Last updated on January 18, 2023
There is something about a church that transports me through time and deposits me at an former 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—I have talked about the vestiges of my own history that are so much more identifiable when I wander the streets of Europe. New wisdoms yield 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 grandmother sigh in relief. If you’re in Barcelona, this is likely at the top of your to-do list (along with reading these great books about Spain, of course, so you have historical context).
Why Visit La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
La Sagrada Familia is the crowning jewel of Barcelona; it’s the shining beacon of all touristy visits to the city. On my first visit, before I moved to Barcelona years later, I had just two days free in Spain’s Costa Brava. So 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 as 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, and you absolutely want to do the same. I make all of my guests book an appointment when they come to visit me here—more insider tips at the end). I could have used the metro and buses, but the solitude and weather matched my mood that day. Plus, Barcelona is a small city compared to many, and although it’s a long walk from the Gothic Quarter to the Sagrada Familia, it’s doable. 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 wide lanes of the Eixample, 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! Not likely considering it’s the largest, hulking mass on the Barcelona skyline). Unlike any church I had seen before, the curious shapes, curves, and figures lining the façade became gradually clearer as I approached.
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 decades. A church so grand in concept, design, and style that it would become 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 intricate, detailed plans for the entire basilica that the architects who would come after him could follow—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.
History of La Sagrada Familia
Construction of the Roman Catholic church began in 1882 and is expected to be completed in 2026, which will mark the centenary of Gaudí’s death. The Sagrada Familia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most visited landmarks in Spain.
Gaudí’s designs for the Sagrada Familia were innovative and unique, combining Gothic and Art Nouveau styles. He used a variety of materials in the construction of the church, including stone, iron, and ceramics. Work on the Sagrada Familia was interrupted by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, though Gaudí died in a tram accident in 1926, leaving the church only about a quarter completed. Work on the Sagrada Familia resumed in the 1950s and has continued to the present day, with various architects taking on the task of completing Gaudí’s vision.
Exploring the Sagrada Familia
The Sagrada Familia has three facades dedicated to the birth, death and eternal life of Jesus. Each one is markedly different than the other.
The Nativity Façade, Designed by Gaudí
The Nativity façade is located on the eastern side of the church and faces the city center. The Nativity Façade was designed by Antoni Gaudí, and was intended to depict the birth of Jesus Christ. It is characterized by its use of Gothic and Art Nouveau styles and is adorned with sculptures and carvings that represent scenes from the Nativity.
The Nativity Façade has four towers, each representing one of the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It also has three porticos, each representing a different aspect of the Nativity: the Portico of the Birth, the Portico of the Angels, and the Portico of the Shepherds. The Portico of the Birth is decorated with sculptures of the infant Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, while the Portico of the Angels depicts angels singing and playing musical instruments. The Portico of the Shepherds is adorned with sculptures that depict the shepherds visiting the baby Jesus. The Nativity Façade is a testament to Gaudí’s artistic vision and a remarkable part of the church.
The Passion Façade, Designed by Josep Maria Subirachs
The Passion Façade is one of the three main façades of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain. It is located on the western side of the church and faces the mountain of Montjuïc.
The Passion Façade was designed by Josep Maria Subirachs, and was intended to depict the Passion of Jesus Christ. It is characterized by its use of Gothic and Art Nouveau styles and is adorned with sculptures and carvings that represent scenes from the Passion.
The Passion Façade has two towers, one representing the Virgin Mary and the other representing Saint John. It also has three porticos, each representing a different aspect of the Passion: the Portico of the Virgin, the Portico of the Last Supper, and the Portico of the Ordinary. The Portico of the Virgin is decorated with sculptures of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, while the Portico of the Last Supper depicts the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples. The Portico of the Ordinary is adorned with sculptures that depict the condemnation, flagellation, and crowning with thorns of Jesus. The Passion Façade is a testament to Gaudí’s artistic vision and is a popular tourist attraction in Barcelona.
The Glory Façade
The third main façade of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain is known as the Glory Façade. It is located on the southern side of the church and faces the city center. The Glory Façade was preliminarily designed by Antoni Gaudí via sketches, and is intended to represent the glorious eternal life after the death of Jesus.
