There’s no better way of experiencing a city than by getting up high and finding a viewpoint. Montjuic, Barcelona is a landmark hill just south of the city center – the perfect place for getting your bearings with some fantastic views. It’s also home to some of the city’s most interesting landmarks and cultural sites such as a castle and botanical gardens.
Well worth the climb to the top! – Although, there are escalators as well :-)
Montjuic translates as “Jewish Mountain” in both Catalan and medieval Latin. It’s not clear where the name comes from, but there is an ancient Jewish cemetery at the top. It’s located between the industrial harbor and Barcelona’s historic city center.
Although referred to by locals as Jewish Mountain, Montjuic hill isn’t really all that high – rising 607 feet (185 meters) with a naturally flat top. Historically, this made it the ideal place for the city’s defenses and the fortifications at its apex have a bloody story to tell.
Barcelona, Spain was selected to host the 1929 World Fair and this had a huge impact on Montjuic, with the construction of some of the city’s best tourist attractions on its slopes and summit. The 1992 Olympic Games also left their mark here, and these two major global events alone have made this unique neighborhood a must-see destination in Barcelona.
Climbing Montjuic, up to the past
The 1929 International Exposition
As with all world fairs, a lot of national pavilions were built for the International Exposition of 1929. Many of the monuments and tourist attractions on Montjuic hill today are part of this legacy, from an impressive water feature (the Magic Fountain) to a mock-Spanish village (the Poble Espanyol), not to mention a plethora of fantastic museums and galleries.
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
Most of the landmarks built for the 1929 World Fair were then demolished afterward, except for the Palau Nacional which had served as the central pavilion. It was transformed into an art gallery in the 1930s and now houses the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC).
The MNAC boasts the largest collection of Catalan artwork in the world, displaying over 1000 years of art history. Here you’ll find an incredible selection of Romanesque murals dating from medieval times, modernist furniture by Barcelona’s beloved Antoni Gaudi, Gothic art, photography, and some incredible works by Dali, Picasso, Casas and more.
The Palau Nacional is hard to miss, located on Avenguda dels Montanyans. Tickets can be purchased online and aren’t expensive at €12, but you can also get free entry on Saturdays after 3pm and on the first Sunday of each month. If you don’t want to look round the gallery but fancy the view from the building, you can pay €2 to access the rooftop viewpoint.
From the Palau Nacional, you also have a great view on the big staircase going down towards the Plaça Espanya (also built for the 1929 Exhibition). But let’s stay on Montjuic just a little longer. We haven’t finished our tour quite yet.
The Four Columns
From the MNAC, you’ll see four stand-alone Greek-style columns. These are imaginatively called the Four Columns (Les Quatres Columnes in Catalan), and were originally created in 1919 by modernist artist Josep Puig i Cadafalch.
These iconic columns were meant to represent the four stripes on the Catalan Senyera (the flag of the region) but were demolished before the 1929 International Exposition under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, when all such Catalan symbols were removed. They were reconstructed in 2010.
The Magic Fountain
In front of the MNAC you find the spectacular Font Mágica or Magical Fountain. It’s a major tourist attraction in Barcelona and also came into being as part of the 1929 Expo, designed by Carles Buigas and built by over 3000 people over the course of less than a year.
We saw the fountain during the day but on selected summer nights there’s a big fountain light show which would definitely be worth seeing. The fountain’s sunset display is free for all to see and lasts for about half an hour. The vast water feature comes to life with color, lights and classical music! During the summer it takes place every evening from Thursday to Sunday. In the winter it only happens on Fridays and Saturdays.
If you head up here at dusk you’ll find not only Montjuic’s remarkable light show, but also a chance to watch Barcelona’s extraordinary sunset over Tibidabo mountain in the distance.
The Poble Espanyol (literally meaning ‘Spanish Town’) was designed for the 1929 fair too. It was created to display and celebrate all the different regional traditions and architectural styles of Spain, and is a mock-Spanish village. Home to streets with over 115 different buildings, including craft shops and artisanal workshops, traditional wine cellars, a monastery, bars, cafes, even nightclubs!
Poble Espanyol was set to be demolished after the Exposition, but it was so popular it has remained as a kind of monument to Spanish culture, and how varied the country’s regions are.
Good to know: go in the afternoon as not everything is on or open yet in the mornings.
The Barcelona Pavilion
This stylish modern building on Montjuic in Barcelona was designed by German Bauhaus architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lily Reich for the 1929 International Exposition. Known as the Barcelona or German Pavilion, it’s famous for its minimalist form and extravagant building materials (marble, red onyx, and travertine) so it’s a must-see for architecture buffs.
