Spain: 6-Week Road Trip
I found a cheap, direct flight to Barcelona for late October to early December on Norwegian Air. I reached out to friends and to folks in various Facebook groups for recommendations. I also got a few guidebooks from the library in both hardcopy and via the Overdrive app, so I could download to my phone +/or Kindle. I decided on a Spain road trip, and get a nice overview of el país.
I had always wanted to visit Spain since I was at university, and friends who had studied abroad in Madrid told me about churros + chocolate. After I found how easy it was traveling in Perú, since I speak Spanish, I thought Spain would be an easy place to get around. And, it was sort of. It turns out that my accent and language skills are imperfect in Spain since I speak Mexican’ish Spanish. Oh, well.
By the time I left home, I had reserved a week of Airbnb’s in Barcelona and Girona. I’d found out through the Rick Steve’s website that Girona was having a festival with castle-ers: people who stand on each other’s shoulders to build human towers up to 8 level high.
The remainder of the trip was planned every few days for the next few days. I only had to be in Granada by the end of the 4th week.
Well, that was short and sweet!
What Actually Happened
A lot happened — so many villages, towns, cold hotels, museums, tours, hikes, photos, and a few drone flights.
Renting a Car for the Spain Road Trip
The first month was a self-drive road trip. Officially, you should have an international drivers permit (IDP) if you are American. Since I did not realize this until it was too late, I learned that Sixt rental car agency does not request a copy of the IDP in order to rent the car. Phew!
The last two weeks of my trip was by public transportation. The bus is cheaper than the train but also takes longer. I had the time, so used the bus, which is clean and runs perfectly on time. You can buy your tickets online (service fee charged for the convenience) or at the bus station.
Where I Went
After Girona (an hour north of Barcelona), I continued north until San Sebastian. After eating my way through pinxos, I then went west through the Pyrenees and Picos de Europa mountain ranges, all the way to Bilbao. I visited the Guggenheim and then went south along La ruta de plata, recommended by a lovely Couchsurfing host. After all this driving, and to this point traveling with a travel partner (a great person, but not my preferred style), I was tired. Did I mention that in addition to exploring all day, I also was working? I can work from anywhere the wifi (pronounced wee-fee in Spanish), so early each morning or late each night, I worked.
Wee-fee Spain is ok for wi-fi, but not great. I highly suggest that you confirm with any Airbnb or hotel that (1) it is in fact functioning, and; (2) the log-on information is available.
I settled into Granada for a week, finding a favorite cafe and also a favorite tapas bar, where I went each evening for 2 drinks and 3 tapas. (I’m a lightweight, so if you’re like me: be aware that 2 drinks are too many!)
I also wanted to visit Córdoba, so then I stayed there for a week. I learned all the curvy, winding streets near my accommodation + found there was plenty to keep me busy each day.
I stopped in Madrid for two nights on my way back to Barcelona, where I spent one last night before flying home. Easy peasy!
Getting Off the Beaten Path
I definitely did many touristy things, like visiting La Familia Sagrada cathedral in Barcelona, ate pinxos in San Sebastian, and visited La Alhambra in Granada. However, since I was in Spain during the off-season, most places had very few or no tourists. Also, once I was traveling solo, it was a lot easier for me to connect with locals, even in Córdoba. A guard at La Mezquita yelled at me one day, but a small museum allowed me in for free one day. At two other museums, I asked a few questions of the guards and ended up with hour-long tours of the museums. What a treat!!
I found that Google Maps app works best for finding restaurants while on the go.
Best Spain Tours
I’m not much of a tour person since I am scared of being stuck for days on end with annoying people. So, I love tours that last just a few hours. Here are the best, any of which I would do again in a second! I paid full price for these and did not find any discounts for them.
If you do not want to pay for a tour, the museums in Spain, even the small ones, are generally extraordinarily well done. The signage is usually good. The audio tours are generally great (but not at Seville Cathedral). And, there are often iPads in the very small museums with interactive applications.
Barcelona Fish Market
There’s a woman who gives a great 2-hour Fishermans tour on Airbnb Experiences where you learn all about the ecology, market, fishing regulations. She gave me great restaurant recommendations for seafood. (If you haven’t registered on Airbnb before, click here for a $40 credit).
Sant Ferran Castle, Figueres
Two hours north of Barcelona, this castle tour takes you to the defensive tunnels in an open-top jeep and finishes with a boat ride in the massive underground water cistern. Reserve your tour in your preferred language in advance by phone.
The famous Salvador Dalí Museum is also in Figueres. Purchase your ticket online or at the ticket office in the morning, to avoid the ticket line later in the day.
Suggested full-day Figueres itinerary: Spend 2 nights here at a place within your budget (plenty to choose from!). On the full day take the castle tour in the morning, and then spend another hour wandering the parts of the castle not included in the tour. Enjoy a nice lunch at the cafe in the castle, or a picnic in the nearby park. Spend the afternoon at the Dalí museum, which is a 15-minute walk from the castle. For dinner, prepare for a James Bond retro look and an amazing cheese plate or dessert cart at Hotel Empordà.
