This article covers Girona, Costa Brava, and other points of interest in Northern Catalunya, as well as Tarragona, Montserrat, Poblet, and Andorra. Each destination can be explored on an intraday trip from Barcelona, although many would easily support longer visits.
Girona, Costa Brava, and elsewhere in Northern Catalunya
The coastal area is, first and foremost, a popular beach-going destination. It is also incredibly rich in culture and history, highlighted by numerous well-preserved medieval villages, both close to the coast and further inland. You are not likely to run out of potential excursions to pretty destinations, which makes a base in Barcelona actually somewhat impractical for in-depth exploration of the region. Consider Girona or somewhere on the coast instead.
Girona ♥♥♥, the capital of the province, is a fairly underrated gem, very walkable in its picturesque mostly pedestrian center. Postcard river crossings are simply too colorful and delightful. Shops and cafés abound, but there is no feeling of tourist overrun or of over-commercialization. The Jewish Quarter ♥♥ is all narrow streets and stairways. The cathedral ♥♥ is very impressive in its dominating elevated location and also interesting on the inside; there is not much ornamentation, but brilliant mosaics. The church of St Feliu ♥ is also worth a look (it shares the combo ticket with the cathedral). The emblematic Pont de les Peixateries Velles ♥ was built by Gustave Eiffel. There are also a couple of museums worth considering.
Figueres reputedly boasts a beautiful historic center, but many visitors will have a single very specific attraction in mind. Dalí Theater-Museum ♥♥ is an extremely popular tourist destination, with long wait lines for tickets unless you come by the opening time. It houses a large number of Dalí’s works and other exhibits related to his life and art. The Mae West room never fails to impress the younger visitors and the jewelry collection, exhibited in a separate wing, is simply fascinating.
Besalú ♥♥♥ is a contender for the most-picturesque small town that I have ever seen. Views from the pedestrian bridge ♥♥ as you approach the town are incredible. There are many beautiful spots in the central part of the village. St Pere church has a worn interior look, clearly not restored in a long time. St Vincent appears to be better maintained, and with paintings on the walls, but you can only view it from the foyer area and need €1 to operate the switch for lighting up the interior. A fascinating museum of miniatures ♥ is more than worth the entry price. Also, there is a small museum of kitchen implements inside a meat shop on the main street (free entry). On a Sunday visit, there was a bric-a-brac market on the main square. Several cafés sit around the square – enjoy people-watching.
Atmospheric Pals ♥♥♥ is picture-perfect, with its cobblestone alleys, decorative balconies, and flowerbeds. There is an austere church at the highest point worth stepping into and a panoramic view of the coast from the old fort. Concerts are hosted in the church in the summer season. Interesting artisan shops on narrow streets add to the overall attraction.
Begur ♥ is livelier than Pals and less medieval in its countenance. The Gothic church of Sant-Pere is worth a look, and the main town square nearby is home to the art market. There are several interesting galleries around and a number of architectural delights. In peak season, the town gets nearly overrun by tourists at night – you can barely find a table at a restaurant even away from the main square.
The tiny core of Peratallada ♥ is not too touristy, all arcaded passages, narrow alleys, and a charming main square. As in every other town, there are several interesting galleries and shops around, as well as some popular restaurants.
Monells ♥ is even tinier and even more sparingly visited by tourists. It completely enchants the visitor with its arched walkways.
Pubol is sleepily medieval and looks utterly deserted, aside from tourists who come to see Castell Gala-Dalí ♥, which the painter bought for his wife and transformed into an enchanting abode. In addition to furniture and fixtures designed by Dalí, quite a number of his works are housed here as well.
The third part of “the Dalí triangle” on Costa Brava (after Figueres and Pubol) is the Museum-Casa Dalí ♥♥ in Portlligat. It is a fun house made of inventive small spaces. There are no paintings by the master, but all furniture and design belong to him. The round room with a pronounced echo effect is among the highlights. The garden adds a few more nice spaces, culminating with a pool in Moorish tradition. Access to the museum is rationed every 10 minutes for groups of no more than 10 people. In high season, it is essential to reserve places as far as a week in advance.
