Searching for the Sacred at the Sagrada Familia

In all our years of travel, especially through Europe, we’ve seen a lot of churches, cathedrals, and basilicas. Like, a lot. And more than once, we’ve found ourselves quickly “churched out” after seeing a lot of the same architecture, spires and stained glass over and over again. I mean, churches all pretty much look the same anyway, right? You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Then you haven’t seen the Sagrada Familia, in Barcelona, Spain.

When Mark and I were planning our trip to Barcelona, friends who had visited previously told us we absolutely had to see the Sagrada Familia. We didn’t really know why it was special. Just another church, we figured. But we had the time, so we hopped the subway from our hotel to the area we had marked on our tour map.

When we emerged from the subway and got to sidewalk level, I looked around, trying to decide which direction to head according to our map. Mark grabbed my shoulders and spun me around to face the enormous cathedral:

Sagrada Familia exterior

How could I possibly not have seen this gargantuan building looming behind me?

Daaaaaaang. It’s like a melting sand castle. Who would have ever come up with such a surreal, bizarre design for a church?

Sagrada Familia spires

Antoni Gaudi, that’s who.

Gaudi was born in 1852. He was a sickly child, and spent much of his childhood confined to his bed or otherwise resting at home. He spent the time observing the nature around him, and took up drawing. This led to him going to school in Barcelona and receiving his architect’s diploma in 1878. One of his early commissions was to design street lamps for the city, as well as furnishings for some local churches. He went on to design apartment buildings and schools as well, but his main focus was on churches.

The building of the Expiatory Church of La Sagrada Familia began in 1882 under a different architect, in the traditional Gothic revival style. But in 1883 the commission was passed to Gaudi. For several years he worked on the project while taking on other building projects. But after 1915 he devoted himself completely to the Sagrada Familia.

Sagrada Familia spires

One of the stories we heard was that Gaudi designed the church from dreams he had, and sculpted his visions as they came, without even bothering to draw them or plan them out. But in fact he was a great student of geometry, and used really innovative materials and techniques (for their time) to get the design just right. And he did, in fact create drawings and blueprints, as well as scale models to determine structure and massing. So although the end result may seem a bit will-nilly and thrown together, it would seem there was a great deal of planning involved in the design.

Sagrada Familia sculptures

Yes, there was a method to this beautiful, jumbled madness!

Unfortunately, in 1926 Gaudi was struck by a tram and died three days later; only a fraction of the church had been completed at the time. But his associate architects took up the work he left behind and continued his vision.

Sagrada Familia construction

The Spanish Civil War in 1936 halted the work, and Catalan anarchists destroyed parts of the unfinished basilica as well as Gaudi’s workshop and models. But the work was picked up once more, and has been continuing in fits and starts ever since.

sagrada familia

With most of Gaudi’s original sketches and models destroyed however, much of what has been built since is largely based on speculation.

interior blueprint of Sagrada Familia

Basic interior layout of the church

If you think the designs on the exterior are spectacular, wait until you see inside:

Interior of Sagrada Familia

The interior was still under construction when we visited. Want to see how it looks now? Keep reading!

Those columns don’t look like normal, straight columns, do they? Here’s why. Look up, look waaaaaay up:

Sagrada Familia nave roof

It’s just like being outside. If trees were made of granite and concrete….

The columns were designed to represent tree trunks and branches. Honestly, Gaudi was a genius. Too bad not everyone appreciated his designs. Many thought the work was pure arrogance and an outrageous display of pretentiousness. Oh, and also ugly.

sagrada familia interior

Sagrada Familia stained glass

While we were there, we decided to also experience the view from the tower. Most church towers can only be reached by a winding, dizzying set of narrow stairs, but here we actually had to take an elevator partway up. This took time because of the increasing crowds, so we all had to wait our turn.

crowds in the Sagrada Familia

But I would have to say the view was worth the wait:

view from Sagrada Familia

Gaudi’s original plan was to have 18 spires built: one for each apostle, the four evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and the tallest one representing Jesus Christ.

view of spires from Sagrada Familia

looking up into a spire in Sagrada Familia

Looking up into a spire

View from Sagrada Familia

Symbolism abounds in this amazing church.

Note the words “Hosanna” and “Excelsis” on the spires above. Gaudi took advantage of every available piece of real estate to make the Sagrada Familia reflect the divine and holy wherever possible.

Sagrada Familia sculpture

close up of spires on Sagrada Familia

It’s probably for the best that he wasn’t alive in the present days of neon lights and digital signage. The Sagrada Familia would look like Las Vegas. But still, over the top though it may be, it’s a stunning example of innovative architecture.

Barcelona from Sagrada Familia tower

Barcelona is a pretty city from any vantage point.

Tips and Tricks: First off, this place gets NUTS with tourists. Over three million people descend on this attraction every year. Dozens of tour buses line up in front of the church all day long, and it can seriously slow you down and detract from the experience.

tour buses at la Sagrada Familia

tour buses at la Sagrada Familia

But there are a few coping mechanisms. You can purchase tickets online at so you don’t have to wait in line for tickets. When we went, we got to the church an hour before opening at 9am. This gave us time to stop off at a little cafe across the street and have a coffee and a pastry, while still being in the vicinity to get in as soon as the doors opened. By the time we were done with our tour the crowds were really getting bad, but we were able to escape the worst of it by getting there first thing in the morning.

Also, keep in mind that although you take the elevator up to the tower, you’ll most likely be taking the stairs to get back down (unless you absolutely feel you can’t handle the 400+ stairs; then you can probably take the elevator back down too). The stairs are narrow and windy, so for the sake of everyone, don’t bring big bags with you, including backpacks. Although the website says you are expected to check your bags, some people still had their backpacks on, and if they’re stopping to take photos on the stairs, it’s near impossible to squeeze past them.

For photos of how the church looks now, check out the official website. They even have a virtual visit which is nicely done: Sagrada Familia Virtual Tour

The church is still under construction, and is expected to be completed in 2026, in time for the 100th Anniversary of Gaudi’s death.

(Post updated February 2018)

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