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How to plan a trip to Spain

We spent 6 weeks exploring Spain in 2016 and in 2019 Charles spent another 7 weeks walking the Camino. It’s a country we love and think everyone should experience if they have the chance.

Spain is a destination that has dazzled visitors for centuries. A long and tumultuous past resulted in many groups have left their mark on the country, meaning each of the cities and regions is distinct – and fascinating.

There are, however, a few threads that link all of Spain together. There’s a love for the good things in life, like fine wine, delicious food and beautiful art. Then there’s a certain joyfulness that is expressed through festivals, events and just everyday life.

Undoubtedly, whether you’re in the heart of metropolitan Barcelona, the remote stretches of the Camino or the beaches of Malaga, there’s something just so magical about Spain.

Why choose to travel to Spain?

Spain is a country that sits atop many people’s ‘must-see’ lists – and it’s no surprise. The country boasts nearly everything you could wish for in a destination, all wrapped up in a neat – and vivacious – package.

There are so many reasons to visit Spain but the Alhambra and its Palacios Nazaries are a big one!

The Spanish enjoy a true enthusiasm for life, and with such beautiful surrounds, it’s easy to see why. Diverse and bustling cities are hotspots for lovers of arts, culture and fine food, while dazzling beaches and islands are the perfect places to escape the hustle and bustle.

Lovers of architecture and history are sure to also be enraptured by Spain, with its abundance of UNESCO World Heritage sites including castles, cathedrals, aqueducts and more.

Seville Cathedral

While Spain is a brilliant destination at any time, a full calendar of events and festivals add even more reason to visit. From the kooky fun of La Tomatina to the romance of Sant Jordi Day, there’s almost always a special something happening somewhere in Spain.

Language

Most people will have no trouble identifying Spanish as the predominant language in Spain, and speaking a few words is certainly helpful! While many Spanish people – and particularly those in the tourism industry – do speak English, it’s helpful to have a few phrases up your sleeve. Plus, Spanish people will usually go to great lengths to understand what you’re trying to say; so, there’s no need to worry if your español is not perfecto.

Although Spanish is spoken pretty much universally throughout the country, in Barcelona (and the rest of Catalonia), most people’s preferred tongue is Catalan. No-one will begrudge you for speaking in Spanish, however, a few words of Catalan are sure to elicit delight from proud locals.

Travel costs in Spain

Like its neighbours, Spain uses the euro so there’s no need to change money if you’re coming from the eurozone.

Overall, Spain is a relatively affordable country to visit, especially if you are coming from neighbouring France where it’s a noticeable step down in price. Things are more expensive in the cities, but overall mainland Spain presents very good value for money. 

Eating out is really affordable!

It also offers a great variety of options to suit all budgets. From simple lodgings like hostels and guesthouses to beautiful luxury hotels, you’ll easily find something that fits your needs.

Things do tend to be a little more expensive on the islands. This is especially true of Ibiza, which is generally a playground for those who enjoy the fine things in life – and don’t mind paying for them. That said, even on Ibiza, budget options can be found.

As travel costs do vary a little from region to region, it’s hard to list travel costs exactly. However, some common travel costs are listed below to give you a general idea:

  • Accommodation: From €10 (dorm room), €75 (mid-range), €150+ (luxury)
  • Lunch: €5 (simple or self-catering), €15 (local restaurant), €25+ (fine dining)
  • Beer/wine: local varieties from €1.50 and up.
  • Attractions: entrance to La Sagrada Familia, €17 for an adult
  • Car hire: from €25 per day

Getting into and around Spain

Spain’s West Europe location means that it’s easily connected to other cities by air and rail.

Travelling to and around Spain by train is a popular way to explore the country. Not only is it easy to reach Spain from nearby France, but the rail network also links up most of the country. Many of the lines are high-speed, meaning that train travel in Spain is both fast and comfortable. For example, the 620-kilometre trek between Madrid and Barcelona takes just 1.5 hours by the highspeed train.

