Most people won’t argue that Barcelona stands as one of the greatest cities on Earth. The people are warm and amiable, the food heavenly and aplenty, and the beaches brim with gorgeous people from the world over. As you weave through the town’s ambling streets with structures often tilting over your head like crooked teeth, you’ll see buildings with doorknobs older than the United States, facades pocked by bullet holes from la Guerra Civil, and a mind-bending church over 150 years into its construction. The cat’s out of the bag when it comes to the magic of Barcelona, but even the booming tourist population does little to undermine the city’s persevering allure.
But say you’ve been a few times, and you’re curious about what lies beyond this gem of the old world? Surely the grace of Catalonia can’t cease to be the moment you leave the Barcelona city limits. Here are seven of the best day trips you can make during your stay.
If you’re a Barcelona regular, Tibidabo might be a sight you’ve taken in a number of times without actually knowing. Tibidabo is visible—nay, unmissable—from most parts of Barcelona, featuring an iconic cathedral with a statue depicting Jesus’ ascent from the crypt. The highest point of the Serra de Collserola (at 1680 feet), Tibidabo is nestled within the Parc de Collserola, the world’s largest metropolitan natural park, measuring in at 22 times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park.
Situated at the top of the mountain is the eponymous Tibidabo, one of Europe’s oldest amusement parks. The park was built between 1899 and 1905 by the physician and entrepreneur Salvador Andreu. Andreu held the patent on a famous throat lozenge, and used his earnings to become one of Catalonia’s greatest real estate developers of the era. At a time when Barcelona was beginning to expand its development to account for diminished living standards, Andreu funded many successful large-scale civic projects.
The Tibidabo Amusement Park features over 30 rides and attractions, spanning the gamut from interactive theater, water rides, and, of course, a few classic roller coasters. Most importantly, the park allows its visitors to experience some of the most majestic views of the entire region.
The flagship attraction for Tibidabo is without question the Avio, a flight simulator constructed in 1928 featuring an exact replica of the first plane to ever make the trip from Barcelona to Madrid. The Avio is a small passenger plane suspended by a large arm, and is, in fact, powered entirely by its own propeller. Adults and accompanied children will be treated to a gorgeous look at the surrounding city and mountains, as well as an intriguing glimpse into the past.
Acrophobics might keep clear of the Talaia, another popular feature of the park. The Talaia is a crane-like cart experience towering at over 150 feet tall. It’s safe to say the Talaia might be the literal peak of your visit to Tibidabo. Visitors will be offered a stunning 360° view of Barcelona, the sea, and the surrounding Collserola mountains. Adults and children above 36” are allowed to ride, but no one would fault you for sitting this one out in favor of solid ground.
READ MORE: What To Do In Barcelona With Kids
If your interest for amusement extends beyond simple heights, Tibidabo has you covered. Have a go on the steel Muntanya Russa (Catalan for ‘roller coaster’), which features a 101-foot drop, a 50-second ride time, and a top speed of 55 mph. For those in search of classic park attractions, Tibidabo also features bumper cars, a film-inspired haunted house called the Hotel Krueger, and, of course, a carousel.
Now some travelers may search for a more informative and enriching experience during their journey to the top of the sierra. No one can fault these individuals, and, no doubt, they may be more inclined to indulge this urge at the legendary Sagrat Cor.
Catalan architect Enric Sagnier designed and began construction on the Sagrat Cor in 1902, and his son Josep Maria Sagnier i Vidal completed the cathedral in 1961. It is said that the Sagrat Cor was erected amid rumors that an unwelcome Protestant church and hotel-casino would be built upon the mountain-top. Stylistically, the church is a combination of the Catalan modernista movement (the Spanish equivalent of Art Nouveau) and neo-gothicism.
While perhaps more classic than other Barcelona destinations like the Sagrada Familia, the Sagrat Cor is undeniably stunning, both in design and location. The aforementioned statue of Jesus rises over its frosted spires and ornate gothic arches.
