This article was first published on December 4, 2014 and updated in April, 2019.
There is a tiny country between Spain and France most people, even well-traveled Europeans, don’t know about. Can you guess which one it is? Have you ever heard of it before? If you have, can you name some of the best things to do in Andorra?
Hopefully this article will help you understand where Andorra is and make you want to visit. As a country in the mountains (that used to be their slogan when I was a kid: “El Pais dels Pirineus”), Andorra’s tourism was always focused on its beautiful nature but there are certainly many things to do in Andorra and I promise you it is well worth a visit despite its tiny size.
- Where is Andorra
- History of Andorra
- Best time to visit Andorra
- Is Andorra worth visiting on a day-trip from Barcelona?
- Best things to do in Andorra and Reasons to visit
- 1. Shopping
- 2. Caldea Spa Complex
- 3. Winter sports
- 4. Romanesque architecture
- 5. Rustic mountain food
- 6. Nature
- 7. Igloo hotel
- 8. Andorra’s only UNESCO site
- How to get to Andorra
- Best Hotels in Andorra
Where is Andorra
The Principality of Andorra is a landlocked microstate located in the Pyrenees mountain range surrounded by Spain and France. With only 85,000 inhabitants, only one third of which are residents, Andorra is one of the smallest countries in the world. Its political system is a peculiar co-headed model with shared powers between the Bishop of La Seu d’Urgell and the French President, officially turning him into a Prince.
History of Andorra
Legend has it that Andorra was created in 805 by Charlemagne as a recognition to the locals for their protection and fighting against the Moors but official documents show Andorra being created by Charles the Bald as a donation to the Count of Urgell. It is not until the middle of the 13th century that, after fighting for control by two Medieval Counts, a pariage agreement was signed between them giving birth to the Principality of Andorra as a shared government, format which has endured until today.
From 1789 until 1806 Napoleon rejected France’s ties with Andorra because of their feudal origins and left Andorra to its full independence. But in 1806 these rights were recognised again.
Andorra remained neutral throughout all the wars of the 20th century including the Spanish Civil War and the two World Wars. Because of its strategic position in the middle of the two countries of Spain and France, Andorra was a transit zone for merchandise and items between the two countries. The country’s constitution was only signed in 1993, maintaining the co-principality establishment, and expanding significantly on all other civil and human rights. This was also the year in which Andorra was admitted to the UN.
Today, Andorra is an underrated destination beyond the Spanish and French borders. It receives over 10 million visitors mostly coming from these two countries but it is largely unknown to the rest of the European Union. Andorra tourism is synonymous with skiing, hiking and mountains as its average elevation in 2,000m above sea level.
Because of its small size and strategic position between Spain and France, Andorra uses the euro as a de facto currency and previously accepted Spanish Pessetas and French Francs. Although it is not part of the EU it enjoys a special relationship, reason why its tax haven condition has been eroded over the years as a result of mounting pressure. Both Catalan and French are official languages and spoken by the population although Spanish is spoken by almost everyone too.
Best time to visit Andorra
Andorra is an all-year-round destination, for real. Visit in the winter months and you will be able to ski and enjoy snow sports whereas in the summer time it is a great mountain, adventure and nature destination.
Although snowfall can’t be predicted and changes every year, the ski season in Andorra usually starts around the first weekend of December when Spaniards have a long holiday on the 6th and the 8th of the month and take the opportunity to open the season.
Christmas is usually a very busy time in Andorra with lots of visitors coming to spend some time between Christmas and New Year or come to Andorra for the weekend in between.
Usually, snow lasts until March and spring is a lovely time to visit and enjoy nature’s awakening as is Autumn, when the changing of the leaves gives the country a warm hue.
Is Andorra worth visiting on a day-trip from Barcelona?
Short answer: Yes, absolutely!
And I say this after visiting literally dozens of times through the years, many many times, in winter, in summer, in spring, in autumn, I have been to Andorra on multiple occasions and in all times of the year and I would highly recommend you do the same, but I would not go to Andorra as a day trip from Barcelona, in my opinion, this would be a real shame.
Why should you not visit Andorra on a day trip from Barcelona?
Because what you get to see in Andorra on an organised day trip after a really long drive will not do justice to this tiny country and you will leave thinking it was not worth the time and the money. Andorra is a place that deserves a couple of days, your own car and an openness, so you have enough time to visit the churches and heritage, explore the stunning mountains and getting to know a bit more about this intriguing and unique micro-state. And I say this after many many day trips myself!
