Feature: Barcelona by Design

From Gaudí to Gehry.

By Sally Davies | Photographs and video by Matt Dutile

“My patron is not in a hurry,” famously quipped Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí when questioned about why the Basilica de la Sagrada Família (401 Carr. Mallorca; 011-34-93-208-0414; admission, $17*), his massively ambitious offering to the heavens, was coming along so slowly. Almost 140 years since construction began, Gaudí’s mighty basilica in the Eixample district still has a way to go. Nonetheless its distinctive spires have come to symbolize Barcelona, the Mediterranean capital of northeastern Spain’s culturally and linguistically distinct Catalonia region, and its creative freedoms.

The basilica’s architectural style is known as Modernisme, the quintessentially Catalan offshoot of the Art Nouveau movement that swept across Europe at the turn of the last century. It’s not for everyone—British author George Orwell described the basilica as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world”—but its no-holds-barred design speaks to the city’s propensity to break with traditional styles of art and architecture. Even today you can get to know the city’s character by visiting the Sagrada Família and other buildings created by visionary architects.


Modernisme’s Leading Light

Antoni Gaudí is the most well-known of the Modernistas for ­designing not only the Sagrada Família but also Park Güell (Carr. d’Olot; admission, $9), north of the Gràcia neighborhood. The park has become Instagram famous for its Hansel and Gretel gatehouses, a salamander sculpture that’s often mistaken for a dragon, and its mosaic bench that snakes around an esplanade. The dragon is a recurring theme in Gaudí’s work and around the city, a nod to Catalonia’s patron saint, George. Nowhere is it featured more spectacularly than in the hunched form of the Eixample townhouse Casa Batlló (43 Pass. de Gràcia; admission, $28). The facade’s pearlescent tiles suggest a dragon’s scales, an iron cross represents George’s lance, and the bonelike balusters of the balconies are thought to depict the dragon’s victims.

The Apple of Discord

On the same block as Casa Batlló, two other buildings showcase the individual styles of two very different Modernista architects. Lluís Domènech i Montaner’s Casa Lleó Morera (No. 35) is often compared to a wedding cake because of its layers of seemingly whipped stucco, while Josep Puig i Cadafalch’s Casa Amatller (No. 41) is Flemish-influenced, with neat geometrically arranged ceramic tiles and a stepped gable. Together the three buildings are known as the Manzana de la Discordia, manzana being Spanish for both “block” and “apple”—a playful allusion to the mythological Golden Apple of Discord that Zeus was asked to award to the most beautiful of three Greek goddesses, Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite.

The Master of Neo-Gothic

One of Puig i Cadafalch’s other notable buildings is Casa Martí, better known as Els Quatre Gats (3 Carr. Montsió; 011-34-93-302-4140; dinner for two, $58) because that’s the name of the legendary café-slash-restaurant it houses. In its day, the café was a cauldron of creativity, and frequent patrons included Gaudí and Pablo Picasso—not that they would have shared a table, as the latter was a vocal critic of the former. It’s still an atmospheric place in the historic Barri Gòtic quarter for breakfast or lunch and is worth visiting for its fin de siècle interior and patchwork of oil paintings. It’s a great spot to try the traditional Catalan dish trinxat, made with cabbage and potato and served here with a truffled egg.

Less floral and more somber than the buildings of Gaudí or Domènech i Montaner, Puig i Cadafalch’s creations tend to reflect medieval influences. He played with bricks and turrets to create the forbidding and Disneyesque Casa de les Punxes (420 Av. Diagonal; admission, $14.50), or House of Spikes, in the Eixample, as well as the redbrick Casaramona, with its grand tower and belvedere. Set at the foot of the Montjuïc hill, it was once a fancy mattress factory, but now it’s home to the CaixaForum (6–8 Av. Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia; admission, $4.60), an art museum with some of the best programming in town.

The Maximalist

Meanwhile, Domènech i Montaner is known for a frothier style, embodied in the Palau de la Música (4–6 Carr. Palau de la Música; guided tours, $23 a person; concert tickets, from $28), in the Born neighborhood. The jewelry box of a concert hall is a spectacle of color: There’s a vast inverted stained-glass dome in the center of the auditorium’s ceiling, mosaic-encrusted columns in pastel hues, and tiled muses in relief leaning onto the stage, bearing harps. Take a guided tour or catch a concert.

Domènech i Montaner’s other masterpiece is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, now known as the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau (167 Carr. Sant Antoni Maria Claret; admission, $16). The Modernistas believed in the curative power of beauty, and until recently, this was a medical center; today it functions as a tourist attraction. Each of its extravagant pavilions was a ward—children, oncology, maternity, and so on—set among leafy gardens, while all the mundane and unpleasant business of hospital life took place underground, in tunnels and operating rooms. It’s a stunning complex, mysteriously undervisited by the tourists lining up just a short walk away at the Sagrada Família.

