Visiting Spain and Portugal: An Itinerary for First Timers
Last updated February 2018
Planning a trip always takes the longest. Where to go, how long to stay, should I do this city or that one? I decided to do a Spain getaway at the last minute and then added on Portugal at even later minute and found it helpful to read Rick Steves, Lonely Planet, forums and blogs to ultimately decide which cities to linger in and which to skip altogether.
I’m now back from my trip to Spain and Portugal and thought I’d share a summary of my itinerary. My trip covered the two large cities of Madrid and Barcelona and explored Southern Spain in the Andalusian cities before heading west for a taste of Portugal.
First, I flew directly into Madrid, then took the high speed rail down to Andalusia to experience the warm sunny cities and Moorish influence of Cordoba, Seville and Granada, and then flew up northeast to Barcelona. After a couple days exploring (with day trips to Montserrat and Girona for a view of the Game of Thrones set) I hopped on a flight to neighboring Portugal to quickly visit Lisbon and Sintra.
Spain and Portugal Itinerary
Here’s a summary of the Spain and Portugal itinerary that I did. I would recommend 2 weeks if you want to visit both Spain and Portugal. If you have less time, say 10 days in Spain then concentrate on Madrid and Barcelona!
|Days 1 – 3||Madrid||Catalonia Plaza Mayor|
|Day 4||Cordoba||Eurostars Palace Hotel|
|Day 5-6||Seville||Hotel Alfonso XIII|
|Days 7-8||Granada||Anacapri Granada|
|Days 9-12||Barcelona||Royal Ramblas|
|Day 13-14||Lisbon||Hotel Santa Justa|
Keep reading below for a day by day city itinerary of must-see sights, things to eat and where to stay! I’ve also included day trip suggestions below.
Days 1-2: Madrid
I arrived first in Madrid, Spain’s capital city. The streets are narrow, the apartments all have beautiful shuttered balconies and the charm is everywhere. We settled in for a couple days of sightseeing, healthy doses of tapas and rioja and laid back nights that ended with churros con chocolate.
Main Attractions: Royal Palace, Museo del Prado, Retiro Park
Don’t Miss: a night hopping from bar to bar sampling tapas and pinchos.
- gambas al ajillo (shrimp in hot garlic and oil)
- jamon iberico bellota (fancy coldcuts of iberico pigs fed on acorns)
- calamares a la romana (fried squid rings)
- my special favorite, patatas bravas (fried potato wedges served with a mayo aioli)!
Where to Stay in Madrid: I recommend 2 days, 3 nights. Perhaps the best neighborhood to stay in Madrid would be the Centro district, to stay centrally located near the main sights and attractions. Other solid neighborhoods: La Latina, Chueca and Barrio de las Letras.
Overnight: Catalonia Plaza Mayor – Centrally located and affordable, Catalonia Plaza Mayor is located in the heart of old Madrid.Compare current room rates on: Booking.com | Hotels.com | Expedia | Priceline Read reviews: TripAdvisor reviews
Note: When searching for hotels, I like to compare across all the hotel aggregation sites as they seem to bid competitively to offer the cheapest rate. I’ve found that these hotel OTA sites can often have better pricing than the direct hotel site.
Madrid Day Trips
We stayed in Madrid an extra couple nights in order to do some day trips to some notable cities in Castille La Mancha. I couldn’t decide on one, so we visited a couple (images below from left to right). Here are the best day trips from Madrid that I’d recommend!
- Segovia | an ancient town notable for still standing Roman aqueduct ruins
- Toledo | a medieval city
- El Escorial | a monastery and entombment for ancient Spanish kings
Day 4: Cordoba
Having thoroughly explored Spain’s capital, we headed south for a loop through Andalusia. I was most excited to see Cordoba, as we were in town for the local patio festival when the locals proudly come out to show off their flower bedecked courtyards to visitors.
Cordoba was once a regional capital for the Roman and Moorish empires and bears characteristics of each. It’s a small, easily walk able town and were it not for the festival, I think a day is more than enough to see the main sights.
Main Attractions: Mezquita-Cathedral, Palacio de los Reyes Cristianos, Roman Bridge
Don’t Miss: a visit in Spring, when this beautiful town comes alive with flowers. The Patio Festival is an opportunity for proud locals to exhibit their version of ‘Best Lawn’ and visitors can see traditional Moorish style patios decorated with a profusion of beautiful pink, red and green blooms.
Stay: 1 days, 1 night – unless you’re in town for the Cordoba Patio Festival when you won’t be able to get enough with even two or three days!
Where to stay in Cordoba: Eurostars Palace Hotel – this hotel has a gorgeous inner courtyard and gives travelers a true feel for Cordoba’s patios, which are usually hidden to outsiders except during the festival.
Days 5-6: Seville
From Cordoba, we hopped back on the high speed train for Seville. Flamboyent Seville is home to the fiery flamenco, stadium roaring bull fights and the most delicious tapas bars of my entire trip! We did a bit more sightseeing, although by this point I was thoroughly wow’ed by the cathedrals and had pretty much reached my limit.
Main Attractions: Cathedral, Alcázar, Barrio Santa Cruz
Don’t Miss: the gardens in the Alcázar are breathtaking…and one you might recognize as Dorne from Game of Thrones!
Stay: 2 days, 2 nights to eat all the affordable and tasty tapas you can find.