How to access:
In normal times, Tibidabo can be accessed by the Tramvia blau and the Tibidabo Funicular, two railways built in 1901 before funicular railways existed almost anywhere else. Unfortunately, due to years of wear-and-tear and rising safety concerns, both lines were closed for repair in 2018 with no current date to reopen. For the time being, Tibidabo can most easily be accessed via the TC2 bus connecting to the Vallvidrera Funicular train, or by good old-fashioned driving.
2. Montserrat Mountain
It’s hard to speak of churches atop mountains without mentioning Montserrat, a range that rivals the Pyrenees Mountains. Catalan for “Serrated Mountain,” Montserrat is located about an hour outside of town, and features the highest point in all of Catalonia, Saint Jeroni (nearly a mile above sea level). It’s common for Catalan children to journey to Montserrat in order to take an overnight hike up to Saint Jeroni and witness the sunset. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see all of Catalonia (save Barcelona, ironically), the Mediterranean fading to the horizon, and the nearby island of Mallorca.
Just 1,000 feet below this summit is the Benedictine Abbey Santa Maria de Montserrat. The abbey features between 70 and 80 monks, and celebrated its 1000th anniversary all the way back in 1880. To call the abbey picturesque is an understatement. This well-kept relic is situated pristinely on the mountainside, flanked by the captivating, pink conglomerate rock faces of the mountain.
The Abbey features some particularly impressive draws beyond the scenery. It holds a statue of one of Spain’s few Black Madonnas (a piece said to hold healing powers), the Abbey’s Escalonia choir is one of Europe’s longest-standing boys’ choirs, and the attached Montserrat Monastery Museum holds works by greats such as Salvador Dali, El Greco, and Monet.
Should you choose to make your way up to Saint Jeroni or one of the park’s other peaks (and you very much should), it is recommended you wear proper hiking attire, though the paths are quite well-formed. Because the area is well-maintained and aims to leave the surroundings largely untouched, it is also asked that hikers stick to the marked paths in order to not disturb the vegetation and wildlife.
How to access:
A round trip train ride from Placa Espanya will run you about 22 euros, and take a little over an hour each way. While this trip will likely take a full day, this is without doubt a small price to pay for an afternoon consumed by beauty and serenity. Montserrat is a can’t-miss for those looking for a legendary travel experience.
There’s more to a fun vacation than hiking and churches, and many of us look for a lively locale once the sun sets. While Barcelona has a wealth of options for nightlife, sometimes it’s fun to look off the beaten path. And for at least one week a year (though truly it has no off-season), Sitges should be one of your must-see destinations. That week is, of course, Carnival (starting 20 February in 2020).
While many will think of Rio at the mention of the word (and they wouldn’t be wrong to do so), Spain indeed also houses some of the world’s most famous Carnival celebrations. Sitges sits at the top of this list.
From the moment King Carnival arrives, Sitges unleashes on the festivities, featuring over 50 different floats, delectable street food, and as much as drinking as you can (responsibly) manage. Common cuisine during Carnival includes xatonadas (cod croquettes with romesco) and botifarra (a widely enjoyed variety of Spanish sausage).
And for those looking to be a part of Catalonia’s vibrant gay community, Sitges’ Carnival celebration pours into the town’s many gay dance clubs and gay-friendly bars. Pick up a fun costume, and take part in the festivities. After all, how often do you get to see so many people from so many walks of life all let loose at once?
For the other 51 weeks of the year, Sitges features a wealth of beautiful beaches with far less crowds than Barcelona’s tourist-jammed Barceloneta or Bogatell. If you want a mellow, sun-soaked day accompanied by a couple cervezas, pop into Avinguida Balmins or Platja d’Aiguadoic. Of course, it is Europe, and you’re bound to catch individuals in varying states of attire. And should you happen to arrive on the locally famous Bears’ Week (early September), you may be in for more of a show than expected.