Barcelona Train Station
Trains in Barcelona make getting around the city easily

Flying into Spain is a sensible choice if you’re visiting from further afield. There are also numerous domestic flights which can reduce travel times and allow you to get around the country easily. For those travelling on a budget, buses are slower but can save you a lot of money.

Another option for travelling throughout Spain is to hire a car. This will give you access to pretty much the entire country, and the condition of the roads is generally good. Just be prepared for some tolls and brush up on your Spanish road signs, and it’s a great way to explore the country.

Places to visit in Spain on your first trip

The hardest part about visiting Spain is narrowing down which parts will make your itinerary. There are just so many amazing places dotted all over the country – but here are some of the very best.

3 days is a minimum and 5 days is ideal – that is our motto when travelling and it certainly is our recommendation when planning your Spanish itinerary. Less is more, give yourself time to eat and drink everything!

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Madrid

Spain’s capital is regal and beautiful, yet it has a vibrancy and joy for life that makes it a true joy to visit. If exploring the stunning streets and huge parks doesn’t leave you with sore feet, the salsa dancing surely will! In Madrid, there’s no escaping the fiesta.

We chose Sobrino de Botin, founded in 1725, and the oldest restaurant continuously operating in the world to celebrate my 50th birthday.

Madrid certainly is an all-day and all-night kind of place, so you will certainly never find yourself without options of what to do. Sprawling Madrid’s diversity means that whether you’re a foodie, history buff, art lover or wine enthusiast, you’re sure to find plenty that’s right up your alley.

As much as we loved Barcelona we fell under the spell of Madrid. Our 5-day stay was too short and we will be back!

Don’t miss

  • The Royal Palace, an incredibly grandiose building that is Europe’s largest functioning Royal palace.
  • A day trip to stunning Toledo, a beautifully preserved Medieval city. The whole historic centre is UNESCO World Heritage Listed.
  • El Retiro, a beautiful and expansive park that’s a perfect break from the concrete jungle, if you need it!

Barcelona

There are some cities that you explore slowly and gently – and then there’s Barcelona. It’s the kind of place that grabs you immediately, tempting you to dance salsa, drink sangria and live the good life.

With fabulous festivals, fascinating architecture and brilliant foodie hotspots, it’s no wonder that Barcelona is considered one of the world’s great cities.

Barcelona Spain Sagrada Familia
There is so much to see in Barcelona be sure to give yourself at least 3-4 days

Plus, as the capital of the fiercely proud and independent Catalonia region, Barcelona has quite a different feel than elsewhere in Spain. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get much sleep in Barcelona: there’s much to explore and experience.

Don’t miss

  • La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s famously unfinished surreal Church. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is an incredible sight to behold.
  • Las Ramblas, possibly the busiest street in the world. Filled with buskers, shops, restaurants and lots and lots of people, you never know what you’ll see!
  • Casa Batlló, another beautifully bizarre building (nicknamed ‘the House of Bones’) that finds itself on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Seville

Visiting the capital of Spain’s Andalusia region, Seville, seems a little like stepping into an open-air museum at first. Narrow laneways are flanked by exquisite Gothic and Baroque buildings, while the UNESCO World Heritage Listed Seville Cathedral seems to hover over the city. It’s a truly stunning place.

Real Alcazar Seville Spain
The Real Alcazar – Be sure to book tickets in advance in peak seasons

Stay a little while, however, and you will realise that Seville is very much a living, dynamic city. Let the sound of flamenco (for which the region is famous) guide you into charming little bars, where locals and tourists alike are delighted by the beautiful sounds and atmosphere.

Don’t miss

  • Real Alcázar, the former Royal Castle and one of Seville’s several UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Game of Thrones might also recognise this landmark.
  • The Seville Cathedral, a gothic masterpiece that was built in the 16th century during Seville’s heyday.
  • Metropol Parasol, a modern art piece that has provided a juxtaposition to the historic streets since opening in 2011.

