eam Select's marketeer Amy recently enjoyed a stay in Girona with her archaeologist boyfriend Ruben, who originally comes from near the city, so she was able to learn more about the local secrets, and really discover a lot of the history the city and surrounding region has to offer.

Read Amy's Girona city review to discover why you should consider visiting Girona for your next city break, or as an excursion from Barcelona on a cruise!

Renowned for the unique and fantastical architecture by Gaudí (most notably the incomplete Sagrada Familia and the expansive 17-hectare Parc Güell), fantastic museums, shopping opportunities, and stunning beaches, the dazzling city of Barcelona is a popular choice for city breaks, and, with the largest and busiest cruise port in the Mediterranean, it features on many cruise itineraries, often as an embarkation or disembarkation port, or even for overnight stays.

Girona, Spain

Girona, Spain

About 100km northeast of Barcelona, and from just a 38 minute-train ride from the city’s main train station, the historic city of Girona can be found. Long overshadowed by Barcelona since the latter city established itself on the tourist map in the 1990s thanks to the Olympics, Girona is nonetheless an excellent alternative for city breaks, or for an excursion on a cruise if you’ve already visited Barcelona and have plenty of time to explore. Something of a hidden gem, Girona is a breath of fresh air for discerning travellers keen to avoid crowds while immersing themselves into the history and culture of a destination.

Getting to Girona

It is possible to fly directly to Girona; Ryanair offer a service year-round from London Stansted, although all other flight routes tend to be seasonal. Ryanair, Jet2, and Tui offer a number of different flights to Girona from a number of UK airports (London Gatwick, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, East Midlands, Glasgow, Doncaster Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds Bradford, and Newcastle), but for me, the flights didn’t work out for the dates and timings I wanted to fly from Gatwick, which is usually my second-choice airport for short-haul flights as there’s at least a direct train route from Bedford.

However, there are far more options available when looking to fly to Barcelona (including from Luton, my nearest airport), and there are regular trains that connect to Girona via Barcelona Sants, with the fastest trains taking just 38 minutes from Barcelona’s main station. There are, of course, other train routes from Sants which can take a little longer with more frequent stops, which on average take a little over an hour.

From the airport, there are regular 25-minute trains to Sants every 30 minutes from Terminal 2. It’s recently been announced that between September and the New Year, short to mid-distance train journeys will be free!

If heading to Girona while on a cruise, Barcelona Sants is about a 10-minute taxi ride from the cruise terminal, costing on average about €20 (Barcelona taxis have a minimum fee of €7, plus various supplements for picking up or dropping off at the cruise port or transport stations). Alternatively, you can take a bus directly from the airport to Girona, although times and prices vary greatly according to the time of year, and there may be reduced services. Taxis from the airport to Girona take about an hour and cost about €190.

Accommodation in Girona

I stayed for four nights at the Hotel Ultonia, ideally located close to the Old Town in one direction, and the train station from another. It’s a three-star hotel with clean, spacious rooms, although we opted not to include breakfast, which is served buffet style.

Cocktails at the rooftop bar at Hotel Ultonia, Girona

Cocktails at the rooftop bar at Hotel Ultonia

In 2009, an extension on the hotel saw the addition of 71 four-star rooms, called the Gran Ultonia. Both hotels share the same entrance and common areas, including the fabulous rooftop Terrace where you can enjoy cocktails whilst admiring Girona’s famous cathedral (and the nearby St Feliu Basilica).

Girona City Tour: Independence Square

Just a street or two from our hotel, you’ll find Girona’s Independence Square, or Plaça de la Independència, the largest square in the city (incidentally, tucked away in a quiet corner of the medieval old town, you’ll find one of the smallest public squares in Europe).

