The History of Barcelona from its Origins to Current Times


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The history of Barcelona has two versions regarding its foundation. It just means that nobody knows who was exactly the real founder of Barcelona City. It sounds like a joke, but this is real history! One version states that the great hero Hercules, who came from Africa on an expedition with some idea of colonization in mind, arrived at its coasts and was the founder of Barcelona.

The other version, which you will possibly accept as more probable, states that the Carthaginian Hamilcar Barca, who was the father of Hannibal, had to rebuild the city in the third century BC and gave it the name of Barcino. This variant sounds more realistic than the first version.

History of Barcelona - Barcino sculpture by Joan Brossa in front of the Roman wall at Plaça Nova

Barcino sculpture by Joan Brossa in front of the Roman wall at Plaça Nova (Gothic Quarter)

Foundation and Origins of Barcelona

Before the foundation of Barcelona city, this region of Catalonia was settled by people dedicated to agrarian activities, like those known as Laetani and the Iberians. It seems that the Greeks have been the first immigrants arriving in the northern part of this region. They set up a colony mainly for trading.

A curious fact in the Barcelona history is that Romans did not pay much attention to the city because of the lack of harbor. They redrew the town about 15 BC and used it as a strategic middle port between Tarraco - now Tarragona - and other port in south France. You can see signs of the Roman civilization around the Gothic Cathedral and also in other places in the Gothic Quarter.

Since Tarraco -now Tarragona- was a more important base for the Romans, you can see more ruins and Romans vestiges there than in Barcelona.

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History of Barcelona - Remains of the Roman Aqueduct at Plaça Nova

Remains of the Roman Aqueduct at Plaça Nova (Gothic Quarter)

Barcelona and the Fall of the Roman Empire

During the 5th century, the Roman Empire arrived to end. The Visigoths took advantage of this fact and invaded this region, remaining for about three hundred years. You can appreciate their influence in church architecture in Barcelona and much more in Tarragona.

After that period, during the early eighth century, almost the whole country was conquered by Moors. But they did not remain a long time here because Charlemagne pushed them to the south of Spain. This is the reason why you can not see practically any signs of the Moors in Barcelona, but a significant influence in Andalusia instead.

There is an excellent book about the history of Barcelona, which we recommend to read to go more deeply into fascinating details through the time: Barcelona: The Urban Evolution of a Compact City

In 801 AD, Louis, the son of Charlemagne, made of Barcelona a buffer zone with well-defined territorial boundaries known as Hispanic March which was ruled by the Count of Barcelona, which in turn was divided into counties.

The ambition of Wilfred the Hairy trying to make the union of all those territories, yielded probably to the beginning of Catalonia. This happened in about 900 AD and was not precisely a peaceful action, as you can imagine.

History of Barcelona - Columns of the Temple of Augustus (Barcelona History Museum - MUHBA)

Columns of the Temple of Augustus (Barcelona History Museum - MUHBA)

Barcelona and the Growth of Catalonia

The Barcelona historyinitiated to flourish approximately at the beginning of the 11th century. Of course, all counties were under the feudal system of that time. It was a period of commercial activities, and Catalonia gained political strength through the expansion of more territories to the south and also Aragon.

During the 13th century, further expansion took place, but this time by turning Barcelona city and Catalonia in a central maritime power. Catalonia conquered the Balearic Islands, Sicily, Malta, Sardinia, Naples, Corcega, Albania, and Athens. At that time, Catalonia dictated the rules for maritime trade. You can see vestiges of those good years of the Gothic period mainly in the Gothic Cathedral and other churches of Barcelona city.


History of Barcelona - "The Vanished City" - Born Cultural Center (Remains of the demolition of over 1,000 houses after September 11, 1714)

"The Vanished City" - Born Cultural Center (Remains of the demolition of over 1,000 houses after September 11, 1714)

Barcelona and the Spanish Succession War

During the second part of the fifteenth century and beginning of the sixteenth, those good times of the Barcelona history arrived to end because of the marriage of Fernando II and Isabel of Castile, known as Catholic Kings. Catalonia lost autonomy because of the unification of Spain and fell into an economic depression and political instability.

Catholic Kings expelled the Muslims and Jews from Spain and focused on Columbus New World conquest and colonization. This caused severe damage to the Mediterranean commerce of Catalonia.

