September 5, 2012 3:47 PM   Subscribe

Please help us with travel planning and logistics for Spain!

My SO and I have a flight to Marseilles for two weeks mid-October. Since we already visited France earlier this year, we plan to spend these two weeks in Spain.  Initially, we thought it might be nice to do some kind of road trip.

So far, we've agreed upon Barcelona for part of the trip. The rest... well, there are so many places within Spain that sound interesting. Some places that have piqued our interest, such as Valencia, Granada, Seville, Cordoba, etc. We're also considering tacking on Madrid, but I'm happy enough with only doing Barcelona between the two. We think that it would probably be best to narrow our itinerary down to Barcelona plus two or three small villages. We're having a hell of a time deciding which towns to visit. We're both in our early thirties, and our priority is to see places that are lively (without being too party-ish or university-townish), full of culture, history, music, interesting architecture and excellent food. We're not into see-and-be-seen types of places, and we're not beach people (although I understand that it would be too cool to go to the beach, anyway). Actually, let me clarify: we aren't the type of people who like to lie on the beach... but we do appreciate beautiful, quiet beaches for walking and photography.

So... which places and what kind of itinerary would work best for us? We'd like to drive part of the way, so we'd love suggestions for scenic drives. Or, alternately, if it really doesn't make sense to drive at all, let us know! We're open to fast trains, scenic trains, buses, driving, flying and overnight travel (yay for saving money on accommodations for the night!). Also, the names of companies or websites where we can find more information, and eventually book!

From preliminary research, I think we'll probably take the train from Marseille to Barcelona, where we'd likely stay for 3-4 days. The rest is still a huge question mark. Maybe we could work our way down southwards, and then catch a flight back to Marseille at the end of our trip? Or loop up to Madrid and head back to Marseille from there?  

Basically, we're just trying to get a sense of how we can properly use these two weeks!

Also: is it wisest to book everything in advance, or is it relatively easy to find last minute lodging or bus/train/plane tickets should we decide we love one place so much that we'd like to extend our stay?

General advice also welcome! Planning is fun, but also a little anxiety inducing, especially from across the ocean. :P

Very excited!
posted by ohmy to Travel & Transportation around Spain (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I spent 3 months recently in Madrid and traveling around every few weeks. I didn't care for Madrid too much. Barcelona was much more interesting. My brother and I spent 4 nights there and thought it was too long. We wished we spent more time in San Sebastian which is one of the coolest places I've ever been. The food is AMAZING, the city and country are really pretty. I can't recommend it enough. The food is AMAZING! Pintxos mmmmmm. It does have a nice beach too.

I did Seville, very cool place, tons of tourists. It may be incredibly hot now.

Barcelona is heavy on the tourists as well.

Lisbon, Portugal was very nice. I'd highly recommend it if it makes sense as well.

There's too many places to go in Spain. I'm disappointed I didn't see them all.

Trains can be expensive, especially the high speed ones. Buses over night were great for saving on lodging. We did an inexpensive flight back from Barcelona to Madrid. $80 or something however they had additional charges for luggage, personal items, and a few other things we thought sucked. It ended up to be $120 by the time we were checked in.

I did the hostel thing and generally tried to book four or five days in advance. makes it really easy if this is the route you choose. It can be pretty flexible.

Don't sweat the planning. You seen to be pretty open and relaxed about it actually. Lots of people wing it visiting Europe and lots of people have very structured itineraries. I'm sure you'll enjoy yourselves.
posted by Che boludo! at 5:00 PM on September 5, 2012

I suggest that you spend some time in the villages along the Costa Brava (north of Barcelona). A visit to Girona would also be worth an afternoon ... you could dine at the ultra-fancy El Celler de Can Roca or grab an ice cream at Jordi Roca's gelateria, Rocambolesc.

There are many great things to see in Barcelona ... the Olympic Village, the Joan Miro Museum, Parc Guell, and, of course, La Sagrada Familia.

