For many tourists, Barcelona is the be-all and end-all of Catalonia, but venture beyond the city limits and out spreads a coastline of such diversity that you could spend weeks dissecting it. As well as being varied, this corner of the Iberian peninsula also offers something culturally very different from the rest of the Spanish Mediterranean. In fact, many Catalans will insist that they're not really Spaniards at all. For a visitor, the most obvious manifestation of this is the use of Catalan as a day-to-day language (although everybody will speak to you in Castilian Spanish – or even English in the tourist towns), and the abundant fluttering of Catalan flags.
Political and cultural differences aside, after fleeing the region's capital, the priority for most people is to lay a towel down on a beach. Catalonia has around 580km of coastline, which stretches from the rocky French frontier at Port Bou in the north to the marshlands marking the frontier with the province of Valencia.
Package tourism may have been born on the Costa Brava, to the north of Barcelona. But the "Wild Coast" is very different to the heavily visited Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol – and contains some of Spain's most exceptionally beautiful slips of sand.
One hundred kilometres north-east of Barcelona is the one-time fishing town of Tossa de Mar – which curves around a boat-speckled bay and is guarded by a headland crowned with impressive medieval walls – is today the most low-key and attractive of the bigger resorts. Come early or late in the season (May is a delight) and it can almost come across as undiscovered.
Further north, not far from the French border, is the sea-sprayed, white-washed town of Cadaqués. There's a special magic to Cadaqués – a fusion of wind, sea, light and rock that has long attracted the creative. Federico García Lorca, Paul Eluard and Gabriel García Márquez are some of those who have been inspired by the town. However, it was the painter, Salvador Dalí, who really put Cadaqués on the holiday wish list of the chic set. He once described L'Hostal, a Cadaqués bar that's still going strong, as the "lugar más bonito del mundo" (the most beautiful place on Earth) .
Although man created a work of art when he built Cadaqués, nature has done an even better job with the nearby Cap de Creus. This easternmost point of the Spanish mainland is a place of sublime, rugged beauty, battered by the merciless Tramuntana wind.
The odd-shaped rocks, barren plateaux and deserted shorelines that feature in so many of Dalí's paintings were not just a product of his fertile imagination. This is the landscape the artist would draw inspiration from, described by him as a "grandiose geological delirium".
Sitting roughly halfway between Tossa de Mar and Cadaqués are the small towns of Palafrugell and Begur. In between these, lie dozens of pocket-sized coves hemmed in by pine trees and lapped by azure waters. Even the names of some of these beaches – Aigua Blava, Fornells, Sa Tuna and Aiguafreda – sound exotic. And the best thing is that on account of their small size and difficult access, many remain largely undeveloped, hosting no more than one or two upmarket, boutique-style hotels.
South of Barcelona, the coast is very different to the Costa Brava. This is a region of apparently endless flat, sandy beaches and, beyond the history-soaked streets of Tarragona, there are few coastal places of interest. Until that is the Ebro, one of the great waterways of Spain, mutates from stately river to become the flamingo-tinted Ebro Delta; a confused web of channels, lagoons and dune-backed beaches reaching down to Catalonia's southern border and forming northern Spain's most important wetland bird habitat.
Cities by the sea
There is more urban fun to be had outside Barcelona. Just 35km south, Sitges is an old fishing village that's now a beach resort and a favourite with locals since the late 19th century. It was also central to the Modernist movement that paved the way for Picasso. It now attracts shoppers, clubbers, honeymooners, weekending families and, in July and August, Sitges turns into one big beach party with nightlife to rival Ibiza as well as a renowned Carnaval bacchanalian (February-March).
The sunny port city of Tarragona is a fascinating mix of beach life, Roman history and medieval alleyways. Its top attraction is its sea-facing amphitheatre and other Roman sites ( museutgn.com; admission €3.25 per site/ €10.85 all sites), but the town's medieval heart is also one of the most beautifully designed in Spain.
