La Catedral

Top choice cathedral in La Rambla & Barri Gòtic

Barcelona’s central place of worship presents a magnificent image. The richly decorated main facade, dotted with gargoyles and the kinds of stone intricacies you would expect of northern European Gothic, sets it quite apart from other churches in Barcelona. The facade was actually added in 1870, although the rest of the building was built between 1298 and 1460. Its other facades are sparse in decoration, and the octagonal, flat-roofed towers are a clear reminder that, even here, Catalan Gothic architectural principles prevailed.

The interior is a broad, soaring space divided into a central nave and two aisles by lines of elegant, slim pillars. The cathedral was one of the few churches in Barcelona spared by the anarchists in the civil war, so its ornamentation, never overly lavish, is intact.

In the first chapel on the right from the northwest entrance, the main crucifixion figure above the altar is Sant Crist de Lepant. It is said Don Juan’s flagship bore it into battle at Lepanto and that the figure acquired its odd stance by dodging an incoming cannonball. Further along this same wall, past the southwest transept, are the wooden coffins of Count Ramon Berenguer I and his wife Almodis, founders of the 11th-century Romanesque predecessor to the present cathedral. Left from the main entrance is the baptismal font where, according to one story, six North American Indians brought to Europe by Columbus after his first voyage of accidental discovery were bathed in holy water.

In the middle of the central nave is the exquisitely sculpted late 14th-century timber coro (choir stalls). The coats of arms on the stalls belong to members of the Barcelona chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Emperor Carlos V presided over the order’s meeting here in 1519. Take the time to look at the artisanship up close – the Virgin Mary and Child depicted on the pulpit are especially fine.

A broad staircase before the main altar leads you down to the crypt, which contains the tomb of Santa Eulàlia, one of Barcelona’s two patron saints and more affectionately known as Laia. The reliefs on the alabaster sarcophagus, executed by Pisan artisans, recount some of her tortures and, along the top strip, the removal of her body to its present resting place.

For a bird’s-eye view (mind the poop) of medieval Barcelona, visit the cathedral’s roof and tower by taking the lift (€3) from the Capella de les Animes del Purgatori near the northeast transept.

From the southwest transept, exit by the partly Romanesque door (one of the few remnants of the present church’s predecessor) to the leafy claustre (cloister), with its fountains and flock of 13 geese. The geese supposedly represent the age of Santa Eulàlia at the time of her martyrdom and have, generation after generation, been squawking here since medieval days. One of the cloister chapels commemorates 930 priests, monks and nuns martyred during the civil war.

Along the northern flank of the cloister you can enter the Sala Capitular (Chapter House). Although it’s bathed in rich red carpet and graced with fine timber seating, the few artworks gathered here are of minor interest. Among them features a pietà by Bartolomeo Bermejo. A couple of doors down in the northwest corner of the cloister is the Capella de Santa Llúcia, one of the few reminders of Romanesque Barcelona (although the interior is largely Gothic). Walk out the door on to Carrer de Santa Llúcia and turn around to look at the exterior – you can see that, although incorporated into La Catedral, it is a separate building.

Upon exiting the Capella de Santa Llúcia, wander across the lane into the 16th-century Casa de l’Ardiaca, which houses the city’s archives. You may step into the supremely serene courtyard, cooled by trees and a fountain; it was renovated by Lluis Domènech i Montaner in 1902, when the building was owned by the lawyers’ college. Domènech i Montaner also designed the postal slot, which is adorned with swallows and a tortoise, said to represent the swiftness of truth and the plodding pace of justice. You can get a good glimpse at some stout Roman wall in here. Upstairs, you can look down into the courtyard and across to La Catedral.

Although technically it's free to go in to pray, in practice if you go any time during tourist visiting hours, you'll need to pay. Otherwise, you can enter for free before 12.30pm (2pm on Sunday), though you'll have to pay to visit any combination of the choir stalls, chapter house and roof.

Across Carrer del Bisbe is the 17th-century Palau Episcopal (Palau del Bisbat; Bishop’s Palace). Virtually nothing remains of the original 13th-century structure. The Roman city’s northwest gate was here and you can see the lower segments of the Roman towers that stood on either side of the gate at the base of the Palau Episcopal and Casa de l’Ardiaca. In fact, the lower part of the entire northwest wall of the Casa de l’Ardiaca is of Roman origin – you can also make out part of the first arch of a Roman aqueduct.

Across Plaça Nova from La Catedral your eye may be caught by childlike scribblings on the facade of the Col·legi de Arquitectes (Architectural College). It is, in fact, a giant contribution by Picasso from 1962. Representing Mediterranean festivals, it was much ridiculed by the local press when it was unveiled.