in Madrid overruled the Barcelona city council and re-imposed Cerdà’s design upon the city.  Thankfully, the grid system was implemented and allowed for many of Barcelona’s medieval problems to evaporate. Egalitarian access to clean water, hospitals, and public bathrooms ended epidemics which killed on average 3% of the population each round. However, it came at the cost of damaging capital – Catalonia relations. 

Wide, open squares at every major intersection allow congestion-less traffic flow

III. 20th Century Troubles

The period of time immediately prior to/following the Spanish Civil War is one of the most iconic periods of Spanish history. This is the time in which the history of Catalonia comes together to solidify into the collective identity present today. Literature, sport, and war coupled together to immortalize the 1936-39 civil war. 

el capitol-2
Catalonian Parliament Building

In 1931, King Alfonso XIII authorized the formation of a democratic republic in Spain – a move which socialists, republicans, and the working class had pushed for since the mid-19th century.  A perceived threat of communism spread throughout the country as the incredibly controversial Spanish Second Republic began “de-Catholicizing” the country which allowed for right wing fascists, religious clergy, and the wealthy to launch a coup in July 1936 against the Republican government with General Francisco Franco their leader (collectively known as “the Nationalists”). 

The Republicans quickly launched a counterrevolution powered by urban republicans and anarchists along with countryside peasants. There was an almost even split among troops for the Republicans and Nationalists: 77,000 to 87,000 for each side according to most estimates. However, what the Nationalists lacked was the collective identity the Republicans held in European/Americans’ minds due to the International Brigades. 

One of many Catalonian flags adorning the city

Between 32,000-35,000 international volunteers from France, UK, and United States (among others) spent 1-2 years at a time fighting against the Nationalists. Popular icons such as Norman Bethune (cardiothoracic surgeon, innovator of the mobile blood transfusion concept), George Orwell (author) , Ernest Hemmingway (author), and Willy Brandt (future West German Chancellor) all partook as volunteer soldiers. 

Nevertheless, within 3 years the Nationalists controlled all of Spain and the war was over. A period of cultural control to bring back traditional Spanish culture began under Franco which resulted in Catalonians losing the ability to speak their native Catalan, semi-autonomy, and any literature about Catalonian culture. 

Catalonia bore the brunt of Franco’s repression as historically they had been the most liberal region of Spain.  During this time they were a symbol of rebellion against his authority and their recovery after his regime’s fall in the 1970s is what makes Barcelona the city it is today. 

IV. Barcelona Today

The one thing you should take away from above is that Barcelona is a politically charged city.

Until now I have barely used over 1.000 words to condense over 1.000 years of history.  There is so much interesting context and stories I have had to leave out in the interest of focusing on the original purpose of this article: providing context of what Barcelona is when you visit. 

el capitol
Yellow ribbons mark solidarity with the jailed leaders of the October Referendum

The one thing you should take away from above is that Barcelona is a politically charged city.  

This sense of regional pride (or nationalism, depending on your perspective) is almost unheard of anywhere else in Europe. Following both World Wars, almost all of Europe attempted to remove any hint of nationalism from their collective identity. In United States, we see the US Flag adorning pickup trucks, houses, stores, and even swimsuits. In Europe, flag waving is almost unheard of until recent changes in the past two decades. 


Nowhere else will you find state/provincial flags adorning almost every single building on every street.

Prior to hosting the 2006 World Cup, German Parliament hosted a debate on whether or not displaying the German flag would be allowed. Concerns with conflating national pride with their recent history, many were unsure if bringing the flag to the stadiums would be allowed. You can read more about the reactions in this NYT article. 



Camp Nou
Even the sport is political

“The Club firmly and strongly promotes Catalonia around the world” (source). 


No discussion of Barcelona can be had without mentioning their football club. Everyone – even in the United States – has heard of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo by now. The former has been named best player in the world five times, won four European Golden Boots (for scoring the most goals in any European league), and four Champions League trophies for his club, FC Barcelona.

mes que un club-2
Més que un club, FC Barcelona’s motto

The power of football is unrivaled worldwide.  With arguably the greatest player in the world (emphasis on the arguably) bringing the club into every home across the world, everyone now at least has heard of the city of Barcelona and the region of Catalonia. When events such the disastrous October Referendum occur, instantly everyone can associate the sport and the club with the city and the region. Through the titles and recognition Messi has brought Barcelona, he also allows the club to bring recognition of Catalonia to the world.  This association brings legitimacy to the politics of Barcelona/Catalonia, regardless of the scope or validity (for better or worse). 

The full name, “Fútbol Club Barcelona” is also a spit in the face to the “Franco-ization” demanded by the dictator. Traditionally, Club de fútbol” (CF) is used rather than FC in Spanish. 

Another 500 words later, and we’re about ready to wrap up.  More or less, I have avoided discussing the current politics of the city, but that doesn’t mean it is not an important one to be had. 

There is almost no such thing as a native Spaniard due to over 1000 years of mixing between Middle Eastern/North African Moors and European Jews/Christians.  When you visit Barcelona, you can see this mixture in almost every church/basilica/cathedral with Islamic art/architectural influences and vice versa (Greco-Roman columns in Islamic mosques being the most prevalent). If you walk down la Rambla from Plaça Catalunya to the Barri Goti, remember that you can only do so because a no-name engineer sacrificed his career to allow for that privilege.  Iconic literature we consume was born from their creators electing to fight a foreign war for personal ideals; its modern day equivalent, televised soccer. 

I hope you all will do your own research on the topic and history of Barcelona to make up for what I left out.  For example, I had to exclude the history of FC Barcelona and their role in the Spanish Civil War which on its own could be a separate article. In the meantime, keep an eye out for Part II of this three part series on what all to do when you’re in Barcelona. 

Let me know your thoughts with comments on here or social media, this was my first time writing a travel/historical piece and I’d love to hear your feedback!

– Sid 


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