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Highlights of Catalonia

The region of Catalonia, with its independent identity, is full of rich contrasts embracing modernity and ancient tradition in equal measure. It has its own style of cuisine, which displays Iberian, Italian and Arab influences.

16 March 2023
Read time: 7m 27s

Occupying a neat triangle of northeast Spain, Catalonia holds a unique place within Europe. A region of contrasts, it is defined by its fiery spirit yet remains very much part of Spain. It embraces modernity and ancient tradition at the same time and has a character all of its own.

A Region of Contrasts

Take a look at a map, and you begin to get the idea. Bordered by the snowy Pyrenees, the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean and, in the hinterland, a mass of hilltop villages, monasteries and vineyards which provide an almost medieval character, it immediately invites closer inspection.

With a proud and strong identity of its own, unique culture and language, it really is a country within a country, distinct from the rest of Spain. As for the big ‘draws’ of this exciting region, the headline grabbers of Catalonia are the usual suspects: artistic Barcelona and the golden beaches of the Costas in particular. They, too, have their contrasts.

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The Cities

Cities of Catalonia

Of course, Barcelona has its historic Ramblas, but it is essentially a contemporary, vibrant world city. Even Gaudí’s iconic cathedral seems funky and modern, despite being constructed (mostly – it is famously unfinished) over a century ago. Then there is the dazzling Park Güell with its fluid curves and bright colours, the Museu Picasso with its collection of the artist’s early work and the labyrinthine Gothic Quarter.

Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia

While Barcelona epitomises the progressive, international ‘destination city’, Girona to the north is more traditional: here you’ll find venerable buildings, cobbled streets, peaceful squares, a roman wall and Arab baths.

Tarragona’s inhabitants celebrate their rich history at the Tarraco Viva festival, held in May, and the Tarragona Historia Viva, which takes place during the summer months. It’s not just their Roman heritage that is honoured, however – the tradition of building castells (human towers) was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010.

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The Costas

The Costas of Catalonia

Costa Brava

As for those Costas, the Costa Brava runs 200 km down from the French border to the north of Barcelona and manages to retain plenty of wild beauty and rocky headlands while remaining a mecca for beach-seeking tourists. 

Popular towns: Girona, Cadaqués, Tossa de Mar
Popular beaches: Platja de Pals Beach, Tamariu Beach, Llafanc Beach, Playa de Sant Pere Pescador
Nearest Airport: Girona Airport.

Cadaques - Costa Brava

Costa Dorada

The Costa Dorada runs south of Barcelona and, as its name (Gold Coast) suggests, adds more options for the serious beach seeker. As with any beach location, there are watersports schools all along the coastline, offering active holidaymakers a chance to windsurf, sail and dive.

Popular towns: Tarragona, Salou, Cambrils.
Popular beaches: Llevant Beach, Llenguadets Beach
Nearest Airport: Reus Airport.

Illa Roja
Illa Roja - Costa Dorada

Catalan Cuisine

The Catalan kitchen, too, is a mix of traditional and modern, a hotchpotch of different influences. A large part of many menus is based around all the familiar Mediterranean ingredients – fresh vegetables, pasta, fish and olive oils – alongside various versions of paella and simmering pots which seem to fuse ingredients and influences from all quarters.


A must-try dessert is crema catalana, a sweet similar to crème brulée, but flavoured with citrus peel and cinnamon. It dates back to medieval Spain and is the national dessert of Catalonia, a perfect dessert for a summer evening.

Crema Catalana Recipe
Crema Catalana
Crema Catalana

Crema Catalana


  • 500 ml whole milk
  • ½ an orange - zest
  • ½ a lemon - zest
  • ½ a stick of cinnamon 
  • 1 vanilla pod- split lengthwise
  • 7 large free-range egg yolks
  • 95 g sugar, plus extra to serve
  • 1 heaped teaspoon of cornflour


  1. Place the milk, orange zest, lemon zest and cinnamon in a saucepan along with the vanilla pod, and gently bring to a boil.
  2. Once you reach a gentle boil, remove the pan from the heat and allow the flavours to infuse for 15 minutes.
  3. In the meantime, whisk the 7 egg yolks along with the sugar and cornflour until pale and creamy.
  4. Pass the milk through a sieve, return it to the pan and place it over a medium heat.
  5. Just before boiling point is reached, add the egg mixture slowly, whilst whisking continuously until it begins to thicken and can coat the back of a wooden spoon.
  6. Remove the mixture from the heat and pour it into ramekins.
  7. Cover each ramekin with greaseproof paper to stop a skin from forming, and allow each portion to cool before placing them in the fridge.
  8. Remove the greaseproof paper prior to serving, sprinkle 1 tablespoon of sugar on each portion and use a blow torch to caramelise. If you don't have a blowtorch, you can place the sugared cremas under a preheated gas grill, until the sugar turns dark brown. Allow the sugar to harden, then serve immediately.
Arròs Negre Recipe
Arròs Negre
Arròs Negre

Arròs Negre


  • 710ml fish stock
  • 1/4 tsp saffron threads
  • 60ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cuttlefish (cleaned)
  • 1/2 onion
  • 1/2 Italian sweet green pepper
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 tsp sweet smoked Spanish paprika
  • 2 tomatoes - Around 110g
  • 220g cup uncooked bomba (paella) rice.
  • 2 tsp squid ink
  • handful of finely chopped parsley
  • 1 lemon
  • a pinch of sea salt
  • a dash of black pepper


