This may be Barcelona's famously unfinished work, but that does not detract from its beauty. Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí spent more than 40 years working on the Sagrada Familia, and his remains are buried beneath its nave. The building triggers a wealth of opinions but never indifference. There are the purists, who revere the parts designed by Gaudí, and then there are others who recognise the work done by Josep Maria Subirachs (the Passion Façade). Either way, the basilica is a modernista gem that deserves a visit, both inside and out, whether you're a tourist or a long-term resident.
Declared a World Heritage Site, Casa Milà, popularly known as La Pedrera (The Quarry), is one of Barcelona's best loved buildings, full of references to marine life and myths. Architects admire it for its extraordinary structure: there is no supporting wall, and the large asymmetric front windows let in plenty of natural light. As well as being a work of art in its own right, Casa Milà also hosts exhibitions and concerts on the terrace, plus one of the apartments still shows the furniture and decor from the early 1900s.
It's always worth seeing the cathedral of the city you're visiting, and Barcelona is no exception. Its cathedral is an impressive example of Gothic architecture that is now a Cultural Heritage Site and, since 1929, a National Historic Monument. It's dedicated to the Holy Cross and to Saint Eulalia, one of the patron saints of Barcelona, who was martyred by the Romans and whose remains lie in the crypt. Apart from seeing the artistic and architectural riches of the interior, you should also visit the cloister with its 13 white geese (one for each year of Saint Eulalia's life) and worn engravings on the floor that detail which guild paid for each part of the chapel.
If the quality of a museum is measured by the number of people queuing to get in, the Picasso Museum takes first place. The museum was created by the artist himself and his friend and secretary, Jaume Sabartès, who contributed his collection. With more than 3,800 works making up the permanent collection, it shows the artist's formative years along with an extensive programme of temporary exhibitions.
This is one of the most iconic green spaces in Barcelona, declared a World Heritage Site in 1984, and one of Gaudí's most important works. The architect wanted to emulate English garden cities and became obsessed with integrating nature into his designs. Among the several important elements in the park are the Hall of One Hundred Columns (though it actually has 86), the square with the mosaic bench in the form of a serpent, and the salamander on the main steps. In late 2013, a charge was introduced to enter the park.
When you first step up to Casa Batlló, it’s the immaculate mosaic work and dragon-like tiles of Gaudí’s greatest construction facelift that will catch your imagination. The whimsical air of the ‘house of bones’ continues once inside with the flowing stonework, ovular windows and nature motifs. Most striking is the atrium in the centre of the house, designed with ombré blue tiles to allow for a constant stream of light and air. This fanciful residence-turned-museum boasts such attention to detail that even the furniture flows with the house. Opinions differ on what the building's remarkable façade represents, particularly its polychrome shimmering walls, its sinister skeletal balconies and its humpbacked scaly roof. The most popular theory is that it depicts Saint George and the dragon – the idea being that the cross on top is the knight's lance, the roof is the back of the beast, and the balconies below are the skulls and bones of its hapless victims.
The construction of new access points for the 1992 Olympic Games facilities of the Olympic Games favoured the proposal to create a new botanical garden for the city. On Montjuïc, between the castle and the Olympic Stadium, the shape of the garden's 14 hectares is reminiscent of a great amphitheatre with preserved collections of Mediterranean plants worldwide and magnificent views over the Llobregat delta, the Olympic Ring and part of the metropolitan area of Barcelona.
The National Palace, the iconic building of the 1929 International Exposition, is home to the National Art Museum of Catalonia. From Plaça d'Espanya, you can see it in the distance, and you get there by climbing the steps that rise up to meet it (or take the usually-working escalators). The museum contains an important collection of Romanesque art, works by the main artists of Catalan Modernism like Antoni Gaudí and Ramon Casas, as well as Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art and an extensive photography collection.