But ... and I realize that I'm probably in the minority ... I would take Madrid over Barcelona any day of the week. To me, Madrid is much more refined and beautiful -- great restaurants, great people, incredible museums, gorgeous parks and fountains, and classic architecture.
posted by tmharris65 at 5:22 PM on September 5, 2012

Barcelona is like Disney world, I personally hated it. Madrid is a living breathing city, with some of the world's most important museums. The Basque country, though, is unmissable, especially for the food. . .
posted by TheTingTangTong at 6:11 PM on September 5, 2012

I hear ya on the anxiety thing. In late May/early June 2011, I did a two-week honeymoon through Spain hitting pretty much every city you mentioned. We did it as a road trip, flying into Madrid, renting a car there, and then making a big loop through the east and south of the country. We spent the night of our arrival in Alcala de Henares, a town a few miles east of Madrid, then Barcelona for three nights, Valencia for one, Granada for two, Jerez de la Frontera for one, Seville for two, Cordoba for one, and then back to Madrid for two nights. Basically, we hit the big huge tourist spots in every place we went, but didn't have time to do much else. If you want to have a more relaxing vacation, I would recommend that you pare down the itinerary a bit. There were a couple days with long drives, but nothing too out of the ordinary for people from the western US, and even on long drive days we had time after we got into town to do some stuff. I don't regret the trip at all, and I'm glad we squeezed as much as we did into it because I don't know if we'd ever get back to hit things that we missed. We didn't hit a beach our whole trip other than to just say we dipped our feet in the Mediterranean. It also would have been nice to slow down a bit just to experiment with the local food a bit - I felt like we mostly ate as a functional thing on our trip instead of as an experience. Part of that is because my wife is vegetarian, which is really difficult to do in Spain outside of major cities (Middle Eastern and Indian restaurants ended up being our salvation there).

We were going more towards the start of the high tourist season, so I didn't really feel comfortable winging it on finding accommodations, especially so since our time in every city would be limited and I didn't want to spend a couple hours every day trying to find a hotel. It might be different in October. We booked all our hotels through, and everything went off without a hitch. Hotels were surprisingly affordable - we stayed at a four-star hotel pretty much every night, and the only places where the prices were much more than $100/night were Madrid and Barcelona, and even in those places it was only $150 or so. Our hotel in Jerez was a screaming deal at $65. If I had it to do again, I might try and do a pensione here and there, but we were going to all big cities, and like I said, I didn't want to have to find a place to park and then hunt down a place to stay. I think that might be a better strategy if we were just hopping around small villages in Andalucia or something. One thing that you should definitely book ahead: if you do decide to go to Granada, you will definitely want to visit the Alhambra, which means that you should get your tickets for it ASAP through Servicaixa. It seems a little scary, but it's a piece of cake. I booked ahead of time, went to the automated ticket dispensers at the gate, stuck in the card I used to purchase the tickets, and we were good to go. Somewhere on TripAdvisor there's a write-up on the process that's very accurate.

