[COSTA BRAVA, SPAIN] — This is a big, long, gnarly post of a whole region. But hopefully, a great overview to start planning your trip here.
I haven’t spent a lot of time on the Costa Brava, but passed through here two different times over the span of three months on the way to other places, each time just for a few days. Once for a travel blogger conference in Lloret-del-Mar, another time to return a rental car on the way back from France, slowly picking my way along the coast for a week. So I just got a chance to dip a toe in and explore this beautiful coast. Here’s the best I found for you.
Actually, each trip through I didn’t really get a chance to do any advance research — I was googling hotels along my route and booking them on the fly — so once there, I just asked around, poked around and stumbled into some great places. You’ll find a bunch of great resources down at the Resources section at the bottom of this page.
This area has a lot of different names. Catalonia. Catalunya. Empordà (in various forms) and others, so it can be kinda confusing to know what/where to call it.
People rave all about Costa Brava, rightfully so, with amazing rocky cliffs overlooking emerald green, crystal clear water. But towards the lower part, outside Girona, it’s more like the Ft. Lauderdale of Spain, with busman’s tour package groups flying cheap, directly into Girona airport. I thought Lloret-del-Mar was a shithole, so chose not to stay in its abundant fifty Euro rooms, numerous English pubs and muscle shirts, instead stumbling upon a real find in a boutique hotel converted from a former, stunning convent.
Costa Brava pretty much runs from above Barcelona to the coast of France. To me, where you want to stay is on the upper, Alt Empordà and Baix Empordà sections. There you’ll find all the amazing wild coastline that gives this region its name.
I’ve picked my favorite places to show you, so you’ll get your bearings and know where to go; taking you on a tour heading south from the border with France. Starting first with the stunning, white-washed beach town Cadaqués, the Alt Emporada, Cap de Creus and an incredibly well-designed boutique hotel, then heading to different areas south, marching towards Barcelona.
Everybody loves Cadaqués. Have you been? One of the most picturesque villages there is, lounging right against the edge of the clear blue sea, all the buildings so white they look like smiles in a Mentos commercial.
Cadaqués is the “capital” of the Cap de Creus, a huge natural park swallowing a hilly, windswept peninsula that leads right up to the border with France and the tapering foothills of the Pyrenees. Tucked in between the rocky toes of this peninsula are dozens of perfect blue coves and beaches, perfect for picnicking, anchoring your boat or taking a schwimbob.
The road through the park is narrow, the dropoffs dramatic and the parking tight, so if you don’t boat in, pack a lunch and go early so you can find the perfect spot. Just the most jaw-dropping part of the coast.
Just to give you your bearings, this is the far northeast corner of Spain, right along the border with France. The Cap de Creus is a natural park, with starkly barren hills plunging into crystal emerald green bays and coves.
Cadaqués is a destination in itself, as it always has been, attracting famous painters like Picasso, Salvador Dali, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp and many others who came here for the subtle light of the morning, the bright reflections off the buildings by day and the peachy sunsets at night.
Here’s how all these pictures plot out on a map so you can decide where you want to go.
Surprisingly, I didn’t just come to Mas Lazuli for the pool. I came to check out the totally cool design of this relatively new little boutique hotel, inside and out.
I’d been by another gorgeous pool in Provence reading a stunning photo spread of this place in my favorite Maisons Côté Sud weeks before all about the understated design of this groovy hotel. (This is a very popular area for the French to cross the boarder for a quick vacay.) I had to return my two month rental car back in Barcelona and this was right on the way. “Yep, that’s where I’ll go next” And so here I was.
Set on a slight rise outside of Roses, the hotel Mas Lazuli has a commanding view of the broad green plains of Empordà, all the way to the bright blue Med. And a nice pool. 😳
It’s like swimming in an endless grove of olive trees. (Until… you know… you hit the end of the pool. )
It’s like swimming in an endless grove of olive trees. (Until… you know… you hit the end of the pool. )
I was out here in the olive groves in the northern part of Empordà in search of a cool pool. A cool pool with a beautiful new hotel attached to it.
You’d never know from the modern inside but Mas Lazuli was built inside an 11th century Catalan monk factory (convent).
There are only 7 rooms and 9 suites at Mas Lazuli so it feels like a big old country house. A country house designed by Design Within Reach.
All the big rooms open up onto the olive grove, where you can leave the doors open and nap to the sound of wind tickling the leaves. I dare ya to try to read a book. Impossible. You’ll be out like a light in like seven minutes. 💤.
Girona is kinda cool. Some old stuff. Some new. A lot of people go there. Many study there.
