Exploring Catalonia in Spain includes wandering the vibrant capital city, Barcelona, Costa Brava beaches, and wineries making sparkling Cava.
The Catalonia region of Spain is a diverse region where you’ll find the best of Spanish coastal cuisine, can hang out at a late-night tapas bar, and explore the narrow streets of ancient villages. When you explore Catalonia, you'll discover a unique culture and history, surprising art and architecture in Barcelona, and fall in love, as I did, with sparkling Cava and the beauty of the land.
Spain’s Catalonia region is one of the world’s most unique. More than 7.5 million people call it home—a diverse land that flows from 10,000 foot-high mountain peaks to lush farmlands; green vineyards to shimmering sands along more than 360 miles of the Mediterranean Coast.
Catalonia—which you may see written as Catalunya—is unique in Spain. It has its own language, Catalan, which is the region’s official language alongside Spanish. There is an official Catalan flag. Catalonia has its own President and Parliament that share political power with the Spanish state. That fierce independence and sense of place are reflected as you explore the sights, sounds, and tastes throughout the region.
There are unparalleled culinary treasures, the production of sparkling wine known as cava, vibrant beaches of the Costa Brava, and picturesque medieval towns surrounding the capital city.
Begin Exploring in Barcelona
Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital city, is home to 1.6 million residents. It is also a city of travelers, with Europe’s largest cruising port, an international airport, and a large train terminal. Barcelona blends history and modernism in a way few European cities do—with a flavor of the Mediterranean and a cosmopolitan feel.
Barcelona's Creative Architecture
Barcelona is known for its blend of Gothic, modernist, and avant-garde architecture. Over the centuries, many artists and architects have called it home, including Antoni Gaudí, Salvador Dalí, and Santiago Rusiñol. The architectural masterpieces—most notably the famous and still unfinished La Sagrada Familia—by Gaudí make Barcelona one of the most significant architectural destinations in the world.
Gaudí’s works are now UNESCO World Heritage buildings located throughout Barcelona, most of which you can visit. The not-to-miss sights include La Sagrada Familia, the most well-known of all Gaudí’s works. Although he estimated it would take a decade to complete, more than 130 years after construction began, the magnificent cathedral is still under construction.
Park Güell is a beautiful garden—open to the public—that incorporates many of Gaudí’s works. The centerpiece is a snaking bench in the form of a sea serpent surrounding the terrace.
Barcelona's Most Famous Street
While in Barcelona, be sure to take a walk along La Rambla, undoubtedly the city’s most famous street. The bustling, tree-lined promenade stretches from Plaça de Catalunya to the Columbus statue. You’ll find street art, flower markets, restaurants, and more. A highlight is La Boqueria Market with seasonal Catalan products that grow in the surrounding fields, along with seafood, traditional ham, local goods, and things you never even knew existed.
Understanding Catalonia through its Flavors
Catalonia has been a crossroads of civilization for centuries, making it a crossroads for flavors. As you explore Catalonia, you see those influences. Rice and Middle Eastern spices evoke visions of Moroccan spice stalls. The great discoverers from Catalonia brought back tomatoes from the Americas. Greeks brought citrus and olives. I truly had some of the best, although simple, meals as I explored Catalonia.
Local Catalan recipes are celebrated in restaurants, from small roadside eateries to the 60-plus Michelin-starred restaurants dotting the region. Tapas aren’t a fad or a trend, but a way of life. No meal is complete without pa amb tomàquet, bread rubbed with tomato and olive oil, often served with pork sausages. They serve you the whole tomatoes and the garlic, along with warm bread. You simply smash it on your bread, pour a little olive oil over it, and enjoy.
Other traditional dishes you won’t want to miss include cargols a la llauna (roasted snails) and esca livada (char-broiled vegetables). A favorite dessert is cheese with honey. I could see why the locals enjoy this so much. For me, it's an ideal mix of sweet and savory to end a meal.
Exploring Catalonia through its Wines and Cavas
When exploring Catalonia, no meal is complete without wine. There are 12 wine regions within Catalonia—one regular wine region and the Cava region, the name for Spain's sparkling wine. Perhaps one of the most scenic wine routes is in Penedès, where you can explore both wine and Cava productions. As a fan of sparkling wines, I really enjoyed understanding the history and the process of Cava.
The best place to begin your Cava exploration is in the picturesque town of Sadurní d’Anoia. Stop by the CIC Fassina Cava Interpretation Centre, located in an old distillery, to discover the history of Cava and how it helped develop tourism in this part of Catalonia. The interactive museum also illustrates the similarities between Cava and French Champagne. Be sure to pick up maps of the nearby Cava cellars. You can join one of the organized tours or create your own.
