Cheat-Sheet – The Best 3 Weeks in Spain Itinerary for Adventurous Travelers
If you’re thinking of visiting Spain for a slightly extended period, whether it be for 2 or 3 weeks, you might consider the itinerary discussed below — which I recently embarked on and completed in 2 weeks.
While the 2 week experience was fantastic, it was a lot of movement and I was also traveling solo. For the sake of making the trip a little less hectic and more relaxing, and taking into account additional travelers, I’m writing this article with the same itinerary but spread across 3 weeks. Note that even at a 3 week pace, this is an active itinerary and may not be suitable for everyone. You’ll be visiting at least 8 cities.
Also note that I’m highlighting the route along this itinerary, a brief background on each city, why it’s being chosen and how to get between cities / regions. Consider this article a chart plotter.
3 Week Itinerary for Spain
So what are your reasons for visiting Spain? Are you planning this trip because you enjoy the wine, language, history and or cuisine? If you answered yes to any of the above, this itinerary will probably work for you. Just make sure before you plan anything that you know what you’re looking to get out of your journey.
This itinerary is plotted for 3 weeks, but feel free to adjust it to fit your situation, whether that means omitting or adding cities or changing modes of transportation. In any case, Spain is a remarkable country with thousands of years of history, architecture, gastronomy, viticulture and intrigue. The cities you’ll visit along way on this particular itinerary will expand your mind and impart new vigor into yours and your fellow travelers persona. It’s been tested!
First Stop: Madrid for 4 Days
Madrid makes for an ideal first stop if you’re planning a trip to Spain for several reasons. Firstly, if you’re flying into Spain from the US, Madrid-Barajas airport is typically the cheapest airport you can fly into. You can check the current best flight deals into Madrid with Airfarewatchdog, and receive updates when flights go on sale.
Madrid is also very central in Spain. Thus giving you flexibility as to which direction you’d like to continue on your route following your visit to the city. You also have the vast Atocha train station in the heart of the city, next to Retiro Park. Here you can quickly go to and from on a variety of Spain’s both fast and slow Renfe operated train lines.
Madrid is also the capital of the country. But more importantly, from a traveler’s perspective, there’s an authenticity here that is unlike any other Spanish city that I’ve visited. The locals are for the most part incredibly nice, the food and wine is fantastic, the flamenco is magnificent and you’ll find a wide variety of cuisine and cultural styles.
We feel that four days in Madrid will give you optimal time to visit the various neighborhoods where nightlife is fun, as well as navigate this relatively large city at a comfortable pace. Take a look at some of the best hotels deals in Madrid via TripAdvisor, many of which are within walking to distance to main attractions.
There are far too many phenomenal restaurants and historic sites to tackle this city in one day. It’s a great warm-up to the rest of Spain while you hone your Spanish skills and begin to understand how to navigate public transportation.
DAY TRIP OPTION: Since you’ll be staying in Madrid for four days, you could use one of your four days to visit either Toledo or Segovia on a day trip, accessible by both bus and train. Both Toledo and Segovia are steeped in historic charm. Segovia is home to the real-life castle that is said to have been the inspiration for the castle in the Disney movie Cinderella.
Spain Travel Tip: Make an attempt to speak some Spanish when you visit Madrid (or anywhere else in Spain). If the first word out of your mouth is in English in every establishment you visit, it sends up blatant signs that you’re a tourist. I found that many Spanish locals were more welcoming when I made an attempt to speak the language. You’ll also have a deeper travel experience.
Second Stop: Ronda, Andalucia for 2 Days and 2 Nights
Getting to Ronda from Madrid: The most efficient way to get to Ronda from Madrid is to take Renfe’s Altaria train line from Atocha station south into Ronda. You can browse train availability and purchase your ticket online in advance (recommended) at Renfe’s website.
Ronda is my favorite city in Spain. I tend to prefer low-key, small town vibes with great food and incredible scenery. This city is a huge transition when coming from Madrid, but it should be embraced as such. Ronda is a small city consisting of cobblestone streets between buildings. When you make your way to the west side of town, you’ll eventually be greeted with a view that’s something out of a fairytale. Green pastures, ancient bridges, vineyards, sunflower fields and mountains as far as the eye can see. Ronda is a city essentially built ontop of an ancient rock formation. It’s carved in two by the Guadalevín River, which carved out the famous gorge “El Tajo.”