If you happen to be on a foodie day tour of this charming town, you’ll be treated with a variety of seafood-centric delights (it is a fishing village, after all!). Fideos are quite popular in the area (basically paella with fine noodles instead of rice), as is seppia with potatoes and aioli, and sweet peppers stuffed with cod. The local libation of choice is silky, nectarous Malvasia: a grape well known throughout Catalonia, southern France, and Italy. This makes for a lovely sipping treat alongside your dessert.
After seeing what Sitges has to offer, you might be inclined to hit some other neighboring Catalan towns. You’ve headed southwest, so maybe it’s time to check out the northeast. Just 45 minutes north of Barcelona, you’ll find Mataro. A hop and a skip south of Costa Brava, Mataro is a charming seaside town all its own.
Mataro might have the most far-reaching history of any location we’ve so far discussed, with some recently unearthed roman ruins near the city center that date back to the 1st century AD. This dig site is known as the Llauder Tower, and is now a visitable attraction. The remains comprise what was once a Roman bath house and small villa.
Architecture enthusiasts will surely bask in the Basilica of Santa Maria—a gorgeous 15th century Gothic cathedral—and the Conjunt del Dolors (Ensemble of Sorrows), a stunning, morose example of Catalan Baroque. Even better, both churches are completely free to visit!
If the playas at Sitges were still a little too impersonal for your taste, the beach at Mataro will likely suit your fancy. Stretching over 2.2 km, the beach at Mataro allows you loads of personal space to stretch out and soak in the Spanish sun. And just nearby is the Mataro marina complete with top-notch restaurants and shopping.
If you’d like a day away from the hustle and bustle, Mataro has everything your heart desires.
5. Figueres, Girona
All the way up the Spanish coast to the southern border of France is the province of Girona. And within this province lies a gem of the nation, and, most famously, the birthplace of Salvador Dali: the town of Figueres.
Figueres is a culturally significant town for many reasons beyond the famous surrealist artist. The city was an exit point for those escaping the horrors of the Guerra Civil, and because of that, Figueres was severely bombed throughout 1938-1939. The city also features one of Europe’s most well-preserved Jewish districts, serving as a reminder of the strength and size of the Catalonian Jewish community.
That said, far and away, the most significant offering of Figueres is the Salvador Dali Museum. It cannot go without mentioning. Even seeing pictures of the dream-like crimson edifice captivates the eye. If your eight year-old self had a masterful command of architecture, you might have drawn up such blueprints for your future dream abode.
The outer walls of the castle are adorned with plaster pastries, and balanced upon the top, massive eggs angling to and fro. And, as if a time portal opened and unloaded the remainder of the structure, a giant Epcot-like globe perches itself just behind the massive burgundy curiosity.
Once inside, you’ll be treated to armored knights equipped with deadly French baguettes, a mirrored pink flamingo room, and a rainy taxi. If none of this sounds like anything, it is simply because words cannot quite describe the displays inside. One simply has to witness these outlandish contrivances first-hand.
If you want the full Dali experience, head over to his museum of jewelry next door once you’re done. You’ll have a chance to check out a number of equally mind-boggling pieces of jewelry that Dali created between 1941-1970. Then, of course, stroll over to Restaurante Duran, a famous haunt of Dali during his bizarre time on Earth. You may feel like you’ve traveled back in time as you sit beneath the elegant chandeliers of this classic establishment; just take it easy on the absinthe.
If you seek to dive a bit further back into history, don’t miss the Passeig de la Muralla. Meaning "Walk of the Wall," the Passeig is what remains of the 1st century Roman walls that originally surrounded Girona. Take the trek and you’ll be treated to over 3 km of walkways and a dazzling view of the opulent Jardines de la Francesa.
6. Tossa de Mar
North of Girona is the medieval town of Tossa de Mar. While this is the furthest point from Barcelona that we’ll reach in our guide, it might be the most worthwhile of any day trip we have mentioned.
Tossa de Mar has origins that date all the way back to the Neolithic period, and it believed to have been a continuously populated settlement throughout that time. It was later inhabited by Iberian settlers around the 4th century BC and then the Romans around 1st century BC. Because of its abundant history, Tossa de Mar has been left with a delightful hodgepodge of structures and ruins that can now be viewed and visited.
