Andorra is a small country with an area of 181 square miles and a population of approximately 85,000 people located on the boarder of France and Spain. In addition to being a tax haven and a shoppers’ paradise, it has a lot to offers in the way of nature and adventure experiences. The official name is The Principality of Andorra. Despite having the Euro as its national currency, Andorra is not actually part of the European Union.
The country itself is divided into 7 main parishes; Andorra La Vella, Canillo, Encamp, Ordino, La Massana, Sant Julià de Lòria and Escaldes-Engordany. The cold, wet climate of the country and its location in the Eastern Pyrenees Mountains make it an ideal location for skiing. In fact, Andorra’s strong economy is the result of its standing as a popular tourist hotspot. People from all over and of all ages flock to Andorra for shopping and various outdoor activities in the country’s stunning mountainous terrain.
The geography of the country is broken up by rugged mountains, 65 peaks in total, the highest of which is the Coma Pedrosa resting at 9,562 feet above sea level. The average elevation in the country is 6,549 feet. Andorra averages 300 days of sunshine annually with a temperate climate.
Andorra’s culture is a unique mix of Spanish and French. Though Catalan is the national language, its geographic location means that Spanish and French are also spoken by many. Andorran culture is best sampled through its distinct Pyrenees gastronomy. Authentic bordas are traditional restaurants of which there are only a handful left. Characterized by their intimate atmosphere and architecture, bordas are converted farm or stable houses. Andorran cuisine incorporates a hearty portion of meat cooked over an open fire. A fundamental part of the Andorran culture is its hearty Pyrenees recipes.
Beyond the food, Andorra lures visitors with 365 days of outdoor activities. The countryside is a nature lover’s paradise with plenty of skiing, hiking, fishing, and kayaking opportunities. The whole country is remarkably clean and can be enjoyed over a two to three day visit. Its quaint size makes it possible to see the country as a day trip from the capital city, Andorra La Vella. However, if you are planning on skiing, consider making it a full week.
Andorra La Vella
Andorra La Vella is the capital city, and with a population of over 20,000, it holds one third of the entire country’s population. A quaint town with cobblestone streets and small stone houses, it has a surprisingly tranquil environment for a capital city. It has held its standing as the country’s principal city since the early 13th century. Additionally, it shares the spotlight for the commercial center of the country with the parish of Escaldes-Engordany. Andorra La Vella is home to numerous full-service resorts and hostels and since all of the sites of the country are easily accessed from the capital, many visitors choose to make this their home base.
Despite the fact that it doesn’t have its own airport or train station, transportation is easily arranged from both. In many cases, guests will choose to rent a car out of Perpignan Airport in France, drive the three hours to La Vella, and use the car throughout their stay. With accommodation options for every wallet, an elegant natural backdrop and delicious mountain food, it’s a great stop over for backpackers passing from Spain to France or families looking for a weekend getaway.
While the entirety of Andorra is renowned amongst tourists for being a tax haven (because of its independence from the European Union,) Andorra La Vella, in particular, contains some of the best shopping in the country. This makes it a hotspot for tourists and visitors from all over, including Europeans from nearby countries. Shopping is centered around two main streets, Meritxell and Carlemany. The tourist presence means an active nightlife. A few nightclubs even stay open until 5 a.m. on weekends.
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In addition to the following sites, Andorra La Vella is home to the country’s parliament building, the Government Exhibition Hall, and a piazza that is used for various cultural events throughout the year.
Located at over 5,000 feet above sea level is Canillo, the main town of the parish of Canillo. It serves as the doorway to the ski haven of the Pyrenees Mountains. The valleys of Canillo are a major site of beauty and wildlife conservation. During the springtime, after the skiing season has come to its close, the flora becomes lush and green, attracting outdoor enthusiasts from around the world.
Canillo is home to a portion of the illustrious Grandvalira ski station, which offers access to dozens of ski routes varying in level of difficulty. Just a two and a half hour drive from Perpignan Airport in France, it is easy to arrange a weekend ski retreat. Grandvalira is made up of six different sectors: Encamp, El Tarter, Soldeu, Grau Roig, Canillo, and Pas de la Casa.
