On the footsteps of Gaudí
Updated: Nov 14
Give me the name of one monument you know in Barcelona.
Chances are, your reply was "La Sagrada Familia" - the monumental unfinished Basilica, and top attraction in the city. It was designed by the famous Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí, whose incredible contribution to the city has resulted in no less than seven buildings being listed as UNESCO World Heritage.
The architect's works are more numerous than this and are peppered around the city. Gaudí's style is widely considered as belonging to "Modernisme" which is deeply rooted in Catalan patriotic culture. I find that the buildings really stand out and can easily be recognised as Gaudí's work, only just for their singularity.
Whether you are a first-time tourist in Barcelona, or you are returning, I think that visiting - and revisiting! - Gaudí's masterpieces are a must. Here is an itinerary idea for a day in his footsteps.
The "essential" five sights
1# La Sagrada Familia
Gaudí's most famous work; the Sagrada Familia is the crown jewel of the city. A unique basilica, it has been under construction for over 140 years, ever since the first stone was set back in 1882! According to the official reports, no less than five generations have been watching the Basilica rise.
Christian faith is the cornerstone of the Basilica. Its name: "Sagrada Familia" is translated as "Sacred Family" - it is dedicated to the Holy Trinity, made up of Jesus, Joseph and Mary. The architecture is full of symbolism referring to the latter. Most notably, the eighteen towers that soar to the skies represent important biblical personalities. The central and highest tower is dedicated to Jesus and is surrounded by four towers of similar sizes which are for the four gospels: St Mark's, St Matthew's, St John's and St Luke's. Amidst these, topped with a star, is a lone tower dedicated to Mary. And finally, twelve smaller towers encircle these, which represent the Apostles.
One could spend a while admiring the architecture from the outside. Inspired by traditional cathedral designs such as Gothic and Byzantine movements, Gaudí created a one-of-a-kind architectural style by incorporating elements from Nature, as well as using geometric shapes. As one goes around the structure, one can see familiar appearances such as sea shells, snails and other animals. Fruit bowls top some of the Apostle towers and are enshrouded in symbolistic meaning.
The geometric shapes are emphasised on the eye-catching pinnacles of the Nativity, otherwise known as the Apostle towers. In contrast, the four Evangelist towers are topped with statues.
From the inside, the Basilica is equally impressive. What I found most striking was the explosion of colourful light coming from the stained-glass window on the otherwise stark white columns and walls. Gaudí intended for this play of light, which shines on different facades of the Basilica depending on the time of day. This may be meant to evoke the presence of God.
I would recommend visiting the Sagrada Familia early in the morning, or around sunset to take in the beautiful light. Purchasing a ticket that includes visiting the towers is also well worth it, not only to get a closer peek at the incredibly detailed pinnacles but also for the bonus of the clear views over Barcelona.
Tickets for the Sagrada Familia are best purchased in advance through the official website.
2# Park Güell
Originally commissioned by a Catalan entrepreneur, Eusebi Güell, the park was meant to be a residential area for the city's Bourgeoisie. Güell pictured the finished work in the image of British residential areas. Due to a lack of buyers and after Güell's death, the space was turned into a public park upon its purchase by the City Council in 1922.
In true Gaudí style, the park's unique architecture features many elements of nature and geometric shapes. The most notorious of all is the mosaic-tiled salamander resting on the main stairway of the entrance esplanade.
Equally as famous, the Nature Square, bordered with an undulating mosaic-tiled wall, attracts many visitors, for its unique design, and also for the beautiful views over the city. While the gardens are free to enter, the square is only accessible with a ticket. But it is worth a visit!
3# Casa Vicens
Known as the first commissioned work of Gaudí, Casa Vincens is viewed as the first monument of its kind, pioneering the Modernist movement. Thus, a world of firsts!
Built as the summer home of a wealthy broker, Casa Vicens is a striking building, inspired by Mediterranean & Oriental influences. The latter is especially evident when admiring the rooftop, which is a cupola and makes reference to Islamic cultures.
