From Gaudi and Dali to ancient churches and massive ships, there are plenty of wonders in Barcelona and beyond to keep culture vultures’ eyes and minds stimulated
Sagrada Familia (Dreamstime)
What is it? The masterworks of Catalonia’s architecture king
It’s as impossible to pick Antoni Gaudí’s best building as it is to separate the Modernist architect from his native Catalonia. Barcelona is full to the brim of Gaudí’s works: the rippling stone of Casa Mila, the skeletal balconies of Casa Batlló, the fantastical pavilions and pathways of Parque Güell.
Don’t miss the Crypt in Colonia Güell, just outside the city. A confection of scalloped pews and tree-like columns, the Crypt was where Gaudí experimented with techniques he later applied to Barcelona’s still-unfinished, but still absolutely spectacular, Sagrada Família, the Roman Catholic church at the heart of the capital.
The capital also boasts nine UNESCO-protected monuments, making it the European city with the highest number of UNESCO-protected monuments.
Stained glass ceiling at Palau de la Música (Dreamstime)
What is it? Art Nouveau awesomeness
Gaudí gets most of the glory, but Barcelona is bursting with the innovations of other architects too. These two gems in the city - Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau - are the handiwork of modernist Art Nouveau maestro Lluís Domènech i Montaner.
Built between 1905 and 1908, the Palau de la Música Catalana concert hall, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is like a oversized Fabergé egg, a riot of colour, stained glass, mosaics and murals, with no inch left unembellished. It’s well worth signing up for a guided tour so its secrets are revealed.
The Hospital de Sant Pau, a working hospital until 2009, is the world’s largest Art Nouveau site, a complex of Moorish and Gothic pavilions set among gardens and connected by tunnels. The best way to reach it is by walking along the semi-pedestrianised Avinguda de Gaudí from the Sagrada Família.
La Seu (Dreamstime)
What is it? Great Gothic cathedral at the centre of the action
Barcelona’s mighty cathedral sits at the heart of the Gothic Quarter’s warren of old alleys and squares, bordered by the sea to the south and the tree-lined avenue of La Ramblas to the west.
The Catedral itself is a cavernous space, where you can admire the carvings and chapels, stroll the cloisters and take the lift up to the rooftops for views of the bell towers, pinnacles and all of Barcelona.
Ship inside Museu Marítim (Dreamstime)
What is it? Medieval shipyards brought back to life
Barcelona’s royal drassanes (shipyards) date back to the 13th century and were the first port of call for explorer Christopher Columbus when he returned from the New World.
Extensive renovations, finally complete in 2017, will see the complex fully reopened, with the city’s long and intriguing maritime history recounted beneath the shipyard’s original vast Gothic arches.
Don’t miss the 60m-long replica of Don Juan de Austria’s 16th-century galley.
Monastery of Sant Pere de Rode (Dreamstime)
What is it? Majestic 10th-century lookout
This lonely, lofty Benedictine monastery, in north-east Catalonia, a triumph of Romanesque architecture, lords over Cap de Creus Natural Park, north-east of Barcelona.
For the best approach, make a half-day hike from the foothills at Selva de Mar. Wander through the monastery’s mighty, vaulted nave, then scramble a little further uphill to reach the atmospheric ruins of equally ancient Castell de Sant Salvador, for views you’re bound to remember.
Santa Climent in Taull, Vall de Boi (Dreamstime)
What is it? UNESCO-listed alpine altars
A handful of tiny villages lie scattered in a skinny, steep-sided valley in Catalonia’s high Pyrenees. Each one of them has its own, strikingly simple Romanesque church, soaring above the meadows and into the clear mountain air.
There are eight churches and one hermitage, dating from the 11th century, helping earn the valley UNESCO World Heritage status back in 2000. If time is short, head to Taüll to see two of the most impressive sites.
Alternatively, use old farmers’ paths to hike between the hills and villages to combine history with lungfuls of fresh air in the Catalonian countryside.
Monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet (Dreamstime)
What is it? Catalonia’s grandest cloisters
Founded in the 12th century, countryside-set Poblet, in Tarragona province, became Catalonia’s richest, most powerful and most sumptuous monastery, with a reputation for corruption and hedonism. The monastery is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It has been exquisitely restored and you can wander its atmospheric cloisters, wine cellars, dormitories and chapel to get a sense of its size, with views over the rolling green hills beyond.
Alternatively, follow the full Cistercian Route, a scenic walk, cycle or drive linking Poblet and the equally impressive monasteries of Vallbona de les Monges and Santes Creues.
Ruins at Tarragona (Dreamstime)
What is it? Ancient relics beside the sea
Back in the day, Tárraco, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the cultured capital of Roman Spain and, from around 200 BC, temples, churches and an amphitheatre were constructed.
Today, the modern city of Tarragona sits atop the ruins. There is a dedicated archaeology museum and obvious remnants, but also smaller details, such as Roman walls incorporated into modern offices.
Head a few miles outside Tarragona to see the spectacular Puente del Diablo (Devil’s Bridge), part of a Roman aqueduct that once stretched for 25 miles.
Ceiling painting in Dalí Theatre-Museum (Dreamstime)
What is it? A brilliantly bizarre salute to surrealism
Surrealist supremo Salvador Dalí was born in the city of Figueres, around a 90-minute drive from Barcelona, in 1904, and created the movement’s most OTT tribute here, converting a former theatre into a madcap museum.
The Dali Theatre-Museum's vibrant red walls,topped with golden statues and oversize eggs, house superbly strange and interactive artworks designed, according to Dalí himself, to be a “theatrical dream”. The artist is buried under a simple slab in the basement.
There are other Dali sites across Catalonia for art-lovers and modern surrealists to explore, too, including his house at Port Lligat where he lived and worked.
In fact, Dali-inspired travellers may want to complete the so-called Dalinian Triangle, which includes the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres, the Salvador Dalí House-Museum in Port Lligat (Cadaqués) and a third site, the Gala Dalí Castle House-Museum in Púbol, in the La Pera district, the house that Dalí gifted to his muse and where she's now buried.
Seu Vella (Dreamstime)
What is it? An old cathedral with a new lease of life
Built from 1203, the old hilltop cathedral remains the symbol of the southern Catalonian city of Lleida, despite having been replaced by a newer basilica in the 18th century.
More latterly used as military barracks, the Seu Vella still has impressive cloisters, carvings and murals, and has just made it onto UNESCO’s Tentative List.
Brave souls can climb the 238-step spiral staircase of the 60m-high bell tower, for panoramic views across the fertile plains.
This article was supported by the Catalonia Tourist Board (www.catalunya.com) but it is impartial and independent, just like all Wanderlust editorial.
Main image: Parque Güell and view of Barcelona (Dreamstime)