A visual feast for the eyes, Barcelona delights with colorful markets, inspiring art and whimsical architecture.
Barcelona makes you feel like a kid in a candy shop with surprises around every corner. The Catalonian capital owes its distinct aesthetic primarily to one man: Antonio Gaudi.
A Spanish Catalan architect, Gaudi was part of the Modernisme movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Influenced by nature and religion, his unique perspective on architecture was like no one else’s at the time. Today, his work can be seen all through the city. Ornate lamp posts. Skull balconies. Wild patterned facades. It’s all distinctly Gaudi.
The Sagrada Familia, a futuristic Roman Catholic church, is Gaudi’s masterpiece and the city’s most recognized landmark.
For 40 years, Gaudi worked on the basilica until his death in 1926. An architectural wonder, the Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) draws influences from Spanish Late Gothic, Catalan Modernism and Art Nouveau. The exterior features two different entrances in concept and execution. The “Passion” side focuses on the crucification of Christ with somber, constructivism-like statues. The “Nativity” side features more humanist statues set in a drippy-sand-castle aesthetic. The behemoth interior remains a massive construction site as work continues on the cathedral to this day.
Seeing the Sagrada Familia is a humbling experience. Many of the cathedrals we’ve visited during our travels have taken over 200 years to build. As a work-in-progress, the Sagrada Familia is a reminder of the incredible labor that goes into creating these iconic structures. Even more amazing is that they’ve been built without modern technology or equipment. The Sagrada Familia is currently set to be completed in 2026 – that’s 44 years after construction first began.
Another Gaudi landmark, Park Güell, is like stepping into a fantasy world.
Originally built as a urban residence for wealthy families, Park Güell is now a wondrous public park. Throughout the space, you can see examples of Gaudi’s use of Trencadis. This Catalan modernism technique involves making mosaics out of scraps of broken ceramic tiles.
Gaudi created everything from playful animal sculptures to long, serpentine benches. Guests can walk the expansive grounds and discover these different artistic works, or simply relax and take in the beautiful views of the city. Despite his innovative work and what many would describe an illustrious career, Gaudi never seemed to be satisfied.
Gaudi clearly made the best with what he had. Many believe his limitations produced better, more inspired work. We find the same to be true with our own creative process – that innovation often comes from constraint.
From Gaudi, we shifted to another great Spanish artist of his time: Pablo Picasso.
At the Picasso Museum, we learned how early doodles of this legendary artist evolved into realistic portraits and eventually, his signature Cubism style. Observing Picasso’s level of technical ability at such a young age is awe-inspiring. It puts into perspective the depth of his famous quote:
Picasso didn’t mindlessly put brush to canvas. He approached art deliberately through the eyes of a child, as if seeing it for the first time. He created for the sake of creating. And he did so without doubt of technical ability, fear of judgment, and often, without a clear purpose.
The beauty of Picasso is that he simply executed on what interested him at the time. That led to him copying Velazquez’s Las Meninas, painting the French Riviera landscapes, and reimagining his visits to the circus. He observed, and was inspired by, everyday life for his work. It was that simple.
From art to food, La Boqueria market is one of Barcelona’s most popular destinations.
La Boqueria is an explosion of color with interesting smells and lively shopkeepers. European markets simply aren’t like markets in the states. A stroll through the butchery section is not for the faint of heart (or for vegetarians.) Stacks of whole pigs lie on top of each other. Furry rabbits dangle from the ceiling. Serrano ham legs, complete with hooves, line up Can Can style. Definitely no perfectly packaged Whole Foods filets here.
Outside the market, we joined the locals on Las Ramblas, a bustling pedestrian walkway lined with shops and street performers. We could’ve spent the rest of the day here, but Barcelona still had more for us. At the Chocolate Museum, a whole different kind of artistry is at play. Here, we got a glimpse at up-and-coming pastry chefs in action. These young professionals are artists in their own right – crafting works of art in the medium of chocolate. Best of all, they offer free samples.
Food is definitely a highlight in Barcelona. In the evenings, lively neighborhoods like La Ribera offer amazing displays of pintxos, the Basque version of tapas. We loved seeing endless parades of these tidy, beautiful snacks on display. Typically served with bread on toothpicks, pintxos are best enjoyed with vino tinto (house red wine.) Like the works of Gaudi, Picasso and those young pastry chefs, these small bites also contribute to the city’s artistic flair. Even the servers have a creative way of tallying up the bill: they count the number of toothpicks left on the table (Europeans always adhere to an unspoken honor code.)
After a week, it was apparent we could only scratch the surface of Barcelona.
In that short time, the city inspired us deeply with its surreal settings, fairytale buildings and thriving cultural scene. Barcelona is a reminder to find the beauty that exists in everyday life. And like Gaudi and Picasso, always maintaining a child-like sense of wonder.
Lodging: Hostal Galerias Maldà | Food: Travel Bar, Giovanni Gelateria, Forns del Pi, Txikiteo, Granja-Xocolateria, Sagardi, Taller de Tapas, Bilbao Berria, La Pizza del Born | Activities: Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, Picasso Museum, La Boqueria, Las Ramblas, Chocolate Museum, La Ribera