The House is open to visitors year-round and has gone through a few transformations in the years since its 1883 inception to allow this. The visit will take you through the exotic rooms and terraces of the house as well as the gardens. The second floor can be a good way to start the visit, as it holds the permanent collections which provide an overview of the building. Temporal exhibitions are also on display; information on what is currently on can be accessed via the official website.
I recommend purchasing tickets in advance, as they are cheaper online. Pricing depends on the ticket's inclusions. Be sure to check them out as there are a few different options including an olfactory guided tour and a photoshoot guided tour!
4# La Pedrera
The object of many controversies, and financial and legal problems, La Pedrera (or casa Mila as it was called at the time) is the last private housing commission work of Gaudí. The property, located on the posh Passeig de Gràcia, made a splash throughout the time of its construction. From its unique style to the blown-out budget to create it, and of course, the fact that Gaudí disregarded many of the city's legal guidelines to build it. The owners at the time had to pay a hefty fine, on top of extra expenses, to make the structure legal in the eyes of the city council.
The apartments were tenanted for years before it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984 and then opened to visitors twelve years later.
The visit is fascinating. The most popular image one would have is of the "Warrior rooftop" which shows great views of the city, but there is a lot more to see inside. The two spectacular courtyards are named after living elements: the flower and the butterfly courtyards, and provide colour, life and fresh air into the building. I also really enjoyed visiting the "Tenants' Apartment" which depicts Barcelona's life about one hundred years ago, with period furniture and explanatory information.
Once again, I recommend planning your visit as there is more than one experience on offer, the most intriguing being either the sunrise or night visits.
5# Casa Battló
Finally, the eccentric masterpiece! The building was, interestingly, first created by one of Gaudí's teachers, and was later "renovated" by Gaudí himself following its acquisition by Josep Battló, a textile manufacturer.
The colourful and quirky facade captures the imagination, as the architect himself never explained his work. The roof looks like scales which could be from a dragon or a fish. This rainbow of colours is reflected on the facade of the monument, dots of colours spread out as if it were confetti. And the balconies look like Venetian Colombina masks (half masks). I find that it inspires festivities and joy.
The interior of the building is a marvel of design. As we have come to learn, Gaudí found inspiration in elements of nature which can be spotted all around the house. The materials he used are luxurious with oak doors, wrought-iron, stained-glass etc... However, during the tour we learn that functionality is at the centre of his design.
I found Casa Battló truly amazing to visit, and I often wondered how Gaudí's mind worked to inspire such creativity in everything he built!
Certainly not to be skipped, if one only had time to visit one of his "House" projects, I would certainly recommend this one.
There are a couple of different ticket types available for purchase, but the site can be booked out due to its popularity. Booking in advance can once again save some money, so it is recommended to do so!
Bonus: the Plaça Reial lamp posts
Much lesser-known than his other works, the lamp posts of Plaça Reial are one of only two works commissioned by the city. Designed in 1878, this may be one of the architect's earliest designs. They are filled with symbolistic details, embedded in the history of Barcelona.
I think having a peek at these is a nice way to finish a tour on the "footsteps of Gaudí". The Plaça Reial is pretty close to the Gothic Quarter and the "Ciutat Vella" which are neighbourhoods filled with tiny local bars and restaurants - a perfect place to unwind.
Three lesser-known works
Gaudí graced Barcelona with so many masterpieces that, unfortunately, a quick visit could not cover them all. But for those who are more interested in lesser-known works of art, or who are returning visitors, there are more interesting sites to see!
1# Torre Bellesguard
A mysterious work of Art, the Torre Bellesguard is, to this day, the object of research to decipher more of its history. The modernist manor house is built where once stood the medieval castle, property of the last King of Aragón.
2# Casa Calvet
Largely regarded as a more conservative work, Casa Calvet is a residential structure that won the annual best building award in 1900. Whilst one cannot enter to visit, the facade can be admired free of charge! There is also a restaurant on the ground floor which can make for a lunch stop.
3# Güell Pavillions
Gaudí designed two gatehouses, the gatekeeper's lodge and a stable in this current-day park. Inspired by a myth, the design is interesting to look at, and the gardens are a lovely relaxing walk away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre.