It’s no secret that Barcelona is bursting at the seams with things to do, is blessed with countless excellent restaurants and has great nightlife. But it’s also worth exploring Catalonia beyond its capital – because it’s a region with absolutely loads to see. Here we’ve chosen five places that are easy to reach on a day trip from Barcelona: down the coast are Sitges and Tarragona, two towns overflowing with history, beaches and good food; to the north lies the sacred mountain of Montserrat; and in the north-east you’ll find Girona and Cadaqués. The former is a prosperous town full of ancient remains (and one of the world’s best restaurants); the latter, once home to Salvador Dalí, is a fishing village rich with beauty and art. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and explore.
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This coastal town is adored by Barcelona residents looking for an easy escape from the city (it's about half an hour away by train) where they're guaranteed a slower pace of life, a gorgeous seafront and excellent eating. The heart of Sitges is pedestrianised and home to numerous bars, restaurants and shops, but most visitors spend at least some time in the town at the beach – if not actually on the sand or in the sea, then strolling along the lengthy palm tree–lined promenade that extends on both sides of the town's emblematic Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla church (pictured here). Enjoy a drink in a bar overlooking the water, watch the boats bob along, and feast your eyes on the stunning houses built by local businessmen who made their fortune in the Caribbean in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sitges also has a long cultural heritage, with its special light and inherent beauty attracting numerous artists of the Luminista school, such as Santiago Rusiñol, from the end of the 19th century.
EAT: Owned by the president of the local Slow Food Association, La Salseta specialises in fresh, seasonal dishes made using regional ingredients. Discover traditional recipes and contemporary innovations in this restaurant that’s located in a side street just a few steps from the beach.
DRINK: Thanks in no small part to its popularity with the LGBTI community, Sitges has a really buzzing nightlife, and you'll have no trouble finding a place for a drink there. The renowned 'Street of Sin' (real name, Carrer Primer de Maig) has various spots ideal for people-watching while enjoying a cocktail or glass of wine.
DO: Get a dose of the artistic side of Sitges at Palau Maricel and the adjoining museum of the same name. Constructed between 1910 and 1918 at the behest of US magnate Charles Deering (who wanted a home for himself and his artworks), its modernista style is elaborate and colourful, while the upstairs cloister provides a spectacular vista of the Mediterranean.
STAY: With a fabulous location overlooking the sea, the three-star Hotel Platjador is a great choice if you decide to extend your trip to Sitges. Free WiFi, an outdoor pool and DVD players in all the rooms are among the services on offer. And if you find it full, the owners have two other hotels in town.
If you just do one thing... Eat a rice dish in a beachfront restaurant such as El Mascaron. It’s wise to book ahead, especially at the weekend, and well worth doing so you can enjoy a delicious meal while appreciating the meditative, relaxing effects of that sparkling blue sea.
Set in the north-eastern part of Catalonia, Girona is a beautiful city full of history, art and architecture. Take your time to walk around and soak up its atmosphere: highlights include the picturesque River Onyar with its bridges and the colourful houses overlooking it, the Rambla de la Llibertat (home to a weekend flower market and many popular cafés), and the historical centre. See Girona from up high with a visit to its city walls where you can appreciate iconic buildings such as the cathedral and the church of Sant Fèlix. With a range of cultures having settled in Girona down the ages, including Romans, Muslims, Jews and Christians, there’s an extensive variety of sights, such as the Arab Baths and the Sant Pere Galligants monastery. Girona is also home to a few notable museums that cover themes including cinema and archaeology. And if, in general, you like what you see, make sure you kiss the bottom of the lioness statue in C/Calderers – legend has it this peck will ensure you return to Girona.
EAT: While Girona is home to one of the best restaurants in the world, the three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca, to eat there you need to book far in advance and make sure your bank account’s well stocked. As an alternative, head to Bionbo (reservations still necessary, just maybe not a year ahead), a café-gastrobar in the centre of town that offers a great-value set lunch menu and uses organic, seasonal and local produce as much as possible.
DRINK: Nykteri's Cocktail Bar was opened in 2013 by drinks maestra Mariona Vilanova, and serves a combination of classic and signature cocktails – care, precision and passion combine to create real works of art in glasses. If you prefer, they also have G&Ts, vermouth and wine, as well as small bites to eat.
DO: Girona once housed one of the most important Jewish communities in Western Europe, up until the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. The city’s Jewish History Museum commemorates those who once lived here and looks at Catalonia’s Jewish populations in the medieval period; it’s located in the old 'Call' (Jewish quarter) in a building once occupied by a synagogue.
