Most visitors to Barcelona have one thing on their minds when it comes to religious structures: Gaudí's Sagrada Familia. And while the massive unfinished masterpiece is certainly impressive in its own right, it's not the end-all-be-all of religious structures in Barcelona.
Tucked away in the storied Born district of Barcelona's larger Ribera neighborhood, another of the Catalan capital's noteworthy churches beckons. The Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, or St. Mary of the Sea, is an imposing reminder of Barcelona's maritime past, as well as one of the most impressive structures of its kind in the region.
No trip to Barcelona would be complete without marveling at this spectacular structure (at least from the outside, but the inside is well worth checking out as well—and absolutely free for self-guided visits). Here's everything you need to know before you go.
History & Background
The undisputed jewel of the city's historic center, Barcelona's Santa Maria del Mar can trace its roots back to Roman times. A small but thriving Christian community had developed in the area by the 10th century AD, and the first mention of a church by this name was recorded in the year 998.
The structure we see today, however, begins its story much later. The cornerstone was laid in 1329, and construction was fairly quick as far as medieval churches go, taking place under the supervision of architects Berenguer de Montagut and Ramón Despuig. Just a few decades after construction began, Barcelona Bishop Pere Planella consecrated the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar on Aug. 15, 1384. Throughout the centuries, a number of saints and other religious figures, such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, attended Mass here regularly.
The church suffered some damage throughout the years as a result of natural phenomena and political turmoil, but the worst came centuries after its construction. On July 1, 1936—the onset of the Spanish Civil War—the basilica suffered major destruction at the hands of rioters, burning for 11 days straight. Its original baroque altar, as well as all of the images and historical archives, were lost in the fires, and rebuilding required a tremendous effort to restore it to its former glory.
What to See & Do at Barcelona's Santa Maria del Mar
The church remains one of the finest surviving examples of Catalan Gothic architecture, which is notably different from the Gothic styles seen throughout much of the rest of Europe. On the outside, its three spectacular façades and two symmetrical towers command the surrounding narrow streets, but it's hard to get a view of the full exterior all at once due to the compactness of the area.
Once inside, the spacious interior manages to feel sophisticated and inviting all at once. Its myriad stained-glass windows help give the space a light and airy feeling—not at all the stuffy, old-fashioned vibe you might expect from such an old church.
The altar is relatively new. In 1965, what remained of the destroyed Baroque original was finally removed decades after the riots. The newer altarpiece includes the addition of a statue of the Virgin Mary with a ship, representing the church's nautically inspired name and its fascinating past as the place of worship among sailors and shipbuilders.
If you don't mind shelling out a few euros for a guided tour (more on that in a bit), you'll also get access to the church's three magnificent terraces, each with a view more breathtaking than the last.
Location & Information for Visitors
Barcelona's Santa Maria del Mar is located in the lower part of the Ribera neighborhood, in an area more commonly known as El Born, which lies nestled between the Gothic Quarter and the seaside zone of Barceloneta. The nearest metro station is Jaume I, served by line L4. Bus lines 17, 19, 40 and 45 also stop nearby.
The church is open free of charge for individual visits at certain times every day. Additionally, paid cultural visits are available. The cost is 5 euros for general admission or 2 euros for those eligible for reduced price options. A few guided tours are also available, including one that gives you access to the rooftops as well as a special nighttime visit.
What to See & Do Nearby
Not only is Barcelona's Santa Maria del Mar one of the most impressive religious structures in the city, but you won't have to go too far out of your way to enjoy it.
To get some fresh air away from the tourist crowds after your visit, head to the sprawling Ciutadella Park just a few blocks away. The Born Cultural Center, a restored former market hall housing excavated 18th-century ruins, is also of note.
If you've already been sightseeing for a while, you might be getting hungry or thirsty right about now. The vibrant, bustling Santa Caterina Market is just a five-minute walk away, offering excellent local products for sale at fair prices and providing a pleasant alternative to the touristy Boqueria.