Moving to Barcelona is arguably the best decision I’ve ever made. I love the streets of the old city, I love people watching, and I love the fact that sitting at a café and nursing a coffee for 2 hours at 2:00pm is 100% socially acceptable. Despite the fact that I’ve fallen hard for this city, I still feel that desire – no, need – to wander.
Unfortunately for me, I’m a new teacher in a new city, with a teacher’s salary and a contract. This makes spontaneous trips across Europe irresponsible both professionally and financially.
Enter the day trip, my new best friend. Coming from the central United States, the idea of going somewhere for the day is laughable (what’s a train?). Thankfully, rail travel in Western Europe is relatively fast, efficient, and comfortable. With limited time and funds, embracing the idea of the day trip has fulfilled my wanderlust without breaking the bank or getting me fired.
Here are my favorite places to visit for the day. They are easily accessible, filled with culture, and absolutely beautiful.
Catalonia is made up of 4 provinces – Barcelona, Lleida, Tarragona, and Girona. The city of Girona is the capital of this 4th province, and is home to the University of Girona, which may as well be a medieval castle. Surrounded by mountains, the streets of the city are, in some places, just staircases. The medieval wall around the city offers an excellent view of the city and the surrounding mountains. As is often seen in Medieval cities, the cathedral of Girona is at the top of a huge hill, and of course provides its patrons with breathtaking views of the surrounding area.
Girona has a similar feel to Barcelona, though on a much smaller scale. It is by no means tourist free, but you won’t experience the hoards of people fresh off the cruise ship, and the selfie stick has not yet made itself at home. Spend a day walking along the river, getting a workout walking up the streets of the old Jewish quarter, and stroll the perimeter of the city along the top of the wall.
If you’re willing to splurge for the fast train, it takes 40 minutes to reach Girona from Sants Estacio. If you’re feeling more economical, you can opt for the regional train that departs from el Clot and takes just over an hour.
Tarragona is the capital of another of Catalonia’s regions, and lies just over an hour south of Barcelona. If you’re into Roman history and architecture, this is a can’t-miss city. The perfect mix of Mediterranean, Roman and Medieval, you can start with a great view of the ocean from a Roman theater, and then make your way through the winding streets of the Medieval old town.
If you’re feeling adventurous, stay overnight and experience the nightlife. I personally have not stayed, but those who have
say that it feels like an exciting and vibrant college town, in both atmosphere and prices. €1 cervezas surrounded by friendly locals and beautiful, historic buildings? Yes, please!
Just an hour or so outside of the city, Sitges is a picturesque beach town that does not disappoint. The winding streets of the old city lead to long stretches of beach that are rarely too crowded for you to find your own oasis (though maybe avoid during the peak of summer?). Added bonus is the view of the cathedral from just about anywhere on the beach. If you want to stay into the evening, there’s a block of bars and clubs just off of the main beach that are a great way to end a perfect day of relaxing. Just make sure you don’t miss the last train back to Barcelona!
Sitges is also home to one of the best Carnival celebrations in the WORLD (look it up – I’m not just saying that because I had a good time). If you get the chance to go during the celebration (which generally falls in February, but it depends on the year), you can expect parades, fireworks, elaborate costumes, crowded streets, and impromptu concerts everywhere you go. Anyone not wearing a costume will stick out like a sore thumb, so make sure you dress up!
Easily connected by train, Montserrat is a great place to go if you are itching to get into the mountains and explore. A train and a funicular ride from Plaça Espanya take you to a monastery tucked away in the mountains, which is a great jumping off point for hikes, breathtaking scenery, and fresh mountain air. Montserrat is also a site of historical religious importance, and a stroll through the Basilica and surrounding areas is a definite must.
If you’ve got a bit more time and money, head to the capital of Aragon, the autonomous community just to the north of Catalonia. Zaragoza is just over an hour away if you take the fast train (AVE) that goes to Madrid, and if you book well in advance, the price is not astronomical.
What was once a Roman trading port along the Ebro river is now a vibrant and modern community that is home to the most beautiful cathedral I have ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of them. Basílica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar is free to enter and is covered in the artwork of Francisco de Goya, and Aragon native. The €3 ride up the bell tower is WORTH EVERY CENT.
Also worth visiting are the Roman ruins of Caesaragusta (the first name of the city, which eventually morphed into the name “Zaragoza”), and the Aljaferia, an excellent example of the Moorish architecture that was once so prevalent throughout Spain.
One of the most amazing things about Europe is that you can hop on a train and be in a completely different country in an hour. Just an hour north of Barcelona (again by fast train, so a little more expensive) is the French town of Perpignan. A town just off the coast with a distinctly French feel, this city is a great way to dip your toes into France. The streets and architecture are beautiful, and the train ride up the coast is arguably the best part of this trip.
All tickets for travel within Spain can be purchased through the Renfe website
(renfe.com). Unless otherwise stated, all trains leave from Barcelona Sants Estacio. You can travel to Montserrat and Sitges with a TMB metro pass, but you will have to buy a ticket for a different zone. Check out Renfe.com if you have any questions.
**If you are planning to do a lot of travel on the fast train within a month or two, I recommend looking into buying a Eurrail pass. Basically this pass allows you unlimited train travel around the country (or countries) of your choosing, generally for free or for a small fee. You can purchase a pass that is valid for 7 days within 2 months for about 250€. While you have to pay a nominal reservation fee for a seat on the fast train, if you plan on using the AVE for day trips, you can basically take the price of the round-trip ticket from €50 to €15, and only use one day on your pass. Do the math though – this may not make sense if you don’t plan on travelling that much. Feel free to comment with any questions – this can be kind of confusing!!!
By Sarah Melville