How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Spain

  • 01 of 05

    Suggested Itineraries for Planning Your Spain Vacation

    Santiago de Compostela
    (c) Damian Corrigan

    For some, a visit to Spain is simple - a weekend on a beach on the Costa del Sol or a few days in Barcelona and that's all they are looking for.

    But for the rest of us, there is so much to fit into a limited time that some hard choices will be necessary.

    What Do You Want to Do in Spain? 

    Spain is not a very big country if you compare it to, say, the United States, but it is quite culturally fragmented. Some things, such as free tapas with your drink, are only available in a limited area of the country.

    If you know what you are looking for most out of your trip, check out these tips below on which city to start your trip in. 

    • For cheap tapas
      Choose Granada (fly to Malaga)
      Why? Spain is one of the few places you can get something for free, as there are many bars where you get a bit of food with every drink you buy. There are such bars all over the country, but the highest proportion of such bars can be found in Granada and other cities in the area (such as Jaen). Leon is a great city for this too.
    • For the best tapas
      Choose San Sebastian (and nearby Logroño) or Seville
      Why? The gourmet tapas scene in San Sebastian and Seville vie for top honors in internationally acclaimed tapas. Logroño, close to San Sebastian, is a lesser-known but equally good challenger.
    • For good weather
      Choose Probably Andalusia, but it depends on so much.
      Why? Well, what's good weather? If you want to spend your time on the beach, you'll probably want to head to Andalusia, unless you're visiting at the height of summer, when it can be too warm here. Otherwise, if you want to go hiking in cool conditions, Galicia is your best bet, though it will probably rain. 
    • For the best wine
      Choose The Basque Country or Madrid 
      Why? San Sebastian and Bilbao, in the Basque Country, are close to the Rioja wine region, but they also have their own wine: Txakoli. Madrid, as the capital, gets the best of the wine in the country. 
    • For Architecture
      Choose Barcelona
      Why? One word: Gaudi.
    • For Art
      Choose Madrid or Bilbao
      Why? The Reina Sofia, the Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Prado museums of Madrid and the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
    • For Skiing
      Choose Barcelona
      Why? For its good access to the Pyrenees. 
    • For Bullfighting
      Choose Seville or Madrid
      Why? Bullrings can be found throughout Spain. But a bullring doth not a bullfighting town make. Bullrings sprung up throughout Spain under dictator Franco as a part of his attempts to bring tourism into Spain. The main places to see bullfighting are in Andalusia (particular Seville) and Madrid. There is also a number of bullfighting festivals in Spain which are great places to catch a fight.

    Unique Things You Can Do 

    1. Africa is just an hour away. If Africa was the cradle of humanity, then the 20 miles between Spain and Africa means Spain was probably the cradle of Europe, with the first humans in the continent probably coming via Tarifa or Cadiz. Read more about Ferries from Spain to Morocco
    2. In theory, nudity is legal anywhere in Spain. See more on Nudism in Spain
    3. Spain has a strong Muslim, Christian, and Jewish heritage.
    4. No-one will tell you you're lazy for having a sleep in the afternoon! Read about the siesta in Spain.
    5. You can throw tomatoes at people and not get arrested
    6. You can run in front of a pack of angry bulls and only half the people think you're completely insane.
    7. You can celebrate the most reverent Easter celebrations in the world.

    What Are My Options? Where to Go and When

    Spain can best be divided into four areas: north, south, east and central (western Iberia is Portugal, which is also worth visiting).

    Central Spain, which is dominated by Madrid, is home to historic walled cities such as Toledo and Avila, the windmills of Consuegra and grand old cities like Salamanca, Segovia, and Leon. Read more about visiting Madrid.

    The east coast is also famous for its sun, sea, and sand, but it also has Barcelona, with its fabulous modernist architecture, and Valencia, the birthplace of paella. Read more about planning a trip to Barcelona and Valencia.

