Fiercely proud of its unique history, heritage and culture, the autonomous community of Catalonia occupies the northeast corner of Spain. While most holidaymakers head straight to its capital Barcelona or the Costa Brava’s relaxing beach resorts, the rest of the region is equally rewarding to travel around.
A diverse part of the Iberian Peninsula, it stretches right the way from the snowy Pyrenees mountains to the sun-kissed shores of the Mediterranean. Scattered about are plenty of well-preserved medieval towns and charming coastal cities to see.
Everywhere you go, you’ll hear Catalan being spoken and experience its rich artistic and culinary heritage. You’ll also often stumble across some of the countless cultural events and festivals that take place all the time. Much more than just Barcelona and Girona, the best places to visit in Catalunya are found in the countryside and along its beautiful coastline.
19. Calella de Palafrugell
A very peaceful and picturesque spot to spend some time, Calella de Palafrugell can be found along Catalonia’s Costa Brava. Not to be confused with the seaside city of Calella, it lies just under an hour’s drive from Girona.
Strung out along several small coves, the colourful old fishing village has long been a favorite with families. Besides its laidback vibe and beautiful beaches, it has loads of cosy apartments to stay in while a couple of fun water parks are located nearby. You can also swim and splash about in the sea or stroll along part of the Cami de Ronda.
Stretching more than 200 kilometers in length, it takes you through some of the region’s most spellbinding coastal scenery.
Unlike many other seaside towns in Catalonia, it has thankfully not yet suffered from mass tourism. There are however still some upscale hotels and excellent restaurants for visitors to try out overlooking the sea.
Around an hour’s drive down the coast from Barcelona is the sunny seaside city of Tarragona. Although most known for its impressive historic sites, it also has tons of enticing beaches and atmospheric plazas dotted about.
As it was once one of the most important Roman cities on the Iberian Peninsula, the busy port city is home to lots of remarkable ruins. These include an ancient aqueduct, forum and theatre, all built millennia ago. The highlights, however, are its immense old amphitheatre by the sea and the crumbling remains of its Roman circus.
The medieval streets of its old town also boast some grand old buildings and a giant cathedral. Aside from visiting its numerous art and history museums, you can sample fine food at the traditional restaurants and tapas bars lining the pretty plazas and lively Rambla Nova. After sightseeing and delicious dishes, we particularly enjoyed relaxing on its golden sand beach, right by the centre.
Although we didn’t get to experience it ourselves, Tarragona is also famed for hosting the Santa Tecla Festival. This sees historical parades, firework displays and tottering human towers take over the city each September. One of the most important festivals in the country, it has been celebrated since 1321.
17. Poblet Monastery
Lying at the foot of the Prades Mountains in the natural park of the same name is the phenomenal Poblet Monastery. Surrounded by rolling hills and vineyards, its fortified complex contains a wealth of artistic and architectural treasures.
Founded in the twelfth century by Cistercian monks, the majestic monastery played a key role in the Crown of Aragon consolidating their power in Catalonia. As one of two royal pantheons, countless kings and queens were later buried here in ornate tombs. Other than examining their fine features, you can wander around its elegant cloisters and snap photos of its soaring bell tower.
Restored in 1940 after centuries of damage, neglect and decay, it is a fascinating place to explore. Still home to dozens of monks, the sacred site has great audio-guide tours to take around its gorgeous basilica, graves and gardens.
Another fantastic place known for its attractive old town and interesting historic sights is the small village of Pals. Set just inland from the Costa Brava’s Bay of Emporda, it can be reached in roughly forty-five minutes from Girona.
Presided over by a tall Romanesque tower, its historic centre occupies a large hilltop surrounded by endless plains. Carefully restored, the cobbled streets of its old Gothic Quarter are a delight to explore as ancient stone balconies and arched windows line them on either side.
Although there isn’t all that much to do here, we are still glad we visited for its chilled feel and charming look. Besides its small crumbling fort, tower and viewpoints, there are several town squares and cute little stores to stop by. We ended up taking some of our best photos from our trip here, amidst its mess of scenic medieval streets.
15. Aiguestortes National Park
After visiting so many historic towns and beach resorts, the stunning landscapes and scenery of Aiguestortes National Park make for a very welcome change. Nestled not far from the border with France, its wild, mountainous reaches feel a world away from Catalonia’s sunny coastline.