STAY: As the name suggests, the Hotel Historic is an ideal place to stay if you want to appreciate Girona’s past. Situated in the old town, the four-star hotel has just eight bedrooms that feature stone walls, wooden beams and antique furniture along with contemporary fittings and style. If you want a bit of extra space, the loft has its own kitchen and hydromassage bath, while the Junior Suite has a private terrace.
If you just do one thing... Visit the cathedral, and we do mean by climbing the 90 or so steps to get there. This magnificent building is a mishmash of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles, and its nave is one of the largest in the world. Fans of 'Games of Thrones' should try and see how many locations from Season 6 they can spot around the exterior. And everyone should look out for one of Girona’s legendary characters, the stone witch gargoyle.
Less than an hour down the coast from Barcelona lies Tarragona. Nowadays it's much less well-known than the Catalan capital, but as Tarraco it was the most significant Roman provincial capital in Hispania. The remains from that time are absolutely worth the trip, while the Tarragona Archaeology Museum houses contemporaneous mosaics, sculptures and everyday items. Tarragona also has a (relatively) more recent historical centre, which includes an extensive Gothic cathedral, built between the 12th and 14th centuries, and the old city walls. The main thoroughfare is the lengthy Rambla Nova, lined with shops, restaurants and cafés; toward the far end of it, you’ll find an amazingly detailed statue commemorating 'castellers' (human tower groups) who build living constructions by climbing on each others’ shoulders. At the other end of Rambla Nova is the Balcó del Mediterrani, a viewing point where the gleaming sea acts as an ideal selfie backdrop. If you’re so inclined and the weather’s right, you can also head down to one of the local beaches, with various kilometres of soft sand and shallow waters, that are popular with all ages.
EAT: Located in the historical upper part of Tarragona is El Llagut, a small, quality and reasonably priced restaurant dedicated to seafood and rice dishes. They favour a Slow Food philosophy (the chef was the first SF one in town), use local produce, and give their own spin to classic Catalan dishes and ingredients.
DRINK: In the area around where Tarraco had its Forum, the political and cultural heart of Roman communities, you’ll find numerous bars and cafés, many with terraces. In Plaça del Fòrum itself you can still see original elements from Roman times, which adds a certain ambience to enjoying a glass of wine or beer.
DO: A short walk from the centre of town you’ll find El Serrallo, Tarragona’s fishing neighbourhood that has recently undergone some development to create an area where tradition and modern life combine. It’s a lovely place for walking around, looking at the fishing boats and, of course, eating fresh fish and shellfish.
STAY: Boutique hotels are thin on the ground in Tarragona, with accommodation mainly restricted to chain hotels. The Hotel SB Ciutat de Tarragona is one such, but with an outdoor pool and excellent location at the bottom end of Rambla Nova that’s walking distance from all the sights, it’s a more than agreeable choice for a short break.
If you do just one thing... Undoubtedly the jewels in Tarragona’s crown are its Roman remains, and the amphitheatre and circus are simply unmissable. The amphitheatre was located outside the walls of Tarraco but close to the Via Augusta and the beach, the landing point for animals used in the shows. Today you can explore the main arena, walk through some of the backstage tunnels, and sit in the stands. While less of the circus has survived (some is still buried under newer buildings), it's easy to get a sense of its huge dimensions, with ample space for chariot races and 30,000 spectators.
While Catalonia is not among the most religious areas of southern Europe, the sacred mountain range of Montserrat holds a special place in the heart of locals. And when you see the extraordinary serrated rock formations unlike anything else in the surrounding landscape, you too will be struck by the singularity of this natural wonder. The mountain (a designated natural park) is home to a Benedictine Monastery founded in the 10th century in tribute to the Black Virgin of Montserrat, a patron saint of Catalonia – many Catalans go to pay homage to a 12th-century statue of the Virgin (you can see it up close but will probably have to queue). Go by car or take a train to Monistrol de Montserrat at the foot of the mountain; a zip train or cable car will get you to the monastery. Once there, you can also visit the Montserrat Museum; and if you have a car, head to Santa Cecilia de Montserrat, a restored Romanesque church a five-minute drive away that hosts works by Sean Scully. Finally, foodies should try locally made 'mató', a fresh cheese often served with honey for a delicious dessert.
