Pair of photos from Spain, one showing an amphitheater in Tarragona, and one showing a path on the grounds of a hotel in Xerta

I Went on a Food-focused Road Trip Through Catalonia — Here's Where to Find the Best Oysters, Olive Oil, and Even Sake

Driving along the coast of Spain, one travel writer found historic towns and amazing boutique hotels.

Looking at the pearly object glistening in my hand, I wasn't immediately sure what to do. "Try it!" mollusk farmer Albert Grasa urged, pointing at the newly shucked oyster. I slurped it down, savoring its natural sweetness and the saline tang of the Mediterranean.

We were standing on a platform over the briny waters of the Ebro Delta, a piece of Catalonia's coastline that juts into the Balearic Sea. Below us, oysters and mussels grew in clusters on ropes that hang from racks above the emerald water. To my right was an open-air restaurant, part of Musclarium (; tastings from $22), a sustainable mollusk farm just offshore from the fishing town of Sant Carles de la Ràpita. Grasa, the owner, was showing me around.

A plate of oysters balanced on a post by the water
Oysters from Musclarium, a mollusk farm in the Ebro Delta. Sara Larsson

This remote stretch of shore, just one highlight on my four-night road trip through Catalonia's "Deep South," felt worlds away from the cacophony of Barcelona, only two hours' drive to the north. The Ebro Delta is one of Spain's primary rice-producing regions, a marshy wetland where vast paddies, frequented by storks and flamingos, run alongside the meandering Ebro River all the way to the sweeping sand dunes that line the coast. Grasa told me that the delta, a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, is defined by four elements: the marsh, the river, the sea, and the wildlife that thrives there. Apart from supplying rice for paellas across the country, the area also has some of Spain's finest seafood — not to mention artichokes, wild duck, and the first and only brand of Mediterranean sake.

I drove around the coast of southern Catalonia to see this biodiverse, undervisited region for myself, stopping at medieval villages, seaside towns, wineries, and rice fields.


I rented a car in Barcelona and drove 30 minutes south to Garraf, a quiet town with dramatic cliffs and excellent hiking and horseback riding. People come to spend the day at the horseshoe-shaped beach, which is lined with bottle-green-and-white beach huts dating back to the early 20th century.

Little Beach House Barcelona (; doubles from $370 with $130 annual membership), a Soho House property, was my home for the night. I spent the day at the beach, avoiding invitations to yoga and instead munching on deep-fried calamari on one of the hotel's striped sun beds. That evening, I braved the winding country roads through Garraf Natural Park to the Garraf Astronomical Observatory ( With a group of eight fellow stargazers, I climbed the rickety stairs to the top of the observatory, where an unassuming-looking telescope points out of a hole in the roof. I searched in vain for Venus, settling instead for an extraordinarily detailed view of the moon through the lens. Back at Little Beach House, after a spicy, tequila-based picante de la casa cocktail and a plate of grilled sea bass, I returned to my oceanfront room and giant bed overflowing with pillows, where I was lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves.


The road from Garraf to Sitges is short — but has enough twists and turns to give even the hardiest sailor motion sickness. Luckily, Sitges, a jumble of cobblestoned streets and whitewashed buildings, was worth the drive, thanks to its powder-sand beaches and vibrant LGBTQ nightlife scene.

After arriving at Dolce Sitges (; doubles from $215) and checking in to my airy room overlooking the bay, I set out on foot in search of lunch. At La Zorra (; prix fixe from $34), I tried chef Pablo Albuerne's Valencian-style paella, which had plenty of toasty socarrat (the crunchy, caramelized rice around the edges and bottom of the pan). Then I strolled along the beachfront to the Modernist Maricel Palace and Cau Ferrat (, museums that house works by Spanish artists including Pablo Picasso, Ramon Casas, Ignacio Zuloaga, and the late local resident Santiago Rusiñol. Later, I ate garlicky mussels and clams at Can Laury (; entrées $11–$42) and tried fideuà, a Catalan take on paella with noodles instead of rice, at Maricel (; entrées $30–$55).

A sitting area at the Little Beach House Barcelona hotel
Inside Little Beach House Barcelona. Sara Larsson


Located 60 miles south of Barcelona, the often-overlooked coastal town of Tarragona has a UNESCO-listed Roman amphitheater that once hosted gladiator fights; an imposing 12th-century cathedral; and a historic district full of narrow, winding alleyways.

I stopped for lunch at El Terrat (; tasting menus from $52) for a remarkable multicourse feast by the Moroccan-born Slow Food pioneer Moha Quach — which included such innovative dishes as sea nettle in tempura with garlic and parsley and red Tarragona prawns swimming in a piquant romesco cream. Then I drove to Le Méridien Ra Beach Hotel & Spa (; doubles from $330), a regal beach resort set in a former sanatorium that was built in 1929 to capitalize on the Mediterranean's restorative powers. After an invigorating swim in the clear sea, I slipped into one of the best sleeps I'd had in months.


Hotel Villa Retiro (; doubles from $165) is the star attraction in Xerta, a small town 62 miles southwest of Tarragona. This restored mansion, which dates back to 1890 and has a Michelin-starred restaurant by local wunderkind Fran López, is the ideal jumping-off point to explore the Ebro Delta. It was here that I joined Grasa on Musclarium's speedboat in the busy port of Sant Carles de la Ràpita, while all around us fishing boats brought in their daily haul.

Later, I visited the sake and miso producer Kenshô (, the first of its kind in Spain, to learn how Meritxell Jardí, a fourth-generation rice farmer, and her husband, Humbert Conti, apply Japanese distilling and fermenting methods to Mediterranean rice. Lunch was a paella brimming with blue crab at the casual Mas de Prades (; entrées $19–$30). For dinner, I went to the more elevated L'Algadir (; entrées $14–$26), where I tasted Ebro-born chef Joan Capilla's grilled octopus and a dish of rice with shrimp and monkfish tail.

Two photos from Spain, one showing a person puring sake, and one showing a man walking down a small street in Sitges
From left: Pours of Kenshô sake; a side street in Sitges. Sara Larsson


It was time to return to Barcelona — but not before a quick detour inland to the Terra Alta wine region for a stop at Catedral del Vi ( The almost century-old Modernist structure hosts a cooperative representing some 295 winemakers who favor Garnacha, a grape variety native to the region. After stocking up at the vineyard, I couldn't help pulling over at La Boella (; entrées $23–$35), an olive mill turned hotel that still produces a fruity extra-virgin olive oil.

I reluctantly drove northward as the sun began to set over the jagged peaks of Montserrat in the distance. Bottles of wine and Catalan olive oil clinked in my trunk as I remembered what Joan Capilla had said to me in his kitchen, as views of rice paddies stretched out in front of his windows. "Almost every family here has an olive farmer, a winemaker, and a fisher," he said. "We're people of the land and sea."

A version of this story first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Homage to Catalonia.

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