When we told people we were going to spend a few days visiting Andorra, we were met with a lot of blank looks. Andorra isn't on most people's radar. Actually, from our experience, most people don't even know that it's a country.
Is Andorra a city or a country?
Short answer, it's both. Translated from Catalan, Andorra la Vella means Andorra the Town. Come to think of it, its name is well deserved. After all, Andorra la Vella is the country's only city. And yes, it's the capital city.
Travel celebrity Rick Steves tells his readers to give Andorra a miss because there's not much worth seeing there. We could not disagree with you more, Rick. It is worth setting aside a few days to see this little postage-stamp of a country. If nothing else, you should see the medieval city center of Andorra la Vella.
Visiting Andorra la Vella's old town, barri antic
We're suckers for old cities, the older the better, so we set aside an afternoon to walk around Andorra la Vella because we heard it began in the 1200s. Any time we hear words like “Gothic section,” “old town,” or “walled city,” we get excited.
This is the first medieval city we can recall visiting that never had walls. Actually, it's a mystery to us why anyone would think Andorra la Vella would need walls in the first place. After all, the Pyrenees are taller than walls, and they seem to have done a good job protecting it so far.
Downtown Andorra la Vella
The oldest part of Andorra la Vella is the Barri Antic, which means “old town” in Catalan. It has been the heart of the city since the principality was little more than a village. What's more, it still has the ancient winding layout, cobbled streets and attractive stone houses that were typical in the middle ages.
Some of the streets are so narrow they're little more than a walkway fit for people on foot. They may have been wide enough to permit a cart to pass through back in the day … but modern-day drivers will have a hard time squeezing through. (Minim's restaurant offers traditional Andorran cuisine.)
Casa de la Vall
I don't know if it's the oldest building in town but Casa de la Vall (Town Hall) is certainly the best known. Built as a stately home in the early 1500s, it was purchased and became the parliamentary house in 1702. The Parliament no longer meets here, however; they recently moved to a modern glass structure across the piazza. I think this is a beautiful example of how Andorra has managed to honor its history while staying with the times.
We’re not sure if it’s called Town Hall square, but that’s what we call it.
A view of Andorra la Vella from above
As we left Casa de la Vall we discovered another piazza whose stairs drew us like moths to a flame. They led us up to a walkway that gave us a beautiful place to overlook and photograph the city in all directions. I started with a view south, toward Spain, from whence we'd come. OK, maybe not south, exactly. I kind of lost my way as we drove through those twisting roads. But you get the idea.
A shot west, across the street toward the mountains. Hey, there's grass over there! It looks like a sports field.
And finally, in the other direction, toward France. You can see how close Casa de Vall is. What you can't clearly see in this photo is the massive shopping area beyond. But I promise: It's there.
Shopping in Andorra la Vella
Drive down Andorra la Vella's main street and it might seem as though the entire country is just one big shopping center. Things like perfume, tobacco and electronic items are tax free so the country makes a good income from consumer and luxury goods.
But we hadn’t come to Andorra to shop. We wanted to see what the country had to offer, beginning with its capital.
Tip: Thanks to its tax free status, gas is cheap in Andorra. Andorra is not part of the EU but they do use the euro. So fill up before you leave the country. We did.
Where to eat in Andorra la Vella
Having lost a combined 170 pounds between the two of us, we are careful of what we eat at home. However, when we travel we take advantage of sampling the local specialties.
One of the best tips we ever heard was to look for a busy place to eat. If a restaurant is busy, you can be almost guaranteed that the food is good. We don’t mind waiting when we know we will enjoy the experience. Finding a random busy bakery for lunch was a treat, and later in the afternoon, we stopped in at a birrería to sample local beer, simply because we saw people inside.
Come to think of it, that’s how we ended up eating one of the most memorable meals we can recall. In Andorra, “Let’s see where this road takes us” took us by a small , random restaurant with a number of cars in its parking lot. We took a chance and entered. It ended up as a blog post tht you might enjoy reading.
The best roasted duck Best duck breast we’ve ever had.
Impressions of Andorra la Vella
Now, whenever anyone asks us what we thought of Andorra la Vella, we tell them that the capital is like Gatlinburg on steroids. It’s all rustic stone and wood buildings in a wooded, mountain setting.
Come to think of it, the whole country looks like that.
We drove all over the country and took advantage of the perfect outdoor weather with a bit of hiking. We even reminisce about the food and the views. So yes, Andorra and Andorra la Vella are worth it.
Rick Steves really needs to take a second look.