First time planning a trip to Spain? Then you’ll probably quickly realize there is way too much to see and do to fit it all in.
I get it… I’ve been there!
To help you out, I put together this compact travel itinerary for Spain, which includes many of the classic highlights. But… I also tried to mix things up a little bit.
Most itineraries focus only on cities. I adore the Spanish cities, which are among the most vibrant in all of Europe, but there’s so much more to see. I believe adding side-trips to the coastline or countryside will give you a more complete taste of Spain.
No itinerary is ever ‘perfect’ (I hate that word!) as every traveler likes different things, but think of this as a possible route to get you started.
Read on for my tips + links to detailed guides for each place!
Plan your trip to Spain
Where to travel in Spain
So far, I’ve been on 9 trips in Spain. What often strikes me is how Spain can feel more like a collection of former kingdoms than one unified culture.
Regions like Galicia, Basque Country, and Catalonia are utterly distinctive, each inviting you to explore them on their own.
This diversity makes Spain feel a bit like a tapas bar: you can just keep coming back and it’ll always keep serving up tasty little morsels of travel experiences.
But… if you only have so many days to spend in Spain, then you’ll probably want to go straight for the main course!
If you’re looking for some classic Spain, look no further than the southern region of Andalusia. It’s the origin of many iconic cultural elements, such as the flamenco dance, matadors, and Moorish architecture.
I think it’s the perfect region for a first-timer trip to Spain, so it’s a nice idea to focus much of your trip there.
Begin in Barcelona: yay or nay?
I’ve noticed that many Spain travel itineraries start in Barcelona. It’s an amazing city to be sure. Its Gaudí architecture, incredible culinary scene, and beach-side location help attract over 9 million tourists per year.
But… unless you’ve been living under a giant paella plate, you’ll know Barcelona has suffered massively from overtourism.
On my most recent visit, I saw anti-tourist graffiti on walls and there were protests against Airbnb.
Since Barcelona gets overloaded with tourists these days, I think maybe it’s good to give other destinations a chance. Besides, Barcelona is a great city that deserves more than a quick stop! Perhaps it’s worth saving it for a future trip just to Barcelona so you can get to know it better.
To reduce travel time and have some extra days to play with, I’m starting this itinerary in Madrid. But if you still want to include Barcelona, I understand. For some tips, check out this 2 day Barcelona itinerary.
First stop: Madrid
Madrid is extremely well-connected internationally (its airport is Europe’s 6th busiest) making it a great place to start your trip. I recommend spending at least 2 days.
This is the commercial heart of Spain, so expect to find a buzzing metropolis with lots of grand plazas, imperial monuments, and modern offices interspersed with old world architecture.
While other Spanish cities (such as Granada) may be prettier or cozier, Madrid stands out in other ways. Its cultural and architectural heritage is undeniable and the city is renowned for its nightlife and gastronomic delights.
Things to do in Madrid:
- Visit the museums, such as the grandiose Museu Del Prado.
- Dive into the infamous nightlife. The city is said to have the most bars per capita of any European city… and Madrileños stay up very late.
- Stroll around La Latina, Madrid’s old town crisscrossed by narrow lanes. It’s the perfect area to try your first tapas, the famed Spanish finger food.
- Take a day-trip to Toledo, the city that was once the capital of the Spanish empire. It’s only about half an hour by train.
After Madrid and Toledo, it’s time to go to Andalusia. It’s easiest to catch the high-speed train from Madrid to Seville and get off at second-to-last stop at Córdoba. You can see Córdoba as a stopover day trip, or stay one night.
Córdoba was once the capital of Andalusia. During the 10th century, it was the biggest city in all of Europe, and one of the world’s most important centers for science and trade.
It’s where you find the architectural marvel of The Mezquita, which is part Mosque and part Cathedral. Spain was once ruled by the Moors from Northern Africa and this history is clearly reflected in this unique building.
You’ll be seeing many more examples of Islamic architecture throughout southern Spain, but The Mezquita is among the finest.
