The city of Girona is often overshadowed by Barcelona, its ‘Big Sister’ to the south. Its airport, Girona-Costa Brava Airport, is even advertised on some airlines’ websites as “Girona Barcelona” and is nothing more than a cheaper means of getting to Barcelona.
This does Girona a grave injustice as there is much to see and do in this charming, historic, compact and fascinating city. In fact, it has been described by some as a smaller, safer, cleaner and more manageable version of Barcelona.
The following are our Top 10 things to see and do in Girona in no particular order. Of course, no two lists will be the same and we could have made a list of a lot more than just ten – but this should do for starters!
Walk the City Walls
Probably the best way to start is with a walk atop the medieval city walls of this beautiful city because from up here you can really get a feel for Girona, its Old Town, its layout and size, a real sense of history and you can even see the Pyrenees in the distance.
The first city walls were built here in the first century B.C. by the Romans, expanded under the rule of Charlemagne in the early 800s and then largely rebuilt again in the 1400s, still using the early Roman foundations. Although the walls lost their military purpose in the 16th century and were absorbed as the city grew outwards, most are still intact today thanks to restoration works, including the watchtowers which offer even better vantage points. Today, the walls are in two sections; a small section protecting the old town to the north, and a larger section encircling it to the east and south, with the River Onyar completing the job on the western side.
A walk along the entire city walls, or the Passeig de la Muralla, will probably take between one hour and two, depending on how many photo stops you make. There are three main access points but we would suggest starting at the one near Plaça Catalunya, walking north, and finishing at the Monestir de Sant Pere de Galligants. That way you can work your way back through old town Girona and not miss a thing!
Monestir Sant Pere de Galligants
Built in the 12th century, this Benedictine monastery is one of the best of the many examples of Romanesque architecture in Catalunya. It is believed that the original structure probably dates back to two centuries earlier. The basilica church features three naves with separating pillars supporting arches. Above the entrance is an impressive rose window with a diameter of almost 3.5 metres and there is also a small Romanesque cloister with some impressive stone carving. The Galligants in the name refers to the tiny river that runs by the abbey, which is also home to the Archaeology Museum of Catalunya.
Banys Àrabs (Arab Baths)
Right next to the St. Pere de Galligants abbey are the well-preserved Arab Baths which date back to the 12th century. Their design is both Arab and Roman and although they were partially destroyed in 1285 during a siege by a French army, they were restored and remained in use until the 14th century. During the Middle Ages, some of the rooms were used temporarily for ceremonies by the city’s Jewish community and later, in 1618, they were bought by a community of Capuchin nuns, and turned into part of their convent. In 1929 they were purchased by Girona Provincial Council, restored, and opened to the public in 1932. More recently they were also used as a location during the filming of Game of Thrones. Check the website for opening hours and prices.
Cathedral de Santa Maria
A stone’s throw from the Arab Baths is undoubtedly one of the top highlights of Girona city, the Cathedral de Santa María, famous for its 22m wide Gothic nave which is the widest in the world. The style isn’t all Gothic though as it took centuries to build in its entirety and there are Romanesque and Baroque influences evident too. There was already a Christian church on this site before the Muslim conquest when it was converted into a mosque in the year 717. When the Franks, in turn, conquered the region and “re-Christianised” it in 785, the mosque was reconsecrated. In the 11th century, the original church was in poor condition and construction of the cathedral began. Work continued in phases over the centuries and the finishing touches to the main façade weren’t completed until the 1960s.
In La Plaça de la Cathedral, the view from the bottom of the long flight of stone steps leading up to the cathedral entrance above is surely one of the most majestic sights in Girona. And if the sight of the 90-plus steps seems a little daunting, you can sit on the square below, have a beer and enjoy the view from there instead!
There are too many things to see and do in Girona to fit into a Top 10, so we decided to cheat a little and put all the museums together under one heading! Almost all of the main ones are found inside the Old Town, making things nice and easy. Here we’ll just give you their names and links to each one for you to click on for further info on the ones that are of interest to you. We already mentioned the Catalan Archaeological Museum in the monastery of St Pere. Also worth checking out are the History Museum, the Cinema Museum, the Art Museum, Casa Masó and the Jewish History Museum.
El Call – The Jewish Quarter
The Jewish History Museum is particularly worth a visit as it is really a history of Girona itself during the time when the Jewish community of Girona was one of the largest in the whole Iberian Peninsula. Jews were very much part of the fabric of society here and contributed enormously to the wealth and development of the region. When you’re finished in the museum, have a stroll around El Call, the Jewish quarter from the 12th until the end of the 15th century when the Jews were expelled from the country by the new ‘Catholic Monarchs’ of Spain. Although there was a Jewish population living in the old kingdoms of Catalunya and Aragon from the 9th century, the Jewish ghetto of Girona dates back to the 1100s and it continued to grow for the next three centuries. Today it is one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in Europe and is beautifully photogenic, with its maze of cobblestone streets, narrow alleys, stone walls and staircases and almost hidden gardens; all still very much as they were over 500 years ago, right in the heart of Old Girona.
