From amazing water activities and beautiful mountain villages, to ancient Roman cities and theme parks, these are the best things to do on the Costa Dorada, Catalonia.
I’ve just returned from a week in beautiful Catalonia in Spain, and wow was this a trip with a difference! The tourist board invited me on a ‘mystery trip’. I was given flights to Barcelona, and instructed to pack sun cream, water shoes and be ready for an adventure. What would I be doing? Where would I be going? Only my guide from the tourist board knew that, and nope – however many questions I asked, she had NO intention of giving the game away.
I WAS INTRIGUED! I arrived in Barcelona with an open mind, a smile on my face, and was whisked off to my first destination. PortAventura World – one of the top theme parks in Europe. The team had obviously done their research as I love rollercoasters. The bigger the better! I could tell the next few days were going to be a lot of fun.
My days were varied, with a mix of adrenaline activities, great food, stunning countryside and buzzy towns. I got a great overview of the Costa Dorada, and packed so much into each day. If you’re visiting for a relaxing hoilday, I think the suggestions below would work really well spread out over a week.
So, time to share some tips. Whether you’re looking for some great day trips from Barcelona, or enjoying a holiday on the beautiful coast, scroll down for my top things to do on the Costa Dorada.
Where is the Costa Dorada?
First things first, let me familiarise you with where this region of Spain is. The Costa Dorada, which translates as the Golden Coast, lies south of Barcelona. The coast line stretches over 200km, and is peppered with beautiful beaches, vivid turquoise water and pretty towns.
If you’re travelling from abroad, I’d recommend flying to Barcelona and then catching a train or bus south, or hiring a car to get around.
To make things simple, I’ve plotted all my recommendations on this Costa Dorada map. Don’t forget to save the link as part of your travel planning.
Visit the stunning mountaintop village of Siurana
Now I’m reflecting on my time in Catalonia, I’d say the drive to the village of Siurana was one of the highlights of my trip. You’ll be amazed by how varied the landscapes are in Catalonia, with just a short drive between epic mountains and beautiful beaches.
After a wiggly drive up to the Prades Mountains, enjoying dry, arid views of dusty orange sandstone and beautiful vineyards, we arrived at the top of the mountain. The village of Siurana is home to just 24 people, some of whom run the 6-room hotel and restaurant.
With the ruins of a Moorish castle constructed in 800 and a simple 12th century Romanesque church with a baroque altar, there’s plenty of history to marvel at. The highlights for me were the views, with sheer drops all around, and spectacular panoramas to the vibrant turquoise reservoir below. The village is also stunning, with old stone houses and romantic cobble streets.
It’s a favourite spot for climbers, cyclists and hikers, all keen to take on the challenging terrain. Siurana is one of the prettiest villages in Catalonia, and during peak tourist season it can get busy. I’d recommend planning your visit for a weekday, and arrive early in the morning to miss the crowds.
Try some water activities in Salou
When I visited Salou, I received several messages from my Instagram followers in the UK. That’s because it’s one of the most popular resort towns in Catalonia, and has been for a long time. It’s perfect for those looking for bargain holidays on the sunny Costa Dorada, with the familiarity of English speakers around them. Ok I’ll spell it out – this is the Spanish town with more British pubs than your average town in England!
Yet, look beyond that, and you’ll discover a great sandy beach, pretty promenade and the perfect setting for some fun water activities.
My favourite water activity was parasailing with Estació Nàutica. From 50 metres up you get a great perspective of the shape of the land, the beautiful coastline, the local attractions (including the outline of the rollercoasters at PortAventura World) and the mountains in the background.
I also hopped on a jet-ski for a short ride around a circuit a little way out from the shore. I’ve been on jet-skis before but I’d never driven one myself. What fun, speeding over the water, crashing into waves and feeling the force of the machine!
Go on a paddle boarding excursion to a cave
One of the highlights of my entire trip around the Costa Dorada was this paddle boarding excursion from l’Hospitalet de l’Infant to the cave La Cova del Llop. As I was experiencing the activity as part of my ‘mystery trip’ I had no idea where we’d be going.
I adore paddle boarding. Once I find my balance, nothing beats paddling through the water, gliding the paddle around the board, and slowly moving from A to B. It’s relaxing, builds great core strength, and there’s a kind of magic to the feeling of standing upright on the water.
This activity was heightened by the fact we paddled into a cave. Outside, the water was a bright turquoise, while inside we saw bats, swam in the enclosed space and spotted some stalagmites and stalactites.
Explore the historic Roman city of Tarragona
There are so many reasons to visit Tarragona during your holiday on the Costa Dorada. It’s one of the most historic sites in Spain, with Roman ruins dotted all over the city. From the ancient amphitheatre with its impressive backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea, to ancient mosaics, remains of the forum and old city walls, in Tarragona you’re as likely to see ruins as tapas bars.
The best place to start is the Museu Nacional Arqueològic de Tarragona, where you can find out about the city’s Roman past. Then I’d recommend a wander to the 12th Century Tarragona Cathedral. You could climb the bell tower or just take in the views of the stunning rose window from outside. Then enjoy the hotch-potch of cobbled streets, sandy-coloured buildings and Pilon’s Street (Carrer de Comte) – where artists have painted the bollards with fun and creative designs.
