Years ago, I knew little about Catalonia beyond the city of Barcelona. But then I saw photos of a smaller destination there – Girona – and knew that I had to visit the city given the chance. I’d later learn about the likes of Tarragona, but it was Girona that opened my eyes to the promise of Catalonia. So, upon deciding to journey south to Spain on my most recent travels through the South of France, I knew that visiting Girona was an absolute given. And to no surprise, I adored my time exploring the city, particularly the Girona Old Town.
It’s important to say that if you’re expecting Girona to be just like Barcelona you’re going to be disappointed. The two cities are remarkably different, but in all the best ways. To help you get the most out of a Girona day trip or longer visit, I’ve put together my tips for an entertaining experience. Even if they aren’t the most original bits of travel advice, I hope that my photos may inspire you to visit just as someone else’s did for me.
Start with the Riverfront
The first photos that caught my eye of Girona were striking shots along the city’s main waterfront along the Onyar River. Girona is actually the home of several rivers, but it’s the Onyar where you’ll find the most iconic scenery. Since the Onyar also acts as an informal border for the historical part of the city, it’s the perfect place to start your Girona walking tour.
There isn’t a path that follows right along the riverbanks for you to enjoy continuous views of the riverfront. Instead, it’s best to follow nearby streets and criss-cross at each of the many bridges that connect the modern city with the Old Town. From them you can clearly see the colourful arrangement of houses that line the river.
The most interesting bridge is the Pont de les Peixateries Velles, better known as the Eiffel Bridge. This bridge bears the famous French engineer’s signature style featuring a lattice of wrought-iron and is also painted red just as the Eiffel Tower originally was.
Take Your Time Wandering
Having followed the river, it’s time to properly venture into the Old Town, also known as Barri Vell. It’s this part of the city that should be the main focus of your self-guided Girona tour, as most of the best things to do in Girona are found here.
Now, fair warning, it’s quite easy to get turned around in the historical centre. The Old Town is full of narrow streets with razor thin side alleys and stairways that are rarely straight. As always, I suggest you embrace this and let yourself get disoriented as you never know what you might stumble across as you do. But there are definitely some must-see spots, such as the Escales de Sant Marti stairs that have become quite famous in recent years thanks to Game of Thrones fans.
Because the Girona Old Town is so dense, it can feel like you’re surrounded by stone every way you turn. But there is the occasional green space there, particularly if you know where to look. Perhaps the best examples are the Passeig Arqueològic and Jardins dels Alemanys gardens on the Old Town’s northwest edge, as well over near Sant Pere de Galligants.
Find the Girona Jewish Quarter
One of Girona’s major claims to fame is that the city is home to one of the world’s best preserved Jewish quarters. Located deep within the Girona Old Town, this area known as El Call features the narrowest of the city’s streets an staircases. The formal boundaries of the Jewish Quarter are just a few small blocks immediately surrounding the Jewish History Museum. The museum explores six centuries of history of the local Jewish community in Girona during the days of the Kingdom of Aragon.
Visit Girona Cathedral
In terms of landmarks, there really isn’t any more important in the city than the Girona Cathedral. There are other churches in Girona, but if you only have time for one, make it this one. Not only is there a lot of history wrapped up in the cathedral, but it’s also simply a beautiful, monumental landmark that’s impossible to miss. You may also recognise its steps from Game of Thrones, although they should impress you regardless of your TV interests.
Like so many older churches in Spain, the original church was converted into a mosque and then converted back at the start and end of the Islamic Conquest. The existing cathedral dates from the 11th century and features Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque elements that were added over the years. Inside, the scale and architecture of the cathedral’s interior more than make up for its austere look.
Don’t Miss the Old City Walls
One attraction that I don’t think gets enough credit are the city walls of Girona, because they really are quite something. These walls run right around the western edge of the Girona Old Town, and although some parts were demolished in the 19th century, what’s left is wonderfully preserved. The remains of the walls date from between the 9th and 17th centuries, which really is incredible given their height in some places.
Visitors can walk right along the city walls on what’s called the Passeig de la Muralla, a walkway that runs from below the Jardins de la Muralla around to Torre Gironella. Along the way, you’ll enjoy unparalleled views of Girona and the distant mountains. This makes it a great way to both see the sights of Girona and get your bearings.
See the Arab Baths
Since it’s so frequently mentioned as a major Girona attraction, it’s worth touching on the Arab Baths. For just a few euros you can visit inside Banys Àrabs, historical public baths from the 12th century. This historical archaeological site isn’t huge, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the Romanesque architecture of what remains. The apodyterium or changing room, (rooms are named after their ancient Roman setup) is certainly the highlight of a visit here.
Venture Outside the Old Town
While this is a guide to the Old Town of Girona, don’t forget to also explore the rest of the city. If you have the time, there are some interesting places to visit across the river around the modern city centre. One is Plaça de la Indepèndecia, with its arcade walkways around the sides.
Personally though, I really liked the leafy Parc de la Devesa that dominates the northern end of the city centre. Not only is a great place to stroll around beneath towering trees, but it also views of the River Ter.
Travel Tips for Visiting Girona
Getting to Girona couldn’t be easier when travelling around Catalonia and Spain. The city is just 40 minutes by train from Barcelona, from which you can easily connect to the rest of the country. What’s nice is that you can also reach Girona from the South of France, with buses and trains from cities such as Montpellier, Beziers and Perpignan.
Once there, the next thing you need to think about is accommodation. Now, although I used Airbnb during my visit, there are plenty of hotels, hostels and guesthouses available in Girona. While staying in the Old Town may be appealing, the Eixample and Mercadal areas are convenient too.
Typically I prefer travelling independently, but I recognize that’s not other peoples’ preference or always possible. Fortunately, there are loads of tours to Girona, such as walking tours of the city to day tours from Barcelona. Both of those tours are extremely well reviewed and seem like quite good value.
Have you had the opportunity to visit Girona for yourself while travelling in Spain? What advice would you give to those considering a trip there? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.