In November 2014, we embarked on our own version of a Eurotrip. The day after I submitted my Masters Thesis I flew to London to meet Ross, and we began a six-week jaunt across the continent, travelling from London to Marrakesh overland using a combination of trains, buses, ferries and a hire car.
It was my first time visiting postcard cities like Berlin, Prague and Amsterdam, and a chance to explore Venice again, the scene of one of my most memorable childhood holidays. Somewhere in the trip-planning phase I became fixated on Spain. (With so much to do and see, who could blame me.) Wanting to pack as much into our short stay as possible, after a few days in Barcelona we hired a car and hit the road for three weeks.
Having done similar cross-country road trips in the US, Oman, Australia and England, I can say without a doubt that the roads in Spain are the best-maintained and safest I’ve ever driven on. Spain is surely one of the top self drive holidays in Europe. Having our own transport opened up a lot of opportunities to visit smaller towns and squeeze more than we usually would into each day. The trip was certainly fast-paced, but it was worth it to get a good overview of Spain in a short period of time.
Logistically, petrol wasn’t as expensive as we first feared. Oftentimes we were the only car on the road for miles, and for the most part, parking was cheap and plentiful, even in hot spots like San Sebastián. Apart from overnighting in a Parador (the country’s answer to a Japanese ryokan and a must-do while in Spain), we stayed exclusively in Airbnb apartments that provided free parking.
Here is my tried-and-tested itinerary for a three-week self drive road trip across Spain, including recommended activities for key cities, where to break the journey, and some handy driving tips.
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Our self drive Spain itinerary
Looking back over our itinerary makes my head spin a little! We drove almost every day and covered a lot of ground, but by splitting the long drives up into smaller journeys, we got to visit some interesting local towns. Spanish highways are incredibly easy to drive on and the scenery is invariably stunning no matter where in the country you are, so driving never really felt like a drag. (Disclaimer: I was a passenger for this entire trip. Drivers under 25 incur a hefty add-on fee at most rental companies, so Ross did all the driving while I navigated/napped in the passenger seat. Thanks, Ross!)
Days 1-3 – Barcelona.
Day 4 – Drive Barcelona to Zaragoza to Sos del Rey Católico – 4.5hrs on the road.
Day 5 – Sos del Rey Católico to Pamplona to San Sebastián to Bilbao – 2hrs on the road.
Day 6 – Bilbao.
Day 7 – Bilbao to Segovia to Madrid – 4hrs on the road.
Day 8 – Madrid.
Day 9 – Madrid to Toledo – 30mins on the road.
Day 10 – Toledo to La Mancha to Valencia – 5hrs on the road.
Day 11 – Valencia.
Day 12 – Valencia to Cartagena – 3hrs on the road.
Day 13 – Cartagena to Lanjarón – 6hrs on the road.
Day 14 – White villages and The Sierra Nevada.
Day 15 – Lanjarón to Granada – 45mins on the road.
Day 16 – Granada to Córdoba – 2.5hrs on the road.
Day 17 – Córdoba.
Day 18 – Córdoba to Seville – 45mins on the road.
Days 19-20 – Semosville. Return hire car.
Day 21 – Seville to Tarifa to Tangier (Morocco) by bus/ferry.
I loved every minute of our time in Barcelona, and I wish we could have stayed longer. Choose an Airbnb apartment in the heart of the city; ours was just steps from the Urquinaona metro station and Plaza Cataluña. We picked up a hire car on our last day from Barcelona-Sants, the city’s main train station.
Don’t miss these must-see attractions, must-do activities and must-eat restaurants…
• Pound the pavement on Sandeman‘s free city walking tour
• Visit La Sagrada Familia and Park Güell, two of Gaudi’s finest works
• Explore the cactus gardens at Montjuïc
• Ride the cable car over La Barceloneta beach
• Eat Spanish ‘hamburguesas’ at Hamburguesería Bacoa
• Pig out on homemade churros at Bar Churrería Layetana
• Take advantage of the free entry to Museu Picasso (every Friday night)
• See a gig at the Palau de la Música Catalana (we saw an unforgettable performance by the late Sharon Jones)
Two hour’s drive from Barcelona, Zaragoza lies smack-bang in the middle of Spain between. The capital of the autonomous Aragon community, it’s a perfect place to break for lunch. We stopped off at a small tavern in the shadow of the Aljafería Palace and ate fideos negros (black noodles simmered in fish stock).
