I'd read so many wonderful things about Girona, Spain that I just had to go and visit for myself.
Girona is only half an hour by car from Figueres, where we visited the Dalí Museum, so we decided to kill two birds with one stone. After having admired the works of Dalí, we drove further south to Girona.
- Girona, a charming city
- Things to do in Girona, Spain
- Explore the Jewish quarter
- Visit Girona Cathedral
- Go onto the city walls
- Stroll in the Jardins dels Alemanys
- Visit the Monastery of Saint Daniel
- Explore Girona’s bridges
- Marvel at the Basílica de Sant Feliu
- Kiss the Lion’s bottom
- Go to the Arab baths
- Tour the Game of Thrones Filming Locations
- Go to one of Girona’s Museums
- Go for a stroll in the Parc de la Devesa
- People-watch in the Plaça de la Independència
- Eat out
- Go shopping at the Mercat Municipal del Lleó
- Visit the Old Hospital
Girona, a charming city
It took us a while to locate a parking spot – this place is popular! – but once we did, we quickly crossed the river into the historic heart.
While doing so we spotted these men. They were pulling loose the algae and other green stuff that was omnipresent there in the Onyar river. Quite the job!
We headed towards the tourism office on the Rambla de la Llibertat, a pedestrian shopping street, to get a map and then wandered off into the multiple small alleys that make Girona's old center so charming.
Things to do in Girona, Spain
The city of Girona is located just 65 miles / 105 km from Barcelona (with a high-speed train between them) in the northeastern corner of Spain. It’s frequently used as a travel base to explore the Pyrenees and Costa Brava, or as a day trip by train from Barcelona. Although it is often overlooked as a destination in its own right, there’s a myriad of things to do in Girona, Spain.
Meandering cobbled streets, medieval city walls and beautifully preserved ancient buildings. A web of bridges spanning the twinkling Onyar river that cleaves the city in two. Girona city may be off the beaten path but it’s a treasure trove of culture and history, with the dramatic Pyrenean mountains as a backdrop.
Explore the Jewish quarter
On the west side of the Onyar lies the Ciutat Antigua (Old City), a network of narrow alleyways, enchanting stone staircases and hidden doorways. Most of these alleys can be found in the Jewish quarter, also known as “El Call”, which comes from the Latin “callis” for “streets”.
After Barcelona, Girona had the second-largest Jewish community in Catalonia and it played an important role from the 10th until the 15th century, when they were forced to convert to Catholicism in 1492, just like the rest of Spain. Jews who refused to convert were expelled from the country.
The Jewish quarter in Girona hasn't changed much since the Middle Ages. In fact, it’s now considered among the best-preserved and largest Jewish quarters in Europe. Back then, Carrer de la Força was the main street and today it's where you can find the Museum of Jewish History and the Museum of History (more on these later).
Try to just let your feet take you wherever they fancy here. You could stumble upon the gorgeous flight of stone steps leading up to the Esglesia de Sant Marti, or the “escalinata” in front of the cathedral. You could end up in any number of magical passageways such as Carrer Manuel Cundaro, or Carrer del Doctor Oliva i Prat.
Visit Girona Cathedral
The first cultural site we came across was Girona Cathedral, a beautiful building but not easy to capture by photo as it's surrounded by buildings and not on a big open plaza, as you often see in other European cities. It is still an impressive sight, as it stands at the top of a huge stone staircase.
La Catedral de Santa María de Gerona was built between the 12th and the 18th century and has the second widest Gothic nave on Earth, after St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. Because it took so many centuries to complete, each element of the cathedral reflects a different architectural style, from the Renaissance to the Gothic.
Inside, you can find the Museu Tresor de la Catedral, which houses various works of art. The most significant masterpiece to see there is the Tapestry of Creation (“El Tapís de la Creació), an amazing embroidered panel that was created around one thousand years ago. There are remarkable stained glass windows and ancient tombs. The fee to get into the cathedral also enables you access to the Basílica de Sant Feliu.
From there we walked to the Jardins de la Francesa, Girona (French Gardens).
Go onto the city walls
I wanted to see the French Gardens, which are a little green paradise, but I especially wanted to go there because from the gardens you could get onto the ancient walls. These structures are still for a large part intact and you can travel all around the north of the historic streets on them.
