Best things to do in Catalonia, Spain
The time has finally come where there’s little that stands in our way of visiting most of our favourite destinations in the world. And for those of you who’ve been saving all that pent-up wanderlust for a big trip, you don’t need much convincing that Spain has plenty to offer – Catalonia, specifically.
Where is that you may ask, O well-travelled Singaporean? Recall Barcelona – turns out that lively city is part of the greater Catalonia region, a hidden gem in Northeastern Spain that’s home to everything from whimsical Gaudi architecture to Game of Thrones sets.
Buckle up your seatbelts – in a campervan, no less – as you uncover 15 memorable things to do in Catalonia with us. It’ll be worth every cent of your flight ticket.
Note: This trip was shot back in 2019 before Covid-19 travel restrictions. Read to the end for updated travel requirements, as well as Spain and Catalonia’s current safety measures.
Table of Contents
- Best things to do in Catalonia, Spain
- 1. Get a taste of life in a campervan
- 2. Witness the gravity-defying human towers
- 3. Visit the most “extra” and photo-worthy Dali museum
- 4. Step into a Game Of Thrones or K-drama set in Girona
- 5. Ride Europe’s fastest rollercoaster at Ferrari Land
- 6. Go on an epic walking tour with yacht & helicopter rides included
- 7. Visit a pretty fishing village of white houses with Santorini vibes
- 8. Go on an e-bike tour through rice fields and villages around Pals
- 9. Skydive near the border of France 4,000m up
- 10. Visit storybook medieval village, Besalu
- 11. Taste a 16-course Michelin-star meal at Les Cols
- 12. Whip up traditional Catalan dishes during a cooking lesson
- 13. Treat yourself to a wine tasting at Torres Winery
- 14. Go outlet shopping at La Roca Village
- 15. Visit Colonia Guell for a glimpse at Gaudi’s unfinished church
1. Get a taste of life in a campervan
First things first – in order to conquer our wish list of places in Catalonia, we decided to make travelling around an experience in itself, by living on-the-go in a campervan.
And if our campervan had a Tinder Bio, it would read something like this:
Baron Amafi, 22. Loves autumn leaves, supermarket food and wandering from town to town freely in the company of friends.
Sitting areas which could be converted to beds.
We rented dear Baron from Amafi Caravaning, and he could entertain up to 7 pax within his cosy interiors. It was furnished with a toilet, shower, kitchen, beds, seats and even a fridge, so we stayed in comfort for a whole week while occasionally venturing out to the campersites.
Cosy double-deck sleeping nooks
It was easy to find parking spots for campervans in Catalonia and Barcelona city. To check the sites exactly, you can use the app Caramaps.
We also enjoyed picnics in the lovely, cool weather.
Pro tip: Some campervans are left-hand drives, manual transmission and require International Driving Licenses, so make sure your crew’s designated driver is well-equipped!
If you are spending more time in a single city, however, don’t hold back on renting a car for a similarly convenient experience.
2. Witness the gravity-defying human towers
I faintly remember seeing human towers on TV before – those towering structures consisting entirely of hoomans stacked on top of each other.
But it was a whole other experience watching it in real life.
We had the honour of seeing this *takes a deep breath* “intangible cultural heritage of humanity as declared by UNESCO” in the town of Granollers. There, a sea of humanity greeted us – young and old, men and women, all forming a 10-layer structure that’s as high as the 3rd floor of a HDB flat.
It was crazy as to how much thought and practice went into this. Many of these folks formed teams, and even used apps to mark out where to stand – a true engineering feat. The practice is also steeped in rich history, starting in the 16th century and evolving to become a symbol of team spirit among Catalan people today.
Strong men were the foundation, while kids scooted up to the top, accompanied by gralla (Catalan reed instrument) sounds to tell the builders if the feat was accomplished.
We, too, participated in the human tower – thus the sashes for support around our waists!
3. Visit the most “extra” and photo-worthy Dali museum
Think museums are boring? Far from it. Salvador Dali would turn in his grave if his museum was called that. He was a provocateur, a larger-than-life character, and never, ever boring.
His museum reflects that aesthetic. Upon first sight, it makes a statement with an eye-catching facade, featuring huge eggs atop a bread-lined wall.
