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.
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 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.
Why? One word: Gaudi.
Why? For its good access to the Pyrenees.
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 (particularly Seville) and Madrid. There is also a number of bullfighting festivals in Spain which are great places to catch a fight.
TripSavvy trusts its readers to make their own decisions on the ethics of bullfighting as an attraction.
- 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. There are plenty of options to take ferries from Spain to Morocco
- In theory, nudity is legal anywhere in Spain.
- Spain has a strong Muslim, Christian, and Jewish heritage.
- No-one will tell you that you're lazy for having a sleep in the afternoon! The Spanish tradition of siesta ensures that.
- You can throw tomatoes at people and not get arrested. (As long as you do it at the right time.)
- You can celebrate the most reverent Easter celebrations in the world.
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).
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.
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!
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.
Trip from Madrid
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 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, then this is an ideal way to cover them both.
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.
Trip From Barcelona and Valencia
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
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.
How to Get to Other Cities From Here
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.
Connect the dots with these routes.
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.
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.
Trip to Malaga or Seville
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.
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.
How to Get to Other Cities From Here
Suggested Itinerary: Andalusia
Trip to Northern Spain
To really experience the diversity of Spain, you have to explore Spain's northern-most regions – Galicia, Asturias 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!
The City You Should 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.
How to Get Around
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.
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).