The capital of its own province in northeast Catalonia, Girona is a sublime medieval city with one of Spain’s last surviving Jewish quarters.
From Napoleon to the Moors 800 years earlier, a lot of people have wanted to get their hands on Girona.
The city has faced 25 sieges in its history, which explains why it is completely surrounded by high fortifications that are still standing today.
If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones you’ll have seen Girona’s dignified grey stone streets in Season Six when it appears as Braavos.
Lets explore the best things to do in Girona:
1. Wall Walk
Girona’s imperious walls were first built by the Romans but were expanded in the time of Charlemagne in the early 800s and then enlarged again in the 14th century.
They are in a good state today following restoration work, and you can set off on a walk along the ramparts around nearly the whole of the old quarter.
There are regular watchtowers with stairways up to the best vantage points to see Girona’s skyline.
Where the walkway tapers it may feel a bit precarious at times, but you’ll be perfectly safe with good walking shoes, and at intervals you can head back down to street level and take a break in a shaded garden.
2. Girona Cathedral
One of the most majestic scenes in the city is the view from the bottom of the stairway at Plaça de la Catedral up to this almost-monolithic building and its baroque facade.
The cathedral combines architectural styles from several periods: The main layout is gothic; in fact it has the widest gothic nave of any church in the world, and the second largest of all behind St.
There are also earlier romanesque flourishes, like the original bell-tower with its narrow twin-arches and the cloister, both of which are from the 1100s.
You have to stop by the museum to see the Tapestry of Creation, dating to the 1000s and comparable to the Bayeux Tapestry for historical importance.
3. El Call
When you consider that Spain’s Jews were expelled by the Catholic Monarchs way back at the end of the 15th century it’s remarkable that so much of Girona’s Jewish Quarter should still be here.
This ghetto took shape around the 1100s and was developed over the next 300 years, becoming one of the largest in Spain.
At its peak Girona had one of medieval Europe’s most important Kabbalistic schools, where a host of important Jewish thinkers and poets lived.
It’s a very photogenic area, with stone walls and crevasse-like alleys with stairways and secret gardens.
Stop at the Museum of Jewish History to get some context about Girona’s historic Jewish community.
4. Museum of Jewish History
This attraction in El Call sheds more light on what life was like in the Girona’s Jewish quarter, and you’ll also find out about the role the Jewish community had in the city’s medieval development.
This is done with the help of contemporary documents and with artefacts discovered during excavations in El Call.
The museum has eleven galleries in all, including the Synagogue where there’s a 14th-century stone etching in Hebrew invoking the Psalm of David.
There’s also a section devoted to Jewish burial rites, with two preserved tombstones recovered from a site to the north of the city.
5. Church of Sant Feliu
Set on a Roman road, there has been a Christian building here since the 500s and Sant Feliu was also the city’s cathedral up to the 900s.
The design now is gothic but with a romanesque layout.
The church’s gothic tower is especially striking as you cross the Onyar on the Pont de Sant Feliu: It culminates with a flat edge instead of a point.
Inside you’ve got to check out the eight Roman and early-Christian sarcophagi, dating to between the years 200 and 400. Also in the church is the Chapel of San Narcisco where the remains of this 4th-century martyr persecuted by Emperor Diocletian are kept.
His tomb, made in the middle ages, is a marvellous work of gothic art.
6. Arab Baths
Found not far from the cathedral, these baths would have been outside the city walls until Girona developed around them.
Despite the name this bathing complex actually has medieval, romanesque origins and follows the Moorish and Greco-Roman traditions, with a frigidarium (cold room), tepidarium (warm bath) and caldarium (steam room). The most beautiful section is the apodyterium (changing room), where there’s an octagonal pool surrounded by eight columns topped with ornately carved capitals supporting horseshoe arches.
7. Rambla de la Llibertat
A marked change from the sense of confinement on the corridor-like streets of the old quarter, Girona’s Rambla de la Llibertat is a wide and elegant pedestrian boulevard parallel to the Onyar, a place for locals and visitors to shop, meet up and go for a coffee.
You can also pay a visit to the flower market held here on Saturdays.
Its current layout dates to 1885 when the trees were planted and the path broadened by demolishing a few buildings.
Today there are still gothic, baroque and some neoclassical buildings surviving, and a long arcade to help you hide from the sun in summer.
