At one time tarnished by a reputation for low-cost package tours, today the reality of the Costa Brava is quite different.
The term Costa Brava was first used in 1908 by Catalan journalist Ferran Agulló to describe the rugged coastline running from Blanes up to Banyuls in France and while there are long stretches of sand along the coast, one of the typical images of the Costa Brava is of rocky coves, pebble beaches and pine covered cliffs plunging into the sea.
Certainly some areas have been spoilt by the construction boom that started in the 1960s but equally there are areas completely protected against construction. Planning laws are also far more restrictive than they were in the past. Yes, towns like Lloret de Mar cater for the sun and cheap booze brigade but much of the 200+ kilometre coastline remains completely unspoilt.
In this guide you’ll find details about all seaside towns on the Costa Brava, which will help you reach an informed decision when holiday planning or buying a second home. And if anything in the guide is unclear or you have any questions or comments you can email me using the contact form here.
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Northern Costa Brava: Alt Empordà
Cadaqués is one of the best known towns of the Alt Empordà
The character of the Alt Empordà coastline varies between the rocky Cap de Creus bordering France, the easternmost point of the Iberian Peninsula formed from the foothills of the Pyrenees, and the long sandy beaches in the bay of Roses.
While starkly beautiful in the north (and the inspiration for much of Salvador Dalí’s work), it can also be bleak in the winter thanks to the intense cold and powerful tramuntana that can gust at more than 100 km/h.
As the town closest to the French border on the Costa Brava, Portbou is dominated by the huge railway station that once provided customs and immigration facilities prior to Europe’s borders opening up. It was also one of the few Republican supply routes from abroad during the Spanish Civil War.
The town, set among the Pyrenean foothills, isn’t a major tourist destination but has a decent pebble beach. By road the town connects with France via a winding seven kilometre route but two rail tunnels provide more direct access; one of these is standard gauge, while the other is the wider Iberian gauge. This allows Spanish trains to terminate on the other side of the border in Cerbère while French trains can terminate in Portbou.
With a wintertime population of fewer than 600, Colera hardly gets packed in summer despite some decent pebble beaches and the surrounding mountainous terrain. The town has a small marina, just a handful of hotels, tourist apartments and a camp site. Access is via road or train.
While at one time the village of Llançà and the port area were considered to be separate, widespread tourist development now means they are part of the same urban sprawl.
Until the 1960s the port consisted of fishermen’s huts but the advent of mass tourism transformed the fishing port into a large marina in which the fishing fleet is dwarfed by the number of pleasure boats moored there.
As well as a sand beach there are pebble beaches and rocky coves nearby and while the area is popular in the summer, the tourist population is spread quite widely among the many private properties and campsites. Llançà has a fully equipped dive centre and there are daily boat excursions along the coast.
The town can be reached by road from Figueres, or from Cadaqués via Port de la Selva, and there is a railway station at the edge of town.
El Port de la Selva
The sleepy fishing village of El Port de la Selva first became a popular holiday destination among Catalan intellectuals in the 1920s including Catalan playwright Josep Maria de Sagarra, who named his 1933 play “El Cafè de la Marina” after a local café that still exists today.
Today the village remains surprisingly quiet even in August and with a wide beach with a gentle shelf is ideal for families with small children. It remains popular with Catalans and consists mainly of private holiday homes with a small campsite and hostal at the edge of town and a handful of hotels, while on the winding road towards Llançà is a larger campsite with full facilities.
Beaches vary from the dirty sand of the main beach to pebbles and rocky coves, and the water is clear and excellent for snorkelling. The situation and orientation of the town mean you can watch the sun set behind the mountains while looking out to sea. The town is reached by road from Llançà or Cadaqués.
Cadaqués is well known for its association with art and artists and has become a Mecca for artists from around the world.