The Passeig Arqueològic (the walk along the walls) is about three kilometers in distance making it one of the longest remaining Carolingian walls in the continent. They were constructed between the 9th and 14th centuries. Girona was so regularly attacked that it earned the nickname “city of a thousand sieges”.
There are a lot of ways to get onto and down from the walls, so you don’t need to follow the entire length if you don’t want to. Going up there in the early morning or late afternoon is one of the best things to do in Girona as you’ll get to enjoy the kaleidoscopic colors of the sunrise or sunset.
They offered some great views, but I have to admit that I didn't always feel as confident up there. I might have faced my fear of heights in Quebec, but I still haven't conquered it completely. That's why most of the photos below were taken by Siemen as I didn't dare to go near to the edge of the wall (although there was no way I could fall off).
At one point there was a tower you could climb up to reach an even higher viewing point. As I'd promised myself that I'd never just let my fear of heights stop me from doing activities, I bravely started climbing. After just a few steps, though, I suddenly got really dizzy and nauseous. I was physically unwell with fear and so I didn't climb this tower, but at least I tried.
Luckily the situation was also a bit funny. When I came down I heard a woman say to her husband, in Dutch: “Look, that girl doesn't dare to go up either”. She was surprised when I told her in Dutch that, indeed, I didn't. What are the odds of just stumbling upon another Flemish person who has a fear of heights as well?
I'm really grateful that my ex helped me out with the shots and I actually loved them so much that I couldn't choose. That's why I'm giving you loads of views on Girona, Spain:
Stroll in the Jardins dels Alemanys
You can also get up onto the walls from the Jardins dels Alemanys (German Gardens) that are just a bit further up the hill from Girona cathedral. These nice gardens are littered with ancient ruins.
There is a sign to say that in the 1800s during the Peninsular War, the barracks of the German soldiers were located here, which gives the gardens their name. They’re free entry and a relaxing place to hang out, with a winning combination of tree cover and crumbling walls.
Visit the Monastery of Saint Daniel
If you are up for walking a bit further, you’ll want to venture further afield to the Monastery of Saint Daniel, a walk of about ten minutes from the Jardins dels Alemanys.
Although it may sound like just another monastery, this 11th-century former nunnery is a breath of fresh air after the other attractions in Girona because of its beautiful setting surrounded by lush green forest. It has stunning cloisters to explore and holds a famous tomb, a sculptural piece by Catalan artist Aloi de Montbrai.
Explore Girona’s bridges
Girona has eleven in total, crisscrossing between the old town in the east and the modern commercial hub in the west. Along the riverside, there are numerous colorful houses called “casas penjades” (hanging houses). Together with these brightly colored houses the bridges paint one of the most iconic images of Girona. Each bridge offers an alternative view so it’s worth checking out as many as possible.
Pont de Pedra is one must-see bridge – its three-arch stonework cuts a striking shape. The Eiffel Bridge (also called the Pont Palanques Vermelles or Pont de les Peixateries Velles) is a narrow iron-latticed footbridge constructed by Gustave Eiffel in 1877, the same engineer that designed the Eiffel Tower.
Another nice pedestrian bridge is the Pont de Sant Feliu which is a great place to take your camera and get some snaps of the vivid reflections of the cityscape in the water.
Marvel at the Basílica de Sant Feliu
After crossing the Pont de Sant Feliu you’ll get to a flight of steps topped with a church tower – the Basílica de Sant Feliu (Saint Felix). This was Girona’s principal church in the 900s before the cathedral was built next to it, and it is a patchwork of architectural styles. It still has a lot of its original Romanesque features, as well as a Gothic tower and Baroque facade.
You do have to pay a fee to go inside but you’ll get to see its impressive interior alongside an amazing collection of artworks including several ancient sarcophagi and another notable sculpture by Catalan sculptor Aloi de Montbrai. The entry fee includes an audioguide and also entry to the main cathedral too.
While you’re here, you may fancy participating in a little Gironan tradition. Between the bridge and Basilica of Saint Felix, there’s a stone column with a lion statue on, called “El Cul de la Lleona”. According to tradition, visitors should kiss the lion’s bottom, as it will guarantee their return one day. Everyone says this is one of the essential things to do in Girona – there are even little steps to help reach it. By doing this, you’re showing that you’d like to come back, maybe even to stay!