Girona’s Independence Square, or Plaça de la Independència, Spain

Girona’s Independence Square, or Plaça de la Independència

The convent and gardens of Sant Agustí originally stood here (the area is still also known as Plaza Sant Agustí or Plaça de Sant Agustí), until the monastery’s buildings were confiscated in 1835 and later replaced with the public square, now lined by 19th century neoclassical buildings, mostly housing cafes, and restaurants, which are especially popular in the evenings. For us, this was a pleasant place for a bite to eat for breakfast before exploring. The centre of the square is dominated by a sculpture which, according to its plaque, is dedicated to the defenders of Girona 1808-1809, giving rise to the independence from Napoleon’s forces, and the square’s name. Most locals might tell you that the hero pointing in the statue is Álvarez de Castro, the military governor of Girona during the siege by the French during the War of Spanish Independence and hailed as a local hero. Castro led just 5,600 men in defence of the city against an 18,000-strong French army and managed to hold off their advances for just over seven months, a somewhat unprecedented feat. There are various place names dotted around Girona in commemoration of Castro, so locals could be forgiven for thinking that he is depicted in the sculpture dedicated to the ‘Defenders of Girona’ in the city’s largest square, alongside a possible member of the local militia dressed in the traditional peasant attire, who perhaps resembles the caganer man from Catalan nativity scenes. However, scholars believe that the soldiers depicted were actually the Defenders of Zaragoza; the sculpture was bought by Ferran Puig I Gibert after it had won a second-class medal in a contest, who then gave the statue to the city of Girona in 1894.

Girona City Tour: The River Onyar and the Onyar Houses

Continuing through the Square, past the sculpture, and under an arch, you’ll find yourself on the left bank of the River Onyar, the main river through the city which claims to have four rivers, as depicted on its coat of arms (at least one of those rivers is a ‘Mediterranean river’ so is dry most of the year).

Picturesque houses on the River Onyar, Girona Spain

Houses lining the banks of the River Onyar

On both sides of the bank, the river is lined with the charmingly colourful Onyar houses, reflecting on to the river itself for the ultimate picture postcard. Large carp can be spotted swimming in the river, and there are eleven bridges linking both sides of the city.

Houses lining the banks of the River Onyar, Girona, Spain

Pont Palanques Vermelles on the River Onyar

One bridge in particular – the Pont Palanques Vermelles – may look a little familiar with its impressive iron lattice work, reminiscent of a certain iconic Parisian landmark. The Pont Palanques Vermelles has two other names, the Pont de les Peixateries Velles and the Pont Eiffel, and it’s this latter moniker which explains the bridge’s similarity to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, as it was designed and built by the Eiffel Company, with works finishing in 1877, before Gustave Eiffel’s most famous construction was built in 1889.

Girona City Tour: The Barri Vell and the Passeif de la Muralla

The Barri Vell (or Old Town) retains a lot of the elements of its earliest years, from the survival of the old Roman road Cardo Maximus (now the Carrer de la Força) which ran north to south across the settlement they called Gerunda. Due to its hilliness, Girona didn’t easily fit true to form for typical Roman towns, and academics are in disagreement where the road running east to west would have been located.

Growing from the Roman foundations, the medieval city with its narrow, cobbled lanes hemmed in by stone buildings is beautifully preserved, and Girona lays claim to having one of the best-preserved Jewish Quarters in Europe. Girona had a flourishing Jewish community from the 12th century when one of the most important Kabbalistic schools was established in the city, until the expulsion of the Jews by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492. The former Synagogue, built in the 15th century, now houses Girona’s Museum of Jewish History, and can be found on Carrer de la Força.

Museums in Girona

The Museum of Jewish History is one of seven museums which can be explored in Girona:

  • Girona History Museum
  • Art Museum
  • Cathedral Treasury Museum
  • Archaeology Museum of Catalonia (Girona)
  • Casa Masó
  • Museum of Cinema
  • Museum of Jewish History

Casa Masó is distinctive amongst the Onyar houses on the river bank, with its white façade and eye-catching third-floor bow window, and is one of influential local architect Rafael Masó’s most important works, and the only Onyar house open to the public.

At the Museum of Cinema, you’ll find Tomàs Mallol’s valuable collection, which showcases items from the first moving images from shadow theatres to today’s cinema.

With the exception of the Cathedral Treasury Museum and Casa Masó, Girona’s museums offer free entry on the first Sunday of each month, and you can purchase a GironaMuseus M6 ticket which offers 50% off entrance to six of the city’s museums, once you’ve paid full price for the first museum, and is valid for six months.

