In the northeastern corner of Spain and bordering France at the Pyrenees, Catalonia is one of Spain's more independent regions. It has its own language and semiautonomous government. With Barcelona for its capital, it is energetic, dynamic and has a blend of cultural influences—Catalan, Spanish and French.
Barcelona is the region's biggest attraction, but we highly recommend seeing some other towns in the area as well.
A small but ancient city, Girona dates back to the Roman era. Located 360 mi/575 km northeast of Madrid, it stands beneath the Pyrenees and provides a welcome break from (or base from which to see) the surrounding Costa Brava seaside resorts. Its narrow medieval streets and alleyways lead to staircases that climb to churches and houses.
Visit the 11th-century cathedral and Jewish Quarter, and walk up the Carrer de la Forca, an ancient street. Also see the pastel-colored houses beside the Onar River and browse among the shops in the medieval section of town (surrounding the cathedral).
Val D'Aran is a high valley in the Pyrenees. The valley is home to several towns (Arties, Baqueria and Vielha) that offer a little nightlife and a lot of home-cooked meals. Most restaurants in the area serve platters of blood sausage, game and fresh vegetables family-style. Val D'Aran has been the winter vacation spot of Spain's elite for years (the area is known for its exceptional skiing), but the area is so naturally beautiful—think clear mountain lakes and rushing waterfalls—that it's worth making a visit in the off-season, as well.
Located near the border with France and just inland from the Mediterranean, Figueres is famous as the hometown of surrealist painter Salvador Dali. The town's Salvador Dali Museum is a must-see and one of the most popular museums in Spain. Dali designed it himself, and it echoes his bizarre and flamboyant personality (the egg shapes adorning the exterior give you an early indication of what's in store).
Those who want to get more Daliesque should put a fish in their suitcase and head to nearby Cadaques, where Dali lived for much of his life. It's a beautiful, upscale resort town on the Mediterranean, somewhat removed from other coastal cities (you get there by way of a ride over steep mountain roads). Dali's house in the Port Lligat area is open to visitors and has plenty more wacky stuff. http://www.salvador-dali.org.
A half-hour train ride southwest of Barcelona is Sitges, a tiny but lively seaside resort. A relaxed and casual attitude pervades: You can sip cafe con leche in shorts and a T-shirt at its many cafes, and there are some excellent restaurants. Most visitors spend their days on the beach and their nights in the discos. The town is popular with gay and straight visitors from all over Europe and is gaining popularity with travelers from the U.S.
A bit farther down the coast and beautifully situated on a rocky hill overlooking the Mediterranean, Tarragona has enough to fill two or three days, though it can also be seen on a day trip from Barcelona. Naturally fortified, this strategic location 260 mi/420 km east of Madrid was the home base for Roman troops who conquered the Iberian Peninsula, then later became an elegant and cultured Roman capital. Today, Tarragona boasts one of Spain's highest concentrations of Roman ruins.
A good place to start is the Passeig Arqueologic, a walking tour that encircles the northern half of the city, following a path between the Roman walls built in the AD 200s and British fortification walls from the 1700s. Roman columns and bronze statuary depicting Roman gentry are found all along this fascinating route.
Other sights include an amphitheater and an aqueduct known as the Devil's Bridge that lies outside the original city walls. (Buses to the aqueduct depart regularly from the old-town area.) About 20 minutes outside the city lies Arco de Bara, a Roman triumphal arch.
Tarragona is also a good place to relax on the beach, as it has a quieter atmosphere than some of the other seaside resorts in the vicinity. It is, however, aside from its Roman monuments, an industrialized city.