16 Best Places to Visit in Catalonia
Bordered by the mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, Catalonia is a traditional region of Spain that is fiercely proud of its unique culture. Barcelona is the most-visited destination. This colorful seaside city has an atmospheric medieval quarter, surprising avant-garde architecture, and a vibrant urban culture. Rivaling Barcelona in historic importance is Girona, with its fascinating multicultural heritage. Further afield, in the idyllic countryside of verdant valleys and gently rolling hills, tourists can discover quaint medieval towns, picturesque seaports, and quiet country villages where chirping birds and church bells are the loudest noises. For beach lovers, the Catalan coast delights sun-worshippers with seaside destinations such as the upscale resort of Sitges and the secluded coves of Cadaqués. Every stop along the way, the local gastronomy will tempt visitors. Be sure to try local specialties like Esqueixada, a salad of peppers, tomatoes, and salt cod.
1 Barcelona: A Vibrant Mediterranean City by the Sea
Sunny and vibrant Barcelona offers stunning Mediterranean scenery combined with bustling urban energy. This flamboyant city is Spain's second largest city as well as the capital of the Catalonia region. The Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) is the old town, a delightful area of impossibly narrow streets, atmospheric alleyways, and quiet squares where locals gather to socialize. Street musicians are often found here playing classical Spanish guitar, adding to the magical ambience. Outside the old town are broad, tree-lined avenues that lead to the beautiful beaches along the harbor. Barcelona's most lively thoroughfare is La Rambla, a tree-lined street with many shops and outdoor cafés. La Rambla is at the center of the city's social life and buzzes with activity day and night. While strolling this avenue, don't miss the Palau Guell, a masterpiece of avant-garde architecture by Antoni Gaudi. Other must-see landmarks created by the celebrated architect are the Basilica de Sagrada Familia, a surreal place of spiritual worship, and the UNESCO-listed Park Guell, a fantastical park featuring whimsical benches and fountains decorated with colorful ceramic fragments.
Barcelona is famous for its culture and gourmet cuisine. The city has more than 70 top-notch museums and 24 Michelin-starred restaurants. Be sure to visit the Picasso Museum and National Museum of Catalan Art. For a delectable Catalan gastronomic experience, try one of Barcelona's finest restaurants. The two-star Michelin-rated Moments Restaurant is on the elegant Passeig de Gràcia (number 38), a few steps away from Gaudi's Casa Batlló and a few blocks from the Casa Mila, the most famous mansion designed by Gaudi.
2 Girona's Multicultural Medieval Ambience
A sparkling gem of historic Catalonia 103 kilometers from Barcelona, this medieval walled city has a rich cultural heritage with diverse influences from the ancient Romans, Moorish-era Arabs, and Jews. The Old Town was built on the right bank of the Onyar River with colorful houses flanking the waterside. Girona has two areas enclosed within ancient ramparts: the Força Vella, which outlines the original Roman city founded more than 2,000 year ago, and the Medieval Quarter, which expanded the city in the 14th and 15th centuries. These atmospheric historic quarters are filled with narrow pedestrian streets and impressive medieval buildings. The fortress-like Romanesque cathedral was built in the 11th century and updated through the 17th century. The facade is Baroque and the interior is Gothic. The massive nave is the widest medieval sanctuary in Europe. Among the artistic masterpieces displayed in the sanctuary is a Catalan textile of the Romanesque era called the Creation Tapestry. Other important religious monuments are the 12th-century Benedictine monastery de Sant Pere de Galligants; the Romanesque church of Sant Nicolau, now used as an exhibition room; and the medieval Gothic convent of Sant Doménech surrounded by beautiful gardens.
The main drag of the Old Town is the Rambla de la Libertat, an arcaded pedestrian street lined with shops and pavement cafés. Another interesting area to explore is the Jewish Quarter (El Call), one of the best preserved in Spain. During the Middle Ages, this quarter had an important synagogue and centers of Kabbalist study. The squares of Placa del Oli and the Placa del Vi have maintained their original ambience. Near the Jewish quarter, visitors can uncover the cultural legacy of the Moors. The Arab Baths, now housed in a Capuchin convent, feature a pavilion of Islamic-style columns topped with an octagonal cupola.
3 Tarragona: Beaches and Historic Monuments
Tarragona is a beautiful seaside city that seems to have it all: sunshine, beaches, and interesting historic monuments. About 100 kilometers from Barcelona, this port town on the Costa Daurada is a worthwhile excursion or an alternative base to explore Catalonia. Beach lovers will be content spending a few days here. Most of the city overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, and the spectacular Playa del Milagro beach is within walking distance from the historic center of town. History buffs will be enthralled by Tarragona's UNESCO-listed ancient Roman buildings found all over Tarragona, especially the incredibly well-preserved Roman amphitheater of the second century. The city also has a charming Romanesque-era cathedral and medieval streets. For a delicious seafood meal, stroll over to El Serrallo - the old fishing village that has an atmospheric Old World ambience.