There are more than 180 stops just along the Penedès route, but there are several you won’t want to miss. After the museum, head to Gramona in central Sadurní d’Anoia. The family-owned winery was established in 1881 and the tasting room is in the heart of the old town. As you wind down into the old cellar, past aging bottles of Cava, you’ll have a chance to experience the craft of making Cava by hand, honoring long-standing traditions. Gramona uses traditional Cava grape blends of Xarel.lo (pronounced sharellō) and Macabeu, along with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Nearby, Freixenet offers up a bit of a Great Gatsby feel as you enter the 1923 building housing the largest winery in the Freixenet Group. Tastings and tours are offered throughout the day. While I am not a huge fan of the typical Freixenet I had tasted in the US, I discovered the winery has so much more to offer. Now that I know what to look for, I love to seek out these cavas here in the states.
Tasting Cava at Codorníu
Perhaps the most beautiful of the Cava houses is Codorníu, known as the Cathedral of Cava. It was absolutely my favorite to visit and I frequently enjoy sipping Codorníu Anna de Codorníu Cava Blanc de Blancs.
The winery started in the mid-1700s and in the late 1800s, one of the owners brought sparkling wine to the region from France. The Cathedral of Cava—very much a cathedral-like structure that honors the wine industry—was completed in the late 1880s. Today, it is Codorníu’s wine tasting room, while the family’s mansion is used for private tastings and events.
I was fortunate enough to have been with a small group of wine writers, so we were treated to a private tasting at the Codorníu mansion. It was so elegant and felt special. It's not an afternoon I'm likely to ever forget.
Wandering Through Catalonia’s Charming Towns
There are ample small towns scattered throughout Catalonia. You'll find each has a bit of a different vibe. While some offering an exciting night life, others are tiny little enclaves tucked among the vineyards. Here are a few of my favorites.
Visit Girona While Exploring Catalonia
Girona sits 60 miles north of Barcelona and boasts 13 restaurants featuring 17 Michelin stars. Girona has one of the best-preserved old Jewish quarters in Europe—el Call—made up of narrow alleyways and courtyards that beckon back to the Middle Ages. It was also my favorite town in the region.
The cathedral of Girona is in the center of the old town. It was built beginning in the 11th-century and holds the Tapestry of the Creation. Surrounding the cathedral are lovely cobbled streets filled with boutiques, restaurants, and bars where you can find tapas and local wines. I enjoyed sipping wine and sitting until late in the evening sharing those small plates with my fellow writers.
Amble Through Pals
In nearby Pals, you find yourself transported to another era. The town is just a short distance from the Mediterranean coast. The old town is built high on a hill and you can spend a pleasant morning wandering through the old Gothic quarter among the little shops. Artisans frequently gather to demonstrate their skills and sell their wares.
After I had a conversation with some of the artisans in a local shop—and of course, came home with a beautiful platter that I use every day—I wandered down the narrow sidewalks to find a sidewalk café. One of my fellow travelers and I sat there for about an hour, sipping coffee, talking about our travels, and watching the local amble about the square.
When you are ready to enjoy the bounty of the local area, head to Vicus Restaurant for lunch, just outside the old town. A tiny restaurant with a few tables, you will enjoy contemporary Catalan food served up with local rice. While the menu is seasonal, try the acorn-fed Iberian ham, the rice, and the Ilonganissa (dry sausage) that usually stays on the menu. Vicus also serves local, Penedès wines, perfect for the local dishes.
Discovering Catalonia’s Costa Brava
No trip to Catalonia would be complete without visiting the Costa Brava, even if only for a brief stay. You could spend an entire vacation luxuriating on the coast, where the clear water and rocky outcroppings—interspersed with beautiful sandy beaches—are like something out of a movie set. My first trip to Catalonia was in 1985, when my husband and I did exactly that, spending about four days sitting on the beach, hiking the rocky outcroppings, and enjoying the local cuisine.
Sitges, a coastal town south of Barcelona, has long captivated artists. What was once a sleepy fishing village is now known for its cultural attractions, museums, fine dining, and beaches. As the sun casts a peaceful glow over the town at sunrise and sunset, there is no wonder why artists have been so allured by the town’s magic.
The Sitges Church is the city’s icon at Plaça Baluard, overlooking the coast. From there, you can walk along the city’s narrow streets and explore artist enclaves. Museu Cau Ferrat consists of two homes opened by artist Santiago Rusiñol in the late 19th century. The museum now houses art collections.
With the mountains in the distance, the blue waters at your feet, a glass of Cava at the ready, and tapas to share with friends, it’s easy to see why Catalonia is such a popular tourist destination.
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When You Go Exploring Catalonia
For help with planning a visit to Barcelona and Catalonia, check out the Visit Barcelona website and the Catalonia tourism website. For a complete list of the Works of Antoni Gaudí recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, see the UNESCO site and plan to take in some of these amazing architectural wonders. Wander writers also have ideas for your travels through Spain.