With just over 127 miles dedicated to skiing, it is the largest ski station in all of Southern Europe. Due to the high elevation of the slopes, snow is generally reliable during the high season. Anything from daily to seasonal passes are available. With over 400 instructors and plenty of beginner level slopes, it offers an ideal learning environment for students of all ages. Grandvalira isn’t just for skiers and snowboarders. There are over 40 places to get some grub as well as various other activities including, but not limited to: reindeer rides, dog sledding, igloo building, and ice SCUBA diving.
Encamp is a tranquil environment strewn with adventurous opportunities. It is the second largest of the seven parishes in Andorra, though the population is more condensed in the towns of Encamps and Pas de la Casa with the rest scattered amongst surrounding rural areas. Pas de la Casa, Encamp and Grau Roig are all sectors of the ski network of Grandvalira. However, Pas de la Casa also serves as an important transitional point for travelers, located at the crossroads between France and Andorra. When visitors aren’t flocking in for winter skiing, adventurers are drawn by the numerous hiking opportunities back dropped by pristine lakes, blue skies, and expanses of forests and meadows.
For those uninterested in the ski scene, there are sleepy mountain towns just a day trip away. Mosquera is amongst the most popular, with its stone walls and wooden doors giving it a welcoming atmosphere. The Arínsols Square of the town is the site of cultural events throughout the year and its close proximity to the Cortals Valley makes it a practical stopover point for those interested in outdoor activities.
Encamp is teeming with interesting cultural monuments and museums. In recent years, it has come to thrive on tourism and offers accommodation for every wallet size. From backpacker’s hostels to high-end hotels, it’s easy to arrange accommodation. It is the perfect parish for those interested in the traditional aspects of Andorran life.
Santa Eulàlia d’Encamp
Santa Eulàlia d’Encamp is one of the many religious architectural gems in the country. Built in a Lombardian style, the exact date of its construction is unknown, but it was sometime in the late 11th or early 12th centuries. Its most distinguishing feature is the bell tower, which is the tallest of the Romanesque Andorra Churches, standing at just over 75 feet! Over the centuries, the church has been renovated and expanded several times.
Additions include the north side chapels. Within the cathedral there are three noteworthy Baroque altarpieces dating as far back as the late 1600s, two of which are dedicated to Saint Anthony and The Virgin Rosario. On the grounds is a small plaza and a Museum of Sacred Art, neither of which visitors should pass up.
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Guided tours are available and admission is free. In July and August the museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Outside of July and August, guided tours are available upon request.
The parish of Ordino, otherwise known as “the lungs of Andorra”, got its nickname for the forest terrain that makes up 33% of its landscape. As the most northern parish of Andorra, Ordino is a major site of ecological conservation. Due to the agricultural nature of the area, many locals still hold true to the rural traditions.
The parish is home to eight townships; Sornàs, Ordino, Segudet, La Cortinada, Ansalonga, Llorts, Arans and El Serrat. In the 16th century, the area made a transition from charcoal dependence to iron on which it relied until the mid-19th century. Today the Iron Route pays tribute to this period of history. The itinerary crosses through Ordino and then through the Basque Country, Catalonia, and France.
Throughout the year, Ordino is the site of numerous cultural events. One of the most popular of these is the Rosary of Ordino, or “Feast of the Roses.” Young citizens and visitors walk to nearby meadows and pick sufficient flowers to deliver to all of the women in the town. It takes place the first weekend of July.
Sorteny National Park
Sorteny National Park is located in the northeast part of the Ordino parish in the Sorteny Valley. It is Andorra’s most significant point of ecological interest and eco-tourism, with all of the activities in the park are oriented around sustainable tourism practices. Located in a metaphoric zone, the area is rich in iron and copper. The hydroelectric system that winds through the valley revolves around the Sorteny River with connections to the rivers La Serrera, La Cebollera, Les Cebes, and L’Estanyo.
Sorteny National Park is home to a diverse population of flora and fauna including Pyrenean Chamois. Highlights include a wildflower meadow, glaciers, an ancient forest, wetlands, and the beautiful Lake L’Estanyo. The park’s natural beauty is the perfect backdrop for superb hiking opportunities. While mountain guides are available, they are unnecessary as paths are clearly marked and mapped out. Other activities offered include hunting and fishing (special permits required), sport climbing in the summer and mountain skiing during the winter months. For more information, please visit the Ordino Tourist Office.
La Massana is a sleepy parish cozily tucked away in the Pyrenees Mountains. La Massana’s tourism industry has thrived in recent years, with restaurants and cultural events luring visitors year round.