When I read all the people who tell you they wasted their time on a day trip to Andorra I feel sad and sorry for them but I also strongly feel it is unfair.
Would you go to Saint Moritz for a day trip? Would you visit any of the small Swiss Alpine villages on a day trip that would require you to spend 5h driving? Would it be a fair assessment to say they were not worth it? Then why would you assess Andorra under the same light?
Trust me on this one, give Andorra a weekend and it will show you what it’s got!
Best things to do in Andorra and Reasons to visit
When we were kids, Andorra was a popular weekend roadtrip. At only a couple of hours from Barcelona it made for a refreshing getaway between nature and mountains and it was a place where we could buy goods that were not yet available in 80s and 90s Spain, just out of a 40 year dictatorship. I am talking about Nutella and other non-essential items which were widely available in France, and hence Andorra.
But Nutella and Hello Kitty are not the only reasons why Andorra was, and still is, a very appealing destination. In the past its duty-free and tax haven status made it the perfect destination for wealthy Spaniards looking to hide away their hard earned cash. Most people would drive their cars for the weekend or even just for the day and come back home with groceries at a significantly cheaper price which more than compensated for the cost of the trip. And a quick trip to the bank.
For such a small country, Andorra packs in a lot of interesting sights and activities. Still wondering what to do in Andorra? Here is a list of the best activities and some very convincing reasons to visit Andorra for your next vacation.
Drawing in from its historical lack of VAT Andorra used to be a shopping paradise. Designer shops were all available, even when they were still not present in the Spanish market making it a great destination for Christmas shopping. Large hypermarkets line the road out of the country and into Spain and were always busy with visitors doing their grocery shopping. This was the reason why most people went to Andorra in the past: tax-free shopping.
If you make it into town, stop by the Pyrenees department store where you can find all the major brands. The downtown area is filled with the latest in fashion and jewelry all within a few steps from each other.
Apart from groceries and apparel, Andorra used to produce tobacco and this was one of the items visitors would stock up on.
2. Caldea Spa Complex
Caldea is a large natural spring complex with various indoor and outdoor swimming pools, jacuzzis and hydrotherapy sections spread over 18 floors in the highest building in Andorra and the largest thermal spa complex in Europe. Caldea has separate sections for adults only, for families and for children so it is a perfect place for everyone. No visit to Andorra would be complete without some time in Caldea. You can ask the 400,000 visitors who go every year.
The spa area is made of glass so you can see outside and even watch the stars as the center is open until midnight. No better way to relax those sore muscles after all that skiing than spending some time in Caldea. There are also shows and performances including water and lights throughout the day and night and an outdoor jacuzzi.
You can enjoy a massage, visit the Turkish baths or simply relax after a long day of shopping or exercise at its many trails or ski resorts. The complex is in town and provides great views over the city and the valley. You can buy a 3h pass, a day pass or a multi-day pass and several hotels have packages including access.
Don’t let the flashiness of the place deter you, the thermal properties and natural springs are real.
3. Winter sports
Andorra lies at an average of 2,000 meters above sea level reaching 3,000 at its highest point so it is basically a country in the mountains like Bhutan or Switzerland. Being so mountainous, winter sport opportunities abound. No doubt the ski resorts and snow are one of the main points of interest for most winter visitors. And the evenings by the fireplace too!
You can take the ski raquettes, a dog sledge, snowboard or simply ski. Because of its moderate elevation it is a popular destination for those looking to learn the sport. About 10 years ago, two of the main resorts in the country merged to create Gran Valira, one of the largest ski resorts in the world with 118 slopes and 210 kilometers of slopes.
In total, there are 110 lifts able to carry 156,000 skiers per hour down the 303 km of runs.
4. Romanesque architecture
Romanesque art and architecture is part of Andorra’s past. Over 40 churches dating back to Medieval times can be explored on a simple roadtrip around the country. Andorra’s tradition and heritage is very present today and with such a small size, these can be visited following a marked trail.
These are the churches I would recommend putting in your itinerary.
Church of Sant Climent del Pal
This is one of the oldest churches in Andorra and you can visit it as you also pay a visit to the Romanesque Andorra Interpretation Centre which is nearby. The church dates back from the 11th or early 12th century and it has a three-storey bell tower with coloured glass windows. The altarpiece was dedicated to Pope Saint Clement of Rome and made in 1709.
