Ah, Spain. What a glorious country. The culture, the sights, the food! It’s easy to envision a vacation here and yet it might seem daunting to plan something yourself. But let me tell you: the benefits are amazing because YOU can be in the driver’s seat on all the experiences and locations you see. Believe me, it can be incredibly rewarding to map out your own trip. With a little bit of planning and some core knowledge, travelers can have a dream vacation. I’ll be sharing the places that vaulted onto my “must see list.” My favorite hotels, sights, and restaurants. And what I learned from a few mistakes along the way and how to manage those “oh no” moments while in a foreign country.
How to Plan a Trip to Spain
Having never been to Spain, I was completely in awe of all the regional diversity and amazing options available. And also quite honestly a bit daunted. How would I ever decide on where to travel and map out an itinerary on my own? This was totally outside the box for me as someone who has primarily done pre-planned vacations in Europe with travel companies. I chose to approach it as a real life Choose Your Own Adventure story! (Showing my age here with this 80’s reference, right?)
OK, so it wasn’t entirely unmapped. I KNEW I would visit Granada for one very big reason: my daughter was doing her junior semester there as part of her college’s study abroad program. Aside from this and the fact that we wanted to visit Barcelona, I had carte blanche on crafting an itinerary. So how exactly do you do that when there are SO many places you want to see and a finite amount of time (in my case, one week total)? Let me assure you that it CAN be done. First, do some research. Where is everything located? Be mindful that the more spread out the locations are, the more time you will need.
This was a real eye opener. For one, I don’t speak Spanish and didn’t really put in the time necessary to even be able to communicate passably. So I was one of those travelers who didn’t make the effort (something that I really regret looking back on it). I pinky promise to do better next time. But the beauty is that the people are so friendly and welcoming, it wasn’t the end of the world.
Map Your Itinerary
My itinerary went like this: fly to Madrid-train to Cordoba-train to Granada-fly to Barcelona-fly to Granada-train to Madrid-fly home. Total: 8 days.
Flying into Spain is easiest to arrive via a major city. So I chose Madrid based on all the itineraries that fly from my local airport. But instead of spending the night there, I wanted to stay in a smaller city for my first night. So here’s my first tip: choose that one special place you are dying to visit and make sure you incorporate it into your itinerary. For me, that was Cordoba. I owe this to Rick Steves after watching his show about this destination. Getting there from Madrid is super easy via train, and it took just short of two hours. Plenty of time to grab a nap after an international flight.
WHERE TO GO IN SPAIN: CORDOBA
Where to Stay: Hotel Madinat
What a marvelous way to begin my Spain adventures. This is a charming boutique hotel that greeted me with a delicious beverage and some snacks. Its proximity to the city center and major attractions makes it ideal. Offering 11 rooms and a junior suite, there are varied room categories. There’s even a hamman reserved exclusively for guests. This place just oozes charm. Be sure to check out the two terraces with a 360 degree panoramic view of Cordoba. I highly recommend taking in the sunset as you listen to the churches chiming the top of the hour.
Speaking of what you should do in Cordoba…
Don’t Miss: La Mezquita (Mosque Cathedral)
This is the biggest draw in all of Cordoba. And for good reason. Suffice it to say that it is a true gem of Cordoba. According to UNESCO, La Mezquita is “an architectural hybrid that joins together many of the artistic values of East and West and includes elements hitherto unheard-of in Islamic religious architecture.” In 2014, UNESCO designated the Mezquita a “Site of Outstanding Universal Value” as part of its ratifying its prior Wold Heritage Site declaration.
Visiting: The website says that free visits are offered from 8:30 A.M. to 9:30 A.M. on Monday to Saturday except when special services are being held. Regular visiting hours are 8:30 A.M. to 11:30 A.M. and 3:00 P.M. to 7:00 P.M.
While there are so many varying forms of architecture present, the ones I was the most awed by were the arches of the Original Mosque of Abd al-Rahman I and the Mihrab, a small octagonal room covered by a scallop shell dome.
Honorable Mention: Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos.