On driving: Since we were taking a whirlwind tour, we mostly stuck to the major freeways, or autovias, usually designated by a number starting with an A and blue road signs. Some of those are also toll roads, and we took those a lot. The toll roads are set up in a way fairly similar to the New Jersey Turnpike, where there are rest areas every few miles with a hotel, shop, a couple gas stations, and restaurant or cafeteria. Generally, the freeway system in Spain is ridiculously awesome. Directional signs were completely clear about where you're going, the roads were well maintained and we moved along at a pretty good clip. We also got off on some minor roads in Andalucia, and found those to be pretty much the same. The big exception to that is when you enter cities. Usually, if you're following a smaller highway through a town (similar to a US route or state routes in rural areas and small towns), the route is well marked through town, but trying to find our way to various streets and around towns looking for our hotels was a nightmare. If I hadn't mapped out the routes on Google Maps before our trip and gone over them quite a bit so that I could just about follow my nose, we would have been hopelessly lost in some places. Streets in towns are not very well marked, usually indicated by a sign on the side of a building or something, and it's hard to tell what street you're at until you're halfway through the intersection. Also, from looking at the maps on the computer ahead of time when I was looking for hotels, I realized that trying to drive through the central, older parts of most towns would have driven me nuts, so we mostly booked hotels just on the outside of the old quarters that were accessible by more major roads. The only exception to that was Barcelona, which is a pretty big city and had some phenomenal urban planning around the turn of the last century. It's still hard to tell what street you're at, but since there's an awesome metro system, you don't have to be so worried about proximity to the old quarter to see touristy stuff. It also helped that our hotel in Barcelona was right above a metro/train station. Anyway, Spanish cities are mostly pretty dense, so walkability generally isn't a problem. The central parts of many cities have significant pedestrian-only portions, so it's not a big deal anyway. We usually just drove into town, parked our car at the hotel (this generally cost 15-20 euros a night, and some of the hotel parking garages are insanely difficult), left the car there and walked around. Interestingly, most of our hotels ended up being very close to the main trains stations for the cities we stayed in, so we could have pretty easily done the same trip by train.

As I said previously, I don't regret the trip we did, but I could have easily just spent the whole two weeks wandering around Madrid and Barcelona. As it was, we only had two full days in Barca and one in Madrid, and we didn't get to do much other than the big tourist stuff. I also could have spent a full two weeks just in Andalucia, popping around from one Puebla Blanca to another with some time in Sevilla and Granada. Some of our favorite times were the couple hours we took to walk around Arcos de la Frontera and stopping for lunch in Tarifa. Those also happen to be the two times we got off the main road, so... When we were going from Arcos to Seville, the sunflower fields were all in bloom and it was a heavenly drive, as was heading around the southern coast into and out of Tarifa. There's also one section in the south where they're still building the A7, and that section hugs a cliffy coastline along the Mediterranean - a lot of the roads we took in Spain were very reminiscent of driving through southern California, and that section was like a little slice of Highway 1, just with an occasional castle ruin.

That's a lot of info, but if you'd like anything more specific about what sights we saw, hotels, or why we went where we did, let me know and I'll respond in this thread. Since you're not going in the high season, you'll probably be OK not rigidly scheduling everything ahead of time, but if you feel more comfortable having everything arranged it's probably better for your mental health to do that.
posted by LionIndex at 8:35 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

My wife and I were in Spain in late June, for a week and change. It was amazing, but one thing we learned (which is pretty obvious in hindsight) is that you can't do Spain in 8 days. It's an amazing country with tons to see, and no matter where you go and what you do, you'll be making sacrifices by not going and not doing other things. Sigh.

That said, we had a pretty kickass trip. We didn't drive, but aside from that here's roughly what we did and my thoughts on it, which may be useful to you:

Barcelona: we started here, having flown in from Paris. Barcelona has a distinct vibe to it, but you may or may not be into it; we enjoyed it but didn't love the city the way some do. That said, there's a ton of stuff worth seeing here - La Sagrada Familia above all, Parc Guell, the Picasso museum, etc. Hang out on Las Ramblas; at night there's definite nightlife and atmosphere here (although keep an eye on your wallet). Head down to the beach for a few hours - it's a fun place to walk around and people watch even if you're not a beach person. All told, we were in Barcelona for 3 full days and found that plenty of time to see what we wanted. tmharris65's idea of a side trip to Girona is also not a bad one; that's a cool little town (never did the tourist thing there, but I did have a conference there and it's beautiful).

After Barcelona, we took the Trenhotel to Granada, which I really enjoyed. Partially, I just really love trains, but the timing between Barcelona and Granada is also great - you get onboard at 9:30 PM and wake up in Granada around 8 AM. I'd recommend it, with the caveat that buying tickets from RENFE is kinda weird. Right when tickets for a given train become available, there will be some cheap ones, but if you don't jump on those fast you'll end up paying more for the same ticket. We got ours for 65 euros apiece, which seems pretty decent for transportation plus lodging. (Plus, trains!)

