Barcelona City Plan, 1891 | © Amadalvarez /WikiCommons
Barcelona City Plan, 1891 | © Amadalvarez /WikiCommons

12 Events That Shaped Barcelona's History

Tradition says the clock in the Reial Acadèmia de Ciències i Arts marks the official Barcelona time. From this buildings’ front facade in Las Ramblas, the timepiece has seen the darkest hour of the city, the Civil War; as well as its grand dawn, the Olympic Games. Here, we discuss the 12 key events that shaped Barcelona’s history.

The town’s foundation

According to a legend, when the demigod Hercules found himself where Barcelona sits today, the place appeared so welcoming that he decided to found a city with the support of Hermes, god of the arts and commerce. More historically rigorous are the evidences of the Barcino Roman colony in the area from 218 BC. One of the discrete remnants of this heritage is the old roman wall in Plaza de la Catedral, in which two venerable towers of a former city gate still flank the entrance to Bisbe Street.

Rise of the Barcelona County

The County of Barcelona was established by Charlemagne’s troops in territories disputed with the Muslims and, later on, the county asserted its political authority and seized more territories southwards on its own. As a matter of fact, the four red stripes of the Catalan flag were a personal symbol of Raymond Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona. Although, 400 years later Pere Antoni Beuter wrote that they were painted in blood over Wilfred the Hairy‘s golden shield. This epiphanic literary fiction has remained since then a powerful resounding myth.

Union with the Aragon Crown

The Medieval times were a golden age for the city. The Count Raymond Berenguer IV married Princess Petronilla of Aragon. Hence, the dynastic union between the Kingdom of Aragon and the Barcelona County was brought about. Barcelona was the political and economic center of the kingdom, and the starting point of an unprecedented Mediterranean expansion that included territories as far as Sicily and Athens. The prosperity brought by commerce pushed expansionism and marked the time of Gothic architectural magnificence in the city.

A Time of decline

Due to the Ottomans’ blocking of Eastern trade routes, commercial buoyancy became a thing of the past and the city faced a long-lasting economic decline. Curiously, the construction of a proper port was then undertaken on what today is known as Port Vell. Since the union of the Castille and Aragon kingdoms took place, things gradually got worse for the town. Political turmoil first shook Barcelona with the peasant revolt that began the Reapers’ War, and escalated until it reached a tragic climax in the awakening of the 18th century.

The War of Spanish Succession

The War of Spanish Succession concluded with the siege and occupation of Barcelona by French and Spanish Bourbon forces. Ironically, the so-called ‘Century of Enlightenment’ plunged Barcelona into a period of darkness. Part of the old rebellious neighborhood of La Ribera was razed to the ground and the Ciutadella fortress was set in its place to subdue the city. Over time, Catalonia was given permission to trade with America after lifting a centuries-long ban, and Barcelona’s urban growth didn’t take long to feel its momentum restart anew.

Industrial Revolution

Barcelona was Spain’s leading industrial city for years. As a consequence, the first railway line of the entire country was established there in 1848. Cuba was the primary focus of the Catalan commercial activity, and the raw material imports from the country fueled the prominent fabric industry. Meanwhile, the Gran Teatre del Liceu was finished in 1847 for the amusement of the new and growing bourgeois class. Nearby, Plaza Real was constructed right by Ramblas Avenue, and the famous fountain of Canaletes was installed in 1860.

 The 1888 Universal Exhibition

From 1860 onwards, an urban project in the Eixample neighborhood laid down the guidelines for the coming expansion, which since 1872 would include the first streetcars trundling by Barcelona’s streets. Plaça Catalunya emerged during this time, but curiously as a mere forsaken clearing at first; and, for decades, it was spontaneously taken over by all sorts of merchants and showmen. 1888 was the year of the Universal Exhibition, and this occasion motivated the construction of city icons and big avenues, such as Saló de Sant Joan (now called Passeig de Lluís Companys) and its starting point, the Arc de Triomf.

Arc de Triomf | © Mario Martí/Flickr

1929 International Exposition

On the verge of the 20th century, modernist artistic winds had spread across Europe. Referred to as Modernisme in Barcelona, this architectural movement was exalted by Antoni Gaudí‘s mastermind when it gave birth to the Sagrada Familia project. In 1929, Barcelona hosted the International Exposition. This event spurred the creation of new buildings, most importantly the Palau Nacional in Montjuic. By then, the city was already a display of extraordinary and diverse architectural exponents, which were to become its unmissable identity trait.

The Spanish Civil War

During this savage inner ideological clash, Barcelona was subjected to aerial bombardments. The El Carmel bunkers are a lasting remainder of the defenses the city wielded against that threat. Nowadays, they offer spectacular views of the surroundings. The outcome of the civil war opened four decades of dictatorship and political torpor. The decade of the 60s put an end to 20 years of economic stagnation, and Barcelona rapidly woke up, experiencing a demographic boom that dramatically broadened the metropolitan area.

Return to Democracy

The progressive and creative atmosphere of the 70s in Barcelona stood out in a culturally restrained Spain. Within this context, La Nova Cançó, a musical movement deep-rooted in Catalan culture, inspired democratic claims. Things were unmistakably starting to move on. In 1977, free elections were finally held in Spain. That same year, on the 11th of September, Barcelona saw a massive demonstration fill up Passeig de Gràcia, demanding further change with the motto of ‘Freedom, amnesty and Autonomy Statute.’

The 1992 Olympic Games

The feeling of ecstasy came to Barcelona in 1992 with the Olympic Games. They were framed by both unforgettable opening and closing ceremonies, performed by the prodigious theater companies La Fura dels Baus and Els Comediants respectively. This event completely bewitched the world and laid the foundations for Barcelona as a top European travel destination. Buildings and new infrastructures fully regenerated the coastline; the city and its people turned around 180 degrees towards the sea and a much brighter future.

The 2004 Fòrum de les Cultures

The 2004 Fòrum de les Cultures couldn’t be deemed a total success. Nonetheless, it sent out a message: the city had turned into a global player and it was there to stay. Soon, the Mobile World Congress landed in Barcelona and the Primavera Sound Festival sent shockwaves across the international music scene. Despite an economic crisis that hit Spain particularly hard, the city has become an irresistible magnet for visitors. After all, Barcelona’s romance with the world is more alive than ever.

Edificio Forum | © Rick Ligthelm/Flickr

Barcelona, Spain [Edificio Forum] | © Rick Ligthelm/Flickr

To know more, visit:

Museu d’Història de Barcelona