There are 10 distinct coasts in Spain, each with its own tastes, treasures, and secrets. Costa del Sol brings the sun, Costa Verde livens up the country with its lush green hues, and Costa de Almeria welcomes all who crave art and culture. Then there’s Costa Brava. At an easy drive from Barcelona, a 200-kilometer nook near the Spain and France borders, northern, these mysterious outer lands stand out for their contrasting nature.
Take, for example, the waters splashing against the hidden coves, whose rhythmic waves are melodically in sync with the boisterous sounds of chatter that float out from the nearby bars. In the morning, the delicate sandy beaches greet sunkissed beachgoers, but come nightfall, the rugged hills jut out of their bedrock.
Look far enough, and it seems as if the expansive Mediterranean has no end… Yet as you head back to town, the narrow cobblestone streets of Cadaques bring your focus back to reality. Speaking of which, it’s no wonder why everyone has fallen in love with this secluded corner of the world. From Iberians to Moors, Greeks, Romans, and even the celebrity elite of the 1960s, this spot has certainly had its fair share of visitors.
In spite of these interesting juxtapositions, some things never really change along the Costa Brava. Locals still prepare recipes that were masterfully created by their forefathers, the wines of Empordà retain their vintage charms, and the beautiful bays welcome guests year after year.
If you’re ready to be delighted by the complexities and charms of Costa Brava, here we bring 7 good reasons to embark on a journey!
From Empuries to Beyond: A Short History of the Costa Brava
Costa Brava has attracted humankind throughout the years, whether it’s thousands of years ago or in recent decades. One of the first settlements was back in 575 BC in the city of Empúries (near present-day L’Escala), thanks to the auspicious location and coastal trading routes nearby. Over time, it became the largest Greek colony in the Iberian Peninsula. Christianity arrived in the area around the 5th century, and a century later, the Moors took over. Eventually, Charlemagne’s army reclaimed the lands.
The Costa Brava was still relatively undiscovered until after the Spanish Civil War, when the country opened up and welcomed a new wave of tourists. In fact, the 1950s and 1960s were arguably the ‘golden age’ for Costa Brava, as local agencies started to offer tourist packages and the area became a bonafide tourist destination.
It’s hard not to be enchanted by the flavors of Roses, the sleepy village of Cadaques, or the romantic atmosphere of Girona — which is why the Costa Brava is a perpetual paradise for celebrities. The most famous visitors include Robert de Niro, George Orwell, Salvador Espriu, and Ava Gardner (who even has a statue dedicated to her in Tossa de Mar!)
Despite its charming nature, the Costa Brava retains many of its namesake components. Costa Brava in Spanish translates to Wild or Brave Coast, and shows it off with a jaw-dropping 245 beaches and coves, 8 natural parks, and a 200-kilometer hiking route called the Camins de Ronda.
FIGUERES: Step into the World of Dali
While the Costa Brava might seem wild, it has a softer and artistic side — namely, in the city of Figueres. This tidy and well-kept city, with its narrow streets and medieval architecture, is reminiscent of many others across the country. However, thousands of visitors come every year to bask in the creative genius of Figueres’ most prominent figure: none other than Salvador Dali!
While this native Catalonian spent many years abroad in cities like Paris, New York, and London, he was actually born in Figueres and spent most of his youth in the area.
There is even a phenomenon called the ‘Dalinian Triangle’ in the Costa Brava, where many of the artist’s works can be found. Each side of the triangle is made up of the Teatre Museu Dalí in Figueres, Portlligat (where Dalí’s house stands), and Púbol (the castle that he gifted to his wife, Gala). Inside the triangle, there are areas where Dali was inspired, such as landscapes, architecture, gastronomy, and more.
Figueres makes for an excellent day trip from Barcelona or Girona. Besides the world of Dali, the city also has museums dedicated to toys and mechanical antiques, as well as the Castell De Sant Ferran fortress.