It’s good to know where you intend to go before you go there. Don’t do what I did.
As a solo driver/navigator without prior planning, I quickly found myself trapped in a rabbit warren of NoGo streets and only-a-car-width dead ends. I unintentionally broke many travel laws and violated many local ordinances.
Please forgive me for my sins. Thank you.
Girona is dominated by the old castle. It’s great to walk the ramparts.
Sitting high up on a hill overlooking Baix Empordà, Castell d’Empordà is just where you want a castle to be. And with everything you expect a castle to have: towers, dungeons, thick walls, everything but a moat. Oh, and a happening restaurant, cool rooms and a very special surprise.
Everybody wants to stay in a castle.
So. The story about this place is kinda cool.
This castle was built in the 14th century, prospered for centuries but by the late 90s was a complete dump. In ruins. Bats in the belfry. 🕷🕊 Then in 1999 along came a crazy Dutchman and his wife who fell in love with the place and bought it.
He had spent his childhood summers camping in a family caravan all over Spain, vowing to one day own his own castle. And then it became true.
It was such a wreck that the first night they had the keys to the place, they camped in a tent under the open sky. They started renovating it top to bottom, with love. And style. And the right amount of onst-onst-onst.
38 rooms has this castle on the hill. There’s a new wing with modern rooms but I suggest you get one of the tower rooms in the old castle. Lots more character and even better views. 😳
So, underneath those cool copper lily pad thingys is tucked a very cool restaurant and bar, all white, perched on the side of the hill overlooking the pool and the green fields of Empordà. Usually with a DJ spinning mellow onst-onst-onst chill. They also serve nicely as rain-prevention devices for all the grand weddings they hold in this magical castle.
Oh look… they have a pool! 😳🙃 I mentioned earlier how much I love rooms with views… I think I like pools with views even better.
One of the great thing about staying in that cool castle is you’re only 30 minutes to the best clear beaches all along the good part of Costa Brava and all its double LL named towns. Llafranc. Lligat. Llofriu. Lloret. And a bunch of others.
Baix Empordà is aptly called the “Region of Coves” — with a gazillion of crinkles in the land, opening onto clear coves and dramatic rock cliffs. The base is around Begur, where there are tons of vacation rentals, new and old. You just have to pick your way along the coast, or take the long coastal path that ties it all together. I was only able to spend a day or two there, much of it cloudy. But had friends stay here for two weeks and they loved it.
Now that’s a pool! 😳 Wasn’t my pool, just one I came along while exploring the many coves and beaches along the coastal path outside Begur. Took every effort to not jump in. 🏊
The Castell d’Empordà on the left is centrally located to hit all the best beaches of Baix Empordà.
I stayed in this former convent turned boutique hotel in a forested park outside Lloret del Mar. I would like to be in the convent-conversion business. I mean, seriously, have you ever seen an ugly convent? Okay, I know of one. But just one. The rest are all cool. I think they should have The Converted Convent Awards.
This former convent, now boutique hotel is isolated in a forested park, far from the Ft. Lauderdale-like Lloret del Mar. You can still see the sea, but hear birds chirping in the early morning, not birds screeching from the balconies and bars. It’s not the fanciest boutique hotel, more a nicely run family hotel, but you just can’t beat the architecture.
This was about the only decent place I found in this lower part of Costa Brava. Most of it was gross, I didn’t even include pictures of it, like Lloret del Mar. Cancun, Ft. Lauderdale or Port Vallarta, it’s a package tour factory loaded with pink British people on busman’s holidays. Not what I had in mind and have no idea why they’d invite all the world’s travel bloggers to town. Tossa del Mar, just up the coast was okay, nice beach, but marred by high rises.
Cadequés and Cap de Creus
The Visit Cadequés website. Cap de Creus information. TripAdvisor’s guide to the park. From The Telegraph, 36 Hours in Cadaqués.
Here’s Trip Advisor’s Cost Brava Guide. And The Telegraph’s Costa Brava Guide. And the UK Conde Nast Traveller’s Catalunya Guide. And some amazing pictures from National Geographic on Costa Brava. Here’s a very thorough rundown of all the beaches in Costa Brava.
Here is Mas Lazuli’s page on TabletHotels, my go-to hotel discovery site.
Here’s my custom Google Map of the entire Costa Brava if you want to save or use to navigate.
Castell d’Empordà’s website. And here it is where I found it on Mr and Mrs Smith, with perfect suggestions and descriptions.
Here’s a good, slightly old article in the New York Times on the Costa Brava. And also from the NYTimes, what to do and see in Girona.
Last visited April and June 2015
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