Chances are, your first family trip to Barcelona was a whirlwind tour heavy on Picasso exhibits and Antoni Gaudi architecture. Next time you go, dig a little deeper and see the city’s ancient history at specific sites and exhibitions.
The expedition-minded Romans spent enough time in present-day Barcelona — which they called Barcino — to leave behind plenty of fascinating ruins, including long-ago city walls that enclosed what’s now the city’s medieval Ciutat Vella area in the Gothic quarter. Some historians speculate this ancient Roman colony, founded around 15 BC, may actually predate the city of Rome itself.
Remains of the old Roman walls showing defense towers and arches can be viewed at numerous places, including Carrer del Correu Vell and Plaça de Ramon Berenguer. The city’s necropolis and its approximately 70 tombs is located at Plaça Vila de Madrid, while four surviving columns from the Temple of Augustus, towering nearly 30 feet in height, are visible along Carrer del Paradís. At the Barcelona City History Museum (Museu d’Història de la Ciutat), a 2,000-year-old underground chamber that houses long-ago wine production facilities and an ancient laundry can be accessed by an elevator. The upper levels of the museum include exhibits on pottery and other artifacts recovered from these and nearby Roman-era ruins.
One of my own favorite Barcelona museums has nothing to do with Picasso or Gaudi, and instead focuses on the centuries that predate both these artists and the Romans. Part of a larger network of museums and institutions showcasing the Catalonian region, the Catalan Museum of Archaeology is a treasure trove of all things ancient. It’s divided into five spaces that move visitors chronologically from prehistory through proto-history, on to Greek and Phoenician colonization, through Roman Empire times and into the medieval period marked by the Visigoths. An impressive collection of prehistoric skulls and bones includes the jaw of a Neanderthal dating back 53,200 years.
Other expansive and beautifully presented exhibits include Iberian treasures from the third and fourth centuries BC, Roman statuary and an eighth-century crown known as the Treasure of Torredonjimeno. Even the building is remarkable, and was originally constructed to house the Graphic Arts Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona Universal Exposition. It was later reconfigured by architect Josep Gudiol to be more appropriate to exhibition spaces, and was reopened as a museum in 1932. Plan for at least two to three hours to explore, and be sure to check the museum’s online calendar of events and activities, many geared specifically to children. The museum can be accessed by cable car — disembark at the Parco Montjuïc stop.
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