Girona - also known as Gerona - has long stood at the crossroads of important trade routes, at the confluence of four rivers (the Ter, Onyar, Galligants and Güell), and between the Iberian Peninsula and France. Its mercantile wealth over the millennia is expressed in outstanding buildings, from the colorful art nouveau waterfront facades to the millennia-old stone buildings of the medieval Old Quarter.
Perhaps the most impressive edifice is the massive 11th-century cathedral; it stands atop the ruins of a mosque and even older church. This is not the only sacred site, however; in the Call, or old Jewish quarter, you'll find what were once among Europe's most important Kabbalah Schools and Yeshivas, the latter only recently rediscovered.
A handful of museums offer even more cultural enrichment, though some may prefer to experience Catalonia at the table. This region of fine cheeses and olives, so close to the sea, is famed for its fine gastronomy.
There are many reasons to fall in love with Girona, but if there’s one thing — one sight — that will make your jaw actually drop, it will probably be the city’s main cathedral. That’s because its Baroque façade stands gloriously atop a massive staircase of some 90 steps. What you’ll find beyond its grand entrance is an impressive Romanesque-meets-Gothic church that claims the widest Gothic nave in the world.
Constructed between the 11th and 18th centuries, the cathedral sits upon the foundations of a former Roman temple. During your visit there, you can scope out its tranquil courtyard cloister, as well as the cathedral’s museum of religious artifacts, which includes noteworthy tapestries. Considering you’ve made it up this far, after the cathedral visit take advantage of your high altitude to go on a stroll along Girona’s ancient walls, which offer unparalleled views of the city.
Girona, easily one of Catalonia’s tourist destinations, is perhaps most famed for its Jewish quarter, also referred to as the Call. Considered one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in the world, the Call dates back to the 12th century, when Girona was home to a thriving Jewish community. This was, of course, until the Catholic monarchs expelled Jews from Spain in 1492.
Despite this, the neighborhood is still reminiscent of what it would have been like in those times, with its cozy, almost-ethereal interior patios, and its hauntingly beautiful maze of narrow medieval streets. Apart from soaking up the historic vibe while wandering the Call, you may wish to head also to the Museum of Jewish History to learn more about Catalonia’s Sephardic history. Other worthy sights include the city’s hilltop cathedral, the nearby 13th-century Arab baths, and scoping out views from above the walls that surround this old part of town.
The Onyar River will likely be your first and most lasting impression of Girona, its rainbow-colored-building-lined waters a warm welcome and unforgettable sight. Their dazzling appearance invites you to journey to the other side of the bank — the eastern side — where you’ll discover more of the city’s treasures, held within its old town.
But before you get there, you’ll likely cross one of the Onyar’s many bridges. Your eye will undoubtedly be drawn to its most peculiar and perhaps even familiar bridge, the Pont Eiffel. Indeed, this red, cage-like crossing is reminiscent of a more famous structure of the same name, the Eiffel Tower. This is, of course, because they share the same designer (the bridge was constructed in 1877, just before the tower). Once you arrive on the eastern bank, feed your river curiosity by visiting Casa Maso, the only waterside building open to the public, and once home to its namesake architect.
If you tire of the crowds at many of Girona’s most popular sights, then the Arab baths will be just the perfect remedy. These 12th-century baths – or, rather, what used to be baths – are Romanesque in style and feature typical components such as cool and warm rooms, a changing room and a steam room. What they don’t feature: the hustle and bustle of other tourist stops.
A visit includes a guided brochure that will take you through each of the different rooms. Highlights include the octagonal, column-surrounded central pool that sits below a light-filled cupola, and a visit to the rooftop, where you can spy unique views of the city and cathedral. And though the visit is short, the entrance fee is nominal, making this otherworldly escape a worthy stop during your time in Girona.
The region of Girona offers so much more than just Catalan culture and historic towns; it’s also got a veritable nature wonderland called Garrotxa Volcanic Natural Park. And volcanic, indeed, as it is home to 40 (dormant) volcanic cones, and 20 basaltic lava flows, making it the most prized volcanic landscape on the Iberian Peninsula.
You can explore Garrotxa’s park by setting off on one of its 28 different walking routes, many of which interconnect, and many that take you beyond the region to others. During your adventures, climb to the top of Santa Margarida volcano to spy the see-it-to-believe-it Roman chapel that sits within it; get lost in the beech tree-filled forests of La Fageda d'en Jordà; and make stops at some of the region’s most beloved villages, such as Olot and Besalu.