This “Fortress of the Christian Monarchs” was built in the 8th century as caliphate residence. This property became particular noteworthy when Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella lived there for eight years. The Alcázar is a combination of a massive fortress and royal palace, surrounded by stunning gardens. The outdoor spaces are really amazing, with fountains, reflection pools, and diverse greenery and flowers.
Summer Hours: (June 15 to September 15): Tuesday to Sunday 8:15 A.M. to 2:45 P.M.
Winter Hours: (September 16 to June 14): Tuesday to Friday 8:15 A.M. to 8:00 P.M.
Saturday 9:30 A.M. to 6:00 P.M and Sunday 8:15 A.M. to 2:45 P.M.
A word of caution: Cordoba’s layout is quite confusing, so it’s easy to get lost/turned around. Google Maps can help with this. That said, it is definitely a fabulous city to explore and immerse yourself in. Even though I was a solo traveler, I made the most of my overnight stay and barely having 24 hours there.
WHERE TO GO IN SPAIN: GRANADA
Where to Stay: the Aurea Catedral.
It’s in a perfect location in Granada’s old quarter, close to the Catedral de Granada and near a ton of restaurants and shops. It has 94 rooms spanning 7 buildings. As an added touch, verses from the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca adorn the hallways and rooms.
Don’t Miss: the Alhambra.
If you travel to Granada, chances are that this Muslim medieval city is on your must see list. The Alhambra was once the royal residence and court of Granada in the mid-13th century. This now tourist site became a the fortress divided into distinct areas: the military zone or Alcazaba, barracks of the royal guard, and the medina (palatine city), including the Nasrid Palaces. This complex also has orchards and gardens, referred to as the Generalife.
Even on a rainy day, the sprawling property was enchanting. I was more than happy to traipse through the gardens because it felt so special to be walking there.
Here’s the key piece of information about the Alhambra: you MUST have pre-reserved tickets. Options include day tour, garden tour, and night tour. Use this link to purchase tickets. Guided and private tours are also available. Tickets are non-transferable, and once you have confirmed your purchase, it is not possible to change the time or date of the visit.
This is one attraction where I would recommend a guided tour so you can get the most out of this complex. Audio guides are also available for rental. I would highly recommend the “Gardens, Generalife and Alcazaba” ticket as well as touring the Nasrid Palaces. Access to the Nasrid Palaces is a specific time due to the capacity allowed (300 people every half hour). So if you are not in the entrance of the Nasrid Palaces at the time of your ticket, you will not be allowed to visit them.
One final important point: you MUST show your passport to be granted access to the Alhambra.
WHERE TO GO IN SPAIN: BARCELONA
So Barcelona was WAY bigger than I anticipated, which just meant we would have our hands full in deciding what to do in this bustling metropolis. Fortunately, I had honed in on where I wanted to stay in advance. Is it wrong to choose a hotel because it’s close to Las Ramblas AND has a rooftop pool? Well then, if that’s wrong, then I don’t want to be right!
Where to Stay: Hotel 1898
This hotel is all about location, location, location. It’s right on Las Ramblas, and you really feel like you are in the heart of the city. We were literally a few blocks from La Boqueria market and the Gothic Quarter. Plus, did I mention the panoramic views from the rooftop terrace that also has a fabulous pool and bar? Yes, this picture speaks MORE than a thousand words…
What to Do in Barcelona:
I wanted to maximize our time in Barcelona and take advantage of touring companies so we could hit the highlights and feel like we really experienced it through the lens of locals. So a Tours by Locals sightseeing tour was a no brainer. Our guide Francesc helped us customize our day tour of Barcelona, and we landed on one that really celebrated the genius of Gaudi called the “Barcelona Highlights by Foot & Taxi Half Day Tour” (approximately 4 hours long). The two sites we visited were Sagrada Familia and Park Guell. Francesc also pre-purchased all our tickets so we were able to skip the lines at La Sagrada Familia, which is a major time saver!
The majority of our tour focused on La Sagrada Familia, and boy were we glad! We learned SO much about the history, architecture, and the symbolism behind this magnificent construction. And since we had a rainy day, it was quite a relief to spend a lot of time indoors taking in the beauty of this cathedral.
