Gaudí's Barcelona: On The Modernist Trail
Updated: Jan 10
If you like to travel with a theme, you've come to the right place. This is the ultimate guide to Antoni Gaudí's UNESCO architecture in Barcelona Spain. His architectural masterpieces are among Barcelona's best sites.
Barcelona is a city of boundless culture. To many Catalonians, Barcelona is Gaudí. Or at least he's its unofficial saint. There's been no artist in history to have such an absolute influence on a city. Gaudí designed everything from mansions, to churches, to public parks in inimitable style.
Seven of Gaudí's creations in Barcelona are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including: Park Güell, Palau Güell, Casa Milà, Casa Vicens, Gaudí’s work on the Nativity facade and crypt of La Sagrada Família, Casa Batlló and the Crypt (church) in Colonia Güell.
I've written on several Gaudí sites separately. I admit I'm a little obsessed. Everything about his work is so unique. It captivates me.
The Life of Antoni Gaudí
In 1851, Gaudí was born in Reus, Spain to humble origins. He showed an early predilection for architecture. He attended the Provincial School of Architecture in Barcelona. His eccentric talents were immediately apparent.
1. Early Life and Career
Despite poor grades, Gaudí eventually graduated. The dean of the school remarked, “I am not sure to whom I presented a diploma today, to a madman or to a genius.”
Over Gaudí's 50 years of independent practice, he concocted some of the most imaginative architectural forms in history. They are mostly in Barcelona, but there is a beautiful villa in Comillas as well.
As a young man, Gaudí was a handsome man and a dapper dresser. He wore well cut suits, attended opera at the famous Liceo theater, and enjoyed dining out. As a young man, he wasn't particularly devout.
Later in life, that all changed while working on the Sagrada Família. Gaudí adopted an ascetic lifestyle and neglected his appearance. In family-centric Spain, he never married. He was a private man who devoted his life to his work and the Catholic faith.
Gaudí fasted frequently, once endangering his own life. In his last decades, he was consumed only with religion and the Sagrada Família.
Gaudí was a multi-disciplinary artist, who went through several design phases in his life -- Neo-Moorish, Neo-Gothic, and then more naturalistic. He not only created buildings, but he also designed interiors and furniture. he didn't like to draw architectural plans though. He worked mostly from models.
2. Gaudí's Accidental Death
In 1926, Gaudí was hit by a tram on a busy street on his way to church. He was knocked unconscious. He was dressed in tatters and didn’t have any identification on him.
People assumed he was a homeless person and left him on the street. Eventually, Gaudí was taken to a hospital, but received subpar medical care. By the time people realized who he was, it was too late to save him.
At his funeral, half of Barcelona dressed in black.
3. Gaudí's Legacy
Gaudí was not revered in his lifetime, except in his home city of Barcelona. He died without knowing how famous his body of work would become. Gaudí never fit into any stylistic movement. He was a genius who broke all the rules to create his own vision.
Gaudí 's work was quite controversial. It contained Orientalist, Gothic, and Art Nouveau elements. It reflected his obsession with nature. Gaudí famously said: "There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature. Therefore, buildings must have no straight lines or sharp corners."
Aside from architectural decoration, Gaudí is equally notable for his advances in engineering. He studied geometry in his youth. His work regularly featured innovative shapes -- catenary curves, hyperbolic paraboloids, hyperboloids, and helicoids. Gaudí used these shapes to create efficient, but still organic looking, buildings.
Interest in Gaudí's work declined after his death during anti-clerical times. But interest was revivified and he won widespread acceptance in the 1950s. Now, Gaudí is regarded as a genius. His characteristic style is distinctive in architectural history, both awe-inspiring and bizarre. It's never really been emulated.
Since 1992, there's been a fast track campaign to make Gaudí a saint. Most artists aren't beatified, so this would be an unusual move. But Gaudí not only devoted his architectural life to Sagrada Família, he led an exemplary Christian life in the tradition of a religious mystic.
Gaudí didn't die a martyr's death. Without that qualification, before beatification, the Vatican requires proof of a miracle. Nonetheless, in 2003, the Vatican expressed interest in the portfolio of research submitted about Gaudí. No doubt reports of miracles will soon be forthcoming.
In 2010, in a further positive sign, Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the Sagrada Família as a basilica.
The Modernista Movement in Barcelona
Spain's "Modernista" architecture is a movement that flourished from the late 1880s to the early 1910s. It's limited to Catalonia, but could be considered the Spanish branch of the Art Nouveau movement. Bourgeoise ideas were rejected. The requirement to strictly follow a given historical style fell out of favor.
