An untamed, unspoilt coast with a tasteful edge
The name says it all. Meaning ‘wild coast’ in Spanish, the Costa Brava is one of Europe’s most romantic, unspoilt stretches of coast. Where else, less than a two-hour flight from Britain, can you explore rugged pink clifftops with the teal-coloured Mediterranean glittering below, framed by grand arabesquing pines? It’s a scene reminiscent of France’s Côte d’Azur, of course, but with independent hotels and exceptional food (including no fewer than 17 Michelin-starred restaurants) – generally at a fraction of the Côte d’Azur’s prices.
Gloriously wild in parts and tastefully manicured in others, the Costa Brava also has some of the finest Blue Flag beaches in Europe: ranging from broad, sandy stretches to elegant horseshoe bays and secluded smugglers’ coves. Beyond that there are spectacular coastal walks and world-class golf courses – as well as diving, snorkelling and sailing, three Salvador Dalí museums, and outstanding Greco/Roman ruins.
Eddi Fiegel, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest places to eat and stay and the best things to do this season.
A new 3D tour at the Greco-Roman ruins of the Empúries at The Archaeological Museum of Catalonia (Carrer de Puig i Cadafalch; 00 34 972 77 76) brings L’Escala’s Roman Forum to life in 3D through a virtual reality headset.
Terra Restaurant at Hotel Alàbriga (Carretera de Sant Pol, 633, 17220 Sant Feliu de Guíxols; 00 34 872 200 600) has recently been awarded a Michelin star and is very much the hot dining ticket around these parts. Try the Mallorcan-style cacciucco (fish stew), or the lamb loin with black garlic-palo sauce and lemon Beluga lentil salad.
Guests at the five-star Hotel Camiral (Carretera N-II, Km. 701, 17455, Caldes de Malavella; 00 34 972 18 10 20) near Girona can now take part in guided foraging walks or ‘Nature Walks’ in the hotel’s 300-acre grounds. The wild plants, herbs and flowers you find are then cooked up into delectable dishes.
48 hours on . . . the Costa Brava
After breakfast, head into Girona’s Old Town. Crane your neck as you ogle the vaulted ceiling in the vast Gothic Cathedral (Plaça de la Catedral; 00 34 972 427 189) before exploring the Call – one of the best-preserved Jewish quarters in Western Europe. Visit the Jewish Museum (Carrer de la Força, 8; 00 34 972 216 761) and the Arab Baths (Carrer Ferran el Catòlic; 00 34 972190797), then explore the independent shops and boutiques in the narrow cobbled lanes.
Take a footbridge across the River Onyar and head to one of the terrace cafés lining the Plaça de la Independència for a quick coffee before setting out on the road. Try Café Royal (00 34 972 21 74 59) for a cortado – the Spanish equivalent of a macchiato, i.e. espresso with a shot of frothy hot milk.
If you want to really explore the Costa Brava’s best nooks and crannies, a car is the best way. Drive about 40 minutes to the bay of Llafranc and the historic Hotel Llafranch’s restaurant La Plaça (Plaça del Promontori, 2, 17211 Llafranc; 00 34 972 30 02 08). Gaze out to sea on the terrace whilst savouring seafood paella with salty, almost nutty-tasting rice and fresh mussels and prawns.
Turn right onto the seafront promenade Passeig Cipsela, and follow the signs to the Camino de Ronda footpath in the direction of Calella de Palagrugell. The path winds around the pine-clad rocks for about fifteen minutes, but take your time as you’ll want to admire the picturesque coastal views.
Arriving at Calella de Palagrugell, walk down onto Platja de Canadell – a lovely gravelly beach overlooked by pastel-coloured 19th-century villas – then carry on walking to the main seafront promenade. Choose an ice cream from L’Enxaneta’s (Carrer de Chopitea, 1; 00 34 972 61 47 02) exceptional selection: the coffee and pistachio are particularly good, and children love the Kinder Egg flavour. For sundowners with the best sea view in town, look no further than Can Gelpí (Carrer de les Voltes, 11; 00 34 972 61 45 72) and try the local hot coffee and rum speciality – cremat.
After changing at your hotel, drive about 15 minutes to the Medieval hilltop village of Begur for dinner at Aiguaclara (Carrer Sant Miquel, 2; 00 34 972 62 29 05) – a restaurant and hotel in a converted 19th-century noblemen’s home. Tuck into contemporary Catalan-influenced dishes like sea bream with onion confit, or roast suckling pig – washed down with a bottle of excellent local Empordà wine. After dinner, if it’s a Friday night, join the other diners on the dancefloor as a DJ plays tunes from the Sixties and Seventies.
The morning food market near Palafrugell’s Plaça Nova is one of the best in the region. You’ll rub shoulders with top chefs as you ogle everything from plump tomatoes to fresh seafood, choice cuts of meat, local honeys, spices and dried fruit.
After a browse in the market, stop at the Museu del Suro – the Cork Museum (Placeta del Museu del Suro; 00 34 972 30 78 25). The museum explores the fascinating history of the local cork industry, with clever family-friendly exhibits such as dolls dipping in water to show how cork floats.
Walk about five minutes down the road for lunch at Pa i Raim (Carrer de Torres i Jonama, 56; 00 34 972 30 45 72) – a beautifully converted Modernista (Art Nouveau) villa, which serves up fine-dining Catalan dishes at amazingly reasonable prices. Don’t miss the tempura langoustines (served on satay-style skewers) and delicate seared duck liver with caramelised pineapple.
