Lonely Planet considers Barcelona the number one tourist attraction in Europe, but is it for the amazing international vibe? The thousands of years of history? The Mediterranean climate? The Mediterranean food? The Mediterranean in general? All of the above?
After living outside of Barcelona for awhile now, I too have fallen for the charms of the Catalan capitol, but I have also fallen for all that is available a short trip outside of it. For those staying in Barcelona but looking for trips outside of the city, here is what I *highly* recommend:
1. Go to the best beach town on earth
I have yet to meet a beach town more ideal than the one that sits an hour and 15 minute drive from Barcelona – Tossa de Mar or as the locals call it, Tossa. On a recent trip to Tossa I asked my husband if he wanted to wander about the old town. His response was, “which one?”
Tossa de Mar is a town with a medieval side complete with cobblestone roads, very (very) old homes and of course, a castle sitting on the edge of a Mediterranean cliff. Down the hill a bit is the new old town (only a few hundred years old) that has somehow managed to bring in the tourists and tourist things yet maintain its fabulous old world charm.
Tossa offers two beaches to those looking for a wonderful beach holiday and countless smaller beaches (“calas”) for those who are willing to venture a bit off the beaten track. A favorite of mine is Cala Sa Futadera. It will require a short drive outside of Tossa, parking alongside the road and then going down a healthy set of stairs but what you find at the bottom will be one of the most memorable days of your life.
p.s. Once you reach the bottom of the stairs stick to the right and walk along the rocks to the old boat platform. You will probably be the only people there. Last one in buys the cervezas.
2. Go enjoy a leisurely lunch and stunning views of the Mediterranean
Calella de Palafrugell is *the* place to have lunch while sitting on the edge of the Mediterranean. Calella de Palafrugell is a town of whitewashed buildings and colorful old beach side boathouses. Here you can sit on the edge of the Mediterranean and enjoy one of my favorite things about Catalonia – very long and very leisurely lunches.
Catalan lunch is anywhere between 130 and 3 pm. Hours vary seasonally but to avoid the crowds perhaps best to arrive early or late (by Catalan standards). If you are going on the off season it is possible most things are only open on the weekends. Good to have your hotel in Barcelona call ahead for you!
3. Go for a hike
Known for the Castanya Festival (chestnut festival) held every fall, Viladrau is the best place to get a little of that old world Catalonia charm before (or after) taking in a hike in the Montseny Natural Park. Hiking trails start right in Viladrau!
4. Eat dinner in a quintessential medieval town
A 90 minute drive from Barcelona, you can enter the center of Peratallada via walking across the town’s old moat via what was most certainly at one time the drawbridge. Once in the town you have many choices for great restaurants all set within the medieval architecture and streets of long, long ago. At night, the softly lit streets make it especially stunning. (As a helpful hint, do not eat at Papidou. The service is painfully slow and the food arrives cold and late – if it arrives at all, but good news is there are loads of other adorable restaurants to choose from!)
5. Do mid-morning café culture as the Catalans do
Looking for a quintessential Catalan experience? Head out to see some of the best in old or medieval towns and around 11 am or so have “almuerzo” – black Vermuth, patatas (potato chips) and olivas (olives).
Consider Rupit, Queralbs or Besalu. Rupit is a gorgeous old town complete with a rickety walking bridge to get you to the center of it. Queralbs, although quite small it is quite charming or Besalu, a town that dates back to the middle ages and has all the architecture to prove it.
6- Eat the best paella. Ever.
South of Barcelona but north of Sitges sits Garraf, a simple town that lives life slowly. Garraf’s Mediterranean seaside is lined with old white and green beach houses and the town has a restaurant that has the best paella – ever. Take a walk around Garaff to work up a little appetite before heading to Llar de Pescador for a real local dining experience and the of course, the best paella. Ever.
7 – Hike (or bike) amongst the olive groves, sheep and almond trees in Catalan country.
A forty minute train ride (see train schedules from Barcelona) from the center of Barcelona will take you into a world far different from the hustle of Lonely Planet’s number one European travel destination. La Garriga is so close to Barcelona yet a completely different world. The Catalan culture gets lost in the melting pot of Barcelona but it is very much alive in La Garriga and in surrounding towns. La Garriga is true Catalan country.
It is one of the only towns near Barcelona that has a bustling center but has maintained some of the old world charm all of which is surrounded by olive groves, almond trees, farms, rolling hills and forest. Come Saturday morning to see the farmers market in full swing. Stop by Café Margarit (across from the Gran Hotel Balenario Blancafort) for the best café con leche in town. Get what the locals do for breakfast – a bocadillo con queso y tomate (a cheese and tomato sandwich on a baguette). You will never know that something so simple could taste so good.
If you are feeling lazy go for a one kilometer walk down El Passeig. A sycamore lined walkway all the locals use for getting a bit of fresh air. If you time it correctly (at around 4 pm – 6 pm, I have never been up earlier enough to know what time they head out in the morning) when you reach the south end of El Passeig you can see the sheep come out of the forest on their way home after a day of grazing. Mid-Passeig you will find La Garriga’s town theatre. There is a coffee shop on the side with outside seating. Also, when you see the tennis courts you have arrived at the “casino” a place where locals get coffee or a whiskey (or maybe that is just me). You will be the only tourist there.
If you are feeling energetic take your hiking shoes or your mountain bike and head out into the olive groves, almond tree farms and forest. Head south to the end of El Passeig, turn left when the dirt walkway ends, walk about a block, cross the train tracks, turn right at the T and get hiking or biking.
Want more Catalan country? Get back on the train and head to Vic or hike to Figaro (which has a fabulous city pool for the hot days) and take the train home.
Catalan country got your hungry? Try Malandrino for the best pizza around in Las Franquesas (about a five minute train ride from La Garriga).