4 The Upscale Seaside Resort of Sitges
Along the Mediterranean Sea, just 42 kilometers from Barcelona, Sitges lures visitors in search of golden beaches and pampered seaside relaxation. The town has a "Blue Flag" beach with calm waters ideal for swimming. A yacht marina and golf courses add to the resort ambience. Sitges also offers culture; its historic center has two lovely churches, the Iglesia de Sant Bartomeu and the Iglesia de Santa Tecla. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Spanish Modernist monuments were built throughout the town. An excellent example of this avant-garde Modernist architecture is the Cau Ferrat where famous Spanish author and artist Santiago Rusiñol lived. His home and art studio became a gathering place that attracted many artists and intellectuals, giving the town a Bohemian atmosphere. For those who appreciate gourmet cuisine, Sitges has much to offer. The town has an abundance of renowned restaurants that serve superb gastronomic cuisine, especially dishes of the Catalan region.
5 Vic's Medieval Charm
Vic is a quaint medieval town in a peaceful setting along the banks of the Meder River, about 72 kilometers from Barcelona. The town has two historic quarters: the area around Castillo de Montcada and around the cathedral. Be sure to go inside the cathedral to admire the murals by Josep María Sert. Vic has an impressive artistic heritage, which can be further discovered at the Episcopal Museum. This museum displays masterpieces of religious painting and sculpture from the Romanesque and medieval periods. Tourists seeking a break from sightseeing should head to the Plaza Mayor for a snack at one of the cafés with a pleasant outdoor terrace. For those seeking a pampering overnight stay, the luxurious Parador Vic-Sau is the perfect choice. Surrounded by idyllic gardens, this Catalan country house was converted to an upscale hotel with an excellent gourmet restaurant.
6 The Salvador Dalí Theatre-Museum in Figueres
Famous for its association with Salvador Dalí, the traditional Catalan town of Figueres lies in a quiet river plain of the Girona province (140 kilometers from Barcelona). The town's main tourist attraction is the Salvador Dalí Theatre-Museum, which is devoted to the work of the Surrealist genius. Housed in the 19th-century Municipal Theater, the museum presents all aspects of Dalí's art and displays some of his greatest masterpieces of painting. With its expansive assortment, the collection shows the artist's full range of creative expression. The museum also has a film library, which contains a collection of audiovisual content that was created by Salvador Dalí. During the month of August, the museum has nighttime openings from 10pm until 1am for a magical atmosphere that adds to the Surrealist experience. Throughout the year, the museum hosts special events and festivals.
Address: 5 Plaza Gala-Salvador Dalí, 17600 Figueres
7 Cadaqués: A Seaside Artists' Village
Near the Cap de Creus Natural Park, Cadaqués is a beautiful spot on the Costa Brava coastline 170 kilometers from Barcelona. The rugged and rocky shoreline features gorgeous hidden beaches and quiet coves, surrounded by a pristine natural environment. Although the beaches in this area are not completely sandy (many are gravelly), they offer a lovely setting and calm waters. With its whitewashed houses hugging a sheltered bay, the historic quarter of Cadaqués has a distinct Mediterranean seaport ambience. The village has charmed artists for decades and still offers a vibrant cultural scene, with many art galleries and museums.
8 Monasterio de Santa María de Poblet
The UNESCO-listed monastery of Santa María de Poblet is 141 kilometers from Barcelona in a beautiful setting. This remarkable monument was founded in the 12th century for Cistercian monks, and the order still uses this space for their spiritual worship. Inside the monastery's church are the tombs of the Kings of Aragon. The entire monastery complex is an impressive sight surrounded by a serene landscape. The complex has two museums: the Poblet museum housed in the 14th-century Palace of King Martin that displays Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque religious art; and the Restoration Museum that illustrates the restoration work of the monastery.
Address: Monasterio de Poblet, 43448 Vimbodi
9 The Ancient Churches of Besalú
A picture-perfect medieval town, Besalú is a quaint jumble of cobblestone streets and quiet squares that reveal impressive historic buildings. The town has an atmospheric old Sephardic quarter with medieval Jewish baths that were used for ritual ablutions. Several fascinating ancient Christian monuments are found in Besalú including the 10th-century Benedictine monastery of Sant Pere, the 10th-century chapel of Santa María, the 13th-century Romanesque church of Sant Vicenç, and the 17th-century church of Sant Julià. Another vestige of the town's past is the Viejo Bridge built in the 11th century and renovated in the 14th century. Besalú is 133 kilometers from Barcelona in a lovely area of Catalonia, near La Garrotxa Nature Reserve in the rolling hills of the Pyrenees.