When you go to Portlligat, you are likely to also spend time in gorgeous Cadaqués ♥♥♥. The road to get to it is insanely beautiful all by itself; in season, by midday, there may not be any parking left in the white seaside village. Blue accents of doors and window frames everywhere make it incomparably pretty. Almost all utility boxes on the house walls are painted with boating scenes. Streets of the village run up and down, with minimal room for cars – some streets are staircases. There are two large coves with pebble beaches and crystal clear water; the northern of the two is significantly busier in summer. The tallest point of the village is the church of Santa Maria ♥ which boasts an unexpectedly rich altar.
Rupit ♥♥♥ is a small village straddling a mountain gorge. Very picturesque, with a hanging bridge connecting two parts of the village. The last 20 km to get there are along a winding road that may be challenging to some.
Camprodon ♥♥ is colorful and picturesque, with an emblematic bridge El Pont Nou ♥ (and a few others) crossing the streams that dissect the town. There are several nice streets and squares full of attractive architecture. Església de la Mare de Déu del Carme is worth a look.
Beget ♥♥ is a tiny mountain village sitting over a tiny stream that makes several natural pools and has a few cascades. The road literally ends at Beget – only one way in or out, a narrow winding paved road that makes each opposite passing an adventure. The village is very picturesque on every corner, like a time capsule, starting with a church from the 12th century. Walking downstream from the village for at least a kilometer or so is a nice undemanding hike.
Palamos ♥ is among the bigger resorts on the coast, very lively during the season. Its port ♥ is an attraction in itself: Come around 4:30 pm to see fishermen unloading their catch upon return, then visit the fish market ♥, small but delightfully packed with varieties of seafood. The town gets rather busy with the dining and nightlife crowd by 7:30 pm or so.
L’Escala is another bigger resort, with a very nice promenade by the sea and some attractive perspectives along the old architecture. Its main attraction is the Roman ruins.
Empuriabrava‘s distinguishing feature is a network of man-made canals, which is among the biggest in Europe. The town is noisy and happening in season. Taking a self-drive tour on an electric boat ♥♥ around the main canal loop is a great diversion.
L’Estartit is a bustling beach-side resort, which completely empties in the off-season. Its main pedestrian commercial street is a magnet at all hours during the season. Because of L’Estartit’s “dead-end” location on a major regional road, it gets none of the pass-through traffic (and whoever drives into town from elsewhere is likely to be looking specifically for beaches or the nightlife). The road leads to Torroella de Montgri. The center of Torroella is very much alive in a traditional way and not very touristy on account of having few major attractions and not being on the beach proper – a walk around its streets is quite pleasant. There is Museum Mediterraneo ♥ that had a nice photo exposition of the history of Torroella and l’Estartit on our most recent visit. There are also a few galleries and a couple of pleasant squares, plus shops of every kind. The top-of-the-mountain Torroella Castle (not a museum) is reputedly worth a hike when the weather is not too hot.
The monastery of Sant Quirze de Colero, in Rabós, may be worth considering, currently being restored. We once stopped by to admire its picturesque exterior. Since the site requires some effort to get to, research its status in advance.
For children who are tired of beaches or sightseeing, Aquadiver Park in Platja d’Aro is a compact water park that allows for a nice diversion.
Our stays on Costa Brava are always about spending time with our good friends who make it their summer home. We always rent accommodations in the Poblat de la Moladera in L’Estartit which is located up on the Roca Maura mountain above town, with a direct stairway connecting it to the town center (if you are inclined to walk 200+ steps up and down). You can walk to the beach in less than 10 minutes. Practically all houses have sea views but certainly differ in set-up and amenities. All major vacation rental networks have multiple listings in the area.
