There’s no better place to experience Art Nouveau architecture than in Barcelona. The dynamic forms, innovative materials, and exquisite craftsmanship acquired a deep significance in Catalonia. Known as Modernisme in Catalan (or Modernista in Spanish), the style inspired a generation of remarkable talent. Architects Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Josep Puig i Cadafalch, and others designed endlessly inventive fusions of engineering, light, and decorative art. Antoni Gaudí i Cornet went even further, exploring structure in ways we’re just beginning to understand a century later. For most visitors, the challenge in Barcelona is how to choose between a staggering array of landmark structures.
Ruta del Modernisme: the Modernisme Route
The definitive resource for Catalan Art Nouveau is the Ruta del Modernisme, a multi-day walk sponsored by the Barcelona City Council. It covers 115 monuments and a slew of related attractions in the city proper, plus separate routes for both commercial establishments and sites in surrounding areas. The 200+ page guidebook, published in 2005, is available only on the website and in local Ruta offices. (We had trouble tracking down an English translation and managed to find a used copy on eBay.) While the book may be indispensable for die-hard Modernista fans, most visitors won’t have time for the full route. Moreover, some may struggle with the format. There’s a condensed one-day walk and a list of 30 starred monuments, both of which require skipping around the book. The Ruta website lists major monuments, but presents them in alphabetical order with outdated information.
We spent a full week following the Ruta del Modernisme in Barcelona and compiled a guide to the most important works, plus a few lesser-known favorites. This post covers everything within walking distance of the city center, organized by area. Our Google map shows monument names and official Ruta numbers, and we’ve also included addresses and websites in the text. The most important buildings have the Ruta Del Modernisme symbol embedded in the pavement in front of the site.
We’ve broken the route down to 28 sites in eight different neighborhoods. Click on the links below to jump to a specific area:
- Parc Ciutadella: Castell dels Tres Dragons, Hivernacle, Umbracle
- La Rambla and the Old City: Mercat de Boqueria, Palau Güell, Palau de la Música Catalana
- Lower Eixample: Casa Calvet, Block of Discord (Casa Lleó Morera, Casa Amatller, Casa Batlló)
- Eixample between the Plaça Catalunya and the Avinguda Diagonal: Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Casa Thomàs, Palau Montaner, Casa Milà
- Along the Avinguda Diagonal: Casa Serra, Casa Sayrach, Casa Fuster, Palau Baró de Quadras, Casa Comalat, Casa de les Punxes, Casa Macaya
- Above the Avinguda Diagonal: Sagrada Familia, Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau
- Gràcia: Casa Vicens, Cases Ramos, Park Güell
- Parc Montjüic: Fàbrica Casamarona/CaixaForum, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
Catalan Modernisme: an Introduction
Catalonia’s industrialization in the 19th century – and the ensuing transformation of everyday living – happened during a period of major cultural and political upheaval for the region. The Renaixença, or rebirth, of Catalan identity encouraged artists to (re)discover and celebrate local traditions. Barcelona’s new school of architecture, Spain’s first outside of Madrid, fostered a community focused on meeting the needs of the new world with a fresh perspective on the past. Many leading architects became involved in politics: Domènech and Puig both held political offices, while Gaudí famously got himself arrested for speaking in Catalan rather than Spanish to a policeman.
Meanwhile, the city’s physical and economic growth led to a building boom, especially in the gridded streets of the Eixample (“Addition”). This gave Modernisme, a relatively brief architectural movement, an outsized impact on the city of Barcelona. Almost all the buildings mentioned here were built over a span of just 30 years, roughly the late 1880’s to the 1910’s.
For over 150 years the Spanish government had ruled over Barcelona from a much-detested military citadel. In the 1880’s, the city finally received permission to raze the site and develop it as a park for the Universal Exhibition of 1888. The Parc Ciutadella became an emblem of Catalonia’s emergence as an economic and cultural powerhouse – and its quest for independence from the national government.
