One of the fascinating aspects of Spain is how each of its regions can truly feel completely different. Regions like Galicia, Basque Country, and Catalonia even have their own unique identities and languages.
This highly rewards repeat visits to Spain. But if it’s your first time travelling through Spain, then it makes sense to focus on Barcelona, Madrid, and the southern region of Andalucia. This is more or less the “classic Spain itinerary” that will give you some of the best highlights.
Plan your trip to Spain
Spain itinerary outline
I’ve been to Spain 9 times and even lived in Seville for a while. Based on my experiences, here’s how I suggest planning your travel route.
First, it’s nice to start in Barcelona. There’s so much to see and do in terms of museums and other sites that Barcelona will kick things off with a bang. Plenty of flights go there directly.
Arguably, the capital is worth spending a bit less time in — unless something there has really caught your interest. Madrid is more modern and doesn’t have as much charm as other Spanish cities, though it is renowned for its nightlife and has some impressive museums.
The south is truly amazing and it’s where you’ll have a lot of travel options. The region of Andalusia is the origin of many iconic cultural elements, such as the flamenco dance, matadors, and Moorish architecture.
Spend at least a day trip in Cordoba on your way from Madrid, then put your available days into Seville and/or Granada. Seville is a bit bigger and more diverse in terms of activities, though Granada is my absolute favorite city in Spain.
Consider adding some side trips in Andalucia. It’s a shame if your itinerary includes only cities as the countryside is just gorgeous. Andalucia is known for its many traditional villages with white-painted houses. The coast is also great in summer, and you can even reach Morocco pretty easily from this part of Spain.
You can follow this general outline:
|Day 1||Sagrada Família, Casa Batlló, Park Güell||Hostal La Palmela, Barcelona|
|Day 2||Picasso Museum, Walking Tour||Hostal La Palmela, Barcelona|
|Day 3||Museo Nacional del Prado, food + nightlife||Madrid|
|Day 4||Stopover in Cordoba, visit The Mezquita||Santiago 15 Casa Palacio, Seville|
|Day 5||Explore Seville’s historical city; tapas & taverns walking tour||Santiago 15 Casa Palacio, Seville|
|Day 6||Royal Alcazar Palace, Plaza de España||Santiago 15 Casa Palacio, Seville|
|Day 7||Beach day in Cadiz. Or: visit the white villages of Andalucia (road trip by car or visit Ronda by public transport)||Grazalema, Ronda, or Cadiz|
|Day 8||The Alhambra (be sure to pre-book!), tapas bar hopping||Palacio de Santa Inés, Granada|
|Day 9||Los Cahorros hike||Palacio de Santa Inés, Granada|
|Day 10||Stroll the Albacin, Flamenco show in a cave||Palacio de Santa Inés, Granada|
How to get around
The easiest way to get from A to B in Spain is by high-speed rail, as it has one of the best networks in the world. Even if some of the distances seem long, you can cover a lot of ground fast. For example, Barcelona to Madrid takes only about 2,5 hours by high-speed train.
I recommend using Trainline.com to book your tickets. It has the same prices as buying from the local train company, but their app and website make it much easier to book if you’re a tourist.
For high-speed trains, it’s advisable to book well ahead of time, as the best fares do disappear as you get closer to the journey date.
To more fully explore the Andalucia region, I can also highly recommend booking a rental car for a few days. I did this many times to explore the remote villages of Andalucia, get to attractions such as the Caminito del Rey hike independently, and drive along the coast at our own pace.
This city is the perfect place to start as it’s brimming with cultural and architectural highlights.
While most tourists concentrate around La Rambla, an iconic pedestrian promenade, most of the best sights are located elsewhere. You don’t want to miss La Sagrada Familia, one of the most unique churches in the world, nor some of the other buildings designed by Antoni Gaudí, of which Casa Batlló is considered a masterpiece.
For more suggestions, check out this 2 day Barcelona itinerary.
Do keep in mind that its Gaudí architecture, incredible culinary scene, and beachside location help attract over 9 million tourists per year. In recent years, Barcelona has sought to limit tourism by licensing fewer hotels and Airbnbs. This makes it essential to book your accommodation well in advance.
(Seriously, be sure to book ahead! My most recent trip to Barcelona was in October, which is normally the off-season, yet 99% of accommodation was booked out. We were forced to stay in Platja de Castelldefels, a suburb 45 minutes by train south.)
Things to do in Barcelona:
- Visit La Sagrada Família
- Go to the Picasso Museum, home to over 4,000 works
- Scroll through Park Güell with its Gaudi houses and hilltop views
- Relax at the beach of Platja de la Barceloneta
- Watch the sunset from the Palau Nacional’s rooftop
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.
- And don’t miss my list with 27 amazing things to do in Seville…
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
What about other parts of Spain?
Andalusia is so nice that I always like to recommend it first. But Spain has many other distinct regions, often with their own languages and culture.
For a city that’s wonderful but not as on the tourist map as Barcelona, try Valencia. It’s Spain’s third-biggest city and yet I think it’s massively overlooked.
The green, wild, and Atlantic northern parts of Spain will also make for a fascinating trip. I loved traveling around Galicia, a region with Celtic and Portuguese influences, and famed for its Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.
Basque Country has its own culture and language separate from any other European language. Bilbao and San Sebastian make for some amazing city trips.
However, Spain is such a big and varied country that can’t possibly cover all of it in a single trip. The above itinerary will give you some of the best bits — and will surely leave you hungry for more.
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