8. Plaça de la Independència
Also the nerve centre of everyday life in Girona is this 19th-century square in the Mercadal district.
It’s almost completely enclosed by arcades and the outdoor tables of restaurants and bars where friends meet up to chat.
You can acquaint yourself with the city’s history by inspecting the arches of these neoclassical apartment buildings: They are dedicated to the people who helped defend Girona during the sieges by the French in 1808 and 1809. Also in their honour is the monument at the centre of the plaza erected in 1896.
9. Archaeology Museum
Girona’s branch of the Museum of Catalonia has an atmospheric home in the 12th-century Benedictine monastery of Sant Pere de Galligants.
So it goes without saying that you’ll lose plenty of time investigating all the historic details here, like the beautifully carved capitals on the arches in the cloister.
The monastery was confiscated by the state in 1835 and the museum was founded here in 1846, harmonising neatly with its solemn location.
There are pieces from prehistory up to the arrival of the Visigoths, and a host of thrilling finds made at the Roman and Ancient Greek site at Empúries, including tableware, glassware and mosaics.
10. Film Museum
This enthralling museum is concerned less with the movie business today and more about the evolution of moving photography.
You’ll start way back in medieval times with magic lanterns and camera obscura, and the pace picks up in the 19th-century with the arrival of photography and the inventions made by the likes of the Lumière brothers.
Many of these objects are on display, either as preserved artefacts or faithful reproductions.
So you’ll browse a payload of historic filmmaking and screening equipment, and find out about the ingenious minds that created them.
There are also some great bits of movie memorabilia, like James Dean’s boots in Rebel Without a Cause and a lamp from Rick’s Bar in Casablanca.
11. Modernist and Noucentist Architecture
Another period that gave Girona beautiful architecture was the early 20th century.
The best expression of this time is the colourful apartment buildings that crowd the waterfront on the Onyar River.
Your tour of Girona’s turn-of-the-century works should include the Farinera Teixidor on Carrer Santa Eugènia, a palatial home built by the feted local architect Rafael Masó in 1910 and inspired by Antoni Gaudí and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Casa Masó, the architect’s riverfront birthplace that he renovated as an adult, is also a delight and is open to the public for tours.
You can’t talk about Girona’s food scene without mentioning El Celler de Can Roca, rated as one of best restaurants in the world every year since 2011. Run by the three Roca brothers it has picked up the mantle from elBulli, Ferran Adrià’s restaurant, which was in nearby Roses until it closed in 2011. Girona is also on the edge of the D.O. Empordà wine region, with an abundance of wineries open for tours, and several villages producing cava.
Closer to home is the city’s El Lleó market, where food-lovers will be in heaven shopping at the same meat and fish stalls that many local restaurants use.
13. Costa Brava
The coast of the Girona Province is the much-loved Costa Brava.
It’s a holiday region that differs from many on Spain’s Mediterranean: Instead of cabaret bars and tacky tourist strips you’ll discover chic little resorts and fishing villages clinging to the rocky seascape.
Many of the beaches are small, pine-edged coves with transparent waters for invigorating swims.
La Fosca at Palamós is one such beach, 45 minutes in the car from Girona and divided by a large rock with tufts of pine scrub growing on it.
Slightly closer is Platja d’Aro, where there’s a long sweep of fine shale in front a walkway with tall pine trees and a long line of restaurants and bars.
14. Banyoles Lake
Half an hour up from Girona is the largest freshwater lake in Catalonia.
You could also come for a swim in the summer, when the outdoor seating at the lakeside bars also fills up.
These waters were used for the rowing events at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, and the Rowing World Championships in 2004. Boat trips are available from the shore and take around 45 minutes.
If you’d prefer to stay on dry land then there’s a gorgeous perimeter trail with boulevards between plane trees and lots of places to stop and admire the lake and the Pyrenean foothills in the background.
You could board the train and be in this thrilling and stylish city within the hour.
If Girona has given you a taste for modernist architecture then Barcelona has an entire UNESCO site devoted to this movement, including the whimsical and incomparable works of Antoni Gaudí.
The city has some world-class art and history museums, celebrating cultural figures like Joan Miró, and if you’re making the journey for a shopping expedition then you won’t be disappointed either.
There are all sorts of one-off boutiques and independent shops around the Ciutat Vella and the Gràcia neighbourhood bordered by Gaudí’s emblematic Park Güell.