Madrid and the South
Days 1–3: Madrid
The elegant Plaza Mayor is the perfect jumping-off point for a tour of the Spanish capital. To the west, see the Plaza de la Villa, Palacio Real (the Royal Palace), Teatro Real (Royal Theater), and the royal convents; to the south, wander around the maze of streets of La Latina and the Rastro and try some local tapas. Start or end the day with a visit to either the Prado, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, or the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía.
On Day 2, visit the sprawling Barrio de las Letras, centered on the Plaza de Santa Ana. This was the favorite neighborhood of writers during the Spanish golden literary age in the 17th century, and it's still crammed with theaters, cafés, and good tapas bars. It borders the Paseo del Prado on the east, allowing you to comfortably walk to any of the art museums in the area. If the weather is pleasant, take an afternoon stroll in the Parque del Buen Retiro.
For your third day in the capital, wander in Chueca and Malasaña, the two neighborhoods most favored by young madrileños. Fuencarral, a landmark street that serves as the border between the two, is one of the city's trendiest shopping enclaves. From there you can walk to the Parque del Oeste and the Templo de Debod —the best spot from which to see the city's sunset. Among the lesser-known museums, consider visiting the captivating Museo Sorolla, Goya's frescoes and tomb at the Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida, or the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando for classic painting. People-watch at any of the terrace bars in either Plaza de Chueca or Plaza 2 de Mayo in Malasaña.
Logistics: If you're traveling light, the subway (Metro Line No. 8) or the bus (No. 200) will take you from the airport to the city for €1.50. A taxi will cost around €30. Once in the center consider walking or taking the subway rather than cabbing it in gridlock traffic.
Days 4 and 5: Castilian Cities
There are several excellent options for half- or full-day side trips from Madrid to occupy Days 4 and 5. Toledo and Segovia are two of the oldest Castilian cities—both have delightful old quarters dating back to the Romans. There's also El Escorial, which houses the massive monastery built by Felipe II. Two other nearby towns also worth visiting are Aranjuez and Alcalá de Henares.
Logistics: Toledo and Segovia are stops on the high-speed train line (AVE), so you can get to either of them in a half hour from Madrid. To reach the old quarters of both cities take a bus or cab from the train station or take the bus from Madrid; bus is also the best way to get to El Escorial. Reach Aranjuez and Alcalá de Henares via the intercity train system.
Day 6: Córdoba or Extremadura
Córdoba, the capital of both Roman and Moorish Spain, was the center of Western art and culture between the 8th and 11th century. The city's breathtaking Mezquita (mosque), which is now a cathedral, and the medieval Jewish Quarter bear witness to the city's brilliant past. From Madrid you could also rent a car and visit the lesser-known cities north of Extremadura, such as Guadalupe, Trujillo, and Cáceres, overnighting in Cáceres, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage city, and returning to Madrid the next day.
Logistics: The AVE train will take you to Córdoba from Madrid in under two hours. An alternative is to stay in Toledo, also on the route heading south, and then head to Córdoba the next day, although you need to return to Madrid by train first. Once in Córdoba, take a taxi for a visit out to the summer palace at Medina Azahara.
Days 7 and 8: Seville
Seville's Cathedral, with its Giralda tower, Plaza de Toros Real Maestranza, and Barrio de Santa Cruz are visual feasts. Forty minutes south you can sip the world-famous sherries of Jerez de la Frontera, then munch jumbo shrimp on the beach at Sanlúcar de Barrameda.
Logistics: From Seville's AVE station, take a taxi to your hotel. After that, walking and hailing the occasional taxi are the best ways to explore the city. A rental car is the best option to reach towns beyond Seville.
Days 9 and 10: Granada
The hilltop Alhambra palace, Spain's most visited attraction, was conceived by the Moorish caliphs as heaven on earth. Try any of the city's famous tapas bars and tea shops, and make sure to roam the magical, steep streets of the Albayzín, the ancient Moorish quarter.
Logistics: The Seville–Granada leg of this trip is best accomplished by renting a car—Antequera makes a good quick stop on the way. However, the Seville-to-Granada trains (four daily, just over three hours, €29) are an alternative. Another idea is to head first from Madrid to Granada, and then from Granada via Córdoba to Seville.
