Catalan Modernism: Architecture Tour of Barcelona

Casa Amatller and Casa Batllo, Catalan modernist buildings on the Block of Discord in Barcelona

Casa Amatller and Casa Batllo. Image: Bernard Gagnon [CC via Wikimedia Commons]

Barcelona has some of the most imaginative architecture in all of Europe. The first time I visited, I was a naive young backpacker with little understanding of what I was seeing, or of the region’s history.

More recently, I’ve been learning about architecture in a Design History class, and it’s given me inspiration to revisit places like this that I didn’t do justice the first time around. For my final assignment, I researched and created this Catalan modernism architecture tour of Barcelona. I plan to use it for a do-over trip to Spain in the near future!

The map

My tour takes you to the most important modernist buildings by the three founding architects. In the map below, you’ll notice the following:

  • To see the legend, click the icon in the top left corner of the map.
  • Sights are colour-coded by architect.
  • The sequence of numbers isn’t necessarily the order for seeing the buildings, but rather the order in which they were built, from oldest to newest based on the start date of construction.

Before starting the tour, a little background …..


Catalonia’s separatists have been making headlines recently, but this is just the latest in a centuries-old history of such movements. The region’s souls have long desired to carve out and preserve a distinct Catalan identity and culture.

In the late 19th century, architect Lluís Domenèch i Montaner launched a movement to create a unique architecture style to represent the Catalonian spirit. Catalan Modernisme would extend beyond artchitecture to other art forms as well. The movement was centered in Barcelona, which today displays fantastic structures conceived by Montaner and his contemporaries — Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and of course Antonio Gaudi.

Characteristics of Catalan Modernism

In the wake of the industrial revolution, there was a desire to bring craft and artistic beauty back into art and public spaces. This yearning spawned Art Nouveau in other parts of Europe. Catalan Modernisme originated around the same time and shares that movement’s affection for curves, assymetry and organic motifs.

The style is in fact sometimes called Catalan Art Nouveau, but the Catalonians incorporated even more eclectic elements to create something completely unrestrained. We see bright colours, creative materials, sinuous lines inspired by nature, Arabic and Japanese influences, Gothic elements and symbolism from Catalan myths, history, spirituality and ideals.

Plan of attack

You’ll need at least two days to see all of these sights. If you have limited time, prioritize the red #1 and #2 spots. These are the most impressive Gaudi monuments: the Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell. Each warrants a half day on its own.

With a second day, you can visit the rest for a more in-depth understanding. It could make for a long day if you want to tour the interiors. If you are seeing it all, you may want to start with the larger batch on day one and save the two big Gaudi sights for your grand finale.

Below, I’ve discussed the structures by neighbourhood, since that will make most sense when you’re on the ground.

The old city and Gothic quarter

(1) Castell dels tres dragons (Castle of 3 dragons – Montaner, 1888)

We start with the first Catalan modernist building to be completed — the blue #1 on the map. Montaner designed it as a cafe for the World’s Fair held in Barcelona in 1888. The towers have Moorish influence, and the decorative ceramics depict important Catalan figures. At first glance, this first foray into a new style may not seem radical by modern standards, but the exposed brick and visible iron supports were new concepts at the time.

Castell dels Tres Dragons and Els Quatre Gats, Barcelona

Images: Castell dells Tres Dragons by Enfo, Els Quatres Gats by yearofthedragon [CC via Wikimedia Commons]

(3) Palau de la Música Catalana (Montaner, 1905 – 1908)

Seventeen years later, construction started on this stunning concert hall, also by Montaner. It’s about a 12 minute walk from the Three Dragons.

Montaner envisioned the building as a magical music box containing sculpture, mosaic, stained glass and ironwork. Both the exterior and interior are richly decorated with organic shapes and floral motifs. Huge windows letting natural light wash over the space were a new idea at the time.

It’s still a functioning music venue, so I’ll absolutely be taking in a concert in this fantastical and historic UNESCO-protected hall. Design nerds will want to sign up for a tour of the interior.

palau de la musica interior and exterior, Barcelona

Exterior image: jordi domènech, Interior image: Cattzy [CC via Wikimedia Commons]

(1) Els Quatre Gats / Casa Martí (Cadafalch 1896)

It’s only a four minute walk to the yellow #1 on the map. This is Cadafalch’s Casa Marti and its ground floor cafe, Els Quatre Gats (The 4 Cats).

Construction started in between our first two sights, so you’ll notice a level of ornamentation that falls somewhere between the two. Sadly, the building hasn’t been entirely preserved in its original form, but we still see the characteristic ironwork bars and the expressive decoration on the upper balconies.

The cafe became a favourite hangout for Picasso and other artists of the day, and it still operates today. Although prices are reportedly inflated, it might be impossible to resist going in for a drink, just to sip where Picasso did.