Driven by the industrial revolution, Barcelona was a fertile environment for the new movement. The city was bursting at its medieval seams and needed to grow. Somewhat ironically, the city's wealthiest industrial barons commissioned modernist architects like Gaudí to design their villas and showplaces.
Barcelona Modernism is a mix of ingenious and whimsical creations. The movement valued curves over straight lines. It elevated asymmetry, rich decoration and detail, use of natural and organic motifs, and dynamic shapes. Overall, Modernism is highly ornate, with much focus on aesthetic details.
Guide to Gaudí's UNESCO Buildings in Barcelona:
1. Sagrada Família
The undisputed jewel of Barcelona is Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s wildly creative opus. It inspires emotion.
People tend to either love it or hate it. George Orwell, for example, famously derided Sagrada Família was "one of the most hideous buildings in the world." It definitely left me slack jawed and amazed.
Gaudí began work on the "Sandcastle Cathedral" at age 31. He slaved away exclusively on it for the last 11 years of his life, eschewing other work. He claimed that his client, God, was "not in a hurry." Though he built his reputation building fancy homes for the rich, Sagrada Família was to be a "cathedral for the poor."
Construction began in 1882. Gaudí was hired the next year. When Gaudí died in 1926, only one quarter of the very vertical basilica was complete, with no end in sight. Over 130 years later, the basilica still isn't finished. The tentative projected completion date is 2030.
Gaudí was a devout Catholic and is often referred to as "God's architect." Sagrada Família is a complicated blend of nature and religion themes. In rather megalomaniac fashion, it was supposed to constitute a complete history of the Catholic faith.
The interior is the best and most luminous part. It's effectively a sculpture, reinvented as architecture. The nave is lined with pale columns. They look like a forest, with columns branching out like trees. And, in fact, Gaudí believed that "trees were buildings."
When completed, the mud colored basilica will have 18 towers, with 6 awaiting completion. The tallest tower, now 85 meters, represents Jesus Christ and will be 172.5 meters high when finished. Then, in ascending order of height, there will be 12 towers representing the 12 apostles, 4 towers for the Evangelists, and one tower for the Virgin Mary.
The exteriors' facades are like huge altarpieces. There are three of them: (1) the Nativity Facade that was finished during Gaudí's lifetime; (2) the dour and controversial Passion Facade that marks the crucifixion; and (3) the Glory Facade, which is under construction now and will depict the road to eternal salvation.
The audioguide provides a detailed history of the basilica, and is well worth the investment. Try to come when the sun streams through the stained glass, between mid morning and late afternoon (though there will be fewer crowds at other hours). And you should expect crowds. More than 20 millions tourists visit every year.
Practical Information for Visiting Sagrada Família:
Address: Carrer de Mallorca, 401, 08013 Barcelona. The main entrance is by the Nativity Facade. Ticket windows are near the Passion Facade.
Hours: Open daily 9:00 am to 8:00 pm in summer, 8:00 am to 6:00 pm in winter
Ticket prices here
Passes: Entry is included in the Barcelona City Pass, but you can't skip the line. The Barcelona Card gives you a small discount, if you choose either an audio guide or top views tour.
Pro tip: Buy a timed entry ticket online in advance for shorter waits. Be prepared to specify what you want to add (audio guide, Gaudi house, tower access) to the basic ticket. There is a free 1 hour mass every Sunday at 9:00 am, but you can't take photos or tour the place.
Getting there: It's on the HOHO tour bus route and at Metro Sagrada Família
Sagrada Familia Blog: with all the latest analyses and updates on construction
2. Casa Batlló
Casa Batlló is Antoni Gaudí at his hallucinatory, dreamlike best.
This time, Gaudí conjured a building in the image of a dragon. The strange bone-like facade commands your attention. It's studded with skull mask balconies and capped by a sinuously scaled roof with a solitary sword-like tower.
The original building that was transformed into Casa Batlló dates from 1877. In 1900, Josep Batlló y Casanovas, a wealthy textile industrialist, purchased the building. In 1903, he hired Gaudì and gave him full creative freedom.
Casa Batlló adopts the Art Noveau style in vogue in Barcelona and the world at that time. But it's an extreme curvilinear version. Nonetheless, it was an instant hit, unlike La Pedrera, and was nicknamed the House of Bones.
