The famous Barcelona Bunkers del Carmel on El Turo de la Rovira, have become something of a celebrity location, especially for Instagrammers who come here to capture one of the best sunsets in Barcelona.
But, what are the bunkers? And why is this lookout point known by such a military name?
Bunkers del Carmel is not a new Barcelona attraction, they have been here for decades, in fact, they were set up during the Civil War at the end of the 1930s.
Before they became famous, they were a known secret place for locals to come find peace and quiet, lovers to kiss or groups to smoke weed.
While this may not be at the top of your list if you are spending one day in Barcelona, if you have four days or longer, or if you are coming to visit Gaudi Barcelona Park Guell, you might want to consider adding the bunkers to your itinerary.
To make the most of it, here are some of the things to know before visiting Barcelona’s bunkers.
Where are the bunkers?
Let’s get down to the point and understand what exactly the Bunkers del Carmel is.
Firstly, there are no bunkers here, there never were, the name is probably referring to the resulting shantytowns built in the 50s which looked more like bunkers.
Barcelona’s Bunkers del Carmel is a viewpoint high up the hill above Park Guell and Barcelona which provides magnificent 360-degree views of the city.
During the Spanish Civil War, this was the location of four anti-aerial guns with their ammunition deposits and the facilities for the personnel and later on a shantytown.
The strategic value of this point meant that it was the perfect spot to place the guns which were built to help the resistance Republican Army defend Barcelona from the attacks by Franco’s regime.
The guns were built during 1937 and 1938 and placed on top of the hill, on Montjuic Castle and in Poblenou, by the sea. If you walk around the area, you will still be able to see the concrete semi-circles which mark the location of the battery of guns.
At the time, in the build-up towards WWII, Franco had two allies: Hitler and Mussolini. When the Spanish Civil War erupted, he got support from both but it was Mussolini’s air force who bombarded Barcelona incessantly during 1938 and 1939.
These anti aerial guns fought Mussolini’s planes, not Franco’s, and were critical in defending the city in what was known, at the time, as the first systematic and widely spread bombing of a large city in European history.
Mussolini’s planes dropped thousands of bombs during an estimated 200 attacks and killed almost 3,000 people. One of the most tragic attacks can still be seen in Placa Felip Neri where the walls bear witness to the dozens of children who were killed when playing nearby.
Barcelona was the economic center of the Republican front and, since 1937, its political capital too, with the Republican and Basque governments based in the city. It was also the last city to fall and the most sieged one. Here is a map of the many aerial attacks the city suffered.
In 2013, survivors and a group of leftwing Italian residents set to prosecute Italy for war crimes because of the indiscriminate attack that Mussolini set on the city’s innocent civil population. The German government had already apologized in 1997 for Hitler’s bombing of the Basque city of Guernica during the Civil War which inspired one of Picasso’s most famous paintings.
This used to be one of the most dangerous parts of Barcelona
El Turo de la Rovira, as the hill is known, is one of three hills around Barcelona. It can be crossed via the tunnel underneath which connects Barcelona with the neighborhood of El Carmel on the other side of the hill.
Historically, El Carmel was an immigrant neighborhood known for poverty, drugs and high crime rates. As a kid, we would have never come here, not least because it is quite far from Barcelona city center.
With the construction of the Metro L5 the district got connected to the city and the City Council has done a lot to improve the area.
I visited the Bunkers del Carmel with a friend of mine who is a policeman stationed in the area now, and who is also a tourist guide, and he told me the situation has improved a lot and the area is much safer these days.
When you are at the top, make a point to walk around the hill and see Carmel, a tale of how the city developed in the 20th century.
Look for the kitchens and the fountain
If you are coming here expecting to see guns like the ones in Montjuic Castle, you will be disappointed. The anti aerial guns from the Bunkers del Carmel were damaged by the Republican Army at the end of the way and later dismantled, as previously mentioned.
After the Civil War, and particularly in the 40s and 50s, Barcelona received a massive influx of migrants from other parts of Spain who came looking for opportunities.
Franco encouraged such movement, expecting that the blending of Catalans with the rest of Spain would dilute the nationalistic sentiment.
With the guns gone and migration from other parts of Spain on the up, the space around the hill was occupied by incoming families and evolved into the massive Carmel shantytown. This specific area was called El barri dels canons, or the Canon neighborhood.
Those arriving would gather around people they knew or who came from the same part of Spain, so some parts of the shantytown were known by the diminutive of cities in Andalucia.
Families took advantage of the cement constructions of the bunkers to find shelter and build their own homes on and around them. The shantytown survived for decades, and El Carmel, when I was a kid, was a dangerous part of the city one would not go to.
With the Olympic Games, Barcelona embarked on a massive clean-up that would change the face of the city forever. Among many other initiatives, this facelift included the removal of all the shantytowns like the bunkers but the cement structures were left.
If you walk around the area you can still see the tiles on the floor marking where the kitchens of the former homes were.