    The south of Spain is all about Andalusia, with classic cities such as Seville, Granada, Cordoba, Jerez and Cordoba to visit. Eat classic tapas, drink sherry and explore Spain's centuries-long relationship with Islam at the Mezquita in Cordoba or the Alhambra in Granada. Plus there's also the beaches of the Costa del Sol. Read more about visiting Andalusia.

    The north is an undiscovered country for many visitors to Spain. But with the modern cuisine of the Basque Country (especially in San Sebastian), the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the wines of La Rioja, cider in Asturias and the UNESCO-protected old town of Santiago de Compostela, there is so much to see in northern Spain. And don't forget all that seafood! See how to plan a trip to the north of Spain.

    But when should you visit? For guaranteed good weather, the summer is best, though what you would consider 'summer' gets longer the further south you go. The big events of the year for visitors are Easter (Semana Santa), Las Fallas in March, the Tomatina Tomato Fight in August and the Pamplona Bull Run in July. But there is so much happening all year round: check out When to Visit Spain for more on the subject.

     

    Continue to 2 of 5 below.
  • 02 of 05

    Plan Your Trip from Madrid

    couple rowing a boat
    Alberto Manuel Urosa Toledano/Getty Images

    The capital of Spain, Madrid, is the center point of the country, quite literally, around which all else revolves. Most of the other major cities are on the coast, typically at least six hours away from the capital by car. Between these are a lot of agricultural villages and barren land, with Seville, Granada, Leon, and Salamanca the main inland cities of note.

    Madrid is a good place to arrive, as the capital it is well connected by train, bus and internal flights. But that isn’t to say you should hurry out of the country’s premier city. While Madrid isn’t in the league of other European capitals like Paris and London, it is a living, breathing city with every kind of bar, restaurant and leisure activity you could desire.

    Madrid and Barcelona are obviously Spain's two most famous cities and if you can't decide between the two Madrid or Barcelona: Which Should You Visit?  then this is an ideal way to cover them both. Would I recommend Valencia? It's a very pleasant city that is a lot more relaxed than it's two bigger brothers, but it's not a must-see. I would recommend perhaps just taking the train from Madrid to Barcelona and then returning to Madrid before doing a tour of Andalusia.

    The Madrid Leg of Your Trip

    Check out my pages on How to Plan the Perfect Madrid Trip and Where to Stay in Madrid for more advice on visiting the Spanish capital.

    Nearby Cities You Should Visit

    Madrid is a great base for day trips to the wonderful aqueducts of Segovia and the historical delights of Toledo, with El Escorial also a short train ride away. Read more about Day Trips from Madrid.

    How to Get from Madrid to Other Cities in Spain

    Madrid's location in the center of Spain, as well as its good train connections, means you'll always want to travel by rail from the capital. This isn't always true for other cities in Spain.

    • To Barcelona: Take the train (2h30). More: Madrid to Barcelona
    • To Seville: The train is best (2h30). More: Madrid to Seville
    • To Granada: Direct buses and trains take around the same time (4h30-6h) but the bus is cheaper. Better to go via Seville. More: Madrid to Granada
    • To Cordoba: Take the train (1h45m). More: Madrid to Cordoba
    • To Malaga: Again, the train. 
    • To San Sebastian: The train is a little quicker than the bus (five hours v six hours) but double the price. More: Madrid to San Sebastian
    • To Bilbao: Take the bus, it's cheaper than the train (both take around five hours). More: Madrid to Bilbao
    • To Portugal" Fly to Lisbon or Porto, or take the overnight train to Lisbon. More: Madrid to Lisbon.
    • To Galicia and Asturias" Fly to Asturias, A Coruña or Santiago de Compostela airports. Alternatively, fly to Porto and take the train to Vigo. If you'd rather take the train, make a stop in Leon for lunch. More: Madrid to Santiago.
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  • 03 of 05

    Plan Your Trip from Barcelona and Valencia

    delicious looking tapas in spain
    encantadisimo/Getty Images

    For a more cosmopolitan experience, there is Barcelona in the northeast, in the community of Catalonia. The locals say it isn’t really Spain at all and, while this is not the time to get into a political discussion, Barcelona certainly does have a different feel to it from the rest of Spain. It's spectacular Gaudí architecture, solemn Barri Gòtic and lively Ramblas street are as iconic as you can get in Spain.

