With its labyrinth of medieval cobblestone streets, colorful riverside houses and world-class restaurants, Girona is a quiet getaway in the heart of Spain’s Catalonia region. This evocative city owes much of its allure to its mix of influences: At the foot of the Girona Cathedral’s impressive 90-step staircase and Baroque façade lie the 12th-century Arab baths, which are themselves around the corner from one of the best-preserved Jewish Quarters in the world. Despite being only 40 minutes by high-speed train from Barcelona and under an hour’s drive from many of the best beaches on the Costa Brava, Girona is missing only one thing that those places have in abundance: crowds.
Wake up at the Hideaway Report-recommended Mas de Torrent Hotel & Spa, an 18th-century farmhouse situated within reach of the stunning Emporda coastline. Then drive through the lush mountain roads of Gavarres National Park to arrive in Girona 50 minutes later. Have breakfast at La Fabrica (Carrer de la Llebre, 3) in the Barri Vell (Old Town). This sophisticated yet cozy cyclist café and specialist coffeehouse serves the best espresso in town, if not the whole of Spain. Fill up on sourdough toast topped with banana and roasted almond butter or a skillet of grilled, locally sourced organic vegetables and eggs. And don’t forget to pick up a bag of sustainably sourced coffee beans, roasted on site at its sister coffee bar, Espresso Mafia (Carrer de la Cort Reial, 7), just a few blocks away.
After breakfast, take in some spectacular views, this time from the vantage point of the city walls. Head south away from the Old Town, past Plaça Catalunya and along Carrer del Carme to Carrer Pujada de las Pedreres, where the walls start. Climb the steps and follow the walls uphill, ending at the magical, partial ruins of the German Gardens (Carrer de la Muralla, 2). The tree-scattered paths and tumbled stones are all that remain of an early 19th-century barracks for the German soldiers sent to defend Girona in the Peninsular Wars. The gardens are the ideal place to rest as they’re rarely crowded and even tour groups pass through quickly on the way to the walls.
Although the gardens resemble a medieval film set, it’s actually the streets and locations between them and the Girona Cathedral that you may recognize from “Game of Thrones.” Exit the gardens via the main entrance and wander downhill half-aimlessly past the cathedral — whose steps were the setting for Jaime Lannister’s showdown with the High Sparrow — and through the Jewish Quarter toward the River Onyar, which bisects the city between the Old Town and the newer Mercadal area. (If you want to see another filming location, the Arab baths, make sure to detour down Carrer del Rei Ferran el Catòlic A quick stop is enough to view the wonderfully intact steam room and the ruins behind it.)
El Call, as the area is also known, was the designated Jewish Quarter of Girona from 1160 until the Jews’ expulsion from Spain in 1492. It is home to the excellent Jewish History Museum (Carrer de la Força, 8), which offers a glimpse into Sephardic Jewish life in the city. As you walk the narrow streets, you will see that many of the vine-covered houses feature ancient heavy wood and iron doors and elaborate door knockers. Often the only thing reminding you of the 21st century are the occasional electric street lamps.
Midmorning is reserved for la hora del vermut, a pre-lunch vermouth and snack. The wooden tables outside La Simfonia (Plaça del Oli, 6) are perfect for people-watching. Enjoy vermouth on tap or natural wines paired with local artisanal cheeses.
Round off the morning by shopping at some of the more unique stores tucked among the cafés and souvenir shops around the Old Town. Pabordia (Pujada de la Catedral, 4) houses an elegant collection of modern furnishings inside a former bathhouse; the setting alone is worth a visit. La Carpa (Carrer Ballesteries 37) is a Santa’s workshop of childhood nostalgia with its wooden and tin toys, puppets and games. Keep walking down Ballesteries street, past the statue of the lioness, which legend says you should kiss if you want to find yourself back in Girona one day. Stop at Taller 925 (Carrer Barça, 9), which sells handmade silver and gold jewelry. For local wines, La Cuvée de la Plaça (Plaça del Vi, 3) distributes wine to many of the best restaurants in the region and can source anything you wish.
As the shops close for siesta at about 1:30 or 2 p.m., restaurants open for the highlight of the Spanish day — the long lunch. Even on workdays people take at least an hour and half for the midday meal, so it’s best to make a reservation ahead of time. At the Plaça del Vi square, Plaça del Vi 7 (Plaça del Vi, 7) hides more than just great food under the stone arches that line it. This restaurant boasts one of Europe’s best wine lists thanks to owner Roger Viusà, who was named Europe’s best sommelier in 2008 by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale. With ingredients sourced fresh from Girona’s market every day, the food menu reflects the changing seasons and the region’s best produce.
Don’t miss the croquettas, whether stuffed with summer’s spicy sausage and Mallorcan cheese or fall’s pumpkin and cured ham.
Girona has seven museums, but the most idiosyncratic is Casa Masó (Carrer Ballesteries, 29), situated in a bright white river house, trimmed in blue and orange, that you can see as you look down the River Onyar from the St. Agustí Bridge. The house belongs to the descendants of Rafael Masó, a key Catalan architect and contemporary of Gaudí, who built in the noucentisme style (a reaction against modernism that incorporates heavy yet elegant dark furniture and geometric shapes). The museum is the only one of Girona’s iconic river houses open to the public and offers a glimpse into turn-of-the-century grandeur with its Masó-designed furniture and stained-glass windows. The house can be visited only on a guided tour, and only one of the four slots per day is in English, so reserve in advance. (To see the stained glass in the best light, request a day when the English tour is at 4 or 5 p.m., but avoid the 5 p.m. slot in winter when it may already be dark.)
The best place to eat in Spain is Girona’s El Celler de Can Roca (Carrer Can Sunyer, 48), which has been named the best restaurant in the world twice. Eating there requires a 10-minute taxi ride out of town and a reservation 11 months in advance (or you can try putting your name on the waiting list). If you manage to secure a table, your evening will end in just about the most perfect way possible, with one of two sublime tasting menus. The Classic menu features about seven dishes, while the Feast offers about 15, both with various amuse-bouche courses in between. The selection is ever-changing, but you can expect the Roca brothers’ gastronomic take on Catalan classics and wine pairings chosen from the 60,000 bottles in the cellar.
If Can Roca isn’t in your plans, try Girona’s other Michelin-starred restaurant, Massana, (Carrer Bonastruc de Porta, 10), a short walk across the river from the Old Town, or nearby Maran Restaurant (Gran Via de Jaume I, 8), a newer venture from a former chef and a sommelier at Can Roca, that adds French and Asian touches to classic Spanish dishes.