As far as eating out is concerned, the aforementioned local residents have taken us – or recommended to us – many incredible places over the years. The area is full of fantastic dining establishments. Here is a short list of our favorites: Mas Pou (in Palau-Sator), always at the top of our list for a return visit, a relatively bigger traditional Catalan restaurant with several dining rooms as well as outside seating; Candelaria (in Peratallada), a comparatively tiny place with eclectic decor and refined menu; Bo.Tic (in Corça, practically in La Bisbal d’Emporda), a conceptual and fairly expensive treat with a great tasting menu; Can Jeroni (in Beget), a surprisingly modern restaurant in a time-capsule village; Txoco Donostiarra (in Palamos), a delightful pintxos experience served in a churrascaria fashion; Txalaka (in Girona), another pintxo place where you have to order your small plates from the bar yourself, although you can also order main courses from the menu (but where’s the fun in that!); Iberic (in Ullastret), serving a wide variety of Catalan and Mediterranian cuisine in its several rustic dining rooms; Rosamar (on the seashore drive in l’Estartit), with great tapas and local staples.
The castle in the center of Torroella de Montgri has been transformed into a dining venue, Lo Mirador, especially popular for grand celebrations. On a quiet night, its open-air lounge is a beautiful and relaxing place for drinks and food.
Tarragona is a pleasant and attractive town, with a compact historic center that is not too overrun by tourists. There are many inviting squares and streets to stroll, but the main attractions in town all relate to its Roman history, comprising the UNESCO World Heritage site. Roman walls ♥ offer a good walk and plenty of historic information on the stands along the path. You will be able to see how the walls grew in different eras. Roman Circus ♥♥ is well worth the price of entry, consisting of a number of underground spaces as well as open-air ruins, with information on how the place and the Roman city around it functioned. Torre de les Monges, located there but often listed as a separate attraction in guidebooks, is actually nothing too special. There is also a large Amphitheater, which can be viewed from the park above but can certainly be visited for a ticket fee.
The amphitheater is close to the so-called Balcony of the Mediterraneo ♥, a promenade high above the sea.
Tarragona Cathedral ♥♥ is airy and light, not too ornamental but boasting brilliant mosaics. The cloister is among the highlights.
A few minutes outside of the city center, Ponte del Diablo ♥♥ is a well-preserved Roman aqueduct that can be walked across. It anchors a park with several miles of trails, for those inclined to hiking.
Poblet Monastery ♥ is a UNESCO World Heritage site with some interesting features both on the interior and the exterior, although, on balance, it is not extraordinary enough to warrant a visit for anyone bar those especially devoted to exploring places of worship.
The tours run about once an hour and are conducted in either Catalan or Castellan; visitors not speaking either get a booklet with brief explanations and explore on their own without following the guide. The tour starts with cloisters and adjacent rooms, continues into the church, then onto the upper floor, and through a number of other spaces. I allow that understanding the guide may facilitate a better appreciation for the place.
The mountain community and monastery of Montserrat are within fairly easy reach from Barcelona. An hour-long train ride from Plaça d’Espanya in Barcelona is followed up by a 5-minute-long breathtaking ascent via a cable car and then a funicular. Of course, you can drive, but the cable car ride ♥♥ is probably among the top attractions here by itself.
Once in Montserrat, you will see the beautiful Basilica ♥♥, and those inclined to see the Black Virgin, a statue from the 12th century, can endure a long wait in line. Museu de Montserrat ♥ holds a comparatively small collection of paintings, with many important artists (from Caravaggio and El Greco to Monet and Degas) represented by a single work each.
Another funicular can take you to an even higher point, Sant Joan, for panoramic views of the surrounding area all the way to the Pyrenees and the Balearic Islands. Even if you do not go that far, there are plenty of other fantastic views all over Montserrat’s terraces.
The little country wedged between Spain and France in the Pyrenees is unlikely to prominently feature on anyone’s must-visit list. Although it can be technically visited on an intraday trip from Barcelona, I do not expect many people to use that option. Skiing resorts of limited renown are the main pull here, so you will likely make it a multi-day stay at such a resort.
Andorra La Vella, the capital, is an agreeable enough town with sufficiently picturesque historic Old City ♥ and some nice architecture in more modern areas. Plaça de Rotonda is the focal point of the more lively part of the center. Churches such as St Esteve and a few others are always worth a quick look if accessible.
The mountain landscape of the Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site. For lovers of hiking, there is a wide field of exploration. Not suitable for people in indifferent physical shape, though. In my case – just a couple hours of exploring – getting to a mountain stream was a highlight, but there are historic settlements and beautiful landscapes along miles and miles of challenging trails.