The oldest of its sites is most likely the Roman Villa ruins, built around 1st century BC. Here, onlookers can see a variety of incredibly advanced bits of early technology including a fruit press, a spa, and an early example of an indoor heating system. Other wonders like works of mosaic art and pottery, as well as everyday tools like hairpins and kitchen utensils, have also been preserved at the site.
Also showcased within Tossa de Mar is a walled-in district called “Old Town,” the remains of a 14th century medieval town. Old Town was a defensible parameter surrounded with large turrets and towers. Within these walls, travelers will be treated to narrow cobblestone walkways, the Governor’s mansion, a medieval hospital, and several different dilapidated churches from the Roman and Gothic eras.
And while all this history can be captivating, one should not forget that Tossa de Mar is situated directly on the azure waters of the Mediterranean. If you’ve come all this way, do what there is to do best in Spain: enjoy some time on one of Tossa de Mar’s gorgeous beaches. The Tossa beach, La Mar Menuda, and El Codolar will all give Barcelona a run for its money on what it means to be a stunning stretch of sand.
The Tossa beach actually stretches alongside the medieval castle of Tossa de Mar, truly a unique beach-going experience. La Mar Menuda, however, might suit the beach-goer looking for more accessible facilities, restaurants, and cafés. El Codolar, on the other hand, is tucked away behind the castle walls, and has by far the most private, sequestered feel of all three.
7. Penedès Wine Country
Spain is at no shortage of unbelievable wine at affordable prices. While they may not have quite the reputation of France or Italy, make no mistake, Spain is a major player in the wine world. And in recent years, Catalonia has stepped up to the plate to be a fresh international player, particularly in the natural wine world. Barcelona wine bars like Bar Brutal showcase the local talent, and you can’t help but wander into a wine bar offering a chilled glass or even a wine tasting of Cava to accompany your tapas.
Cava has a bit of an awkward reputation when it comes to wine drinkers. Many Americans can’t help but think of the tawdry black bottles of Freixenet at their local 7-Eleven when they hear mention of the Spanish spumante sipper. The truth is, there is much less of a difference between much of the cava found in Spain and those celebratory $200 bottles of Dom Perignon than you might think.
Cava and Champagne share the exact same production technique: methode champenoise, as pioneered by the French. Because of the prominent French influence throughout Catalonia (Priorat and Penedès both feature major French players throughout their history), Penedès adopted this difficult and prestigious method to make its own sparkling wine. And make no mistake, it isn’t all 7-Eleven quality—there is some truly mind-blowing cava out there!
Vilafranc del Penedès will take you about an hour to get to, either by car or the R4 train from Sants Estacio (how amazing are trains in Europe?). Vilafranc del Penedès is a gorgeous, quaint town with an enamoring old town area filled with cobbled streets through which to stroll, and plenty of lovely restaurants and cafés to stop for an espresso and lunch. And wine die-hards might find interest in the Vinseum wine museum located in town. The museum features over 17,000 artifacts related to wine production, some dating back to the Roman Empire.
Most of the large wineries, however, are located in the neighboring town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. Here you’ll of course find the large names such as Freixenet and Cordonieu. But the Raventos winery is not to be missed. Raventos has been in the wine business since 1497, and is largely responsible for establishing the Cava D.O. in the 1970s. The estate’s current vintenor, Pepe Raventos, still works closely with his father Manuel and 90-year old grandmother Isabel Negra i Valls to make some of the best sparkling wine that Penedès has to offer.
But why stop at one winery? The abundance of beautiful countryside and relatively flat countryside might inspire you to grab a couple bicycles for a romantic day trip through the area. It’s hard to imagine a better day than getting a (responsible) buzz on dropping in from winery-to-winery for a quick tour and wine tasting. Finish your day at Cal Ton, a Michelin guide-mentioned local stomp offering high-end traditional fare at affordable prices.
For help planning all of your day trips beyond Barcelona's city limits, turn to Journy.
And for more on all Catalonia has to offer, turn to our complete guide to Barcelona.