According to the Park Guell website, “Gaudi planned and directed the construction of the park from 1900 to 1914 for Eusebi Guell for a residential park intended for sixty single- family residences. The project, however, was unsuccessful and the park became city property in 1923.” It is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as one of the most photographed and Instagram-worthy sites in the world.
Hours: Starting September 1: 9:30 A.M. to 7:30 P.M.
From July 1 to August 31: 9:00 A.M. to 7:30 P.M.
As this is a very popular tourist destination, it is recommended that tickets be purchased in advance. Tickets are for a timed entry, and you can enter up to 30 minutes after the allocated start time. Once that 30-minute deadline has passed, you will lose your right to enter.
Here’s an important thing to keep in mind in terms of planning your visit: once you are inside the Park, you can take as long as you like, but once you have left, you cannot re-enter.
Don’t Miss: Tapas Tour with Devour Tours
Food tours are my new guilty pleasure. They are an awesome way to tap into the culinary scene of a city, and also get to know fellow travelers. Devour Tours was recommended to me by a friend, and they know what they are doing!
The final stop on our food tour was Bodega la Palma, and it was hands down our favorite for good reason. The tapas bar dates back to 1935 and featured traditional Catalan dishes. Plus, the wine was free flowing. We capped the night off with my new favorite dessert, the Creme Catalan (first cousin to crème brûlée). By the end of the food tour, we had made new friends from all over the globe and had an amazing epicurean experience.
Where to Eat in Barcelona:
My top recommendations for places to eat and drink in Barcelona are tapas-focused.
Our absolute favorite was Bodega Biarritz. Simply the most inventive and appetizing dishes we had while in Spain. It came highly recommended and was totally worth the wait. The server asked us what foods we like to eat and from there decided on the tapas for us to try. This multi-course meal is the way to go! Be mindful that this establishment does not take reservations, and it seemed to always be crowded because it is super small.
Another charmer is Bodega la Palma, which was actually our last stop on our tapas tour. The owners are wonderful humans, and their food and hospitality is a cut above.
Finally, I must share the recommendation our guide Francesc gave us on where to have the most divine hot chocolate and churros: Petritxol in the Gothic Quarter. Boy, did he come through on that tip! It’s the most chocolate-y and rich cocoa you might ever drink (so have them add the whipped cream to dial it back and make it creamier). And the churros? Chef’s kiss!
P.S. Remember the Phrase “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff”
Trains are fabulous means of transportation. But don’t freak out if something derails a particular train. In my case, that was a cancelled train trip that I heard was due to strikes. My mind immediately assumed that I wouldn’t be able to change my train ticket when I heard the dreaded word “strike.” Fortunately, I was almost t the the train station when I heard about the change to my next day plans and easily got it changed to a slightly later time, which worked in my favor because it gave me more sightseeing time in Cordoba!
My other scary moment came when I returned to Madrid for my final night. I had arranged my accommodations through Expedia, and the local apartment I had reserved had water damage and they had to move me to a different location. Well, somehow in that process, I missed seeing the information they sent me on What’s App about the building passcode. So I managed to get in but didn’t know what apartment to go to. After a few frustrating minutes where I honestly wondered if I would have to go book a hotel on my own, they finally figured out I was there and got me into my apartment. Not my finest travel moment, but I survived!
One way to not sweat the small stuff is to have ME plan and book your vacation! So if Spain or anywhere else is on your bucket list, I would love for you to message me so we can get started. Don’t let not knowing where to begin keep you from that dream vacation. Believe me, I’ve been there and have let it immobilize me from travel, and I have vowed to never do that again!
Loved learning all about your wonderful trip all over again. I definitely need to visit that beautiful country one day! ✈️
Sherry Boswell says
Yes, you do! Add it to the list 😉
Janice Pack says
Just fabulous Sherry!How iLOVEBarcelona! We stayed at the Fabulous MajesticHotel and adored everything Gaudi! Food tour sounds wonderful!!
Sherry Boswell says
I’m glad to hear you’ve been to Barcelona! It was a beautiful city and much bigger than I was expecting.