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Still under construction after more than 130 years, Basílica de la Sagrada Família is the modern embodiment of the great medieval cathedrals that took centuries to build. But that’s not the reason it’s the most popular visitor attraction in Barcelona. No ordinary work in progress, architect Antoni Gaudí’s obsession-fueled masterpiece looks like no other building on earth. An iconoclastic blend of traditional Gothic and Modernisme, as Catalan Art Nouveau is known, it boasts intricate carvings, acres of stained glass, wildly flying buttresses and a facade brimming with Christian symbolism. With its soaring Gaudí-esque towers, set to number 18 when construction finally ends, it’s impressive from afar but better still up close. Gaudí (1852-1926) is buried in the crypt he designed.
Another inimitable creation by Antoni Gaudí, Park Güell is a sprawling public park on Carmel Hill. But what a park. At the height of his powers, Gaudí devised a wildly fantastical playground encompassing a plaza, a tower, forests of columns, nearly two miles of roads and two gingerbread houses that double as gatehouses. More remarkable still, the park was originally conceived as a housing estate for the cream of Barcelona society by Catalan industrialist Eusebi Güell in 1900. But by 1914 just two of the 60 planned houses were built, and in 1922 the city turned the grounds into a park. Colors hail from Mother Nature (Gaudí’s design respected gardens and trees) but also from mosaic tiles blanketing the curvaceous benches, backdrops and phantasmic creatures, like the Dragon Fountain guarding the entrance.
The city was called Barcino in Roman Times, an era evoked in the Barri Gòtic (aka Gothic Quarter), the oldest section of Barcelona. In this nest of narrow cobbled streets, many opening onto squares, Roman remnants like the Temple of Augustus and Roman wall mingle collegially with the medieval city that followed, from the 13th Century Barcelona Cathedral, built over six decades, to the magnificent Gothic chamber that houses City Hall. Considered the heart of town, this vibrant district is also dotted with late-20th Century buildings, restaurants and boutiques and is a splendid place to stroll.
You’ll look hard to find a straight line at Casa Batlló, the showpiece townhouse dreamed up by Antoni Gaudí for Barcelona textile magnate Josep Batlló from 1904 to 1906 and open to visitors since 2002. Responding to Batlló’s request for a house like no other, Gaudí redesigned a building he created in 1877, devising a surreal stone and glass facade with wavy windows and balcony rails shaped like masks. But the masterstroke is the colorful, idiosyncratic roof that calls to mind the back of a dragon. Equally inventive inside, walls undulate and a grand wooden staircase ascends from a hall crowned with vaulted ceilings and skylights in the form of tortoise shells.
Barcelona’s biggest, busiest and most celebrated thoroughfare, Las Ramblas boasts a wide, tree-lined pedestrian boulevard flanked by traffic lanes and teems day and night with a zesty mix of humanity — Catalans, tourists, street entertainers and alas, pickpockets. Bordered by the Gothic Quarter to the east and El Ravel to the west, Las Ramblas consists of five sections, hence the plural in its name, including Rambla de Sant Josep, an open-air flower market, and Rambla de Cantaletes, named for its famous 19th Century Cantaletes water fountain. Small wonder the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca declared, “It is the only street in the world that I wish would never end.”
Another masterstroke creation by Antoni Gaudí, Casa Milà (La Pedrera) gets its double-barreled name from industrialist Pere Milà, who commissioned it, and the building’s resemblance to a stone quarry, la pedrera in Catalan. An inspired example of Catalan Modernisme as interpreted by Gaudí, Casa Milà was designed as a family home with apartments to rent. Part fortress, part fantasy, pure Gaudí, the curvaceous six-story structure is built around a courtyard and boasts the architect’s signature sculpted pillars, stained glass and wavy windows. Though the private residences and offices are off limits, the tour takes you through five floors with stops at the roof terrace, courtyard, Espai Gaudi with its attic exhibition of the architect’s designs and the Pedrera Apartment, offering a peek at bourgeois Barcelona life in the early 20th Century.
