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Spain is bursting with wondrous architecture, delectable food and lively cultural activities. The best way to experience as much of it as possible is on a road trip. Being behind the wheel of your own adventure gives you the opportunity to make spontaneous stops en route to the next town on your itinerary.
We put together the ultimate bucket list road trip for travellers eager to explore Spain. This itinerary is filled with unforgettable experiences from the country’s distinctive cultural, natural and gastronomic heritage. In as few as 11 days, you’ll be able to experience five amazing destinations. If you’re able to extend your holiday to two full weeks, you’ll have more time to slow down, take detours and add day trips.
Route: Barcelona – San Sebastian – Bilbao – Madrid – Zaragoza – Barcelona
Recommended number of days: 11-14
Days 1-3: Barcelona
The first day of any holiday is unfortunately more of a travel day than one filled with sightseeing, especially if your flight arrives in the afternoon or evening. Luckily for you, Barcelona is a lively city, especially in the evening. After picking up your rental car and checking into the hotel, there are plenty of options for a memorable first night. You can experience a flamenco show, indulge in tapas for dinner, take a nighttime Gothic Quarter tour and end the evening with drinks at Boadas Cocktails, which has the distinction of being the city’s oldest cocktail bar.
For your first full day, there’s no better way to experience Barcelona than through the eyes of internationally acclaimed architect Antoni Gaudí. Start early in the day to beat the crowds at the colorful and quirky Parc Güell and hauntingly beautiful La Sagrada Família. Those are Gaudí’s most well-known works, but many people don’t realize that the city is also home to other Gaudí-designed buildings. La Pedrera, Casa Batlló, Casa Vicens and Palau Güell are classic Gaudí structures and well worth a self-guided walking tour around the city to see them if you have time.
Just an hour outside of Barcelona are the jagged, towering mountains of Montserrat. This excellent day trip is an opportunity to see some of Spain’s most beautiful landscapes. There are many trails on Montserrat, so the one you choose is mostly dependent on your skill level and how long you’d like to hike. There are also two funiculars and a railway that will transport you to various locations on the mountain if you’re not particularly keen on hiking the ascent.
Once at the top, you’ll be rewarded with an exceptional panorama of Catalonia. There’s much to explore on Montserrat, such as caves, a monastery, a museum and the Basilica of Montserrat, which houses the shrine of the Black Madonna. A picnic lunch on the mountain’s highest peak, Sant Jeroni, makes for a nice respite with magnificent views.
Days 4-5: San Sebastián
Driving time from Barcelona to San Sebastián: Approximately 5 hours, 45 minutes
Since it’s a bit of a drive from Barcelona to San Sebastián, it’s best to leave just after breakfast so you arrive by late afternoon. Take some time to relax at your hotel before venturing into this exciting city filled with some of Basque country’s most savored culinary delights. According to Michelin, San Sebastián is “one of the world’s top 10 cities in terms of the most Michelin stars per inhabitant.”
There’s no better way to indulge in the city’s gastronomy than by creating your own evening pintxos tour. Pintxos, unique to this region of Spain, are small snacks typically eaten alongside a glass of wine, beer or a cocktail. A slice of bread traditionally serves as the base, and the toppings might include ingredients like fresh seafood, cured meats, foie gras, cheese and olives. Don’t spend your evening noshing on pintxos at just one restaurant. Try a couple variations and then move onto another location and continue this “pintxos crawl” until you’ve had your fill.
You may have already been in Parte Vieja, or San Sebastián’s old town, during your evening pintxos crawl. Now is your opportunity to experience it in the daylight. Get lost in its quaint streets, filled with boutiques, historical buildings and beloved pintxos restaurants. Stroll down La Concha Promenade for a gorgeous bay view. Don’t miss a visit to the 16th-century, Gothic-style Iglesia San Vicente and the impressive 18th-century Basilica de Santa Maria del Coro.
Not far from Parte Vieja is the striking La Catedral del Buen Pastor, inaugurated in 1897. This Neo-Gothic cathedral has lovely stained-glass windows and an ornate bell tower with a 75-metre-high spire. It’s well worth a visit before you finish sightseeing for the day.