Not far from the Sagrada Família is another modernista gem, the spectacular former hospital by Domènech i Montaner. The architect was inspired by hygiene ideals and state-of-the-art hospitals in Europe at the time, so he designed a centre with isolation wards (each for a particular speciality), surrounded by gardens and connected by underground passages. Domènech i Montaner believed that aesthetic harmony and a welcoming atmosphere were good for health. After more than 80 years of service to the city, the hospital moved to a more modern building, and renovation work on the old building began. You can now visit, with or without a tour guide, to discover the history of one of the oldest hospitals in Europe.
Before they carry out a multimillion-euro renovation job, fit in a visit to Camp Nou, the temple of FC Barcelona, and its museum, one of the most visited in Catalonia. One of the best options is the Camp Nou Experience, which includes a tour of all the most iconic spaces. Visit the grounds, head to the museum to find out more about the history of the club and see all its trophies, stop by the Espacio Messi to see the star player's four Golden Balls and three Golden Boots, and don't miss the multimedia zone. A paradise for fans!
If you're used to being soft-soaped by eager-to-please art centres, you'll have to adjust to the cryptic minimalism of the MACBA, where art is taken very seriously indeed. Yet if you can navigate the fridge-like interior of Richard Meier's enormous edifice, accept that much of the permanent collection is inaccessible to the uninitiated, tackle shows that flutter between the brilliant and the baffling, and, most important, are prepared to do your reading, a trip to the Barcelona Contemporary Art Museum can be extremely rewarding. Since its inauguration in 1995, the MACBA has transformed itself into a power player on the city's contemporary arts scene. Its bookshop is fantastic for quirky gifts and artist design objects. If you get lost, just follow the noise of the skateboarders, who have chosen the square out front as one of their favourite domains.
Built for chocolate baron Antoni Amatller, this playful building is one of Puig i Cadafalch's finest creations. Inspired by 17th-century Dutch townhouses, it has a distinctive stepped Flemish pediment covered in shiny ceramics, while the lower façade and doorway are decorated with lively sculptures by Eusebi Arnau. These include chocolatiers at work, almond trees and blossoms (in reference to the family name), and Saint George slaying the dragon. Besides chocolate, Amatller's other great love was photography. His daughter later converted the family home into an art institute and archive for her father's vast collections, from which excellent selections are on display in the ground floor exhibition space.
When you visit the Palau de la Música all your senses sit up and take notice, because every inch tells a story of Catalan Modernism, music and Catalonia itself. It was built in 1908 by Lluís Domènech i Montaner and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Muses watch over the main concert hall, and on the façade are busts of Palestrina, Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. But don't let its grand appearance put you off, because the Palau doesn't schedule only big names in classical music – it's also played host to plenty of stars of contemporary music.
After major renovation works, Barcelona's dockyards, which were declared a Historic-Artistic Monument in 1976, look better than ever. The Maritime Museum is located there and is responsible for preserving, studying and publicising one of the most important collections of maritime heritage in the Medierranean. Worth a look simply for its architecture, the museum also has a variety of exhibitions and a garden, with a café, that makes for a very pleasant visit.
Despite being Gaudí's first major commission, his other buildings have stolen the limelight from Palau Güell somewhat. Located in the Raval neighbourhood, the building belongs to the Gaudí's Oriental period and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. It has six floors, a conical space that connects and ventilates the upper floors, and a spectacular roof with 20 chimneys and decorated stacks. It was a forerunner to what he would later do at La Pedrera.
The Joan Miró Foundation has it all: the collection of works by the artist, with more than 104,000 pieces including paintings, sculptures and tapestries, plus almost all of Miró's drawings; its set among spectacular gardens and affords views of Barcelona from the top of Montjuïc; and the building itself was designed by Josep Lluís Sert, architect, co-founder of GATCPAC (Catalan Architects and Technicians for Progress in Contemporary Architecture) and a great friend of Miró. What's more, they organise loads of activities, many of which are for families. You can't afford to miss it!
Tibidabo boasts Barcelona's only amusement park, one of the oldest in the world which has stood the test of time. There are more than 25 attractions for all ages, from the newest to the more 'classic', which add a bit of vintage magic to the park. Among the most famous attractions are the Miramiralls (a maze of concave and convex mirrors which distort your image), the Talaia (opened in 1921, it's the only one of its kind in the world), the Avión (a replica of the first plane to fly from Barcelona to Madrid with some of the original features inside) and also... the city of Barcelona, since you get stunning views from the mountain. Take the Tramvia Blau tram and funicular to reach the park in style.
