Due to the current situation related to the coronavirus, travel in Spain is restricted. This guide was written before the recent outbreak.
If it’s your first time planning a trip to Spain, you’ll quickly realize there is so much to see and do that you can’t fit it all in. I get it… I’ve been there!
To help you out, I put together this detailed travel itinerary for Spain, which includes some 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 I think spending all of your time in the cities is a bit one-sided.
So, I’ll also talk about how you can add trips to the coastline or countryside for a more complete taste of Spain.
No itinerary is ever ‘perfect’ as every traveler has different interests, so tinker with this travel route to your liking.
Read on for my tips + links to detailed guides for each place!
Where to travel in Spain
I’ve been on 9 trips in Spain so far. What 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 completely 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 home to many of the iconic cultural elements often associated with Spain, such as the flamenco dance, matadors, and Moorish architecture.
I think it’s the perfect region for first-timers in Spain, so this itinerary will be focusing heavily on it.
Begin in Barcelona: yay or nay?
As you may have noticed, 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 is overloaded with tourists, I’m just going to skip it here. Maybe Barcelona can have a break. Besides, I think it’s nicer to do Barcelona justice on a separate trip, perhaps including other places in Catalonia as well. A longer stay in Barcelona will let you explore beyond the obvious places — as there is so much more to the city than Las Ramblas avenue or the Gaudí gardens.
To shorten the travel distances and have some extra days to play with, I’m starting this route in Madrid instead. But if you still want to include Barcelona, I understand!
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 may be prettier or cozier (such as Granada), 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, it’s time to go to Andalusia! It’s easiest to just catch the high-speed train from Madrid to Seville, but get off on the second-to-last stop at Córdoba. Stay for one night, or you can make it a daytrip stopover.
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 also 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.
I recommend staying the night in Córdoba so you’re not in a rush. But you can also do it as a stopover: just get the first train from Madrid to Córdoba, put your luggage in storage (try at the train station or see Bagbnb), spend the day in Córdoba and take an evening train to Seville.
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 (or Sevilla) 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 impossible to get bored.
Most points of interest are in the compact old center, which makes things very walkable. Just strolling around and discovering old churches, hidden plazas, and local tapas bars is all part of the fun.
I lived in Seville for a short while so I have a particular connection with this city. I wrote about the 10 things you must know before visiting Seville, but I’ll also share some quick pointers here.
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 and cathedrals, this one is on another level. Do the audio tour and be sure to explore all the side-rooms and climb the Giralda tower.
- 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 super cheap but a unique experience.
- Visit the impressive Plaza de España, a semi-circular plaza built for an international fair in 1929. Don’t miss the adjacent gorgeous Maria Luisa Park.
Side-trips from Seville
Of course, there is more to Spain than just the big cities. That’s why I suggest inserting a little break here for the countryside, the coast, or even further afield to Morocco. Luckily, Seville makes for a perfect launching pad for side-excursions.
You can do day-trips with 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:
If you have your own car or a rental, you can go on a road trip through the Grazalema national park and visit some of Spain’s gorgeous white villages. Some of my favorites include Arcos de la Frontera, Setenil de las Bodegas, and Zahara de la Sierra. Don’t miss my dedicated guide to the white villages.
The Grazalema park is full of windy mountain roads, hilltop castles, and deep canyons with vultures and eagles flying overhead. There are amazing hikes through the area.
Don’t have your own car? Then you can still see the white village of Ronda, famed for its huge stone bridge. Travel from Seville to Malaga by train; if you can, try to catch this regional train. It’s a bit slower but passes through the mountains. From Malaga, take the 2-hour train to Ronda. The town has enough to see and do for at least a full afternoon and it’s a nice place to spend a night before heading on to Granada.
Craving some salty sea air instead? Then Andalusia has got you covered! 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 only a day-trip, though I spent a few lovely days there once staying at the Casa Caracol hostel and taking it easy.
For somewhere more exotic, consider an excursion to Morocco. It’s actually easy to dip your toe in: just take the 2 ½ hour bus from Seville to Tarifa, then the 45-minute ferry to Tangier. (Tip: get a ticket for Tangier port, not Tangier Med, as the latter is 50km outside of the city.) 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.
Finally, I have to mention the Caminito Del Rey, a unique hike following a precarious old path through a canyon. Today it’s a completely safe attraction thanks to a brand new boardwalk, but the Caminito was once one of the most dangerous paths in Spain. The canyon is jaw-dropping! Note that you do need tickets or a tour to visit the Caminito Del Rey.
If it seems complicated to plan these side-trips by yourself, you can also do them with an organized tour. Here are some tours I recommend:
- View Tour: Pueblos Blancos and Ronda: Full-Day Trip
- View Tour: Caminito del Rey Full-Day Hike
- View Tour: Day Trip to Tangier, Morocco
If you don’t have much time to plan it DIY style, then these organized tours are a perfect solution. They include tour guides, transportation with a pick-up in Seville and any required tickets.
Your Spain trip is almost coming to a close, but don’t be sad just yet. 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 stunningly located at the base of snowy mountains.
But despite its towering Alhambra palace and dramatic surroundings, Granada itself has a kind of low-key and romantic atmosphere. Although Seville has a wider range of things to do, I think Granada has a dreamy quality to it that can really grab your imagination.
The main attraction in Granada by far is The Alhambra, an epic royal palace and fortress complex dating back to the times of Moorish (Arabic) rule in Spain. It is easily the most sprawling and impressive tourist site in Andalusia and it’s well worth spending a full day inside its walls.
Important: 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. Book this in advance or you’ll be limited to exploring the outer fortress areas only.
I recommend staying at least 2 nights in Granada. Keep one full day for the Alhambra and one day for the city. But you can easily extend this to three or four nights, especially if you were to add trips to the Sierra Nevada mountains and other nearby points of interest.
Things to do in Granada:
- Visit the Alhambra, of course
- 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 a trip to Spain.
If you have about 10 days you can get a nice taste of Spain. As a basic skeleton for your trip, I would recommend 2 nights in Madrid, 3 in Seville and 2 in Granada. Then sprinkle your remaining nights around to taste.
If you have two full weeks (or more) then you can really cook a fine trip. Consider the coast or countryside, or add a stop in Barcelona or Morocco to spice things up.
Here’s my basic template for a Spain itinerary.
Add more nights if you got ’em!
Where to fly into
In this Spain itinerary, I put the start and finish in Madrid. It’s simply an easy jumping-off point.
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.
Málaga itself is not nearly as exciting as the other cities, but it does have some interesting bits and bobs. Stay for a short while if it’s on your way.
Seville has a decent number of flight connections, but Granada’s airport is very small, so you may not have as much luck with these.
Sometimes 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). For tips on how to book, see how to get around in Europe.
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 a fair bit. 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 make for a fascinating trip as well. It’s different from the picture of Spain that most people have in their heads. 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 leave you hungry for more.