With a beautifully preserved old town, a rich history, and the Costa Brava at your fingertips, Girona is an enchanting alternative to Barcelona, as George Scott discovers…
Girona has been one of Catalonia’s most sought-after prizes for more than two millennia, coming under attack 25 times since it was first established in 79 BC.
But the ‘City of 1,000 Sieges’ has long lived in the shadow of regional capital Barcelona. Now, it is stepping out from behind its noisy neighbour as the region’s most enticing city break.
Step foot within the ancient walls of Barri Vell and it’s easy to understand why. The old town is the beating heart of Girona, with a labyrinthine network of cobbled streets lined with museums, galleries, bakeries and bars – all overlooked by the towering cathedral that dominates the skyline.
Girona is the Yin to Barcelona’s Yang: the compact centre, dissected by the River Onyar with the old town to the east and new city to the west, is perfect for idle ambling. Crane your neck and admire the centuries-old buildings, while taking in the slow pace of life. This is a city happy marching to the beat of its own drum.
That hasn’t always been the case: the Iberians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Napoleon have all fought for Girona.
That storied history has resulted in a beguiling blend of architectural styles – the Cathedral of Girona alone includes a Romanesque tower, a Gothic nave and a Baroque façade. Girona’s well-preserved Jewish Quarter is an atmospheric treasure trove of secret passages and courtyards.
And yet, Girona also looks forward. The thriving hilltop university overlooks the old town, buzzing cafés and bars bring a sophisticated vibe and Roca Brothers three Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca has twice been voted the best restaurant in the world by The World’s 50 Best.
Add the rising foothills of the Pyrenees and the Costa Brava coastline – the wider region provides some of Europe’s best cycling, hiking and coastal walking – to the mix and it’s a compelling package.
Whether you're exploring Girona as an extenstion to a trip to Barcelona, or have decided to jet off to the city for a holiday in itself, there's plenty to keep you entertained here, for least three days...
Spend your first morning strolling the medieval streets of Barri Vell; Girona’s old town’s best explored at a leisurely pace, venturing down arms-width passageways, admiring the architecture and peering into glass-fronted boutiques.
Climb the 90 steps that lead to the imposing Cathedral of Girona to fully appreciate the scale of the building. The Romanesque cloister and tower were first built in the 11th century, while the cavernous interior is home to the world’s widest Gothic nave (and the second widest of any style).
The nearby Basilica de Sant Feliu, with its castle-like bell tower, was the city’s main place of worship until the 10th century. Continue on to the exquisite Arab Baths, centred on an octagonal pool decorated with eight columns.
Continue your pilgrimage at the 12th-century Romanesque monastery of Sant Pere de Galligants, unique for its symmetrical eight-sided bell tower. Finish the day at Mimolet; try its seasonal tasting menu for a modern take on Catalan cuisine.
Hit the Passeig de la Muralla – Girona’s 14th-century raised city ramparts – before they get busy, before heading to the Museum of Jewish History, which tells the story of a community that thrived for 600 years until the Inquisition in 1492.
Then go to the bridge, Pont de les Peixateries Velles, designed by Gustave Eiffel, and take in the view of the River Onyar. Grab an energy boost at the Roca brothers’ gelateria: Rocambolesc makes some of the most delicious sweet treats you’re likely to find. Continue to the Plaça de la Independència and admire its neoclassical architecture.
Return to the old town via the Pont d’en Gómez, one of 11 bridges in the city, and finish the day with your own slice of Eden at the Jardins dels Alemanys. For dinner, enjoy some delicious seafood at Arròs i Peix.
Hire a car from one of the usual suspects in Girona’s city centre and seek out the pounding surf, tumbling cliffs and smugglers’ coves of the Costa Brava.
The untamed Cap de Creus Natural Park, around 70km north of Girona, shows this dramatic coastline at its wildest. The drive is an adventure in itself, with the road rising and falling, twisting and turning to the whitewashed fishing village of Cadaqués. Continue to the lighthouse at Cap de Creus – Spain’s most eastern point.
Hike the coastal path to Cadaqués (14km round trip) – or take it easy and admire the scenery on a road train – for lunch, before returning to the Cap de Creus via the Portlligat Museum-House, the former home of the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. Return to Girona and dine on La Rambla de la Llibertat, the old town’s main street.
The raised walkway across Girona’s medieval city walls provides a unique perspective of the city: peer down into secret gardens, across the ancient rooftops and over to the Pyrenees on the horizon.
Girona is at its most beautiful (and busiest) during the Temps de Flors festival, when the cobbles, courtyards, squares and staircases of the old town become a canvas for more than a hundred floral displays. 11-19 May
Girona is a cycling paradise, whether you’re exploring the old town on two wheels or heading out into the country lanes and rolling hills that surround the city. The Girona Cycle Centre bike hire and tours.
Salvador Dalí was born in Figueres, around 40km north of Girona. Designed by Dali, this museum – clearly visible with its façade of giant eggs and glass dome – is a surreal journey into his mind and final resting place.
GMT+2 (GMT+1 Nov-Mar)
Euro (€), currently €1.17 to the UK£
Girona to Costa Brava Airport is served by direct UK flights between April and October. For warm weather without sweltering peak mid-summer heat, visit in May, June, September or October.
Girona is known as the City of Festivals, with a year-round cultural calendar. To see the city in full bloom, visit during Temps de Flors in May.
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