Holding nearly 100,000 people, Camp Nou (Catalan for New Field) is not just the biggest soccer stadium in Spain but one of the largest in the world. Home since 1957 to the legendary Futbol Club of Barcelona (Barça to locals), the stadium rocks on game days. If you can’t secure a ticket or don't have time to take in a game, sample the excitement at Camp Nou Experience, the stadium's on-campus museum. Watch FC Barcelona action on enormous interactive screens and learn the team’s history and connections to Catalan culture. Then take the self-guided tour and check out the players’s tunnels, dressing rooms, press room, trophy wall with its golden boots—and the stadium itself, where you gaze out over a magnificent field of green.
Years before he commissioned Park Güell, Catalan industrialist Esubi Güell tapped a young Antoni Gaudí to design Palau Güell, an urban palace outfitted with apartments and an enormous events space steps from Las Ramblas. Built between 1886 and 1888, Güell’s whimsical mansion is Catalan Art Nouveau, aka Modernisme, writ large and another fantastical Gaudí creation you can tour. A riff on a Venetian palazzo, albeit crowned with Gaudi-esque turrets, the palace boasts a magnificent great room and is fronted with towering arched gates where horse-drawn carriages arrived (note the horsewhips incorporated into the design of the iron grillwork).
For centuries, Montjuïc, a wide, flat hill overlooking the harbor, was famous for its fortresses (a 17th Century remnant still stands). But Barcelona’s celebrated 1929 International Exposition created a community of cultural buildings, and the 1992 Olympics brought still more, making verdant Parc Montjuïc a haven for museums, sports (both watching and doing) and gazing over the city from a garden or tree-lined greens. The hill is Barcelona’s museum magnet, home to Fundació Joan Miró, Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya, the Museu Etnológico de Barcelona and the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. As you’d expect, the Pavelló Mies van der Rohe, the 1929 Exposition’s German Pavilion designed by the renowned modernist, is Bauhaus architecture at its finest. Meanwhile, the Olympic Ring boasts the Lluís Companys Olympic Stadium with a 1992 interior in a 1929 exterior, Arata Isozaki’s iconic covered sports palace and Santiago Calatrava’s sinewy telecommunications tower. All this and a Botanical Gardens, too.
It’s brimming with history, but perhaps the best reason to visit Montjuïc Castle (Castell de Montjuïc) is for the breathtaking views of the port, city and true blue Mediterranean from this forbidding brick fortress at the top of Montjuïc hill. Built on the site of a 1640 military fortress dating from the Catalan Revolt against Spanish authority, Montjuïc Castle became a symbol of submission after the Catalan defeat by Spain in 1714, was captured by the French during the Napoleonic Wars and for decades served as a prison. Prisoners on both sides of the Spanish Civil War were tortured and shot here between 1936 and 1939, including Lluís Companys, President of Catalonia and a supporter of the Spanish Republic. Recent renovations have opened parts of the castle to visitors, including the tower and dungeons.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) grew up in Barcelona and enjoyed life-long ties with the city. So it’s fitting that the first museum devoted to his work opened here in 1963 while he was still alive. With 4,251 works including 920 donated by the artist, the Picasso Museum (Museu Picasso) boasts one of the world’s most complete collections by the prolific Spaniard who helped change the course of 20th Century art and had a hand in the invention of Cubism, collage and constructed sculpture. Billeted in five adjoining Medieval palaces in La Ribera, the museum houses paintings, engravings, drawings and ceramics, mostly but not exclusively from the artist’s early years through his celebrated Blue Period (1901-1904).
The Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya-MNAC boasts a vast, century-sweeping collection of Catalonian and European art from important 11th Century Romanesque mural paintings to modern works by the likes of Picasso, Fortuny and Joan Miró. Aptly, it’s housed in a palace — the grand Palau Nacional built for the 1929 International Exposition on a hill in Parc de Montjuïc (the building’s iconic dome and towers are visible across the city). It’s easy to plunge into a day of aesthetic time travel, moving from one superlative collection to another. Look for the world’s most important concentration of early Medieval art including reconstructed interiors of early churches, superb Gothic art from the 13th to 15th Centuries, Renaissance and Baroque art embracing works by El Greco and Velázquez and the moderns, including Catalan Modernisme and architecture by Catalan’s favorite son, Antoni Gaudí. Whew!
