The history of Barcelona stretches way back to the ancient Romans and beyond, but most visitors to this Mediterranean port have just one name on their mind: Antoni Gaudi. The exuberant and eccentric architecture of this devout Modernista artist has become a signature byword for the city, from the spiky towers of La Sagrada Familia to the snaking roof line of Casa Batllo.
Here are the top 5 don’t miss Gaudi sights in Barcelona – before you set off though, save time by pre-booking your tickets as the queues are often horrendously long for these popular sights.
1. La Sagrada Familia
The Gaudi building that dominates Barcelona’s skyline is of course the work-in-progress Sagrada Familia (‘Holy Family’) church, one of the most unusual buildings on the planet. Work on the Catholic basilica began in 1882, and Gaudi was still working on the project when he died in 1926. With the centenary completion date of 2026 on the horizon, and having received a recent papal blessing and formal consecration as a basilica, the push to complete the building is taking hold. On paper, the Sagrada Familia has a pretty traditional layout with five naves of tree-like columns and a three-naved crossing. Up close, however, it can be hard to work out the chapels from the crossing, cloister and sacristies, and visitors are divided on whether the newer work matches the quality and design of Gaudi’s original sections.
Topped with four of the building’s signature spiky towers, the Nativity facade was the first section of the church to be built, created with Gaudi’s direct involvement. On the other side of the building is the Passion facade, while facing south-east towards the sea is the Glory facade. Inside, work has been completed on the vaulting of the nave; outside, only 10 of Gaudi’s proposed 18 towers have been built. Elevators take you up the towers of the Nativity and Passion facade, from where stone steps wind snail-like for astounding views over sprawling Barcelona and its terracotta rooftops.
2. Parc Güell
The atmosphere is much more playful at the extraordinary Parc Güell. The garden was designed as part of an exclusive private housing scheme, and the elevated position takes in incredible views over Barcelona, all the way to the Barceloneta coast and the cranes at work on the Sagrada Familia. The mosaics here have as much wow factor as the views. The sinuous lines of Gaudi’s lizard-like benches crown the park’s terrace overlooking the entrance, above a cave-like forest of columns, tiled towers, pinnacles and pavilions. While we were here, we visited the Gaudi house museum to see where the master lived from 1906 to 1925. There are personal mementos, furnishings, architectural plans and drawings in this fairy tale cottage with its pink walls and steeple.
3. La Pedrera
We were walking along Carrer de Provença in Eixample, looking for Gaudi’s Casa Mila apartment building, better known as La Pedrera (‘the quarry’). As we neared Passeig Gracia, there it was: a curving multistorey structure taking up an entire corner of the two streets. Entering the building’s atrium was like walking into a futuristic film set. A winding ramp lined with apartment windows traced its way up to the open sky, and palms and plants gave the space a feeling of a semi-indoor garden. The soft pastel colours of the murals daubed on the walls and roof added a curious underwater feeling. To imagine what it must be like to live in La Pedrera, you can visit an apartment furnished with period details. The attic museum devoted to Gaudi explains the science behind the magic of La Pedrera, and another highlight is the undulating roof, with its tiled chimneys that look like centurions and of course its extraordinary views.
4. Casa Batllo
Casa Batllo is another Gaudi masterpiece on Passeig Gracia – it’s the one with the dragon roofline you see reproduced on postcards. For decades, you could only admire the building from outside, but since 2002 you’ve been able to tour inside Casa Batllo. The audio guide was very evocative, slowly taking us through the house room by room, at our own pace, and ending on the amazing rooftop with its chimneys and views.
The tour began in the light-filled stairwell and the special rooms at the front of the building, overlooking Passeig Gracia through sculpted stone and iridescent stained glass. From the door handles to the curving balustrades, air vents to the top-floor vaulted-ceiling laundries with their signature parabolic arches, every last detail was meticulously designed by Gaudi.
5. Palau Güell
The last Gaudi building we visited was Palau Güell, just off the Ramblas, featuring more of the architect’s signature parabolic arches. In fact, you enter and exit through two seaweed-decorated arches, designed by Gaudi to accommodate a horse and carriage. The palace is extraordinary, more severe perhaps but just as fantastical, from the brick-columned stables and medallion-roofed coach house to the pointed mosaic chimneys on the roof. In fact, Palau Güell feels like a medieval private castle, with its crenelated roofline and tall, narrow windows. The colors are more sombre, the columns and stairways more imposing, and the central hall looking up to the ceiling is astounding. The hall even has a screened minstrels gallery, where musicians once performed for the partygoers below. An exhibition in the attic describes the painstaking process of restoration that’s recently been completed at Palau Güell.