Córdoba is also a wonderful mid-sized city that’s easy to wander by foot. It’s scenically located along a river and has several historic quarters with windy streets filled with cozy cafes and restaurants.
If you have the time to spare, it’s nice to stay the night in Córdoba so you’re not in a rush, though many choose to do Córdoba as a day trip.
Things to do in Córdoba:
- Visit the Mezquita and climb its tower for some wonderful views
- Take a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter, filled with narrow streets and windy alleys
- See the Plaza de la Corredera, a Spanish square bordered by arched buildings, which was once used as a prison, bullring, and for Inquisition burnings
From Córdoba, it’s only a short hop to Seville, one of Spain’s liveliest and most beautiful cities.
It’s easily worth staying in Seville for 2 days, but I think plenty of travelers will be happy to spend at least 3 days. I think Seville is one of the most tourist-friendly cities where it’s nearly impossible to get bored.
Most points of interest are in the center, all within walkable distance. Just strolling around and discovering old churches, hidden plazas, and local tapas bars is what makes Seville so much fun.
I actually lived in Seville for a while, so it has a special place in my heart. I wrote about the 10 things you must know before visiting Seville, but here are some quick pointers.
Things to do in Seville:
- Take a tour of the Real Alcazar, a royal palace with beautiful gardens
- Visit the huge Seville Cathedral, the world’s third-biggest, and built on the site of a former mosque. Even if you’ve seen a lot of churches or cathedrals, this one is on another level.
- Grab cocktails in one of many rooftop bars with views of the Cathedral.
- Enjoy the walkways on top of Metropol Parasol. Locally known as ‘the mushroom’, this modern structure looms over La Encarnación square.
- Explore the neighborhood of Triana, once the home of sailors, bullfighters, Roma people, and many famed Flamenco dancers.
- Spoil yourself at the AIRE Ancient Baths, an atmospheric spa inside a Mudejar-style palace. Not that cheap but a unique experience.
- Visit the impressive Plaza de España, a semi-circular plaza built for an international fair in 1929.
Side-trips from Seville
Seville is a perfect launching pad for a side-trip. I suggest inserting a little break here for the countryside or the coast. You can even go as far as Morocco.
You can do day-trips while keeping Seville as your base, or stay the night somewhere before resuming this route. Either way, it’s time to get creative!
Here are a few ideas:
You can rent a car and road trip through the Grazalema national park, home to some of Spain’s gorgeous white villages. My favorites include Arcos de la Frontera, Setenil de las Bodegas, and Zahara de la Sierra.
The Grazalema park is full of windy mountain roads, hilltop castles, and deep canyons with vultures and eagles flying overhead. It’s a super authentic region and great for hikes, too.
Don’t have your own transportation? The white village of Ronda, famed for its huge stone bridge, can also be reached by public transport.
To reach Ronda you can travel from Seville to Malaga by train; if you can, try to catch this regional train, as it passes through the scenic mountains. Then, from Malaga, take the 2-hour train or bus to Ronda.
Ronda is famed for its epic bridge, and has several interesting museums and cultural sights as well.
Craving some salty sea air instead? The easiest hop to the coast from Seville is to take the 40-minute train to Cádiz, a scenic old town on a narrow peninsula. It’s surrounded by several beaches and surfers love the place.
I think for most people Cádiz is worth a day trip only, though I once spent a few lovely days there staying at a hostel and enjoying the easy access to the beach.
Finally, I must mention the Caminito Del Rey, a unique hike following a precarious old path through a canyon. Today it’s completely safe thanks to a brand new boardwalk, but the Caminito was once one of the most dangerous paths in Spain. The canyon is jaw-dropping.
If you have the time or inclination, you could even take an excursion into Morocco from Seville. It’s surprisingly easy to dip your toe in: just take the 2 ½ hour bus from Seville to Tarifa, then the 45-minute ferry to Tangier. Before you know it, you’ll be sipping Moroccan mint tea, tasting tajines, or browsing Medina market stalls laden with spices, leather goods, and carpets.
