Topped by the wildly imaginative works of Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona is a living collage of architectural styles.
Though it’s most famous for modernist masterpieces, Barcelona is covered with architectural mega-attractions that are equally fascinating whether you’re an enthusiast or just want to get a feel for the city. Here’s our walkthrough of the top sights and areas.
Follow our guide to the exceptional architecture in Barcelona
Start in the Ciutat Vella
With La Rambla as its central thoroughfare, the obvious place to start your Barcelona architecture tour is in the Ciutat Vella, or old city.
This vibrant district comprises several smaller neighbourhoods – Barri Gotic (the Gothic Quarter), El Born, El Raval and La Barceloneta – each of which has its own distinct character, as well as a host of unmissable architectural gems.
Here you can walk a stretch of one of the best-preserved Roman walls in the world, next to Plaça de Ramon Berenguer el Gran, before delving into the labyrinthine streets to see the range of styles that define this enigmatic area.
From Gothic mansions and Romanesque churches to medieval markets and classical baroque palaces, there’s something to see on virtually every corner, and plenty of leafy plazas.
Highlights are numerous and often come down to personal taste, but there are undeniable showpieces no one should skip.
Vying for attention are Gaudi’s magnificent Palau Güell mansion and the Gothic, gargoyle-covered Barcelona Cathedral, as well as the grandiose Palau de la Música concert hall, regarded as one of the finest Modernista buildings in Barcelona. Other essential stops include the five Catalan-Gothic palazzos that make up the Museu Picasso, and the weird and wonderful Casa Bruno Cuadros; a quirky art nouveau building on La Rambla adorned with decorative umbrellas and fans.
A view into the beautifully modern residential Eixample district
Modernisme in Eixample
To the north of the Plaça de Catalunya is the sprawling shopping and business district of Eixample, divided into two distinct sections by the elegant Passeig de Gràcia.
Laid out on a geometric grid system in the mid-19th century, it’s a much-studied example of considered urban planning, put in place as the city grew beyond the old medieval walls. During Eixample’s evolution various high-profile architects gave expression to their wildest ideas here, creating a neighbourhood-wide, open-air museum of Modernisme, also known as Catalan art nouveau.
For a definitive flavour of this unique style, head to the central section between Passeig de Sant Joan and Carrer Aribau, known as the Quadrat d’Or, or Golden Square. These breezy boulevards were the favoured spot of the well-to-do, who commissioned Barcelona’s foremost architectural minds to come up with elaborate homes.
Consequently you can see some of the greatest architecture in Barcelona here, including Gaudi’s dragon-roofed Casa Batlló, Puig i Cadafalch’s Casa Amatller, and Domènech i Montaner’s impressive Casa Lleó Morera; a trio collectively known as the Manzana de la Discordia, or the Block of Discord.
The Sagrada Familia
Of course, no visit to Eixample would be complete without a tour of its best-known building.
Gaudi’s landmark Sagrada Familia is probably the most famous work-in-progress in the world, and a symbol of the Barcelona skyline for more than a century. It’s still slated to be completed around the centenary of Gaudi’s death in 2026, though various land issues have prompted some commentators to speculate whether it will ever be finished at all.
Either way, it continues to astound and confound every visitor to Barcelona, and is one of the most extraordinary structures in Spain, if not the world.
Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia is the largest unfinished Roman Catholic Church in the world
Contemporary architecture in Barcelona
Despite Barcelona’s major associations with Catalan art nouveau, the city is so much more than just Gaudi, and has always been at the forefront of architectural innovation. Its contemporary masterpieces include the striking Joan Miró Foundation building designed by Josep Lluís Sert, and Mies van der Rohe’s iconic German Pavilion constructed for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition – now recreated as a replica next to the Magic Fountain of Montjuic.
More recent additions have helped to reinvigorate previously run-down parts of the city.
East of the Parc de la Ciutadella, the former working-class industrial neighbourhood of El Poblenou was once known as the ‘Manchester of the Mediterranean’. After most of its factories and warehouses closed it fell into a steep decline in the latter part of the 20th century, only to have new life breathed into it by a massive regeneration project, sparked by the announcement that Barcelona would host the Summer Olympics in 1992.
The Telefonica-Diagonal ZeroZero Tower at the innovation hub in District 22@
As with many host cities, the Olympics triggered huge urban renewal, leading to the development of the 22@ innovation district, which has become a hotbed of sustainable and technology-led architecture.
Some of the most prominent new landmarks include the 38-storey Torre Glòries skyscraper (formerly known as the Torre Agbar), which, at 472ft tall, is Barcelona’s third-tallest building and similar in form to Norman Foster’s Gherkin in London. Next-door is the metal-clad Barcelona Museum of Design, which juts out over the Plaça de les Glòries, earning it the nickname ‘the stapler’ by locals.
Admittedly it’s a love-it or loathe-it kind of building, but whatever your view, the outstanding collections inside make it a must-visit destination for design lovers.
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