Bridges, steps and flags.
When I think of Girona, the gorgeous little city in the north of Spain, those are three of the most enduring features which come to mind.
During a perfect 48 hours there, I would traverse one of its many bridges or climb the stone steps of a medieval staircase to discover its secrets and its stories - and each magical street along the way would be marked by colourful flags draped from balconies or bedroom windows asserting the strong cultural, political and sporting identity of residents.
Only an hour north of its better-known neighbour by train or car, Girona has long been a popular day-trip destination for visitors to Barcelona or elsewhere along the Costa Brava. However, we would implore you to spend a little longer here to get under its skin - and savour some of the streets which are so deliriously pretty, you'll want to see them twice.
Here are our very own personal recommendations on the best things to do in Girona and how to plan the perfect weekend.
Things to Do in Girona
Discover the Bridges
When in doubt in Girona, make like James Brown and take it to the bridge. Or, more accurately, the bridges.
There are eleven puentes crisscrossing the shallow Onyar river, each with a distinctive style and perspective on the city. The Pont de Pedra, with its triumvirate of arches, is like something out of a fairytale but the star of the show is undoubtedly Pont de Ferro - the rust red, iron work of a Mr Gustave Eiffel.
Constructed in 1877, two years before the work on a certain little tower in Paris was completed, it is easy to see its influences and his continuity of ideas.
The bridges also bring you to the iconic patchwork of colourful riverside homes which form such a vivid aesthetic contrast with the old town's Roman and Medieval stone architecture. For photographers, or people simply looking to get different perspectives, you will want to wander across each bridge during your stay to take in a kaleidoscope of vistas.
Be a kid again at Rocambolesc Gelateria
In writing these articles, we do try to avoid using phrases like 'the best ever' because, until we've tried everything, we can't possibly know.
However, what is abundantly clear, is that Rocambolesc offers up some of the most innovative, creative and delicious ice-cream and ice-lollies we have ever experienced.
Given its origins, perhaps that shouldn't come as a huge surprise. The brain-child of Jordi Roca, recognised as the World's Best Pastry Chef in 2014 and king of desserts at the three-Michelin star restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, it has the potential to be a global phenomenon.
With an abundance of seriously delicious ice-cream flavours and combinations (candy floss and goat's milk ice-cream anyone?), you will find it impossible to choose. And that is before you head to the freezer and discover the innovative popsicles / ice-lollies on offer - from the strawberry and rose water sorbet molded on Jordi Roca's ample nose to the blueberries and vanilla Darth Vader-shaped 'Dark Side'. There's a reason this is perhaps the one of the most recommended things to do in Girona!
However, perhaps the best secret at Rocambolesc is the panet. Initially a product to keep customers coming during the colder winter months, perfecting the recipe - and the toaster - took quite some time. The result is an ice-cream sandwich sent straight from heaven: hot toasted brioche, with cold ice-cream and toppings (handmade chocolate brownie and caramel sauce please!) inside. You can see Andrew's reaction to it on Twitter here.
Although they now have three other locations in Spain, Girona will always be the main home of Rocambolesc, so savour every last taste whilst you're in the city! Check out their website to see their menu (and get ready to drool).
Climb the Cathedral Stairs
As with many Spanish cities, there are no shortage of holy sites, large and small. The star of the show however is Girona Cathedral.
As a fastidious person for symmetry, it took quite a while before I could get over the fact that it only has one tower. Built between the 11th and 18th centuries (yep, that long!), it understandably encompasses an array of architectural influences and features, from Roman to Gothic and Baroque - and houses some of the most vivid stained-glassed windows we've ever seen.
If you'd like to take some photos on the well-known 90 steps, or enjoy it without crowds, then definitely set the alarm early to make it here before 9 a.m.
Another highlight within the Cathedral's accompanying museum is the giant Tapís de la Creació (Tapestry of Creation). From the 11th century, it is incredibly well preserved and one of few surviving examples of an intensive form of needlework as done in France's Bayeux tapestry. Weaving religious stories on creation, the seasons and time, it really is worth spending a little while poring over its detail - the sea creatures at the bottom are particularly entertaining, including a quite comedic 'turtle dog'.
Get your Game of Thrones on
Yes, you may just end up having that theme tune in your head for quite a bit of your weekend in Girona. If you're not a fan of the huge HBO series, then you're probably a little confused about the hype. However, for lovers of all things dragons, Daenerys and dysfunctional families, then you're likely to want to know that Girona was one of the main filming sites in Season Six - and so you discover the city on your very own Game of Thrones filming locations treasure hunt!
Jamie Lannister and the white horse up the stairs? Yep, that was at the Cathedral. Blind Arya begging and fighting and falling over of a bridge? Yep, that was all here. The tiny but pretty 11th-century Arab Baths (€2 entry) - you might just recognise that too.