Seville Cathedral – Tour of the Roofs
Our guide, Pedro, led us to parts of the cathedral only accessible on this tour. Starting on the ground floor, the tour proceeds through a locked gate and up a narrow spiral staircase to the rooftops. The tour re-enters the cathedral near the rooftop, where you can view the stained glass windows up close.
Pedro told us we could have the tour as long as we wanted, although it’s supposed to be 90 minutes. So, bring a snack and a drink for a rooftop picnic and don’t be in a rush. The tour doesn’t include the rest of the cathedral, so ensure you have plenty of time (1-2 hours) to walk around and go up the bell tower, which is the last remaining portion of the Muslim mosque that stood here.
Near the historic town Santillana del Mar in Cantabria (northern Spain): This cave is a complete replica of the original, including all the paleolithic cave paintings. As a spelunker, I was prepared to view a mediocre copy. In fact, it felt like I was in the original since the replica has been painstakingly reproduced down to the bumps and rock outcroppings. The paintings themselves are replicated using the same methods used for the originals. Now, you can only enter the original cave if you are a lucky winner of a weekly lottery, for which you must be present both to enter and to win. Here’s the UNESCO video of the cave, which is way more impressive in person!
If you’re like me and have an attention span limited to about 5 hours of museum time per day, I suggest a 2-day itinerary for your visit, by splitting up the free areas and the paid areas, so you pay for only 1 day. My suggested 2-day La Alhambra itinerary includes a bonus 3rd day for other nice places in Granada.
Buy your tickets up to 3 months in advance from the Official Alhambra website. During high season, tickets sell out early, so plan ahead. However, in November, tickets can be purchased online up to 1 day before or in-person on the day of your visit, although the line is sometimes long.
Definitely purchase the audio tour, which comes with an iPod-type device for video, audio, and pictures. The signage is minimal, so you will enjoy the place a lot more if you have the audio tour to understand what you are seeing.
Food, Food, Food!!!
Granada is known for giving a free tapa with every drink purchased. However, the free tapas aren’t very big, and if you’re a lightweight like me, you’ll need more food. These places are my favorites that I found during my week in Granada.
Plan on standing at the bar! The decor is great and from here you’ll have a view of the many wine barrels behind the bar.
I loved this place so much, I went three nights in a row. If you’d like to sample the wines, just tell the bartender you want to try something. Be prepared to advise him (there are no ‘her’s working there) whether you prefer blanco or tinto and sweet (dulce) or not.
Each night I bought 2 drinks which came with 2 free tapas and bought 2 more tapas. My total was about 12 euros, and I was stuffed and tipsy for the walk home.
Tip for my fellow lightweights: stop by a candy store and get 1 euro of gummy candy. Eat two on the walk home, so you don’t weave as much while walking. There are lots of pedestrians at night, so I never felt unsafe walking alone.
Ras Cafe Bar
The best torta de patata I ate in Spain! So good, I went a few times! Stop by in the morning and ask them for it as a sandwich to go for 3 euros, and pack it for your lunch at La Alhambra.
Free day is Sunday!
A number of small museums are FREE on Sundays, including Los Baños. La Alhambra is never free, so hurry up and buy your ticket!
Carmen de los Martires: Near La Alhambra is a beautiful old house and vast gardens. Walk uphill for views of La Alhambra. There are almost no tourists here, and just a few locals. It’s calm and peaceful– the perfect place for a picnic lunch or to enjoy reading a book on one of the many benches. If it’s a warm day, there are fountains and waterways keeping the air refreshing. FREE every day.
There are other Carmen gardens around the city, including one in the Albayzin, and they’re all free. Use Google Maps to find them.
I spent a week in Córdoba since it has plenty to see and do in the city and nearby. This was the perfect amount of time, as I visited all the sites and found some of the less-visited sites.
This is what the city is known for, so you must go. It is FREE every day from 8:30 – 9:30 am. I’ve written a post on this, so you know all the other details. Check it out here.
Comida de Cordoba — Lots of Wonderful Food!
There is a lot of food that is typical of each place in Spain, and Córdoba also has wonderful foods. When you arrive go on one of the FREE walking tours, or just browse the menus of the tapas bars and restaurants near La Mezquita.
My favorite restaurants were the Plateros and other local places. There are several a 10-15 minute walk away from the main tourist area.
Calle Realejo, 10. I ate here twice because the fixed price lunch of 9,50 euros was delicious and affordable. They also have a wonderful looking breakfast (churros!!) and dinners, which I meant to try, but didn’t get to. If you try them, let me know how it is!
A churreria (churros) located between Taberna Los Palcos (Calle Cardenal Gonzalez, 45) and a jewelry store on Calle Cardenal Gonzalez. It’s easy to miss since it’s just a big window in a wall. You stand outside to order and eat. This was a recommendation from my Airbnb host when I asked him for the best churros. When I visited, it was only a few months old.
Located at Calle San Francisco, 6. Local food. My Airbnb host recommended this place to me, and the food was really good!