Since it opened in 1847, two fires, a bombing and financial crisis have failed to quash the spirit and splendour of the Liceu, one of the most prestigious venues in the world (it was the largest theatre in Europe during its first 100 years) and a huge success with the public. A restrained façade opens into an elegant 2,292-seat auditorium of red plush, gold leaf and ornate carvings. The latest mod cons include seat-back subtitles in various languages that complement the Catalan surtitles above the stage. Under the stewardship of artistic director Joan Matabosch and musical director Sebastian Weigle, the Liceu has consolidated its programming policy, mixing co-productions with leading international opera houses with its own in-house productions. Classical, full-length opera is the staple, but small-format opera and contemporary classics also feature.
CaixaForum is another example of a restored building. Puig i Cadafalch built this former textile factory at the foot of Montjuïc for the entrepreneur Casimir Casaramona. After being abandoned for years, the Fundació La Caixa bought the building, an example of industrial modernism, and gave it a new role, as a cultural, social and educational centre. It opened in 2002 following renovation work by Arata Isozaki, Francisco Javier Asarta, Roberto Luna and Robert Brufau. In addition to permanent collections of contemporary art, there are three spaces for temporary exhibitions and a programme that includes concerts, lectures, screenings, guided tours and children's activities.
A short jaunt on the train or by car to Santa Coloma de Cervelló, in the Baix Llobregat area, takes you to Colonia Güell. The textile industrialist Eusebi Güell moved his facilities from the Sants neighbourhood of Barcelona to this small town to escape social unrest. Gaudí and his team were commissioned for the project, which included a hospital, food hall, school, theatre, shops, cooperative and chapel, plus factories and housing for the workers. Gaudí only managed to build the crypt of the church when Güell's death changed everything and the project was abandoned halfway through. At noon on Sundays and bank holidays there are guided tours around the historic site, while on Saturday mornings you'll find a market selling local produce.
Few know that this is the oldest park in the city and that it has a maze, making this a great place to escape the crowds. It's located in the neighbourhood of Horta, near the Sierra de Collserola, and also features a neoclassical 18th-century garden, a 19th-century romantic garden, the family mansion of the Desvalls (who own the land), fountains, a waterfall and several sculptures of Greek mythology. Enjoy the greenery, the fun of the maze, and the distance from the busy city centre.
The Military Museum closed down in 2009 and its contents were moved to Figueres. The castle is now an International Peace Centre. For now, visitors can stroll through the castle, climb the battlements for fabulous views, or picnic in the wide moat. There's a café in the Plaça de Armes. During Barcelona's city-wide Festa Major celebration every September, La Mercè, the castle's surrounds are one of the epicentres of the celebrations, hosting the best of local and international circus performances and more.
Situated next to the MACBA, this is one of the Raval's historic buildings. It was once the poorhouse, functioning as such until 1957 when the building was abandoned. In 1989, Barcelona Council and City Hall approved the creation of the Centre for Contemporary Culture, as part of the Raval's wider urban renovation scheme. The CCCB opened in 1995 and most of the building is given over to exhibitions, but it also hosts music festivals, films, lectures and debates. And on the first Sunday of every month, you can visit its lookout point for free.
Said to be the biggest science museum in Europe, CosmoCaixa is the result of the remodelling of the Barcelona Science Museum. It was inaugurated in 2004 in a building that had previously been a home for the blind and was originally designed by Josep Domènech i Estapà. The space features nine floors, six underground, and a large square open to the public. The museum is divided into different spaces: the Geological Wall, the Flooded Forest – a huge hit with kids and adults alike – the Matter Room (ie, natural history), the Planetarium, and the Science Plaza. And the installations for children are excellent: there's a separate kids' Planetarium, and the wonderful Clik and Flash introduce children to science through games; Toca Toca! ('Touch Touch') educates the little ones on which animals and plants are safe and which to avoid.