You can check out this article for an episode by episode, scene by scene overview of where to find the filming locations. However it's worth remembering that Girona has been a popular filming location for a while (and once you walk its streets you'll understand exactly why), with the excellent Perfume and several Spanish films also shot here.
p.s. hardcore GoT fans will want to try the golden hand popsicle at Rocambolesc, a tribute to Jamie Lannister - or take this tour for an in-depth GOT experience AND an ice-cream.
Walk the City Walls
To give yourself some of the best views of the city - both the old and the new parts -with the peaks of the Pyrenees in the distance, then you should set aside an hour or two to walk the old city walls - known as the Passeig de la Muralla.
Part Roman and part 14th-century, with tasteful recent restoration, the main wall runs for about half a mile. Bringing you up spiral staircases in watchtowers, through secret gardens and mysterious nooks, try to do it in the golden hour in the early morning or late afternoon for the best photos. We would recommend against doing it in the peak afternoon sun.
To enter, your best bet is to go via the garden at the back of Girona Cathedral -this will give you a less 'uphill' climb overall. You will exit by a Spanish Civil War memorial, from where you are only a couple of minute's walk back to the bridges.
Be sure to bring a bottle of water with you and head up Torre del General Peralta for our favourite view of the Cathedral and the old town.
There is also a second, lesser visited section of wall in the north of the city, accessible via the Monestir de Sant Pere de Galligants - for more information on that section, read this post.
Discover Secret Gardens and Museums
I lose count at how many beautiful little cloisters and hidden-away gardens I stumbled upon whilst walking around the city. The walk along the old walls revealed several, whilst visits to the Cathedral and some museums allowed access to the most peaceful hideaways - why don't we build things like this any more?!
Long-time readers of Along Dusty Roads will know that we don't recommend or visit every museum a city has - we're just not huge fans of pottery and we don't expect you to be either. However, Girona does play host to more than a few places of interest:
- Museum of Archaeology: Based in the old church, when we visited it was a wonderfully curated use of this space. The temporary exhibition DID however have quite a lot of pottery...
- Museum of Jewish History: The courtyard at the back, with the Star of David on the tiles, is lovely. The purpose of this museum is to share the history of the Jewish communities which were pivotal in the development of Catalonia in the Medieval period.
- The Museum of Cinema: We weren't able to visit this unfortunately, but it's highly recommended by many. In a city popular with film-makers, it makes sense that a cultural space and museum dedicated to the history and development of the moving image is in Girona.
Eat with Cyclists at La Fabrica
On any weekend trip to Girona, you're likely to spot lycra-clad men and women bombing down some of the old town's cobbled streets on two wheels. The reason? Girona is a long-established and much-loved spot amongst the serious cycling community due to its climate, surrounding routes and proximity to the training possibilities on the Pyrenees.
For this reason, it has a tight-knit community of pros living here permanently and semi-permanently (their number once included a pre-disgrace Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis) and many cycling enthusiasts visit Girona simply to use it as a base to get on their bike outside the city.
Therefore, any cyclist or fan of the Tour, Giro or Vuelta, will have to make a bee-line to La Fabrica. Established by the Canadian couple of former-pro Christian Meier and his wife Amber, it is the best place to discuss routes and all-things cycling - and maybe even spot your favourite rider. For everyone else, simply come for the amazing brunch menu, great coffee and fantastic fresh smoothies.
As a place which ticks all the right boxes for cool hipster coffee shop, it's not the cheapest place in town - but it is most certainly worth it. Try your best to nab a spot on the handful of tables outside, or grab a cushion and enjoy your espresso on the stairs.
You'll find La Fabrica at Carrer de la Llebre, 3 - check out more details on their website.
Kiss a lion's bottom
I am still not 100% certain that this isn't simply a big joke played on tourists.
However, there is a small statue of a lioness (although it looks more like a weasel) which visitors to Girona are encouraged to kiss the bottom of...which just so happens to be its bottom.
They have stairs and everything so that you can pucker up nice and close, so maybe it isn't a joke?
A post-siesta drink in Plaça de la Independència
Whilst the eastern section of Girona plays host to most of its museums and Medieval wonders, cross the Pont de Sant Agustí and you will find yourself in the picturesque Plaça de la Independència. Reminiscent of Madrid's Plaza de España, with its crossword tiles and wonderful arched galleries, its restaurants are a popular lunch stop.
We ate at the local institution Restaurant Casa Marieta, which has been around since 1892. It does get very busy, but with its healthy mix of tourists and local families or gossiping groups of abuelas, it's busy for a reason. The menu is nothing fancy, providing hearty and affordable traditional dishes from the region - the garlic salt baked cod was absolutely delicious.
This, along with the nearby street called La Rambla (just head back over the bridge and you're on it!), is also your safest best for an atmospheric evening or late night drink outdoors.
