For just a short time in the medieval period Perpignan was a European powerhouse. The Roussillon city just in from the Mediterranean was the capital of the Kingdom of Majorca, and during these years it was bestowed with its characteristic russet-coloured medieval monuments made with bricks.
The old quarter is scattered with vestiges from this chapter, like the Palace of the Kings of Majorca or the menacing Castillet, which controlled traffic into this nexus of maritime trade. Now, Perpignan has a Catalan personality; many people speak the language, and you can tell from the architecture, food and culture than you’re at the meeting point between historical nations.
Lets explore the best things to do in Perpignan:
1. Palais des Rois de Majorque
The Kingdom of Majorca didn’t control Perpigan for much more than 70 years, from 1276 to 1349, but you can still see the mark it made on the city.
The palace occupies a large elevated space to the south of Perpignan’s old centre, and was built to be the seat of power for the entire kingdom.
It was started at the end of the 1200s and fuses romanesque and later gothic architecture.
The Cour d’Honneur courtyard with two tiers of galleries is marvellous, as are the chapels and the Great Hall where the court was held.
Every August the spacious courtyards and gardens welcome an event that reveals Perpignan’s Iberian soul: The Guitares au Palais runs for three days and puts on live guitar performances by flamenco, classical, pop and jazz artists.
2. Perpignan Cathedral
Started in the 1300s, this building didn’t actually become Perpignan’s cathedral until the beginning of the 1600s when the “see” was relocated here from nearby Elne.
Like nearly all of the city’s medieval architecture, it has a southern gothic design, and its construction was ordered by King Sancho II of Majorca.
If the exterior is modest the decoration inside the cathedral is rich, with plenty of things to keep your eyes peeled for: Don’t miss the 14th and 15th-century altarpiece, the organ, which has painted panels and carvings from 1504 and most recommended of all is the “Dévot Christ” chapel, with a haunting wooden sculpture of Jesus on the cross crafted in the 1300s.
3. Perpignan Castillet
The city’s most photographed sight is the tough gatehouse that commanded the main entrance-way to the city from the 1300s onwards.
The tower goes back to the Kingdom of Majorca and was built with bricks and marble and crowned with outsized decorative crenellations.
When Perpignan came under French control the Castillet was enlarged by Louis XI who added the tallest part, the turret capped by a cupola, and in the 18th and 19th centuries it was converted into a prison.
There’s a museum about Catalan folk traditions inside and you can go up the spiral stairway with 142 steps to see Perpignan from the terrace.
4. Hôtel de Ville
Founded in the early 1300s under the orders of King Sancho I, the Hall of the Consuls was the ancestor of Perpignan’s city hall, where the city’s representatives would meet.
The hall, with its fabulous 15th-century coffered wooden ceiling, is still at the heart of the complex and is now used for weddings.
Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries the renaissance arcaded courtyard and the remainder of the administrative buildings were added.
In the courtyard you can pause to contemplate La Méditerranée, a bronze sculpture by noted 19th and 20th-century artist Arsitide Maillol.
5. Loge de Mer
John I of Aragon ordered this gothic civic building to be constructed in the late-14th century to help regulate sea trade: It was the stock exchange and sea consulate office, and so the hub of commerce in the old centre, but also housed the town hall for a time.
The building was expanded by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the 16th century, which a plaque dated 1540 makes clear.
Another intriguing clue about the Loge de Mer’s function is the weathervane on the corner with a model of a galleon.
6. Musée des Monnaies et Médailles Joseph Puig
On Avenue de Grande Bretagne is the Belle Époque Villa Les Tilleuls, built in 1907 and designed by Viggo Dorph-Petersen, a Danish architect responsible for many palatial bourgeois houses and châteaux in and around Perpignan at the turn of the century.
Within is a diverting collection of coins bequeathed by Perpignan businessman Joseph Puig: The inventory is so large that only a tiny portion can be displayed (2,500 of 45,000!). The majority of these are Catalan in origin, minted in Barcelona, Valencia, Majorca and here in Perpignan, but there also examples from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.
7. Hôtel Pams
Tucked down Rue Emile Zola, this bourgeois mansion was transformed in the late-1890s for the prominent politician Jules Pams, who would become Minister of the Interior during the First World War.
From the outside it’s unprepossessing, but the interiors, rear patio and garden are opulently decorated in the art nouveau and art deco styles.