At the end of the seventeenth century and beginning of the eighteenth, the region suffered some wars. The most important event is perhaps when the Habsburg Archduke Carlos of Austria, who was supported by Barcelona, challenged the Bourbon King Philip V.

This was the start of the Spanish Succession War. Guess who won? Of course, Philip V, who was taking Barcelona city on September 11, 1714. Universities were closed, and the Catalan language was outlawed.

History of Barcelona - Casa Mila (La Pedrera), by Antoni Gaudi

Casa Mila (La Pedrera), by Antoni Gaudi

The Renaissance of Barcelona

Barcelona history changed its course to a new period called Renaissance and Modernism, which happened during the nineteenth century because of the Industrial Revolution.

Barcelona grew not only in the economy, but also in various fields like arts, Catalan literature, and the Modernist movement, where architects and artists changed the aspect of Barcelona city. The Eixample district is a clear example of it, where you can appreciate beautiful modernist houses. In this district, you'll see several Barcelona landmarks.

One of the most influential architects during this period was Antoni Gaudi, whose most known modernist works are La Sagrada Familia, Parc Guell, Casa Batlló and La Pedrera (Casa Milá).

The international exhibition of 1888 was a showcase for Barcelona city and Catalonia, with over two million visitors. There are some places of interest in Barcelona built for that exhibition, like the Columbus monument, Arc de Triompf, and other works.

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History of Barcelona - Guernica, by Pablo Picasso - A symbol of the tragedy of the Civil War

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso - A symbol of the tragedy of the Civil War

Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War

At the beginning of the century, in 1931, King Alfonso XIII and his family had to flee after a revolution, and the Second Spanish Republic was proclaimed. After that, a period of political instability begun, causing internal political polarization in Spain and some changes in Barcelona history. The movement known as Falange Española was created, based on the dictatorial political models of Italy and Germany.

With the General Francisco Franco leading the Nationalist forces, the Spanish Civil War began during 1936. The Spanish Army was supported by Hitler and Mussolini, as you may have already imagined. General Francisco Franco maintained a dictatorship for several decades.

The Barcelona history tells us about the bombing of Barcelona and the Catalan coast, organized by Italy and Germany. Franco then sent his forces to Barcelona. Catalan language, culture and everything related to it was then banned.

During the 1960s, Catalonia experimented an economic jump thanks to the tourism industry growth of part of its coasts. Juan Carlos de Borbón, the former King, was selected by Franco as his successor, short before Franco´s death.

Aerial view of Barcelona, Port Vell, Rambla de Mar and Maremagnum area

Aerial view of Barcelona, Port Vell, Rambla de Mar and Maremagnum area

Overview of the Current History of Barcelona

After Franco´s death, a new Constitution was approved. It was the beginning of a new era for civil and human rights in Spain, and it also allowed a certain level of autonomy to Catalonia. The conservative party reached the power of Catalonia during 1980 and claimed for more autonomy for the region.

The Olympic Games of 1992 started the modern era of Barcelona City and Catalonia, by writing an important chapter in Barcelona history in the contemporary times. A significant part of Barcelona was rebuilt and highly improved to host the Olympics, making thus a dramatic aspect change of the city.

Catalan became an official language in schools and also for the judiciary, in 1998. As a result, also some media make use of a Catalan quota. You can see Newspapers published in Catalan and Spanish, as well as television channels even with a hundred percent of Catalan quota.

In 2004, the central Spanish government approved Catalan as an official language within the European Union. But you should not worry as a tourist because every person speaks Spanish too! During 2006 a new statute was approved by the central Spanish Government, giving more autonomy to Catalonia. During the most recent past, some political parties in Catalonia are trying to disconnect Catalonia from Spain and get the independence of Catalonia by creating a new country. This situation is causing some political problems to the Spanish central government.

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Barcelona City Museum and Catalonia History Museum

If you are interested in getting an in-depth knowledge of the history of this region, besides doing city sightseeing in Barcelona, you may want to visit two major museums, one dedicated to the town of Barcelona and the other one to the region of Catalonia.

While you are enjoying your Barcelona holidays, we recommend visiting the Barcelona City Museum (Barcelona History Museum, or Museu d'Historia de Barcelona - MUHBA) and the Catalan History Museum (Museu d'Historia de Catalunya). You'll get a comprehensive insight of the past of this region.