Andorra – Mountain Recreation and Duty Free Shopping

Andorra – Mountain Recreation and Duty Free Shopping
Roc del Quer Viewpoint, Andorra

Andorra is a small country. How small? It’s only 180 sq mi / 400 sq km or a little over half the size of New York City. The population is 78,000 and only 1/3 are citizens. However, it doesn’t seem like a city state like most other small, non-island countries. At the center is a long, mostly pedestrian mall, but surrounding it are the Pyrenees Mountains in every direction.

Andorra la Vella and Mountains

Maybe the best adjective for Andorra is “unusual.” It’s a prosperous country with very little agriculture (essentially scattered tobacco farming and cattle) and almost no manufacturing (thus hardly any pollution), rather relying on finance, retail and tourism. Adjusted for size, it’s the most mountainous country in Europe and Andorra la Vella is the highest capital in the continent. It has no airport, so you can only drive there. The official language is not French or Spanish, but Catalan. It was neutral in WWII and didn’t join the UN until 1993. It’s not a member of the EU but uses the Euro. It’s not part of the Schengen area but is de facto regulated by the agreement as you can enter by road from Spain or France. It’s not a principality, but a co-principality, with the Bishop of Urgell (Spain) and the French president as co-princes. Charlemagne reputedly founded Andorra in the year 805 and the current government is based on a 1278 charter. Anyway, you get the idea, it’s unique.


However, it’s not just a duty-free center to buy cigarettes, alcohol and luxury goods at lower prices. It’s a fun place with miles of popular ski slopes and snowmobile trails, as well as mountains that are climbed, hiked, bicycled and crossed on horseback. It has very good restaurants, some featuring local cuisine which is a mix of Catalan, Spanish, and French influences. For history and art buffs, it has amazing Romanesque churches and distinctive public art. A trip here is enjoyable and interesting and not just a country to check off the list that you have visited. Having said that, this is a new country for me, #111, and here’s my reaction after arriving in the early evening.

Where is Andorra?

Andorra is completely bordered by France in the northeast and Spain in the southwest. The closest major cities to Andorra are Barcelona  (by road 200 km / 120 mi) and Toulouse  (by road 225 km / 140 miles).

Andorra and Nearby Cities Map

Why We Went to Andorra and How We Traveled There

After my wife Khadija and I went on a  five-week drive through Eastern Europe, we flew to Barcelona in September 2021 to see our very good friend, Nuria. They have known each other since they were United Nations tour guides in the 1980s. Nuria’s friend Maria is from Andorra and had worked in promoting the country for the government. She was in Barcelona, drove us to Andorra and gave us an insider tour of the country.  Here are the three ladies with Maria on left, then Nuria and of course Khadija.

We left at 4pm from Barcelona on Saturday, arriving at 7pm after stopping for coffee. We departed from Andorra on Monday at 12:30pm in a taxi by reliable and personable Victor (+376-335-590) and again with a coffee break arrived in Barcelona at 3:30pm.

Taxi Victor Andorra

 Between Barcelona and Andorra are some interesting, craggy mountains in Spain.


To save money, you can take a public bus from Barcelona to Andorra.

Is Andorra Safe?

Andorra is one of the safest countries in the world. Here, as everywhere you travel, employ basic safety precautions and use common sense to avoid problems.

Is Andorra Expensive?

Andorra is fairly expensive, similar to Barcelona and Madrid. However, it costs nothing to hike the mountain trails and walk in the shopping area. There are restaurants of all levels and many relatively inexpensive ones. Another way to reduce cost is staying in a hostel which Andorra has a few.

Where to Stay in Andorra

We stayed in the Yomo Cèntric Hotel which was about €85/night. It was clean, fairly spacious and had a good buffet breakfast, while being centrally located in Andorra la Vella.

How to Get Around Andorra

Here’s a map of some of Andorra’s attractions.

Andorra Map of Attractions

We were lucky that Maria took us everywhere in her car. There’s an extensive network of bus routes that run through most towns or you can hire taxis. 

Where to Eat in Andorra

The best place we ate was L’Ovella Negra (The Black Sheep), a four-bedroom mountain lodge with a restaurant. They serve sophisticated Andorran dishes featuring local lake fish and grilled meats. 

L’Ovella Negra Lodge

It looked like a good place to stay with cross-country skiing and snowshoe walks available from the doorstep of the lodge and hiking trails nearby.

For a good meal in Andorra la Vella, we went to Instants Café & Restaurant in the upscale Hotel Plaza. The service was top notch and all the fusion dishes, from appetizers to desserts, were very good.