    Barcelona or Valencia?

    There are more flights to Barcelona than Valencia, so it is more likely you'll arrive in Barcelona. Valencia is Spain's third city (by population) and, like Barcelona, is connected to Madrid by the high-speed train (it takes about two-and-a-half hours from both cities to reach the capital).

    However, Valencia is not Spain's third city when it comes to tourist sights. This may be an attraction in itself as the small city center allows you to ignore the vast suburban sprawl outside it. But for a full and active trip, you'll get a lot more out of Barcelona than Valencia. 

    Barcelona is also much better connected to other cities in Spain than Valencia is.

    Places to Visit Near Barcelona

    The top sights outside Barcelona are not cities, but rather the Montserrat mountain and the Salvador Dali museum in Figueres. 

    After that, you have Tarragona, famous for its Roman ruins, and Girona, which is known for its Jewish quarter

    Cities: BarcelonaGironaTarragona

    How to Get from Barcelona to Other Cities of Interest

    Barcelona's location in the north-east of Spain means it's quite difficult to get to the other extremes of the country, though the high-speed AVE train helps for getting to Madrid and Seville. In many other cases, you'll want to fly.

    • To Madrid: Take the high-speed train (2h30m). More: Madrid to Barcelona
    • To San Sebastian and Bilbao: Take the train, but consider a stop in Logroño, the best city in Spain for tapas.
    • To Valencia Take the train (3h) More: Barcelona to Valencia
    • To Paris: Take the new high-speed train (6h) Considering transfer times from Paris airports can be long, it's not worth flying. More: Barcelona to Paris
    • To Malaga: Some trains take between five-and-a-half hours and six-and-a-half hours but there are some slower trains too. Flying will be a little quicker but a lot more hassle. More: Barcelona to Malaga

    Suggested Itineraries

    Connect the dots with these routes I've planned out for you.

    The Big Three: If you're a city-type that wants to see Spain's biggest cities on your trip here, this Big Three Itinerary covers Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia - the country's biggest cities by population - in a tight triangle that squeezes in a stop in Zaragoza too. Much of the journey can be taken by high-speed AVE train or by bus if you're on a tighter budget. There's also a Guided Tour of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia. Read more: The Big Three Suggested ItineraryMadrid, Barcelona & Valencia

    Barcelona to Seville: It's a long way from Barcelona to Seville and you miss out a lot of top sights if you fly direct. Barcelona to Seville Suggested Itineraries ensure you see the best along the way.

    Continue to 4 of 5 below.
  • 04 of 05

    Plan Your Trip to Malaga or Seville

    The sunset off Malaga cathedral
    (c) Damian Corrigan

    The tourist brochure image of Spain, with its flamenco dresses, bullfighting, and blistering hot sunshine is not as universal in Spain as many think – but if you go to Andalusia, you won’t be disappointed. With the Alhambra of Granada, the Mezquita of Cordoba, and the, well, everything of Seville, there is more than enough in Andalusia to fill several vacations.

    Most flights to Andalusia arrive in Malaga, though there are a few to Seville too, so you'll probably choose to base yourself in one of these two cities for most of your time in the south of Spain.

    Seville or Malaga?

    Seville is a far more attractive city than Malaga, with better food and plenty more to do. However, you'll find fewer flights to Seville than to Malaga.

    For me, the best thing about a flight to Malaga is that you can connect easily to Granada. In every other way, you are better off in Seville.