The only national park in the autonomous community, it was established back in 1955 to protect part of the Pyrenees. Beneath their snow-coated peaks, you’ll find winding streams and almost 200 twinkling lakes dotted amidst its verdant forests.
Owing to its wide range of altitudes, the park’s mighty valleys display a diverse array of fauna and flora. On very rare occasions, Pyrenean chamois, deer and even brown bears can be spotted amongst the undergrowth.
Its untouched and unspoilt mountains and meadows also offer up all kinds of exciting outdoor activities. These include not just hiking and mountain biking but rock climbing and snowshoeing in winter. There are also about a dozen retreats to stay in overnight while information centres cover the park’s animals, ecosystems and human history.
For yet more dramatic scenery and views, head to the multi-peaked mountain range of Montserrat. In just an hour’s drive from Barcelona, you can find yourself exploring its tantalizing trails and terrific old monastery.
Part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range, the massive monolith stands 1,236 meters at its highest point. Now recognized as a natural park, its higher reaches are accessed either by road, the Montserrat Rack Railway or an unforgettable cable car ride. From atop its jagged peaks, there are divine views over the coast and island of Majorca off in the distance.
Not to be missed is the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat which is set in a spectacular spot amidst the serrated mountains. Still an important pilgrimage site today, it was founded way back in 1026. Most known for its image of the Virgin of Montserrat, it has a beautiful basilica, refectory and cloister to visit.
Make sure to stop by its museum too for its refined religious icons and collection of French impressionist artworks.
13. Vall de Boi
Lying right in the northwest of Catalonia alongside Aiguestortes National Park is the narrow, steep-sided Vall de Boi. While it boasts some breathtaking scenery, the valley is best known for its Early Romanesque churches.
Part of the province of Lleida, its scenic and secluded confines extend up to the edge of the Pyrenees. Thanks to the large quantities of silver mined here during the Middle Ages, many elaborate churches were erected all about the valley. Numbering nine in total, they form one of the finest collections of Romanesque architecture in Europe.
Built between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, they mostly all feature fantastic facades and have tall bell towers. The largest and most architecturally interesting is Saint Climent in Taull as many murals and friezes also coat its interior. Santa Maria in Cardet and the small hermitage of Saint Quirc also make for some superb snaps and viewing as they occupy rocky outcrops overlooking the valley.
Primarily known for being the birthplace of Salvador Dali, the small city of Figueres is a very pleasant spot to spend a day or two. The atmospheric old town and outstanding museum dedicated to the world-famous artist, lie just forty minutes’ drive directly north of Girona.
Well-preserved for having been so heavily bombed during the Spanish Civil War, it has the absolutely enormous Sant Ferran Castle to explore. There are also loads of shady, shop-lined streets to amble about and a handful of museums to see.
Its standout sight though is of course the Salvador Dali Theatre and Museum; one of the most visited in the country. Instantly recognized from its gaudy exterior, the bright red building is topped by giant eggs and a geodesic dome. Inside, you can ogle at all his surreal paintings, sculptures and jewellery pieces and learn more about his life.
Having not known what to expect from Figueres, we really liked its relaxed vibe and the viewpoints from the castle. We also had some delicious Catalan dishes here though Dali’s arresting artworks were of course the main motivation for visiting. The town is also a great base for driving around the rest of the Empordà region.
11. Lake of Banyoles
For a complete change of pace from the, at times, crowded museum and Costa Brava, head instead to the lovely Lake of Banyoles. As well as offering some brilliant hiking, fishing and boating, it has a picturesque park and various viewpoints to enjoy.
The largest lake in Catalonia, its shores stretch roughly six kilometers with rolling hills and woods hemming its waters. Once used for rowing events in the 1992 Olympic Games, its sparkling surface now attracts keen kayakers, canoers and boaters.
Other than strolling or cycling alongside the reflective lake, you can always explore the quiet town too. In addition to a fourteenth century church and neoclassical monastery, it contains an excellent archaeology museum. Well-maintained, its lush grounds protect a replica of a Neolithic village complete with thatched huts, a mill and various workshops for making tools.
10. Tossa de Mar
One of Catalonia’s prettiest coastal towns, Tossa de Mar is located just a forty minute drive south of Girona. Lying along a slightly rocky stretch of the Costa Brava, its sand beaches and walled old town make it a picture-perfect place to holiday.
