I’m ashamed to admit that I arrived in Barcelona with no idea who Antoni Gaudí was, only knowing that I had to visit that “crazy-looking cathedral” I’d seen pictures, (turns out it’s actually a minor basilica, proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010). Thanks to my wife’s interest in this Catalan architect, I soon received a crash course in his home city as we explored a number of gems scattered around Barcelona, including Park Güell, Casa Batlló and Casa Milà.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain, Antoni Gaudi, Gaudi, Roman Catholic Church, Unfortunately, because of high entrance costs and being budget travelers, we could only admire these imaginative buildings from the outside, missing a lot of the wonder tucked away behind closed doors. But for Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s “magnum opus” and the most-visited monument in Spain, we were happy to pay the €14.80 entrance fee.

Exiting the metro station outside, we looked up at the west-facing Passion façade, (below), of Sagrada Família, still covered in scaffolding and above which towered numerous cranes at work. Thankfully, after just a short wait in line to purchase tickets, we walked around the block to the east entrance where we could admire the Nativity façade in all its glory.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain, Antoni Gaudi, Gaudi, Roman Catholic Church,The Nativity façade (below) was the only one completed in Gaudí’s lifetime and therefore bears most of his naturalistic style (less than a quarter of work was finished at the time of his death in 1926). One could spend hours studying the countless intricate details — from the leaf- and insect-covered doors to fruit-topped spires high above — and I would recommend bringing binoculars. The whole façade, facing east and symbolizing the birth of Christ, seems alive and a stark contrast to the bare-bones design of the west-facing Passion façade, which was meant “to strike fear into the onlooker.”

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain, Antoni Gaudi, Gaudi, Roman Catholic Church,*There will eventually be three façades after the completion of the Glory façade on the north side, construction of which began in 2002. It will be the largest of the three, depicting such scenes as Hell and Purgatory. 

It was upon entering the cathedral that I became truly enthralled by the magnificent design of Sagrada Família, but the first thought that came to my head was a rather embarrassing one:

“This looks like something out of Flash Gordon!” I thought, recalling the cheesy 1980 film based on the comic book hero. Now I wonder if the film’s production designer Danilo Donati had been inspired by Gaudí’s blending of Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau.

Craning my neck to admire the central nave that towered 150 feet overhead, I suffered a bit of sensory overload — unable to comprehend what I was looking at. Some of my post-visit reading explained it best:

Gaudí conceived this church as if it were the structure of a forest, with a set of tree-like columns divided into various branches to support a structure of intertwined hyperboloid vaults.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain, Antoni Gaudi, Gaudi, Roman Catholic Church,As explained in the same article, none of the interior surfaces are flat and all consist of abstract shapes that combine smooth curves and jagged points, from the massive columns to railings on stairways.

“[Gaudí’s] study of nature translated into his use of ruled geometrical forms such as the hyperbolic paraboloid, the hyperboloid, the helicoid and the cone… Gaudí found abundant examples of them in nature, for instance in rushes, reeds and bones; he used to say that there is no better structure than the trunk of a tree or a human skeleton.”

Critics have called the building baroque and excessively imaginative. Supposedly George Orwell once called Sagrada Família, “One of the most hideous buildings in the world,” but to an avid traveler and amateur admirer of architecture like myself, it was refreshingly original.

I felt as if I were standing inside a giant’s ribcage and was completely dumbfounded, soon giving up my attempts to capture it all in camera. Adding to the beauty was warm evening light, supersaturated by orange stained glass windows that projected a kaleidoscope of color throughout the basilica’s interior.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain, Antoni Gaudi, Gaudi, Roman Catholic Church, Despite all its beauty, the numerous windows awaiting stained glass, and plastic folding chairs that filled the aisles below, were reminders of just how much work still needs to be done. Construction of Sagrada Família began in 1882 and it just reached its midpoint in 2010, but with the introduction of computer-aided design technology and modern building techniques, a completion date of 2026 is now expected. So it’s looking like 2026 will also mark our return to Barcelona as both Britnee and I can’t wait to see Sagrada Família in all its glory.

Check out more photos from our wonderful stay in Barcelona.