If you need only one reason to visit Barcelona, it would have to be the Basílica de la Sagrada Família. How often does one get the opportunity to witness the building of a church as big as a cathedral?
While it’s not a cathedral – it does not have a bishop’s seat – it is a huge architectural masterpiece in the making and represents some of humankind’s most noble qualities: hope, passion, ingenuity, perseverance, determination, aspiration and supreme artistry. And, all of this is thanks to the vision of one man, Antoni Gaudí.
This famous Spanish Catalan architect and leading figure of Catalan Modernism was appointed as head architect to the project in 1883 when he was only 31 years old. Though the first stones of the Sagrada Família (‘Holy Family’) church were already laid in 1882, the promoters of the project fell into a disagreement with the original architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, and Gaudí was asked to take over the project. And, take over, he did!
A labour of love
He made the entire project his own by transforming it with his unique architectural and engineering style, combining Gothic and Art Nouveau forms. And, though he knew that he would never live to see the completion of the magnificent church, this devout Catholic dedicated his entire life to it, even residing on the building site during the last years until his death. When asked why the church was taking such a long time to complete, he famous said of God: “My client is not in a hurry.”
Gaudí tragically died in 1926, shortly before his 74th birthday, when he was struck by a passing tram. He was buried in the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the crypt of the Sagrada Família.
At the time of Gaudí’s death, only the crypt, apse and part of the Nativity facade had been completed.
To be completed by 2026
Over the next decades, various architects took over the responsibility of the building process, following Gaudí’s plans, pictures and scale models. There were many challenges along the way, including the Spanish Civil War, several complexities around the project and a lack of funding, but today 70% of the work on the church has already been executed and the project leaders are positive that they will be able to complete this architectural wonder by 2026 – to coincide with the centenary of Gaudí’s death.
A total of 144 years to build a church may seem like a very long time, but this is nothing compared to the 632 years it took to complete the Cologne Cathedral or the 579 years to complete the cathedral in Milan. We are truly very lucky to witness such a wondrous thing in our lifetime.
Inspired by Nature
The interior of the church is modelled after the natural world – the columns mirror trees and branches and the light that comes through the beautiful stained glass windows is incredible. There is so much detail in the decoration and the sculptures are stunning.
The Sagrada Família welcomes (and deeply moves) hundred of thousands of visitors every year and, in a very special way, this great church has become a symbol of hope for many. The completed church will have a total of 18 towers (currently eight have already been completed).
Each of these towers is significant: 12 of them represent the apostles, four of them the evangelists, one will symbolise the Virgin Mary and the last one, the tallest of them all and right in the centre, will represent Jesus Christ. This last tower will be 170 metres tall, making the Sagrada Família the tallest religious building in the whole of Europe.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Despite not being completed yet, the Sagrada Família was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 already and, more recently in 2010, the Pope Benedict XVI declared it a basilica, a privilege granted to only a few Catholic churches.
I have been lucky enough to visit the Sagrada Família three times already in my lifetime and I look forward to visiting this incredible church when it is completed (only nine more years to go!). At each of my visits, I was in complete awe of the immense magnitude and beauty, and astounded to see how much progress had been made since my last visit.
Barcelona is one of my favourite travel destinations. It is a cosmopolitan city that bursts with vibrance, colour and culture, much of which is closely linked to Gaudí’s other masterpieces that are spread throughout the city. The number one attraction of Barcelona, however, remains a visit to the Sagrada Família, an experience that will stay with you for many years to come.
Visiting the Sagrada Família
You need at least half a day to take in the wonderful architecture and craftsmanship. I recommend paying for the audio guide or a guided tour as there is so much detail and symbolism in everything you will see. There is also a fantastic museum that you should not miss.
Buy your ticket online. I repeat: buy your ticket online. The queues at the Sagrada Família can be incredibly long, but there is a special queue for people with online bookings which is significantly shorter. Alternatively, if your time is really very short in Barcelona and you are desperate to see the Sagrada Família (you should be!), consider booking a private tour that includes a visit to the Sagrada Família. Yes, it will be more expensive but private tour guides are allowed to skip the queues with small tour groups.
And then there is the opportunity to go up one of two towers for stunning views of the city: on atop the Passion Facade and the other atop the Nativity Facade. The top of the towers are accessed by lifts, but you will have to walk the 400 stairs down (there is no lift down).It is a long way down, but the amazing photo opportunities, especially the close-ups of the facades, make it totally worth it.
The Sagrada Família project has relied heavily on donations and contributions of thousands of people over the years, and it is good to know that your entry ticket will also go towards the funding of this glorious project.
Check out this amazing time-lapse video to see what the Basílica de la Sagrada Família will look like by the time of its completion in 2026:
More information and tickets available on the Basílica de la Sagrada Família website.
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