Barcelona, the heart of Catalonia, is arguably one of the most architecturally stunning and diverse cities in the world. There you can find Roman ruins, Gothic cathedrals, and Modernist masterpieces all within kilometers of one another; together, they create a cityscape that is unrivaled by any other urban center.
To put this cityscape into context, it is important to understand its history. Until 1854, the city of Barcelona was contained within medieval walls, and it had outgrown itself. In response to the overcrowding and poor living conditions, the government authorized the destruction of the walls and called for an urban planning contest. Residents were encouraged to submit proposals describing how they would change and expand the city. Ildefons Cerdà, a civil engineer and visionary, ultimately emerged the winner and launched his city extension plan.
Today, the area Cerdà planned and built is known as Eixample and is bordered by the old city and its surrounding suburbs. Eixample is a wonderful example of modernist architecture; known for its long, straight streets, logical grid pattern crossed by wide avenues, and 45 degree chamfered corners that create open, octagonal city blocks. Passeig de Gràcia is Eixample’s most important boulevard as it is home to some of the city’s most famous modernist architecture. Between Carrer del Consell de Cent and Carrer d’Aragó you will find Illa de la Discòrdia (block of discord), home to the celebrated Casa Lleó Morera, Casa Mulleras, Casa Bonet, Casa Amatller, and Casa Batillo. While each of these buildings are ornate and beautiful, their styles clash wildly with each other, and with neighboring buildings.
Casa Batlló, designed by Antoni Gaudí (infamous for his work in the Catalan modernism movement), was built between 1904 and 1906. It so clearly exhibits Gaudí’s imaginative aesthetic – its fantastical façade, curves, natural shapes, and ornamentations give the visitor the unique feeling of being inside a sculpture. Located just off Carrer d’Aragó, visitors can pay for their tickets in advance using PayPal.
The mosaic-filled park Parc Güell is another wonderful example of Gaudí’s work. My friend Oliver brought me there, and we spent a playful afternoon roaming the park and snapping photos of the fairytale setting. Parc Güell is situated on El Carmel in the Gràcia district, and is a tranquil space with breathtaking panoramic views of Barcelona. In fact, it is one of the city’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is one of the most impressive public parks in the world. From the ornate benches to the sculptured porticoes, Gaudí’s distinctive style is seen throughout this magical space.
Of course, no trip to Barcelona would be complete without visiting Gaudí’s soaring Sagrada Familia as well. La Sagrada Familia is a Roman Catholic Church, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, and undoubtedly Barcelona’s most famed landmark. Construction of La Sagrada Familia began in 1882 and work continues today. Its colorful stained glass windows, sculptured organic shapes, fanciful forms, and sheer verticality are awe-inspiring.
Other famous works of Antoni Gaudí that can be seen throughout Barcelona include La Pedrera or Casa Mila, Palau Güell, Casa Vicens, and the Crypt in Colonia Güell.
But Barcelona is not all Gothic and Gaudi. For a glimpse of contemporary architecture, take a trip to the Montjuïc district to check out Santiago Calatrava’s impressive Torre Telefónica at Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium. Calatrava’s Torre Telefónica was built to transmit television coverage of the 1992 Summer Olympics held in the city and represents the Olympic Flame. While in Montjuïc, stop by the Arenas de Barcelona, a modern shopping center – formerly Barcelona’s bullfighting ring – that has a well-positioned rooftop offering a spectacular view of Plaça d’Espanya and the Palace of Montjüic.
Other noteworthy contemporary-style buildings in Barcelona include Jean Nouvel’s Agbar Tower, Herzog & de Meuron’s Forum Building, Norman Foster’s Telecommunications Tower, and Richard Meier’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Barcelona’s famous Gothic Quarter is a labyrinth of ancient and modern architecture. From Palau de la Música and the Santa Caterina Market, to Carrer del Bisbe and Santa Maria del Pi, to El Born Centre Cultural, this historic neighborhood unites centuries of Catalan history and architectural styles.
Finally, not to be missed is Parc de la Ciutadella. Start from Josep Vilaseca’s Arc de Triomf and stroll down the promenade to this idyllic oasis in the middle of the city. The park is an open-air museum of sculptures lined with modernist buildings such as the Castell dels Tres Dragons (Castle of the Three Dragons), the Hivernacle greenhouse, and the Geological Museum. It’s the perfect place to wind down after a full day of sightseeing.
Barcelona’s architecture and urban center live together in perfect harmony; the patchwork of ancient and modern designs make the city feel like an open-air museum. The city’s great artistic traditions and rich history can be felt in every corner. I could stroll through grand boulevards and quaint side streets all day, stopping to admire Gothic and Art Nouveau façades, soaring14th-century cathedrals, and its embracing whimsical architectural landscape. I am smitten with this magical city and am already planning a return trip.
Nicolee Drake was invited to explore the history, culture, and architecture of Barcelona through a partnership between Passion Passport and PayPal. All opinions are her own.