The northern Catalan coastal area is, first and foremost, a popular beach-going destination, but has quite a lot to offer inland in addition to beaches. You are not too far away from Barcelona, although you are unlikely to want to make repeated day-trips to the city if you are based somewhere on Costa Brava. But the area is incredibly rich in culture and history, highlighted by numerous well-preserved medieval villages. You are not likely to run out of short excursions to pretty destinations to fill every day of your stay.
From the points of origin within the US that have direct flights to Barcelona, it is your best bet, as you will need to rent a car to move around Costa Brava anyway; the drive from Barcelona (BCN) will take between an hour and a half and two hours. However, if you have connecting flights anywhere – or fly from within the European Union – it makes a lot more sense to look for Girona (GRO) as the destination; it would cut your driving time to under an hour and, being a smaller airport, is likely to cause less hassle in getting on and off the plane.
Things to See
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 of the Paris tower fame. There are also a couple of museums in town that we did not go to.
Figueres reputedly boasts a beautiful historic center, but we went there only once with 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. (Note: Only cash was accepted at the ticket office at the time of our visit in 2008.)
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 it was not possible to enter, only to view it lit up through the entrance windows for €1. 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 worth stepping into and a panoramic view of the coast from the old fort. The church hosts concerts in summer. Some interesting artisan shops 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. The main attraction here is 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 is 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. 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 there 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 in 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 the 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. Very picturesque on every corner, like a time capsule, starting with a church from 12th century (closed, could not see inside). Walking downstream from the village for is recommended. The road literally ends at Beget – only one way in or out, a narrow winding paved road that makes each opposite passing an adventure.
Palamos ♥ is among bigger resorts on the coast, very lively during the season. Its port ♥ is an attraction in itself: Come around 4:30pm to see fishermen unloading their catch upon return, then visit the fish market ♥, small but delightfully packed with varieties of seafood. The town gets overly busy by 7:30pm 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 are the Roman ruins that we are yet to visit.
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-driven tour on an electric boat ♥♥ around the main canal loop is a great diversion.
L’Estartit itself 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 few major attraction – a walk on 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.
We attempted a visit to Sant Quirze de Colero, in Rabós, but monastery ruins were closed when we got there, however picturesque from the outside. The site requires some effort to get to, but will likely feature in our future plans.
Aquadiver ♥ park in Platja d’Aro is a nice compact water-park that allows for a good diversion for so inclined. Teenagers may be slightly disappointed with the available selection of the rides – they are mostly on the “smallish” side – but it is still an enjoyable attraction.
We sampled a couple of beaches. The one in l’Estartit is wide and sandy, and being over a kilometer in length it never gets overcrowded. There is ample car parking. The Mediterranean Sea can be a bit colder here than at places north and south, but in the afternoon, the water temperature gets to 24-25°C.
The only time we went to a different beach, in Platja de Pals, it greeted us with high waves on a seemingly calm day. Swimming was not as pleasant, but there are a couple of nice restaurants right at the edge of a wide sandy strip.
Places to Eat
It is important to note that our close friends who make Costa Brava their summer home recommended and accompanied us to most of the restaurants that we visited there. They are regular customers at most of them. In addition, it is worth noting that some of our meals were in true European style, where we ordered more than just two courses per person and spent several hours around the table.
Restaurant Mas Pou ♥♥♥ is in Palau-Sator. It is one of our favorite eateries on Costa Brava. It is bigger than the others that we’ve been to, has its own car park and sits next to a museum-shop of local agriculture and wares (entrance free). There is also a children playground on the premises. On our first visit here, we sat in a semi-private arch-ceiling room and our friends ordered a big feast, at least when it came to appetizers. Caracoles, carpaccio, seafood soup, esparrago, quail eggs, bread/tomato/garlic/ali-oli. Everyone ordered main courses individually from the menu, though. The highlights were conejo al salsa verde, ternera con setas and mejillas de la ternera. For dessert, we tried – with varying degrees of success – drinking muscat wine from a porro. On that night, our damage: €345 for a party of eight, with several bottles of local wine. We returned a handful of times for similarly big meals with large groups of friends, alternating sitting inside and outside, always coming away very content on every occasion. Last damage: €400 for a party of 12, with several bottle of wine. Last visit: Summer 2017.
Candelaria ♥♥♥, in Peratallada, is a small restaurant, no more than seven or eight tables. The decor is elaborate and eclectic, the menu is selective and refined. Carpaccio, gazpacho and risotto with beet sauce for appetizers and various fish and meat dishes for main courses were all well-received. Our damage: €235 for four people, with four bottles of wine from a good list. Last visit: Summer 2008.
Bo.Tic ♥♥♥, in Corça, which is practically in La Bisbal d’Emporda, is a special and comparatively expensive treat. Its a la carte menu may be great on its own, but we went for the tasting menu (the middle option of the 3 set menus), which had 11 courses of creative small portions. When you pick a menu like that, everyone at the table must have the same, although an allowance is made for allergies or food idiosyncrasies. The “main” dishes of the meal – hake and veal cheeks – were simply unbelievably tasty. Aided by the refined interior, huge wine list, and very efficient service, this is an upscale foodie place. Our damage: €220 for two people, with one bottle of wine. Last visit: Summer 2017.