Catalan surrealist Salvador Dalí had a house at nearby Portlligat, which is now a museum, and the characteristic volcanic rock formations found throughout the Cap de Creus can be seen in many of his paintings. Dalí was not alone; a list of artists who visited is like a who’s who of twentieth-century artists.
Today much of the town is pedestrianised and the old town is definitely worthwhile strolling through. As well as the beach and water sports, the summer sees cultural events and art exhibitions.
In addition to the main beach, the area surrounding the nucleus of the town features the usual pebble beaches and rocky covers of the Cap de Creus. Access is by winding mountain road from Roses, or from El Port de la Selva.
To the south of Cap de Creus lies the town of Roses and the start of the long sandy beaches of the Bay of Roses. It has a major marina and the largest fishing fleet on the Costa Brava.
With city walls built to protect inhabitants from pirate attacks during the sixteenth century and later a castle, the modern town consists mainly of tourist properties and there is plenty of hotel accommodation available.
The main beach consists of nearly 2 kilometres of sand and nearby are also a number of smaller beaches. Roses is easily accessible by road and good bus connections.
Dating from the 1960s, Empuriabrava is one of the largest marinas in the world and contains an incredible 40 kilometres of canal. Although the town is popular, with the summer population swelling to 80,000, it is hard to see the attraction and while Empuriabrava boasts a long beach, it but lacks any real charm.
Sant Pere Pescador
The economy of Sant Pere Pescador today relies on tourism and agriculture and boasts a 7 kilometre sand beach. Although having limited hotel accommodation, there are a number of camp sites nearby as well as private holiday apartments rentals.
While not well known as a tourist destination, the town is close to the natural park of Els Aiguamolls de l’Empordà, a nature reserve on marshland with dozens of varieties of birds and other wildlife.
To the south of the Bay of Roses lies L’Escala, a fishing village famous for its anchovies and for the nearby Greco-Roman remains of Empúries. The settlement dates from 575 BC when it was founded as a trading outpost by Greek colonists. It become the largest Greek colony on the Iberian Peninsula and was from where the Roman conquest of Hispania began in 218 BC. Empúries was abandoned in the Middle Ages as it was too vulnerable from pirate attacks. The walled mediaeval town of Sant Martí d’Empúries is within the municipality of L’Escala next to the ruins of Empúries.
The population of what is now the village of L’Escala remained low throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as the fishing village became established. The town grew throughout the eighteenth century, only stabilising by the mid-nineteenth century.
Following the tourist boom of the 1960s the population started to expand again and the construction boom saw the town expand well beyond the ore of the old village. The last two decades have seen the marina completely remodelled to greatly increase the number of moorings available and still has an active fishing fleet. The town also has several anchovy factories where the local delicacy is prepared.
With few hotel rooms available, most tourists stay in private accommodation on in one of the campsites in the town and nearby. Riells beach consists of fine sand and shallow water, making it ideal for families with small children, but it also gets rather packed in summer. There are a number of other beaches along this stretch of coast consisting of sand, pebbles or rock also.
Central Costa Brava: Baix Empordà
Calella de Palafrugell is just one of several fishing villages in the Baix Empordà
After l’Escala comes a large area of land that in recent years has received protected status after being granted the status of a natural park that includes the Massis del Montrí and covers the Medes Islands.
This rocky area of coastline has some good diving sites reached from either l’Escala or Estartit, from where a long sand beach runs all the way down past Pals and to Sa Riera where once again the coastline becomes rocky. Here you’ll find a number of relatively unspoilt fishing villages and then the port town of Palamós, after which there is more sand broken occasionally by rocky outcrops.
On the other side of the Mongrí massif from l’Escala lies the town of Estartit, a one- time fishing village whose port is now full of pleasure boats. Although the heart of the original fishing village has been swamped by largely unsympathetic construction, the old town retains much of its charm. It remains a pleasure to explore the streets at crazy angles that just call out for you to investigate the shops, bars and restaurants.