In the entrance hall, lit by a beautiful skylight, check out the portrait of Madame Jules Pams by the vaunted contemporary painter Jacques-Émile Blanche, and appreciate the “grand escalier”, made with onyx and stucco.
In the refined garden are statues of the Greek god Pan and Venus of the Myrtles.
8. Casa Xanxo
A Catalan gothic mansion in the old town, Casa Xanxo was built at the start of the 16th-century for Bernat Xanxo who was a rich merchant draper.
As you pass on Rue de la Main de Fer you can tell from the large marble archivolt entrance and sculpted stonework in the facade that this was a home designed to convey wealth.
The frieze above the doorway illustrates the battle between good and evil, evoking the Seven Deadly Sins.
Entrance is free and you can investigate the old warehouses and vaulted cellar for storing cloth.
On the first floor take a look around the ceremonial room which has wooden panelling and a coffered ceiling.
9. Fort de Salses
A few kilometres north of the city was the former border between Spain and France, which was the scene of some notoriously bloody battles and sieges.
The Spanish-built Fort de Salses witnessed many of these conflicts, and was commissioned by the Catholic Monarchs at the end of the 15th century.
At the time it was a wonder of military architecture, with walls 10 metres thick and a sophisticated system of scarps, bastions and corner towers, surrounded by a moat, that could keep attackers at bay for months on end.
It was under siege even before it could be completed and saw endless action until it became part of France after the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659.
10. Torreilles Plage Argeles
Anyone craving some R&R by the Mediterranean will be in luck as two of the top beaches in Languedoc-Roussillon are less than 20 kilometres away.
Starting in the south, Argelès is a wide tranche of silky white sand that seems to go on forever.
We rated it as one of the best beaches in all of France, and is unbeatable if you want peace and quiet as northern reaches are skirted by nothing more than pine forest.
A few minutes northeast is Torreilles with another long and straight ribbon on white sand.
Torreilles is also remote and serene, but has a clutch of beachfront restaurants and bars where you can hire sun loungers.
Not content with being in France’s reputable inventory of the “most beautiful villages” the rustic hillside settlement of Castelnou was also ranked as the country’s seventh-favourite village in 2015. Castlenou’s engaging stone houses are arranged on a little web of alleys with stairways entered via a medieval gate.
Check out the walls of these homes, as several have semi-circular medieval bread ovens grafted into them.
High above on a daunting ridge is the Vicomtal Castle, founded in the 900s and also under the control of the Kingdom of Majorca in the 15th century.
12. Orgues d’Ille-sur-Têt
Just outside the town of Ille-sur-Têt is a bizarre natural rock formation with pillars of rock labelled as “orgues” or organs in a miniature version of Turkey’s Cappadocia or the USA’s Bryce Canyon.
These limestone columns are the product of four million years of erosion and have gnarled sides streaked with yellow and white.
You can go into the valley to walk among these otherworldly pillars or get a neat aerial view on the road from Ille-sur-Têt to Montalba.
Up in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Céret is a picturesque town with a modern art museum that a much larger city would be proud to call its own.
There are works by Matisse, Chagall, Soutine and Herbin, many impressionist pieces and a great summary fauvism.
The town’s artistic heritage goes back to the cubist movement, when, in the years before the war, it was a honey-pot for artists like Picasso, Braque, Masson, Juan Gris and Max Jacob, who travelled down from Montmartre and formed a community in the town.
14. USA Perpignan
As with most of south-western France the local sport of choice is rugby.
But right now Perpignan’s legendary rugby team, founded in 1902, is in the doldrums.
After playing in the premier Top 14 for decades USA Perpignan has found itself in the second tier, Rugby Pro D2. The support remains vibrant though, and the 15,000-seater Stade Aimé Giral gets close to capacity crowds during the season from August to May, with big manifestations of Catalan pride.
USA Perpignan has more fan clubs than any other rugby team in France and is well-known for La Bronca, a chant sung when the opposition enters the pitch.
Just like everything else in Perpignan the food has a strong Catalan accent.
Many of the traditional restaurants in the city serve paella and other saffron-infused rice dishes.
If you’re an adventurous diner you can give a try to cargols à la llauna, which are snails bake or grilled and accompanied with aioli or vinaigrette.
If this piques your curiosity then you can pay a visit to L’Escargot de Roussillon on Place de la République, a specialty shop selling almost nothing but fresh snails and the herbs you need to cook them.