Sos Del Rey Católico
When I picture an archetypal Spanish town, the Sos is what comes to mind. We stayed a night at the Parador here, which sits on a low rise overlooking the Sos’ ancient cobbled streets (you might recognise it from the 2017 film The Trip to Spain). The town is petite and easily navigated during an evening or early morning stroll; admire the flower boxes, pop in and out of charcuterie shops, and listen to the church bells toll. We had a very memorable meal at the Parador’s Cinco Villas-themed restaurant.
On your next full day of driving, break in Pamplona for lunch and to get your first taste of Basque Country tapas. This is a good place to practice the art of ordering tapas ahead of your arrival in San Sebastián. Outside of the famous San Fermin (Running of the Bulls) festival, which takes place here every July, Pamplona’s streets are surprisingly peaceful and sparse. Bakeries and boutiques run the length of the main pedestrian drag and are well worth a look.
Most people head straight for San Sebastián’s pintxos bars, but don’t forget to take a stroll along the waterfront promenade, too. After a day’s drive, this is exactly what you need to stretch your legs and re-fuel. We spent a few early evening hours in San Sebastián, and while I didn’t really fall head over heels for the town like I’ve known other people to do, it’s a worthwhile stopover on the way to Bilbao.
The Guggenheim Museum is Bilbao’s main attraction, but I found the rest of the city a little bland. One full day is ample time to see the museum and explore Bilbao’s riverfront.
Aqueduct versus alcazar – when an urban landscape is a battle between the most important Roman civil engineering work in Spain and a Moorish palace so beautiful that it’s instantly recognisable from pop-culture, you know you’re in for a treat. Segovia lies just an hour outside of Madrid and is a complete contrast to Spain’s capital. Park your car on the hill leading up to the aqueduct – the whole town is easily walk-able in a few hours, but you’ll want to stay much longer.
• Climb the concealed staircase to the right of Segovia’s UNESCO-listed aqueduct for a different perspective on this feat of engineering
• Visit The Alcazar, apparently Walt Disney’s architectural inspiration when creating Cinderella’s castle
• Eat Pasteleria Limon y Menta, Segovia’s signature pastry. It’s lemony, it’s minty, and it’s wrapped in caramelised marzipan
Our first experience of Madrid was the nightmarish drive through the city at peak hour, trying to find our Airbnb apartment. Once we were settled in, we didn’t really want to leave! I’m slightly embarrassed to say that we bypassed many of Madrid’s main attractions, but it was that point in our holiday when we really needed some R&R (and to do some serious laundry). An easy walk through the city is the best way to see Madrid – make sure you explore the gorgeous Real Jardín Botánico, wander through the bookstalls that line Cuesta del Moyano, and top it off with sunset at the Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple that was dismantled, shipped to Spain, and reassembled in all its glory on a hill in the city centre.
After the chaos of Madrid, Toledo is a salve. The town’s mix of old-world charm, literary heritage and multicultural influences makes it one of my favourite places in all of Spain. If you’re moving southwards, Toledo is the first place where you can see, hear and smell the Middle Eastern culture that becomes more and more pronounced the further south you go. We had a wonderful introduction to Syrian and Turkish food in Toledo, which became our go-to cuisine for the remainder of our trip.
• Walk the Don Quixote Trail
• Fall in love with Syrian food at Posada El Cristo de la Luz
• Down a sampler box of marzipan sweets from Santo Tome
I’m a huge fan of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but even if you’ve never read the book, a quick detour through Spain’s iconic La Mancha landscape, with its towering windmills and patchwork fields, is an absolute must. Arrive at the little town of Consuegra in the early morning and visit one of the provincial bakeries. You can then drive all the way to the top of the hill and explore the windmills on foot.
Spain’s third-largest city, Valencia has all the charm of Barcelona and all the amenities of Madrid with a laid back, beach-town feel. This is the While we weren’t all that impressed with the City of Arts and Sciences, we loved cycling through the elongated parkland that runs through the heart of the city. If you’re an outdoorsy type, you’ll adore Valencia.