Church of Sant Miquel d’engolasters
This church is right by the side of the road and is one of the most authentic Romanesque churches in Andorra, well known for its paintings and sculptural decorations and for having the original floor plan of the Romanesque churches in the country. The most impressive element is the replica mural (the original is in the MNAC Museum in Barcelona), by the Master of Santa Coloma during the 12th century which depicts a Maiestas Domini surrounded by a tetramorph in which the Archangel Michael, patron of the church, merges with the symbol of Saint Matthew. After or before visiting the church you can also explore the UNESCO-listed Madriu-Perafita-Claror Nature Park.
Church of Sant Antoni de la Grella
A truly stunning location for this small church sandwiched between the mountain wall and the Valira d’Orient river.
Church of Santa Eulàlia d’Encamp
The church’s colourful windows give it a great look and you can also visit The Holy Art Museum in an annexe building. The church still enjoys mass service and was refurbished in 1989.
The church of Sant Serni de Nagol
Small building with some paintings and the possibility to climb upstairs. There is a small cemetery by the church and wooden furniture is still there.
For more details, the tourism board of Andorra has some interesting routes you can take self-driving with lots of details on the best churches.
5. Rustic mountain food
On every trip to Andorra we would stop at a “borda” for lunch. Bordas are old mountain barns cum restaurants and architectural masterpieces common of the Northern part of Catalunya and Andorra where winters are cold and the thick stone walls help protect from the snow and wind.
In a borda you can expect meat based meals following traditional recipes and filling portions. Food is prepared usually in an open fire and grilled meats are served with a generous amount of vegetables and garlic allioli. You can expect other delicacies such as stews or garlic snails “a la llauna” cooked in a tin tray in the oven which my father always used to order. Get the recipe here.
In the summer the country offers an unlimited amount of trekking trails, mountain scenery and lakes some of which are easily accessible.
When the coastal parts of Barcelona where I am from become too hot to handle, the Pyrenees are the perfect getaway to the higher and cooler mountains.
We used to spend the summers near Andorra, in the Catalan side of the Pyrenees and would take the occasional trip to the Principality to shop. Borders, then and now, were an artificial construct and aside from the routine car check in search of cash stacks hidden away in the car or large amounts of goods above the duty free allowances the arrival and departure is relatively painless. The green pastures with sheep and cows and the beautiful valley are a great escape from urban stress and suffocating heat.
7. Igloo hotel
Andorra, also has its own ice hotel. Built every year entirely from snow it can accommodate up to 30 guests in 5 rooms. You are sleeping at 0 degree temperature so bring warm clothes. The hotel provides sleeping bags but I can’t imagine anyone would want to change into their pyjamas at any point.
8. Andorra’s only UNESCO site
Madriu-Perafita-Claror Valley is Andorra’s only UNESCO site. It is a glacial valley that serves as haven for many endemic species and is considered a spiritual place to the locals, without much development taking place.
The valley covers 9% of Andorra and is made of an upper glacial part with glacier lakes and sharp cliffs and a lower valley area. Most of the valley is protected and is a great example of human and nature living in harmony. UNESCO considers the area a great example of this symbiosis.
How to get to Andorra
Andorra has no airport and is only accessible by road. It is one of the few countries in the world which is landlocked and only accessible via roads through other countries. In fact, the other four countries without airports are also in Europe and are also micro-states, Monaco, The Vatican, Liechtenstein and San Marino.
There are four international airports within 200km from Andorra so you can pick: Toulouse-Blagnac (TLS), Carcassonne (CCF), Girona-Costa Brava (GRO), Barcelona-El Prat (BCN) and Reus (REU). I would then suggest to rent a car from any of these and drive. The drive should be easy with good roads. The easiest airport is probably Barcelona, and you can easily combine it with some time in the city. Getting from Barcelona to Andorra is really easy as the roads are pretty straightforward. Here is a Google map showing the route.
Bear in mind you have two options, either a paid tunnel road which will cut your time down, or the regular national road which will save you the toll. As kids we always took the regular road as the tunnel was not built until later, but the tunnel makes a lot of sense so the drive is more comfortable. On the way, I highly recommend you stop for food. I always drove to Andorra very early in the morning and we stopped on the way for breakfast at one of the roadside restaurants serving hearty breakfast meals including omelets, sausages and even wine with rustic bread from the local bakery and great produce.
If you have a valid visa for Spain and France you will be able to visit Andorra as there are free movement agreements in place. Most times, you may no even have to stop and show your passport.
Best Hotels in Andorra
Tourism, especially during winter, is one of the most important revenue sources for Andorra, so it should come as no surprise that the hospitality industry has years of experience welcoming guests and that there are a fair amount of ski hotels in Andorra.