Churches have stood on this site since the 4th Century, but when the Catedral de Barcelona, aka the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, went up between the 13th and 15th Centuries, a permanent (and breathtakingly beautiful) place of Catholic worship arrived. The richly decorated main facade, laced with the intricate carvings and gargoyles reminiscent of northern Gothic churches, is actually from 1870 but complements the earlier, more austere Catalan Gothic structure. Inside prepare to be awed by the expansive nave illuminated by towering stained glass windows, exquisitely carved choir stalls and 28 side chapels. Buried in the crypt are the remains of Barcelona’s St. Eulalia, a 13-year-old martyr tortured to death by the Romans. And be on the lookout for the 13 geese cackling in the cloister, one for each year Eulalia lived and a centuries-old warning system signaling the presence of intruders.
A Catholic church has stood on this site in the Ribera district since the late 7th Century, which makes the Basílica of Santa Maria del Mar, built in 1329, seem like a latecomer. An elegant example of sober Catalan Gothic, the horizontal church boasts a textbook “ad quadratum” interior, geometric and serene. A raging fire in 1936 gutted much of the church but spared the walls, columns and, fortuitously, the stained glass, which dates from an exquisite 15th Century Rose Window to José Fernández Castrillo’s 1995 window next to the sacristy commemorating the 1992 Summer Olympics.
Here’s where you come when you want the big picture. The highest peak in Catalonia’s Collserola range, Tibidabo Mountain offers breathtaking views of Barcelona and the surrounding coastline and serves up wildly different ways to enjoy them. From the observation floor of Torre de Collserola, Sir Norman Foster’s futuristic telecommunications tower made famous during the 1992 Olympics, views are panoramic from almost 500 feet above the city. For those willing to climb the stairs, spectacular overlooks can be found from the top of the Templo del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus), a soaring early 20th Century Gothic church and Romanesque fortress built at the mountain’s summit. Or gaze down on the city from the Ferris wheel or vintage merry-go-round at Tibidabo Amusement Park, a gentle-but-charming, child-friendly park opened in 1899 on the mountaintop.
Hands-on exhibitions and experiments fuel CosmoCaixa Barcelona, the enormous, whiz-bang museum that embraces science, space, nature, the environment and a planetarium and aims to make the sciences come alive. Founded in 1981 as the Science Museum of Barcelona and reopened in 2004 after a six-year renovation, the museum features five floors that spiral underground, winding around a tropical tree from the Amazon. At the bottom you’ll find an enormous Amazon rainforest populated by over 100 living species of birds, insects, piranhas, snakes and alligators. A geological wall displays the earmarks of erosion, faults, volcanoes and sedimentation. A Hall of Matter traces evolution beginning with Big Bang. Curious do-it-yourselfers can create a sandstorm, conjure up a tornado or see how volcanoes develop. All this 21st-century action unfolds behind the quirky, colorful facade of a historic structure built in 1909 as a home for the blind.
A lake, museums, botanical garden and acres of picturesque greenery are a sampling of what awaits in Parc de Cuitadella, Barcelona’s oldest and most popular central park. Built on land once occupied by a controversial fortress, the park was designed by the celebrated Catalan architect Josep Fontserè in 1872 and redesigned to accommodate sculptures and other enhancements for the 1888 Barcelona Universal Exposition, including the modernist “Monument to the World Fair” by Antoni Clavé. A young Antoni Gaudí famously worked on Fontserè’s baroque Cascada fountain, loosely inspired by Rome’s Trevi Fountain. Stroll the promenades, admire the diverse plant life, break out a picnic. And stop by Barcelona Zoo, home to more than 7,000 animals including elephants, dolphins, snow leopards, hippos and gorillas.
Here’s where you’ll spend most of your time in Barcelona. The city’s oldest neighborhood, Districte de Cuitat Vella, or Old City, is a feast of big-time museums, historic churches and emblematic architecture, encompassing most of Barcelona’s popular visitor attractions, from Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece Palau Güel to the sweeping Parc de la Cuitadella, the city’s oldest and most popular public park. The main thoroughfare is the storied Las Ramblas, separating the once-seedy Ravel district and pedestrian-friendly Barri Gòtic, or Gothic Quarter. To the east stands the fashionable Ribera district, and hugging the city’s coastline is Barceloneta, home to sandy Barceloneta Beach, the city’s busiest (and liveliest).
