Barcelona has a lot to offer visitors, including architectural gems by Gaudí, Gothic Quarter secret finds, a beach promenade and numerous nightclubs, restaurants and shops. However, beyond the city’s borders lie gorgeous Spanish landscapes, Medieval towns, hyperlocal dishes and unique Catalan traditions. Here are 15 places that make for an excellent day trip from the Catalan capital.
Approximately one hour northwest of Barcelona is the Montserrat mountain range, the perfect getaway for a good hike and to reconnect with nature. These meandering mountains offer many different trails to explore – either on your own or via a guided hiking tour that covers all of the main views. You can visit the 11th-century Santa Maria de Monserrat, a Benedictine abbey perched on top of the mountain, and see its iconic dark-skinned Virgin Mary, La Moreneta. Arriving by public transport is easy – take the Ferrocarrils de la Generalitat de Catalunya (FGC) train R5 line from Plaça Espanya.
Sitges is a charming fishing coastal town with a lively shopping and dining area that’s only a train ride away from Barcelona. It boasts four kilometres (2.5 miles) of beautiful beaches, a picturesque seafront promenade, a quaint church by the sea and multiple stately manors built by wealthy colonists returning from the Americas at the turn of the century (the so-called ‘Indianos’). In addition to being family-friendly, Sitges has also been a gay-friendly tourism destination since the ’70s. Film buffs can also rejoice as Sitges hosts the internationally acclaimed International Fantastic Film Festival for fantasy, terror and groundbreaking movies every October. You can easily travel there by taking the FGC train R2 Sud line to Sant Vicenç de Calders or Vilanova i la Geltrú from Estació de França, Passeig de Gràcia or Sants train stations.
Just north of Barcelona, the historic city of Girona is well worth a trip. The colourful houses by the riverside create striking views, and its formidable Gothic cathedral and massive staircase has served as a backdrop for several Games of Thrones episodes (mainly the Great Sept of Baelor – take Girona’s Game of Thrones tour so that you don’t miss any sights). And El Call, the 12th-century Jewish Quarter, is among the best-preserved quarters of its kind in all of Europe. The best time to visit is in May when the Girona, Temps de Flors (Flower Festival) covers the city in a carpet of flowers.
The seaside village of Tossa de Mar holds a special allure thanks to its Medieval castle and fortress. You can walk up the town walls right by the beach and listen to the crashing waves, and the traditional Sa Roqueta fishermen’s quarter is also worth a visit. At the entrance to the town, there is a lookout point with majestic views, surrounded by numerous inviting coves to explore (including Cala Bona, Cala Pola, Cala Giverola and Cala Llevadó). Many of these also offer a nearby camping site. During the filming of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), Tossa enchanted actress Ava Gardner so much that she became one of the town’s most famous advocates, so don’t be surprised to find a sculpture as a homage to her.
Cava is a designation of origin (DO) for a typical Catalan sparkling wine quite similar to French champagne. Both are fermented in the bottle, but the biggest difference – apart from the region where it is produced – is that cava uses different grape varieties, such as macabeo, xarel-lo, parellada, malvasía and chardonnay. This kind of wine is usually white, but there are also some rosé sparklings. Traditionally, cava is generously served during the biggest Catalan celebrations, such as Christmas. Perhaps the best way to learn about cava is by taking a tour and wine tasting at Freixenet, the most famous cava producer in the country.
Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí was born in Figueres, Spain, which is home to a museum dedicated to his art – or, as Dalí himself labelled it, the ‘Theatre-Museum’. Here, you will find the same drama, genius ideas and flamboyant flair he used to captivate a global audience. Provided you have the time, you can also travel to his quaint former house and a smaller, more personal museum in Portlligat (his hometown later in life), in the beautiful Cadaqués and Cap de Creus area. To see Girona, Figueres and the Dalí Theatre-Museum, check for tickets online.
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If you haven’t yet discovered Costa Brava’s magnificent turquoise water, you are truly missing out. Calella de Palafrugell might be one of the most tourist-packed beach towns in the region, but there is a good reason for it. This coastal beauty still boasts the charm of some of its original white fishing houses and has several different large coves to enjoy. The town’s botanical garden (Jardí Botanic de Cap Roig) also hosts a renowned music festival each summer.
