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Millions of visitors flock to Catalonia in Spain's northeast each year, lured especially by its marvelous beaches and spectacular capital Barcelona. But there's a lot more to this varied land, from medieval towns to wine to ecotourism, all flavoured with a venerable culture and language reaching back nearly two millennia. For the most part, its four provinces offer a little bit of everything, so it might be helpful to provide an overview of what you'll find where, to help guide you on your next trips - because just once is definitely not enough!
By far the most populous (pop. 5,5 million) and best known province covers 7,726 square kilometers (2,983 sq. miles), running from the busy shores of the Mediterranean up to the lovely, mountainous Pyrenees foothills in the Alt Buerguedà. Its single largest magnet for visitors is of course the city of Barcelona, home to 30 percent of Catalonia's population, and perhaps best known for its extraordinary body of Moderniste (Art Deco) buildings and park typified by the phantasmagoric Sagrada Família basilica of Spain's most famous architect, Antoni Gaudí. Not far behind is the atmospheric mediaeval Ciutat Vella (Old Town), also known as the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), its narrow streets alive with shops and restaurants. Visitors also love strolling the leafy pedestrian Rambles, exploring its colorful and exploring the more modern precincts along the coast, including more than 4km (2½ mi.) of sandy beaches. For culture lovers, Montjuïch Hill, is home to museums and attractions including the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, the Fundació Joan Miró, the Barcelona Botanical Garden; the Museum of Archaeology of Catalonia; and the Olympic and Sports Museum (a number of stadiums and venues for the 1992 Olympics that first brought Barcelona out onto the world stage in a major way are located up here, as well). Also in Montjuïch is the Poble Espanyol, essentially a theme park whose theme is Spain, with more than a hundred structures recreating some of the country’s most emblematic buildings and sites. Finally, the performance, nightlife, and dining scenes here are absolutely superb, and marvelously round out a trip to Catalonia's capital.
The province's second biggest draw is its many beaches and beach towns, for example Blanes, Lloret de Mar (the coast's top summer resort), and Tossa de Mar. South of the city, charming towns that are also top summer resorts include Casteldefells and Sitges.
History is also interwoven throughout the province's rolling hills, especially in atmospheric medieval towns such as Rupit, the aforementioned Tossa de Mar, and Vic. Wine lovers will love exploring the 80-some vineyards and wineries of Barcelona's Penedès region - best known for its cava, Spain’s bubby answer to Champagne, as well as increasingly acclaimed for still wines such as a new breed of crisp whites. And the province's rolling hills and valleys, including nature reserves such as Montseny and Sant Llorenç del Munt i l'Obac, offer high quality hiking, biking (including dirt/mountain biking), horseback riding, paragliding, and rock climbing.
Speaking of nature reserves, one called Montserrat (above) is centred on perhaps the most iconic spot outside Barcelona city, a distinctive, undulating collection of limestone hills jutting from the surrounding plains and site of a Benedictine monastery that's home to a famed Black Madonna statue, the Virgin of Montserrat (also Catalonia's patron saint) dating back to the very early Middle Ages.
Just over 5,900 km2 (2,280 sq. mi.) in size and with a population of 740,000, the province north of Barcelona is packed with much the same marvelous mix, minus the wine but with a spectacular addition or two. The eponymous provincial capital is centered on a mediaeval quarter that's one of Spain's most evocative (not to mention well kept) and includes El Call, one of the Iberian Peninsula's best preserved Jewish quarters.
More medieval magnificence can be found in other towns just a short drive away such as Besalú, Castellfollit de la Roca, Pals, and Peratallada, while Pals also offers some sweet beaching - as do others along the province's Costa Brava ("Rugged Coast"), such as Blanes, Palafrugell, Platja d'Aro, and Tamariu. Another marvelous beach town, Empuriabrava, offers the unique added benefit of proximity to an ancient site unique on the Iberian Peninsula: the amazing, UNESCO World Heritage classical ruins of Empùries, founded in 575 BCE as a Greek colony and later expanded by the Romans.
Farther north, you can also find laid-back seaside experiences in lovely towns like Cadaquès (above), Figueres (also home to the sometimes zany Salvador Dalí Museum), and Roses, while inland, nature reserves such as Cadí-Moixerò, Cap de Creus, and the Volcanic Area of la Garrotxa offer excellent eco and adventure opportunities.