You can self-organize any of these side-trips, though it’s easier by booking a local organized tour. They include tour guides, transportation with a pick-up in Seville and any required tickets.
Here are several tours I recommend:
- From Seville: Pueblos Blancos and Ronda Full-Day Trip
- From Seville: Caminito del Rey Full-Day Hike
- Day Trip to Tangier, Morocco
Your Spain trip is almost coming to a close, but we’ve kept the best for last.
Granada might be my favorite city in Spain. It’s the undisputed capital of flamenco and tapas, it’s rich in history and culture, and it’s stunningly located at the base of snowy mountains.
Despite its towering Alhambra Palace and dramatic surroundings, Granada itself has a kind of low-key and romantic atmosphere. Seville may have a wider range of things to do, but I think Granada is a real highlight in its own right.
Its main attraction by far is The Alhambra, an epic royal palace and fortress complex dating back to the times of Moorish (Arabic) rule in Spain. It’s the most sprawling and impressive tourist site in Andalusia and takes a full day to see.
Beware: you need tickets well in advance to visit the inner and most impressive part of the Alhambra, the Nasrid Palace. Your ticket is for a specific date and time and if you’re not on time, you lose your right to entry. Be sure to book this in advance.
It’s worth staying at least 2 nights in Granada. Keep one full day for the Alhambra and one day for the city. But there is plenty more to see, especially if you take trips into the Sierra Nevada mountains and surrounding area.
Things to do in Granada:
- Visit the Alhambra, the most impressive attraction in Andalusia
- See Flamenco (or, more accurately, the Zambra) performed inside cave bars in the traditional Sacromonte neighborhood
- Stroll around the Albayzín, Granada’s former Arab quarter
- Enjoy the free tapas provided with every drink you order. The longer you stay in one bar, the better the free tapas gets!
- Touch the snow atop the Sierra Nevada mountains
How to spend 10 to 14 days
You can travel Spain for months on end and not get bored, but realistically, most people will have one or two weeks to spend on any given trip.
If you have about 10 days you can get a nice taste of Spain. As a base for your itinerary, I would recommend 2 nights in Madrid, 3 in Seville and 2 in Granada. Then sprinkle your remaining nights around to taste. You can find more tips in this specific itinerary for Andalusia, the region in southern Spain.
If you have two full weeks (or more) then you can truly cook a fine trip. Add a stop in Barcelona or Morocco to spice things up, or add a side-trip to the coast or countryside as a little Spanish desert.
Where to fly into
I started this Spain itinerary in Madrid, but you might find cheaper flights elsewhere. For example, Málaga is a good city to plop into your flight search engine. Loads of budget airlines fly there to deliver sun-worshippers to the Costa Del Sol in summer.
Seville also has a decent number of flight connections, but Granada’s airport is very small, so you may not have as much luck with these.
You can also find cheap flights to Faro in Portugal, which is only about 2 hours from Seville.
- Search on Kiwi.com for cheapest flights to Madrid, Barcelona, Málaga, Sevilla, Granada or Faro (smart link)
To hop between cities I highly recommend taking Spain’s fantastic high-speed trains, which are fast and comfortable (and better for the environment than flying).
What about other parts of Spain?
Andalusia is always a safe bet for a first trip to Spain. But as I mentioned, Spain has many distinct regions, often with their own languages and culture.
I’ve not been everywhere in Spain but I’ve had a chance to poke around. For a city that’s wonderful but less on the tourist map, try Valencia. It’s Spain’s third-biggest city and yet I think it’s massively overlooked. It has some similarities with Barcelona, but it’s much more low-key.
The green, wild, and Atlantic northern parts of Spain will also make for a fascinating trip. It’s different from the mental picture of Spain that most people have. I loved traveling around Galicia, a region with Celtic and Portuguese influences, and famed for its Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.
Chances are my next trip to Spain will take me to Bilbao, home of the Guggenheim museum, and the Picos de Europa national park in the Asturias region.
Spain is such a huge and varied country that can’t possibly cover all of it in a single trip. But the above itinerary will give you some of the best bits — and will surely leave you hungry for more.
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