You may know Barcelona for its famous football club and Camp Nou stadium, but have you visited Catalonia where it’s situated?
With its own language and flag, Catalonia is an autonomous region of Spain with 300 days of annual Mediterranean sunshine, 65 Michelin Stars, and at least nine UNESCO world heritage treasures.
Occupying just 6.3% of Spain’s land area, Catalonia attracted 23.8% of Spain’s foreign tourists in 2016, according to The Guardian.
And it’s no wonder why: whether admiring Gaudí’s fantastical UNESCO-awarded buildings in Barcelona or skiing in the snow-capped Pyrenees, Catalonia encapsulates a diversity of experience bound in a proud, distinctive identity. There are also 11 designations of origin for wine and an exceptional cava (Catalonian champagne).
Due to Catalonia’s popularity, its tourism offering is not only diverse, but also well-established and of top quality. Looking for a luxury break, an adrenaline-packed adventure, a beautiful honeymoon, a family holiday or a unique MICE destination? Catalonia has it all.
Year of Culture
This is a special time to visit Catalonia, as 2018 is its Year of Culture. Catalonia’s millenary history has left a legacy of cultural attractions ranging from thousand-year-old cave paintings and Greek and Roman artefacts, to Medieval and Romanesque monasteries and iconic pieces of modernist architecture.
Moreover, Catalonia’s cultural festivals and traditions like its human towers (castells) are world-renowned, along with its natural heritage and rich gastronomic scenery. Many hotels house incredible restaurants, officially labelled ‘Catalan Gastronomic Hotels’, and culinary-based itineraries can be planned. What’s more, Barcelona is also rapidly becoming a Muslim-friendly halal destination.
With its many Michelin and UNESCO awards, Catalonia is both the epicentre of modern European cuisine and rich cultural sites.
Don’t know where to start? Here are some suggestions for a memorable trip to Catalonia.
Costa Daurada / Tarragona
Costa Daurada, or ‘Golden Coast’, is a 92-kilometre strip of Mediterranean coastline with fine sandy beaches and shallow waters. It is known for its historical city Tarragona, which is just a 35-minute high speed train ride away from Barcelona.
Turisme de Barcelona recommends Costa Daurada’s “monasteries, prestigious wines, popular local traditions, including displays of human castles, or ‘castellers’, and entertainment centres, such as Port Aventura and coastal cities like Salou”. In fact, this area has an astounding “number of microclimates that produce six Denomination of Origin wines and cavas”.
The city of Tarragona will feature in UNESCO’s new Ancient Europe tourist route from mid-2018. The route will allow the city to enhance its architectural, cultural and enogastronomic heritage.
Indeed, in Tarragona, you’ll find some of the most important and well-preserved Ancient Roman sites outside of Italy. Not to be missed are the Roman Tarragona Amphitheatre, a second-century arena with a stunning view of the sea, and the architectural feat that is the Roman Pont del Diable aqueduct.
Turisme de Barcelona also recommends taking a walk through history via “the walled town of Montblanc (14th century) and the nearby Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria de Poblet (12th century), a UNESCO World Heritage Site”.
If you’re visiting this October, don’t miss the famous Human Tower competition in Tarragona. The longstanding Catalan tradition of building human towers, or castells, originated near this ancient city, and traditionally takes place as part of traditional festivals, as well as in performances throughout the Castellers season from June to November.
Over the past 50 years, human tower clubs (colles) have been established throughout Catalonia, with the tradition classified as a UNESCO Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2010. Several colles have open practice sessions where visitors can watch or try their hand at building these marvels.
Costa Brava / Girona
For excellent cuisine and stunning sights, visit the biodiversity hotspot of Costa Brava, which stretches for more than 200 kilometres from Blanes to Portbou. A 1.5-hour train ride will bring you from Barcelona to Blanes.
Turisme de Barcelona highlights the many “nature reserves” that “have been created to protect” this biodiversity hotspot, from “the marshlands of the Aiguamolls de l’Empordà” to “botanical gardens, such as Pinya de Rosa and Mar i Murtra (Blanes)”.
Indeed, Jardín Botánico Marimurtra, or Marimurtra Botanical Garden, in Blanes is one of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful gardens covering almost 15 hectares. At the top of steep cliffs running along the sea, enjoy one of the most spectacular panoramic views over the coastline and get to know over 4,000 plant species, most of them exotic ones, and many specimens that are extraordinary due to their age or size. It is also a romantic spot for wedding photography.
Looking for a therapeutic itinerary? Look no further than Costa Brava’s forest bathing experience. Since November 2017, the forests of Can Fornaca to Caldes de Malavella, Palau-sacosta to Girona and Torrenteres to Vidrà, offer “forest baths” to visitors interested in enjoying therapeutic itineraries. To find out more, visit http://en.costabrava.org
Known for its medieval architecture, you’ll fall in love with Girona, a 35-minute high speed train ride away from Barcelona. With its ancient cathedral, old fortifications and 14th-century gothic Saint Feliu, there is plenty to see in this city with over 2,000 years of history. No wonder it’s a popular day trip for visitors from Barcelona, who will find this ancient city tranquil in comparison.