Casa Batlló might be Gaudì's most iconic facade. It's a kaleidoscope of blue, mauve, and green tiles. Though it's a bit hard to see, the facade's actually uneven and slightly wavy, like a calm sea. Its marine-like surface that doubles as a dragon's skin.
The interior is no less beautiful, filled with bright tiles, curved wood, and stained glass -- all in organic forms and curvy shapes. The motif is an undersea grotto lit by skylights shaped like tortoise shells. The ceiling droops and swerves poetically.
The long gallery of the main suite is called the Noble Floor. It overlooks the Passeig de Gràcia via a magnificent window. The oversized window is astonishing, decorated with bone-like pillars and watery colors. The curved wood windows are so large that they have spawned another nickname for the building -- the House of Yawns.
Practical Information for Visiting Casa Batlló:
Address: Passeig de Gràcia, 43, 08007 Barcelona
Hours: Open daily 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, last entrance at 8:00 pm
Entry fee: rather expensive, check here. Free entry with the Barcelona Pass and a discount with the Barcelona Card
Metro: Passeig de Gràcia (Green Line, L3), Calle Aragó-Rambla (Catalunya exit).
Tel: +34 932 16 03 06
3. Casa Milà/La Pedrera
One of my very favorite Barcelona sites is the intriguing Casa Milà. Or, as it’s more commonly known, La Pedrera, which translates to “The Quarry." It's a masterpiece of nature. In classic Gaudí fashion, the nature theme is visible in its overall look and down to the tiniest detail. Everything carried forward the theme.
The building ripples and waves like a burbling ocean. There's not a right angle or straight line anywhere. Gaudí wanted it to resemble a "petrified wave." To that end, he used contrasting elements -- a heavy stolid stone facade and a wavy shape.
The undulating facade isn't a load bearing wall. It's a self supporting curtain wall that connects to the internal structure of each floor via curved iron beams. This gave Gaudí freedom to create irregular floor plans. It was one of his cutting edge architectural innovations.
Notice the expressive grills of the 32 exterior balconies. No two are alike. The grills look modeled after seaweed or sea life from the ocean. They look like they're moving, being tossed around by waves. Between the building's curves and the balcony grills, you could be viewing an underwater landscape.
You enter the interior via a wrought iron door that resembles a butterfly. Inside, unlike outside, there's riotous color. The paintings in the entrance hall were created and overseen by Symbolist painter Aleix Clapes. The dreamy paintings are tapestry like and contain mythological and floral themes.
But perhaps La Pedrera's most notable feature is its lunar landscape roof. The undulating, uneven roof has winding pathways and a spiky forest of 30 chimneys.
It's filled with whimsical structures, lording over and guarding the building. Some chimneys are freestanding structures. Others are joined in groups of 3 or 4. Some are covered with fragments of marble and broken tile.
La Pedrera is now considered one of the crown jewels of the Art Nouveau movement. It's been used in 15 movies. (To me, the rooftop is reminiscent of Tatoine in Star Wars.) It's a main setting in Dan Brown’s 2017 novel, Origin.
Practical Information for Visiting La Pedrera/Casa Milà:
Address: Passeig de Gràcia, 92
Phone: (+34) 902 202 138
Entry fee: rather expensive, options are here, 22 euros. You can get a combination ticket for a day tour and guided night tour for 41 euros. Entry is free with the Barcelona Pass and you get a discount with the Barcelona Card.
Hours: Monday-Friday: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
4. Güell Palace
Located off La Rambla, Palau Güell, or Güell Palace, doesn't immediately scream Gaudí. It's more traditional and dark, almost like a luxurious Venetian palace. It has a creepy Gothic vibe. And I mean that in a good way. Don't miss this wondrous building.
The Palau Güell commission came at the outset of Gaudí's career, when he was establishing himself as an architect. Built between 1886-88, it was designed for Eusebi Güell, a prominent industrialist and Gaudí's greatest patron. It was the family's residence until they moved to Park Güell in 1910.
The home centers on a main room that was used to entertain wealthy guests. It has a 17 meter high ceiling crowned by a parabolic dome. Small holes are perforated near the top, where lanterns are hung at night to give the appearance of a starlit sky. It's almost like a planetarium experience.
Most of Gaudí's experimentation is in the basement, which reflects Gaudí's early enthusiasm for using natural shapes, with pillars in the form of mushrooms.
The roof, like many Gaudí creations, also features colorful ceramic shapes and 20 chimneys. One conical chimney looks like a stack of green olives smooshed together. Gaudí tended to put his most innovative work in the top and bottom of buildings to avoid the ire of his clients.
