Eternally popular among Europeans, Spain has long been recognized as a suburb vacation destination in Europe. And for good reason. Tapas. Sangria. Siestas. Flamenco. Paella. What’s not to like?
From the Moorish architecture to the quirky personalities, Spain has a diverse and intriguing culture that has so many layers due to its long history. The influences from years of conquest, dictatorship and diverse cultures are wildly apparent on the streets of the old cities and the people’s pride in their unique heritage.
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! 2 weeks of time is a great length of stay to visit Spain for the first time, but understand one thing – you will not see it all in that time! Spain’s territory stretches over 195,000 square miles and it is one of the largest countries in Europe, which means you will need to make compromises on a 2 week trip.
You will need several trips (or at least 6 weeks) to experience the entire essence of Spain, but my 2 week itinerary will help you see some of the most historical and beautiful places in the country, which hopefully will inspire a return visit! I have been lucky enough to visit Spain on two different trips (once during Semester at Sea and another time with my job) and I know I will return again in the future. There is something addictive and alluring about Spain – I’m guessing it’s the Iberian ham 🙂
Suggested itinerary for 2 awesome weeks in Spain as a first-timer!
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 different neighborhoods. Start your first day in the heart of the city at the Plaza Mayor. The famous red building centers this city’s old town square and is surrounded by other government buildings, businesses and small restaurant. Pop into Chocolateria San Gines for Madrid’s most famous and delicious churros!
From the Plaza Mayor, wander to Puerta del Sol, the busiest square in the city. It is the (now mythical) 0.0 crossroads of all the roads connecting Madrid to the once territorial lands of the Spanish Kingdom. You’ll see plaques in the square! For lunch, snack on a variety of Spanish foods at the Mercado San Miguel. If you’re a foodie like me, consider signing up for the Devour Madrid walking tour of the market! A few things that you will definitely want to sample are Iberian ham and Manchego cheese, but there are plenty of other tasty treats that are likely to jump out at you.
Once you are sufficiently stuffed, wander to the Royal Palace of Madrid which is the current and official residence of Spanish royal family. The beautiful palace is an icon of Madrid. End your first day in Madrid with a sunset picnic at Temple of Debod. This shrine from ancient Egypt that was rebuilt in Spain and now sits at the heart of a park with a beautiful view of the city.
Spend the first half of your second day in Madrid soaking in some natural beauty at Retiro Park, one of the largest and most beautiful parks in the city. Spaniards are notorious for lackadaisically spending days in the park, and you should do as the locals do! With miles of walking paths and gardens, it is a lovely way to start a day. Don’t miss the famed Crystal Palace inside Retiro which is a massive greenhouse from the 1800s.
Spaniards love them a good long lunch, and you’ll want to have a least one plato del dia while in Madrid. These are available at most Spanish restaurants around the city, and it is like the daily special. You might also want to sample the famed paella! After your siesta nap, now it’s time to soak in some of the Spanish culture! Stop at the Prado Museum, Spain’s national art museum with tons of classical art. Another worthy stop is the Reina Sofia Art Museum which features a nice-curated contemporary art collection.
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 on a road trip en route to other regions in the country. 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 Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada de Toledo, Sinagoga de Santa María La Blanca, Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes and Alcázar de Toledo are all worthy stops that will keep you plenty busy for 24 hours. 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: Segovia
Similar to Toledo, Segovia is a totally do-able day trip from Madrid, thanks to an easy train ride. Or you can drive especially given the stop below on day 5. Segovia looks like a place out of a princess fairytale with turret flanked castles and embellished churches poking through the skyline of this UNESCO World Heritage city.
Major highlights to visit in Segovia include medieval homes in the city’s Jewish quarter, the gothic style Segovia Cathedral and Alcazoror medieval castle + fortress. The really unique draw in Segovia however is the Roman Aqueduct. Dating back to the 1st century, this imposing structure stands the test of time thanks to its amazing arched design.
Day 5: Salamanca + Douro Valley
Long hailed as the most important university town in Spain, Salamanca is a dynamic and youthful city which attracts thousands of Spanish and foreign exchange students every year. This multicultural environment also happens to be housed in one of the most beautiful old cities in Spain. As can be expected in Spanish cities, cathedrals and plazas are the main sightseeing attractions in Salamanca, but the city really comes alive at night.
I included this stop on my itinerary more for its advantageous location for exploring one of the Spain’s major wine regions – the Douro Valley. I fell in love with Douro Valley wines during my honeymoon in Portugal, so adding this to a 2 week Spain itinerary was a no-brainer. More than just fortified port wine, the Douro Valley has some great red wines range from light, Bordeaux styles to rich Burgundian wines aged depending on which part of the valley the vineyard is located in. Get to know the wines and grapes at one of the many wineries clustered near the town of Toro, such as Divina Proporcion Bodegas or Covitoro among many others.
Day 6-11: Andalusia Region
The Andalusia region in southern Spain is a beautiful and rustic destination on your 2 week itinerary. 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 continue driving with your rental car from Madrid as the drive from Segovia is about 5 hours.
Each of the cities in Andalusia has an iconic attraction or monument that draws visitors, and while I list all of those landmarks below, I also think this is a nice region of Spain to simply explore with no agenda. Most of the cities are old, small cities that can be easily explored by foot, which is one of my favorite ways to discover things that are unique to your experience. A few of the most notable places to visit in Andalusia (listed in the order you should visit them) are:
Located in the Sierra Nevada mountains, I loved the natural scenery in Granada. It is an old city, but a beautiful one! Granada is home to the famed Alhambra which is a must-see attraction in Andalusia. The Alhambra is a sprawling hilltop fortress and I think it is the most impressive of all the Spanish ruins I’ve seen 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 experience of the palace!
Malaga is usually an overlooked destination because it 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 I would recommend spending a few hours checking out his museum.
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!
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!
As the first port on my Semester at Sea voyage in 2010, Cadiz was a highlight simply for being our first port. But the imposing Santa Cruz Cathedral is as impressive on the inside as it is on the outside. The Santa Catalina castle is another highlight, now converted into a museum with exhibition halls featuring free art shows by local artists. Cadiz is also a lovely spot for some relaxing time on the beach. I spent 2 full days simply walking around looking at the architecture and tanning at the beaches of this coastal city.
Day 12-13: 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 visit the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain—the natural scenery here is stunning and perfect for relaxation! They even joke that Majorca is a “mini Germany” because of the abundance of German tours that crowd the shores in the summer.
I was lucky enough to visit the stunning island of Ibiza in summer 2016 on a trip to see Greenheart Travel’s volunteer project at Casita Verde. 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! Consider staying at one of the island’s many ecolodges for a truly unique experience.
Day 14: Return to Madrid
After two spectacular weeks in the memorable country of Spain, now comes the end of your vacation. You will likely be returning to Madrid for your return flight back home, which you can easily connect to from the Balearic Islands thanks to daily direct flight options.
What, No Barcelona?!? WTF
I intentionally left Barcelona off this itinerary, which to some may seem blasphemous. I personally haven’t visited Barcelona, but I know that the city suffers heavily under the weight of tourism. During my master’s program n sustainable tourism management, we’ve discussed a lot about Barcelona as a cautionary tale on the risks of too many tourism. I believe it is important to spread out visitors throughout Spain to lessen the burden of travel. As such, you will not find Barcelona on this itinerary intentionally, and I instead chose to future a few less popular destinations.