By Jim Ferri
If you haven’t yet seen Barcelona, do your self a favor: put it on your must-see list. It’s unique in Europe, and pretty much everywhere else, as well.
What makes Barcelona stand out is its trove of nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites, all architectural treasures. It’s a number unmatched by nearly any other city on the world. (To put that in perspective, consider that Paris has one World Heritage Site, and the entire greater London area just four.)
Barcelona is a city that wows you on almost every turn, on many of its streets, and in many of its restaurants. If you go – and if you haven’t, you should – here’s a primer on what to see during a leisurely two-day visit.
The Gothic Quarter and Cathedral of Barcelona
Wander the streets of the city’s old, historic Barri Gòtic, the Gothic Quarter for a half hour or so. Be sure to visit the Cathedral of Barcelona, in its center, construction of which was begun in the 13th century and took 600 years to complete. One of its highlights is its cloister, which not only has several small altars but also palms and fruit trees, and a small pool with a flock of geese.
In the street in front of the Cathedral you can look down the block and see the whimsical curving roof of 19th-century Santa Caterina market, painted to reproduce the colors of fruit and vegetables sold inside it.
La Sagrada Família
Perhaps more than any other person, architect Antoni Gaudí, a leader in the Spanish Art Nouveau architectural movement, made Barcelona the tourist magnet it is today. Gaudí was a man with an extraordinary imagination who used curved stone and concrete, twisted iron, and vibrant-colored tiles, to marry design and nature. Many of the most popular sites in Barcelona were created by him.
La Sagrada Família, a monumental church, is considered Gaudí’s greatest work and is the number-one tourist attraction in Barcelona. It is still very much a work in progress.
When you visit look at it first from a distance, where it appears nearly grotesque, almost as if it were melting in the hot Spanish sun. You may well wonder how it could be as beautiful as people say.
But as you get closer, things began to take shape and you become awestruck by the beauty of it all. The stone carvings of Biblical scenes on the exterior will likely fascinate you, and you’ll be awed by its beauty and grandeur on.
You can spend hours here, walking about both inside and out. But be sure to take an elevator up into the spires (when you purchase a ticket you’re given a time to be at the elevator) to see the ongoing construction work, and go to the museum in the basement (where there’s also a lab with engineers doing tests).
Casa Batllo is the focal point on the Illa de la Discòrdia, the “Block of Discord,” a block on which stand buildings designed by four different Modernista architects including Gaudí. The block is so named because the different building styles clash so much with one another and the surrounding neighborhood.
Casa Batllo is actually a remodeling of a previous building by Gaudí, an apartment building to which he added two additional floors and a new façade. It’s an incredibly beautiful place to visit (the reason for the line out front) and something you shouldn’t miss.
Since Gaudí designed both the exterior and interior, this is a place that’s filled with surprises. The Art Nouveau façade mirrors the calm of the sea and its windows the shape of waves. Inside all of the colorful tiles mimic both the colors of the ocean and much of what’s in it.
The great draw for many though, are the whimsical (some call them mythical) chimneys that jut up from the rooftop terrace.
The Picasso Museum and Palau de la Música Catalana
Even without all of the Gaudí masterpieces, there’s enough in Barcelona to keep any traveler busy for weeks. The Picasso Museum, for example, is housed in five medieval buildings and contains a collection of paintings and drawings from the artist’s youth, as well as pieces from his later life. It’s an exceptionally popular museum.
And don’t miss the Palau de la Música Catalana, a lavish jewel of a concert hall that rivals any other in the world. It is so stunning a glass building has been constructed around it to ensure its preservation. More than 300 concerts are still held in it every year and its guided tour, which takes about an hour and a half, is well worth taking to see the interior.
La Pedrera / La Casa Milà
Although its official name is La Casa Milà, La Pedrera (meaning “stone quarry” in Catalan) was so nicknamed by the locals, and that’s how it’s referred to by just about everyone today.
La Pedrera is all undulating concrete and twisted iron balconies, and is less colorful and fanciful than Casa Batllo. The chimneys on the rooftop (including one crowned with broken Champagne bottles) rightfully draws a lot of attention from visitors, but the exhibits inside are also quite interesting.
The attic, lined with arches supporting the roof and originally designed as the laundry, now contains a series of exhibits on, and scale models of, Gaudí’s work. Below that are two apartments: one contains an audiovisual presentation on Barcelona history, the second is a recreated apartment of a wealthy family in early-20th century Barcelona.
The recreation is both beautiful and fascinating since it’s made up of the actual elements of one of the original apartments right down to the door handles and moldings. Each room contains period furniture, works of art and various household accessories.
Gaudí’s Park Güell, one of the most colorful spots in all Barcelona, was originally planned to be a residential area. Considered one of the finest examples of Gaudi’s imagination and clearly demonstrating his bond with nature, Güell is one of the most amazing parks in the entire world.
The most popular area in the park is the Gran Plaça Circular with its serpentine bench covered with colorful tiles. It sits atop a cavernous room of 87 crooked columns with a ceiling studded with ceramic tiles, and faces two Hansel-and-Gretel-style houses at the entrance.
Wander about the park and you’ll be amazed at the sometimes-bizarre beauty of it all. It’s a fantastic fantasyland of bridges and walkways made with rock from the area, walls with gargoyles jutting out, flower beds planted to appear as if undulating like waves of the ocean. There is not a single straight line in the entire park.
If you go: