For over a century, the gritty streets of Barcelona's El Raval district remained largely a no-go area. Anarchist groups, prostitutes, and drug addicts mingled with desperately poor immigrants from North Africa and South Asia. The neighborhood got its first landmark building in 1994 when the Contemporary Cultural Center of Barcelona opened on the site of an 1802 almshouse, and a second shortly thereafter with construction of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art, or MACBA, a blindingly white modernist refrigerator by Richard Meier. In the years since, other museums and cultural institutes have followed suit – the latest, the Filmoteca de Catalunya, opened in 2012 – and El Raval became the focal point of the Old City's renaissance.
Unlike the tourist playgrounds of Barri Gotic and El Born to the east, El Raval is a demographic and architectural grab bag full of winding medieval lanes, art-filled boutique hotels, neon-saturated shops hawking the latest Bollywood films, and dimly lit fin de siècle drinking dens. Its surprising streets are an urban explorer's delight. Cultures clash and the future confronts the past on every corner. Barcelonans have even coined a word, "ravalejar," an expression that means to ramble around the neighborhood.
The history is thick. Picasso frequented the Antic Hospital de la Santa Creu, the 15th-century labyrinth turned hospital where he painted 'Dead Woman' in 1902; Antoni Gaudí died here in 1926 after being struck by a tram. Today, it houses several institutes, including the Library of Catalonia. You can visit its grand reading room beneath Gothic arches and watch the parade of colorful characters gnoshing in the cafe overlooking the medieval courtyard. A few blocks south lies the Palau Güell, one of Gaudí's few modernist masterpieces in the old town. A riot of styles – Gothic, Moorish, art nouveau – mark this extraordinary mansion, which reopened in 2010 after nearly 20 years of refurbishment.
El Raval's restaurants are as diverse as its residents, and you can feast on seafood at old-world dining rooms like Casa Leopoldo, a 1929 gem where crime writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán indulged his legendary appetite. For something a little more upmarket, there's Ca l'Isidre with an inventive menu that has drawn the admiration of both King Juan Carlos and molecular gastronomy wunderkind Ferran Adrià.
By night, El Raval welcomes all, from cocktail-sipping hipsters to bleary-eyed boozers, and there are plenty of hedonistic places to tap into the spirit of decadence past. (Be mindful, though, that Carrer de Sant Pau is still the stomping ground of junkies and dealers.) A few places for a nightlife ramble: Start at Moroccan-owned Bar La Concha, dedicated to sultry Spanish silver-screen star Sara Montiel. There's the 1820 Bar Marsella, with its signature absinthe, a favorite of Hemingway who drank here in the 1930s. Hemingway, along with Picasso and Miró were also patrons of the London Bar, a 1909 modernist masterpiece that still has a classy old-saloon feel. It's also worth catching a show at the Jazz Sí club, particularly on Friday nights when there's live flamenco.
More information: El Raval is a 15-minute walk through Old Town from Las Ramblas and the heart of touristic Barcelona.