Spain’s Costa Brava region, just an hour northeast of Barcelona, is a surreal, unkept landscape made up of the majestic Pyrenees mountains to the north, well-preserved medieval towns spread out over the 2,272-square-mile region, and a rugged coastline offering stunning vistas of sparkling turquoise waters, sandy beaches, and not-so-sleepy fishing villages. With a Mediterranean climate and 14 Michelin-starred restaurants (many cite Costa Brava’s now-closed elBulli as the restaurant that sparked the recent gastronomic revolution), the “Wild Coast” of Spain is a premiere travel destination worth exploring. The best part? It’s a seriously affordable getaway.
Girona is the gateway to Costa Brava with regular daily train service in and out of Barcelona. This beautiful medieval city has recently gained international attention after HBO’s Game of Thrones featured many of the city’s landmarks. Stay at the charming Hotel Ultonia and walk to most of the main attractions, including the Girona Cathedral, the Basilica of Sant Feliu, and the all-encompassing Museum of Jewish History. If you prefer more modern accommodations, Hotel Carlemany (we found standards rooms at $79) is a great choice close to Girona’s train station. For a spectacular special occasion meal, El Celler de Can Roca, the Michelin 3-star restaurant awarded “best restaurant in the world” in 2013 and again in 2015, is where you’ll want to splurge. If you can’t score a reservation (seats book up as far as 11 months in advance) or if you can’t swallow the 180 euro (or $209) starting price tag for their smaller, classic tasting menu, there are still plenty of gourmet options to choose from in Girona. Divinum offers a lunch of inventive and beautifully plated tapas, a choice of entree, and dessert for 39 euros or $45 USD. Their dinner menu starts of 50 euros (or $58). For modern European dishes with a Catalan twist, head to Occi where you can order off their reasonably priced menu (most run below 20 euros or under $23) or opt for their seasonal tasting menu. Curcuma is another fabulous dining option for tapas with a nightly chef’s menu starting at 27 euros or about $30.
The seaside town of Cadaques is a beautiful place to get lost and many artists, like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Marcel Duchamp, and local celebrity Salvador Dali found endless inspiration here. The white-washed buildings with blue doors, narrow passageways, sprawling bougainvillea plants, and crystal clear waters hugging the coastline are the perfect setting for a few days in the sunshine. Follow the coastal trail from Cadaques to visit the eccentric and bizarre home of Salvador Dali at the nearby Portlligat Museum House (adults, 11 euros or about $13). Reserve your visit in advance as the main area of the home is offered by guided tours only. No visit to Cadaques is complete without a dinner at Compartir Restaurant, the absolute best restaurant in town. Opened by three elBulli alumni, the quality, presentation, inventiveness, taste, and level of service you’ll find at Compartir borders on the divine. Diners are encouraged to share dishes, which range from 10 euros to 48 euros (or $11 to $55). Alternatively, you can pull up a seat at one of Casa Anita’s communal tables where there’s no printed menu or English-speaking waitstaff and experience a meal comprised of wild hand gestures, incomplete translations by the other guests, and total enjoyment of the impossibly fresh seafood dishes brought out from the family owned and operated restaurant. Local dishes start at 15 euros (about $18) for the local anchovies of Cadaques.
Hometown of Salvador Dali, Figueres is famous for the Dali Theatre-Museum, Spain’s second-most visited museum. Conceived by the surrealist artist himself, the museum (14 euros or $16 for adults) is his largest work of art, housing a vast collection of Dali’s work, as well as his private collection of other famous Catalan artists. The great surrealist is buried in a crypt beneath the former theater’s stage. In an adjacent wing, requiring a separate entrance ticket (7 euros or about $8), lies the Dali Jewels, a permanent collection of 37 beautiful jewels in gold and semi-precious stones designed between 1941 and 1970 that are every bit as otherworldly as anything Dali has put to canvas. For those looking to stay overnight in Figueres, head to Hotel Duran (we found double rooms starting at $55). The hotel owns and displays a vast private collection of original Dali sketches gifted to the owners in lieu of payment for the many elaborate dinner parties Dali would host at the hotel’s restaurant.
Snag a room at the Hotel Spa Terraza (we found twin rooms starting at $86) in Roses to enjoy the ocean views, complimentary poolside breakfast, and rooftop spa for the ultimate in relaxation. From Roses, it’s a 30-minute drive inland to neighboring vineyards, Celler Mas Llunes and Espelt Vinticultors de l’Emporda; both offer wine tastings of the region’s exceptional and unique grape varieties. For dining in Roses, try Rafa’s Seafood Restaurant for the day’s freshest catches from the sea (daily market prices starting from 4 euros or less than $5). For something a little more luxurious, head to one-Michelin starred els Brancs for a stellar seaside meal, where you can experience their tasting menu for under 75 euros (or $87).
The peak summer months finds an influx of tourists from other parts of Spain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, driving up costs and resulting in fully-booked hotels all around Costa Brava. While Costa Brava — and Spain in general — can still be a budget option for a top European destination, traveling during the months of May or September will grant you temperate weather and fewer crowds.