Why you should care
Best-kept secrets aren’t kept for long — make your way to this other must-see Spanish city while it’s still free of lines and slow-moving tourists.
If you were in any other town in northeast Spain, Barcelona would be the sibling you’d enjoy kicking in the ass, the favorite you’re dying to knock off its high horse. There it is, the capital of the Catalonia region, resplendent with its Gaudís, Mirós and Picassos, its famous history, its chefs like Ferran Adrià and its world-celebrated soccer team. Show-off.
One city that shouldn’t feel like the slighted stepchild is Girona. Just one hour north of Barcelona, it’s usually where tourists go for a day trip or to hightail it somewhere else via its airport, a hub for many economy European airlines. But Girona is no one’s second-rate, day-tripping, cheap-airline pit stop. It is a romantic, soothingly beautiful city dating back to medieval times that Spaniards love to visit — no doubt hoping others don’t catch on and trample their treasure.
Wander the jumble of narrow, stone streets and discover fairytale homes, courtyards and vistas that simply aren’t in any guidebook.
Girona’s modern city is less than spectacular, and if you make that the only part of your trip, you’ll be scrambling to catch the train back to Barcelona. Instead, walk over the footbridge to the Barri Well (Old Quarter) and stay awhile. Wander the jumble of narrow, stone streets and discover fairytale homes, courtyards and vistas that simply aren’t in any guidebook.
When you’re ready to be a shameless tourist, make sure to visit the cathedral (with the largest Gothic nave in the world) and the Arab-style baths. Construction started in the 11th century, and parts of the façade were completed as late as 1961.
Equally impressive, El Call is the best-preserved medieval Jewish ghetto in Europe, which stopped being an active community with the 1492 Spanish expulsion of Jews.
Girona has endured 25 sieges and been captured seven times. Stroll along the old Roman fortifications that played a vital role in protecting the city from invaders for hundreds of years.
But Girona has a lot more to offer than history. The west side of the river has a concentration of boutiques and shops selling everything from ceramics to nougat. Catalan cuisine has been in the spotlight lately (Anthony Bourdain is near obsessed with it), meaning waits are long and prices are high in top Barcelona restaurants. Sneak off to Girona, however, and places like El Celler de Can Roca (declared second-best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine in 2011) are muy delicioso and way less crowded. Or eat for cheap in classy surroundings by having a picnic on the hill by the lighthouse, with the Pyrenees Mountains framing the fabulousness that is Girona. Or get gluttonous with a stop for tapas, wine and churros con chocolate at one of the outdoor cafés sprinkled around the university. Looking to burn off those calorías? During the professional season, cyclists train just outside the city — Lance Armstrong even lived in Girona for a time.