Castell dels Tres Dragons
At the corner of the park, a young Domènech contributed two significant buildings inaugurating Modernisme. By combining traditional Catalan brickwork with an innovative modular system (anticipating industrial construction methods), Domènech’s designs could be built in just a few months at low cost. The hotel was later dismantled, but the café-restaurant, often referred to as the Castell dels Tres Dragons, still exists although it’s now a museum of zoology. Currently the building is closed; it appears a restoration is in progress, although the website has no information. Ruta #3: Pg. de Picasso at Pg. de Pujades.
Next door, Josep Amargós i Samaranch’s Hivernacle (greenhouse) of 1883-87 is an example of early industrial architecture. Ruta #4: Pg. de Picasso, 7
Further down, Josep Fontserré i Mestres’s 1883-84 Umbracle (shade house) uses an unusual combination of brick with wood slats as well as glass and iron. Ruta #5: Pg. de Picasso, 13.
La Rambla and the Old City
Modernisme transformed Barcelona’s shops and businesses as well as private homes and larger edifices. Most of the commercial areas, however, were located in the older parts of the city and consequently the style was restricted to mostly to interior renovations rather than new construction. The Ruta del Modernisme has a special guide called Sortim (“Let’s Go Out”) for visiting establishments like the legendary Quatre Gats café.
Mercat de la Boqueria
The Mercat de la Boqueria is one of several market halls which pioneered the use of cast iron, steel beams, and wide expanses of glass, paving the way for Modernisme. Ruta #16: La Rambla, 91.
From the fortress-like entrance paying tribute to the neighborhood’s medieval roots to the shocking roofscape of roiling bricks and alien chimneys, it’s hard to believe the spaces in the 1885-89 Palau Güell belong to the same building.
Gaudí’s orchestration of every step of the journey shows a command of light and a flair for drama to rival Caravaggio. Visiting information on website. Ruta #8: Carrer Nou de la Rambla, 3-5.
Palau de la Música Catalana
The epitome of Catalan Modernisme, every inch of Domènech’s Palau de la Música Catalana (Catalan Music Hall) of 1905-08 brims with color, light, form, and texture.
The Orfeó Català choral music society was a cause dear to the architect’s heart, and designing its new home seems to have given him a special inspiration which infected everyone working on the project. Possibly the most joyful building ever constructed, the Palau is a perfect complement to the atmospheric Born district. Visiting information on website. Ruta #24: C/ Palau de la Música, 4-6.
Located near the transition from the old city to the gridded streets of the Eixample, the 1898-99 Casa Calvet is itself a transitional work. Although Gaudí’s first residential building – with offices and commercial space on the ground floor – seems fairly tame compared to his other work, one can spot hints of his mad genius in the ornamentation. The wrought iron railings and reliefs represent fungi since the original owner of the building was an amateur mycologist. A restaurant on the ground floor seems to have closed. Ruta #27: Carrer de Casp, 48.
Block of Discord
Barcelona’s epicenter of Modernisme, the “Block of Discord” on the Passeig de Graacia, features work from each member of the great triumvirate. Domènech, Puig, and Gaudí were each commissioned to renovate a building, although not at the same time. Working within the constraints of existing structures and collaborating with many of the same artists and craftsmen, they managed to create strikingly distinct visions.
Casa Lleó Morera
Sadly, Domènech’s 1902-05 Casa Lleó Morera isn’t open to the public, but the wraparound façade features some of the same exuberance as his Catalan Music Hall. (A boutique on the ground floor obscures the original interior.) According to legend, the little tower was used as a sniper’s nest during the Civil War. Ruta #43: Pg. de Gràcia, 35.
A few doors down, Puig renovated the Casa Amatller for a chocolate baron in 1898-1900. The Neo-Gothic building bursts with references to local landmarks such as Palau de la Generalitat as well as local legends such as the perennially-popular Saint George and the dragon. Some critics consider its façade to be the pinnacle of decorative arts in architecture. Visiting information on website. Ruta #44: Pg. de Gràcia, 41.
Gaudí’s 1904 Casa Batlló also features a dragon, now as a transformed into a shimmering, writhing roof. Whimsical and endlessly surprising, this building demonstrates the exceptional nature of Gaudí’s talents; next to the Batlló, even Domènech and Puig’s work looks conventional. Astronomically-priced tours include distracting special effects and installations. Visiting information on website. Ruta #45: Pg. de Gràcia, 43.