EMPORDA: The Extraordinary Land of Wines and Olive Oil
Empordà has always followed the belief of quality over quantity, and it certainly shows in its products. The region carries the esteemed Denominació d’Origen Protegida (DOP) Empordà label on its wines and stretches from Figueres to the French border. The Empordà DO only has about 1,800 hectares of vineyards, yet is quickly becoming the darling of the wine world.
The region’s viticultural record goes back all the way to the 5th century, when the Phoenicians introduced winemaking to the area and the ancient Romans perfected it. Historically, the region specialized in producing sweet wines, before gradually switching over to reds (60%) and whites (20%) that are present nowadays. The most prevalent varieties include Carignan, Samsó, and Garnacha Tinta (known locally as Lledoner).
The secret to Empordà’s success is — no surprise — the rugged nature of the Costa Brava. The first element is Tramuntana, the legendary northerly winds that help bring out the wine’s aromas and flavors by hardening the grape skins. The climate is also quite favorable, with average annual temperatures between 14 and 16º C and mild winters. One of the best ways to get acquainted with the wines of Emporda is to visit the winery Castell de Perelada, whose restaurant – of the same name – boasts one Michelin star.
Besides wine, Empordà also has another gastronomic staple growing on its lands: olive oil! Indeed, one of the newest and fastest-growing forms of tourism along the Costa Brava is olive oil, as eager visitors immerse themselves in Catalan culture through one of the most quintessential elements of the Mediterranean. Similar to Empordà wines, the olive oils here are part of a small production, but of very premium quality.
ROSES: A Gastronomic Delight Set in Paradise
Despite its small size, Roses is big on gastronomy. This town came from humble origins and was originally a fishing village, yet over the years, it has miraculously transformed into one of the capitals of Spanish gastronomy.
To truly understand the fascinating history of this town, let’s start at the beginning. The origins of Roses (in Greek: Rhode) are disputed; a popular theory holds that it was founded in the 8th century BC. C. by Greek settlers from Rhodes. But in fact, around the Iberian Peninsula, Phoenician navigators introduced the technique of preserving fish with salt, and over the years, the colonies prospered after opening these ancient salting factories along the Mediterranean coast. This is further evidenced by the ruins of Empuries (just 19 miles south of Rose), where archaeologists discovered such a salting factory from the 2nd century BC.
Drawing on its history and location at the confluence of Spain and France, Roses has continued its gastronomic heritage well into the future. The town had its second golden age in the 20th century, when elBulli was established nearby. The restaurant won its first Michelin star in 1976, and obtained cult status after Ferran Adrià took over as head chef in the 1980s. Over the course of its history, elBulli was a 3 Michelin starred restaurant (obtaining the legendary third star in 1997), and was voted as the best restaurant in the world a record-breaking five times. Although elBulli is no longer in service – and the foundation will open to the public this year -, it put Costa Brava on the map as a destination for foodies and paved the way for dozens of other chefs and restaurateurs to get their start in the region.
Nowadays, the three Roca brothers lead the culinary scene with their three-Michelin starred El Celler de Can Roca, located in the capital of the Costa Brava (Girona).
Where to eat in Costa Brava
We’re not done just yet — besides El Celler de Can Roca, Costa Brava is home to seven other restaurants that have had a Michelin star next to their name, including Terra Restaurant (1*), Miramar (2*), Massana (1*), La Cuina de Can Simón (1*), Empòrium (1*), Els Brancs (1*), and Casamar (1*).
Another up-and-coming spot is Bitàkora in Roses, which effortlessly incorporates various delicacies from around the country. Think jamon Iberico croquettes, Galician beef from northwest Spain, suckling lamb from Segovia, and much more. Of course, we can’t forget about its local delights as well! The menu emphasizes seafood from the nearby coast, with offerings like anchovies from l’Escala and locally-caught fish from the Gulf of Roses.However, the true star is the restaurant’s Prawn Carpaccio, caught just a few kilometers away and drizzled with EVOO from l’Empordà and a hint of volcanic salt from the Garrotxa nearby area. You can’t get any more local than that! And we suggest you to Rom, at the seafront promenade of Roses.
