For many foreign visitors, Barcelona is the first point of contact with Spain. The beautiful city in the country’s Northeast seems to be a standout example of the Spanish way of life. In a way, it is indeed but then again, it isn’t. Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city and one of the largest metropolitan areas in all of the EU, is the capital of the autonomous community of Catalonia, a very distinct region with a strong independent identity and culture. It also has a strong desire to become an indpendent state of its own which has resulted in a number of political crises and has become a continuous challenge and issue in Spanish politics.

The predecessor of today’s Catalonia, the county of Barcelona, was founded in the 8th century and became gradually stronger and steadier over the centuries. The region cultivated a distinctive culture, traditions and language and then experienced the forceful integration into a unified administrative structure covering all of Spain in 1714 after the War of the Spanish Succession. In subsequent times, different rulers including Franco in the 20th century, have applied measures to suppress the Catalonian identity but remained largely unsuccessful. Since approximately 1980, the region has experienced massive economic growth and is today one of the most dynamic parts of the country, with the movement for independence having gained steam again in recent years.

A considerable part of that economic success can beattributed to tourism. Around the city of Barcelona, in itself one of the ten most-visited cities in Europe, Catalonia boasts a diverse landscape that features not only long, sandy and popular beaches, but also mountain resorts and plenty of nature for outdoor excursions.


The Costa Brava (“wild coast”) continues to be a major tourist draw. The long coastline, stretching from north of Barcelona to the French border, are a mainstay in packaged travel offerings througout Europa. Although the towns that have grown here with the tourist boom often lack authenticity, the beaches remain popular and for many, an affordable destination for a warm-climate oceanside vacation.

In the hinterland, the area gradually rises until it reaches the summits of the Pyrenees, the mountain range that marks the border between France and Spain. Snow-covered mountains, picturesque lakes and waterfalls are characteristic for this region which is popular with hikers and mountainbikers.

The city of Girona probably leads the way among the other notable towns in Catalonia. Surrounded by medieval fortifications, the city’s core consists of historic buildings including the Cathedral which takes center stage for an annual flower exhibition. Nestled against a hill and graced by four rivers, Girona has become a popular filming location including shots for Game of Thrones.

The town of Lleida (Spanish: Lérida), some two hours west of Barcelona, looks back on an even longer history, with first traces of it going back all the way to the Bronze Age. Lleida showcases an eclectic mix of architectural styles covering roughly a thousand years. It serves as a gateway to the nearby Aigüestortes National Park which preserves some of the lakes, streams and habitats of the Pyrenees.

Even farther West in Catalonia, the tourism-heavy parts of the province give way to areas marked by small towns and villages such as Aitona, Corbins or Maials that convey a probably more authentic look at Catalonian culture. There are rather good train an road connections from Barcelona to other cities in Catalonia that give visitors the option of exploring the area in-depth.

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