Andoflora is amongst the most popular of the annual cultural events. Over the course of three days in May, La Massana hosts this colorful flower festival. The unique nature of this cultural celebration draws thousands of visitors annually. People meander through stalls displaying flowers and making purchases to give to their friends and family. The market is centered around the town’s Fontetes Square. Yonder the realm of the flowers, there are dance performances and a hearty sampling of the local gastronomy. La Massana is also home to several bordas, which serve filling traditional food. Those with adventurous taste buds should consider trying the local roasted boar.
Meseu La Massana Comic, or La Massana’s Comic Museum, is a very special attraction and a must-see for comic book enthusiasts. It showcases the work of distinguished comic artists, such as Antonio Bernal and Philippe Xavier. For night owls, La Massana has a promising nightlife scene. Multiple venues are clustered together in the town of Arinsal. There are locales for every preference. Those looking for a more mature ambiance to that of the pulsing clubs can choose from the multiple lounges in the area.
Scenically located alongside the river, Pal is like a giant life sized architectural museum. It makes for a charming day trip away from some of the larger cities. The town is oriented around the 11th century Saint Clement Church. Near the church is an information center where guests can learn more about Romanesque design and history.
Since the town is so small it can be seen on foot in about a half an hour, though Pal doesn’t derive its value from size so as much from its character. A portion of the forest directly above the town is now incorporated into a ski resort.
Sant Julià de Lòria
The parish of Sant Julià de Lòria is home to its own unique cuisine and a wealth of recreational opportunities. Its cultural loyalty is arguably what sets it apart from the rest of the parishes. In addition to original architecture and their own gastronomy, they practice customary dances and wear traditional attire on special occasions. Home to Naturlandia, one of the country’s most noteworthy parks, and some of the best shopping in the country, Sant Julià de Lòria is one of the most visited of the parishes.
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The two most recognized and savory regional cuisines are the trout and the cheese. Trout fishing is a substantial part of the local culture. In fact, there are annual trout fishing contests. The typical local preparation of the fish is breaded, fried, and topped with slices of cured ham. The regional cheese has gained recognition for its fresh taste and top quality.
Sant Julià de Lòria is strongly recommended for any frenzied shoppers looking to take advantage of Andorra’s standing as a tax haven. Many Spaniards frequently cross the border to take advantage the deals. The avenues Rocafort, Canolich, and Francesc Cairat have some of the best shopping. Additionally, there are three malls: Centro Comercial River, San Eloi, and Punt de Trobada.
The main town of the parish is also named Sant Julià de Lòria, which rests at the lowest altitude, 2,979 feet, of any permanent settlement in the country. Since it is located along the southern border with Spain, it is often the first stop for backpackers.
Naturlandia is a remarkable nature park offering both relaxation and recreation. In contrast to the strictly controlled human activity of Coma Pedrosa Community Park, Naturlandia hosts a multitude of outdoor activities not just limited to hiking. Visitors should keep in mind that many activities are seasonal even though the park is open 365 days of the year.
Access to the park also includes access to three onsite restaurants and over nine miles of ski routes. Additional activities include snowboarding, archery, pony rides, mountain biking, golf, and the world’s longest toboggan, otherwise known as the Tobotronc. If you are traveling in a group there are group activity packages offered, so be sure to check if there are any saving opportunities for what you are looking for.
General admission is for €25 for adults, €18 for seniors, and €8 for young children. Tickets can be purchased in advance through the website.
Escaldes-Engordany, otherwise known as a “shopper’s paradise”, is often regarded as the commercial hub of Andorra. Established in 1978, it’s also the youngest of the country’s parishes. The parish is separated from Andorra La Vella by a river. The word escaldes references the hot water springs of the area. At temperatures as high as 158° F, they are some of the hottest in all of Europe! Consequently, they served as the catalyst for the 15th century inauguration of the town, when producers of textiles were drawn by the warm waters ideal for washing wool and creating dyes. Nearby points of interest include the 1962 Sant Pere Màrtir Church and Casa de la Creu.
Avenida Carlemany is the longest commercial street in the country. It is also the where the country’s largest mega mall, Illa Carlemany, is located. Since 2009, Avenida Carlemany has done nothing but grow. Today it is one of the most popular shopping districts in the country, featuring a playground, cinema, supermarket and dozens of boutiques.