Finally, make your way to the 2nd Century Roman Amphitheatre built right next to the sea. They show reenactments from time to time, and while the 14,000 or so spectators would once have watched gladiators fighting to the death, these days things are a lot more relaxed!
Other things to do in Tarragona include visiting the nearby beaches, checking out the port, enjoying traditional cuisine in restaurants such as El Llagut and catching one of the city’s famous festivals featuring a human pyramid challenge.
Spend an adrenaline-filled day at PortAventura
With several ‘worlds’ (from China to Mexico), over 40 rides and plenty of other entertainment, PortAventura World is one of the top-rated and biggest theme parks in Europe. If you’re visiting during peak season, I’d recommend booking in advance, and if you can afford to spend a little extra, upgrade your ticket to an Express Pass so you can skip the queues.
My favourite ride was Shambhala, which kicks off with an 80m drop, then goes insanely fast, with serious G-force kicks throughout. At one time it felt like I was flying!
I also enjoyed Tutuki Splash – a water ride that drenched me when I least expected it. Next time I visit Catalonia, I’ll add in a ticket to Ferrari Land (which is separate, but on the same complex), purely to test my nerve on the Vertical Accelerator ride – the tallest and fastest rollercoaster in Europe. Eek!
If you’re visiting PortAventura World as a family, there are plenty of great attractions for little ones, especially in the Sesame Street themed Sesamo Aventura area. Or for something totally different, head to Caribe Aquatic Park – PortAventura’s water park.
Enjoy the food scene in Cambrils
After spending time in Salou, I’d recommend moving on to Cambrils – the resort town’s upmarket, quieter and charming neighbour. While there are plenty of things to do in Cambrils (from sailing to shopping), I’d recommend focusing on gastronomy. It’s known as the gastronomic capital of the Costa Dorada, and once I’d visited, I could see why.
There are over 100 restaurants in the area, including Can Bosch and Rincón de Diego which each boast one Michelin star. On the first night of my trip I ate at Cambium Restaurant where I was absolutely blown away by the cuisine on offer. With an interesting fusion of Catalan cuisine with Peruvian, Bolivian and Asian flavours, we feasted on a tasting menu of sharing dishes. Stand out plates included pork and pineapple dumplings with coconut curry sauce, a tangy salmon tartare and meaty seared tuna with a fiery wasabi mayo and a ginger and lime sauce. The food at Cambium was exciting, creative and extremely tasty.
I also spent an hour at Cambrils’ buzzy fish market where I watched the fishing boats arrive at the harbour, mesmerised by the endless boxes of colourful fish and seafood being unloaded. I was also privy to a unique experience – watching the fish be auctioned, snapped up by local fishmongers and chefs.
That evening I visited Denver Restaurant for dinner, and tucked into a few of the delicacies I’d seen in the market just a few hours before. With over 25 years of experience, the chef was highly skilled and the food was exceptional. Highlights included succulent langoustines with an earthy beetroot sauce and perfectly seasoned sea bass with crunchy vegetables. A tour of this area’s restaurants is definitely one of my top things to do on the Costa Dorada!
Snap beautiful photos in Parc Samà near Cambrils
What a photogenic gem Parc Samà is! This impressive botanic garden is just a short drive from Cambrils and features incredible modernist structures including bridges, towers and tunnels. It’s been described as a garden of memories, as its features play homage to destinations around the world. The lavender field made me feel like I was in France, while the maize maze felt like I was travelling through America’s corn fields.
I loved the tower in the centre, surrounded by water, with a staircase leading to a panoramic viewpoint. We timed our visit for golden hour, when the park looked even more magical, as the yellow glow illuminated the trees and plants.
If you’re wondering who could create such a beautiful spot, it was Josep Fontseré Mestres who was greatly influenced by Gaudi… In fact, Gaudi apparently designed a few areas himself. For me, the only downside to this park is that there are a few exotic birds in cages, plus deer in a pen. It feels so unnecessary, especially considering how many birds and creatures were roaming free.
Appreciate the Modernist architceture in Reus
Reus is a large town filled with modernist architecture. I hadn’t realised until my visit that Gaudi wasn’t from Barcelona – he was born in Reus! The Gaudi Centre is well worth a visit, charting the talented architect’s life, inspirations and creations across Spain.
It’s an engaging and interactive museum, with replicas of his most famous designs, including the cave-like walkway in Parc Guell and the impressive sculptures topping the Sagrada Familia.
While Gaudi grew up in Reus, he never designed anything in the city, yet the city’s architecture is a big reason to visit. There’s a walking route through the city known as the ‘Modernism Route’, taking visitors past several impressive Modernist buildings, designed by other top architects from Catalonia.
One of the most intriguing is Casa Navàs which overlooks the main square, and features some of the most elaborate interiors I’ve ever come across. To enter, you’ll need to book onto a guided tour of the building. l loved the vibrant stained-glass windows, eclectic tile work and beautiful terrace. It’s definitely worth a visit!
I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing about my top things to do on the Costa Dorada. While there are plenty more amazing places in the region, I look forward to discovering more on a future trip.
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