This revolutionary building was completely cutting edge at the time it was made, and has gone on to inspire loads of other modernist buildings around the world. It also houses some famous pieces of furniture design such as Mies van der Rohe’s ‘Barcelona Chair’.
Unlike the Palau Nacional, the German pavilion, designed by Mies van der Rohe, didn’t survive the demolishings, but it was rebuilt in the 1980s because it was seen as one of Van der Rohe’s greatest accomplishments.
Surrounded by lush woodland and peaceful gardens on Montjuic is the beautiful Teatro Grec, an open-air theater built by Catalan architect Ramon Reventos as part of the 1929 International Exposition. It was designed to emulate the ancient Greek amphitheaters, and true to style this romantic structure puts on alfresco performances all year round.
The main event here is the Festival Grec de Barcelona which takes place in summer and features music, theater, circus and dance acts. In the park around it, there is also a great restaurant called Cafe Belgrado.
The Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya
If you’re interested in finding out more about the prehistoric and ancient history of the region, another vestige of the 1929 Exhibition is the Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya. With its main venue in the former Palace of Graphic Arts, this museum offers a window into Catalan antiquity, as well as the entire Iberian peninsula and Mediterranean region.
The 1992 summer Olympics
Montjuic served as part of the scene for the 1992 Summer Olympics, officially known as the ‘Games of the XXV Olympiad’. This injected a load of interest and energy into Montjuic, and sparked many exciting new building projects.
This lead to the construction of the ‘Anella Olímpica’ or Olympic Ring consisting of various sporting venues, such as the Palau Sant Jordi, the Institut Nacional d’Educació Física de Catalunya, the Olympic swimming pools and the prominently present telecommunications tower, designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
Today, it’s a great area of Montjuic to head to, even to just wander around in! There are some stunning water features and landscaping, and plenty of striking buildings.
The Estadi Olímpic (Olympic stadium), now known as the ‘Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys’ formed the center of the ring. It was there that the opening and closing ceremonies of the games were held.
The Olympic Stadium is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Barcelona, being open to the public and the fifth largest stadium in Spain. It was originally built back in 1927, intended for hosting the Olympics in 1936.
However, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in the 30s meant that the event was cancelled, and so the stadium was left unused. It was finally renovated in 1989 in time for the long overdue 1992 games.
Adjacent to the stadium is the Juan Antonio Samaranch Olympic and Sports Museum – full to the brim with interactive exhibits and interesting artifacts that tell the history of the games. The museum opened in 2007, and also features temporary exhibitions and examples of how different sport is played across different civilizations.
Montjuic Communications Tower
Known locally as the Torre Calatrava or Torre Telefónica, Santiago Calatrava’s Telecommunications Tower is probably the most beautiful telecom tower in the world. Its graceful white silhouette (designed to depict an athlete holding up the Olympic Flame) makes an arresting photograph. Its base is covered in a mosaic technique pioneered by Gaudi called trencadís, made from shattered tile shards.
The tower was made in order to transmit coverage of the Olympic Games around the world and stands 446 feet (136 meters) tall.
Montjuic Olympic Swimming pools
La Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc is actually not one, but two pools – one for diving, and one 25 meter swimming pool, complete with grandstand seating area for up to 6,500 people.
These pools have an amazing panoramic view of the city of Barcelona, and the best news is that they are open to the general public during the summer months of July and August, at an affordable price.
Something very cool to do if you’re there over the summer is to go and watch a movie at the municipal pools. At selected events, movies are projected onto the wall so it’s possible to go and swim while watching!
These pools are famous for being featured in one of Kylie Minogue’s videos – keep your eye out for the Montjuic swimming pool in her 2003 hit video ‘Slow’.
Palau Sant Jordi
The Palau Sant Jordi is the largest indoor sports arena in Spain, seating a maximum of 17,960 people. The Sant Jordi Palace sports hall was designed by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, and was built in the Olympic ring in 1990 for the 1992 Games. Today, this futuristic-looking building is also used for various cultural events and large music concerts.
Walking up Montjuic hill
There are plenty of easy ways to get to the top of Montjuic hill (more info on this later) but one of the most enjoyable (and cheapest) options is to climb the hill on foot. So many people wonder – can you walk up Montjuic, and if so how long does it take? And the answer is yes, and not very long! As it’s not a high hill, the walk shouldn’t take longer than about 25 minutes and there are plenty of different routes you can take.
Mirador de l’Alcalde (also called the Mayor’s Lookout) is a peaceful viewpoint to head to – here you can look across the harbor and the main bulk of the city. If you make it here, check out the mosaic underfoot, made up of an interesting mix of objects like nuts, screws and other debris.