The long sandy beach is great for the summer, although it can get busy in August but its 2½ kilometres of sand extend down to the Ter River estuary so even at the height of summer you should find somewhere to lay your towel.
Divers will want to book an excursion to the Medes Islands, one of the best dive sites throughout Spain, and non-divers can visit to snorkel. There are a number of dive centres located throughout the town and each has several boat trips to the Medes each day in summer.
Accommodation consists of mainly private houses and apartments, with a handful of hotels and campers have a number of options too.
Although the mediaeval town of Pals lies a couple of kilometres inland, visitors here can benefit from the two kilometre stretch of sand at Platja de Pals nearby that extends from the Ter River to Sa Riera.
Apart from Pals itself there is accommodation at Massos de Pals, midway between Pals and the coast, and golfers may want to play the course at Golf Platja de Pals. Empordà Golf Club is also nearby.
At the southern end of stretch of sand that beach that extends all the way from Estartit the coastline again becomes rocky. Here you find the town of Begur with its mediaeval castle, and a number of fishing villages belonging to the municipality that have retained their charm and avoided over development.
These are Sa Riera, Aiguafreda, Sa Tuna and Fornells, all of which are a world away from the type of low budget tourism sometimes associated with the Costa Brava and typified by Lloret de Mar. Here is the Costa Brava of pine covered cliffs and rocky coves and summers of swimming and snorkelling followed by evenings eating fresh seafood under the stars, washed down with a local wine.
The hamlet of Esclanyà is also in the municipality of Begur and contain Roman remains as well as a thirteenth century church and fifteenth century castle.
As well as the mediaeval town of Palafrugell itself, the municipality covers an area containing the fishing villages of Tamariu, Llafranc and Calella de Palafrugell as well as a number of towns inland. Palafrugell lies around four kilometres inland and was at one time fortified, although only some remains of the city walls still exist. The old town is largely pedestrianised and full of bars, resaturants and shops and here you’ll find the church of Sant Martí which dates from the 11th century and further enlarged in the 14th and 15th centuries.
There is also a major bus station located in Palafrugell with numerous buses running throughout eh day to Barcelona, Girona and many towns on the Costa Brava.
Like the coast of Begur, Palafrugell’s is rugged with smaller beaches and rocky coves ideal for swimming and snorkelling instead of the wide expanses of sand found in other areas. The fishing villages of the municipality are far quieter than the larger resorts and have plenty of good restaurants with fresh seafood and great for fining al fresco.
Each year the town hosts a music festival in the botanical gardens of Cap Roig, near Calella de Palafrugell. From early July to mid August featuring both local bands and internationally acclaimed artists.
Today Palamós is increasingly becoming important as a destination for the cruise ships that have become so popular in the last decade from Barcelona along with Roses, the only other port town on the Costa Brava to used as a cruise port.
The town has one of the few fishing fleets on the Costa Brava and famous for its prawns. The old town near the port retains its character with narrow its streets and tourist developments largely constructed where the town meets Sant Antoni de Calonge, with which it now forms one urban mass.
The main beach is in this area and while construction is set back from the beach, there are a number of high rise apartment blocks. A better beach is at La Fosca, which is ideal of children, although parking at the height of the season is a little challenging. Another popular beach is Platja de Castell, which is the largest beach on the Costa Brava to have escaped development thanks to local opposition.
Sant Antoni de Calonge
Although there are some buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries, the majority of construction in Sant Antoni de Calonge dates from the 20th century.
Originally a fishing village populated from the medieval town of Calonge following a decline in piracy on the Costa Brava, today the town is a busy tourist destination with a long beach in the Bay of Palamós. The beach is a couple of kilometres long with a number of T-shaped breakwaters along its length. They were built to prevent sand erosion, partially caused by the development of the port at Palamós.
Along the beach front you’ll find restaurants and bars but the sea front has too many ugly apartment blocks to have a real sense of the character of the Costa Brava. With some sensitive development Sant Antoni de Calonge would be quite different, but instead the town is a good example of what happens when development is allowed to go ahead unchecked.
