The Sagrada Familia basilica is the best-known and most ambitious project of the celebrated Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí.
This Art Nouveau masterpiece, featuring revolutionary architecture and packed with symbolism, has become the emblem of Barcelona. Paris? The Eiffel Tower. London? Big Ben. New York? The Statue of Liberty. Barcelona? Sagrada Familia, of course!
Whether you’re a believer, an atheist or an agonistic, a visit to Sagrada Familia is certain to be an amotional experience. It’s flamboyent, solemn, bright and packed with symbolism, and it’s totally unique: there’s nowhere else quite like it.
Important: book your tickets for the Sagrada Familia online because, due to its success, it’s nearly impossible to get them at the ticket office.
The basilica – a Roman Catholic church with certain special privileges – is named in honour of the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph and Jesus, seen on the Nativity Façade). “Sagrada Familia” is Spanish for “Holy Family”.
1866: the birth of a project
In 1866, Josep Maria Bocabella i Verdaguer, a pious Barcelona bookseller, founded a religious association with the aim of collecting donations from the faithful in order to build an expiatory temple devoted to the Holy Family.
By 1881, the association had collected enough funs to buy land totalling 12,800 m2.
In 1882, the architect Francesc de Paula Villar was recruited to carry out the project, and the first stone was laid on 19th March of the same year. Shortly after building the columns in the crypt, Villar resigned following irresolvable disagreements with Joan Martorell, Bocabella’s technical advisor.
1883-1926: the project of a lifetime: Antoni Gaudí
1883:Gaudí took over the Sagrada Familia project. His vision was for a temple featuring five naves, a transept, an apse, an external deambulatory for use as a cloister, three façades and 18 towers. He devoted himself to the ambitious and complex project, body and soul, for over 43 years!
1889: The crypt is finished.
1892: Work starts on the Nativity Façade.
1909: Gaudí decides to build schools for the sons of the workers involved in building Sagrada Familia, along with children from the area.
1911: Gaudí begins to consider starting work on the Passion Façade.
From 1914, Gaudí devoted his life to Sagrada Familia. Obssessed by the ambitious project, he spent every day – and even his nights – working on the basilica.
Work progressed slowly: the first bell tower on the Nativity Façade was not erected until 1925.
On 7th June 1926, Antoni Gaudí was hit by a tram. He died 3 days later, just short of his 74th birthday. The architect is buried – fittingly – in the chapel in the crypt of Sagrada Familia.
1926- 1936: After Gaudí and the Civil War fire
On Gaudí’s death, Domènec Sugrañes, his closest colleague, took over the direction of the project.
The belltowers on the Nativity Façade were completed in 1930.
In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out. In July, revolutionaries set light to the crypt and the schools and destroyed the workshop. Most of the original plans, drawings, photos and models of Sagrada Familia were reduced to ashes.
From the end of the Civil War to the start of the new millennium
Following the end of the Civil War, work continued to progress slowly. The main aim was to continue building Sagrada Familia, respecting Gaudí’s original intentions. The crypt was restored and models were rebuilt under the direction of the new chief architect, Francesc de Paula Quintana i Vilar.
1955: following a fundrasing campaign, building work restarts at Sagrada Familia, following a long hiatus. Work began on the Passion Façade, following Gaudí’s design.
1961: a museum is opened in the crypt, presenting the historical, technical, symbolic and artistic elements of Sagrada Familia.
1976: the four towers on the Passion Façade are finally completed.
1986: Josep Maria Subirachs begins directing sculptural work on the Passion Façade, a task which would take over 20 years. Subirachs’ articstic vision is clearly visible on the west front of Sagrada Familia.
Sagrada Familia: from 2000 on
Since 2000, work on the inside of the basilica has been progressing rapidly.
The artist Joan Vila Grau designed and led the creation of Sagrada Familia’s magnificent stained glass windows, each signed individually. The project took 17 years and was finished in 2017 – a major step in the construction of the church.
The final vaults in the transept, the central crossing and the apse were erected between 2008 and 2010.
On 7th November 2010, Pope Benedict XVI presided over the consecration of Sagrada Familia, making it a Catholic church; he also accorded it basilica status. Work was accelerated leading up to the event: the naves were covered, the main windows were installed, and the altar and baldaquin were set in place.
19th March 2017 marked the 135th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone. At this point, work on the basilica was considered to be around 70% complete. The current focus is on constructing the 6 central towers in accordance with Gaudí’s original intentions, and work is progressing well.
Inside Sagrada Familia
Gaudí’s original wish was that Sagrada Familia should be “a temple of harmonious light”. Step inside, and it’s obvious that he succeeded! The naves are flooded with natural light, perfectly balanced with the colourful rays streaming through Joan Vila Grau’s magnificent stained glass windows.
Symbolism inside Sagrada Familia
Gaudí envisioned the interior of the church as an immense forest, with the vaults decorated with leaf forms. The pillars in the central nave represent palm trees, symbols of glory, sacrifice and martyrdom, whilst those in the lateral naves are laurels, symbols of victory and intelligence.
Later architects have respected Gaudí’s intentions.
Step inside Sagrada Familia, and the line between reality and dreams becomes blurred. The colours and the symbolic richness of the nature-inspired forms create a truly exceptional, dreamlike environment.
Standing beneath the gigantic tree-pillars, you’ll understand just how colossal the structure really is. Look up, and it feels like you’re seeing the church through a giant kaleidoscope. It really is something you have to see for yourself!