It’s no secret that seafood rules among the Costa Brava. Some of the most popular dishes across menus include suquet de peix (fish stew), arròs a la marinera (a type of seafood rice casserole), and anxoves (anchovies, which are king in Costa Brava).
While traveling along the coast, don’t miss other gastronomic hidden gems like El Molí de l’Escala, Els Pescadors, and Sumac. Of particular note is Compartir, spearheaded by three former elBulli chefs Mateu Casañas, Eduard Xatruch and Oriol Castro, and already a fan favorite of our Catalonia Food & Fine tour.
CADAQUES: A Fishing Village Turned Artist Heaven
While Cadaques doesn’t look too out of place on the Costa Brava, these cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses have managed to merge two very different communities together… This sleepy town holds the title of the easternmost point on the Iberian Peninsula and faces the sea, which the locals used to their advantage. These Cadaquesenc began fishing in the 1500s and were practically separated from civilization until the 19th century.
At the turn of the century, Cadaques became a favorite spot for artists, who fell in love with the area’s natural landscapes and rocky panoramas, and used it as a sort of muse in their works. The first wave of artists included Catalan locals like Eliseu Meifren, Eugeni d’Ors, and Antoni Pitxot, but soon after, word got out and the guest list expanded to include Picasso, Richard Hamilton, Man Ray, Albert Einstein, and, of course, Salvador Dalí.
Cadaques has still retained many of its aesthetic charms and is ready to inspire all those who visit. Is it the wild rocks? Or the gleaming waves? Perhaps it’s the 40 galleries and artist workshops that lend their special magic? Only after visiting this special place will visitors understand why Josep Pla wrote the following quote in his eponymously-titled book, Cadaques — “Some people think of Cadaqués as one of the nicest places on the Mediterranean, but their shyness prevents them from talking about it. Other people don’t care about being discreet and state everywhere they can that Cadaqués is the nicest village on earth. Salvador Dalí is one of them.” By the way, our beloved and above mentioned restaurant Compartir is here.
CAP DE CREUS & CAMÍ DE RONDA: Costa Brava’s Raw Nature
Let’s end our exploration of Costa Brava the way we began — by talking about its wild essence. While many cities and towns along the coast have turned into towns and villages, there are still plenty of dramatic and untamed panoramas, breathtaking coastlines, and hidden coves left to explore.
Take, for example, the Gulf of Roses. This secluded gem is a proud member of the Most Beautiful Bays in the World club. The nuance: there are only 48 bays in the world that can hold this title, which is an official designation created by UNESCO. Some thirty kilometers north of the gulf is Cap de Creus, which is affectionately called the place where the sea and mountains touch by the locals — or, if you prefer, the end of the world. With idyllic flower-laden paths, pastel colors, and remarkable landscapes, It’s no wonder why Dali often came here to be inspired for his next piece.
Visitors who prefer to get up close and immerse themselves in the coast should carve out a day or two to hike along the Camí de Ronda. This 43-kilometer footpath was originally used by the Spanish Civil Guard to control the coastline and stop smugglers — ronda in Spanish means to patrol — although nowadays the trail serves a much amicable purpose. Visitors can opt to walk parts of the trail or the entire span, but either way, your efforts will pay off with splendid views!
Costa Brava is where the Pyrenees meet the sea, where Dali found craziness and inspiration, where new flavors are invented every day, and where you can see it all happen. Whether it’s following in the footsteps of history, savoring the flavors of Empordà’s viticulture and traditions, or being enchanted by the coast’s breathtaking views, the Costa Brava has something for everyone. If you’re looking to immerse yourself in the rich culture of the Mediterranean and explore the region with local experts, we invite you to join our Catalonia small group tour.