An even better way to discover the ‘wild or rough coast’ of Catalunya is to get deep into the water. From Blanes to the French border, the Costa Brava is a breathtaking landscape, full of hidden caves, refreshing waters and marine life. The cliffs and beaches are also a truly appealing backdrop for water sports. Your best bet is to take a snorkelling and kayaking tour so that you don’t miss all the secret spots.
Antoni Gaudí’s Modernist architecture includes some of the most famous landmarks in Barcelona: La Sagrada Família, La Pedrera, Parc Güell, Casa Batlló and Casa Vicens, to name a few. But what about La Colònia Güell? You might not have heard about this one because this 19th-century industrial colony is not in Barcelona. About 20 kilometres (12 miles) away in the tiny Santa Coloma de Cervelló, you’ll find Gaudí’s strange social experiment. The avant-garde architect created a whole city for textile workers, including a church with a stunning crypt, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and must be seen with your own eyes.
Born out of the solidified lava hills from the extinct volcanoes Croscat and Santa Margarida, La Fageda d’en Jordà is a leafy, extended beech forest and natural park in La Garrotxa county. The trees reach a height of 25 metres (82 feet), creating a cathedral-like dome full of silence and green beauty. Trekking both the short or long (12 kilometres or 7.5 miles) trails can be done on foot, but if you prefer a more active kind of tourism, check the several horseback-riding or bike tours offered in the area. The region is also famous for its dairy products, and you can visit the nearby yoghurt-making farm. Completing the trip with a visit to the nearby rural village of Olot is also an excellent idea.
If you’d like to take a trip back in time, you’ll have to travel a bit farther away (121 kilometres or 75 miles) to Besalú, a Medieval city. Its well-preserved Romanesque bridge is one of its biggest and most loved assets, but the real treat is wandering through its Medieval streets and old Jewish quarter. Remember to also have a look at the Benedictine Monastery of Sant Pere and the miqvé (ancient Jewish bathing houses). Don’t leave without tasting ratafía (the typical herb and spice liquor of the region) at one of the many bars, or try the non-alcoholic herbal infusion instead. Several tours can take you to Besalú and other gorgeous Medieval mountain villages, including that of Rupit i Pruit.
Considered by many people to be the prettiest village in Catalunya, Peratallada (meaning ‘carved stone’) is set in the mountainous part of L’Empordà county. The town’s well-preserved Medieval urban core features ancient walls, a 10th-century castle, vaulted passageways and the Sant Pere Church done in the late-Roman style. The whole village seems to be brimming with flowers that provide a delicate and colourful contrast against the stark stone walls. To make the most of your trip, combine this visit with one to the similarly ancient village of Pals, just 10 kilometres (six miles) away.
On the Costa Daurada, the ancient city of Tarraco (modern-day Tarragona) boasts a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre, a forum, an aqueduct (Les Ferreres, also known as The Devil’s Bridge), a quarry and other archaeological sites that grant the city a UNESCO World Heritage site title. The nearby Cistercian monastery of Poblet is also a point of historical interest. A tour of the city will guide you through all of Tarragona’s main archaeological sites and take you to the picturesque town of Sitges and its urban beach, which is among the best in Europe.
Spend an eventful day at the PortAventura theme park
Also in Costa Daurada – near the tourist town of Salou – is PortAventura, the biggest theme park in Spain. It features different world areas, depicting various moments in time, and includes Mediterrània, Polynesia, SésamoAventura (starring Sesame Street characters), Imperial China, Aztec Mexico and the American Far West. Main attractions include the Dragon Khan and Shambala rollercoasters. There are also different experiences for children.
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The Pyrenees is the natural border between Catalonia and France – an impressive mountain range that reaches heights above 3,400 metres (11,155 feet). The gorgeous high-mountain landscape is beloved by both ski aficionados and mountaineers. On your way there, you can stop at Vic, a charming early Medieval town famous for its cured meats. To reach one of the most impressive alpine sights, the 2,000-metre-high (6,562-foot-high) Vall de Núria, you’ll have to take the tren cremallera, a rack railway line departing from the town of Queralbs. Taking a guided tour of the Pyrenees covers all the main sights and attractions of this spectacular mountainous area.