A Little Photoessay … A Glimpse of Gaudi’s Masterpiece: La Sagrada Familia

There is something about a church that transports me through time and deposits me at an older version of myself. I step through the doors and past habits and attitudes flood my senses and course through my body. I was raised Christian and, since then, I moved onto a mixed bag of spirituality. I found it impossible these past years on the road not to identify with other cultures and religions as I met so many new people and stories and perspectives.

And although I love the temples of Asia — so much — last month I talked about the vestiges of my own history that are so much more identifiable when I wander the streets of Europe. New wisdoms cedes the floor to customs and traditions ingrained in me since birth. The familiarity of a church washes me in calm; I give myself permission in holy places to release life’s stresses and the hurts. It’s the act of entering the church, not the service. It’s the learned behavior that here, in this special place, you can reflect and release. Going to church was not the point of my visit, I was there for the Gaudí architecture, but the by-product of visiting the Basílica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain was a visit to church — no doubt an activity that made my grandma sigh in relief.

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Eastern side of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain a grey afternoon at la sagrada familia

The Basilica is the crowning jewel of Barcelona; it’s the shining beacon of all touristy visits to the city. With two days free in Spain’s Costa Brava, I decided to play tourist. I was speaking at a conference in Girona, but I couldn’t pass the chance to finally experience Barcelona. Two days isn’t long, and having a speech to prep, I did only the bare minimum research. When visiting La Sagrada Familia, I knew two key facts: 1) it’s still under construction and 2) Antoni Gaudí designed it has his masterpiece. Gaudí was a Spanish architect known for his highly stylized interpretation of early 1900s Modernism. After taking a chocolate tour of the city in the morning, I started a long walk in the drizzling rain to make my late-afternoon appointment at the church (my hostel brilliantly recommended that I pre-purchase my ticket online — more insider tips at the end). I could have used the metro and buses, but the solitude and weather matched my mood that day. It was late September, and I had left my niece Ana home in the States while we decided if I would continue homeschooling her from the road.

For the first time in a year, I was back to traveling solo and my tourist map of the city had little cartoon buildings pointing my way to the church, indicating other buildings Gaudí had designed. I weaved through the lanes, lost in the pulse of city life. When I spotted a tiny nook of a café, I passed the rest of time with a hot Americano and my journal. It’s an interesting way to understand a city, to find a side-street and sit with locals. Eventually, with my time slot on the horizon, I walked toward the eight massive, intricate towers marking La Sagrada Familia (and I worried I would get lost!). Unlike any church I had seen before, the curious shapes, curves, and figures lining the façade became gradually clearer as I walked.

I don’t know the exact moment the church hooked me, but my fascination with the building surprised me. At times on my travels I get fatigued by sightseeing, but if there is one thing that calls to me, it’s passion. Passion and creativity are twin elements that I lament when they ebb from my own life, so as I wrapped the audio-guide around my head and absorbed myself in the story of a donation-funded church constructed over the span of more than century. A church so grand in concept, design, and style that it would become a the magnum opus of a century, not just a single artist.

Gaudí is but one architect on the project, but it was his passion that fueled the building of such a bizarre homage to the Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture of years past. He left plans for the entire basilica for the architects who would come after him — he worked on La Sagrada Familia from 1883 until his death in 1926. I am neither an art buff nor a student of architecture, but I found it impossible to stay impassive when viewing the complex scenes depicted on the Nativity façade. In stark contrast, the Passion façade offers a gaunt, and darker depiction.

The Nativity Façade, designed by Gaudí:

Nativity façade of La Sagrada Familia.

architecture of the Nativity façade Gaudi's façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The Passion Façade, designed by Josep Maria Subirachs:

Passion façade; La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain The Passion façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The Passion façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The inside is exquisite, too.

