Barcelona: City of Literature

Barcelona: City of Literature

Barcelona’s narrow streets and fourteenth century stone walls contour numerous literary works, from Cervantes’ Don Quixote to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Goytisolo’s Marks of Identity. More recently Barcelona winds through gothic thriller Shadow of the Wind and the misfit’s dream, Call Me Zebra. There are also ample bookish spots—the Biblioteca de Catalunya, the 300+ bookstores, the Sant Antoni street book market, and the many cafes where people go to read. One of the world’s editorial capitals, Barcelona hosts numerous literary festivals and has a thriving independent publishing scene.

In 2015, Barcelona became the seventeenth UNESCO City of Literature. In its mission to build peace through international cooperation across education, culture, and the sciences, UNESCO recognizes cities that make creativity a core premise of sustainable urban development and policy. The qualifications to become a City of Literature include a strong and diverse publishing industry and municipal investment in events, programs, and places that support literary arts and commerce.

“Urban areas are today’s principal breeding grounds for the development of new strategies, policies and initiatives aimed at making culture and creativity a driving force for sustainable development and urban regeneration.”- UNESCO Creative Cities Network

With its ramblas, public squares, multi-modal infrastructure, and ample street space dedicated to walking, Barcelona is a place where people enjoy shared civic spaces. Curious to understand what contributes to Barcelona’s distinct sense of place, I explored how being a City of Literature informs the public realm.


The Biblioteca de Catalunya, one of 40 libraries within Barcelona, is located within the Raval, which for me had the organic feel of a well-worn local’s neighborhood just outside of the tourist fray. The meals were inexpensive, the bookstores radical. It was a place of stickers, exhaust fumes, and stubbed toes. With people socializing, studying, working, or enjoying a reprieve from the busy city street, the Biblioteca de Catalunya felt very much a part of the neighborhood’s everyday use.

Biblioteca de Catalunya Photo: Pep Herrero

With its soft, curved arches, unadorned stone, and rawness, the Library recalls its 14th century neighbors in the Gotic district just down the street. “There is a rawness about some of the buildings, each single stone bears a different texture, has weathered in a different way. It is easy to get an idea of the stonemason at work, to see how each stone has been cut and placed,” writes Colm Tobin in Homage to Barcelona. “Barcelona is the only city in the world whose centre looks like this. It is the only city in the world which was powerful during the fourteenth century and not afterwards.”

The building complex is composed of a series of brick buildings constructed between the 15th and 18th centuries which originally housed and centralized six hospitals in the City. It is recognized as an exemplar of civic Gothic architecture and known for being the place where Gaudi died after being hit by a tram. The complex is grand yet intimate. The arched, covered walkways offer a delightful, organic transition from busy street to civic gathering space to the quiet interiors. Trees balance sunlight and shade and there is ample seating and informal social space.

Bottom Photo: Pep Herrero

Throughout Barcelona, red and yellow striped Catalan flags hang from windows and storefronts. Menus offer Catalan, Spanish, and English options. Aptly, it is at the Biblioteca de Catalunya—its mission is to conserve, collect, and disseminate Catalan linguistic and cultural heritage—where I pause and truly contemplate the concept of dual nationhoods. What does it feels like spatially, culturally, linguistically, personally? The Biblioteca de Catalunya is a place where people want to be—the cool air a reprieve from the Mediterranean sun, the many options for learning and being part of a community—and it holds the history, resources, and space for such questions.


Fatbottom Bookstore in Raval

“Peace must be founded upon dialogue and mutual understanding. Peace must be built upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of humanity.” – excerpt, UNESCO Mission

For me, empathy happens during the act of reading as I gain new insights into what it might feel like to experience the life of another and then take that curiosity and openness out into the world. This journey always begins at the bookstore. I spend hours in them—the smell of old paper, the silence, the whispery heated conversations, and that fresh new voice that makes me question what I know. There is the unique display and organization of the books—politics might be up-front, the most disruptive ideas creating threshold into the space.

El Lokal Bookstore

Barcelona was an anarchist stronghold during the Spanish Revolution and a seat of resistance against Franco’s impending reign as a nationalist dictator. So the anarchist bookstore El Lokal rose to the top for a visit. The bookstore’s website describes it in Catalan as “a space in the center of Barcelona for the creation and experimentation of new projects, as a meeting point for struggles and resistance, and a means for the sale and distribution of alternative materials and libertarian culture.” I browsed the books, surreptitiously watching the women who worked there as they engaged with patrons, talking and laughing. In this sacred space of dissent and radical thought, I was struck, more so than in any other part of Barcelona, by the proximity of history, how it’s in the stonework and the air—and what it reveals as a distinct and very real possibility in our own time.

In my opinion, the best bookstores always hold something of their neighborhoods and cities—a specific kind of informality or order, an aesthetic and sensibility conveyed in the storefront, the ways in which people gather inside and out. In Barcelona, the bookstores were very much of their places—charmingly cramped and inhabited by locals in the old city Raval, neat and orderly in the more recently gridded Eixample—a kind of civic and cultural infrastructure that sets the tone as radical, provocative, artistic, political, mysterious, adventurous, but most of all: dialogic, antithetical to monoculturalism.

After a long day of bookstore hopping, I returned to the hotel with my kids. We’d picked up a children’s book along the way, which the man working at the front desk asked to see.

“It’s in Catalan,” he said with a big smile, somewhat surprised.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“That’s us.”