Practical information for Visiting Palau Güell:
Address: Carrer Nou de la Rambla 3-5, Barcelona
Hours: Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm.
Entry fee: 12 euros, with discounts available for students, seniors, and children. Audio guide included in entrance fee. There's a 25% discount with the Barcelona Card.
Pro tip: Expect to spend 1-1.5 hours there
5. Park Güell
Park Güell might be Gaudí's most fantastical creation. It's a 45 acre public park and garden complex located on Carmel Hill in Barcelona. It's a little wonderland.
Initially, Eusebi Güell asked Gaudí to design a mini city with luxury homes. Gaudí worked on the project from 1900-14. But the plan backfired; it was a commercial flop. Only 4 of the planned 60 houses were built.
Before the plug was pulled, Gaudí had created a plaza, two Hansel and Gretel gatehouses, a serpentine bench, colonnaded walkways, and steps. He actually purchased one of the homes and lived there for almost 20 years before he moved into Sagrada Família.
Probably the most famous icon at the Park Güell is the multicolored mosaic lizard known as "El Drac," or the dragon. Gaudí collaborated with Joseph Maria Jujol, a much younger architect, on the tile work.
Most of the park is free to visit and provides some nice views over the city. But the central Monumental Zone has a fee.
If you want to visit the former home of Gaudí, the museum is located just outside the Monumental Zone in the free section of the park. He lived there from 1906-25. The museum requires a separate timed entry ticket to visit, which you can buy online.
Practical Information for Visiting Park Güell:
Address: Calle Claudi Güell, 08690 Colònia Güell, Santa Coloma de Cervelló, Barcelona Entry Fee: 7.50 euro with discounts available. A combo ticket for Sagrada Família, Park Güell, and Gaudí’s House Museum is 24 euros. Free admission with the Barcelona Pass and a discount with the Barcelona Card
Pro tip: Park Güell requires walking up a hill from most locations. It's close to Sagrada Familia, so you can visit both on the same day.
6. Casa Vicens
The regal looking Casa Vicens is the "house where it all began." It was Gaudí's first major work after completing his architectural degree. It was one of Europe's first Art Nouveau type buildings and marked the beginning of the Spanish Modernista moment.
Casa Vicens was commissioned by Manuel Vicens, the owner of a brick and tile factory. Gaudí worked on the home for five years from 1883-88. Gaudí appeared to have carte blanche and a generous budget.
Technically, this is considered one of Gaudí's "orientalist works" in which he used Neo-Moorish designs. At Casa Vicens, he amped up the drama. He wanted the facade to look like lush vegetation was growing on the walls.
Gaudí used contrasting materials and forms -- geometric patterns, colorful ceramic tiles, a horseshoe-shaped staircase, nature motifs, iron balconies, and abstract brick ornamentation. I liked the small yellow flowers decorating the tiles. Overall, the design looks more tesselated than organic, but Gaudí's concept was new.
Inside, Casa Vicens is a riot of color. The walls are covered with plant, bird, and seashell motifs. The ceiling are remarkable, decorated with paper mâché plant motifs between the beams. Every ceiling is different.
The main floor consists of the dining room, smoking room, and covered porch. The bedrooms are on the first floor, full of exuberant leafy decor. The second floor has a display on Casa Vicens' history.
In 1925, Gaudí was asked to build an addition to the home by Casa Vicens' new owner. Hard at work on the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí declined. He recommended his colleague Joan Baptista Serra de Martínez, who extended the home in perfect harmony with Gaudí’s original work.
The building was a private residence until 2014 when it was purchased for an unspecified amount (the asking price was 35 million euros). Luckily for us travelers, it was restored and refurbished for two years to return it to its original state.
In November 2017, Casa Vicens opened for public tours. It's fast becoming a Gaudí hotspot in Barcelona, especially for those on the UNESCO route.
Practical Information for Visiting Casa Vicens:
Address: Carrer de les Carolines, 18-24, 08012 Barcelona Entry Fee: 16 €, discounts available. Entry is free with the Barcelona Pass. There is a discount with the Barcelona Card.
Metro: Metro: L3 stop Fontana
Hours: Open daily Monday to Sunday 10:00 am to 8:00 pm, last admission 6:40 pm. In the winter, open until 7:00 pm, last admission 5:40 pm
Online ticket options Passes: Free with the Barcelona Pass, 3 House Combo Pass, Modernista Pass. Discount with the Barcelona Card Website