The least known and populated (414,000) of Catalonia's provinces covers 12,150 landlocked square km (4,690 sq. mi.) from fertile plains in the south - with a medieval castles route; a wine route showcasing Lleida wine’s ancient roots and its Costers del Segre denomination of origin; and a lovely, “lake train” excursion through some of the ravishing scenery of the surrounding plains - to some of Catalonia's most spectacular mountain areas, part of the Pyrenees. It's the latter in particular which especially lure most visitors, a region that’s become one of Spain's top meccas for skiing and adventure sports. Lleida ecotourism highlights include nature parks like Aigüestortes, Alt Pirineu, Cadí-Moixerò, and Estany de Sant Maurici. They’re all magnets for hiking, biking, kayaking, horseback riding, caving, and fishing in mountain streams and lakes, as well as more out and out adrenaline pumpers such as river rafting, canyoning, rock climbing, mountain biking, paragliding, and hang gliding. Perhaps most famously of all, here you’ll find 11 of Spain’s top resorts for skiing, snowboarding, and other snow sports (one of the best known being Baqueira Beret).
Throughout these highlands are sprinkled enchanting old medieval hamlets, villages, and towns, which besides offering agritourism opportunities also features ancient treasures such as 10 Romanesque churches of a valley called the Vall de Boí (above); of the early Middle Ages, they’re so striking they’ve also made the UNESCO World Heritage list. Another valley, the Vall d’Aran, is notable also because geographically it’s actually on the French side of the Pyrenees, and is especially notable for a distinct local language related both to Catalan and French Occitan. And one of the most distinguished small cities up here is La Seu d’Urgell, whose 12th-century Romanesque cathedral is one of Catalonia’s oldest. The city is also notable for being the gateway to Andorra, one of the peculiarities of Europe as an independent principality wedged in the Pyrenees between Spain and France.
The province's eponymous capital, meanwhile, is attractive and laid back, though fewer large historic landmarks have survived here than in various other major cities of Spain - they include not one but two cathedrals (the Romanesque/Gothic Seu Vella was turned into a fortress, while the Baroque neoclassical Seu Nova is still in use as such today), along with 13th-century Gothic Paeria Palace (which serves as the city hall) and the 12th-century Knights Templar Castle.
The 6,500 km2 (2,500 sq mi) of Catalonia's southernmost province (pop. 796,000) are home to some of its most coveted beaches, along the Costa Daurada (Golden Coast) - the likes of L'Arrabassada, Cala Fonda (aka "Waikiki"), Els Capellans, Platja Llarga, La Savinosa, Tamarit, and Torredembarra.
But especially for fans of archaeological sites, the provincial capital may perhaps be one of the most interesting after Barcelona, thanks to ancient Tarraco's status as one the pre-eminent city of Roman Hispania and one of the greatest of the entire Roman Empire. That left it with a remarkable legacy of antiquity, foremost among which is its impressive semicircular amphitheater (above); its other Roman landmarks include remnants of the ancient city walls and gates, along with the Praetorian Forum and Roman Circus complex, where chariot races were held and civic functions performed; the main Roman forum, the Fòrum de la Colònia; the Triumphal Arch of Berà; and the aqueduct today known as the Pont del Diable (“Devil’s Bridge”). Also highly recommended is a stop at the Museu Nacional Aquelògic de Tarragona, which does a brilliant job curating, exhibiting, and explaining the treasures of Roman Tarraco, as well as including original mosaics and sections of the walls. "Newer" Tarragona standouts include its grand, mostly 13th-century Romanesque/Gothic cathedral as well as a huge necropolis dating back to the 3rd century AD and comprising more than 2,000 tombs (viewable only through a fence, but with fascinating onsite museum, admission included with the archaeology museum).
Beyond the capital and beaches, the province's main star is a pair of monasteries founded by Cistercian (aka Trappist) monks or nuns in the 12th century. The more reknowned is Poblet, (founded in 1151), a UNESCO World Heritage Site at the foot of the Prades Mountains, 40 minutes from Tarragona city, while Santes Creus (Holy Crosses), founded seven years later, is a half hour's drive east; other marvelous medieval towns of Tarragona include Montblanc and Siurana. For outstanding historic architecture of more recent vintage, check out the city of Reus, with a number of buildings by the great Modernista (Art Nouveau) Lluís Domènech i Montaner (fun fact: this is also the birthplace of Antoni Gaudí, though none of his own work can be found here).
And speaking of Siurana, this also happens to be one of the key towns in Tarragona's inland Priorat region, known for production of among the most prestigious of Spain's wines, home to more than a hundred wineries, many of them opening their doors and vineyards to visitors; others include Gratallops and Porrera.
On the outdoorsy end, Tarragona has a similar array of adventure options both in and beyond nature reserves such as Delta de l'Ebre, Els Ports, and Riet Vell, and it's particularly known for its Prades Mountains rock climbing.
Finally, theme-park enthusiasts will enjoy Spain’s most popular, Port Aventura in Salou, a mere 15 minutes south of Tarragona city. It includes areas themed as a Catalan fishing town, the American Old West, pre-Columbian Mexico, China, Polynesia, and the children's TV show Sesame Street.