You’ll be gazing at these magnificent sites as you stand hundreds of feet in the air overlooking ancient and history-packed landscapes. Many people choose to visit Ronda as a day trip from either Sevilla or Malaga. While that’s fine and all, I advise against it. That’s because every other tourist in Southern Spain is also taking those day trips. The city is flooded with tourists between 10 AM and 6 PM. I arrived at 6 PM, just after all the tourists had left. The town quiets down, the sunset approaches, and you’re set to experience one of the most beautiful sunsets you’ll ever see. There are dozens of affordable, romantic and quaint hotel options in Ronda to stay in.
I suggest doing this city for 2 days because it’s relatively small. You’ll be able to see the majority of the sites in and around the city as well as sample some of the best tapas.
Third Stop: Sevilla, Andalucia for 3 Days
Getting from Ronda to Sevilla: The cheapest route to get to Sevilla from Ronda is to simply hop on the bus. The bus station, located within Plaza de Concepción is in the “new” area of town and about a 5 minute walk from the town center. It’s around 10 euros and the ride is about 2 hours. You can view the Ronda bus timetables and additional details here.
Sevilla is arguably the most famous Andalucian city. It’s literally stacked in history. Over the centuries, it’s been conquered by the Moors and then the Christians embarked on a reconquest of the city and surrounding areas. What you see both culturally and architecturally in Sevilla today is a result of these reconquests. Muslim architecture, instead of being destroyed by the Christians, was instead built upon and modified. Adapting various Spanish and Christian styling. In fact, many of the hotels in Sevilla maintain this style of architecture, and you can have an authentic experience being surrounded by the stunning architecture.
Sevilla is truly a unique place with unparalleled architectural beauty. Take the Alcázar, a palace which was originally developed by Moorish Muslim kings, it’s now touted as the most beautiful palace in Spain. Some of its upper quarters are actually still in use by the Spanish royal family. The Alcázar is also a filming location for the TV show Game of Thrones, where scenes within the palace and gardens are used to depict the city of “Dorne.”
Now, are you ready to pick up the pace a bit? It’s time to head North towards wine country.
Fourth Stop: Zaragoza –> La Rioja + Logroño and Haro for 3 Days
Getting from Sevilla to La Rioja: In order to reach the wine region of Rioja, you’ll need to hop on Renfe’s (AVE) fast train line and head on over to Zaragoza. You’ll be leaving Sevilla from the Sevilla-Santa Justa train station. A well organized and easy to navigate station. Visit the Renfe website, enter your dates and destination and buy tickets ahead of time. Once you arrive in Zaragoza, it’s recommended that you pick up a rental car (reserve this ahead of time through Avis or Europcar). Also keep in mind that the cheapest rental car rates are for manual transmission vehicles. If you can’t drive stick, expect to pay a bit more for automatic. Separately, it’s highly recommended that you rent a GPS through the car company for navigational purposes. Keep in mind that you should plan to have the car for a few days to keep things simple, and you’ll be using it to visit another city after La Rioja. Once you have your car, drive from the train station to the town of Logroño, which resides in the heart of Rioja. Once in Logroño, you can begin to venture out to the surrounding region and visit the “bodegas,” or wineries.
Being the wine fanatic I am, this was one of the most anticipated parts of my trip to Spain. The region of La Rioja is one of the finest wine producing regions not just in Spain, but in the entire world.
Rioja is a DOCa, or “Qualified Denomination of Origin.” What this means is that the yields, grape varieties and winemaking styles in Rioja are highly regulated by a control board in Spain. Thus, there is quality and consistency in Rioja wines unlike anywhere else in the world. Aside from wine quality, it’s also incredibly beautiful. There are three individual wine growing regions within Rioja – Rioja Alavesa, Rioja Baja and Rioja Alta. Each are unique in their own right, and you’ll be staying within Logrono which floats near the center of all three.
The two most well known towns in Rioja are Logroño and Haro. You’ll be visiting both. Logrono is a bit larger and has more of a city feel to it. It’s also the more active city with better night life. While in Logroño, make sure you visit Calle Laurel and get tapas and wine, all of the restaraunts are good. Calle Laurel HOPS at night time and should not be missed. The next day, drive on over to Haro, a smaller town which is closer to some of the more famous bodegas. Including Bodegas Muga and Bodegas Lopez de Heredia.
In terms of accomodation, you can easily stay in downtown Logroño and drive to Haro or the vineyards by day. Or, you can up your game and stay on a vineyard at the famous Marques de Riscal hotel and winery, a Starwood hotel property which was designed by famed architect Frank Gehry.
