Antoni Gaudí (1852–1926) was a profoundly religious man, and from 1912 forward he made the design of this soaring basilica his life’s work. If it is not the grandest church in all of Spain, it is certainly the grandest constructed within living memory.

Gaudí originally planned to base the church on all the stories of the Bible, but, as a guide once told us, "he decided that was too long, so he settled on the New Testament." The "church of the Holy Family" is, to say the least, a strange and wonderful building that represents the intersection of the imaginative style of Modernisme with the medieval faith that drove construction of the great Gothic cathedrals. The facades are particularly ornate. Every projection, ledge, window, corner, step, or other surface is encrusted with carvings. Fruits of the seasons surround one set of spires, dragons and gargoyles hang off corners, an entire Noah’s ark of preposterous animals (rhinos! elephants!) are carved in stone. One facade tells the stories of the birth and childhood of Jesus, another (completed by modern sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs in 1987) the Passion and crucifixion.

And that’s just the exterior. Once inside, the light streaming through high stained-glass windows seems to tint the air with colored light. Gaudí conceived the interior as a vast forest, and the columns seem to grow from the floor like powerful trees holding the roof aloft. Construction of the church came to a near halt at the outbreak of the Civil War and languished until the late 1980s. Yet new construction techniques (and more tourist admissions) have sped up the process. The church was consecrated in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI, and builders hope to complete construction by the 2026 centenary of Gaudí’s death. (He is buried in the Chapel of Carmel, one level down from the main church.)

Tip: Buy tickets online in advance to avoid the wait of an hour or more during high season.