Its rooms and exhibits are no less quirky. For instance, the first room we entered had a Cadillac car (?!) set right in the middle of a garden with Oscar trophy-like figures in windows.
Tip: Put a Euro in the car’s coin slot and watch “rain” fall inside it.
In the main museum room, a portrait left us puzzled as it looked completely different IRL and when photographed via a phone. What sorcery is this?
Of the portrait: was it Abraham Lincoln or Dali’s wife?
Between the surrealist sculptures and paintings, the museum tour was packed with Easter Eggs and interactive fun. 1.5 hours flew by! As we left, we were impressed at the famous painter whose imagination knew no bounds, and whose museum was a playground of fantastical fun.
Address: Placa Gala i Salvador Dali, 5, 17600 Figueres, Girona, Spain
Opening hours and prices: Check Salvador Dali website
4. Step into a Game Of Thrones or K-drama set in Girona
Fair folk of Westeros, you’ll be in for a treat in Girona, a town most commonly known as the filming set of epic HBO drama Game Of Thrones. Here, you’ll spot iconic spots such as the Great Sept of Baelor, which – spoiler alert! – went kaboom at the end of Season 6.
Fun fact: The Great Sept of Baelor was heavily CGI-ed to remove religious imagery like statues
For fans of Arya, you’re in luck too as Girona is the filming spot for scenes of her watching the theatre, begging, and even fighting with the Waif in Braavos.
Left: Arya begging on the streets of Braavos in the show, Right: me, a girl with no name
Image credit: Game of Thrones Spain
If available, get a local guide to show you all the filming sites around Girona – they are armed with knowledge on both GoT and medieval history, revealing facts about the sites that made an otherwise normal building come alive.
One fun fact: University of Girona students and local residents were paid around €100 to be extras in Game Of Thrones. Another: Besides GoT locations, K-drama fans might recognise filming sets in the Legend Of The Blue Sea or Memories Of The Alhambra.
The K-drama protagonists first met in Girona in the Memories of the Alhambra.
Image credit: Korean Dramaland
Jaime Lannister’s hand
Foodie tip: Head to the shop by world renowned pastry chef Jordi Roca for ice creams in quirky forms – like this Hand of Lannister one (€4.50, ~S$6.35)), or to Casa Moner for authentic Girona pastry xuixos (pronounced shoo-shoos), a roll with doughnut outsides and custard insides.
Book a guided day tour of Girona.
5. Ride Europe’s fastest rollercoaster at Ferrari Land
Having sat on the USS rollercoasters, I fancy myself a daredevil where no ride can spook me. Then, Ferrari Land challenged me. This is not the one in Abu Dhabi, but an outdoor F1-themed park in PortAventura World, Catalonia.
The park is home to Europe’s fastest roller coaster, aka, the Red Force, a gravity-defying 90-degree force of nature. Gulp.
Verdict after many deep breaths and screams: we strapped ourselves in, and heard the vrooming sound of a Ferrari just as the coaster went from 0 to 180km/h. Thankfully, it’s over before you know it. Scare factor: 8.5/10.
Still high on adrenaline, we went beyond Ferrari Land into the greater PortAventura World park, which had country-themed areas like China, Mexico and the Far West. Almost every zone had its own rollercoaster, so we binged until we couldn’t feel our hands anymore.
Special mention goes to the Shambala coaster, themed after Himalayan mountains.
Besides these, PortAventura Park also has live shows, family-friendly rides and water rides to make sure everyone in your crew has a good time.
In Ferrari Land, there’s even a car simulator ride, themed shops and even a mini-F1 museum.
Get tickets to Ferrari Land.
Address: Avinguda del Batlle Pere Molas, km 2, 43840 Vila-seca, Tarragona, Spain
Opening hours: Check the PortAventura website
6. Go on an epic walking tour with yacht & helicopter rides included
To fast track our understanding of Barcelona, Catalonia’s most recognisable city, we embarked on a tour. This was no ordinary one, but a 3-in-1 Klook tour that covered air, land and sea.
Exploring the old quarter on foot
We started at the Gothic Quarter, the OG part of Barcelona founded 2,000 years ago by the Romans. As we weaved in and out of the streets, our guide revealed intriguing facts about the places around us.
This charming square? A set for the movie Vicki Christina Barcelona AND a bombing site.