Granada

Granada is one of the most charming towns in Andalusia, with a mix of Moorish architecture, great food culture and a strong hippie vibe it draws you under its spell.

I think I may have taken 200 photos of Alhambra over our 3-day visit.

Granada is a university town with over 80k students living here meaning there is always something happening. The city has such a great vibe that just being here wandering the streets and people watching is special. Oh, and they still give decent free tapas everywhere you go!

The Nevada Mountains provide a gorgeous backdrop and the sea is only an hour away providing a landscape that is fertile and so very pretty.

We spent three days here and shared our best finds for you to add to your itinerary.  

Don’t Miss

  • Sunset from Mirador San Nicolas and as many other miradors as you can!
  • The Alhambra and Generalife Gardens – book early they are beyond popular
  • Albaicin – Wandering the narrow streets allows you to get a great feel for times past.

Malaga

The largest city along Spain’s Costa del Sol, Malaga is a beachside city with plenty of heart. While some destinations may lose their charm with the arrival of resorts and high rises, Malaga has managed to stay true to its artistic roots, while also offering plenty of amenities to sunseekers.

Malaga Spain

Aside from its glorious beaches, Malaga is most famously the birthplace of Pablo Picasso and has enchanted many other artists. As such, there is an abundance of galleries and museums in the city. Foodies are also sure to delight in visiting Malaga. As a portside city, there’s a focus on seafood – both the humble fish shack variety and that prepared in luxurious Michelin starred restaurants.

Don’t miss

  • The Museo Picasso de Malaga (Picasso Museum), which features over 200 works of the surrealist master, who was born in Malaga.
  • The Alcazaba, an Islamic-inspired 11th-century fortification that was built on still-visible Roman ruins that date back from the 1st century.
  • Visit a beach like the Playa de La Malagueta and find out why it’s called the “Costa de Sol” (Sun Coast)

The Camino

One of the world’s most famous walking trails, ‘The Camino’ – formally known as Camino de Santiago – is described by many as a lifechanging experience. Every year, more than 200,000 people complete the hike, escaping busy everyday life to take in the beauty of the countryside as well as the many stunning sights along the way. It’s an opportunity for contemplation, relaxation and perhaps to meet some fellow hikers.

Alto del Perdon Spain Camino sculpture
“Where the path of the wind crosses that of the stars” by Samuel Mencia Rodríguez

The entire trail is approximately 800 kilometres, however, it can easily be broken up into smaller sections. There are numerous trails, but the most famous through the Pyrenees which separate France and Spain, before snaking through some of Spain’s most beautiful terrain and arriving at the Tomb of St James in northwest Spain.

Don’t miss

  • The highlights depend on which route you take – but whichever you choose, the experience is sure to be a magical one.

La Rioja

If you love wine, chances are you have heard of Spain’s La Rioja region. It’s one of the world’s great wine-producing places and a favourite of sommeliers all over the world. Visiting it, however, you may be surprised. Despite its big reputation, it remains humble – with dozens of beautiful family-owned bodegas dotted throughout the rolling hills, as well as larger producers.

Spain winery
Spain’s La Rioja region is a great place to chill for a while.

You certainly don’t need to be a wine expert to enjoy a visit to La Rioja. In fact, just exploring the countryside and stopping in for a bite to eat is glorious, although those who love wine will probably not be able to pass up the opportunity for a tasting or two!

Don’t miss

  • Museo de la Rioja, which will give you an insight into the region’s history (and is about more than just wine!)
  • A wine tour, stopping in at beautiful wineries like Bodegas Ysios and Muga.

San Sebastián

Ok, so we have not yet made it to San Sebastian yet. It was the first Spanish city that made my list yet our timing has not worked out so far.

San Sebastian spain
This view and the legendary San Sebastian pintxos has this city in our radar.

We missed out visiting due to bad timing – do not try to visit during the film festival unless you have buckets of money. Even 6 months out we could not find affordable accommodation. The upside, we have reason to go back to Spain!

Have you been to San Sebastián? Please share your best tips and help us plan our visit.

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