Imagine being sick and in the hospital, surrounded by medical staff, equipment, that smell particular to hospitals, and a host of other things that generally don’t make for a pleasant experience, no matter how necessary. Now, imagine being in a hospital bed, looking up at a gorgeous Art Nouveau ceiling of colorful tiles, huge windows through which sunlight comes streaming in, and stained glass comparable to any found in the best of cathedrals. This is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau of Barcelona, a cathedral to modern medicine and public healthcare, where people walking through its doors are reminded that there can be beauty even in the midst of illness, suffering, and death.
Neighborhood: El Guinardó
Address: Carrer de Sant Antoni Maria Claret, 167
If any architect comes close to matching the outsize modernista architectural accomplishments and reputation of Antoni Gaudí, it’s his fellow Catalan, Lluís Domènech i Montaner. The hospital was Montaner’s architectural contribution to the people of the city. The public hospital has been in existence since medieval times, but it finally outgrew its space in the historic center of Barcelona by the 19th century. Fortunately, Pau Gil i Serra, a Catalan banker, bequeathed money in his will to finance the new building in Guinardo. He had two stipulations — the hospital had to represent the cutting edge of architecture, medicine, and technology; and it had to be named after Saint Paul [Sant Pau].
Per Pau Gil i Serra’s dying wishes, Montaner imagined a hospital filled with light and space, modern not just in health care, but also in how people perceived the contribution of architecture to the field of medicine. The Art Nouveau complex took 29 years to complete and finished in 1930, just in time for the Spanish Civil War. The hospital is not simply one structure, but an entire complex of 27 buildings, plus gardens. (Montaner originally envisioned 48 buildings, but by the end, only 27 were constructed.) For this reason, expect to spend a substantial portion of the visit wandering the outside areas of the complex (and dress accordingly). The mirror image layout and roofs are best admired by walking around the grounds. An excellent view of La Sagrada Familia can be had from the front steps of the main building. Inside, huge mosaics, towering floor to ceiling stained glass windows, and airy tunnels and hallways, make for Instagram-worthy backdrops and excellent examples of Art Nouveau design.
The complex continued to be used as a hospital until 2009, when all facilities were moved to the new hospital next door. Since then, the original buildings have been under renovation, so expect some buildings to be closed. Renovated buildings now house various non-governmental organizations, including the Barcelona Health Hub, UN-Habitat, and the local office of the World Health Organization.
Where to Eat Nearby: Fusion Brazilian food in a casual and bright spot can be found at Indígenas, which is within 5 minutes walk from Hospital Sant Pau. For something a bit more traditional, Dal Moro’s, which sits in the shadow of La Sagrada, offers fresh pasta for carry out (although there are a few seats in the tiny restaurant).
Other places to visit nearby: La Sagrada Familia is within a 10-minute walk from Hospital Sant Pau. Seeing both sites in one day is possible — provided you get an early start and purchase tickets well in advance. Mornings tend to be less crowded and, given La Sagrada Familia’s tourist draw, it may be better visited in the morning when crowds are smaller. Take an early-for-Spain lunch break, then head to Hospital Sant Pau in the afternoon.
Good to know: Hospital Sant Pau offers free entry on the first Sunday of each month, but no guided tours are available. Arrive early or plan to stand in line to get inside as it is a popular Sunday activity for many locals.
Check out Antoni Gaudí’s architectural beauty, Palau Güell, another Barcelona ICON.