This church? In tribute to a young girl tortured 13 times for her religious beliefs. And these columns that look like remnants of the Parthenon? A secret “must-see” ruin tucked in the Temple of Augustus, dedicated to the first Emperor of Rome.
We also stopped at the fairytale-like Royal Square (Plaça Reial) and the tree-lined Las Ramblas – once a dirty street, now a wide boulevard teeming with performers, shops and outdoor terraces to people-watch.
Feel the breeze on a catamaran boat ride
With the walking done, we were whisked onto a gleaming catamaran at Port Vell for a 40-minute boat ride.
We truly felt we had made it in life, with the fresh breeze of the Mediterranean Sea whipping our hair, while we enjoyed 360-degree views of the surrounding port area and glistening ocean. You could lie down on a net, take that #yachtlife selfie, or just soak in the sun as the boat coasts leisurely along the shores of Barcelona.
Soar through the skies on a helicopter
The crown jewel of the tour: a helicopter ride. A bus ferried us to the boarding area, and after a quick safety briefing, it was up, up and away! FYI, it’s nothing like sitting in a plane. Instead, you feel every single twist and turn as the helicopter takes off into the skies.
The ride was only 5-10 minutes, but I held my breath throughout. The coastline flanked by the azure sea looked like a painting, and the deafening sound of the helicopter’s blades hid the pounding of my heart as we dipped way, way too close to the ground… then lifted off at full speed.
Bucket-list worthy? Absolutely.
Book a 3-in-1 Barcelona Skywalk Combo with a helicopter ride, walking tour, and boat trip.
7. Visit a pretty fishing village of white houses with Santorini vibes
Santorini, you’ve got competition. That’s in the form of Calella de Palafrugell, a coastal village of white houses that lies in the Costa Brava region, a ~1.5 hour’s drive from Barcelona.
It’s pronounced Ca-lel-lia-de-pala-fru-gell. Our guide made us repeat the pronunciation in the car but we still butchered it.
Formerly a poor fishing village, its inhabitants made their riches after sailing to Cuba in the 1900s and then channelled their funds back, reinvigorating the place to become the ultimate summer vacay spot.
I was so intrigued by the tranquil vibe of the place, the fact it housed no tourists, and the beauty of the white houses that I asked how much to buy one of these houses along the coast.
“Half a million euros”, said my Catalan friend and guide. Well, there goes my dream.
8. Go on an e-bike tour through rice fields and villages around Pals
I have cycled since I was a little kid. But e-biking? Now, that’s a first. And there’s probably no better place to start than in Pals, a charming village in Catalonia.
The e-bike was the perfect way to explore the rolling countryside here, as its additional horsepower made cycling up steep hills totally sweat-free. It was easy for even the most non-fitspo of us to cycle for long hours and appreciate the view without panting doggedly.
And what a view it was! You’ll cruise along on this e-bike tour, accompanied by glorious vistas of rolling green rice fields, churches, medieval towns, and mountains.
From postcard-worthy cobblestone paths and flowers draped on walls…
..to fields with views of the Montgrí mountains in the background.
We made a few stops on our biking adventure, too, including villages with populations as small as 32, and back alleys where time seemed to stand still.
Book an e-bike self-guided tour.
9. Skydive near the border of France 4,000m up
Skydiving is bound to be on every wanderluster’s bucket list. So, my friends and I were stoked when we heard we were jumping off a plane at Skydive Empuriabrava in Girona.
In a small group with our instructors tagged onto us for dear life, we made our way 4,000m above the ground in a small airplane. Like clockwork, people stepped out of the plane in pairs and leapt into the clear blue skies.
Image credit: Skydive Empuriabrava
Instantly, strong winds blew against my face. It felt like an eternity but it was actually a 30- to 40-second free fall. Then, to my relief, the parachute opened.
Once you get your bearings, you’ll see amazing views of pastures, mountains that border France, swimming pools and even the odd horse. It felt as if I was in a surreal VR game – but this was real and utterly beautiful.
Tip: The wind can get cold so try to wear a warm, zip-up jacket.
Photo tip: Your expression can freeze due to the wind pressure so make sure you have a smile on just before you fall off the plane. Else it might end up as a weird saliva-filled grimace.