Spain's modern freeways and toll highways are as good as any in the world—with the exception of the signs, which are often hard to decipher as you sweep past them at the routine speed of 120 kph (74.5 mph).
Barcelona and the North
Days 1–3: Barcelona
To get a feel for Barcelona, begin with the Rambla and Boquería market. Then set off for the Gothic Quarter to see the Catedral de la Seu, Plaça del Rei, and the Catalan and Barcelona government palaces in Plaça Sant Jaume. Next, cross Via Laietana to the Born-Ribera (waterfront neighborhood) for the Gothic Santa Maria del Mar and nearby Museu Picasso.
Make Day 2 a Gaudí day: visit the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, then Park Güell. In the afternoon see the Casa Milà and Casa Batlló, part of the Manzana de la Discòrdia on Passeig de Gràcia. Palau Güell, off the lower Rambla, is probably too much Gaudí for one day, but don't miss it.
On Day 3, climb Montjuïc for the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, in the hulking Palau Nacional. Investigate the Fundació Miró, Estadi Olímpic, the Mies van der Rohe Pavilion, and CaixaForum exhibition center. At lunchtime, take the cable car across the port for seafood in Barceloneta and then stroll along the beach.
Logistics: In Barcelona, walking or taking the subway is better than cabbing it.
Day 4: San Sebastián
San Sebastián is one of Spain's most beautiful—and delicious—cities. Belle Époque buildings nearly encircle the tiny bay, and tapas bars flourish in the old quarter. Not far from San Sebastián is historic Pasajes de San Juan.
Logistics: Take the train from Barcelona to San Sebastián (five hours) first thing in the morning. You don't need a car in San Sebastián proper, but visits to cider houses in Astigarraga, Chillida Leku on the outskirts of town, and many of the finest restaurants around San Sebastián are possible only with your own transportation or a taxi (the latter with the advantage that you won't get lost). The freeway west to Bilbao is beautiful and fast, but the coastal road is recommended at least as far as Zumaia.
Days 5 and 6: The Basque Coast
The Basque coast between San Sebastián and Bilbao has a succession of fine beaches, rocky cliffs, and picture-perfect fishing ports. The wide beach at Zarautz, the fishermen's village of Getaria, the Zuloaga Museum in Zumaia, and Bermeo's port and fishing museum should all be near the top of your list.
Days 7 and 8: Bilbao
Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum is worth a trip for the building itself, and the Museum of Fine Arts has an impressive collection of Basque and Spanish paintings. Restaurants and tapas bars are famously good in Bilbao.
Logistics: In Bilbao, use the subway or the Euskotram, which runs up and down the Nervión estuary.
Days 9 and 10: Santander and Cantabria
The elegant beach town of Santander has an excellent summer music festival every August. Nearby, Santillana del Mar is one of Spain's best Renaissance towns, and the museum of the Altamira Caves displays reproductions of the famous underground Neolithic rock paintings discovered here. Exploring the Picos de Europa will take you through some of the peninsula's wildest reaches, and the port towns along the coast provide some of Spain's most pristine beaches.
Days 11–13: Oviedo and Asturias
The coast road through Ribadesella and the cider capital Villaviciosa to Oviedo is scenic and punctuated with tempting beaches. Oviedo, its Cathedral, and its pre-Romanesque churches are worlds away from Córdoba's Mezquita and Granada's Alhambra.
Logistics: The A8 coastal freeway gets you quickly and comfortably to Oviedo and just beyond. From there, go west into Galicia via the coastal N634—a slow but scenic route to Santiago.
Days 14–16: Santiago de Compostela and Galicia
Spain's northwest corner, with Santiago de Compostela at its spiritual and geographic center, is a green land of bagpipes and apple orchards. The Albariño wine country, along the Río Miño border with Portugal, and the rías (estuaries), full of delicious seafood, will keep you steeped in enxebre—Gallego for "local specialties and atmosphere."
Logistics: The four-lane freeways AP9 and A6 whisk you from Lugo and Castro to Santiago de Compostela and to the Rías Baixas. By car is the only way to tour Galicia. The AC862 route around the upper northwest corner and the Rías Altas turns into the AP9 coming back into Santiago.
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