Magical City

Explore Barcelona’s architecture for an aesthetic introduction to this one-of-a-kind place

Photo: Rick Zimmerman

Photo: Rick Zimmerman

The first glimpse of Barcelona is unforgettable. For me, it was climbing up from the metro and stepping into dazzling sunshine on Passeig de Gràcia. The wide, grand street is filled with upscale shops, restaurants and hotels, as well as La Pedrera, a fantastical stone building with an undulating façade by famed Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.

This first impression was an apt introduction to the unique Spanish city, an unparalleld showcase of the distinct architectural style Modernisme.

A contemporary of other turn-of-the-century movements such as Art Nouveau, Catalan modernism included visual art, theater and poetry. But architecture—specifically the imaginative work of Gaudí—are the showstoppers. 
Gaudí took inspiration from nature and created organic, twisting and curved forms, which he often embellished with colored tiles. Seven of his Barcelona buildings are UNESCO World Heritage sites and two—La Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell—are easy and popular visits.

Rising dramatically above the city, La Sagrada Familia is a more-than-hundred-year-old work-in-progress. Gaudí toiled on the formidable church from 1883 to 1926. The craggy stone exterior is ornately detailed, making the interior a surprise: Soaring white columns and peaked Gothic arches are accented by vibrant stained glass windows that create an airy, light-filled atmosphere. 

Nearby, Parc Güell (pictured above) is Gaudí’s natural masterpiece, a winding, whimsical park filled with bright mosaic-tiled statues and benches, plus two miles of paths. The highlight is an expansive terrace offering a spectacular view of the city all the way out to the sea.

Seeing sacred and public spaces carried out with such imagination sets the stage for subsequent experiences in Barcelona. Exploring the Barri Gòtic, the old Gothic Quarter, visiting museums or strolling down La Rambla, the vibrant pedestrian boulevard—even digging into a paella or sipping sangria—become multisensory events that embody the city’s atmosphere of creative expression.

Hidden-Gem Houses

Visit five lesser-known architectural highlights by Antoni Gaudí
By Valerie Chesnik

1. Casa Vicens

Located near the base of the hill leading up to Parc Güell, this family residence is often considered Gaudí’s first important work. The exterior is constructed in rough stone, bricks and tiles, with checkerboard and floral patterns. The building serves as tribute to the original owner Manuel Vicens, who owned a brick and tile factory. (It’s open to neighbors on Saint Rita’s Day on May 22.)

2. Casa Batlló

Known locally as Casa del ossos, or the House of Bones, this dwelling has an organic, skeletal feel. An arched roof represents the back of a dragon, with the cross and turret being a sword plunged into its back. The house is a reference to Saint George, the patron saint of Catalonia.

3. Casa Milà

Just steps up the street from Casa Batlló, this rock-like structure is known locally as La Pedrera, or “The Quarry,” due to its stony exterior. The devoutly Catholic architect intended the home to be a spiritual homage, but overtly religious structures, such as crosses and statues of Mary and the Archangel Gabriel, were not built due to denial by local government.

4. Casa calvet

The easiest to miss of Gaudí’s houses in Barcelona, Casa Calvet’s design was hindered by its existing structure and is often considered a re-model rather than an original work. It features elements of iron, a material Gaudí often used, plus references to Catalonia, most notably in a coat of arms.

5. Palau Güell

This mansion is located close to the bustling street of La Rambla, and was built for the same benefactor for which Parc Güell was constructed. A Catalan coat of arms and other symbols represent Gaudí’s love for his homeland, while the interior reveals furniture he fashioned for the luxurious residence.

Katie Vaughn is managing editor of  Madison Magazine and Valerie Chesnik is community relations associate. 

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