The beach resort of Platja d’Aro boats two kilometres of coarse sand, although for much of the length of it the depth drops away too steeply for children. Part of the municipality of Castell-Platja d’Aro, the town was originally a tiny fishing village between Palamós and Sant Feliu de Guíxols known as Fanals d’Amunt, and later Fanals d’Aro, with the main town being the Castell d’Aro with its mediaeval castle. It was only as part of a strategy to appeal to the tourist market that the name Platja d’Aro was adopted in 1962.
The promenade is lined with restaurants at ground level, with high rise apartments and hotels unfortunately casting an early shadow over the beach into early shadow. Despite mainly consisting of new developments the town and lacking the charm of a fishing village, Platja d’Aro is extremely convenient.
While not everyone’s cup of tea, it also has a large campsite on the town’s outskirts and another near the beach, and there are lots of restaurants and bars on the promenade and on the high street, shops and plenty of nightlife and on Fridays during July and August the town hosts jazz nights. The performances take place on a temporary stage at the northern end of the beach and are free to attend.
Platja d’Aro is one of the few resorts that is busy throughout the year, partly because of the variety of shops. Contrast that with the many Costa Brava towns of a comparable size that become ghost towns in winter.
Dating as far back as the 1920s, the gated community of S’Agaró was intended to be sympathetic to the surrounding spectacular landscape using traditional Catalan design. Part of the project was the construction of the 5-star Hostal de la Gavina, a luxury hotel that over the years has seen scores of names from Hollywood and the music business staying as a guest there
The winding path along the seafront between Sant Pol and Sa Concha beaches provides some spectacular views of the Mediterranean and glimpses of some equally spectacular S’Agaró properties. While the prices at S’Agaró itself may be prohibitive, the resort of Sant Pol is affordable and the sandy beach is pleasant with a gently sloping shelf making it good for youngsters. The promenade is lined with restaurants, while there are several hotels near the seafront too, while the area of the beach closest to S’Agaró has a line of coloured beach huts next to the Taverna del Mar. Although pricy, its reputation is excellent. Bear in mind though that it recently changed ownership
While much of the construction in Sant Pol is recent, there are also a number of treasures dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the Indios – Catalans who had made their fortunes in the Americas and constructed spectacular houses in the Catalan modernist style to show off their wealth.
Although right next door to S’Agaró, which is in the municipality of Castell-Platja d’Aro, Sant Pol is actually part of Sant Feliu de Guíxols. Geographically though it feels quite separate.
Sant Feliu de Guíxols
Like many towns along this stretch of coast, Sant Feliu relied upon the cork industry prior to the arrival of mass tourism in the 1960s. The town has a decent beach and on Sundays is busy throughout the year as people flock to the morning market where you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables in the market square, or clothing and other items on the promenade.
Here you’ll find a number of bars and restaurants and the harbour is used for both fishing and for leisure boats. The harbour was updated in 2006 to improve facilities and the harbour wall reinforced.
While the town does retain some character the seafront is too built up with high rise apartment buildings, but the town museum, located in a monastery, is worthwhile visiting for a sense of the change that has happened in the area.
From the late 19th century until 1969 Sant Feliu de Guíxols was connected with Girona by train and, as with a number of towns here, the former station still remains. Today Sant Feliu is easily reached by road either via the C-65/C-35 which connects with the AP-7 motorway or the C-31 that connects runs inland towards Palafrugell. There is also a bus station on the outskirts of the town which connects Sant Feliu with the airports at Barcelona and Girona , as well as many other towns on the Costa Brava. See the Sarfa website for details.
The winding coast road between Sant Feliu de Guíxols and Tossa de Mar affords some spectacular views among pine and cork covered hills that plunge into the sea. Along the way are plenty of places to pull over and admire the view and the hamlet of Canyet de Mar has a couple of beaches worthwhile visiting before the Baix Empordà gives way to La Selva.
