Just 30 minutes from the Spanish border, on the south coast of France, you can still spot hints of this city’s enigmatic past. Stroll through the medieval streets to Le Castillet, or tour Palais des Rois de Majorque, to see its Catalan heritage. From art galleries to Middle Eastern cafes, here are the best things to see and do on your next trip to Perpignan.
The yellow-and-red horizontal flags, plus the bilingual street signs, show there’s more to Perpignan than meets the eye. Once the continental capital of the Kingdom of Mallorca, Perpignan old town is also peppered with grand architectural throwbacks to its former glories as a Spanish city. It’s common for this cultural French-Spanish blend to spill out joyfully onto the streets, so make sure you visit when one of its many festivals is in full flow.
This superbly preserved former prison is one of the enduring emblems of Perpignan. Its burnt-orange walls leave no doubt as to its Mediterranean locale, while the turrets and Catalan flag hint at the fascinating history of the region. The former main gate, Le Castillet, which dates back to the 14th century, houses a museum, where entry is free on the first Sunday of the month. Bring comfortable shoes: there are 142 steps to the top.
Open every day from March until October, this peaceful hideaway east of the city is a perfect spot for family picnics. A large terrace with benches faces the lake, which features water fountains and a noisy raft of ducks. They’re not the only wildlife on the scene, with a biodiversity among the reeds, groves and sycamores that is home to more than 200 species.
This gothic palace is a 14th-century remnant from the time when Perpignan was the capital of the Kingdom of Mallorca. These days, it is one of the main cultural hubs of the prefecture, with regular concerts and events taking place inside its lime-coated stone walls. For a small entrance fee, you can arrange for a 50-minute guided tour around the gardens, throne room and courtyard.
Built in 2011, this modern theatre takes a youthful approach, with shows aimed at introducing the arts to a new generation. It’s formed of juxtaposed buildings, each with its own distinct style and personality, and the architectural design is a work of showmanship in itself. It features a large red orb and a golden tower – taking the colours of the Catalan flag – that you’ll find easy to spot along La Tet river.
Every Thursday evening in July and August, the streets of Perpignan come alive with dance, music and theatre. Les Jeudis de Perpignan is a much-loved annual festival where the conviviality is spread over a dozen locations around the historic town centre. Wander the streets from 6pm until midnight to enjoy a wealth of performers, from salsa dancers and jazz singers to jugglers and stilt-walkers, along with extravagant street parade floats.
More than 1,125km (700mi) from Perpignan, in Museum Ludwig in Cologne, is a painting by Salvador Dalí that the surrealist artist believed depicted the centre of the universe: it is of Perpignan railway station. Dalí was inspired to create this oil canvas after a vision he had at the station in 1963. Subsequently, in a reciprocal tribute, the station has been decorated in distinctive Dalí styles and colours.
Still commonly referred to by its former name, La Bèrbère, this local favourite serves delicious North African cuisine from its humble premises on Rue des Embruns. They possess a mastery of spices and use traditional Berber cooking techniques, including charcoal kanoun stoves, so you can tuck into a variety of kebabs, tagines and couscous dishes. For dessert, try the generous selection of baklava served with mint tea.
There’s no better time to see an overt demonstration of Perpignan’s Catalan pride than on 24 June, known as Saint John the Baptist Day. Locals light a midnight bonfire on the Pyrenean mountain of Canigou before commencing the festivities. This includes a traditional Catalan sardana, a dance that sees participants join hands in a circle and play out choreographed steps to music.
Spread over two central mansions on Rue Mailly, the art galleries here are divided into three parts spanning 500 years. You’ll find gothic, baroque and modern periods all covered, from the 15th to the 20th centuries. There are also works by the portrait artist Hyacinthe Rigaud, the local artist after whom the museum is named. Refreshingly, the museum offers sensory and storytelling sessions tailored to toddlers as young as 18 months.
The region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees mountains is known as the Roussillon. It is renowned for a climate and terroir capable of producing world-class wines. This family-run vineyard, 6km (4mi) north of central Perpignan, knows this only too well, having been producing wines since 1904. Call in advance and they’ll be happy to arrange a two-hour wine-tasting session.
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