Barcelona’s answer to Paris’s Sacre Coeur, Templo del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (the Temple of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) sits at the summit of Mount Tibidabo and commands spectacular views of the city. Built between 1902 and 1961, Sagrat Cor is actually two churches, one on top of the other — a Romanesque stone fortress on the bottom and a Neo-Gothic church on top, crowned by an enormous statue of Jesus. The resulting architectural mash-up is fascinating, if much vilified. (Visit and decide for yourself.) Views from the outdoor stairs connecting the two are superb, but for the ultimate heart-in-mouth Barcelona vistas, take the elevator to the top.
Fundació Joan Miró in Parc du Montjuïc is a double pleasure for art lovers. It holds the largest single collection of paintings, sculpture, ceramics and textiles by Joan Miró (1893-1983), the Barcelona-born master of primary colors and morphed shapes, including important works donated by the artist. And the collection is housed in a stand-out museum, a modern chalk-white complex designed in 1975 by renowned Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert (1902-1983), a friend of Miró. With more than 14,000 pieces to choose from, the museum showcases Miró’s evolution from realism and surrealism to his unique linear take on moons, birds and female forms. Works by Balthus, Marcel Duchamp, Claes Oldenburg and other Miró contemporaries help place the artist’s work in a 20th-century context. Bonus: in keeping with Miró’s wish that the museum inspire contemporary artists to experiment, the museum showcases new work in Espai 13.
The biggest beach in Barcelona, Barceloneta Beach is a sandy, palm-lined expanse that cozies up to the Mediterranean and serves as a congenial day-and-night playground for locals and visitors. Named for the 18th-century Cuitat Vella neighborhood that encompasses it, the beach is dotted with predictable seafood restaurants and waterfront bars and, less predictably, boasts literary bona fides (Cervantes set a pivotal scene in Don Quixote here). A promenade hugs the sand, popular with cyclists, runners, strollers and Trixi cycle taxis.
Placa Espanya, a large, eye-catching plaza just past the center of town, is an urban multi-tasker. Designed for the 1929 International Exhibition at the base of Montjuïc, Placa Espanya is architecturally pleasing, acts as a junction for several of the city’s major thoroughfares and leads to the Palau Nacional, home to the Museu Nacional d’ Art de Catalunya-MNAC with its world-class art collection. Its distinguishing features are a soaring pair of Deco-esque pillars known as the Venetian Towers and an ornate fountain designed by Catalan architect Josep Maria Jujol, a colleague of Antoni Gaudí. The intriguing circular red brick building in its orbit is Barcelona’s 19th-century bullring, which saw its last fight in 1977 and morphed into a bustling shopping complex designed by British architect Richard Rogers in 2011, with six floors of restaurants, movie theaters and shops.
San Pau Recinte Modernista is the largest Art Nouveau structure in the world, which makes it all the more remarkable that this magnificent collection of pavilions, crowned with colorful domes and intricate carvings, was home until 2009 to Barcelona’s historic Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. In the belief that beautiful surroundings promote good health, renowned Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner lavished the hospital, built from 1905 to 1930, with sculptures, stained glass and mosaics rife with images of hope and healing. Gardens connect the pavilions (Domènech believed in the therapeutic value of flowers and fresh air). Tours take you through the buildings, grounds and underground tunnels that connect them and offer a fascinating mix of artistic, local and medical history (the hospital, now relocated to a new high-tech building, was founded in 1401).
True to its name, the Barcelona Museum of History (MUHBA Museu d’Historia de Barcelona) exhibits the city’s rich historical heritage, but don’t look for a brick-and-mortar building. MUHBA embraces historic sites throughout the city from Medieval and industrial Barcelona to a ghostly air-raid shelter from the Spanish Civil War. But Barcelona’s beginnings as the Roman city of Barcino in the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) form the beating heart of MUHBA’s bounty. For the closest the city offers to time travel, explore the excavated network of subterranean Roman streets and villas discovered by accident in the 1920s, the remnants of the Temple of Augustus and the Roman burial ground.