The ceiling is so extraordinary that I very nearly caved into my desire to lay flat-out on the floor and get lost in the flowing tiers and spires (that would have totes broken social protocol though). Instead, I craned my neck and gawked to the descriptions on my audio-guide. Each footfall inside the church brought into view new twisting, tree-like columns branching out as they climbed upward. Each heartbeat allowed a glimmer of sunlight to dapple through into the interior, as if bathing me in the warm breeze of an orchard.

Ceiling of La Sagrada Familia.

stained glass windows Inside La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

I spent the better part of my afternoon wandering the huge church, then below in the museum looking at the plans and miniature projections of the completed project. Thanks to the magic of computers and technology (which Gaudí did not factor into his two-century timeline for completion of his masterpiece), La Sagrada Familia could be done as early as 2026. (I revisted the church five years later, in 2017, and the architects had made startling progress on the windows and interiors, as well as several of the towers!).

When I emerged from the church, I soaked in the late afternoon sunshine. The welcome change in the weather matched my lifted spirits. I felt lighter after immersing myself so completely in learning about how one man’s creativity and religious fervor could compel him to funnel his passion so narrowly into a project that would affect millions of people and span several centuries.

It blew my mind.

The scope of his vision, the faith that people would continue donating to finish the church, the drive to work with such focus on a single project — I left both awed and envious. And I left living in a wider world, a world with more possibilities for those with the drive to follow a passion through to the end. I bid adiós to the church, but really more of a “see you in 20 years,” when I’ll be back to see Gaudí’s completed magnum opus.

Blue skies at La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Quick Tips: Visiting La Sagrada Familia

How: Book ahead through the official site and print your ticket. This was the best advice and help I received by far. You choose an hourlong time window to visit the church and you bypass the huge queue with very quick access. The towers were not open on my first visit because of the rain, so I was only able to do that on my return in 2017. You can and must pre-book this as well — the tower view time slots go very quickly, so book at least two days ahead of time if that is your plan.

How much: There are several options you can pay for; I paid to enter the church and the museum, as well as an audio-guide (worth the price in my opinion). On my return visit in 2017, my niece and I booked a ticket up the Façade (so worth it! The views are gorgeous and it’s an inside look behind the scenes of the church’s inner workings). As of 2017, it costs €15 for a basic ticket to enter the Basilica, €22 for the audioguide and museum too, and €29 to go up a tower and have an audioguide (if you book a tower view ticket, do not be late for your appointment time. (current prices)

Where: It’s a long walk from the downtown Gothic quarter of Barcelona, but I managed it both ways and stopped at the other Gaudí spots on the way. There is a metro stop and what-not, but I did not use it.

When: On recommendation from my hostel (they helped me buy and print my ticket), I took a 4 pm time slot, which was fairly calm (though there was a queue for those without pre-purchased tickets). I was there for over an hour listening to the audio-guide and wandering; it was relatively uncrowded at the end of the day. My photos also came out better by not visiting at high-noon.

Plan and Learn:  Every place is more interesting with back story; read a Guadí biography before you visit for a deeper perspective on this world-famous architect. This beautiful photographic collection showcases his work. And if you’re staying in Spain for a bit, consider the Spanish Lonely Planet as your guide, it was my go-to on both visits.

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22 Responses to A Little Photoessay … A Glimpse of Gaudi’s Masterpiece: La Sagrada Familia

  1. Oana Laura June 30, 2015 at 9:24 am #

    Wow, truly amazing how Sagrada Familia looks like. I can see its real worth in your pictures. Hopefully, I will be going to Barcelona, for the first time in Spain, this summer, and I will visit this amazing and exquisite architecture.
    I can give you some great insights for Bucharest and Romania too. I know the country, I can say very well, and I`m also happy to give advice and tips about it when you will be travelling here.
    Email me at laura@familyvacation.com

    Be great,
    Laura Oana

    • Shannon O'Donnell June 30, 2015 at 9:43 am #

      I hope you have a wonderful trip to Barcelona, it’s a gorgeous city and I’d love to return in a heartbeat. And thank you for the offer of tips on Romania, I don’t have plans to go there right now, but definitely in the future! :)

  2. Little Kids May 9, 2014 at 6:10 am #

    Great article, would like to visit there one day.