According to the Sagrada Familia site,
“The facade will have tall columns dedicated to the seven holy gifts and will depict the seven deadly gifts at the bottom and the seven heavenly virtues at the top. The facade will have five doors corresponding to the five naves of the temple, with the central one having a triple entrance, making a total of seven entrances representing the seven sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Holy orders, Marriage, and Anointing of the sick. ”
From the Glory Façade you can also see four towers, each representing one of the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It also has three porticos, each representing a different aspect of the glory of God: the Portico of the Apostles, the Portico of the Prophets, and the Portico of the Martyrs. The Portico of the Apostles is decorated with sculptures of the twelve apostles, while the Portico of the Prophets depicts Old Testament prophets. The Portico of the Martyrs is adorned with sculptures that depict Christian martyrs.
This is the newest facade, and construction of the facade began in 2002 and is not yet completed, but will serve as the church’s main entrance upon completion of the church.
Touring Inside La Sagrada Familia
As one would suspect from a building with this much detail planned into every aspect, 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 definitely 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 to bath me in a orchard warm breeze.
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 revisited the church years later, in 2017 and in 2019, 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.
Tips for Visiting La Sagrada Familia
How to Book Your Visit
Yes, the Sagrada Familia is open for visits, with additional post-COVID precautions in place to avoid overcrowding. Book ahead through the official site and screenshot your ticket on your phone. This was the best advice and help I received by far. You choose an hour-long 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 (and again when family visited in 2019). 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. I cannot stress pre-booking enough—even in off-peak times tickets sell out days in advance. And in the summer, standing in the July and August heat for hours is truly brutal. La Sagrada Familia is a family-friendly outing, but if you’re visiting Barcelona with young kids, you might skip the formal tour as they will likely love the many beautiful colors and features of the church, but not be up for standing around admiring the architectural nuances.
How Much Does La Sagrada Cost?
There are several options you can pay for when buying a ticket. I paid to enter the church and the museum, as well as an audioguide (so worth the price in my opinion—I’ve done the audio tour three times and have never regretted it). On my return visit in 2017, my niece and I booked a ticket up the Façade (Also worth it if you like panoramic views, or are an architecture fan! The views are gorgeous and it’s an inside look behind the scenes of the church’s inner workings). As of 2022, it costs €26 for a basic ticket to enter the Basilica and have an audioguide and €30 for that plus a live guide. It’s upwards of €30 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)
What to Wear to La Sagrada Familia
It surprises some tourists to discover that there is, in fact a dress code to enter the Basilica, and yes, it is enforced! Per the official site, visitors must dress appropriately, following these restrictions:
- No see-through clothing.
- Tops must cover the shoulders.
- Trousers and skirts must come down to at least mid-thigh.
- Visitors may not enter in swimwear.
- Visitors will not be allowed to enter wearing special clothing to celebrate any sort of festivities, nor with any decorations designed to distract or draw attention for artistic, religious, promotional or any other purposes.
I wore a shirt with a very low-cut back once and they were not pleased. I had to pin the back pieces together. So, be warned that even in the summer tank tops and short shorts will not cut it to visit the church.
Getting to La Sagrada Familia
It’s a long walk from the downtown Gothic quarter of Barcelona, so plan your trip well. Public transport in the city is also a breeze, so take the bus or metro if it’s faster! If you walk, as I have countless times since I live here now, note that you can stop and admire other Gaudí spots along the way (both of the iconic Gaudi houses, Casa Batllo and Casa Milà, are on the walking route to the Sagrada) . This page lists the metro and bus stops, but you’re best bet is to map it on Google Maps from your accommodation. If you’re in the city for a just a few days and traveling with another person, consider buying a T-8 family metro card—you can swipe the same card multiple times on metros and buses, so you may just need one for you and your partner. This is not possible with the T-10 that locals use, which is for individual use and cannot be used to allow multiple people on the same metro journey.
When Should You Visit?
The first time I visited, 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 audioguide and wandering; it was relatively uncrowded at the end of the day. My photos also came out better by not visiting at high-noon. I visited in the morning on subsequent trips (around 9am) and it was also lovely. If you plan a late afternoon visit, you can then have a pre-dinner drink at Ayre Hotel Rosellon, which has stunning views of La Sagrada from its large rooftop terrace.
Learn the Necessary Background to Enjoy
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.
Essential Travel Planning Resources:
Booking.com: Essentially the only hotel booking site that I use in the region as it has the widest and most affordable selection in Southeast Asia.
Rome2Rio: Super handy to assess the full range of transport options between two cities—shows everything from flights to trains, buses, minibuses, and more.
Expedia: Best site, hands down, for low-cost flights in the region.
IMG Global: A travel insurance option I’ve used for well over a decade and recommend for many other travelers.