El Riu Onyar and its bridges
The River Onyar separates the Old City from its modern neighbourhoods to the west and also provides us with some of Girona’s most iconic sights with the multi-coloured houses along its banks. The best way to take in these views is to cross the numerous footbridges over the Onyar, each one distinct from the next and offering a different perspective. The colourful buildings date mostly from the early 20th century and are an example of the modernist and noucentrist architecture of the era. Probably the most striking bridges are the beautiful stone Pont de Pedra with its three arches; and the Pont de Eiffel, so-called because it was designed by Gustave Eiffel of Parisian fame. It is also known as Pont de Ferro, although its official name is Pont de les Peixateries Velles.
Plaça de la Independència
If you have crossed one of the aforementioned footbridges and are feeling a little fatigued from all that walking, you could do worse than take a seat on one of the many café terraces on Plaça de la Independència for some quality people-watching. This elegant square, the largest and busiest in Girona, was named for Spanish independence after the Peninsular War against Napoleon that ended in 1814, and not, as you might think, for anything to do with Catalan independence from Spain. It is also called Plaça de Sant Agustí. The monument in the middle of the square is dedicated to those who defended the city during three sieges in 1808/9 by Napoleonic forces, the last of which was from May to December of 1809, although the city did eventually fall and remained under French control until the end of the war. Nowadays it’s just a great place to watch the world go by!
It would be remiss not to include on our list the local gastronomy, recognized as being up there with the best in the world. This is thanks, in no small part, to El Celler de Can Roca, which was rated as the best restaurant in the world in 2013 and again in 2015, and has frequently been in the top three since then. It picked up where the famous El Bulli of Roses left off when it closed in 2011, firmly establishing the region of Girona as a giant in the culinary world. Run by the Roca brothers, this acclaimed gourmet eatery serves creative, quality Catalan home cuisine with a unique avant-garde twist, with two tasting menus to choose from. Reservations must be made months in advance if you want to dine here, but if you can’t wait that long, there are, of course, plenty of other top-quality establishments you could try instead! Can Roca also run the Casa Cacao hotel along with a very fancy chocolate shop (hence the name!) on Plaça Catalunya.
As we wrote in one of our previous blogs, Catalunya is at the forefront of the craft beer revolution in Spain, and Girona is very much part of this trend. There is a growing range of Catalan craft beers, many of which are from Girona, and there is quite a number of bars serving micro-brewed beers, many brewed in-house, as well as plenty of brews from other parts. We won’t go into detail here, but rather let you read the blog yourself. Here are a couple of Google Maps links to places worthy of mention that you might like to check out: Kerunta Brewpub, Bagels and Beers and B-12 Rte Bar Vegano
Bonus feature: Girona Flower Festival
If you happen to be in Girona in the month of May then you get a Top 11, as it is during this month that the annual Temps de Flors has been held for over six decades. The city is at its most striking with over 100 flower and plant exhibitions along with their spectacular colours and scents. Everywhere is bedecked in flower arrangements, both around private homes and public buildings, with the most impressive exhibitions held at the Cathedral steps, Sant Nicolau chapel, Sant Lluc and Sant Martí churches, Sant Feliu Basílica, Les Sarraïnes and the Banys Àrabs (which have free admission during the festival, as do many other cultural sites and monuments).
The Town Hall put on their own display on the Plaça de Vi right in the centre of town and sure to also check out the multicoloured river houses as many of these will have their own floral displays. It’s probably a good idea to get your hands on a festival map at the Tourist Office as there are exhibitions all over the city, some of which are tricky to find without following the map. More information can be found on the website.
Who knows, you might even be inspired to attempt something similar in your own garden! If you’re feeling so enthusiastic that you don’t want to start from seed, check out ODōNATA Sensacions Florals, a lovely florist in Platja d’Aro where they’ll help you bring colour to your home.
Alongside the flower displays runs Gastroflors which, as its name would suggest, involves certain restaurants in the city which offer speciality dishes with floral twists, some even featuring flowers amongst their ingredients! If you’re not limited to visiting at weekends you’ll find there are far fewer people mid-week and therefore practically no queueing.
And just in case the flowers and food aren’t enough, the International Festival of A Capella Music is held simultaneously with musicians coming from all over to create beautiful music with only their voices. You can check out the lineup with dates, times and locations on the website.
Update: Due to Covid restrictions it seems the Gastroflors element of the festival will not be taking place but they hope to be able to announce details of the A Capella Festival soon.
So there you have it; our Top 10(ish) things to see and do in Girona city. If you’re wondering how is it possible that we haven’t mentioned Game of Thrones in more detail, well we figured that if you have taken in all the above sites you’ll also have covered most of the filming locations in Girona that were used for Game of Thrones. If you’re a hard-core fan though, and you want to be sure you didn’t miss any, have a look at this website.
Girona for your smartphone
And finally, the Ajuntament de Girona has updated its previously-called ‘Girona in’ smartphone application under the new name of Girona App. The app is designed to provide lots of citizens’ information under a range of categories including traffic circulation, tourism info, local events and news, among many others.