What Languages to Use in Andorra

Tourism is a big part of the economy and many speak English, French and Spanish. If you know Catalan, the official language, you will be especially welcomed.

Andorra la Vella

Andorra la Vella (in Catalan: Old Andorra) is the center of shopping in the country. Avinguda Meritxell and its offshoots are a mostly pedestrian mall with many of the city’s retail stores offering clothing and accessories, jewelry, perfume and electronic products. The stretch also has hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and bank headquarters. The avenue is named after the patron saint of Andorra, the Virgin of Meritxell.

Andorra La Vella pedestrian mall

Andorra is known for “duty free” shopping, which means it doesn’t have to pay taxes to Spain, France, or any other country and has a very low value added tax percentage. As a result, it’s a good place for items that are highly taxed such as cigarettes and alcohol, though there are limits on the amount you can buy. 

We went to the Pyrenees Andorra multi-floor department store to buy cheese. I was impressed at how clean it was and the wide selection.

There are some specialty stores as well, such as this one selling globes and unique items.

Orbix, Andorra

While most items may or may not be slightly cheaper than elsewhere in Europe, Andorra la Vella does have a wide selection through its many stores.

Dali’s Nobility of Time Sculpture

An iconic public artwork in Andorra is Nobility of Time by Salvador Dalí. It’s located in Andorra la Vella by a bridge crossing the The Gran Valira River.

Melting and distorted objects were frequent representations by the surrealist artist, who incidentally was a native Catalan born close to the French border in Catalonia. The sculpture reminds me of perhaps Dali’s most famous work, The Persistence of Memory, which is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Nuria, a prominent art dealer in Barcelona, has met him. I have always been a fan of his psychedelic and often paranoid works.

Santa Coloma Church

The Santa Coloma church is a Romanesque Church built in the 8th and 9th centuries. Unlike other Romanesque churches in Andorra, it has a circular rather than square tower which was added in the 12th century.

Interestingly, the tower’s shape slightly changes with each of the four floors, each with long, vertical windows topped by arches.

Originally, the interior was decorated with stunning fresco paintings in the apse of the church. They were sold in 1933, as there was considerable interest then in Romanesque-era art. They eventually ended up in Berlin. In 2007, the Andorran Government negotiated to have the remaining frescoes returned. However, it was impossible to restore them in the church, so they are now displayed in the Andorran Government Exhibition Hall, a few minutes walk from Santa Coloma.

When you enter the main chapel, the fresco images are projected on the walls. This way you get a good idea of what they looked like. They’ve been fully reconstructed to recreate how art historians believed they looked in their original state.

Outside of the hall, I sort of spoke to this elderly lady (I don’t know Catalan, she doesn’t know English, but we chatted and used our hands).

The World Health Organization in 2021 ranked Andorra as the country with the longest life expectancy, with an average of 87 years.

La Roc del Quer Overlook

My biggest surprise was this suspended platform with a partial glass-panel floor and magnificent views of mountain ranges and switchback roads.

At the end of the walkway there’s The Ponderer sculpture, by Catalan artist Miguel Ángel González.

The metallic and young boy sits calmly on the edge of a steel beam hundreds of meters above the ground, maybe enjoying the view and meditating.

Mountain Recreation

If we had another day, we would have hiked for a while through the mountains. At least, we saw many others strolling and enjoying the mountain air.

We also saw cyclists of all ages on both road and mountain bikes.

Cyclists in Andorra

Andorra is a popular ski destination for Europeans and several Andorrans have competed in the Olympics over the years. The ski lift networks are always ready to be used when the snow arrives.

Skiing in Andorra

If you wanted to indulge in mountain recreation, actively or leisurely, you could easily spend a week in Andorra.

Final Thoughts

When we travel, we are particularly fortunate to have friends in many places around the world. When we meet them, we get the local perspective and detailed info on where to go. This was the end of our European trip and we had two extremely knowledgeable people direct our travels; Maria in Andorra and Nuria in Barcelona (see my post on this amazing city). Here they are at Roc del Quer.

Roc del Quer Andorra

I still know a fair amount of people abroad from my career with international financial institutions. My contact list keeps growing as I meet other travelers and those in the hospitality industry and others outside of the U.S. However, Khadija is the prime source of our seemingly never-ending list of friends around the world, stemming from her career in the United Nations. Besides being my partner, she is critical in contacting friends in many of the countries we visit and getting their help. This is just another way I’m blessed in my travels, including to the very interesting Andorra!

Picture of Ed Hotchkiss
Ed Hotchkiss

My goal is to travel to all the United Nations list of 193 countries of the world. For the rest of my life, I want to see and experience as much of the world as possible, while documenting it in photographs and observations.

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