Book a skydiving experience in Girona.
Address: Sector Aeroclub, s/n, 17487 Empuriabrava, Girona, Spain
10. Visit storybook medieval village, Besalu
“Little town, it’s a quiet village. Every day, like the one before,” sang Belle of Beauty And The Beast as she pranced around her home. It’s not hard to imagine that Besalu could well be the town she sang about.
Meaning “fortress between two rivers” in Latin, this well-preserved place is over 2,000 years old, and was an actual medieval village where you can imagine knights charging along the streets.
You could almost expect King Arthur to pop up. Or even Harry Potter.
The star of the city is the bridge at the entrance, which was actually one of the layers of defense for the town. It was also a toll – just like our beloved ERP.
Layers of history underscore the compact Jewish quarters. Half of the town’s population died from the Black Plague in The Middle Ages and more Jews survived due to hygienic weekly purification baths. But, because of this, they were persecuted and driven out.
Thankfully, if you are of Sephardic Jewish descent today, you can actually regain citizenship here.
Westworld fans are also in for a treat. Besalu’s square was where they filmed part of Season 3! Semi-spoiler: it was a WWII town attacked by the Nazis.
11. Taste a 16-course Michelin-star meal at Les Cols
Wine cellar. Huge rotating glass doors. Golden halls with long tables. This wasn’t a mansion of the Rich and Famous, but Les Cols, a 2-star Michelin restaurant that’s helmed by celebrity chef Fina Puigdevall.
Housed in the outskirts of Olot, the restaurant is actually a family estate with sprawling grounds that feature enchanting garden paths and even an Instagrammable glass pavilion for functions.
But word of warning: Do not eat breakfast. I repeat, no breakfast before coming here. Or lunch.
We were in for a whopping 16 courses, with a menu based on natural and seasonal Catalan ingredients. Think leaves, herbs, wild mushrooms, cheese, pumpkins and seasonal produce.
The volcanic broth was prepped live and piping hot
My personal fave? The volcanic broth, a hearty concoction that faintly reminded me of miso soup due to its umami flavour. A close runner-up was the fresh egg with cannelloni – the latter is a classic Catalan dish that is somewhat like pasta rolled up with meat.
We started our dinner at 8.30pm and ended near midnight, feeling extra full due to the wine pairings and generous supply of bread and olive oil. But with the magic of the food that lingered in my mouth, it was a gastronomic experience well worth it.
Address: Carretera de la Canya, 106, 17800 Olot, Girona, Spain
Opening hours: Wed-Sat 1pm-3pm, 8.30pm-10.30pm | Sun 1pm-3.30pm
Contact: Les Cols website
12. Whip up traditional Catalan dishes during a cooking lesson
Despite my moving out into a HDB, my cooking repertoire has consisted mainly of just maggi mee, pasta and scrambled eggs. So, it was with great delight that we embarked on a cooking journey at Tots a Taula, which means “everyone at the table”.
That is exactly what we did at this cooking lesson helmed by Chef Xevi, who was patient with us noobs despite our egg yolk failures, poor cutting skills and spills.
Here, we made beginner-friendly Catalan dishes such as:
- Crema catalana – a creme brulee-like dish
- Paella – the iconic short grained rice dish
- Carquinyoli – a type of biscotti from flour, eggs, sugar, toasted almonds
- Romesco sauce – a nutty, incredibly tasty sauce
- Tomato bread
Stirring up carquinyoli and making paella, the Catalan version with tasty preserved onion sauce
In a 40-minute lesson, we not only got an insight into Catalan cooking, but also took back nuggets of info on how to adapt them to Singapore. I, for one, will be attempting that creme brulee-style dish which can be whipped up in 5 minutes. Masterchefs, watch out.
Address: Carrer del Canonge Dorca, 28, 17005 Girona, Spain
Contact: +34 620 86 40 58
13. Treat yourself to a wine tasting at Torres Winery
You might find the name Torres familiar if you’ve ever perused the supermarket wine section, and it’s no wonder – the name belongs to one of Europe’s largest wineries and vineyards.
We got lucky, and visited the place of origin itself: Torres Winery. Nestled in the countryside at higher altitudes, the family-run estate boasts picture-perfect vineyards, a little museum and an impressive winery. Plus, cute trains to get you from place to place.