Even the city’s fortifications are a mixture of Roman and medieval. The Romans settled in the town in the 1st century, first using large, local fossilised stone to build the city walls, later rebuilding the walls during the more turbulent 3rdcentury with stones quarried 4km away and cut larger and more squared for additional strength. Using these foundations, the city walls were further built upon in the Middle Ages, with smaller, less uniform stones, which predominantly date from the Carolingian period around the 9th century, although the walls were modified again in the 14th century to encompass the city after it had experienced steady growth during the Medieval Ages. Looking carefully at the walls, the stones themselves tell this story (although it is helpful to be accompanied by a trained archaeologist who knows this stuff already and points it out to you). As Girona grew and evolved, the city outgrew the protective embrace of these stone walls and absorbed them into its cityscape. Today, you can walk along the city walls and the lookout towers, and take in impressive vistas of the city below, admire the ancient fortifications, and the wider landscapes, including the looming mountain ranges – both the Gavarres and the Pyrenees – in the background. There are several entry points to the walls – or the Passeig de la Muralla – including from Plaça de Catalunya on the banks of the river Onyar, but we started from nearby the University of Girona and its History/Geography/Humanities faculty buildings, where Ruben once studied, and made our way along the walls towards the Jardins dels Alemanys (or the German Gardens), so called because this area was home to the barracks that were the residence for German soldiers who had been sent to Girona during the early 19th-century Peninsular War, and nearby the back of the Cathedral, where we admired the buttresses and foundations of the Cathedral.

Girona City Tour: Cathedral of Girona

Girona’s Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Mary of Girona, is astonishing. It can, unsurprisingly, be found on the Plaça de la Catedral, a public square in the heart of the Old Town, which offers a brief, open reprieve from the labyrinthine streets. Already situated at the highest point in the city, the cathedral itself is reached by a staircase of 90 steps, giving it a lofty position above the rest of the square, lined with historic buildings, and offering views of the terracotta tiled roofs, the Bishop’s Palace, and the eye-catching spire of the Church of Sant Feliu just beyond those roofs. If fans of the popular TV series Game of Thrones hadn’t already felt a sense of familiarity walking around Girona, they certainly would here, as the staircase was used as a filming location for the Great Sept of Baelor in King’s Landing, during a showdown scene between Jaime Lannister and the High Sparrow. Other locations dotted around the medieval city were used to film other scenes for Game of Thrones, largely to depict places in Braavos and King’s Landing, which can be explored on special themed tours.

The Cathedral is an absolute must-visit, although I must admit to having a bit of a penchant for admiring the art and architecture in churches and cathedrals, especially if it’s Gothic, and on that score, Girona’s Cathedral definitely delivers. Glass-encased wooden models inside show the development and evolution of the Cathedral from its humble beginnings as a small Roman temple to the spectacular edifice that stands today, and Girona is the proud owner of the widest Gothic nave in the world. At 23m wide, it is almost twice the width of Notre Dame’s 12m-wide nave in Paris. Its nave is second only in width to the Renaissance-era St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Much of the cathedral’s architecture can be traced back to its Gothic-era expansion, particularly its stunning cross vaults and buttresses inside, with little remaining of the earlier Romanesque cathedral, with the exception of the charming mid-11th century cloisters and the surviving 12th century bell tower, named after Charlemagne (a second Romanesque bell tower ceased to exist in the 14th century). Girona has a bit of a fixation on Charlemagne, as local legend claims the great Holy Roman Emperor himself personally conquered Girona from Muslim rule in 785, but there seems no real evidence to corroborate that, although that’s not stopped various items or places being associated with the great man, not least the marble episcopal throne that he was said to have sat on, which can still be found in the Cathedral (another local legend has it that if a couple sit together on the ’Cadira de Carlemany’, they will be married within a year).