L’Eixample neighbourhood

Next, walk about 12 minutes straight up Plaça de Catalunya. It will morph into Passeig de Gràci, the most famoust street in the L’Eixample neighbourhood. And the most notable block on the street: Manzana de la Discordia (“Block of discord”), were you’ll see pins in all three colours clustered together on the map. Here, each of the major Catalan modernist architects re-styled a home for a wealthy family of the day.

The street’s nickname originates from a Greek myth that had three goddesses competing for a golden apple. The three “godesses” we see here are:

  • (2) Casa Amatller (Cadafalch,1898-1900) — incorporates Germanic elements in the decoration, like the stepped roof cornice decorated with ceramic tiles. Tours are available if you’d like to look inside.
  • (2) Casa Lleo i Morera (Montaner, 1902-1906) — the family name ‘Morera’ can be translated as mulberry tree, so the decoration includes many motifs of this tree and its flowers. Online virtual tours only.
  • (3) Casa Batllo (Gaudi, 1904) — Our first look at one of Gaudi’s works. The building is his homage to the legend of St. George, a martyr who battled a dragon. The roof line takes the shape of a monster with its tiles resembling large scales. The curving balconies represent waves of the sea. Tours are offered.

(4) Casa Mila / La Pedrera (Gaudi, 1906-12)

Still in L’Eixample and just a few blocks northwest, we also find La Pedrera (“stone quarry”). It was so nicknamed because its rough and rippling exterior resembles the rocky shelves commonly seen at open quarries. The roof features a series of surrealist sculptures, and the building somehow appears to have sprouted organically from the ground. Tours are available.

Gaudi's La Pedrera in Barcelona

La Pedrera. Image: Tony Hisgett [CC via Wikimedia Commons]

(3) Casa de les Punxes / Casa Terrades (Cadafalch, 1905)

A few blocks to the northeast across Avinguda Diagonal, you’ll find this “Castle of Spikes.” Cadafalch was commissioned to build three houses; one for each of the Terradas Brutau sisters. His design blended them together to look like a single building with a castle-like quality.

Get up close to see all of the symbolism in the decoration, including signs of the zodiac, sailor’s knots, vegetables, fruits and flowers. The residence also features stained glass, ceramic panels, sculpture, metal work and its own chapel with a beautiful altar. Tours are offered.

Casa de la Punxes in Barcelona

Grand finale: Glories of Gaudi

(2) Parc Güell (Gaudi, 1901-14)

A wealthy Count commissioned Gaudi to design what was originally conceived as a luxury housing development. However, it didn’t sell, so they decided to turn it into a public park.

It’s comprised of gardens, benches, terraces, fountains, sculptures and pavilions. It also includes the Gaudi House museum –- a house that the architect lived in. He didn’t design the house itself, but it includes furniture and other items that he created. Guided tours are offered, or you can follow a signposted route on your own.

Gaudi's Parc Guell in Barcelona

Parc Guell. Image: Jean-Christophe BENOIST [CC via Wikimedia Commons]

(1) La Sagrada Familia (Gaudi, 1882-unfinished)

Gaudi’s unfinished masterwork, this Roman Catholic basilica is the ultimate Catalan modernist showpiece. It was actually started by another architect who had planned out a Gothic church. When he resigned, Gaudi took over and decided to completely re-imagine it.

He spent the rest of his life working on it, but never finished. Not only did he die before completing it, but his plans and models were later lost during a fire. Work continues based on what architects are presuming his plans would have been, and there are hopes to complete it by 2026.

Detail image by SBA73 (Flickr: Un pessebre en pedra / Nativity in stone) [CC via Wikimedia Commons]

The plan is complex, with three grand facades, three portals, four domes and 18 spire. Each architectural element is  symbolic — the facades represent phases of Christ’s life and the towers represent Jesus, Mary, the Apostles and the Gospels.

Gaudi decorated every surface with symbols, figures and stories from the bible. Inside, soaring arches and branching columns climb to meet coloured glass skylights that wash the whole place in soft light. Surely, even atheists can’t help but have a religious experience in a place like this.

Sagrada Familia interior

Guided Tours

If you want some expert navigation and narration, these guided tour options look good:

  • Barcelona Modernism Walking Tour by In-Out Barcelona — Eixample and La Sagrada Familia (exterior)
  • Barcelona and Gaudi by Barcelona Architecture Walks — similar to above, led by practicing architects (which will cost a bit more)
  • Barcelona Modernism and Gaudi — Doesn’t cover the Sagrada Familia, but does include some extra goodies: discount for a guided tour of the Palau de la Música, discounted entrance to Casa Batlló, and free entrance at the Museu del Modernisme Catalàn.

I hope you enjoy the tour,



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