Visit the Old Town in Girona, then stroll through the narrow streets of its picturesque Jewish Quarter, admire its impressive cathedral and walk along the Onyar river, which features a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel long before the Eiffel Tower was built.
Feeling hungry after exploring Girona? Why not visit its markets and cafes, or sign up for a food tour (http://www.gironafoodtours.com/)? After all, Girona has been described as Catalonia’s “most food-obsessed province” by food writer Paul Richardson in 2016, when Catalonia was the designated “European Region of Gastronomy”. Writing for The Financial Times, Richardson describes Girona as being “the ideal setting for a gourmet road trip”.
Girona will also welcome the Roca Brothers’ first chocolate factory, with a 15-room boutique hotel above it, in early 2019. The brothers are famous for their three-Michelin star restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, twice ranked the world’s No. 1 restaurant, also located in Girona. With a bean-to-bar concept, the new chocolate factory will give visitors a first-hand experience of the process of creating quality chocolate in the heart of the city.
Just 3.5 hours away from Barcelona is Val d’Aran, or Aran Valley, which could give the Swiss alps some serious competition. Visit ancient stone villages such as Unha, Salardú, Vielha and Arties and be enchanted. Turisme de Barcelona describes Val d’Aran as “a heaven for lovers of mountain sports, such as skiing” and a “valley with Romanesque churches, ancestral traditions, its own government institutions and an Occitanian language: Aranese”.
Val d’Aran also offers thematic routes in stages for both families and people with little experience in mountains. There are different hiking routes to choose from, including ‘Tour del Aneto’, ‘Les Fonts de la Garona’ and ‘Aran Tours & Trek’.
The first route reveals one of the the most beautiful spots in Val d’Aran and one of the best viewpoints of the Aneto-Maladeta massif. The three-day route includes stages of up to five hours that allow more free time, including cultural, nature and shopping or sports activities.
‘Les Fonts del Garona’ is a walking tour to explore three areas deemed to be the birth of the Garonne river, which has its source in the Pyrenees.
The ‘Aran Tours & Trek’ is a trail aimed at those with some experience in mountain routes. The activity can be done both in summer and winter with ski mountaineering or snowshoeing.
Alternatively, Artiga de Lin is a shelter that has been recently refurbished and enlarged to promote the Aranesa route to Aneto. Additionally, the new tourist route called Aran-Pirineus recovers the Camí of Sant Jaume that links Saint Bertrand de Comminges and Berbegal (Huesca) through Val d’Aran, with the peak of Montlude (2,518m) set up to enhance the high mountain, from the towns of Les, Bossòst, Canejan, Arres and Vilamòs.
For more routes, including shopping and gastronomy adventures, visit http://www.visitvaldaran.com/en/
If you’re familiar with Barcelona, you can’t think of the regional capital without conjuring up Antoni Gaudí’s inventive Art Nouveau buildings.
Described by Yann Arthus-Bertrand as “a colourful and modern metropolis full of history and culture, where you can experience a Mediterranean lifestyle and passion for life”, Barcelona boasts one of the best shopping experiences in Europe, with world-class restaurants and Instagram-worthy architecture.
Don’t miss La Rambla, Barcelona’s famous pedestrianised mall stretching for 1.2 kilometres, where you can visit Barcelona’s oldest market, La Boqueria. Over 800 years old, it is one of the world’s top food markets, with over 200 stands to tantalise your tastebuds. Their seafood tapas, ham and fruit smoothies are worth a try, according to Barcelona Hacks.
Once you’re full, soak in Barcelona’s stunning Modernist and Gothic architecture. If you can’t get enough of Gaudí, visit Park Güell; you’ll also like the enchanting Gothic Quarter, a former Roman village located in the heart of the old Barcelonian city.
Don’t like crowds? New York Travel recommends visiting Jardins del Teatre Grec, “an amphitheater and garden complex designed in the ancient Greek style by architect Ramon Reventós”, instead of Park Güell. The magazine also suggests visiting Dipòsit de les Aigües, “a library at the University of Pompeu Fabra” dating back to 1874, instead of the Gothic Quarter. The former “water tower for the military garrison” has “parallel Roman-style pillars, each with 45-feet (13.7m) high arches, spanning in a line 214 feet (65.2m) deep”, which form “a truly stunning visual”.
With a high concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, peruse the photos in this section for more sights you should not miss when you’re in the largest Catalonian city.
This article has been written with information from Catalan Tourist Board. There are direct flights from Singapore to Barcelona.