The Cathedral still has two bell towers, although construction for the second bell tower began in 1590 and wasn’t completed until the 18th century, by which point, its design had been modified. This newer bell tower stands at 70m high and houses six bells, the oldest of which dates back to 1574, and has an octagonal plan, whereas the older, Romanesque bell tower has a square plan with six levels separated by friezes with Lombard bands and double mullioned windows. Many of the chapels inside the Cathedral are resplendent with Baroque art, gold leaf, and cherubs, as the Cathedral saw further evolution during the Baroque period, including the grand staircase that remains today, and the main façade, from where St Peter and other holy figures watch down on the square and the city below. However, medieval art can still be admired in some of the chapels within the Cathedral; the white marble High Altar dates back to the 11th century, and there are tombs of medieval Bishops, as well as those of Ramon Berenguer II, Count of Barcelona in the 11th century, and Ermesinde of Carcassonne, the Countess consort of Barcelona, Girona and Osona, who also acted as regent of those counties for both her son and her grandson, and wielded great influence politically and in the arts in the early 11th century.

The cost of entrance to the cathedral is €7 (€5 for pensioner/student concession), which includes an audio guide, and access to the nave, cloisters, and the Treasury, where further remarkable art can be admired, including the 1,000 year Beatus of Girona, one of the most richly decorated books of its kind, even featuring double-page illuminations, with commentary on the Book of Revelations by the monk Beatus of Liébana. Although the original is currently featuring in an exhibition elsewhere, a replica can still be seen. Religious art and artefacts can be admired, including the extravagantly Baroque bedstead­­ for Our Lady of August, as well as exquisitely detailed boxes and objects brought back from raids of Islamic-occupied Cordoba, and a statue reputedly of Charlemagne, as Girona has a unique tradition of revering him as a Saint, although the Catholic Church never beatified him. However, the crown jewel of the Treasury is easily the magnificent ‘Creation Tapestry’, an embroidered work of art dating back to the 11th century which was only rediscovered in the 19th, prompting many questions regarding what the tapestry was used for – was it hung on a wall in a chapel, or some other space in the cathedral during any special celebrations – or why it ceased to be used until its rediscovery. What was immediately clear upon its discovery, and remains obvious today, is the extraordinary quality of craftsmanship, symbolic representations, and its antiquity. Known as the ‘Creation Tapestry’, it depicts scenes from the Bible’s Book of Genesis, and cosmic elements, and is widely considered to be one of the master works of Romanesque tapestry. Although the tapestry is 12ft by 15.4ft, what we see today is not the complete piece; it is merely the upper part of a panel of couched needlework. However, what survives today remains very impressive and intriguing.

The Romanesque cloisters, the final part of the Cathedral to be explored, are a place of tranquillity, but also give access to a recently discovered stained glass window, found only in 2019 after some 500 years when one of the Baroque altarpieces in a chapel was having restoration work done. The hidden stained-glass window was actually the oldest example of its kind in Catalonia, and can now be admired, along with an informative video explaining the different panels, and how it was rediscovered and restored.

Also included in the Cathedral’s entrance fee is entrance to the nearby Basilica of St Feliu, the spire of which alongside the Cathedral makes up the most iconic part of Girona’s skyline. Sant Feliu was Girona’s original cathedral, dating back to the earlier days of Christianity. Construction began in the 12th century, and the church today retains much of its Romanesque style, although it also features a later Gothic nave, and a covered baroque façade. Inside, the church houses Roman and early Christian sarcophagi dating back to the 3rd and 4th centuries, and Girona’s celebrated Álvarez de Castro, who we didn’t quite meet before in the city’s Independence Square.

Girona invites plenty of exploration, whether it’s getting lost in its cobbled maze of medieval streets, wandering along its city walls, admiring the artwork and treasures of its cathedral, or perhaps one of its museums. We certainly managed to cover some of its greatest hits within a day, with plenty of time to relax in the shade while enjoying lunch and a game of chess, but there’s still more to explore in future visits – such as the Arab baths (something of a misnomer, as they date to the 12th century, centuries after the brief Islamic occupation of Girona in the 8th century, and were inspired by Roman baths) or to discover more of the city’s Modernist and Noucentist architecture, created by leading Catalan architects such as Rafael Masó, Eugeni Campllonch, Isidre Bosch Bataller, Joan Roca Pinet, Josep Martí Burch, and Enric Catà Catà. The fact that much of the city itself is easily explored in about a day makes it ideal for a day trip from a cruise ship, but there’s always even more to explore (or perhaps to enjoy your explorations at a more leisurely pace), which makes Girona even more ideal for a city break for perhaps a long weekend.

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