The only remaining fortified medieval town in the autonomous community, its current appearance dates to the fourteenth century. Studding its stone walls are a series of turrets and towers which culminate in the old castle atop its headland. Overlooking its beach, the crumbling parapets provide captivating views of the bay and boats below.
Getting lost in its maze of narrow streets is just as magical with Roman villa ruins and the well-preserved parish church counting among the town’s other main sights. There are also tons of traditional bars and restaurants, should you get bored lounging on the beach. Finally, the Municipal Museum is worth a brief stop to see its artefacts, art pieces and archaeological findings.
9. Baqueira Beret
In complete contrast to its sun-kissed sands, Baqueira Beret is where you can go skiing. The most popular winter resort in Spain, it lies high up in the Pyrenees, not far from the French border.
Covering much of the Aran and Àneu valleys, it now has around a hundred pistes to shoot down. Servicing its slopes, that plunge over a thousand meters in total, are lots of chair lifts and ski tows. Since being established in 1964, the resort has been a firm favorite of not just wealthy French and Spanish tourists but aristocrats and the royal family too.
Aside from skiing or snowboarding its snowy valleys, you can hike, kayak, rock climb and raft in summer. Scattered about its mountainsides are enough shops, bars and restaurants to service a small city. There are also countless comfy condominiums and lodges to stay at, right next to its 160 kilometres of pristine pistes.
Lying almost equidistant from both Barcelona and Girona is the magnificent medieval town of Vic. Packed with all kinds of artistic and architectural treasures, the small city is perfect for people interested in history and culture.
Straddling the banks of the Meder River, its origins impressively date back to pre-Roman times. Dotted about are plenty of cool historic sights to check out such as its colossal Catedral de Sant Pere. Rebuilt numerous times over the years, it now features an intriguing mix of Baroque, Gothic, Romanesque and Neoclassical styles. Besides this, the Episcopal Museum of Vic displays an outstanding collection of fine arts, furniture and religious paintings.
For centuries though, its pretty Placa Major has acted as the heart and soul of life in town. Surrounded by grand buildings and graceful arcades, the open sandy space in its middle hosts a fun Saturday morning market. While we loved touring around Vic, seeing the historic market that itself dates to the ninth century was the highlight of our time in town. Humming with energy, its friendly vendors sell everything from arts and crafts to local produce, poultry and plants.
Just down the coast from Tossa de Mar is the equally attractive town of Blanes which is known as the ‘Gateway to the Costa Brava’. A very popular holiday destination, the beautiful beaches and gorgeous botanic gardens attract large crowds each summer.
The focal point of the former fishing village is its long beach that is divided by the Sa Palomera rock. Here you can lounge on its sands, swim in the sea or see ships come and go from its port. South of the centre too is the endless S’Abanell Beach to lie on. Its north side instead has loads of lovely little coves and soaring sea cliffs to explore.
As Blanes was almost completely destroyed during both the Catalan Revolt and War of the Spanish Succession, most of its buildings are quite modern. There are a few historic sights to see however like the clifftop castle and centuries-old Santa Maria’s Church.
In addition to its beaches, many also visit Blanes for its two highly regarded botanical gardens. Overlooking its romantic coastline, both Marimurtra and Pinya de Rosa are home to thousands of species of plants. Particularly known for their cacti, palms and succulents, the tropical gardens are a treat to wander around.
Located just a short drive from both Figueres and the Lake of Banyoles is the ancient town of Besalu. Around its well-preserved medieval center are some very interesting Christian and Jewish historic sites to see beneath a hilltop fortress.
In the early Middle Ages, it held a great influence over the surrounding region with its many old churches mostly dating to around this time. Besides the stunning Sant Pere monastery and Romanesque Sant Vicenc church, there is a quaint Sephardic quarter to explore. Here you’ll find a synagogue and medieval Jewish baths, enclosed within the city’s walls.
Its main symbol and sight though is the fabulous Viejo Bridge which was now erected almost a thousand years ago. Its elegant arches, unusual angled sections and sturdy stone towers make for some memorable photos. Although it involved a bit of a detour, we’re very glad we stopped by the idyllic Besalu on our way to Figueres from Girona.
5. Castellfollit de la Roca
Only fifteen minutes further down the road is yet another incredible Catalan town that certainly warrants a visit. If you are pressed for time, you can simply snap a photo of Castellfollit de la Roca’s epic setting and pop by its clifftop church before heading on.
