The Sagrada Família is one of Barcelona’s top sights and one of the most famous churches in the world. Originally conceived as a neo-Gothic basilica in 1882, the project was taken over by Antoni Gaudí in 1883. Only 31 years old at the time, Gaudí had already made a name for himself as the most visionary architect of the era with projects like Park Güell, Casa Vincens, Casa Batlló, and Casa Milà. He devoted the last 12 years of his life to the Sagrada Família, working exclusively on that project. Unfortunately, he only managed to see one of the bell towers completed in his lifetime, but subsequent architects have been working on continuing to build it according to his plans. The church has been under construction for 141 years and is estimated to be about 75 percent complete.
With an average of 14,000 to 16,000 visitors per day, you can imagine how packed the Sagrada Família can get during regular operating hours. When I first visited the landmark with my family in 2008, I felt a sense of awe tinged with a bit of claustrophobia. It’s hard to really take in the details when you’re trying not to bump into all the other people crowding the church. So when I was invited for an exclusive after-hours tour of Gaudí’s masterpiece earlier this month by global travel experiences booking platform GetYourGuide, I knew I had to go. It didn’t hurt that unlike the 6 a.m. tour of the Vatican Museums that I joined thanks to GetYourGuide last summer, this tour wouldn’t require a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call.
What the after-hours tour was like
When I arrived with a small group of eight people for the tour at 8 p.m., the main gate was closed and the tourists that normally crowd the sidewalks surrounding the church had dispersed. We were welcomed by our guide, a friendly young woman, Macarena Bergada, and led to the area outside the Nativity facade, decorated with an abundance of sculptures that tell the story of the birth of Jesus Christ.
After a brief introduction, the doors swung open and we entered the transept to the sounds of the organ played by Juan de la Rubia, the church’s Grammy-nominated principal organist who plays during mass every Sunday morning as well as at concerts around the world. We were given a few minutes to roam on our own and take it all in, so I walked up the nave, admiring the pulpit and the incredible stained-glass windows as the end-of-day light danced through them.
“From the outside, it’s almost impossible to imagine how colorful it is and how important the light is. Almost everywhere in Europe, churches are very old and when you go inside it’s like something dark, something humid, or something very serious, but this is a very happy church, not only because of the light but also because of the colors,” Bergada told us, explaining the choice of the colors on the stained-glass windows. On the eastern facade, which depicts the nativity, the colors are cool—green and blue—representing the sunrise, Jesus’ birth, and water, the source of life. On the western facade, the warm colors—yellow, orange, and red—represent passion, sunset, and the blood of Jesus’ sacrifice. The vividness of the colors and the sheer amount of light that filters in definitely make the church feel upbeat.
While the design of the stained-glass windows is abstract, the colorful panels are also informative—written on them are the names of the most important places and saints in the Catholic religion. Atop columns are the names and symbols of the four main apostles, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There are plans to put the symbols of the most important dioceses in Europe atop some of the other columns in the building. I had missed these details on my first visit to the church, but I was able to clearly see and absorb all of them this time because of our intimate setting and knowledgeable guide.
De la Rubia then invited us to sit in the pews and he ascended the altar to play two songs, the first an improvisation and the second was part of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Bach. Completely devoid of other people, the church was quiet. To hear De la Rubia play for us without anyone else present was incredibly moving.
He then invited us to go up to one of the off-limits places that visitors can’t access. In groups of four or five, we took a round glass elevator up to the balcony where the choir sings, high above the nave and the pews, for a completely different perspective on this incredible church.
“Gaudí thought that the best way to pray was with music. Because of that, there’s a very impressive thing in Sagrada Família that you can see, this very huge tribune, which is made for more than 1,000 people singing,” De la Rubia explained. “So you can imagine a choir of 100 people is a very big choir, but 1,000 people singing is unbelievable.”
On Sunday mornings, De la Rubia and the choir perform downstairs on the altar, but when Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the basilica in 2010, the choir performed up on the balcony. We had some time to chat with him and ask him about his unique job before descending the spiral staircase and leaving the church so he could practice. At that moment, it didn’t matter that I’m not Catholic—the sense of awe and wonder I got from visiting this architectural and spiritual masterpiece without the crowds and hearing stories about it from two people who spend so much time there will stay with me for the rest of my life.
How to book the after-hours tour
This is the first time the Sagrada Família has offered after-hours tours without the crowds. Inspired by the success of its sunrise tour of the Vatican with the clavigero (the key keeper), this tour is one of a new series of Originals by GetYourGuide, which are designed as one-of-a-kind tour experiences.
There are Sagrada Família after-hours tours available on July 3, July 10, and August 4, and tickets for each tour will be given away as part of a contest.
To enter the contest, go to GetYourGuide’s landing page starting on June 20, 2023, and follow the instructions. While GetYourGuide hopes to offer more of these tours in the future, the company has not confirmed additional dates yet.
If you don’t win the contest, you can buy tickets to visit the Sagrada Família during normal opening hours for €26 to €40 (US$28–$44), depending on whether you want a guided tour and access to the towers. To hear De la Rubia play the organ, you’ll have to attend Sunday morning mass, which is free. It starts at 9 a.m. and people begin lining up to get in around 7 a.m.
The new series of Originals by GetYourGuide also includes an exclusive 8 a.m. tour of Gaudí’s Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera), which includes access to some off-limits areas and a light breakfast at the museum’s elegant café. That tour will be offered on the first Saturday of every month for the rest of 2023 and costs €75 per person (US $82).