Gourmet hot spots
Catalonia has something for all tastes, from simple beachside shacks serving seafood to esteemed temples of gastronomy. El Bulli, with three Michelin stars and a record five "Best Restaurant in the World" titles, has closed. But others were quick to move in. One of the best is El Celler de Can Roca in Girona (00 34 972 22 21 57; cellercanroca.com; tasting menus from €130), pictured. Its style is playful – try a "dry gambini", with a prawn serving the olive role in a dry Martini.
In Tossa de Mar, La Cuina de Can Simón (00 34 972 34 12 69; Carrer del Portal 24; tasting menus €68 to €98) has the most imaginative dishes in town (try pig trotters and sea cucumber).
In the Ebro Delta, Mas Prades (00 34 977 05 90 84; menus €30) is where gourmets from Barcelona go for superb delta cuisine such as mussels and baby squid or rice with wild duck.
Dally with Dalí
Salvador Dalí was a boy of the Catalan coast, born in Figueres in 1904. His art defined a movement and his presence still echoes throughout the coast. The Teatre-Museu Dalí (00 34 972 677 500; salvador-dali.org; entry €12), pictured, in his home town, was created by the artist with the goal of allowing everyone to experience his "desires, enigmas, obsessions and passions".
In his youth, Dalí holidayed in Cadaqués, not far from Figueres, and later set up home in the village of Port Ligat. His house, now the Casa Museu Dalí (00 34 972 25 10 15; salvador-dali.org; €11), is open to visitors by reservation only.
Towards the end of their lives Dalí and his wife Gala moved to the Castell de Púbol (00 34 972 488 655; salvador-dali.org; €8), not far from Girona, where Gala now lies in a crypt surrounded by stone elephants with giraffes' legs and other oddities.
What lies beneath
The Costa Brava has some of the best diving in the western Med. The focus is on the Illes Medes, a group of seven islets offshore from the town of L'Estartit. Some 1,300 species of plants and animals have been seen in the waters here, including conger eels, rays and groupers.
The tourist office has lists of scuba-diving operators – Costa Brava Divers (00 34 972 752 034; costa-brava-divers.com) is one option; two-hour trips from €35pp.
Where to stay
There are fabulous places to stay all along the Catalan coast. The Hostal Sa Rascassa (00 34 972 622 845; hostalsarascassa.com; doubles from €135, B&B), pictured, overlooking the rocky cove of Aiguafreda, has a handful of delightful rooms and a sense of utter tranquillity.
The Hotel Cap d'Or (00 34 972 34 00 81; hotelcapdor.com; doubles from €103, B&B), which rubs up against the Old Town walls of Tossa de Mar, is a classic Spanish guesthouse with simple but lovingly decorated rooms.
The Hotel Mediterrani (00 34 972 61 45 00; hotelmediterrani.com; doubles from €130, B&B) has swish, arty rooms decked out in placid creams – some with breathtaking views of a sliver of sand on the edge of Calella de Palafrugell, one of the nicest beach towns on the Costa Brava.
The website rusticae.es lists more, properties with character along the coast.
Getting there and getting around
Barcelona is the main flight hub for the region, served from the UK by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) and Vueling (0906 754 7541; vueling.com). Ryanair also flies from eight UK airports to the city of Girona, close to the beaches of the Costa Brava.
Package holidays are available from a range of UK airports with Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) and Thomas Cook ( thomascook.com). Specialist operators include Keycamp (0844 334 8253; keycamp.co.uk) for camping; Solmar Villas (0845 508 7775; www.solmarvillas.com) and James Villas (0800 074 0122; jamesvillas.co.uk) for rentals.
Getting around is a breeze; excellent trains run close to the coast all the way from the French border to south of Tarragona, with reliable and cheap bus services filling in the gaps.
The new edition of Lonely Planet's 'Spain' guide is out now (£17.99). See shop.lonelyplanet.com