Modernist architect Antoni Gaudí left his mark firmly on Barcelona. Escape the crowds on Las Ramblas to follow his trail, from the undulating paths of the Parc Guell to the 'melting' Sagrada Familia
Barcelona owes a great deal to Antoni Gaudí, despite almost ruining him. Its citizens gave him great swathes of money, private and public, and he returned to them some of the most defining buildings in the city. Indeed, this is "the city of Gaudí" – distinguished from others in Europe by the buildings and parks that he designed and brought to the world.
On top of a great hill overlooking Barcelona is Gaudí's Parc Guell (the nearest Metro station is Lesseps, L3 – but be aware that there is still a stiff walk up a steep slope remaining after this), a great man-made but naturalistic area meticulously designed to look like an untouched piece of paradise above the bustling city. From 1900 to 1914, Gaudí used the might of industry to produce something that looked like a great Roman ruin uncovered and opened to the public two millenia after it had been abandoned.
Undulating pathways are carved out of the rock, providing protection from the little wind that does blow in from the Mediterranean. Some of Gaudí's famous architectural nuances can be seen in all aspects of the park, from the great verandas to the fantastic colonnades that make up the buildings within the "natural" habitat.
Looking every bit like a set from Alice in Wonderland, the park has been developed on a piece of land previously named Bare Mountain, spawning a micro-economy for the small area surrounding it. You ascend enormous outdoor escalators to get to it – the hill is rather steep to tackle without mechanical aid – and are greeted by the spectacular technicolour entrance to the park itself, a grand pair of staircases ascending to a triple-columned temple, the jewel of the park.
Wandering around, you realise just how impressive the feat is – turning an empty landscape into something fantastically natural-looking, yet carefully considered and designed. It is one of the essential places to see for any tourist visiting Barcelona, and is big enough for romantic couples to promenade away from the crowds and safe enough for families to allow their children to run free.
Entry, too, is free – guaranteeing that, by the late afternoon, the entrance to the park will be a sea of people: come early in the morning (or late in the evening) for a cooler and less hectic tour of the area. Inside the park is La Torre Rosa, a small building containing examples of Gaudí's interior architecture and furniture designs, which does cost a couple of euros to enter.
Gaudí's other great gift to Barcelona is the Sagrada Familia, a multi-spired church reaching high into the sky and visible from several streets away in the generally low-rise centre of the city. Not open for public worship until late 2010 – and still at least 20 years from being completed in its entirety – it is Gaudí's great unfinished masterpiece. He said himself that "My client is not in a hurry" to see the church completed – and indeed Gaudí spent 44 years designing and building the church, work on which has been taken up by various architects since his death in 1926.
In this great dripping candlewax church, Gaudí himself oversaw the Nativity façade on the east side – and it bears many of his artistic trademarks. Looking for all the world as if it is melting in the sweltering Spanish heat, the east façade is counteracted by the western side of the church which echoes much of Gaudí's design but in a more modern, gaudy and angular way. The outside is emblazoned with the words "Hosannah", "Excelsis" and "Sanctus", while the interior (for which an entrance fee is charged) draws long lines any time after about 11am. The church is served by a Metro station directly beneath its footprint (Sagrada Familia, on the L2 line) but can be walked to relatively easily from the top of Las Ramblas.
On that walk, you will also see La Pedrera – a Gaudí-designed building that looks like a blooming onion that has warped and distended, rendering it completely incongruous with the buildings alongside it. La Pedrera almost sneaks up on you, sitting on the corner of the street at the Passeig de Gracia, a grey concrete lump that nevertheless stands out when you realise it doesn't follow the lines of the surrounding architecture. Tours are available for a small fee – and again you will find a small queue forming, at busy times of the day, on the adjacent pavement. Nearby and on the same street is the Casa Battlo – nicknamed the "House of Bones", and another idiosyncratic Gaudí building. Lacking any straight lines, it looks grander than La Pedrera and is thought to ape the image of St George slaying the dragon (a theme as popular in Catalonia as in Britain).
There, then, are some of Gaudí's bequests to the city of Barcelona. The two are entirely interdependent: it is unlikely one could have flourished in the way it did without the other. Make no mistake, however: to see Barcelona without seeing Gaudí's work is to not see Barcelona at all.
Be warned, accommodation in the city can be a hit-or-miss affair. While all the hotels recommended here (see Make It Happen, top left) are clean and comfortable, your best bets are the Murmuri Hotel Barcelona and the Hotel HCC Regente (both on Rambla de Catalunya). The Murmuri is a kitsch, modern little boutique hotel that will set you back somewhat, while the HCC Regente is slightly more basic but at a better price. The key thing is location: situated in the Eixample district, both hotels are central but away from the rather shady section of the city that immediately surrounds Las Ramblas.
For unadulterated luxury, look no further than the five-star Hotel Majestic on the Paseo de Gracia. With all the best amenities, a friendly front staff and concierge, plus a prime location (again close enough to Las Ramblas to get the feel of a buzzing city without being pestered by the ne'er-do-wells who stalk tourists on the city's most famous street), the Majestic has been serving guests admirably for more than 90 years now.