Girona may play second-fiddle to its better known Catalan counterpart, Barcelona, but this walkable city makes a perfect weekend destination in its own right. Its narrow medieval streets hold historical treasures from every era, along with a lively selection of quirky bars and superb restaurants.
Locals have long known Girona as the 'City of 1,000 Sieges', but no one could quite have predicted the latest siege, the headspinning influx of international journalists, gourmands and TV aficionados as HBO announced that parts of the sixth season of Game of Thrones would be shot in the city. Shortly afterwards, triple-Michelin-starred restaurant El Celler de Can Roca was once again crowned World's Best Restaurant in the prestigious San Pellegrino awards.
We've rounded up our favourite cafes and quaint corners of this charming city together in a compact itinerary perfect for a weekend.
Start the day with breakfast at La Fábrica (lafabrica.cc), a self-styled 'coffee works and cycle cafe' in a high-ceilinged space of stone, brick and wood.
La Fábrica sits at the edge of the ‘Call', Girona's Jewish quarter, which was home to 1,000 Jews prior to their expulsion in 1492. Stroll down to the narrow, cobbled Calle Força, which bisects this area and was the Roman Cardo Maximus, to find out more at the fascinating Museu d'Història dels Jueus, housed in a 15th-century synagogue.
Stoll down to the Plaça de la Catedral and take a seat at the decades-old Café de l’Arc (Calle Força 9, +34 972 20 30 87), where a light lunch is spent gazing up the picturesque flights of Baroque steps at the city's magnificent Gothic cathedral. Allow an hour or so to look around the cathedral’s extraordinary interiors (it has the widest Gothic nave in the world) and the intricate stonework of its elegant cloisters.
Not quite as ambitious, but still impressive, is the nearby Basílica de Sant Feliu, which contains the tomb of St Narcissus, Girona’s patron saint. Legend has it that, when Girona was about to fall to the forces of Philip V in 1285, thousands of lethal horse flies escaped from the tomb and decimated the army, sending the survivors fleeing.
The riverside Rambla de la Llibertat is Girona's social hub and is lined with cafes and smart shops (the city famously has more shops per capita than anywhere in Spain), and hosts a flower market on Saturdays. Walk under the arcades and look up to spot various curiosities, of which Girona has an abundance – the nearby tourist office at No.1 has maps for ‘treasure hunt’ games for kids. At the end of the arcade, for example, you’ll see a hundred-year-old map of Paris painted on the ceiling, just outside what used to be a shop selling French lingerie and perfumes. Further down you can also spot a gargoyle shaped like a vampire.
A 12-month waiting list means there’s only a slim chance of snagging a table at the spectacular Celler de Can Roca, but if you can afford it, it is worth letting the restaurant know that you’re in Girona in case of cancellations. Run by three brothers, who are at pains to maintain what they see as the restaurant’s organic relationship with the city itself, it is a once-in-a-lifetime parade of dazzling dishes that tread a line between high art and exalted gastronomy.
Failing that, try one of the Roca brothers’ favourite places to eat in town, the Plaça del Vi 7 (+34 972 215 604), named for its address, which serves accomplished Catalan mains and tapas.
Cross the Río Onyar by the Eiffel-designed bridge, the Pont de les Peixateries, for the best view of the colourfully painted houses that flank the river, and head for the newer part of town – ‘newer’, here, being all relative. Just to the right after the bridge, the grand, neo-classical Plaça de la Independència houses a plethora of places serving late brunch under the porticos.
Spend some time in the afternoon poking around Girona's quirkiest and most charming museum, the little Museu del Cinema, worth a visit for its collection of iconic props alone – these include the lamp from Rick's Cafe in Casablanca; Johnny Depp's scissorhands; Robert de Niro's Raging Bull boxing glove, and Dustin Hoffman's red sequinned Tootsie dress, among many others.
Yet more Roca brothers magic lies just around the corner in Rocambolesc (rocambolesc.com), the Wonkaesque ice cream parlour run by Jordi, the pastry chef. Ablaze with colour – even the pipes are painted in red and white, barley-sugar style – it has some of the best sorbet and ice cream you will taste anywhere.
Once night falls, it's back into the old city, for a little apertif at El Vermutet (Calle Bonaventura Carreras I Peralta 7, +34 619 70 53 00), just off the Plaça de l’Oli. The bar’s street terrace is where locals gather for a pre-dinner vermouth, served with green olives, a slice of orange and a squirt of soda, and indeed it serves little else. From here, it’s a minute’s walk to the stunning 16th-century stone steps that lead up to the Sant Martí church.
Halfway up, the steps flatten out to form the terrace of Le Bistrot (Pujada de Sant Domènech 4, +34 972 21 88 03). This is the most scenic spot for dinner in all of Girona, with swifts circling overhead and scented with jasmine blossom. The menu is good, old-fashioned bistro soul food, part-French and part-Catalan (try trinxat, the Catalan take on bubble and squeak, or mashed-together potatoes, cabbage and pork).
Where to stay
For such a small city, there is an abundance of decent accommodations in Girona, with something for every budget. Particularly charming is the Pensió Bellmirall, a tiny little guesthouse with a ton of history. A bit more upmarket is the Hotel Llegendes de Girona – ask for a room overlooking the cathedral.
On the other side of the city, you could try the superbly friendly Hotel Nord 1901. Though it looks a little more functional at first glance, the rooms are huge and comfortable, with wooden floors, wide windows and gauzy curtains. The small swimming pool is a godsend in the Girona heat.