One Montjuic walking route option is to meander up through Montjuic’s numerous public gardens. The winding streets and greenery are a breath of fresh air after the bustling city center and the views on the way up are outstanding.
During our Montjuic visit we went to see one of the botanical gardens. The Jardí Botànic, part of the Museu de Ciències Naturals de Barcelona, is divided into various sections, each dedicated to different parts of the world. There’s Australia, the Canary Islands, South Africa, the North of Africa, Chili, California, The East Mediterranean and the West Mediterranean.
It was created in 1930 in two quarries, just below Montjuic castle, and hosts more than 1300 plant species from all over the world.
There’s also the Jardins de Laribal (Laribal Gardens) which have a combination of beautiful terraced gardens and stone steps, statues and fountains. Along some of the stone staircases are sculpted water features inspired by Granada’s Alhambra palace. These 12 acres of manicured vegetation and water stairways can be found next to the Miro museum.
The Cementiri del Sud-Oest is Montjuic’s cemetery, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and is the final resting place of some of Spain’s most prestigious historical figures. It was opened in 1883 and is full of ornate statues, neo-Gothic mausoleums and highly decorated tombs as well as a stunning view.
Some of the illustrious figures immortalized here include Joan Miró, Isaac Albéniz, Ildefons Cerdà, Lluís Companys, Ramon Casas, Santiago Rusiñol and Joan Gamper. The tombs stretch all up the side of the hill, and the entire site is quite a spectacle.
Castell de Montjuïc
The castle of Montjuic dates back to the 17th century, however, the current edifice was built in the late 1700s. It has an interesting past, but its most notorious patch of Barcelona’s history is a rather dark one.
The castle played a large and bloody part in the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) when it became a prison and site of the execution of political prisoners. One of these was the Republican Catalan President – Lluís Companys.
Since the 60s, the castle has been a military museum, and you can look around the watchtower, dungeons and former military garrison. However, most people head up to the castle in order to set their eyes on the incredible views it offers of the city, the sea, and commercial port.
Tickets to the castle can be bought online or on-site, but if you want to skip the queues it’s advisable to get them in advance. Throughout the year (but particularly during the summer) you can attend concerts, cinema screenings and other cultural events that take place within the castle walls.
Joan Miro museum
The Fundació Joan Miró is a museum of modern art that was founded by Miró himself in 1975. Joan Miró was one of Barcelona’s (and Spain as a whole) most beloved and famous artists. The architecture of the building itself is minimalist and unique and was designed by Miró’s friend Josep Lluís Sert. It features an octagonal tower often used for classical music performances.
The two wanted to create a space that would encourage young artists to experiment with cutting edge contemporary art.
The museum holds over 14,000 works, including a permanent Miró collection of hundreds of sculptures, paintings, tapestries, drawings, and ceramics, as well as a sculpture garden (which has free entry), roof terrace gallery and works from many other artists.
For some more modern art, visit the CaixaForum gallery, which is a slightly more recent building that hosts an endless program of immersive exhibitions. It’s housed in an old textile factory that was originally designed by one of Gaudi’s contemporaries, Puig i Cadafalch, which gives it a unique charm.
This red brick cultural center showcases nearly a thousand works from numerous different artists, including Anish Kapoor, Joseph Beys, Tony Cragg and more. It also has a portal designed by Japanese architect Arato Isozaki (who also designed the previously mentioned Sant Jordi Palace).
The gallery also makes use of the factory’s old rooftop terrace which has some interesting views, and there are a sunken patio and stunning pool in the Secret Garden, which also serves as an outdoor exhibition space.
Another of Montjuic’s cultural offerings is the fantastic ethnology museum. It’s recently been refurbished, and contains three floors that explore ideas of heritage, ethnology and how we perceive culture and society. The permanent exhibition is called ‘Feel our Heritage’ which is about how human life can differ throughout space and time, but also focuses on the universal aspects that draw us all together, and how we are all as similar as we are different.
The museum is very forward-thinking and has loads of interactive and tactile elements. One of the floors is dedicated to temporary exhibitions, while the permanent exhibition explores Catalonia’s interesting heritage, with examples of traditional Catalan dances, historic clothing and more.
Getting to Montjuic
I recommend climbing Montjuic, which you can do from the Plaça Espanya, but you can also
- take the metro to Parallel and then the funicular (included in the ticket) up to Parc de Montjuïc
- take the Montjuic cable cars connecting La Barceloneta to Montjuic – Click here for tickets.
The best option might be to take the cable car up and then walk back down.
Want to find more things to do in Barcelona? Check the Barcelona itineraries I put together.
Plan your trip to Barcelona
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