Southern Costa Brava: La Selva
The castle at Tossa de Mar overlooks protected the town from pirates
When many people picture the Costa Brava they think of high rise apartments and hotels, and rather than the natural beauty of the region, coastline that has been overbuilt.
While this is not true of much of the Costa Brava, it does sum up some towns. In particular Lloret de Mar still struggles to escape the image of low cost tourism. While the town actively tries to discourage the worst excesses, much of its attraction is built on exactly that and there is little to recommend the town itself. It consists of high rise after high rise and although having a spectacular beach, the seafront is nothing to write home about at all.
The ravaging of the coast was born in the Franco era policy of promoting Spain to the world just as mass tourism was just getting underway. Cut off from much of the world after the Civil War, Franco removed the need to tourist visas in 1959, devalued the currency and heavily promoted the country as a tourist destination.
Cheap to visit, tourism brought in much needed hard currency and was the catalyst to an under regulated construction industry that saw a boom in hotels and apartment blocks that spoilt much of the coast throughout Spain. Lloret remains the best example of the policy’s impact on the Costa Brava.
Tossa de Mar
Although there has always been a small fishing fleet in Tossa de Mar, its primary industries before the arrival of mass tourism in the 1950s were grapes and cork. Much of the surrounding area consists of forest with cork oak, which was shipped to the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1950s the town was famous for the arrival of Ava Gardner to film “The Flying Dutchman” with James Mason and in 1998 a bronze statue was erected in the old town to honour her.
Today Tossa remains a popular tourist destination, with a sandy beach and castle overlooking the modern town. Within the castle walls lies the original mediaeval town, and the area just outside the castle walls are distinctly old world. Here you’ll find plenty of restaurants next to the beach, although it is slightly spoiled by the stream that runs in the sand parallel with to the sea in this area.
The northern end of the beach is less authentically Catalan and more comprised of three of four story apartment buildings and hotels. Although not really in character of the true Costa Brava, they at least don’t dominate the seafront like in other towns.
The road between Tossa and Lloret de Mar winds with the rugged coast and along here are a number of beaches. There include Llorell and Canyelles, which during the summer can be reached by bus and the latter of which has a small marina.
Lloret de Mar
Lloret de Mar pretty much sums up all the negative aspects of tourism, with little remaining of the original village. Instead it was swallowed up by the high-rise apartments and hotels in the rush to cater for low-end mass tourism and there is little that is genuinely Catalan. While it does boast an impressive beach, the seafront is spoilt by unchecked construction and in the summer it is overcrowded.
However, just a little bit out of the town and there are some surprises. Fenals and Boadella beaches are a world away from the main beach, while Santa Cristina boasts a 14th century hermitage overlooking the sea and a small beach that, because of the extra effort required to access it from the land and the cost of parking, keeps many potential visitors at bay.
Surprisingly there are botanical gardens overlooking Boadella beach, considered to be the best example of contemporary landscaped gardens in Catalonia.
As the most southerly town on the Costa Brava, Blanes is known as the “gateway to the Costa Brava”. Reached from Lloret by road, Blanes is also near the N-II and the C-32, which runs all the way down to Barcelona. The town is popular with locals and due to its proximity to Barcelona and as well as road can be reached in under 90 minutes by train from the Catalan capital.
Blanes has a wide promenade with restaurants and bars but some of the buildings are a little too tall, with six or seven stories, and feels rather sterile. Not all the seafront is spoilt though and it is nothing like Lloret. Get away from the seafront and you’ll still find the heart of the fishing village Blanes once was.
As well as the beach, Blanes is also famous for its botanical gardens which attract thousands of visitors every year and the harbour has been refurbished after massive storm damage sustained in 2008 after years of neglect. Every year Blanes hosts a firework competition (El Focs de Blanes), which coincides with its festa major. The competition lasts four around four days, ending on 26th July to celebrate Santa Anna.
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