Something else you should look out for are the fountains that were built by the residents to ensure water supply. As most of the first residents of the shantytown were poor and the location was of difficult access and complicated geography, water was a major issue.
When the water company installed water tanks to distribute it into the city in 1968, the locals soon found a way to channel some of that water to their homes with a fountain that can still be seen today.
There is a small museum on site
If you come in the evening or at sunset as most people do, you will not be able to visit it, but there is a small museum-exhibition managed by the Museum of History of Barcelona (MUHBA) on-site that opens 10am to 2pm on Wednesday and 10am to 3pm on the weekends.
The museum talks about the two main phases this hill has been through, the Spanish Civil War and the shantytowns, and has exhibits set inside the battery command, l’Espai de Comandament de la Bateria, as well as some panels around the lookout area (although vandalism may make it hard to actually read what they say).
El Turo de la Rovira played a key role during the Spanish Civil War, I already mentioned this, but it was also home to a sprawling shantytown which survived until the 90s, right up to the 1992 Olympic Games which transformed the city.
With the Olympic Games, much of the city changed. The coastal seafront became the Olympic City, Barcelona recovered the beach and all of the remaining shantytowns were removed and their inhabitants rehoused.
If you visit the museum or walk along the beaches, you will see exhibits that talk about the shantytown phenomenon which defined much of Barcelona’s second half of the 20th-century urban development.
Short in space given the population boom and the waves of immigration, the city peaked at almost 100,000 people living in these precarious conditions.
Float over Barcelona
If you type Bunkers del Carmel on Instagram, chances are you will see one of two types of photos, one of the main lookout area and one of people posing as if floating over the city. This second type of photo is taken from a small ledge before you arrive at the main viewpoint on the left.
While this is a popular picture, the background is not as nice as the general viewpoint because you are basically facing the airport.
Bring food and drinks
In the summertime or in busy periods you may see street sellers with drinks, but there are no shops or bars selling anything nearby so if you plan to enjoy a picnic bring it with you.
A good idea would be to stop at a bakery on the way and grab sandwiches. You can also stop at a supermarket or convenience store and get cheese, cold cuts and bread.
While it is legal in Spain to drink in public, make sure you take all your empty bottles of beer or wine with you and be mindful of others around you so everyone has a good time.
There are public toilets in the area but I would not recommend using them as they are not the cleanest so maybe consider this before walking up.
Be mindful and respectful
As the area has become a major tourist magnet, it has also become crowded and this negatively impacts the locals who still live here.
Remember that this is a place where people live and where there is no tourism income or benefit to them from the crowds, be respectful.
Don’t play loud music, scream or leave trash behind, take everything you brought with you. And don’t fly drones, it is illegal to fly them above people in Spain.
Come at sunrise
As a result of the wide coverage on Instagram and its appearance in video clips and TV series, Bunkers del Carmel is a really well-known tourist attraction and the hard-to-reach location has not stopped hundreds or even thousands of visitors a day from coming here.
Sunset is prime time to come, especially in the weekends, and you will find the area full, even in the wintertime. This makes sense because sunsets are absolutely epic. Bear in mind that leaving after sunset will be tricky (in the summer buses may stop soon after sunset) and it can get really dark there so bring a torch or use your phone.
To avoid the crowds and enjoy the peacefulness of the views, I suggest you come early in the morning to see the sunrise when you are likely to find it empty. The views at sunrise are very similar to the ones at sunset. In the wintertime, sunrise is not even that early (8am ish).
After (or before) enjoying the bunkers, head down towards Park Guell. Make sure you book your tickets ahead of time because the most beautiful part of the park is closed off from free access and only accessible with a ticket.
Pick your poison
The last stretch of the walk up to the Bunkers viewpoint
Accessing the Bunkers is not easy given their remote location far from the city center. You have four options:
- Take the bus (numbers 119, 24 and 22 from Placa Catalunya) and then get there on a short walk.
- Take the metro for a longer and steeper walk through cool bridges.
- Walk from Park Guell.
- Take a cab.
If you take the bus, you will stop at the bunkers and then have to walk another 5-10min up the hill to the viewpoint as the last stretch of the road access is limited to those living there.
If you take the metro, stop at Alfons XIII and then walk up. You will cross several bridges, climb up several flights of stairs and generally walk up for almost half an hour but the journey is very nice, you may even forget you are in a big city. Plus you can stop for photos along the way.
If you walk from Park Guell, it should take 20-25min and it is a very pleasant stroll among trees and nature, although it is pretty steep (there are ramps and stairs). You could use the free bus that links Pl. Catalunya with Park Guell for anyone with a valid Park Guell ticket to combine the two.
Obviously, if you are pressed for time you can always take a cab and then walk down to Park Guell, take the bus or the metro depending on what your plan is after. Getting a cab back down in the evening after sunset will be tough as there is no traffic in the area.