Eixample between the Plaça Catalunya and the Avinguda Diagonal
Besides the Block of Discord, the Eixample between the Plaça Catalunya and the Avinguda Diagonal contains the highest concentration of Modernisme buildings in the city. Some of the most notable include:
Fundació Antoni Tàpies
Domènech’s pioneering 1881-86 Editorial Montaner i Simón, now the Fundació Antoni Tàpies, drew from industrial structures such as railway stations, with metal pillars and beams supporting massive skylights. The brick façade’s Mudejar-inspired accents brought a uniquely Spanish flair to the otherwise streamlined design. Tàpies’s huge, abstract wire cloud crowning the building makes an interesting contrast. Visiting information on website. Ruta #46: C/ d’Aragó, 255.
In the 1895-98 Casa Thomàs, Domènech used different materials for the two side towers to keep the façade lively. His son-in-law, Francesc Guàrdia i Vidal, added the top three floors in 1912. The design store on the ground floor preserves some of the original interior. Ruta #65: C/ de Mallorca, 293.
On the next block, the Palau Montaner houses the offices of the Spanish government in Catalonia. Josep Domènech i Estapà designed the building in 1889, but fell out with the owner midway through construction. Domènech took over, adding a spectacular entrance hall with a grand staircase and a huge skylight. He also added the dramatic eaves and most of the ornamentation. Ruta #66: C/ de Mallorca, 278.
Gaudí’s iconic Casa Milà dominates the upper Passeig de Gracia. Known locally as La Pedrera (the stone quarry), this 1905-1910 apartment complex only looks carved out of rock – in fact, the stone façade hangs off a steel frame in the same way modern skyscrapers hang curtains of glass.
The current setup in the Casa Milà takes visitors through the building in reverse order – for example, the residential level starts in a back bedroom and finishes at the front door – which detracts from the experience. We do, however, highly recommend the ground-floor restaurant. Visiting information on website. Ruta #67: Pg. de Gràcia, 92.
Along the Avinguda Diagonal
Puig’s 1903 Casa Serra has been called “one of the best examples of single-family urban mansions in Barcelona.” We were intrigued by the 1987 addition of an ultra-contemporary section in smoky glass. Ruta #69: Rambla de Catalunya, 126.
Manuel Sayrach i Carreras designed the Casa Sayrach while still a student, so the building’s owner had to sign the drawings. The 1918 façade’s curving forms echo Gaudí’s work, with a tiny tower on the corner in a nod to Domènech.
Unfortunately the apartment building isn’t open to the public, although we got a tantalizing glimpse of the lobby through the windows. Ruta #71: Av. Diagonal, 423, 425.
The 1908-11 Casa Fuster shows Domènech contending with three separate street facades with his usual panache. Originally a single-family house, the building was later used as offices and an exhibition hall before being converted into a hotel in 2000. Unfortunately, very little of the interior finishes survived. Ruta #75: Pg. de Gràcia, 132.
Palau Baró de Quadras
Another Puig building, the Palau Baró de Quadras of 1904 features two façades: a grand mansion on the Avinguda Diagonal, and a humbler rear revealing a block of flats. The interior looks exquisite based on a peep through the doors. The website says there are tours every Friday morning, but we found a sign at the back entrance listing only a few specific dates in July and August; we recommend emailing or calling ahead of time to confirm a visit. Ruta #76: Av. Diagonal, 373.
Designed by Salvador Valeri i Popurull, the 1909-11 Casa Comalat looks like a mash-up of Gaudí’s Casa Calvet and Casa Batllò, with a dash of Domènech thrown in for good measure.
Wildly different facades on the Avinguda Diagonal and the Carrer Còrsega make this worth a visit, even if the interior is closed to the public. Ruta #77: Av. Diagonal, 442.