    1. In a saucepan, combine the fish stock with your saffron threads. Heat over medium heat.
    2. Prepare your ingredients: finely chop your onion and green pepper, roughly chop your garlic, finely grate 2 tomatoes, and cut the cuttlefish into medium cubes.
    3. In a paella pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. After 1 minute, season the oil with sea salt and add the cuttlefish. Sauté for 2 minutes until lightly cooked, then set it aside.
    4. In the same pan, add the chopped onion and green pepper. Sauté for 3 minutes until the onion is translucent. Add the chopped garlic and sauté for 30 seconds. Stir in the paprika and the grated tomato. Simmer for 3 minutes until it thickens.
    5. Add the uncooked bomba rice, the squid ink, sea salt, and black pepper. Stir continuously for 2 minutes, then pour in the saffron-infused fish stock and the cooked cuttlefish. Increase the heat to high and mix everything together. Do not stir again.
    6. After 8 to 9 minutes, when most of the broth is absorbed, but some remains, reduce the heat to low-medium. Simmer for 3 to 5 minutes until the remaining broth is absorbed. Then, increase the heat to medium-high for 90 seconds to create a socarrat (the caramelised crunchy bit on the bottom of the pan - Often the tastiest bit!)
    7. Remove the pan from the heat, cover with a clean tea towel, and let it stand for 5 minutes.
    8. Uncover the pan, garnish with lemon wedges and finely chopped fresh parsley, and enjoy!

    Aside from this intense variety and colour lie modern restaurants like Jordi Artal's two Michelin star restaurant, Cinc Sentits, embodying a new breed of gastronomy. Dining is a multi-sense experience, with beautifully presented food, heavenly smells and delicious tastes, and opting for a meal with wine matching enhances the flavours even further.

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    The Art

    Catalan Art

    Culturally the Catalan instinct seems to challenge and see things differently (after the Canary Islands, Catalonia was next to ban bullfighting). Inventiveness is no stranger to the Catalan mindset: the flamboyance of Gaudí and the surrealism of Dalí and Míro bear witness to that. 

    Joan Miró - Surrealism, Dada
    20 April 1893 - Barcelona
    Died: 25 December 1983 - Palma
    Famous Work: Dona i Ocell, The Tilled Field, The Farm

    Antoni Gaudí - Art Nouveau, Modernisme
    25 June 1852 - Baix Camp
    Died: 10 June 1926 - Barcelona
    Famous Work: Park Güell, Church of Colònia Güell, Sagrada Família, Casa Milà, Casa Batlló

    Salvador Dalí - Surrealism, Expressionism, Post-Impressionism
    Born: 11 May 1904 - Figueres
    Died: 23 January 1989 - Figueres
    Famous Work: The Persistence of Memory, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, Galatea of the Spheres

    Antoni Tàpies - Tachisme, Surrealism, Informalism, Abstract expressionism
    Born: 13 December 1923 - Barcelona
    Died: 6 February 2012 - Barcelona
    Famous Work: Grey and Green Painting, Head and varnish, Skeleton on material, Llibertat, No doors or windows

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    The Appeal

    Tourism in Catalonia

    Theme parks like Port Aventura and Aquapolis are well-conceived and integrated into the region’s tourism system. In short, the Catalan instinct, perhaps a nod to its industrial boom of a century ago, is to invest, build and improve, all in a dynamic, ‘can-do’ style.

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    Return to the map, it perhaps explains the fantastic diversity of this region. Historically it is a blend of peoples from France, Italy, Africa and southern Spain, not to mention influences from Sicily, Sardinia and the Arab world. No wonder Catalonia is so uniquely rich in culture, language and tradition; no wonder there is such contrast and no wonder that the old and the new are embraced in equal measure.

    Highlights Map

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    Camping in Catalonia

    Catalan Campsites

    Tourism is hugely important to Catalonia (the region accounts for around 25% of all visitors to Spain), and camping and caravanning are a vital parts of this mix. British visitors come all this way for the sun, of course, but also for the high-quality infrastructure and impressive world-class facilities. Many campsites in the region represent the modern breed of progressive site: holiday villages certainly, but among the finest equipped campsites in Europe.

    Our favourite campsites in Catalonia

    Camping Las Dunas

    Las Dunas is an extremely large, impressive and well-organised resort-style site with many on-site activities and an ongoing programme of improvements. The site has direct...

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    Camping l’Amfora

    This spacious, friendly site is run by Michelle, Josep and their daughter and is always a popular destination. It is spotlessly clean and well-maintained, and...

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    Camping Solmar

    Included in our guides:

    2023, 2022, 2021, 2020

    The Ribas family has run Camping Solmar for over 40 years, and a warm welcome awaits you. The well-equipped site is located 150 metres from...

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    Camping Treumal

    Included in our guides:

    2023, 2022, 2021, 2020

    This beautiful terraced site has been developed on a hillside around the beautiful gardens of a large, spectacular estate house which is close to the...

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    Playa Montroig Camping Resort

    Playa Montroig is about 30 kilometres from Tarragona, set in its own tropical gardens with direct access to a very long, narrow, soft sand beach...

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    Vilanova Park

    Sitting on the terrace in front of the restaurant – a beautifully converted Catalan farmhouse dating from 1908 – it is difficult to believe that...

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