If all this talk of having a drink has piqued your interest, then consider this after hours guided tour. Lasting jut an hour but packing in plenty of sites, the beer lovers will delighted to realise that the 14 Euro ticket price also includes three craft ales!
Fall in love at Le Bistrot
If you're here for a weekend with your other half, then make sure they're out of the room when you read this tip.
Although Girona is home to one of the world's best restaurants, it has a waiting list and price to match. Do not despair however, for Girona also plays host to a more affordable open-air dining venue which will take everyone's breath away.
Le Bistrot restaurant is all about the setting and the atmosphere, rather than being a culinary or foodie mecca. Although it's deserted in the morning (perfect for photos), in the late afternoon, tables and chairs are placed on the steps of Pujada de Sant Domènec, the most utterly perfect little street which encapsulates so much of what makes this city magical. And, there, with a warm heat lingering the air and a bottle of chilled white wine, you can dine out at one of the most romantic settings in the city.
And the best part? Anyone can afford it. The menu concentrates on a Catalan speciality les pizzes de pagès, coming in at under €10 per person, which is basically a slab of crusty white farmhouse loaf with melted cheese and a variety of toppings.
Get Lost in Girona's Old Town
For a weekend in Girona, you are likely to concentrate most of the time in the old town - which is the most picturesque part and has the majority of places of interest. Thankfully, this is a very compact area and your best way to get around is to really discover its cobblestone streets, hidden nooks, mysterious archways and labyrinthine alleyways, on foot.
You may get lost (as I did) but you'll never really be that far from a familiar place - or from an unknown corner where you can discover some of the magic of Girona and capture it all for yourself.
Where to Stay in Girona
Hotels In Girona
As with many small-ish cities, hotels in Girona appear to fall into one of two categories - upscale but a little soulless, or budget and basic (this is probably the reason that we so often opt for Airbnbs or hostels). For those that enjoy the facilities that come with hotels, these are the best of the bunch:
Montjuic Bed & Breakfast | This delightful bed & breakfast may not be slap bang in the centre of Girona, but the location (with exceptional views overlooking the city), a countryside villa feel and outdoor pool more than make up for it. At £96 a night it’s not the cheapest spot, but it’s still one of our favourites. Click here to check prices and availability.
Hotel Nord 1901 Superior | Upmarket, as the name would suggest, but £90 a night (and upwards) buys you an old town location, a really lovely pool area, great facilities and good sized rooms. Click here to check prices and availability.
Hotel Carlemany | A pleasant enough 4* hotel located in the commercial district. Great amenities and a short walk to much of what Girona had to offer. Whilst it is clearly more catered to business clientele, it provides a comfortable base for a short vacation in the city. To check prices, or to discover more, click here.
Bed & Breakfast Bells Oficis | The cheapest in this list (with doubles from £59), Bells Oficis is known for its great location, attentive host and lovely little balconies - as well as a great little breakfast. To check prices or availability, click here.
Hostels in Girona
There are two main hostels in Girona: Bed in Girona and - our pick for backpackers - Can Cocollona.
Can Cocollona | Located in the Sant Narcís quarter, this home away from home has dorms (no privates unfortunately) around two delightfully traditional patios. Run by two attentive friends this feels like a home away from home. Plus, it comes with a cute dog. Click here to check availability and find out more.
Note that none of the hostels in Girona currently offer private rooms.
Unlike it’s neighbour Barcelona, Girona is still awash with Airbnbs; these are our favourites for a Girona city break of long weekend:
Boutique Studio | Small but perfectly formed, this lovely little studio apartment is exceptionally good value (at around £27 for a night for two people). It also has a great location near the cathedral. Click here for more information.
Quirky Two Bed Apartment | A 15 minute walk from the old town, but the design features in the this apartment are wonderful! With two bedrooms, it’s also a great option for those that need a little more space. Click here for more information.
Beautifully Renovated One Bed | This is actually one of several apartments in the same building, all beautifully renovated to a high standard - and as a bonus, it’s got an exclusive roof terrace just for guests. Click here for more information.
Although we’ve only listed three, there are plenty more wonderful Airbnbs in Girona (we’re actually in the process of putting together our favourite 10 available for under £50). If you’ve never used Airbnb, then sign up with our code and receive up to £30 off your first booking
If you love apartments but aren’t a fan of Airbnb, then follow this link to find lots of other options.
How to get to Girona
The transport set-up is something which makes Girona so perfect for a weekend, or 48-hour city break.
From the UK, Ryanair and Jet2 offer daily flights to Girona Airport, located only a short 20 minute taxi ride from the city centre. A taxi should cost aroud 30 Euros, or for if you would like to book your transport in advance consider this airport transfer for the same price.
Alternatively, the airport is serviced by several local bus routes - see this website for further details.
From Barcelona, you can take a slow (90 minutes) or fast train (35 minutes) to Girona's centrally located train-station. Girona is also a stop on the high-speed train-line which runs from Paris to Barcelona.