However, like all other mountain countries such as Switzerland or Austria, Andorra is also a great destination in the summer months where basing yourself in the city center might make more sense. So I decided to split this list between Andorra La Vella hotels, which includes other urban centers like Escaldes-Engordany, and hotels in Andorra ski resorts which are particularly convenient if you do not want to be stuck in traffic in and out of the slopes on the narrow one-lane mountain roads.
|Hotel||Location||Stars on Tripadvisor||Room price/night||Photos and availability|
|Roc Caldes||Andorra la Vella||4||$150||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|Andorra Park Hotel||Andorra la Vella||4,5||$225||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|Hotel Plaza||Andorra la Vella||4||$120||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
|Hotel Ski Plaza & Wellness||Canillo||4||$130||Booking.com | HotelsCombined|
|Sport Hotel Hermitage and Spa||Soldeu||4,5||$620||Booking.com | HotelsCombined | Agoda|
Hotels in the city center of Andorra
Roc de Caldes is probably slightly below in category than the other hotels here, despite having the same 5 star rating.
The hotel is traditional in design, reminiscent of what Andorra was like when I was a kid and their website is rather hard to navigate with little information, so you are definitively better off using a booking site. But it is probably this that makes it a warm and charming option.
Its location, slightly off the main city center and by greenery, makes it a great option when you are coming in the summer time and makes it quieter although still relatively close to the center of Escaldes-Engordany (where Caldea is), not Andorra La Vella.
The hotel’s restaurant is a good option to try some of the more local dishes.
Andorra Park Hotel
Located in a residential area, Andorra Park Hotel is one of the best Andorra La Vella hotels. Andorra Park hotel is surrounded by 15,000 square meters of gardens and greenery giving guests the feeling of being among nature.
The hotel is modern and luxurious and, like other hotels in this category in Andorra, comes with in-room jacuzzi and some of them have balconies facing the gardens or the pool.
Despite being more of an “uban” hotel, there is a free shuttle to Granvalira for guests and a stunning outdoor pool surrounded by a grassy and tree-filled area that will make you feel far away from civilisation.
Dining in is a good option as the hotel’s restaurant, Es Andorra, comes highly recommended for trying out the local cuisine.
Classic English design in this luxury hotel in the downtown of Andorra La Vella that is consistently rated as one of the best hotels in Andorra. Its location is one of the best if you want to be able to walk around the city or go for dinner without having to drive.
The rooms have a more convenitonal mountain retreat feel and some of the the deluxe ones have a jacuzzi bathtub.
The facilities include a wellness area with Hammam, Sauna, Jacuzzi, crystal fountain and thermal facilities and a fully equipped spa.
Ski hotels in Andorra
Most people will go to Andorra to enjoy winter sports and with good reason since Granvalira is the largest ski resort in Europe, so there is plenty for everyone. As expected, there are also a couple of luxury hotels in Andorra’s ski resorts and I listed the top two below.
Hotel Ski Plaza & Wellness
Part of the same hospitality group as The Plaza in Andorra La Vella, the Ski Plaza & Wellness is a mountain retreat located in the traditional parish of Canillo, 100m from the cablecar to Granvalira.
The hotel is warm, cozy and designed for the winter months with fireplaces and sun-in leather sofas. The restaurant has a wall mural depicting rural scenes of life in Andorra, vintage cuckoo clocks and all the details to make you feel like you are high in the mountains when it is cold outside.
Rooms are comfortable and traditional and the family rooms come with fun bunk beds for children.
The hotel is perfect for kids, with many details throughout the property targeted at making them feel loved and cared for including separate dining areas in the restaurant.
Sport Hotel Hermitage and Spa
Sport Hotel Hermitage and Spa is located at 1,800m above sea level in the village of Soldeu, very near the Grandvalira ski slopes. This is the country’s only member of the Leading Hotels of the World brand and one of the most luxurious ski resorts, equally interesting if you like summer sports and mountains.
The resort is also made of a 4 and 3 star hotel sharing facilities and a 5,000 square meter spa and wellness resort. All 143 rooms have their own hot tub and free access to the spa for 3h a day. The resort features the Hermitage Mountain Residences that can accommodate groups of up to 16 guests together in a 5 floor villa.
Expect the design to be mountain chic with lots of wood, sleek lines and warm interiors reminiscent of The Chedi Andermatt or other luxury Swiss Accommodation. The resort features two restaurants with Michelin-awarded chefs, the Catalan Nandu Jubany and the Japanese Hideki Matsuhisa.