Where to stay in Seville: Hotel Alfonso XIII – indulge in this luxurious property featuring gorgeous Moorish architecture and every comfort imaginable. Hotel Alfonso is located in a prime spot next to Seville’s Real Alcazares.
Days 7-8: Granada
After thoroughly exploring Seville, we hopped on a (10 euro!) bus to explore Granada, once the Moorish stronghold of the west. Today the city retains much of its North African flavor and is an absolute must see on any southern trip through Spain.
The main attraction in Granada is the breathtaking Alhambra, an old fortress and palace with extensive gardens. Tickets sell out quite fast so you’ll need to book this in advance. You can read about everything you need to know regarding Alhambra tickets in this post here or skip the mess entirely and take a guided tour that bypasses the queue altogether here.
I ended up extending our Granada stay for an extra half day so that I could grab the only ticket option remaining during my trip.
Main Attractions: the Alhambra!
There are a number of different pools at different temperatures as well as some fun massage options. I loved how relaxing this experience was! Budget around 3 hours to fully enjoy the experience.
Stay: 2 days, 2 nights in order to fully explore, with a full 1/2 day devoted to the Alhambra.
Where to stay in Granada: Anacapri Granada – affordable, clean and walking distance from the Alhambra. The Anacapri Granada is located in the heart of Old Town and also conveniently near the local bus stop, should you wish to explore Granada’s farther sights.
Days 9-12: Barcelona
Barcelona was by far one of the highlights of my trip – I enjoyed it a lot more than Madrid! The city is cosmopolitan, proudly Catalan and lively with some of the most impressive and unique sights in Spain.
After almost two weeks of sightseeing, lots of churches and an abundance of small town charm, the genius works of architect Antoni Gaudí were so distinctive and colossal that I couldn’t help but be awed.
Main Attractions: La Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló, Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera), Park Güell
Don’t Miss: a full day dedicated to Gaudi’s works: the modernist mansion Casa Batlló and the still under construction Sagrada Familia church.
Die hard soccer / football fans will want to see FC Barcelona’s stadium and perhaps grab a match or two.
Stay: 3 days, 3 nights minimum! There is so much to see in Barcelona and the city makes a great base for nearby day trips in Catalonia.
Where to stay in Barcelona: Royal Ramblas hotel to stay right on the main shopping and pedestrian road, Las Ramblas.
Barcelona Day Trips
Near Barcelona are a couple cities worth visiting. Montserrat is a religious pilgrimage site for many Catalans and a breathtaking change of scenery for tourists – the monastery is actually high up in the mountains!
Also within an easy day trip from the city are Girona, a walkable old city famous for its historic Jewish quarter of narrow cobblestone streets, and Figueres, where Salvador Dali built his museum and personal shrine.
Trains connect all three towns within easy access of Barcelona Sants rail station. We decided to do the first two and left Figueres for another trip simply because the train schedules weren’t as convenient.
- Montserrat | a dramatic mountaintop monastery where the Black Madonna was discovered
- Girona | a quaint medieval town very similar to Dubrovnik and currently the set of King’s Landing for the Game of Thrones series
Days 13-14: Lisbon
Portugal’s capital Lisbon feels a lot like San Francisco. Both have rolling hills, quaint trolleys and well worn cobblestone streets. Lisbon has some amazing seafood spots and charm, but also a sad air of neglect to the magnificent tiled apartment buildings.
I first visited Lisbon on a fun long weekend trip in college, where we spent the days sipping on Sangria and the nights partying in Chiado and Bairro Alto.. with nightly stops at McDonalds in Rossio Square for CBO sandwiches and McFlurrys.
This time, I focused a bit more on sightseeing and managed to fit in a wonderful day trip to nearby Sintra.
Main Attractions: São Jorge Castle, Alfama walk (medieval district) and Baixa walk (downtown with major squares)
Don’t Miss: dinner at Cervejaria Ramiro, a local favorite of Anthony Bourdain that completely lived up to my seafood heavy anticipation. Get the garlic shrimp in olive oil and large grilled prawns and wash it all down with beer and buttery garlic bread.
Stay: 2 days, 2 nights plus an extra day to check out the wacky, beautiful mansions at nearby Sintra!
Where to stay in Lisbon: Hotel Santa Justa is an affordable luxury hotel with an amazing location right by the famous lift.
A couple friends recommended Sintra as a must do while in Lisbon. After a major earthquake and tsunami hit Lisbon in 1755, Portuguese royalty permanently left the city in favor of this mountain retreat.
On a day trip, you can explore the national palace, Pena palace and a number of extravagant private mansions. It’s a unique town and ended up being my favorite day trip of the entire trip!
Main Attractions: National Palace, Quinta da Regaleira, Palace of Queluz, Arab Walls
Don’t Miss: the Pena Palace, which inspired Walt Disney’s vision of Cinderella Castle!
Stay: 1 days, 1 night to see the highlights, a 2nd day if you want to see the exotic mansions like Montserrate Mansion that are farther from the town square.
And there you go! My trip report after visiting Spain and Portugal for the first time. I hope my 2 week itinerary was helpful! If you have less time, say 10 days or 1 week, I would cut out Southern Spain. You could save Andalusia for a separate trip entirely as there’s lots to see!
Are you planning a trip to Spain, Portugal or both? Let me know any questions in the comments below!
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