    See also: How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Malaga

    Cities to Explore Nearby

    All of Andalusia is within reach of Malaga and Seville, while there is also the high-speed AVE train to Madrid from both cities. 

    Granada is the best option from Malaga, as it is just over an hour away. It also has good connections with Ronda and is slightly better than Seville for getting to Morocco.

    From Seville, you have great access to the nearby cities of Jerez and Cadiz.

    Read more: Suggested Itinerary: Andalusia.

    How to Get from Malaga and Seville to Other Cities in Spain

    • Malaga to Seville There is little difference between the bus and the train - both take around three hours and cost the same, so it depends on where your hotel is compared to the stations. It is possible to take a bus straight from Malaga airport to Seville. More: Malaga to Seville
    • Malaga or Seville to Granada? Malaga is better. It takes just over an hour to get from Malaga to Granada. More: Malaga to Granada and Seville to Granada
    • Malaga or Seville to Jerez and Cadiz? Seville is much better. There is a direct train line that connects Seville to Jerez and Cadiz. I wouldn't even try from Malaga. More: Seville to Jerez or Seville to Cadiz
    • Malaga or Seville to Cordoba? The same. It takes just 45 minutes by high-speed train from Seville or Malaga to Cordoba. More: Malaga to Cordoba or Seville to Cordoba
    • Malaga or Seville to Ronda? Malaga is slightly better but there is little difference. It takes between two and two-and-a-half hours from both cities (train or bus from Malaga; bus only from Seville). Ronda is a good stop en route if traveling between Seville and Malaga. More: Malaga to Ronda or Seville to Ronda
    • Malaga or Seville to Morocco? Malaga. But don't take the ferry from Malaga, it's a long, expensive overnight voyage. Instead, take a bus to Tarifa and catch the boat there - the journey time is under an hour. Buses to Tarifa take two hours from Malaga and three hours from Seville. More: Malaga to Morocco or Seville to Morocco
    • Malaga or Seville to Madrid? Makes no difference. There is a high-speed train from both, taking around two-and-a-half to three hours. More: Malaga to Madrid or Seville to Madrid
    • Malaga or Seville to Barcelona? No difference. It takes around six hours by high-speed train from either city. 
    • Malaga or Seville to Valencia? Seville. There is a direct train from Seville. 

    Suggested Itinerary: Andalusia

    Andalusia has the highest concentration of tourist sights in the whole of Spain. The high-speed AVE train can take you from Madrid to Cordoba and on to Seville. After that, a stop in Granada to see the Alhambra is a must.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Plan Your Trip to Northern Spain

    To really experience the diversity of Spain, you have to explore Spain's northern-most regions – GaliciaAsturias or Basque Country. Galicia's national instrument is the bagpipe, while in Asturias you are more likely to find cider than sangria - not what tourists usually expect of Spain!

    Which City Should You Base Yourself in?

    This will depend on where you can get flights to. There are airports all along the north coast - in Vigo, Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña, Asturias, Santander and Bilbao, plus Biarritz in France and Porto in Portugal - but most of these are small airports with few flights. If heading to the Basque Country, you're most likely to find flights to Bilbao, if heading to Galicia your best bet will be to Santiago, though you might need to fly to Porto.

    See also: How to Plan the Perfect San Sebastian and Bilbao Itinerary

    How to Get Around Northern Spain and Northern Portugal

    Galicia is well connected by train, with a fast, cheap line connecting A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela and Vigo. If traveling between northern Portugal and Galicia, you'll need to change in Vigo.

    And then there's the Basque Country. Bilbao and San Sebastian are, the two main cities, are close together, with regular buses connecting the two. There are also bus and train services to the Rioja wine region (don't miss out Logroño for the best tapas in the country).

    Asturias, between the two, is a less well connected, with mainly bus services to connect you to the east and the west (trains in Asturias mainly head south to Leon - also great for tapas - and Madrid).