The Origins of Style

Modernisme’s outpouring of creativity was without precedent but not surprising: The artistic yield of Catalonia goes back centuries. You can get a sense for its roots by visiting the vivid Romanesque murals rescued from churches in the Pyrenees in the 19th century and now displayed at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (Palau Nacional, Parc de Montjuïc; admission, $14), which sits on Montjuïc. The museum’s collection encompasses a millennium of art, from Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque paintings to Modern­ista furniture and Spanish Civil War propaganda posters. On the top floor is the restaurant Òleum (011-34-93-289-0679; dinner for two, $50), which bases some of its dishes on the museum’s exhibits—you might, for example, try the vegetable terrine inspired by Modernista mosaics. On Friday and Saturday nights, you’ll have a view of the Magic Fountain, a light show set to music in front of the museum.

Making Their Mark

Since the Middle Ages, Barcelona has excelled in adding a creative twist to wider artistic and architectural movements. When the rest of Europe was in thrall to the Gothic style, the Catalans created their own version, eschewing the filigree and furbelows for solidity, width, and purity. The finest example is perhaps the Born’s Santa Maria del Mar (Plaça de Santa Maria; admission, free), a light-filled basilica of spacious proportions, its three aisles separated by elegant octagonal columns. Decades later the Catalans would transform Art Nouveau almost beyond recognition, and—despite the decades of civil war and dictatorship in the interim—would go on to create a welcoming space for the most cutting-edge architecture in the late 20th century.

The Starchitects

As the city began to prosper financially again in the late 20th century, big-name architects and artists were commissioned from all around the world to create works for the city. You can see two major examples along Barcelona’s seafront: American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s unmistakable Barcelona Head street sculpture and American architect Frank Gehry’s gigantic shimmering Fish.

International architects were commissioned to create civic buildings, such as Jean Nouvel’s multicolored Torre Glòries (211 Av. Diagonal) skyscraper, in Poblenou. Other grand municipal endeavors include the deep blue, triangular Edifici Fòrum (Parc del Fòrum), designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron and also in Poblenou, and Norman Foster’s communications tower, Torre de Collserola, which sits on a hill overlooking the city. Given the wealth of ambitious projects in the pipeline, the cityscape seems set to evolve yet further. As Gaudí also said: “Tomorrow we shall do beautiful things.”


Barcelona is a food city. Stay true to the theme of your vacation at these Modernista-style dining rooms, where you can feed your belly and soul.

Bar Muy Buenas
A restored gem, with a century-old zinc trough of a bar (which once kept the beer cool) and Modernista woodwork. It’s also a terrific value, with a fixed-price lunch (two courses and a drink) for $15, Monday to Friday. 63 Carr. del Carme; 011-34-93-807-2857; dinner for two, $26

La Dama
Easily Barcelona’s most ravishing restaurant, dripping with turn-of-the-century whimsy, in a second-floor Modernista apartment. A porter whisks you past marble pillars into an antique elevator and opens the restaurant door with a key. The French-Spanish menu features smoked octopus and a sturdy beef bourguignonne with mashed potatoes. 423–425 Av. Diagonal; 011-34-93-209-6328; dinner for two, $58

Restaurant Fonda España
The restaurant showcases Modernista craftsmanship in its alabaster fireplace and marine mosaics, with the dining room originally designed and decorated by Domènech i Montaner. Even the tasting menu is inspired by Modernista works, from Gaudí’s dragon to the restaurant’s own mermaid murals. 9–11 Carr. Sant Pau; 011-34-93-550-0010; dinner for two, $57

A discreet plaque announces this sumptuous second-floor apartment, done in flock wallpaper and tasseled lamps. The cooking, in contrast, is classic and refined: duck cannelloni, or pigeon in a thick reduction. 275 Carr. Mallorca; 011-34-93-764-8952; dinner for two, $50

RCI® affiliated resorts near Barcelona include:
Acuasol 2970

Thanks to an on-site mini-disco and kids’ club, this resort is bound to be a hit with the little ones. Urbanización Peñismar, Peñíscola Castellón

Somni De Cambrils 2818

A lovely retreat with an Art Deco facade, palm trees, and an expansive courtyard swimming pool. Av. Riera de Alforja 8 Bloque 4-Local F Cambrils, Tarragona

Ona Jardines Paraisol 3051

You can experience the city and the beach (a walk away) from these spacious two-bedroom units. Residencial Paraisol Calle Ciutat de Reus Número 19, Tarragona

RCI® Tip

You may not see availability in the Barcelona area right away, so it’s best to plan your 2020 travel now.** With Ongoing Search, we can help you find your dream vacation.1 It’s simple: Choose your preferences, and we’ll email you when there’s a match.

For member reviews and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Barcelona include:
Hotel España

A historic hotel off Barcelona’s bustling La Rambla pedestrian walkway, with a superb Catalan restaurant and splendid Modernista elements. 9–11 Carr. Sant Pau; 011-34-93-550-0000; hotelespanya.com; doubles from $188 a night

Hotel Pulitzer

In the center of the city, the Pulitzer has a faithful following for its rooftop bar and edgy but practical design. 8 Carr. Bergara; 011-34-93-481-6767; hotelpulitzer.es; doubles from $161 a night

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
  • **These vacations are limited and subject to availability.
  • 1The current RCI Exchange Fee is required to set up an Ongoing Search. The Exchange Fee may be refundable if no match is found, provided the member is otherwise in full compliance with all applicable exchange program requirements.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Spring 2019