There are many good reasons to visit Barcelona’s overlooked little sister Girona, which is elegant, stylish and colourful. Girona’s cinematic charm, architecture and art combine with a rich cultural history and forward-thinking modernity.
It’s postcard-perfect along the River Onyar, which runs through Girona, where colourful buildings stand in the water and the city’s cathedral looms in the background.
The Catalan university city, despite its charm and beautiful location, between the Mediterranean, the Pyrenees and France, is rather overlooked compared to Barcelona, which is just a 40-minute train ride away.
Girona has 90,000 inhabitants, but the city is expanding because it is becoming increasingly popular, especially among young families with children, to move from crowded Barcelona to Girona, where they can still get to and from work in Barcelona easily. That’s why some locals call Girona “The New Barcelona”.
Girona’s old town is a maze of cobbled streets, squares, alleyways and historic buildings that’s impossible not to fall in love with. The creators of Game of Thrones also fell in love with the historic charm of Girona’s old town, where they shot scenes for the series’ season six. In the old town there are also plenty of small shops and cafés to explore. Girona’s newest district is modern, with hip speciality and fashion shops, beautiful squares, galleries and street art.
The atmosphere of the city is quiet and laid-back, and the nightlife cultured.
Girona’s proximity to the Pyrenees has attracted professional cyclists to settle in the city for many years. These include. Lance Armstrong. Today, around 200 cyclists live in Girona. Cycling tourists are also attracted by Girona’s beautiful natural surroundings, so you’re bound to see more people wearing lycra and cycling helmets in town.
It’s easy to hop on a train and take a day trip to Girona if you’re holidaying in Barcelona. However, there are so many great things to do in Girona that I would recommend booking a couple of nights and staying a few days.
1 Take a walk along the river Onyar
The laundry flaps on the clotheslines on the balconies of the colourful houses, which are reflected in the river Onyar and look like a postcard. Girona’s old and new towns are linked by several bridges over the river, and a walk along the river and over the bridge will show you Girona at its best.
There are several bridges over Onyar that connect the old town with the newer quarters of the city. The most famous and Instagrammed bridge is the red iron Pont de les Peixateries Velles, designed by Gustave Eiffel and built in 1877. The bridge was built to make it easier for citizens to get from the city centre to the market. The bridge is also called Pont de Ferro (Iron Bridge) and it’s had quite a few makeovers over the last 100 years.
Bridge of the Peixateries Velles, Carrer del Riu Onyar
2 Climb the steps to the famous cathedral
Girona Cathedral sits at the highest point in Girona and can be seen from most parts of the city. You’ll climb 91 steps to reach the city’s most famous building, which became world famous after it – and the staircase – appeared in the HBO series Game of Thrones season six.
The cathedral was built between the 11th and 17th centuries and is a mixture of styles. The staircase and facade are Baroque, the cloister and tower are Romanesque and the nave, at 22.98 metres the widest in the world, is Gothic. The high altar in silver, precious stones and enamel is one of the finest pieces of precious metalwork in Spain.
Girona Cathedral, Plaça de la Catedral
3 Father lost in the Jewish quarter
Girona’s Jewish quarter, El Call, is among the best preserved in Europe. Around 150 families from the Jewish community lived here from the 12th to the 15th century, when the Jews were expelled from the country.
The neighbourhood is full of interesting history and architecture. Walk around the stone houses, some of whose doors were bricked up when the Jews had to flee. They hoped that they could return again. A local guide told me that he has met American tourists who have come with an old door key that once fitted one of the doors in the neighborhood, which they inherited from their Jewish ancestors.
The cosy neighbourhood with steep, narrow streets, alleys and arcades is a perfect place to get lost for a while. Between the rows of stairs and around corners, a small café occasionally opens up, where you can sit on the terrace and enjoy a coffee in the historic surroundings.
The old synagogue, located on the main street, Carrer de la Força, today houses a Jewish museum where you can get an insight into Girona’s 600 years of Jewish history. Here are a number of archaeological finds and objects that provide insights into the culture and everyday life of the Jewish community.
4 Girona’s Arab baths
Next to the cathedral you’ll find Girona’s Roman baths, the Banys Arabs, which date from the 12th century and are an imitation of the Arab baths.
The highlight is the entrance with an octagonal pool resting on eight pillars and covered by a dome. The columns are decorated after inspiration from the Garden of Eden, and the sculptural structure resembles a glowing lantern when daylight streams in under the dome.
The section with the octagonal pool has served as a changing room and relaxation area, and you can also visit two wet rooms (one hot and one cold) as well as a steam room.
The beautiful baths have also appeared as a movie star in Game of Thrones in an escape scene where Ayra hides in the baths.
Banys Àrabs, Carrer del Rei Ferran el Catòlic
5 Take a morning walk on the old city wall
Girona’s ancient medieval walls were built in the 9th century and are some of the longest and most well-preserved in Europe. A walk along Passeig de la Muralla, the remains of the city walls built between the 9th and 15th centuries, is a must. It offers spectacular views of the city, the cathedral, the Arab baths, green gardens and the beautiful natural surroundings of Girona with the Pyrenees in the background. The tour is most beautiful in the morning, when the light is perfect and there are not so many people yet.
You can walk all the way along the old town and climb observation towers along the way. There are several entrances to the city walls, but the one I’ve indicated on the map is via the French Garden, which is behind the cathedral.
