Suppose someone told you they were visiting a building site on holiday. You’d be pretty bemused. Then, they tell you it’s the Sagrada Familia — the overriding emotion might be envy. Over a century in the making, Gaudi’s masterpiece is so sublime it has wowed visitors throughout its construction. And behind its spectacular facade lie 100 years’ of drama and curious tidbits. (Oh, and the man with the plan himself – Gaudi – buried under his lifetime’s work). Here are nine fascinating facts that will make you see its colorful stained glass in a new light.

Gaudi was not the first architect to work on it

Image of the stained glass from inside the Sagrada Familia

Think of the Sagrada Familia and Gaudi’s name will likely spring to mind instantly. After all, he devoted himself almost exclusively to his magnum opus. Yet Barcelona’s most famous attraction started life under a less well-known architect. In 1882, designer Francisco de Paula del Villar envisaged a — more classic — Gothic revivalist church. When he resigned the next year, Gaudi took over and steered the plans down a more radical route (primarily his peculiar application of geometry which was influenced by nature). The rest, as they say, is history.

Revolutionaries set the crypt on fire

image of the iconic spires of the sagrada familia

Given the scale of the project, a few setbacks during construction might have been expected. But when you factor in arson attacks, it’s a wonder the Sagrada Familia is here at all. During the Spanish civil war, revolutionaries set fire to the crypt. In the process, they also partially destroyed Gaudi’s original plans and plaster models. While you’re snapping away at those iconic spires, spare a thought for those who rescued the designs — it took 16 years to reassemble the pieces of the master model.

Computer-aided technology is building it 

It’s no wonder the Sagrada Familia’s construction has taken so long. Back in the 20th century, all those colossal stone sculptures were hand-carved. Nowadays, modern technology has helped to speed up the process. Constructors use computer-aided design and CNC milling machines to shape stone off-site. The creation of ten more spires — each representing an important Biblical figure — is the next technological challenge.

It will be the tallest church in the world

Church of La Sagrada Familia from Antoni Gaudi at golden hour. Barcelona. Spain

“The Holy Family is not the last of the cathedrals, but the first of a new era.” As if it wasn’t enough of an architectural statement already, just wait until the new spires are complete. At 172 meters tall, Gaudi’s masterpiece will knock Ulm Minster — the world’s tallest ecclesiastical building — off its perch. And the master architect’s designs are (quite literally) a tall order. After all, they call for eighteen spires representing the Apostles, the Evangelists, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus. Here’s to the construction team!

The building is designed to symbolize Christ’s life

image of a jesus on a cross on the facade of the sagrada familia church, known as the passion facade

Those glorious facades were not just designed for us to ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at. Gaudi’s architecture is laden with symbolism. In fact, it’s created to represent the lifetime of Christ. Just take the three great entrances, symbolizing the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. There is the Nativity Facade (dedicated to his birth) and the Passion Facade (devoted to his suffering). Not sure of the deeper meaning? Never fear, the doors of the Passion Façade present the Passion of Jesus in various languages. 

There will be several organs – controllable by one player

Close up of Sagrada Familia's organ with multicolored reflections of stained glass windows in its pipes. The instrument has 26 stops (1,492 pipes) on two manuals and a pedalboard.

While it’s not necessarily your typical concert venue, hearing a performance at the Sagrada Familia is a show to remember. With 1492 pipes, its organ can make a phenomenal sound. Still, because of the acoustic challenges posed by its architecture, one is not enough! So, several other organs — totaling a whopping 8000 pipes — will be installed around the church. And the best part? One organist will be able to control them simultaneously.

Its distinctive architecture has divided opinion

image of the ceiling of the sagrada familia

Nowadays, it’s one of the world’s most revered buildings — and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But back in the 20th century, not everyone was such a fan. Author George Orwell called the Sagrada Familia ‘one of the most hideous buildings in the world’. For others, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. German architect Walter Gropius described it as ‘a marvel of technical perfection’. Whatever your opinion, it’s sure to leave an impression.

Gaudi is buried there

Barcelona, Spain - 17th March 2011: Catalan Architect Antonio Gaudi's grave in Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona

Any trip to the Sagrada Familia isn’t complete without paying a visit to Catalonia’s most famous son. And where else would he be than buried under his own architectural legacy, of course? After his life was cut tragically short in a tram accident, he was laid to rest here. You’ll find his tomb in the chapel dedicated to the El Carmen Virgin.

The Sagrada Família is built solely on the basis of donations

Collection box for generous offertory standing among pews at a Catholic temple

“The temple of the Sagrada Familia is made by the people, and therefore, in it, their way of being is manifested,” said Antoni Gaudí. And he was right — The Sagrada Familia has been self financed since its inception. Over the years, the building has continued to be developed exclusively because of the generosity of thousands of travelers. Today — 139 years after the laying of the first stone — this iconic church is closer than ever to the culmination of Gaudí’s dream. If you’d like to be part of this church’s vibrant history, you can donate here.

Get travel tips and inspiration straight to your inbox. Sign up to the newsletter.