EAT: There are a variety of eating options in the surrounds of the monastery including a self-service buffet with views down the mountain. You can also head to the restaurant of the Hotel Abat Cisneros, which is located in a stone vault (in the past it was used as a stable) and has an à la carte menu that includes typical Catalan dishes plus a set lunch menu that costs about €30.
DRINK: Perhaps unsurprisingly for a destination that's based around nature and religion, the places for enjoying a drink in Montserrat are limited. All right, non-existent. So instead, may we suggest checking out the monastery's own selection of alcohol in the shop; it includes an almond liqueur, a 'ratafia' (Catalan liqueur made with herbs and spices foraged locally), and a cava whose label is based on one of the basilica’s stained-glass windows. To be enjoyed at your leisure!
DO: Stretch your legs, breathe clean air, and luxuriate in incredible views with a walk along one of the trails that criss-cross the range. A funicular train (additional fee) will take you to a point that’s 1,000m above sea level and the starting point for walks of differing degrees of difficulty. For the ultimate high, head to the viewing point of Sant Jeroni, the highest peak in Montserrat at 1,236m (the final stage is somewhat challenging), from where you can walk back down to the monastery.
STAY: The monastery of Montserrat has two on-site accommodation options, a hotel and apartments. However, they are popular with pilgrims on a retreat and usually booked up months ahead, so you may well have to seek a bed elsewhere. In Monistrol de Montserrat, the Guilleumes Hotel-Restaurant is simple yet offers views of the range, various sizes of room all with free WiFi, and the chance to sample local, seasonal produce.
If you do just one thing... The boys’ choir of Montserrat – the Escolania – is one of the oldest in Europe, and many Catalans visit expressly to hear them perform. You have to make sure you time your visit right because they don’t sing there every day, but the sound of those young voices filling the basilica is an experience not to be missed.
In the far north of Catalonia, the coastal town of Cadaqués is the ideal destination for anyone looking for nature, art and a change of pace. Only reachable via a notoriously windy road (motion sickness sufferers beware!), Cadaqués has managed to largely avoid the overdevelopment seen in many other communities along the Costa Brava. That’s not to say it completely avoids crowds, especially in summer. One reason for its popularity is that Salvador Dalí was born in nearby Figueres and from a young age visited Cadaqués with his family; between 1930 and 1982, he lived in Portlligat, a seaside village a short walk from the centre of town, and his self-built house there is now a museum. The museum is set in the Cap de Creus natural park, an area of outstanding natural beauty, where it’s worth exploring the local beaches and coves (boat trips, snorkelling and diving are all popular) and taking a walk along the rugged, largely unspoiled coastline. Back in town, visit the Santa Maria church, shop for local crafts and jewellery, and sample the local speciality, small sponge cakes in the shape of corks called ‘taps’ that are often devoured soaked in alcohol.
EAT: Set up by three disciples of world-famous Catalan chef Ferran Adrià, Compartir specialises in modern and traditional Mediterranean dishes to enjoy with others ('compartir' means 'to share' in Catalan). Located in a renovated 18th-century building that has an outdoor space for al fresco dining when the weather allows, this isn’t the cheapest place in town but is definitely one of the most memorable.
DRINK: In Catalan a 'casino' isn’t necessarily a place where you go to gamble, but rather a cultural and civic centre, a meeting place where people come together to chat, play and, more often than not, have a drink and a bite to eat. El Casino in Cadaqués lives up to this classic description with the added bonus of a seafront location that includes a large terrace.
DO: As you’re in the heart of Dalí country, it’s definitely worth a stop before or after your visit to Cadaqués in the artist’s home town of Figueres, where you’ll find his Theatre-Museum. A fantastic ode to his life and work, the space was created by Dalí himself and is where he chose to house his final remains.
STAY: The Hotel Boutique Horta d'en Rahola is a tastefully decorated, stylish place to stay in the heart of Cadaqués. Sparklingly white walls, wooden furniture and numerous fish motifs fit perfectly with the local aesthetic, while an outdoor pool, terrace with extensive foliage, and home-made cakes for breakfast add to the relaxing, welcoming vibe.
If you do just one thing... Describing the Salvador Dalí House-Museum in Portlligat, Catalan writer Josep Pla was sure of one thing: 'I don't believe that there is anything, in this country or in most other countries, like it.' Designed by the artist as a house for himself and his wife Gala, it features numerous small rooms and a fabulously original decor made up of objects that Dalí collected. The large eggs that stand atop the buildings symbolise the house’s 'intrauterine nature'. Apparently. And now you doubtless feel the need to check it out, just make sure you book your ticket in advance.