Passeig de la Muralla via Jardin de la Francesca, Carrer Bisbe Josep Cartañà 4
6 Walk in the footsteps of Girona’s famous architect
A white house with curry yellow tiles and blue window sashes stands out from the crowd of colourful houses along the Onyar River. It was home to the city’s son Rafael Masó (1880-1935), one of the most important architects of the Catalan noucentista movement. Noucentista emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and was a counter-reaction to modernista and the antithesis of the avant-garde.
Masó was born and raised in the white house by the river. He has converted part of the house, which is now a museum. Here you can see the architect’s enormous talent for ceramic and glass work, furniture design and ornamentation.
Rafael Masó also donated 12 buildings to Girona, including shops, blocks of flats and factories, including a beautiful pharmacy at number 53 in Santa Clara street, near his childhood home.
It’s well worth taking a walk around the city and studying Masó’s buildings. In Masó’s architecture you can see his evolution from his early modernista period, which was heavily influenced by Gaudí, to the noucentisme period for which he became famous.
You can download a brochure with a list of Masós houses in Girona here. The brochure is in Spanish, but it’s useful even if you don’t speak the language. Because here are pictures of the houses and addresses so you can find them.
Casa Masó can only be visited on a guided tour, and tickets must be booked in advance by email or phone.
Fundacio Rafael Maso/Casa Maso, Carrer de les Ballesteries 29
7 Girona Art Museum
Girona’s art museum is housed in an old bishop’s palace and contains the most important art collection in the province of Girona. The collection contains Catalan art from Roman times to the 21st century in the styles of Roman, Gothic, Baroque, Realism and Modernism. You can also delve deeper into the noucentism of local architect Rafael Masó. You can take a closer look at his ceramic tiles.
The tour of the museum passes through the palace throne room and the bishop’s prison and chapel.
Museu d’Art de Girona, Pujada de la Catedral 12
8 A trip to the world of film
Girona boasts a truly distinguished film museum which, when it opened in 1998, was the first of its kind in the world.
The three-storey museum contains around 20,000 objects from the pre-biographical and cinema periods. Most of the collection belonged to the private collection of filmmaker Tomàs Mallol (1923-2013).
The collection contains objects from the prehistory of moving images up to the 1970s.
The objects date from the mid-seventeenth century to 1970 and include shadow puppets, a lamp from the table at Rick’s Café where Ingrid Bergman sits in Casablanca , and James Dean’s curly leather boots from Rebel Without a Cause .
Museo del Cinema, Carrer de la Sèquia 1
9 Discover street art
Girona’s house walls, curbs and railings are adorned with high-quality street art in many parts of the city. The Milestone project is behind the construction of the majority of the works. Every year in July, the Milestone Project organises a street art festival where new works are created.
Street art is mainly created by Spanish street artists, and among them are famous ones like 3TTMAN, whose art can be found in all major Spanish cities.
The works are scattered throughout the city, but there is particularly much on the pillars under the railway bridge over the street Carrer Bonastruc de Porta.
Read more about Giron’s street art on the Milestone website.
10 Kiss Girona goodbye
In the old town, close to the river, stands a colonnaded statue of a lioness (Lleona de Girona) and before you leave the city, make sure you stop by. In Girona, there is a special ritual of kissing the lion’s bottom to show respect. There’s an iron staircase by the statue, so you can get up to buttock level and kiss.
It is said that there used to be a hotel on the site, where the column, with the 12th century lion, was built into the wall.
Passers-by could easily touch the lion’s backside, and later the story developed that if you touched the lion’s backside, you were sure to stay in town.
Nowadays, it’s customary for visitors to kiss the lion’s behind to make sure they return to Girona – and possibly stay.
Lleona de Girona, C/Calderers 8
Accommodation in Girona
Hotel Nord 1901
If you want a luxurious, personal and central stay, Hotel Nord 1901 is a great choice. Here, all the sights and restaurants are on your doorstep. The family-run hotel has 12 rooms, and the name 1901 is named after the grandfather of the family, who was born on 19 January and grew up in the building.
Every detail of the hotel’s interior has been thought of. The spacious rooms are warmly decorated in earth tones and come with all the necessary amenities, including a safe and electric kettle. The breakfast is simple and good, and the staff very attentive and interested in the guests.
The hotel’s patio with pool is a great place to take a siesta or just enjoy a coffee or drink from the bar. The courtyard is quiet, green and super cosy.
Check availability and prices here
DoubleTree by Hilton Girona
The 4-star DoubleTree by Hilton is a 10-minute walk from the sights and restaurants around the central Independencia Square in the city centre. The walk is nice and you will pass the beautiful Devesa Park, which is right next door.
The hotel has a modern white décor with neon green details, and the rooms are spacious with a desk and armchairs. Some rooms have a balcony.
The staff are extremely accommodating. You’ll be greeted with a large American cookie in a paper bag to take back to your room, and if you’re a cycling tourist, there’s room for that at the hotel too. Breakfast is a well-stocked buffet, and there is also a restaurant and rooftop bar. Finally, you have access to the gym.
Check availability and prices here
The journey to Girona
You can fly direct to Girona from Billund Airport. If you are flying from Copenhagen, go to Barcelona, from where you can easily get to Girona by train in about half an hour.
Check flights and prices here