As we drank coffee on the terrace of our Airbnb in Girona, Spain, I couldn’t stop looking at the view of the cathedral and ancient city walls. I was in awe of this beautiful river town we had found out about only by accident. Like most tourists, my husband, Barry, and I had been in the thrall of nearby Barcelona. But we ended up staying in Girona and fell in love with this lesser-known, smaller medieval city located between the Pyrenees and the Costa Brava beaches. Here’s why we preferred staying in Girona rather than Barcelona.
1. We Like To Base Ourselves In Smaller Towns
While we enjoy the energy of cities, we also get overwhelmed by them, especially popular ones that are crowded with tourists like Barcelona. Girona, a city of 100,000, is only 40 minutes by train from Barcelona — perfect for a day trip.
Pro Tip: If you plan to stay in Spain for a while, it’s well worth investing in a senior discount Tarjeta Dorada train card, which costs under $7 and offers a 50 percent discount on rail tickets for anyone over 60.
2. Delightful Bridges
The town lies at the confluence of four rivers and Barri Vell, the old city, is built around one of them — the River Onyar. I felt like a kid criss-crossing the Stone, Eiffel, St. Agusti, Princess, and St. Feliu footbridges, each with its own unique charm.
The fire-engine red Pont de Peixateries Velles, built in 1877, is the most famous because it was designed by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame. The Stone Bridge takes you to the Girona tourism office, while St. Agusti Bridge offers a close view of the river houses and the cathedral. The romantic, arched Princess Bridge has an ornate wrought-iron head in the middle and lovers’ padlocks on the side railings. The wooden St. Feliu Bridge, the northernmost bridge, takes you to St. Feliu Square and the church.
3. A City Wall You Can Actually Walk On
Barry and I always climb a tower or a hill soon after we arrive in a new town, in order to orient ourselves and get a big-picture view of our location. In Girona, we found not one but many viewpoints along the ancient city wall — the Passeig de la Muralla — which is free of charge and accessible from many places in the old town (just be ready for steps). I particularly liked the way certain sections of the wall looked like a row of book spines lined up next to each other.
4. Historic, Narrow, And Walkable Streets
The swarm of car-free streets and alleys in El Call, Girona’s Jewish quarter, is located near the cathedral. Many Jews lived in this district between the 12th and 15th centuries, when they were forced to leave. At one time demolished, the neighborhood has been restored to its former state.
Gironella Tower, on the city wall, is the highest point in the Jewish quarter. The Jewish community took refuge there in August 1391, emerging more than 4 months later to find their houses destroyed when one of the worst anti-Semitic massacres in the Middle Ages swept across Spain.
Pro Tip: Some scenes from the TV series Game of Thrones were recorded in El Call. If you’re a fan, consider taking a guided tour.
5. Its Own Monastery
Founded in the 11th century, the monastery of St. Daniel, a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, is located in the St. Daniel Valley on the outskirts of Girona. While the abbey is no longer in use, you can still visit the church and the cloister.
6. Abundant Nature Within And Nearby The City
In addition to the expansive green spaces, like La Devasa, the largest park in Catalonia, you can easily access nature from town. For example, one afternoon, I wandered up the stone steps in the John Lennon Gardens, opposite the Girona Archeological Museum. Before long, I was above town admiring the different perspectives of Girona while walking along a track with a surprise every few yards: an altar, a bench, a statue, a hidden garden, a half-crumbling wall, or some other rincón (nook).
Anyone who wears a pedometer or likes benchmarks while walking will enjoy the beautiful Pilgrim’s Way in the St. Daniel Valley, which starts at the dirt trail behind the Gironella Tower. As you walk along the gentle, pastoral landscape, you’ll pass the 14 stations of the cross, which culminate at the top of a low hill about 30–40 minutes from the start.
7. A Cycling-Friendly City
Ever since Lance Armstrong put Girona on the map, the town has attracted mountain bikers from all over the world. Indeed, you can’t miss them. We brought our own bikes but you can easily rent one. The Girona Tourist Information Office has a generous range of maps showing local bike routes, including two gently graded rail-to-trail routes out of town.
8. Nearby Medieval Villages
We put our bikes on a bus for free, and about 45 minutes later, we disembarked to explore several beautiful medieval villages: Besalú, considered one of Europe’s best preserved Jewish villages with an impressive Romanesque bridge; Peratallada, built entirely of stone with Gothic architecture and an 11th-century castle; and Pals, located on a hilltop overlooking the surrounding countryside and the sea.
We enjoyed cycling the narrow, traffic-free lanes between the villages and then getting back on the bus to Girona without negotiating the tangle of roads on the outskirts of the city.
You can also take the bus to Cadaqués, the fishing village that inspired European artists like Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, and especially Salvador Dali. The bus ride is about an hour and a half each way.
9. A Spanish Civil War Air-Raid Shelter
The Spanish Civil War from 1936–1939 drew volunteer fighters from all over the world and has sometimes been called a “dress rehearsal for World War II.” In Girona, we had the opportunity to glimpse at one aspect of the war close up. The oval-shaped Jardi de la Infància shelter was built under a park in 1938 and has a total underground area of about 6,300 square feet — about the size of two New York City subway cars. It holds up to 600 people. A pyramidal, earth-shaped mound was built on top for protection in case of a bombing attack. Although it was hot outside the day we visited, we shivered down below, trying to imagine what it must have been like to be trapped in that cold, clammy, unventilated space while surrounded by 600 other frightened people.
Why Not Stay In Barcelona?
Of course there are good reasons to base yourself in Barcelona. One is the opportunity to see all 14 of the different Art Nouveau structures designed by architect Antoni Gaudi. On our day trip to Barcelona, we visited his unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, and saw another one of Gaudi’s buildings. If we were actually staying in the city rather than coming in by train, it would be much easier to take in the wide range of his architecture at a leisurely pace.
Also, Barcelona is built on the Mediterranean. In my opinion, no body of water compares to the beauty of the ocean. If I were staying in the city, I’d go to the beach early and enjoy a dip before the hordes arrive.
Still, Girona calls — and not only to us. A retired couple we know from Arizona had made it their expat home. About 4 years ago, they decided they needed a change, so they moved to another part of Spain, then to Phoenix, then to Portugal. Guess what? They’re back in Girona; they missed it too much!
We miss it, too. So much so that it’s time to go back, order a cortado coffee at an outdoor café, sit back, watch people, and toast ourselves for having chosen such a lovely town to visit.