  3. Milujem Cestovanie March 7, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

    Gaudi’s work in Barcelona is just awesome! Thanks for sharing the amazing pictures.

  4. Carter Watson January 31, 2014 at 4:59 am #

    I’m bringing my 10-year old son with me to Spain. Do you know where I can find info about age restrictions in water sports?

    • Shannon O'Donnell January 31, 2014 at 11:40 am #

      I am sorry, I am not really sure. You could try contacting your hotel before you arrive — they will likely have a good idea of that. Or, look up tour providers that offer the water sports and ask them via email. Good luck and safe travels!

  5. ShannonOD May 29, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    Definitely worth buying your ticket ahead of time, it really makes the afternoon nicer when you’re not stuck outside for several hours :)

  6. Steve Jones May 27, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    La Sagrada Familia which was truly an awesome experience. Pay the extra money for skip the line tickets. The line was literally around the corner, but we walked right up and went in.

  7. Endri Hasanaj May 21, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

    Very well written post Shannon. My wife is from Barcelona and we visit the city very often. I really like the “quick tips” part for lazy readers hihihi. I also wrote something about this beautiful architecture since it is my second favorite (after the Parthenon in Athens). You can see it here : (It is not the same with yours but it is a fair try)
    Greetings from Athens

    • ShannonOD May 21, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

      The shots you compiled are gorgeous and now I have to go back and see more spots because I missed most of those! Thanks for sharing and hellos from Mexico :)

  8. Interwoven World May 19, 2013 at 7:34 am #

    We were just in Barcelona and completely missed out the valuable information about booking ahead! We arrived on our vespa, took one look at the line, and then just did a perimeter and left. It was only in retrospect that we realized the magnificence of the interior! This is such a valuable post for Gaudí enthusiasts – thanks for sharing your experience.

    • ShannonOD May 19, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

      Oh no, I am so sorry you didn’t make it inside but now you know you have something to look forward to the next time you visit! I like the idea of leaving something behind to do so you know you’ll come back ;-)

  9. OCDemon May 17, 2013 at 2:01 am #

    This was one of my favorite things I think I’ve ever seen, but I always like to point out that the sets of 4 towers that we see are merely the side. There’s supposed to be yet another central tower, much taller than the others. It’s going to be so ridiculously cool when/if it’s finished.

    • ShannonOD May 17, 2013 at 7:35 pm #

      Yes! I can’t wait to come back and see when the other towers are finished — they already spire into the sky and look really beautiful against the city-scape around it. Thanks for stopping in and sharing :)

  10. Rebecca and the World May 16, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

    Perfect timing for this post – I’m going to be seeing this in just a few weeks! :-) Thank you also for the tips. I’m so excited to see this amazing architecture, it reminds me so much of some kind of fantasy novel.

    • ShannonOD May 16, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

      I hope the tips help you avoid the queue, and that you enjoy it. Enjoy the Spanish tapas and gorgeous architecture! :)

      • Rebecca and the World May 16, 2013 at 10:04 pm #

        Oh the tapas! I have been on a huge health kick getting prepped for Spain so I can still fit into my clothes while I’m there! :-)

        • ShannonOD May 17, 2013 at 7:32 pm #

          Hehe, I know what you mean, I ended up eating more bread and cheese in a week than I do in a month usually!

          • Rebecca and the World July 6, 2013 at 11:44 pm #

            Just got back from Europe – soooo glad I read your post and got our tickets online! The line to get into La Sagrada Familia was crazy! Loved, loved, loved and was blown away by the building – and Casa Batllo as well. The man was well ahead of his time.

          • ShannonOD July 7, 2013 at 9:09 am #

            Oh yay! I am so glad it worked out for you then, I just couldn’t fathom standing in the heat to get in, it would be close to miserable even with that gorgeous view. I hope the rest of the trip was spectacular too :)

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