During my time working in the cultural exchange industry, I helped nearly 100 young people study abroad in Spain on various Greenheart Travel programs. My success in placing people here is due in part to the fact that Spain is one of my favorite destinations to talk about. There is so much to explore and enjoy!
Eternally popular among Europeans, Spain has long been recognized as a superb vacation destination in Europe. And for good reason. Tapas. Sangria. Siestas. Flamenco. Paella. What’s not to like?
From the Moorish architecture to delicious cuisine, Spain has a diverse and intriguing culture that has 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.
First Timers Itinerary for 2 Weeks in Spain
Overview of this Itinerary
For busy North Americans with limited time off, a 2 week holiday is about the maximum amount of time you can dedicate. Thankfully, two weeks is a great length of stay to visit Spain for the first time. You can see some of the key highlights in the country, such as Madrid, Andalucia and Barcelona. It is important to understand one thing though – you will not see it everything in 2 weeks’ time! Spain’s territory stretches more than 195,000 square miles. It is one of the largest countries in Europe, after all!
This is all to say that when planning your first trip to Spain, you need to make some critical choices and compromises. It’s a bigger country than you’d expect, and the rail & train network isn’t as convenient or fast as you’d expect. This isn’t Germany! You could definitely fly between the major cities to make it faster, but understand that this form of travel is more expensive and environmentally destructive. Plus, you’ll waste more time than you realize getting to, from and through the airports.
You’ll need several trips (or at least 4 weeks) to experience the entirety of Spain. But this 2 week itinerary will help you capture the essence, and hopefully inspire a return visit! I have curated this itinerary carefully to ensure that you can see some of the best historical and beautiful places in Spain. I have been lucky enough to visit Spain on multiple trips (once during Semester at Sea, another time with my job, and a third time to travel with friends) 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.
Day 1: 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 the 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 restaurants. 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.
Day 2: Madrid
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 their lackadaisical attitude, spending days in the park, taking siesta breaks, and languishing over espressos. 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 a good long lunch, and you'll want to have at 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: Day Trip to 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 is often called the “city of three cultures” because of its influences from Christians, Muslims and Jews over the course of its history.
Toledo is 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: Day Trip to Segovia
Similar to Toledo, Segovia is a totally do-able day trip from Madrid, thanks to an easy train ride. Alternatively, you can pick up a rental car and drive, especially if you plan on seeing Andalucía as a road trip. More on that in a minute.
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 5-12: Northern or Southern Route
At this point, you need to make a choice: do you want to go the northern Spain route or the southern Spain route?
In Northern Spain, you can visit cities like Barcelona and San Sebastian. The states of Catalonia and Basque Country are a little more off-the-beaten path, but I can assure you they are full of wonderful surprises. The cityscapes and beautiful architecture alone are worth a visit, but when you combine that with delectable Basque cuisine and crazy good wine, northern Spain is an underrated destination in Spain.
Contrastingly to Southern Spain (the region is called Andalucía), you will find some of Spain’s most picturesque and memorable attractions. Each of the cities in Andalucía has an iconic attraction or monument that draws in millions of visitors. 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 today. It feels uniquely different from other parts of Europe!
Both options are fantastic, so it really comes down to personal preferences. I would say the northern route is well-suited for foodies, including stops in the Rioja wine valley and sampling Michelin-quality pinxtos in San Sebastian. The southern route is ideal for culture vultures, with stops of iconic Spanish historical sites like the Alhambra and Alcazar.
Day 13 & 14: Balearic Islands
Made up of 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 tourists that crowd the shores in the summer.
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 eco-lodges for a truly unique experience.
Do you have thoughts or questions about visiting Spain for the first time? Tell me in the comments!
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