Granada: aaah, Granada. Bar none my favorite place in Spain. You must, must check out the Alhambra, which is one of the coolest and most beautiful places I have ever been. Buy tickets for this well in advance or you'll probably miss out (at least in the daytime). Plenty of other fascinating historical stuff too (you can say hey to Ferdinand and Isabella in the Royal Chapel), but aside from that, Granada is just oozing with atmosphere. Eat tapas, drink sangria, watch Flamenco, hang out in a bar in a cave. Actually there's lots of stuff in caves; the area has a bunch of natural caves (the Roma are/were famous for living in them) and you can even stay in one like we did... and it was awesome. (No, it's not gross like you're thinking. It's clean, has a tile floor, and even wireless. A cave with wifi!)

Definitely go to Granada. Have a glass of wine and watch the sun set over the Alhambra.

Next: Sevilla. We took a bus; you'd probably want to drive. Sevilla is a lovely place, and with some damn fine flamenco. (Can't remember offhand where it was, but it's in Rick Steves' Spain book. As an aside, I know it's touristy and tacky, but my main tip for Spain would be to get Rick Steves' book. It would be worth every penny we paid, except we got ours from the library, which worked out quite well despite the fact that it was a few years out of date, and all the prices had quadrupled. Probably due to the Spanish economy, which (you may have heard) is not the strongest right now. In 2008 (according to our out of date guidebook) the Spanish economy was doing great and the worst was behind them. I suppose even Rick can't see the future. Where were we? Yes. Sevilla.) We did a walking tour of Sevilla that was fascinating, but honestly, most of what we did in Sevilla was walk around and drink up the atmosphere... and a whole lot of sangria.

That was all the time we had. If I'd had another week, I would have added a day in Cordoba, and maybe 4 or so days in Madrid. (Actually, we were in Spain during the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and I abso-friggin-lutely would have done it except that Mrs. Awesome seemed less than thrilled with the idea. What? Not that many people get gored or trampled, and most of them don't die.)

Booking in advance: some things (notably the Alhambra) you just have to. For the rest of it, it depends how comfortable you are flying by the seat of your pants, and whether you're willing to pay more (doing stuff last minute often costs more, as with the RENFE tickets). This does mean you have to plan your itinerary in advance and it's hard to change it. But it's a tradeoff I'm willing to make, especially because I hate getting into a new city at night and having no place to stay. I've done it a few times, but now (I'm also in my early thirties) I much prefer knowing there's a place to sleep. Not necessarily nice places though; we booked the cheapest hostels/hotels we could find, because we didn't plan to spend much awake time in them.

Anyway, I'm so jealous! Spain is my favorite country in Europe and initially, I didn't even want to go there. Eat tapas (order random stuff off the menu even if you don't know what it is) and drink sangria and enjoy every moment of it! (And buy the Rick Steves took. You don't have to let anyone see you reading it.) I'm a bit of an obsessive planner so I've spent a ridiculous amount of time planning stuff, so if you have any questions, feel free to memail me. Have a great time!
posted by captainawesome at 10:14 PM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

I spent a semester in Sevilla so I would definitely try to get there for a few days. On one of our long weekends we took the sleeper car to Barcelona. It was a great trip! I wish I had spent more time there. There is so much to see if you are into Gaudi. Also the Museu de l'Eròtica was fun.

I second Granada and the Alhambra. Beautiful architecture and history.

Personally I thought Madrid was pretty boring but I liked the Thyssen And Reina Sofia Museums.

Eat lots of tapas, drink sangria, and go to a flamenco show. I think my parents went to this one when they visited me in Sevilla.
posted by amapolaroja at 12:19 AM on September 6, 2012

I'm Mrs. CaptainAwesome, and before our trip I asked a similar question:

The answers were great and definitely helped us in our planning.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by McPuppington the Third at 2:02 PM on September 6, 2012

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