We love exploring Catalonia and all it has to offer. In this post, we will point you in the direction of some amazing experiences that the region has to offer from the cities to the beaches, historical sites to mountains. Let’s unpack what this great region has to offer.
Five Great Historical sites in Catalonia
For history buffs, Catalonia is a real treasure chest! Throughout its history, the region has been invaded by and is home to Iberian tribes, Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Visigoths, Moors, and more. A few of these left visible marks that remain to this day. Especially the Romans, diligent “constructionists” as they were, left their mark, including:
The Roman Circus in Tarragona
The city of Tarragona, or Tarraco as it was named by the Romans, was the Roman stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula. Built around the time of Emperor Domitian (1st century AD), the ruins of the circus are among the most well-preserved outside of Rome. The arena once held about 30,000 spectators, and it is a unique place to lose yourself in history.
The Ancient City of Empúries
The ancient city of Empúries is two cities in one: one Greek and one Roman. The Greeks came to the northern coast of Catalonia around the 6th century BC and lived peacefully while trading with local Iberian tribes. The Roman conquest of Hispania was kicked off here in 218 BC.
This didn’t, however, end the Greek settlement, and the Romans and Greeks coexisted in Empúries until the 3rd century when the Greeks abandoned the area, and the Romans focused their power in the Barcino (Barcelona) and Tarraco settlements.
The Girona Cathedral
The Catalans have always been renowned for their stonemasonry and Gothic architecture in Catalonia bears strong witness to this. The Girona cathedral might today be most famous as “a prop” in the Game of Thrones, and, while you come for the celebrity status, you stay for the craftsmanship!
The cathedral has the world’s widest Gothic nave, spanning 23 meters. It’s an impressive piece of architecture in a beautiful setting, the old town of Girona, and just one of the many gems to be found in the city.
Besalú – Medieval Town & Bridge
With a plethora of medieval towns in the region, picking out one for special mention is not easy! We land on Besalú, as the location on the banks of the Fluviá River with access across an angled Romanesque bridge, gives the town an edge on “the competition”. The town held an important role in the early Middle Ages with Wilfred the Hairy (yes, that’s really his name!), seen as the unifier of Catalonia, was a count of Besalú.
A day or half-day trip to the sacred Montserrat mountain is many people’s favourite choice for a day out from Barcelona. With its serrated peaks, this is a mountain that stands out from its (flat) surroundings! It’s considered a sacred space, and a Benedictine Abbey occupies the centre stage here, hosting the Virgin of Montserrat sanctuary – a candidate for the site of the holy grail.
There’s a cable car that will take you to the top and connects with the railway that will take you from the centre of Barcelona to the cable car. If you have a few hours more to spare and feel in good shape, you can hike to the top as well. If this sounds tempting, check out our half-day tour to Montserrat.
Mountains: Three Hiking Trails in Catalonia
For a hiking enthusiast, Catalonia is a genuine paradise! You can challenge yourself on the highest peaks in the Pyrenees or go hiking through lush valleys and green fields. Here we recommend three routes that do not demand mountaineering experience or climbing equipment.
These are suitable for anyone, but you should always check the weather forecast. Also, be informed about the nature of the route, wear appropriate clothes, and bring enough food and water. These excursions are only accessible by car.
The peak of Pedraforca, at 2,506 meters, is the highest of the Pre-Pyrenees. We recommend a route that starts on the parking of Mirador del Gresolet (1,530 m) and takes you to the very top, a good kilometre higher. This is a round trip that takes about 5 hours for an experienced hiker. The view from the top is spectacular!
Difficulty: Medium/High. The route takes you through some tough terrain with some easy climbing towards the top (no extra equipment needed). It’s not recommended for the inexperienced.
Montseny is the closest mountain hike option from Barcelona, and it’s a good one. The mountain has two peaks, Turó de l’Home, and Les Agudes, both standing at 1702 metres. There are natural routes to take you to the top(s), but we suggest an easier route that nevertheless offers great views, from Santa Fe to Empedrats de Morou and back.
The “empedrats” are some unusual rock formations from which one has a splendid view of Montseny. This route offers you the possibility of spending a couple of hours in the mountain air. Upon returning to Santa Fe having a traditional lunch in one of the restaurants on the mountain is recommended.
Difficulty: Low. Suitable for anyone.
Vall de Núria
The Núria valley has a special significance for Catalans as, in addition to being the setting for several Christian myths, the Catalan statute of autonomy was drafted here in 1931. Núria is a beautiful valley at 2000 meters (6,600 ft) above sea level that also serves as a ski resort in the winter.
The start- and end-point of the route is the small mountain village of Queralbs from which the “old road” to the valley is well-marked. If you are not too keen on a full-day hike in the mountain, there’s a cable car that will take you to the Núria sanctuary from the village of Ribes de Freser.
Difficulty: Medium. There are no complicated stretches on the route, but the full round trip takes about 7- 8 hours, so you need to be in shape!
Three Beaches for Watersports and Sunbathing
Blue sky, sun-drenched days, clean water, and white sand beaches – all ingredients of most people’s idea of a perfect vacation. Catalonia does offer all of these, from the southern part of the region to the French border. Here we focus on the fantastic Costa Brava, north of Barcelona, stretching to the French border. Besides sunbathing, it is a great area for kite surfing, kayaking, and windsurfing and we offer experiences like a Yacht charter or a full Costa Brava tour and sailing experience.
This is our northernmost option. If you should visit the historical site of Empúrias, you shouldn’t miss this beach! Hundreds of metres of white beach, which never gets overcrowded (except in the busiest summer weeks) – a rarity in Spain! Also recommended is a lunch stop in the nearby Medieval village of Sant Martí d’Empúries.
Platja de Pals
Only accessible by foot, leaving the car in nearby Sa Riera, this beach is another alternative for enjoying the sun and the beach with some elbow room. This is also a spot with highly favourable wind conditions for kite and windsurfing.
This beach is one of the better alternatives for renting a kayak. The Costa Brava coastline is full of small beaches, caves, and general natural splendour to explore. This beach, with not a hotel or tourist accommodation in sight, is surrounded by pine forest and rocky cliffs and sheltered from the stronger winds.
Three Catalan Cities
Barcelona is, naturally, “the great diva of Catalonia”, always drawing all the attention to itself. So, it is easy to ignore the virtues of its neighbours! Here are three cities that are worth hopping on the train for:
As mentioned earlier, Tarragona was the Roman stronghold before “the diva to the north” grew in importance and became the centre of Catalonia. More than the Roman circus, Tarragona has a charming old town, inviting beaches, and a selection of shops and restaurants that are not likely to disappoint anyone.
Also located in the Tarragona region of Catalonia, Sitges is another lively coastal town that is well-known for hosting as annual international horror-film festival as well as being a favourite hot spot for the gay community. The city is welcoming to all visitors who enjoy walking the narrow streets, through historical neighbourhoods with white-painted houses down to the white beaches.
The cathedral, the Arabian baths, the Jewish quarter. In old town Girona you’re always stepping on historic ground! It makes up for not being on the coast by having two rivers flow through it. Besides taking in the city view by walking on the city walls (9th-14th century), there are numerous museums, galleries, and historical buildings to visit for a good dose of cultural history.
Once that is taken care of, shopping for local products and eating local food will surely leave you with fond memories of Girona! We’d like to take you on a Girona tour that includes a visit to the nearby Figueres Dalí museum.
Thank you for joining us on this short round trip to Catalonia. If you like us to assist you in organising your Barcelona visit, please get in touch.
Originally published Sept 2, 2019, and updated on Dec 6, 2023.