Cartagena might just be one of Spain’s most underrated cities. We rolled into the sleepy historic centre in the early afternoon and were greeted by a medieval festival, the annual Mercado Medieval (how’s that for timing!). Catagena’s Roman amphitheater is one of Europe’s best-preserved, and exploring the state-of-the-art museum was honestly one of the most enjoyable ‘historical’ experiences I’ve ever had – anywhere in the world. It’s fascinating to see how the city has been built-up around the old ruins.
Lanjarón and the White Villages
Once you hit Spain’s Las Alpujarras, you’ll realise what a blessing your hire car truly is. Navigating the windy, steep, narrow roads around the white villages was nail-biting at times, but I can’t imagine trying to get around any other way. Base yourself in Lanjarón, the area’s most populous village and home to a number of quirky accommodations, including the healing retreat/yurt we stayed in.
Once a hippie mecca and still famed for its spring water, Lanjarón is a gateway to the smaller villages of Pampaneira, Bubio and Capileira. If you can brave the altitude, add Trevélez (Spain’s highest settlement) to your driving itinerary. Some of the villages take a good few hours to get between, especially in inclement weather, so I recommend setting aside at least two days to explore the area.
The Sierra Nevada
Don’t spend all your time in the villages at the expense of the Sierra Nevada’s natural beauty. The landscape here is incredibly picturesque, especially in winter when the olive trees are coated in frost.
Granada boats a quixotic mix of Spanish and Middle Eastern cultures. The Alhambra is an architectural triumph, and if it’s not on your itinerary, you’re doing Spain wrong. It’s recommended that you buy tickets a day ahead of your visit. Contrary to some advice, you don’t have to trek up the hill to the main gate to do this – just visit the ticket office/gift shop in the centre of town. On the day of your visit, make sure you leave early to account for the time it takes to access the complex (which includes a long, beautiful walk through the forest if you’re using public transport).
There is a secret sunset spot in Granada where you can watch the warm light bathe the entire Alhambra complex before someone flicks the switch and it lights up like a beacon on the hill. Our Airbnb was located just steps away.
From The Alhambra to Códoba’s Mezquita, a fascinating mosque-cum-church that is home to the famous and much-photographed candy cane archways. Córdoba is a beautiful Andalucian city and has many other attractions, including a waterfront and some incredible vegetarian restaurants. We got really lucky with our Airbnb apartment here, a rooftop cabin with 360-degree views over the terracotta rooftops.
Every year, Códoba hosts a Patio Festival, which showcases the amazing indoor gardens that are a traditional part of every home here. Make sure you peek inside a few doorways as you’re wandering the town’s lanes. This is also a good place to catch a Flamenco/equestrian show – our pick is the Royal Stables of Córdoba.
An entire day can easily be spent in Seville’s Alcazar complex, another incredible palace – this time in the Andalucian style – that mirrors The Alhambra in its layout and design details. Seville is a sun-bathed walking city, and the Plaza de Espana, Barrio Santa Cruz and Parque de Maria Luisa are all worth a wander. I found Seville a lot grungier than other places in Spain – grungy in the way of vintage stores and hip cafes. We returned our rental car in Seville and got around the city very easily using public transport.
Perched on Spain’s southernmost tip where the Mediterranean and the Atlantic meet, Tarifa is a gateway to northern Africa via the port city of Tangier, which lies just a short ferry ride away across the Straight of Gibraltar. We landed here in the morning and were on a boat to Morocco a few minutes later. If you’re staying in Tarifa and are so inclined, the town is famed for its wind sports, especially paragliding.
Tips for self driving in Spain
• Book your rental car well ahead of time, especially if you want an automatic transmission. We could only find a few auto cars available in Barcelona, and they were more expensive than manual. If you or someone you are travelling with can drive a manual, consider going with that option to save money and worry.
• Bring your own GPS (with maps for Spain and Portugal pre-loaded) to avoid the exorbitant rental fee. Our car had a built-in unit but it only functioned in Spanish language.
• Plan your routes ahead of time to avoid toll roads. Some tolls are very expensive – up to 20 Euros – but we managed to avoid most of these by taking indirect roads and alternate highways.
• Avoid driving in Spain’s big cities, especially Madrid. Pick up and drop off your hire car from an office in the outer suburbs to avoid inner-city congestion – not from the most central location.
Planning a road trip around Spain? Leave your questions in the comments!
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