This statue is only a replica of the original piece, which can be seen in the Museum of Art, and is not so easily kissed…
Go to the Arab baths
Keep walking around the Basilica and not far are the Banys Àrabs, Girona’s amazingly well-preserved public baths built in 1194. Modeled on Roman and Turkish baths and Jewish mikvahs, they have several areas to look round for a small entry fee. These areas include the sauna or caldarium, the tepidarium, the frigidarium and a remarkable apodyterium with its octagonal pool and domed ceiling.
Although the baths haven’t been open for practical use for a long time (they closed in the 14th century) if you’re dying to get into the water yourself you could head to one of Girona’s functioning spas such as Aqva Gerunda. Just a couple of streets away, Aqva recreates this ancient manner of bathing with all the varying temperature experiences.
Tour the Game of Thrones Filming Locations
Did you know that Girona was a filming location for Game of Thrones? There are a few spots that will be recognizable to fans of the popular TV show, appearing throughout Season 6 of Game of Thrones.
If this is you, it can be a fun challenge to wander around keeping your eyes peeled for places like the steps up to the Catedral de Santa María, the flight of stairs outside the Monastery of Sant Pere de Galligants, or the street outside the Arab Baths.
There are official Game of Thrones guided tours on offer specifically to take you to the locations used in 2015 for the show’s filming which can be one of the better alternative things to do in Girona.
Go to one of Girona’s Museums
One of the best things to do in Girona, Spain is definitely to visit one or some of its eclectic museums, most of which are in the historic neighborhood. If you have time to take a trip to more than one, you can get half price on all of them after the first one if you pick up a brochure or head to this website.
Museum of Jewish History
The building which used to hold the city’s last synagogue is now Girona’s Museu d'Història dels Jueus. The Jewish communities that lived in Catalonia in medieval times are such an important part of Girona today. This building maps their story through carefully compiled artifacts and information.
Out the back, there’s a striking glass courtyard building that forms an atrium overlooking the gardens.
History Museum of Girona
Further down the same street is the Museu d'Història de Girona, occupying the former monastery of the Capuchin friars of St. Anthony that dates back to the 18th century. There are 14 exhibition rooms that are laid out chronologically to recount Girona’s fascinating past. The exhibition covers Girona’s foundation by the Romans in the 1st BC, to its evolution into the middle ages, to the Spanish civil war.
Museum of Art
A short walk along from here is the Museu d'Art de Girona which resides in the majestic setting of the old Episcopal Palace, dating back to the 10th century. It has an impressive collection, showcasing works from the early Romanesque period through to the 1900s. Between these ancient walls, you’ll discover examples of Romanticism, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Realism and 19th and 20th-century Catalan art.
It also gives you the chance to wander through rooms that themselves tell a story – from the former throne chamber to the old Episcopal jail, to the perfect courtyard garden.
Museum of Archaeology / Sant Pere de Galligants church
Found in the beautiful Monastery of Sant Pere de Galligants is the Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya (not to be confused with the one of the same name in Barcelona), which provides another great insight into how the people of the area would have lived. It features weapons, pots, jewelry and all sorts of other artifacts discovered at excavation sites around the Girona region, from the prehistoric and Paleolithic to the medieval.
The building itself is a sight to behold. The 12th-century basilica has three naves and four apses, a vast rose window above the entrance, and a cloister dating from 1154 that is framed by vaulted galleries and beautiful columns. It’s an amazing example of Romanesque architecture, one of the most impressive in Catalonia.
Casa Masó is something a bit different as it’s a house museum featuring the life of just one man – Rafael Masó i Valentí (1880-1935). He was one of Catalonia’s most celebrated architects, designing numerous important edifices within his hometown of Girona.
His most significant work was his own house, Casa Masó, which you can now explore yourself. The house is set up just as it used to be when he lived there. Casa Masó is one of the only one of the colorful riverside houses that you can go into. Its glass-fronted galleries overlook the water and striking white facade stands out among all the color.
You can only visit Casa Masó by guided tour. They are for groups of up to eight people and must be booked in advance.
Museum of Cinema
Now it’s time to cross over the river again to find Girona’s Museu del Cinema, which was the first of its kind in the whole of Spain. It launched in 1998 with a permanent collection made up of the Tomàs Mallol Collection of over 12 thousand objects and relating to the history of film.
