When thinking of Barcelona, what springs to mind first? Perhaps it’s the city’s enchanting perch by the sea? The world-class culinary scene? Vibrant night life? With so many modern lures and a complicated political landscape, it can be easy to overlook Barcelona’s storied history — that is, until you arrive.
While the first human settlements of this region date as far back as Neolithic times, the city of Barcelona was founded by the Romans at the end of the 1st century B.C. The colony was bound by a defensive wall, the remains of which can still be seen in Barcelona’s Old Town. After catching the eye of the Crown of Aragon, Barcelona's population grew and the city enjoyed a fruitful Medieval period, establishing Barcelona's position as the economic and political center of the Western Mediterranean for decades to come. Today, that rich and storied history shines from every corner of the city.
Of all of Barcelona’s cultural offerings, its crowning jewel is architecture. From its Roman beginnings to its Middle Age Gothic Quarter to its modernist sculptural masterpieces, Barcelona’s architecture spans an impressive 2,000-plus years. Perhaps one of the city’s most famous architectural artists is Antoni Gaudí, one of the world’s greatest champions of Catalan Modernism. His highly individualized style often includes a range of crafts, from wrought ironwork to stained glass to ceramics.
To truly appreciate his whimsical flair, let’s take a “walk” through Gaudí’s Park Güell. Originally contracted as a housing project, this public park is composed of various gardens and architectural elements. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, this park is a playground for the eyes — nature and structure blending effortlessly in a swirl of color. Be sure to admire Gaudí's intricate tile work as you pass the smiling dragon stretched along the middle of the entrance's stairway. Above the park rests a terrace lined with a long undulating bench covered in more colorful tiles. Rumor has it that Gaudí was so intent on making this bench as comfortable as possible that he had a workman drop his pants and sit in soft plaster to record the correct anatomical curve — beating the science of ergonomics by half of a century. As you look over the benches and beyond the sprawling park, you should be able to spot the spires of another Gaudí marvel stretching toward the sky …
No study of Gaudí would be complete without a visit to his masterpiece, the still-incomplete Sagrada Família — the most visited monument in Spain and Gaudí’s final resting place. A monumental basilica, La Sagrada Familia has been under construction since 1882. When Gaudí died in 1926, only a quarter of the basilica was completed. Although Gaudí made sure to spend his last few years dedicated to the project, it was clear that it wouldn’t be finished during his lifetime.
This incredible basilica has three facades, each designed to depict phases in the New Testament. This Google Earth link drops you right in front of the Nativity facade. Look up at the countless ornate sculptures depicting flora and fauna, from the Tree of Life that grows above the door to the turtles that prop up each of the mighty columns. Now, let’s head west to the Passion facade — see the difference? A much more austere design, Gaudí carved this display with harsh, straight lines to resemble the bones of a skeleton. The third and largest facade, Glory, is still under construction today.
Ready to go inside? Pass through the decorated iron doors to the church’s interior, and you’ll wonder if you’ve stepped into a forest — which is exactly what Gaudí envisioned. In the same way that each facade carries rich symbolism, every door, column and section inside the church also has its own symbolic significance. Gaudí was deeply inspired by nature, and this basilica is the perfect example. Cast your eyes upward along the tree-like columns, watching them grow past the dazzling stained glass windows and branch out into the “sky” above.
Also on the list of artists Barcelona has inspired is Pablo Picasso, who has a major museum devoted to his work right here in the city. Not only is the museum home to some of his greatest masterpieces, but the building itself is a work of art. The historic Palau Aguilar, a 13th-century palace that was close to where Picasso once lived, was refurbished from near ruin and converted to the grand museum it is today. Enjoy a 360-degree view of the castle’s architecture (some of the best-preserved medieval architecture in Barcelona!) in this temple to all things Picasso.
Has all that exploring made you hungry? No city visit would be complete without savoring some local cuisine, and Barcelona doesn’t disappoint on this front, either! From paella (savory rice dishes) to bombas (fried balls of potato and meat) to jamón (cured ham), it’s hard to figure out which tapas to try first! Head to Le Boqueria, a culinary icon of Barcelona, where you can wander among stalls filled with fresh seafood, cured meats and tantalizing regional specialties and sample one of everything! And until you can browse this market in person, here’s a recipe to help you master the art of paella in your own kitchen.
Road Scholar has been leading educational trips to Barcelona since 1997. We hope to see you there soon! Until then, you can browse our educational adventures here.
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Spanish Art: From the Golden Age to Gaudí and Beyond →
Independent Barcelona: People, Arts and Architecture →
About the Author JoAnn Bell, Senior Vice President, Program Development and Strategy, develops and manages more than 5,500 learning adventures in 150 countries and 50 states. JoAnn’s extensive travel industry experience informs her expert insight on everything from where to find the world’s most charming streets to must-see hidden gems across the globe.
Thank you, JoAnn, for your enticing introduction to Gaudi’s architecture. And although his Park Güell and the Sagrada Família are magical, I have to say I’m even more smitten with his Casa Batlló…
I can’t wait for my first trip to Barcelona and Madrid. I’ve travelled extensively but somehow never made it to these 2 great cities.
Thank you, JoAnn, for your enticing introduction to Gaudi’s architecture. And although his Park Güell and the Sagrada Família are magical, I have to say I’m even more smitten with his Casa Batlló. The fully restored house not only provides a remarkably intimate glimpse into Gaudi’s artistic genius, it's also the most delicious eye candy in all of Barcelona (my opinion, of course).
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