Barcelona is known as an “architects’ dream,” but one of the most fascinating landmarks often overlooked is the Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau, or simply Sant Pau.
Sure, people flock to Barcelona from all over the world to marvel at masterpieces from Antoni Gaudí. Structures like La Sagrada Familia, Casa Battló, and Parc Güell welcome millions of visitors every year– and with good reason! The combination of neo-gothic and Oriental styles form part of the Modernism movement popular in the 19th and early 20th century.
However, the average tourist usually misses Sant Pau, an old hospital complex and a stellar example of Catalan’s Art Nouveau movement. It’s so incredibly impressive that no one should leave Barcelona without seeing it! It was designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, a Catalan politician/architect, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
History of Sant Pau
The original Hospital de la Santa Creu I Sant Pau began in 1401 when six different hospitals merged together after the Black Plague wiped out a third of the population. It stood steadfast for five whole centuries. But by the late 19th century, Barcelona needed a new building as its population was rapidly growing. Also, medical advancements and new hygiene guidelines necessitated a state-of-art facility.
As fate would have it, in 1896, a Catalan banker named Pau Gil died and instructed that his wealth go towards building a new hospital. So in 1902, Montaner began construction, and with help from other private donors, the hospital opened in 1930. It ran for 80 years until officials moved its facilities to another location.
In 2014, after a four-year restoration, the original complex reopened to visitors. Today, it honors its historical heritage by housing institutions involved in innovation, sustainability, health, education, and culture.
What to See at Sant Pau
The moment you enter Sant Pau’s gates, the massive modernist structure will take your breath away. The main building looks like a bold and whimsical castle. You’ll wonder if you’ve stumbled into some kind of fairy tale or Disney park!
Sant Pau is actually the most extensive art nouveau complex in the world. Montaner considered it a “garden city concept,” with several pavilions forming the complex. While each building represents a different field of medicine, they are similarly stunning. High archways, colorful mosaics, glazed tiles, and beautiful stained glass are everywhere.
Montaner took careful consideration when designing the layout. He used many symbolic elements, including designing the grounds in the form of a cross and using a lot of religious imagery and statues. You can especially see this inside, where patients needed to feel safe and protected.
And interestingly, like many modernist buildings in Barcelona, dragon imagery is prominent throughout Sant Pau. Roofs resemble dragon scales. Dragon sculptures adorn building facades, and there is even an installation dedicated to Montaner that is symbolic of a dragon.
When you visit the hospital, the first pavilion you’ll see at Sant Pau is Sant Salvador. You can watch a video and learn about the history of medicine in Barcelona. Then you’ll walk along the exhibition space leading out to the central courtyard.
Once outside, you can admire the intricate details that adorn all the buildings. Next, stroll among the sweet-smelling orange and lime trees. And notice the all lavender, laurel, and rosemary bushes. Montaner was very purposeful in his use of medicinal plants around the pavilions. He wanted to improve the patients’ mood and well-being.
Next, you can visit the Sant Rafael Pavillon. Its hospital beds and theater have been fully restored to their original 1930s glory. You’d think this would be a creepy sight, but with so much sunlight, lively green and white mosaic tiles, it’s anything but. Montaner wanted to create a luminous space as he believed it was imperative to a general atmosphere of good health.
When you’re done touring Sant Rafael, head over to the Administration Pavillon. It is so vast and majestic that it looks like a cathedral. Its entrance hall has a large dome roof, thick marble columns, and pink mosaic tiles decorating the ceiling. Carved marble flanks the grand stairway, and floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows line the hallway. What a sight!
At the end of your visit to Sant Pau, you’ll wonder why it’s not on every single must-see list for Barcelona. And more importantly, you’ll appreciate how the power of imagination can turn even the dreariest places into a thing of beauty.
Getting to Sant Pau
You will need about 1.5 hours to fully appreciate and pore over all the details without feeling rushed. A self-guided tour costs about 11-15 euros, depending on if any promotions are happening. If you want a guided tour, they provide one for 20 euros. It’s always best to book your tickets ahead here as Covid protocol is very strict right now.
To get to Sant Pau, you can take the metro. From the L5 blue line, get off at the station Sant Pau-Dos de Maig. Or if you happen to be visiting La Sagrada Familia, it’s only a 10-minute walk from there.