If you’re into cinema, this is heaven. Documenting the entire evolution of cinema from early pre-cinema days of shadow puppet theater through to the most modern of cinematic techniques.
Go for a stroll in the Parc de la Devesa
If you need to escape the hustle and bustle of the streets, there are some really lovely parks and green spaces in Girona. Devesa Park is the largest of these, in fact, it’s the biggest urban park in the whole of Catalonia at over 40 hectares / 100 acres. It has a lovely mix of woodland areas, wide avenues lined with trees, fountains, plants and picnic areas.
It makes up a big wedge of the west side of Girona. The river Ter frames the park along its northern side and the Onyar runs down its eastern flank. Going for a walk or a run, or even taking a picnic out in Devesa Park is a great way to get lost among the locals.
People-watch in the Plaça de la Independència
Also on the west side of the river (just), on the very edge of the old part is Girona’s largest and most famous square – Plaça de la Independència. It’s surrounded by neoclassical porticoes built in the 19th century and always buzzing with human activity.
Surprisingly, it’s equally popular with locals and tourists alike. Mostly because of the good value cafes and eating places that border each side beneath the porticoes.
There’s a large monument created by sculptor Antoni Pareri in the middle of the plaza commemorating the people who defended the city in 1809 during the Third Siege of Girona.
It’s one of the best things to do in Girona for getting a feel for the modern-day city. Stay and soak up the atmosphere with a coffee or a wine glass or grab lunch at one of the bistros.
That brings me to talk about food! One thing you won’t be able to (and shouldn’t) avoid if you visit Girona is the food. Whether it’s fine dining in the city’s finest eateries, people-watching over tapas on the already-mentioned Plaça de la Independència, or sampling the popular Girona ice cream.
The Costa Brava is a culinary hotspot and some of its best foodstuffs can be found in Girona’s restaurants. As would be expected, fresh fish and seafood from local ports are high up on the list, with national dishes such as paella being ever-popular. However, there’s also a bunch of yummy seasonal foods that the region is renowned for including mushrooms, chestnuts, and a type of chargrilled onion called a calçot.
Warm-weather visitors will find most places have outdoor seating, which is the perfect condition to eat out in Girona. Authentic local dishes to keep an eye out for include a fish stew called “suquet de peix”, squid-ink rice called “arroz negre”, a flatbread with pork crackling called “cocas de chicharrones”, a regional sausage called “botifarra”, and snails (“caracoles” on the menu). If you can’t choose, go for the fixed lunch menu – always a good choice in Girona.
Girona is home to globally-famous Michelin-starred restaurant El Celler de Can Roca. This has twice been voted top of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and run by the three Roca brothers who are famous gourmet chefs. Tables are highly sought after and can be booked up to 11 months ahead so don’t hold your breath for a reservation here!
Another Roca family establishment is the Rocambolesc Ice Cream parlor. Excellent ice cream in hundreds of flavors that change daily, and other desserts. And you don’t have to book in advance for this one. It’s run by Jordi Roca, who was recognized as the World’s Best Pastry Chef a few years ago.
Go shopping at the Mercat Municipal del Lleó
As you wander around the streets of Girona you’ll discover plenty of little market stalls offering jewelry and artisanal crafts and food. However, the best place for a full-blown market is without a doubt the Mercat del Lleó.
This market is found in the new, western side of the town but right next to the river and the Passeig General de Mendoza. Mercat del Lleó runs from 7 am – 3 pm every day apart from Sunday, and with evening opening hours on Fridays between 5 pm – 8.30 pm.
A truly authentic experience, the market opened in 1944 and has over 60 stalls with fresh food, all sorts of hand-crafted items and genuine warmth from the stall-holders themselves. Among the best things about this market – an extra virgin olive oil vending machine!
Visit the Old Hospital
The Hospital de Santa Caterina now houses offices for Catalonia’s government, but it was once the main hospital of Girona, active from the 17th up until the 21st century. It was built in 1666 and has one of Europe’s best-preserved historical pharmacies.
Guided tours can be booked at the Old Hospital through the Museum of Art. This former hospital building is the furthest of the tourist destinations from the middle, but it’s closest to the Museum of Cinema and the Mercat del Lleó which are both half an hour’s walk from here.
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