While it would be very easy to lose one’s self in all of the great shopping of the area, guests shouldn’t neglect indulging in the cultural richness and beauty of Escaldes-Engordany. If passing through in May, consider taking part in the Iberian Folks Dances Festival where people dress up and participate in traditional dances. Additionally, the most recognized cultural event is the annual international jazz fest, which has featured artists such as B.B. King and the late Miles Davis.
CALDEA is the largest mountain spa in all of Europe! Its modern facilities and therapeutic properties practically make it a haven for anyone wanting to soothe achy muscles brought on by too much skiing or shopping. CALDEA is a vast wellness center where guests can take advantage of the soothing waters of the mineral thermal baths.
The network of pools include the Thermoludic Area with both hot and cold pools, outdoor and indoor lagoons, and Roman style baths. Additional amenities include relaxation rooms, saunas, aquatic massages, a restaurant, and a full-service luxury spa.
Hours are seasonal, but change only slightly due to popularity. Be sure to check the website for individual pricing, holiday closings, and promotional offers.
Sant Miquel d’Engolasters
Sant Miquel d’Engolasters is a 12th century Romanesque church located on a plain with phenomenal views of the capital and the valley. The stark difference in height between the nave and the bell tower along with its eye-catching location distinguish it from other Romanesque churches in the country. Recreations take the place of most of the churches paintings.
The originals of the Master of Santa Coloma, Archangel Saint Michael, and Saint Matthew have been moved to the Catalonia National Art Museum. Sant Miquel d’Engolasters is open daily from mid-September to mid-July from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free.
Note from David
The Principality of Andorra is a magical place perfect for the nature-loving tourist. Its antique architecture, diverse Pyrenees landscape and scrumptious cuisine make it a sought-after destination year round. The country is best known as a top ski destination and is home to three major ski resorts: Grandvalira, Naturlandia and Vallnord, each offering activities 365 days a year. Skiing and hiking are the most popular activities, but Andorra also provides plenty of opportunities to relax. Visitors can soothe and soak their worries away at one of Europe’s largest spas, CALDEA. Andorra’s duty-free shopping also makes it one of Europe’s top shopping destinations – a bustling hub of megamalls, outlets and boutiques.
Andorrans are proud of their roots, and much effort has been made to conserve its architectural heritage. Medieval churches, traditional villages and a well-preserved capital city all add to the rich fabric that is Andorran culture. One mustn’t leave the country without first sampling Catalan mountain cuisine at one of the local bordas; old stable houses-turned-restaurants. Wild boar, mushrooms and homemade sausage are just some of the delicacies. Stews, casseroles and grilled meats also comprise the local diet, which is both hearty and tasty. Andorra makes a fantastic destination for the whole family – a distinctive mix of adventure, natural beauty and culture. For those with an affinity for the outdoors, there really is no better place than the picturesque Andorran landscape. Renting a car will give you the freedom to discover all its treasures at your leisure.
Additional Travel Information
Time zone: GMT +1
Capital city: Andorra La Vella
Languages spoken: Catalan, Spanish, French
Currency: Euro (€)
Currency converter: XE
Getting around: The best ways to way to get around Andorra are either via car or the touristic bus. For routes and schedules, visit any tourism information office.
A reliable intercity bus company is Novatel.
Shopping: Andorra is a great place to find bargains and for duty-free shopping. The most popular items include perfumes, cosmetics, designer clothing, alcohol and tobacco. The road connecting Andorra La Vella and Escaldes is the country’s most popular shopping zone. Please check Duana for up-to-date information on customs limits and regulations.
Hours of operation: As a general rule, business hours in Andorra are from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., with an afternoon siesta period in between. Shops typically open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and again from 5 p.m. until around 8-9 p.m., however most shopping malls, supermarkets and shops catering to tourists will not close during the siesta period. The majority of supermarkets and shops are closed on Sundays. Most museums are closed on Mondays.
Electricity: 220-240 Volts. Electrical sockets take the European 2-pin round plug. For 110-120 V (U.S. and Canada) appliances, a plug adapter, and in some cases a voltage converter is required.
Nearby airports: There are no airports in Andorra itself, though there are options for flying into neighboring Spain and France.
Best time to go: The best time to go depends on what you want to do. If you are interested in museums, shopping and cultural events, the best time to go is during the summer months from July to September. If you are interested in winter sports the best time to go is between December and March.
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