What makes the small town so special is its precarious position along a long, narrow cliff jutting into the valley. Clustered atop the fifty meter-high rocky crag are really just one or two claustrophobic streets to explore. Their old stone houses direct you to the town’s church and its phenomenal panoramas over the river and woods below.
All in all, Castellfollit de la Roca really doesn’t take that long to see. After taking some photos of the town from the few viewpoints surrounding it, you can always visit either Besalu or Garrotxa Natural Park and its forty or so extinct volcanoes.
Arguably the most enchanting town along the whole of the Costa Brava is Cadaques. Set in an isolated spot on the Cap de Creus Peninsula, all its charming whitewashed houses lie alongside a sheltered bay and twinkling turquoise waters.
Nestled in the northeast, not far from France, its Old Town has a very Mediterranean look and feel. Thanks to its picture-perfect setting, numerous artists have lived here over the decades. As well as enticing art galleries and studios, there is an excellent Salvador Dali museum to visit in Port Lligat.
Right next to Cadaques is the captivating coastline of Cap de Creus Natural Park to hike and kayak about. On top of some nice nature walks along its craggy cliffs, there are also some pristine beaches and pretty bays to relax at.
One of Catalonia’s most popular beach destinations, sunny Sitges lies roughly half an hour southwest of Barcelona. Aside from soft sands and the seafront promenade, the city has an attractive old town and exciting nightlife to discover.
Situated between the mighty Garraf Massif and the sparkling Mediterranean, the area has remarkably been inhabited since Neolithic times. Lining the endless beaches along its waterfront are a wealth of grand mansions while old churches and Spanish Modernist monuments dot its historic center. Here too you can find tons of traditional restaurants serving local delicacies like xato and Malvasia: a delicate liquor wine.
Now renowned for its fun carnival, film festival and thriving LGBT culture, its artistic, inclusive reputation dates to the late nineteenth century after countless artists moved here. It also later became known as ‘Ibiza in Miniature’ due to its cool counterculture and hip night spots.
While there are the Cau Ferrat and Maricel museums to visit, most people come for its gorgeous golden beaches. Numbering seventeen in total, they stretch along the coast and offer loads of fun activities and watersports.
Thanks to its rich history and culture, Girona is probably the most rewarding city to visit in Catalonia after Barcelona. Known for its arresting medieval architecture and atmospheric old quarter, it lies right in the northeast of the autonomous community.
Located at the confluence of four snaking rivers, the city was founded by the Iberians millennia ago. Over the centuries, it was besieged dozens of times by the Romans, Moors and Jews – all having left behind important historic sights and cultural landmarks.
Within its ancient Roman ramparts, you can find narrow medieval streets containing ornate Arab baths and the cool Jewish quarter. One of its most impressive buildings though is its hulking great cathedral which featured in Game of Thrones. A mishmash of architectural styles, it makes for some fabulous photos at the top of the long flight of steps leading up to it.
Other than enjoying its architecture and ambience, you can take in divine panoramas over the city from its walls. The iconic Pont de les Peixateries Velles also offers lovely views of the colourful houses alongside the Onyar River. With many other museums, churches and plazas to visit, Girona was our favorite Catalan city – after Barcelona of course!
Needing no introduction is Catalonia’s capital Barcelona. Renowned for its fantastic football team, sunny weather and the spectacular Sagrada Familia, it is no wonder it is one of Spain and Europe’s most popular tourist destinations.
A major Mediterranean port, the country’s second largest city lies in between both the Costa Brava and Costa Dorada. While its warm climes and wonderful beaches attract many, Barcelona is also littered with amazing landmarks and interesting historic sites.
Getting lost amongst the Gothic Quarter’s narrow alleys is lots of fun as you suddenly emerge in front of its immense cathedral or important Placa del Rei. Here too you can stroll the lively, tree-lined La Rambla, see street performers and stop by La Boqueria food market.
See also: Where to Stay in Barcelona
Other big draws include Gaudi’s many masterpieces such as Casa Batllo, Park Guell and of course the Sagrada Familia. There are also top-class museums dedicated to Picasso, Joao Miro and Catalonia’s art and history to visit among others
If all that wasn’t enough, you just have to delve into its mouthwatering culinary scene and pounding nightlife. Watching Barca play a game at Camp Nou also promises to be an unforgettable experience. After a week of exploring all Barcelona’s different sides, we were exhausted and in need of our next holiday!