With the spirit of independence once again riding high in the region and a self-determination referendum mooted for next year, Catalan flags hang from balconies, lending a defiant air to this beautiful medieval city. Founded by the Romans, Girona was ruled by the Moors for two centuries, controlled by the French and besieged so many times it earned the nickname "immortal" or "the city of a thousand sieges". These days invaders tend to overlook it, heading instead to nearby Barcelona. Yet it consistently tops a countrywide poll of the favourite place to live. From October to December, the Temporada Alta festival is a celebration of theatre, music and dance, with performances across the city (temporada-alta.net).
Get your bearings
Girona is inland from the rugged Costa Brava and surrounded by northern Catalonia's soft, green hills. Its heart is the ancient walled city, Barri Vell, sitting on the right bank of the river Onyar, where colourfully painted homes line the waterway.
The towering spire of the cathedral at its northern end provides an easy landmark. Venture over to the nearby left bank for a stroll around the bustling Plaça de la Independència, the heart of the city's social scene. The tourist office is on 1 Rambla de la Llibertat (girona.cat; 9am-8pm daily, but closed 2-4pm on Saturday and 9am-2pm on Sunday).
If you plan to visit several museums, buy a Tiquet M5 at the first – you will pay full price but then receive a 50 per cent discount on the remainder.
The designer shops that line La Rambla de la Llibertat or the streets around Plaça de la Independència offer wares to sate any shopaholic's appetite.
Take a hike
From La Rambla de la Llibertat walk north towards the distinctive rust-coloured Pont de les Pescateries Velles, built by Gustave Eiffel before his more famous Paris creation.
Continue north to the Pont de Sant Agustí for a lovely view of the terracotta and ochre houses that line the river Onyar. Ramble on to the cobbled Carrer Ballesteries. For a closer look, book ahead to see the only property open to the public – Casa Masó, the birthplace of the prominent Catalan architect Rafael Masó, at 29 Carrer Ballesteries (rafaelmaso.org; tours Tuesday-Saturday; €5).
Lunch on the run
Just south of the Casa Masó, the pretty tiled interior of La Terra at 23 Carrer Ballestries is an ideal spot for a burger (€4.50) or hot chocolate (€2.90). Snatch a window table for a rare riverside treat.
Descend into the claustrophobic labyrinth of cobbled streets that make up "El Call" or the Jewish Quarter – one of the best-preserved in Europe – for a look at the remnants of a community which inhabited Girona for six centuries before being expelled in 1492. The Jewish History Museum at 8 Carrer Força gives an insight into daily life, along with their passion for astronomy and medicine (girona.ca; Tuesday to Saturday 10am-6pm; until 2pm Monday and Sunday in winter; €4).
Dining with the locals
Catalonia is a culinary hotbed – the recently closed elBulli in nearby Roses topped the world's best restaurants listing a record five times. Now the World's Best Restaurant is Girona's own acclaimed three-Michelin-starred restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca at 48 Can Sunyer (cellercanroca.com), where tasting menus cost from €135 for seven courses.For a delicious meal at considerably less cost, the locals go to Curcuma at 4 Plaça de Bell-Lloc (curcuma.cat), a stylish Catalan restaurant tucked on a side street off La Rambla.
The menu entreats you to select a series of small dishes (around €4) such as cod with onion, honey and Mallorcan sausage and duck magret with mint pears. Or try the "Catalan tiramisu", where the mascarpone has been replaced by recuit, a smooth local cheese, and the marsala wine by the distinctive herb-based liqueur ratafia.
Go to church
The cathedral at Plaça de la Catedral (catedraldegirona.org) exudes splendour. The spectacle begins with the sweeping Baroque staircase that lead up to its imposing Romanesque façade and continues with the Gothic nave (the widest in Europe after St Peter's Basilica in Rome) to the gold, silver and precious stones of the altar.
Rest for a while in the peace of the 12th-century cloister before tackling the treasures in the museum (10am-7pm; €7) that range from encrusted bishop's mitres to the Tapestry of Creation, one of the finest surviving examples of Romanesque textile. The weekly high-altar mass is at 11am on Sundays but you are still welcome to visit.
For the price of your entry ticket, stroll a few steps down to the simpler Església de Sant Feliu where the marbled Capell Sant Narcis honours the city's patron saint, who according to folklore set a swarm of flies on invading French soldiers during the siege of 1285.
Take a view
Meander behind the cathedral to the walled ramparts of the old city. The earliest date from the time of Charlemagne. A stroll along the walls offers spectacular views of the enchanting medieval alleyways and the mountain backdrop beyond. One of the longest stretches can be reached through the Jardíns de la Francesa.
A walk in the park
Along the northern edge of the ramparts sits the refreshingly peaceful stepped gardens of the Passeig Arqueològic. Survey the ancient roofs and spires below from the lush palms and greenery of the gardens or gaze out at the Ter Valley beyond – a delightful place to rest a while.
Icing on the cake
Girona is a city of myths and folklore, possibly the most quirky of which centres on the statue of the small (and rather disturbed looking) lioness climbing up a pillar in Plaça de Sant Feliu. Tradition has it that those who have fallen for the city and wish to return to it must climb the three steps and kiss the little feline's bottom.