There are rooms piled full of oak barrels and even an underground cellar with art gallery vibes – think classical music piped in and the fermentation process shown in dimly-lit rooms.
But what got our taste buds all fired up were the wine tasting sessions – you have the option of pairing them with cheese or ham.
Floral and fruity notes? Yes please.
From soft, melty cheese to ones laden with explosive flavour, the tasting session allowed us to discover new flavours and notes when pairing cheese with wine. The Iberian ham session was also a treat – some were addictively savoury, which resulted in us wolfing down the whole ham instead of sampling small bites. Oops.
Address: Finca el Maset s/n, 08796 Pacs del Penedès, Barcelona, Spain
Contact: Torres Winery website
14. Go outlet shopping at La Roca Village
Just 40 minutes by bus from Barcelona, La Roca Village is a mecca for shopaholics. Think of it as an upmarket outlet village similar to the UK’s Bicester Village with more than 140 brands. Here, everything from designer fashion to sportswear to homeware has discounts of up to 60%!
As fans of the athleisure trend, we made a beeline for Nike, adidas and Under Armour and spotted crazy discounts. Like, S$$38 for PUMA sneakers?! You can also score steals from international designer brands like Prada and Michael Kors and Spanish brands like Tous, Desigual and Bimba Y Lola. Full list of tenants here.
Even if you’re a window-shopper, the open-air village has pretty walls, balconies and streets that will make you feel like you’re in a rom-com. Gaudi-inspired fountains further add to the charm.
Pro tip: Do your tax refund here instead of in a mad rush at the airport. If you’re from outside the EU, the price tag is generally 30% cheaper than if you bought it in Asia.
Address: La Roca Village s/n, 08430 Santa Agnès de Malanyanes, Barcelona, Spain
Opening hours: 10am-9pm, Daily
15. Visit Colonia Guell for a glimpse at Gaudi’s unfinished church
Colonia Guell is an industrial colony that was founded in 1890, but lest you think “industrial” means gritty, gloomy-looking buildings, Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished church will prove you wrong.
The interiors of Gaudi’s Crypt.
This striking building boasts Gaudi’s signature whimsical style – curving lines and motifs of nature. It was a hot favourite in the 80s for weddings, too.
Enter it, and you’ll observe colourful stained glass windows that open like butterfly wings, seashell sinks and tables that look like undulating waves. It’s also beautifully tranquil. You could hear a pin drop in here as you explore both upper and lower levels of the church.
The rest of Colonia Guell is also worth exploring. From former convents, schoolhouses and even a theatre-turned-cafe, it gives you an insider look on how life was like for textile workers back in the day.
Address: Carrer Claudi Güell, 08690 La Colònia Güell, Barcelona, Spain
Contact: Get tickets to Colonia Guell (from €9,50, ~S$13.40)
Spain travel guidelines
If these unique activities have got you itching to board the next flight out to Spain, you’ll be glad to know that the travel process is now pretty seamless.
Update: As of March 2023, all of Spain’s Covid-19 restricted have been lifted – travellers are also not required to wear face mask on public transport, or fill out any health control forms. However, it’s still a good idea to ensure you’re aware of Spain’s latest travel requirements before departure.
Travelling to Catalonia, Spain
Despite being off the beaten track, it was easy to navigate Catalonia, with convenient day tours and transport options from Barcelona readily available on Klook. The main cities of Catalonia are also well-connected with high-speed trains, making it a scenic and convenient option.
To make the most of your travels, though, we’d say that exploring the region by road was an experience our adventurous souls reveled in. For the most scenic drive through Catalonia, check out the Grand Tour of Catalonia, an iconic route that’ll bring road-trippers over 2,000km to cities such as Figueres and Tarragona.
So, if you’re looking for an exotic Europe trip, or are someone with an appetite for culture, food, shopping and bucket-list experiences, this undiscovered gem delivers in spades.
More articles to help you plan your upcoming trip to Spain:
- Singapore Public Holidays in 2023
- A Singaporean’s guide to dealing with common travel problems
- Inflight freebies you can get on Singapore Airlines
This post was brought to you by the Catalonia Tourism Board.
Photography by Adria Tham.
Cover image adapted from: Skydive Empuriabrava.
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