Days 6: Bilbao
Driving time from San Sebastián to Bilbao: Approximately 1 hour, 15 minutes
Sitting on the snaking Estuary of Bilbao, the town of the same name is in the heart of Basque country in northern Spain. A visit to the Guggenheim Museum is a must when in Bilbao. It houses one of the best modern art collections in Europe and is truly an architectural masterpiece itself.
Stop at Mercado de la Ribera for lunch. It’s among the largest indoor markets on the continent and boasts absolutely drool-worthy food, from shaved charcuterie and mounds of olives to an incredibly large selection of pintxos.
After lunch, head back to the driver’s seat for a 50-minute trip to Gaztelugatxe. This picturesque coastal islet is connected to the mainland by a narrow man-made pedestrian bridge that was built in the 11th century. More than 200 stairs lead visitors to a church on the top of the islet, providing striking views of the expansive coast. Before you turn back, according to the legend, you must ring the bell at the church’s entrance three times and then make a wish.
Days 7-8: Madrid
Driving time from Bilbao to Madrid: Approximately 4 hours
Onwards to Madrid! Spain’s capital city is the cultural center of the country. Although we’ve earmarked only two days here, you could easily spend much more time in this metropolis (and you should if you have extra days to spare!).
An absolute must when in Madrid is a visit to the Golden Triangle of Art. It encompasses three of the most important museums in the country: Museo Del Prado (Prado Museum), Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (Reina Sofía National Art Centre), and Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza (Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum). Among these world-class art museums, you’ll find impressive collections of modern and contemporary art and masterpieces from titans of the art world, like El Greco, Rembrandt, Raphael, Dalí, Van Gogh, Picasso and many, many others. More than likely, you’ll need two days (or more!) to properly visit all three.
In Spain, football is life. One of the most worthwhile experiences, if you’re able to time it right, is to cheer on Real Madrid at home. The crowd’s electrifying energy will quickly draw you in and turn you into a local footy fan. You’re sure to leave the stadium with an experience worth telling friends about back home.
If you have more time to spend in Madrid, here are a few additional activities and destinations that are worth visiting: tour the grandiose Royal Palace; sit back and people watch at Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol; and stroll down Gran Vía, a major street lined with shops, restaurants, theaters and nightclubs.
Days 9-10: Zaragoza
Driving time from Madrid to Zaragoza: Approximately 3 hours, 30 minutes
The last stop on your bucket list road trip through Spain is Zaragoza, the capital of the Aragon region. It’s the perfect destination to break up what would otherwise be a long drive from Madrid back to Barcelona. You’ll spend one day exploring the town and another sipping your way through a nearby wine region.
Marvel at the brilliant architecture around Zaragoza. Palacio de la Aljafería, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built by the Moors in the 11th century. New touches were added to the medieval palace in later years, such as Christian influences, as control of the structure changed hands.
Take a stroll through Zaragoza’s Mercado Central (except on Sundays and holidays, when it’s closed). In this charming produce market, you’ll find a variety of fruit and vegetables, olives, nuts and dried fruit, and pastries you can eat on the go.
Close by on the Ebro River, you’ll find Nuestra Señora del Pilar, an iconic Roman Catholic church with a magnificent dome and soaring spires. It’s a stunning example of Baroque architecture, built between the 17th and 18th centuries.
A fun, quirky museum worth visiting is the Escuela Museo Origami Zaragoza. The impressive works of world-renowned origami artists are on display here, and there are also classes and workshops available if you’re interested in hands-on learning.
Join a wine-tasting tour to explore the vineyards in the Rioja region (and let someone else do the driving!). You’ll discover local varietals, learn about how the wines are made and enjoy tasting pours along the way. If you fancy any in particular, you can buy a bottle (or two) to fly home with.
Day 11: Drive Back to Barcelona
Driving time from Zaragoza to Barcelona: Approximately 3 hours, 15 minutes
The final day of any trip is typically a stressful one, but it doesn’t need to be if you plan it right. On this last day, you can wake up in Zaragoza and have a leisurely breakfast before making the few-hour drive to the airport in Barcelona. Stop for lunch before you drop off your rental car or have a bite to eat inside the airport. You’ll still have plenty of time to relax and reflect on the incredible experiences you had around Spain before an evening flight home.
If you’re able to extend your stay, spend one more day in Barcelona. You can stroll down Las Ramblas, explore the Gothic Quarter, soak up sun on the beachfront, see ancient ruins in the City History Museum and attend a performance at Palau de la Música Catalana.