Eternally popular among Europeans, Spain has long been recognized as a good vacation spot. But recently Spain has seen a boost in international recognition as an excellent travel destination. It was featured on lists like the New York Times 52 Destinations for 2018 and GoAbroad’s Top Destinations for 2018. In my professional work at Greenheart Travel, we have seen a massive spike in interest among teenagers hoping to study abroad in Spain so I’ve witnessed this trend directly.
There is something about Spain right now that is getting people excited! I have been lucky enough to visit Spain on two different trips (once during Semester at Sea and another time with my job). I have helped nearly 100 people go to Spain on various Greenheart Travel programs in part because it is one of my favorite destinations to talk about—there is so much to explore and enjoy!
Here is my suggested itinerary for 2 awesome weeks in Spain!
Day 1-2: Madrid
As the main long-haul international airport in the country, most arrivals into Spain will come through Madrid’s Adolfo Suárez –Barajas Airport (airport code MAD). Thankfully, Madrid isn’t just an arrival city—it is an important destination within Spain!
As the nation’s capital, Madrid is the political and cultural capital of Spain with more than enough to fill two days worth of activities.Madrid is Spain’s largest city, but it feels nothing like a mega-metropolis. I was surprised by way that city and nature are woven together in a vast network of unique and different neighborhoods.
I would recommend seeing a few of the touristic sights in Madrid including:
- Plaza Mayor (most famous square in Spain)
- Royal Palace of Madrid (current and official residence of Spanish royal family)
- Retiro Park (one of the largest and most beautiful parks in the city)
- Crystal Palace inside Retiro (massive greenhouse from the 1800s)
- Prado Museum (Spain’s national art museum with classical art)
- Reina Sofia Art Museum (Another great art museum with contemporary art)
- Temple of Debod (shrine from ancient Egypt that was rebuilt in Spain)
Day 3: Toledo
Approximately an hour bus ride away from Madrid’s city center with regular daily service, Toledo is an easy day trip from Spain’s capital or a perfect stop en route to the southern regions. Situated on a hilltop overlooking a deep gorge, it is hard to imagine a more stunning location than Toledo’s. It often called the “city of three cultures” because of its influences from Christians, Muslims and Jews over the course of its history.
Toledo is a small enough to easily explore in one day. A visit to the cathedral, synagogue, monastery and Alcazar are all worthy stops. But if you’re more into views, cross over the Rio Tejo on the Puente de San Martín for an excellent panorama view of the old city. Pack a picnic and this makes for a stunning and romantic place to catch the sunset.
Day 4-9: Andalusia Region
The Andalusia region of Southern Spain is a beautiful and rustic . It was home to much of the Moorish development of the 14th through 16th centuries and architectural vestiges of those times remain in cities throughout the region. It feels uniquely different than other parts of Europe!
Some of Spain’s most picturesque locations are in Andalusia, which is one of the reasons why I recommend dedicating at least 3 days, but preferably 5 days, to explore Spain;s largest state. The region is pretty well-connected via bus and train, but you could also rent a car if you are willing to brave the Spanish highways. A few of the most notable stops listed in the order you should visit them are:
On my first trip to Spain, I fell in love with Seville. It is a fairly large city famous for its ornate Plaza de Espana, Giralda tower and Alcazar. The Alcazar, an old palace that dates back to the 10th century, was especially impressive. Its walls are engraved with intense detail in a distinctly Islamic/Moorish style. Seville is also one of the best places in Spain to experience flamenco dancing. My first flamenco show was incredible—they were some seriously talented dancers!
The nearby city of Cordoba is well-known for the Mesquita, an enormous mosque that was converted into a cathedral. There are hundreds of arches from its original Islamic construction made of red and white sandstone. What is especially cool about this building is the juxtaposition of all the different architectural styles. There are early Islamic arches next to recycled Roman pillars next to renaissance style Catholic paintings. It is incredibly beautiful and historically fascinating!
A little further east is Granada. Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, I loved the natural scenery in Granada. It is an old city, but a beautiful one! Granada is also home to the Alhambra.
The Alhambra is a sprawling hilltop fortress and an absolute must-see when visiting the Andalusia region. I think it is the most impressive of all the ruins because it includes such a variety of architectural accomplishments like patios, palaces, tile work, and gardens. Plus, you can buy a ticket for a night tour in the summer for a unique vantage point of the palace!
If you need a little beach time then Malaga is the next best stop in Southern Spain! It is usually an overlooked destination because Málaga has traditionally been a port city. But it has tastefully restored its downtown area sparking an urban renaissance which is well-worth exploring for a day. Malaga has an excellent art scene, and it was actually the birthplace of Pablo Picasso so spend a few hours checking out his museum.
Day 10-11: Balearic Islands
Made up Majorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera, the Balearic islands are one of the most popular vacation destinations in Spain. Although these are a little off the beaten track for American tourists, European travelers are keen to the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain—the natural scenery here is stunning and perfect for relaxation!
I was lucky enough to visit the stunning island of Ibiza in summer 2016 on a trip to see Greenheart Travel’s volunteer project there. Ibiza is well-known as a major party and nightlife destination, but actually there is a lot more to the island besides that. The rugged, rocky, and arid terrain of Ibiza is unlike any other I’ve seen in the Mediterranean, and the ability to go for hikes is unparalleled. Every beach felt completely different from the next—some were soft sand, some were full of fishermen, some were isolated rocky cliffs.
Local residents are often described as “hippies” and can be strong believers in alternative living arrangements. When the laid-back island vibe meets the Spaniards lackadaisical views on time, you are in for the ultimate relaxation while in the Balearic islands!
Day 12 – 13: Barcelona
Perhaps the most well-known destination in Spain, Barcelona is a famed coastal city in the northern Catalan region. Recently it has been in the news for the Catalan secessionist movement but Barcelona has long been on the tourist track. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 6 people at ay given time in Barcelona is a tourist.
Anyway, Barcelona is famous for lots of things, but most notably is its stunning architecture. This city is home to some of the most unique architecture in the world, a trend started by the visionary Antoni Gaudí in the late 1800s.
Although Barcelona is a big city, it is manageable to explore on foot and public transportation. Major architectural spots of note include:
- Sagrada Familia (Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece 100 years in the making)
- Parque Guell (Gaudi’s colorful park full of whimsy)
- Las Ramblas (famous pedestrian shopping district)
- Gothic Quarter (Barcelona’s oldest neighborhood with lively plazas and restaurants)
- Barcelona Cathedral (Gothic-style church from the 13th century)
- Casa Batlló (Antoni Gaudí’s most famous apartment building)
- Picasso Museum (home to world’s largest collection of Pablo Picasso’s work)
Barcelona is also home to some of Spain’s most experimental cuisine. Why not end your trip on a high note with a food adventure! Street cafes with churros, empanadas and coffee are great way to break up all the tourist sights on your walking tour.
High culinary prowess and workingman’s food come together in Barcelona, where you can experience simple, flavorful ingredients prepared in creative ways like molecular gastronomy. Don’t miss your last chance to try one of Spain’s signature dishes—paella!
Day 14: Madrid
Now comes the end of your 2 weeks in Spain. You will likely be returning to Madrid for your return flight back home, but there are plenty of flights to other places in Europe from Barcelona as well.