Casa de les Punxes
Puig’s iconic 1905 Casa de les Punxes (House of the Spires) consists of three separate houses for a trio of sisters, merged into a medieval fantasy of spires and lacy stonework mixed with warm brick. Locals managed to preserve the panel depicting Saint George with its provocative legend – “Holy Patron of Catalonia, give us back our freedom” – all the way through Franco’s reign. The building is now used as a space for conferences. Ruta #78: Av. Diagonal, 420.
Casa Macaya – another Puig design, this one from 1901 – features a wonderful contrast between expanses of pure white and ornate details. It also uses traditional sculptural decoration to portray modern subjects, such as the cyclist in a capital near the front door. Apart from the entrance foyer and central courtyard, most of the original interior is gone. Free guided tours in Catalan and Spanish on a very limited schedule; check website for details. Ruta #79: Pg. de Sant Joan, 108.
Above Avinguda Diagonal
The iconic Sagrada Familia lies just above the Avinguda Diagonal. Gaudí’s monument still sparks all kinds of controversies and more than a little awe. We recommend reserving tickets several weeks in advance, and visiting the Nativity Tower Façade (the only one Gaudí worked on). Traffic is somewhat lighter early in the day. For more information, see our full post and the official website. Ruta #81: C/ de Mallorca, 401.
Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau
A tree-lined promenade connects the Sagrada Familia to the 1902-26 Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau complex. With the possible exception of the Catalan Music Hall, this is Domènech’s masterpiece, harnessing his progressive social vision with the healing power of nature and beauty. For more information, see our full post and the official website. Ruta #82: Sant Antoni Maria Claret, 167.
From Avinguda Diagonal, it’s a 15 minute walk up the lovely Carrer Gran de Gràcia to the 1883-88 Casa Vicens. Gaudí appropriated Andalusian Islamic techniques to blur the boundaries between indoors and out, and showcase his client’s tile manufacturing capabilities.
It might not have quite the visionary wildness of his later work, but his absolute mastery of architecture makes this house a personal favorite of many visitors. Visiting information on website. Ruta #89: Carrer de les Carolines, 20-26.
A few blocks up, Pedro Almodóvar filmed some of All About my Mother at the Cases Ramos. Jaume Torres i Grau joined three buildings with a single, colorful façade in 1906. The central balcony features bee-shaped wrought-iron bannisters. Ruta #88: Pl. de Lesseps, 30.
Gaudí’s fusion of sculpture, architecture, and nature in the Park Güell (1900-14) is one of Barcelona’s most popular attractions. After visiting on a jam-packed afternoon in June, we almost wished it wasn’t so universally appealing.
Getting to the park takes a bit of planning. We experienced some of Barcelona’s more workaday neighborhoods by walking from the Casa Vicens to the Park Güell and back to the Passeig de Gràcia. The #24 bus takes about 30 minutes from the Plaça Catalunya and stops directly across from the park. The taxi line at the park wrapped around the block. Visiting information on website. Ruta #83.
Antiga Fàbrica Casamarona (CaixaForum)
Josep Puig i Cadafalch’s design for the Antiga Fàbrica Casamarona textile factory won the City Council’s award for best industrial building in 1911. Later it was used by the Spanish National Police Force, before being converted into a huge modern art complex, the CaixaForum, in 2002. (The new entrance is by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki.)
The site’s highlight is the surreal roofscape, slightly surprising from the normally more conservative Puig. The museum offers separate tickets for visiting the factory only; see website for information. Ruta #35: Av. Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, 6-8.
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC)
If the 1888 Exposition helped put Modernisme on the map, the 1929 International Exposition marked its finish. By this time, Domènech and Gaudí had passed away, and younger architects turned instead to a style known as Noucentisme. With its emphasis on the rational over romantic, international over regional, and classicism over eclecticism, Noucentisme moved away from many of the tendencies which made Catalonian architecture appealing. The focal point of the 1929 exhibition was the Palau Nacional, now the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.
It’s a massive, gorgeous edifice – especially the oval dome in the rear – but feels like a step backwards architecturally. Compared to Mies van der Rohe’s sleek little Barcelona Pavilion, the local architecture seemed fussy and outdated. Visiting information on website. Ruta #34: Palau Nacional, Parc Montjïc.