Restaurant Can Jeroni ♥♥♥ in Beget – a modern-style restaurant in a time-capsule village. Excellent service, excellent menu, excellent food. Rabbit ratattouille and magret of duck with two sauces are especially recommended. Our damage: €400 for 10 people, with several bottle of wine. Last visit: Summer 2017.
Restaurant Essencia ♥♥ in Empuriabrava – our big party there caused a bit of confusion to the servers, but they never lost their smiles. Excellent food although appetizers are more impressive than the main courses, especially pulpo gallego and carpaccio de gambas. Nonetheless, great entrees of veal cheeks or cerdo. Our damage: €550 for 11 people, with several bottle of wine. Last visit: Summer 2017.
In Palamos, Taverna Vasca Txoco Donostiarra ♥♥ delighted us with its pintxos that come in a manner similar to the meat at a churrascaria. You’d want to try every one, which is way too many. Each is €1.50-2. Besides an invitation to gluttony, the only drawback of this place is that they do not serve coffee and few desserts. It is a popular eatery that gets completely full around 7:45pm on a given night in the off-season, including improvised tables on the sidewalk. Time your arrival to between 7:15-7:30 if you fancy a proper table. Our damage: €118 for 8 people. Last visit: Summer 2016.
The similar concept is in play at Txalaka ♥♥ in Girona, although you have to get up and get your pintxos from the bar yourself. They are at €1.65 per, and there is such a variety that you cannot try them all. You can also order from a menu, but where’s the fun in that! The restaurant is located a short walk away from the historic city core and, while there are plenty of tourists who come in, there are quite a few locals occupying tables at dinner. Our damage: €63 for 3 eating people. Last visit: Summer 2017.
A great random find in Garriguella, restaurant Moli de Vent ♥♥. The 3-course fixed-price lunch runs €13.50 and allows selection of anything on the menu, not just a couple of choices for each course. The menu is extensive, good atmosphere, friendly service. Last visit: Summer 2016.
On Platja de Pals, we had an after-beach lunch at Mar Blau ♥♥. Excellent food selection, nice service, dining area under the tent looking out to the sea. Last visit: Summer 2009.
Restaurant Iberic ♥♥ is located in small and winsome Ullastret. There are several rustic dining rooms, and we were shown to the semi-private smallest one on the sub-basement level. We did not order from a menu, letting our friends select a sort of communal meal. Catalan specialties are fantastic, and we gorged ourselves on caracoles, mussels and bread with garlic, tomatoes and ali-oli. The greatest hit of the meal was a specialty seafood soup, of which most of the people in attendance had seconds. Our damage: €410 for a party of eight, including several bottles of local wine. Last visit: Summer 2008.
In l’Estartit, we’ve been to several restaurants. Le Salines ♥ is a café at the far end of the promenade that runs along the beach. Extensive regional menu, excellent seafood soup, a pretty good Catalan style half-chicken. Damage: €51 for a party of four. Last visit: Summer 2008. Hotel Coral Café ♥, specializes in pancakes of several dozen varieties. We tried blood sausage, bacon, dulce de leche and a few others for fillings and liked them all. The damage: €62 for eight people each ordering a pancake, plus various drinks. Last visit: Summer 2017. Rosamar ♥♥♥ sits on the seashore drive in the very center of the town. Great menu with all of the local staples, fantastic tapas. The place is at times busy on the ground floor dining area, but for big parties there is an excellent seating area upstairs. Last visit: Summer 2017.
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, though, its open-air lounge ♥ is a beautiful and relaxing place to have drinks. If you feel like having some food with your wine and cocktails, you can order great selections of meats, cheeses and pâtés, which is what we did. Our overall damage, including drinks, for a party of four: €90. Last visit: Summer 2009.
We also stopped by for juice and some food at El Cruixent ♥ in Torroella. The selection of fresh juices is huge, plus you can order crêpes, sandwiches, other drinks. Last visit: Summer 2016.
In Begur, Sa Malagueta ♥ was reasonable if not overly exciting. Location a hundred meters away from the central square makes it a place likelier to have an available table on busy nights. The menu is Asian/sushi-tinted, salmon and pulpo were quite tasty. Our damage: €112 for 3 adults and 2 children, including a bottle of wine. Last visit: Summer 2016.
We always rent a house in the Poblat de la Moladera community ♥♥♥ in L’Estartit when on Costa Brava. The community is located up on the Roca Maura mountain above town, with direct stairway connecting it to the town center (if you are inclined to walk 200+ steps up and down). Every house we rented had sea views and provided all amenities that are needed for a pleasant stay. Advance booking – as far as 8-9 months ahead – is recommended, although some properties can be rented on a comparatively short notice. All major vacation rental networks have multiple listings in the area. Last stay: 2017.