Spain Travel Tip: Once you’ve decided on the cities you’d like to visit, and in what order — get out your calendar and start marking down which days you’ll be in what city. Once you’ve figured that out, start purchasing tickets for your transportation between each one. Not only will this be cheaper, but it will make your trip less stressful. If you haven’t been to Spain before, you’re going to want the extra time you saved buying your tickets in advance to navigate the various airport and train stations. All you’ll need to do is find your gate or platform. This will take a huge load off your mind if taken care of before you arrive in the country.
Fifth Stop: San Sebastián for 3 Days and 3 Nights
Getting from Logrono to San Sebastián: You’ll still be utilizing your rental car and GPS at this point to navigate to San Sebastian. A beautiful ride through the mountainous Basque region and ultimately along Spain’s North Coast. At your leisure, plan to leave Logroño whenever convenient and begin a 2 hour drive to San Sebastián.
Now that you’ve had the opportunity to indulge in some of the best wine in the world, we’re going to head further North to San Sebastián, along the North coast of Spain. This city is heralded by some to be the food capital of the world. Here, San Sebastián is famous for their “Pintxos,” (pronounced peen-chos), which is basically any type of food that can be fit on a small piece of sliced bread. Typically ham or various forms of seafood. San Sebastian maintains a largely nautical vibe, and the weather here is definitely a bit cooler and more unpredictable being along the water. Make sure you pack warmer clothes for this leg of the trip, and definitely have your camera charged. See a few pictures of my most recent trip to the city to the right.
San Sebastian is also known as Basque country. The cultural style, language and architecture is dramatically different than the rest of traditional Spain. It’s a great city to visit to experience something completely different. The Basque language is something completely unique — it’s not a blend of anything as some tend to believe. While Basque is the main language here, most locals also speak Spanish and Catalan, but very little English.
Sixth Stop: Barcelona for 5 days 5 Nights
Getting from San Sebastián to Barcelona: You’re going to be flying from San Sebastián to Barcelona. We recommend this because it’s the fastest, and you can usually get a ticket between 60-90 euro. You can also take the train if you fancy a little longer journey or prefer not to fly. Visit the Vueling website to purchase your ticket to Barcelona ahead of time. Unfortunately, the time has come to give up your rental car. You’ll be waking up in the morning, checking out of your hotel and driving to San Sebastián Airport. Once at the airport, follow the signs for the rental car companies (it’s a very small lot / airport) and leave your car in one of the designated spots for returns. Take your bags, lock the car and take the keys with you into the airport. Upon entry, look to your right for the rental car company booths. If they’re closed, leave the keys in the drop box below the window.
By now you’ve probably figured out we’re following a northerly pattern towards the latter part of this itinerary. You’ll essentially be ending your journey in Barcelona. I decided to end the trip in Barcelona because it’s essentially a conglomeration of everything Spain has to offer. It’s got architecture (think Gaudi), great food, beaches, boats, a different language (Catalan) and awesome night life. It’s a large city with a lot of history, and considering this is the end of your trip, we feel that 5 days should give you enough time to both see everything, and have a chance to relax.
DAY TRIP OPTION: If you get tired of Barcelona, you might consider a day trip deep into Catalonia. I chose to visit the wine growing region of Priorat and Tarragona, which not only produces some of the worlds finest Spanish wines, but the region is also touted as a world renown hiking and climbing destination. Pick your poison – wine, hiking or climbing… though we’d advise against drinking and climbing. You can catch a two hour train from Barcelona-Sants station into Marca-Falcet. If you’re looking for someone to show you the region, the ONLY Bodega / tour company we recommend here is hands down Cellar Devinssi. You’ll get to drink, eat, live and breath with an incredibly knowledgeable guide who I now consider my friend. Feel free to book directly or ask for a referral from me.
And there you have it! There are obviously other routes and locations to visit throughout Spain. However, this is a tested itinerary that led to one of the greatest experiences of my life. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments or email me directly if you need additional guidance. The best advice I can give you is DON’T OVER-PLAN. It was Lao Tzu who said… “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Basically, setup your destinations, you accommodation, but let the days flow. Don’t book a ton of museums, instead explore, drive around, get lost in wine country, you’ll have a better time.
If you’re not sure where to stay at any of these cities, take a look at Expedia’s current best hotel deals in Spain for your travel dates.