10 Olot: A Quiet Town in the Pyrenees Foothills
In the beautiful Pyrenees foothills (112 kilometers from Barcelona), Olot has a relaxed atmosphere and a vibrant cultural life. The town has many fascinating art galleries, and the Regional Museum boasts an excellent collection of Modernist paintings. Be sure to see the 18th-century parish church of Sant Esteve, with its marvelous Baroque altarpiece. Pleasant tree-lined avenues, quaint outdoor cafés, and old aristocratic mansions give the town an elegant ambience. Nature lovers will enjoy an excursion from Olot to the Parque Natural de la Garrotxa to discover an amazing rugged landscape formed by volcanoes.
11 The Relaxing Country Escape of Seu d'Urgell
Travelers can enjoy a relaxing escape to a peaceful country town in La Seu d'Urgell. It lies in a stunning natural setting with the Catalonia mountains and Andorra Pyrenees as a backdrop. This picturesque historic town is in the Lleida province, 173 kilometers from Barcelona and 88 kilometers away from the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park. The most interesting site is the Italian-influenced Romanesque cathedral, built in the 11th and 12th centuries. Other important monuments are the 11th-century Romanesque church of Sant Miquel, the 15th-century Ayuntamiento (City Hall) and the convent of Sant Domingo that has been converted into a Parador de Turismo hotel.
12 The Romanesque Monastery of Santa María de Ripoll
This magnificent Romanesque monastery was an important monastic center in Catalonia during the Middle Ages. Dating from the 12th century, the complex includes a church with an extraordinary portico depicting biblical scenes and a peaceful cloister designed to inspire spiritual contemplation. Another noteworthy religious monument of Ripoll is the 12th-century Iglesia de Sant Pere featuring pre-Romanesque architectural elements. The church now houses the town's ethnographic museum. In the 19th century with the arrival of the railway, Ripoll became a bustling commercial town with a booming textile industry. Ripoll lies 109 kilometers from Barcelona.
13 Idyllic Seaside Scenery in Roses
In between the mountains and the sea, Roses is a beautiful coastal town with origins as an ancient Greek colony. The historic town's advantageous location is seen in the impressive Renaissance citadel that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. The town boasts a scenic location on the Costa Brava, an area with many stunning beaches and little coves found among the rocky cliffs. This destination is popular for sunbathing, swimming, and watersports. Roses is 157 kilometers from Barcelona near Cap de Creus nature reserve, which has a wonderful unspoiled beach in a protected cove surrounded by pine trees. This serene shoreline has crystal-clear turquoise waters that are perfect for swimming. Often, little private boats are moored here, adding to the idyllic ambience. The Cap de Creus Natural Park is also a great place for hiking and nature walks.
14 Lakeside Banyoles
This idyllic retreat in nature is just 18 kilometers from Girona and 121 kilometers from Barcelona, near La Garrotxa Nature Reserve. Surrounded by the green rolling hills of the Sierra Rocacorba, the town is nestled between two rivers on the shores of Lake Banyoles. Banyoles has an ancient history, with an important textile industry since the 13th century. In the town's quaint old center are several interesting religious monuments: the 14th-century church of Santa María del Turers and the Neoclassical monastery of Sant Esteve. Other important landmarks are the Pia Almoina, a medieval mansion built in the 14th century that houses an Archaeology Museum, and the Llotja del Tint, a 15th-century building that was used for dyeing textiles. A highlight of visiting Banyoles is the beautiful lake with a six-kilometer perimeter. It's a wonderful place to relax, take nature walks, cycle, or go boating. Tourists may rent small boats for rowing, kayaking, or canoeing. Fishing is another popular pastime, with rewarding catches to be found in the pristine waters.
15 Cathedral of Solsona
The splendid Cathedral of Solsona ( 107 kilometers from Barcelona) was built in the 14th century in Gothic style but reveals the architectural elements of an earlier Romanesque church. Typical of Romanesque style, the interior has three apses decorated with arcades. The bell tower is also from the original Romanesque structure. Visitors are surprised by the spacious single-nave vaulted interior. The facade features Baroque adornment added in the 18th century, and the Neoclassical cloister displays a Romanesque stone icon of the Virgin of the Cloister.
16 Embalse de Talarn
About eight kilometers to the north of Tremp is the Embalse des Talarn, a large lake that was formed by a dam that supplies a hydroelectric station. The natural environment is beautiful with many refreshing pine trees. This area is popular for saltwater fishing as well as camping.