Empuriabrava (Ampuriabrava in Spanish) is one of the most unusual towns along the Costa Brava.
Sporting nearly 24 kilometers (15 miles)1 of canals, and 5,000 private jetties, Empuriabrava is the largest residential marina in the world.
For most of us that means it provides ample opportunity to gawk at how the rich and richer spend their money: in this case on expensive houses and yachts.
If you’re into the type of town where you can have a romantic stroll along picturesque streets, or enjoy tapas at an old bar where you mingle with the locals, this is probably not your cup of tea. There’re almost nothing authentically Catalan about the place (which, after all, is only about 40 years old).
Those are the primary reasons why we ourselves would not consider vacationing here — even though we have visited the place several times, usually while on our way back from Cadaqués.
That said, reminiscent of Venice or Miami Beach, Empuriabrava is a major, upmarket tourist destination. It is particularly popular with Germans and the French, and — to a much lesser extent — Dutch and British visitors as well.
As you might expect, there’s a vibrant nightlife scene with bars, discos, and a range of restaurants — the latter mostly aimed at foreigners eager to enjoy familiar food.
Normally home to 7800 local residents, at the height of the summer season the town’s population swells to nearly 80,000 people.
It also is a sought-after location for Catalan and other Spanish vacationers and homeowners. Lately many Russians have been buying properties here as well (as they have being doing in places up and down the coast).
What Empuriabrava has to offer
The city’s main draws, aside from providing a playground for rich yacht owners, are
- A great beach: Platja Empuriabrava : 1.5 kilometers long and 90 to 100(!) meters wide
- A scala of watersports: sailing, surfing, windsurfing, water-skiing, para-skiing, fishing, diving and so on
- Fantastic skydiving: just north of the town is Europe’s most famous skydiving school, considered to be among the three best in the world
Many tourists and day-trippers rent sailboats or motorized boats, or at the very least take a canal boat tour.
The city also provides an ideal base from which to explore the Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l’Empordà, a beautiful nature reserve that pretty much surrounds it. Lots of tourists come specifically to enjoy the bicycle and hiking routes.
And while Empuriabrava itself doesn’t have much history or, for that matter, charm, the old cities of Figueres (15km), Girona (55 km) and Cadaqués (23km) are nearby. The French border is, at 40km, close as well.
Center to center, Roses is only a 9km drive, proviving ample restaurants and bars.
Like we said, no building in the place is over 40 years old — but if you do need to see old buildings in a setting that still evokes that old Catalonia feeling, you can always visit the small, medieval city of Castelló d’Empúries — of which Empuriabrava actually is a suburb.
While they’re only 2km apart, the contrast between the former — which dates back to the ninth century — and the latter couldn’t be greater.
Hotels, Apartments, Villas and Holiday Homes
There are only 13 or so hotels in Empuriabrava, but most tourists stay in apartments, holiday homes or villas, as well as on camping sites in the immediate area.
Many property owners rent out their second homes for part of the year — some during the height of the summer season, and others in the off-season.
Like the vacation homes the self-catering apartments also meet high standards of luxury.
Check all accommodations in Empuriabrava by clicking this button:
Map of Empuriabrava
View Empuriabrava in a larger map
The yellow line represents the main beach: Platja Empuriabrava. To the north and south there are beaches as well.
Weather in Empuriabrava
Empuriabrava has a warm, temperate climate. The summers are hot — but mid-summer temperatures seldom top 28° Celcius (82° Fahrenheit).
Expect daytime highs of 25°C/82°F in July and September, and 28°C/82°F in July and August.
You can count on night-time lows of 17°C/63°F in June and September, and 19°C/66°F in July and August.
In this part of the Costa Brava, there’s a wind condition called the Tramontana. The name means “on or coming from the other side of the mountain.”
This is a cool and dry, northern or north-easterly wind that is quite common in the north-east Catalonia, the south-east of France, and as far east as Italy.
Tramontana winds can be quite strong, but because they blow away any clouds they are associated with good, clear and sunny weather. Photographers like it because the intensely blue skies make for postcard-perfect photos.
When they pick up, these winds can last for a few days at a time.
Built on a swamp
Get this: barely 40 years ago, all you would see at this spot was a wide expanse of swampy coastal land with, to the North, the town of Roses overlooking the bay.
The land — interspersed with salt marshes, lagoons and wetlands — was shared by five large farms and some smaller ones.
In the 19th century this area was an important source of wheat, corn and alfalfa.
During much of the 20th century, the focus shifted to cattle farming — providing meat for markets up and down the coast, as well as livestock for what was then an important cattle market at nearby Castelló d’Empuries.
We’ll take a closer look at Castelló d’Empúries in a separate entry. For now, just note that the much larger Empuriabrava actually is a suburb of this small town (population: 4.000).
How Empuriabrava came into being
In December, 1964, a company named Eurobrava SA (later Empuriabrava SA) came up with a plan to create an international flying club, along with a residential community. The company was run by three businessmen, including the owner of four of the five large farms.
The plan was formally presented to the town hall of Castelló d’Empuries in June, 1965, and immediately met with the vocal opposition of most owners of the smaller farms in the area.
Mind you, this was a different era — in which planning committees, zoning maps and environmental protection laws played little to no role.
Imagine this: the plan actually called for the building of ‘tall, separate structures’ designed to break up the ‘horizontal monotony’ of the Gulf of Roses.2
No developer in his right mind would say that kind of thing nowadays, but even back then the plan was very controversial.
Small wonder that there was no love lost between the town hall and the developers, particularly when it turned out that — just three months after submitting their plans — the latter had already commenced, illegally, with the construction of roads and canals.
That the plan was nevertheless approved, in June 1967, is largely due to the fact that during the 1960s Spain was experiencing its first tourism boom.
The development company, now named Empuriabrava SA, had cleverly launched an intensive marketing campaign aimed at tourists in Germany, France, Belgium and The Netherlands.
Whereas officials and others initially thought their district had nothing much to offer to tourists, the enthusiastic response to this ad campaign opened their eyes to manifold financial opportunities.
The second phase of the project started in 1975, but by then the company faced two major problems:
- Increasing pressure from nascent environmental groups, which only gained even more power during Spain’s transition to a democracy3
- The death of Dictator Franco in November 1975 coincided with a quadrupling of oil prices that played havoc with Spain’s already poor economy4
As a result, the developers were forced to scale down their plans. For instance, the planned construction of a canal to Figueres — 18 kilometers (11 miles) inland — was scrapped.
Nevertheless, in 1980 the project was in crisis, and in June that year control of Empuriabrava passed from the developers to the town hall of Castelló d’Empuries.
The town immediately took steps to improve services and infrastructure, and gave a new impulse to the suburb’s development.
- We’ve seen guidebooks and website that talk about 40km of canals, and beach that is 300 meters deep. We don’t know where those numbers come from; they’re incorrect. ↩
- Nowadays the remaining nature areas north and south of Empuriabrava are protected as, together, the Parc Natural dels Aiguamolls de l’Empordà (4,824 hectares / 48.24 km2) — a nature preserve established in 1983. ↩
- Spanish transition back to democracy, Wikipedia ↩
- See Spain-The Post-Franco Period, 1975-1980s ↩