Drive about 20 minutes northeast, to the walled and moated Medieval village of Peratallada. Here you can wander along twisting cobbled streets, past stone buildings laced with creepers and bougainvillea, and up to the castle – which was built between the 11th and 14th centuries. The stone archways are a photographer’s dream. On your way back down, stop for a coffee or the local custard-thick hot chocolate in one of the cafés on the cloistered Plaça de les Voltes, such as Pou Dolç (00 34 972 63 40 15).
Freshen up at your hotel before heading back east to Sa Rascassa (Cala Aiguafreda, 3; 00 34 972 62 28 45), a bijoux restaurant with rooms in the tiny cove of Aiguafreda. Between June and September, they also run a small chiringuito – El Vermut – on the beach. Watch the waves as you sip a glass of local wine or the richly hoppy Catalan beer Voll Damm. Then wander around the corner to Sa Rascassa’s delightful gravelled garden for a light dinner of fresh grilled or baked fish and Mediterranean vegetables with Romesco sauce.
For a post-dinner drink, head back into Begur to La Lluna (Concepció Pi i Tató, 5; 00 34 972 62 20 23) – a converted townhouse with arched stone ceilings. Enjoy one of the heady house cocktails or a G&T, to a soundtrack of jazz, blues and Eurodisco.
Where to stay . . .
There’s a sense of hushed luxury as soon as you walk into Mas de Torrent, a five-star country house hotel set in gorgeous countryside. You’re within easy reach of gorgeous Costa Brava beaches and golf courses. Each suite is uniquely decorated – you’ll find a gramophone in one, or a Moorish-style filigreed alcove in another – but all feel spacious and airy. With pretty gardens, a Zen-inducing spa, and a restaurant offering top-notch Catalan fine dining, you’ll want for nothing more.
Doubles from €310 (£272). Afueras de Torrent s/n, 17123 Torrent; 00 34 902 55 03 21
Hotel Terramar is in prime position on the horseshoe bay of Llafranc – with the Mediterranean about three steps over the road. Sea views from the simple contemporary rooms are wonderful, and you get to fall asleep to the sound of the waves. The hotel has been run by the same family since it opened in 1933, and staff are helpful, friendly and efficient at all times. The restaurant menu features fresh local fish, such as grilled wild sea bass and baked cod with tomato confit. Should you want to venture out, there’s an extensive choice of restaurants and bars on the promenade.
Doubles from €95 (£83). Passeig Cipsela, 1, 17211 Llafranc; 00 34 972 30 02 00
Located on a spectacular hillside near the medieval village of Begur, Hostal Sa Barraca feels more like going to stay with a friend’s kindly Spanish grandparents than an impersonal hostal or hotel. The delightful, remarkably good-value pension has some of the most stunning sea views on the Costa Brava, which unfolds in front of you on the terrace; you can smell the fresh pine from the woods next door. You’re less than a 10-minute drive from the gorgeous beaches at Aiguablava and Sa Riera. Llafranc, Tamariu, and the expansive sandy beach and medieval village at Pals are all within easy driving distance too.
Doubles from €60 (£54). Carrer de Begur a Aiguablava, 17255 Begur; 00 34 972 62 33 60
What to bring home . . .
If you fancy bringing back the taste of the Empordà, La Simfonia (Plaça de l’Oli 6, 17004 Girona; 00 34 972 41 12 53) – a wine shop and wine bar in Girona – has a carefully curated selection of local wines, as well as bottles from all over Spain and the world. For an impressively fruity, medium-bodied Empordà red, the Bonfill 2016 from Celler Arché Pagès is a great buy (around €25/£22). Or for a superb dessert wine, the Mas Estela Vino Dulce Garnatxa is beautifully subtle and honeyed (around €40/£35).
Artisan chocolatier, patisserie and high class charcuteria, Pastisseria Serra (Plaça Nova, 2, 17200 Palafrugell; 00 34 972 30 06 40) has exquisitely packaged confections – from slabs of dark chocolate with orange peel, to designer flip flops made entirely from chocolate.
When to go . . .
A decent dose of sunshine is reasonably guaranteed throughout most of the year. If you’re not bound by school holidays and can visit during May, June or September, these are brilliant months to enjoy the joint benefits of warm temperatures and lower hotel rates, while avoiding the crowds of July and August.
Having said that, if you’ve set your heart on perfecting a tan in sizzling heat, high summer is the time to choose. If you do come during those peak months, you’ll find the region busy but not over-run, and you can still enjoy relatively secluded beaches without having to knock elbows with half of Europe.
From February to April and October to November the weather is generally pleasant: you might catch springtime electric storms or autumn rains, but these don’t usually last for many days.
Know before you go . . .
Flight time: approximately two hours to Girona or Barcelona
Currency: Euro (€)
Further reading: en.costabrava.org
Emergency numbers/contacts: medical, fire and police: 112. Local police: 092
British Consulate in Barcelona: Avenida Diagonal 477, 13a Planta, 08036 Barcelona (00 34 902 109356 or 00 34 913 342194; gov.uk)
Local laws and etiquette
When it comes to tipping: about five per cent for taxis and restaurants, €1 (80p) for hotel porters. Bars and cafés don’t normally expect tips unless you’re sitting at an outdoor terrace, where it’s polite to leave €0.30-€0.50 (25-45p).
Keep your passport with you, as some shops will ask to see it if you’re paying by credit card.
If you don’t have one, apply for a European Health Insurance Card so you’re eligible for state medical treatment if you need it.
Eddi Fiegel is an award-winning travel journalist and author, specialising in Spain. She discovered the Costa Brava when she lived in Barcelona and loves few things more than sizzling fried sardines on one of its rugged beaches, a glass of Empordà rosé in hand.
Experience the Costa Brava with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel’s best hotels and holidays on the Costa Brava, tried, tested and recommended by our destination experts.