With warm golden sand and aquamarine water on one side, and the jagged mountains of the Pyrenees on another, Catalonia is one of Spain’s treasured regions. Located in the northeast corner of Spain, ask a local and they’ll tell you that Spain is located in the southwest corner of Catalonia. Known for its capital of Barcelona, Catalonia is divided into four distinct and diverse provinces — Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona.
Catalan history reads like something out of a thriller: sieges, betrayals, rebellions and ultimately autonomy. Catalonia is first mentioned in the second century B.C. It was a sovereign state, but was soon overrun by the Romans, the Moors, the French and ultimately, Spain. During the War of Spanish Succession in the 18th century, Catalonia was dealt a devastating loss. The ruling monarch outlawed the Catalan language, and the culture went underground. After the monarchy, Catalonia eventually regained its independence until the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. After the installment of Generalissimo Francisco Franco as dictator, Catalan culture was once again repressed and forced underground. When the dictator died, Spain returned much, but not all of the autonomy to Catalonia. The rebirth of this region has many calling for an independent Catalan state.
Spain’s second-largest city, Barcelona, is located along the coast in the middle of Catalonia. Home to more than 1.5 million residents, Barcelona is a vibrant and bustling city. History comes alive through the dramatic details in the buildings. See the architectural ingenuity of Antoni Gaudí at Casa Batlló, Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera) and perhaps the most recognizable, Sagrada Família. This basilica has been under construction for more than 100 years. The outside is imposing and breathtaking at the same time. The sheer detail in the façade is exquisite. Stroll through another Gaudi masterpiece, Parc Güell. Once planned as a gated community in the hills above the city, Parc Güell is an excellent example of a failed plan gone ultimately right. Whimsical building designs, vibrant statues and colorful tile and glass works are intertwined among the natural beauty.
Barcelona is also home to world-class shopping along Las Ramblas. Enjoy the many tapas bars and cafés along the sidewalks, or learn how to make savory paella in a culinary class. Although crowded, stop by the largest market in Barcelona, La Boqueria, for fresh produce and seafood (and delicious chocolate strawberries). You can visit the works of art by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, or go off the beaten path and visit the Museu de Xocolata. Snack on a complimentary piece of chocolate as you peruse sweet likenesses of famous people and buildings in this chocolate museum.
For sports enthusiasts, a trip to Barcelona would not be complete without a visit to Camp Nou, where the rivalry between Spain and Catalonia is best represented on the fútbol pitch. Founded in 1899, FC Barcelona has been thrilling fútbol fans and maintaining a fierce rivalry with Real Madrid. If you look closely at the FC Barcelona shield, the Catalan flag is represented in the upper-right corner. During game days, pack into the stadium (larger than any NFL stadium in the U.S.) with 99,000 of your newest friends, or take a break from the crowd and enjoy cold sangria while watching at the local bar. On non-game days, you can explore Camp Nou. This tour takes you through the entirety of the enormous stadium: the museum, the stands, onto the pitch and to virtually every nook and cranny of the stadium.
Northwest of Barcelona, Girona is the quieter sibling of Barcelona. Girona is rooted deep in tradition; some of the Roman ruins in the city date back to the first century B.C. You can walk along the Passeig de la Muralla, the city’s former defensive walls, and take in the spectacular views of the town. Navigate through the narrow passages and patios of the Jewish Quarter (El Call), a reminder of the influence of the Jewish culture in Catalonia.
If you’re craving beach time, Costa Brava will not disappoint. Not nearly as crowded as those in Barcelona, discover stretches of sandy beaches and hidden bays, some of which are only accessible by boat. Feeling hungry? Girona is home to 16 Michelin-starred restaurants. During the off-season, you may even catch a glimpse of professional cyclists that have set up their training base in Girona.
Perhaps the least known of the four provinces, Lleida is the only landlocked province in Catalonia. This province is an excellent agricultural and wine producing region. Bordered by France and Andorra in the Pyrenees, Lleida is the leading ski and winter sports destination in Spain. In the summer, enjoy hiking and traversing through Catalonia’s only national park, Parc Nacional Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici. Or take a walk among history in Vall de Boí. Explore the nine 11th-century churches that make up the Catalan Romanesque Churches UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
If you’re feeling gastronomically adventurous, visit the world’s largest Snail Festival, L’Aplec del Caragol. This festival celebrating the land mollusk has more than 12 tons of snails being consumed over a three-day period. ¡Bon profit!
Another great way to explore Catalonia is to take the train from Barcelona to Tarragona, the southernmost province in Catalonia. Cutting through mountains and winding along the rugged coastline, it will likely be one of the most picturesque train rides you’ll remember. Tarragona is home to the oldest Roman settlement on the Iberian Peninsula. Take pause at the breathtaking panorama of the Mediterranean from the Amfiteatre romà de Tàrraco, a second century amphitheater facing the sea. Travel a few kilometers outside of the city to find the well-preserved Roman aqueduct, Pont del Diable.
In September, the locals celebrate their patron saint with the Festival de Santa Tecla. In addition to food, parades and festivities, this 10-day festival is known for its human castles. People climb atop one another to see who can form the tallest human pyramid.
Whether you bask in the warmth of the sun along Tarragona’s Costa Daurada, or take in the sweeping city views of Barcelona from atop Montjuic, Catalonia is sure to captivate your spirit.