Stained glass at Sagrada Familia
Joan Vila-Grau has been in charge of creating and installing stained glass windows in Sagrada Familia since 1999, a role he has taken to heart, devoting body and soul to the project.
In the morning, the light filters through the glass on the Nativity Façade, with soft and delicate blue and green tones which bring out the best of the sun’s first rays.
Later in the day, the sun streams in through the windows on the west front, a riot of orange and red, the colours of sunset.
The “symphony of light and colours” dreamed up by Gaudí thus varies throughout the day, creating a spectacular and harmonious show within the basilica.
The altar and baldaquin at Sagrada Familia
The altar at Sagrada Familia is made from a block of porphyry (a volcanic rock from Iran), flanked by two wide columns dedicated to St Peter and St Paul.
The heptagonal gilded baldaquin was designed by the architect Jordi Bonet i Armengol, inspired by the one in Palma Cathedral, Mallorca, the work of Gaudí himself.
The five-metre wide baldaquin is surrounded by bunches of glass grapes and entwined with copper vine leaves.
The crucifix suspended from the centre is the work of the sculptor Francesc Fajulla i Pellicer.
The façades at Sagrada Familia
The Nativity Façade
The Nativity Façade was constructed during Gaudí’s lifetime, and was envisioned as a homage to Jesus’ childhood and adolescence. It celebrates the triumph of life over death and the majesty of creation, using exuberant natural elements and scenes from daily life alongside more complex mystical symbolism.
The façade is composed of three portals (for faith, hope and charity) and four towers. The sculpture of the Holy Family is set into the column of the central (Charity) portal.
The impressive Faith Portal was installed in November 2015, completing the Nativity Façade and thus marking an important step in work on the basilica.
Following Gaudí’s example, the Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo has devoted himself to working on Sagrada Familia since 1978. The door of the Faith Portal, a magnificent and harmonious enamelled bronze panel brimming with life, if his work. Sotoo is also responsable for the stunning coloured mosaic pinnacles set on top of the towers (photo below).
Etsuro Sotoo (photo) still works at Sagrada Familia. We’ve seen him around the basilica several times – so maybe you’ll spot him too!
The Passion Façade
Gaudí envisaged the Passion Façade as a cold and austere edifice, in sharp contrast with the joy and vitality on display in the Nativity Façade, to evoke the sufferings of Christ during His Passion.
Josep Maria Subirachs started work on the sculptures for this façade in 1986, following Gaudí’s brief by creating a series of angular pieces which are much more sombre and pared-back than those of the Nativity Façade.
Subirachs included a homage to Gaudí in his sculptures: the figure on the left is modeled on the architect himself, whilst the two knights echo those on the terrace at La Pedrera or Casa Milà on the Passeig de Gràcia.
The Glory Façade
This façade is intended to evoke Christ in Glory and his ascension into heaven.
Construction began in 2002 and will not be finished until around 2026. This will be the most monumental of the three façades, and, once finished, will house the main door into the Basilica.
Sagrada Familia: the towers
Gaudí’s intention, in designing the basilica’s 18 towers, was to create the tallest monument in Barcelona.
The 12 lowest towers are dedicated to the 12 apostles
The 4 higher towers are for the 4 evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
The larger tower over the apse is dedicated to the Virgin Mary
The biggest tower of all, dominating the whole structure, will be dedicated to Jesus.
12 + 4 + 1 + 1 = 18. Phew!
The Jesus Tower will be the highest element of Sagrada Familia, at over 170 metres. Beside it, Notre Dame de Paris and Westminster Abbey pale into (relative) insignificance at a “mere” 69 metres each!
Two of the towers at Sagrada Familia are currently open to visitors, offering spectacular views of Barcelona and of the rest of the basilica. A lift will take you up the Passion Tower or Nativity Tower, but you’ll have to walk back down the spiral staircase.
Sagrada Familia: the museum
The Sagrada Familia museum (entry included with your ticket) is well worth a look. A well-designed and informative space, it gives a clearer understanding of the deeper meaning and incredible complexity of Gaudí’s work. Drawings, photos and a series of maquettes reproducing Gaudí’s original models are on display, highlighting the clever techniques used by the architect.
There’s a cinema room at the back of the museum showing a ten-minute educational film. The voiceover is in Catalan, but with Spanish and English subtitles.
When will Sagrada Familia be finished?
Now there’s a question! No-one knows for definite, but 2026 has been put forward as a possible date. Work is currently progressing well, with some spectacular transformations taking place. It does seem hard to imagine it being finished, though!
2026 marks the centenary of Gaudí’s death. It would be a fitting homage to the architect if Sagrada Familia were finished in time for the anniversary…
What will Sagrada Familia look like in 2026?
The video below, made using simulations, is designed to give you an idea of what Sagrada Familia will look like once it’s finished. Work is currently only 70% complete, though, so there’s lots left to do! In any case, the results are sure to be impressive!
Buying tickets for Sagrada Familia
We strongly suggest you buy fast-track tickets in advance of your visit – otherwise, there’s no guarantee you’ll get in, and it would be a shame to miss the basilica’s breathtaking interiors.
Valérie, the creator of Barcelona Top Travel Tips, loves discovering new places, finding the words to describe them, and coming up with little illustrations for the website. Her favourite thing in Barcelona is the unusual, curvy architectural features of some of the city’s buildings. Some say she’s a dreamer… in any case, a city full of works by Gaudí is a great place for her!