The Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family) is considered to be the symbol of Barcelona by many residents, and the one place you shouldn’t miss when you visit the Catalan capital.
Initially intended to be a simple Roman Catholic church dedicated to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the church ultimately became the most prominent example of Catalan Modernism. Pope Benedict XVI declared it a basilica in 2010.
Dreamed up by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, the basilica exemplifies Gaudí’s philosophy that nature is the work of God. Gaudí sought to combine Christian speech and biblical allegories with complex natural symbols like organic, geometric shapes which are prominent in every column, pinnacle and stained glass window of the basilica.
The end result is an astounding architectural masterpiece which, despite being unfinished and under construction for nearly 140 years, has become one of the most visited monuments in Spain, receiving 4.7 million visitors in 2019.
History of the Sagrada Familia
The creation and construction of the Sagrada Familia is living history.
Local bookseller Josep Maria Bocabella wanted to build an expiatory temple consecrated to the Holy Family. Bocabella initially assigned the project to the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar, who designed a neo-Gothic project, and began construction in 1882.
However, because of several disagreements with Bocabella, Antoni Gaudí took over the assignment. Gaudí conceived a groundbreaking design that pushed the boundaries of all known architectural styles.
Gaudí’s primary goal was to build a church with facades that highlighted the three phases in the life of Jesus: Nativity, Passion and Glory. The architect’s vision was to incorporate organic symbolism in the architecture, stained glass and design elements in order to tell Jesus’s story as well as highlight some key biblical histories.
In 1891, when development of the Nativity facade began, Gaudí realized that the construction of the Sagrada Família was such an ambitious project that he certainly would not see its completion in his lifetime. In fear of the project being stopped after his death and once the church acquired its worship function, Gaudí decided that, instead of building the central nave, he would start on the external part of the church.
At the time, Gaudí was also working on Casa Milà (La Pedrera) and when that was completed in 1912, he focused exclusively on the construction of the Sagrada Família. He worked on it until he died in 1926 and was buried inside the crypt. After Gaudi’s death, Domènec Sugrañes i Gras assumed the main role of architect.
The temple suffered heavy damage during Spain’s Civil War (1936-39), when a group of anarchists set it on fire, burning a significant part of Gaudí’s workshop. Fortunately, part of his material could be restored.
Work resumed in 1954 and it’s been under construction ever since.
Why is the Sagrada Família not finished and when will be completed?
Even with today’s technology, skilled architects and engineers are finding it challenging to decipher and bring to life the complex geometric shapes that compose what is going to be the tallest church in the world (172.5m).
In addition, despite its international renown, the Sagrada Família is a project that was promoted by the people for the people, so it has always relied on private donations. There have been times in history when there wasn’t any funding, especially during Spain’s Civil War and the decades that followed. It was only after the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, when the city started to gain an international reputation and the number of visitors increased, that construction accelerated exponentially.
The Sagrada Família was expected to be completed in 2026 – for the centenary of Gaudí’s death – but its completion has been postponed because of COVID-19. Work has resumed already but a new completion date hasn’t been announced.
Visiting the Sagrada Família
The site of the Sagrada Família has four main sections: the basilica, the school building, museum and towers. In the past, each section required its own ticket to visit. However, due to COVID-19, the only portion available to visitors is the basilica.
To visit the basilica, an individual ticket with an audio-guide app – available in 16 languages – costs €26. If you prefer visiting it on a guided tour – available in 6 languages – an individual ticket costs €27, which also allows you to visit the site on your own after the 50-minute tour is finished.
The Basilica is composed of five naves, built in the shape of a Latin cross, the roof of which is supported by the angled pillars. These angled pillars are a treelike column structure that creates the effect of a living forest with dappled light streaming in.
The Gaudí Museum has a recreation of the architect’s workshop, as well as a set of his materials and mockups.
Gaudí designed and built the school building, which was for the workers’ children, in 1909. Its design is similar to that of the Casa Milà.
Four towers representing the 12 apostles ascend from each of the three exterior facades (Nativity, Passion and Glory). Gaudí built the Nativity Facade, and in 2005 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with the crypt. On the west side is the controversial Passion Facade, whose architect, Josep Maria Subirachs, has been heavily criticized for being too abstract and not strictly following Gaudí’s model. The unfinished Glory Facade is supposed to be the most gorgeous of the three once it’s complete and crowned with its missing four towers.
How to get to the Sagrada Familia
The Sagrada Família is in the Eixample district, in Mallorca, 401 street. Metro lines 2 and 5 stop at Sagrada Família station. From Barcelona’s Old City, it’s a 30- to 40-minute walk.
When to visit the Sagrada Familia
The Basilica is open to visitors every day of the year, subject to change due to special events taking place inside.
To avoid the largest crowds, it’s best to visit early weekday mornings.
A complete visit takes 2-3 hours.
Things to do around the Sagrada Familia
The Right Eixample is home to some of Barcelona’s major attractions which can be easily visited after your Sagrada Família tour. An unmissable landmark is Hospital Sant Pau, a building designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, one of the most influential architects of Catalan Modernism after Gaudí. Monumental, a former but imposing bullfighting arena, is also worth the detour. Finish your Eixample circuit at Barcelona’s triumphal arch, located at Passeig de Lluís Companys, a palm-lined boulevard that leads to Parc de la Ciutadella, the largest park in town.
Where to eat near the Sagrada Família
Be aware that all restaurants surrounding the Sagrada Família cater to the tourist crowd. However, by walking just a few blocks, you come to a particularly local area of l’Eixample.
For Spanish tapas and wine, we recommend Hasta Los Andares. For authentic Spanish tortillas, look for La Granota and, for traditional Catalan food, grab a bite at Olé Mallorca, which tends to get busy at lunch time (2 to 3pm). In the morning, you must stop at Puiggròs, a one hundred year-old patisserie.