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6-8 weeks, Spain and Portugal

I am in the beginning stages of planning a 6-8 week trip through the Iberian peninsula. This will be my first time in Spain and Portugal. I'm looking at next April and May.

I will fly in and out of Madrid (because that is the only direct flight from my home airport of Guadalajara). I'd like to rely mainly on public transportation, but I am okay with renting a car for portions of the trip, but absolutely want to avoid having a car in larger cities. I'll be traveling solo, which I do frequently. I'm happy to hire a private guide here and there or to join a group tour for a day trip.

My basic idea is to spend some time in and around Madrid at the beginning, then head south to Granada and gradually make my way toward Seville. From there I'd go toward the Algarve, then work my way north through Portugal. Then back into Spain, I'd visit Santiago de Compostela and work my way east to Bilbao and San Sebastian. Then I'd probably fly Bilbao to Barcelona, and then fly or take AVE back to Madrid for my flight home.

How doable is this by train and bus? Are there areas where you'd recommend renting a car? Any other suggestions are welcome.

As I move forward in my planning, I know I'll have other more specific questions, but for now I'm just looking for a basic sense of whether my plan is a good one. Thanks!

Posted by
3615 posts

It’s been said here many times, but is evidently worth repeating. Getting between Spain and Portugal is more difficult than you imagine. Car rental with pickup in one and drop in the other invoves a punitively high fee. Public transport options aren’t good. You need to figure that one out before settling on an itinerary.

Posted by
27360 posts

There are buses between Seville and the Algarve (Faro, I think). There is probably a rail (or rail/bus) connection between northern Portugal and Galicia. You might need to overnight somewhere along the way to Santiago de Compostela. My usual advice on that score is to try not to make Vigo that stop. It's not a bad place, but it is comparatively dull.

It's possible you won't need a car at all, though a car would give you the freedom to stop in some of the white villages between Granada and Seville.

If you want to visit Barcelona on this trip and don't want to risk connecting in Madrid on two separate tickets, you should definitely take the train from Barcelona to Madrid. A flight the day before your transatlantic departure would take longer. Really, though, it would be better to leave Madrid till the end of the trip. (I acknowledge that Madrid might be a bit warmer than Barcelona in May, based on their respective record high temperatures for the month.)

Although 6-8 weeks is a very generous amount of time, it is not going to allow a leisurely trip that includes such secondary but very interesting Spanish destinations as Cadiz, Malaga, Ubeda/Baeza, Valencia, Zaragoza and the Picos de Europa. I suspect that even some of Girona, Toledo, Segovia, Salamanca and Cuenca will not fit the time allowed. I mention this because as you do more research, you may want to consider splitting the Spanish part of the itinerary into two or even three trips.

Posted by
3258 posts

Here are a few thoughts based on a similar itinerary we did many years ago. I agree, public transportation isn't easy between Spain and Portugal - we did take a bus between Seville and Faro, Portugal and then from Faro to Lisbon. It's a bit of a long bus ride but doable. Once you're ready to leave Lisbon, perhaps pick up a rental car for your time in Portugal (we liked stays in Coimbra and Porto and there are other places on the coast that we didn't get to would be good to see by car.) Drop off the car in northern Portugal.

For southern Spain, consider Cordoba and Cadiz - not everyone loves Cadiz but we really enjoyed a 4 night stay there.

For a different trip, we picked up a rental car in Salamanca, drove through northern Portugal and Spain then, dropped the car off back in Madrid. The drop fees these days might make this a less attractive option.

Public transportation options (bus and train) are very good in Spain so don't discount that - less so in Portugal.

Just some random thoughts here...hope there might a useful tidbit.

Posted by
7006 posts

You would need a car for the whole northern region of Spain, from Vigo or Santiago to Bilbao or San Sebastián. And perhaps at some point in Portugal, if you want to venture far inland (Peneda-Geres, Schist villages, etc). The rest is doable by public transport.

Posted by
27360 posts

As of 2016 it was possible to cross northern Spain from Galicia to the Basque Country by train and bus. It was not fast or without connections, but there are lots of interesting stops kinda sorta along the way. That transportation strategy is not consistent with trying to cover such a wide swath of Spain plus Portugal in 6 to 8 weeks, though.

Posted by
7006 posts

@acraven, yes indeed, there is the narrow-gauge FEVE coastal railroad all along the north coast, but it is very slow and would probably double the time required to cover that area.
Or one can go inland via León and Burgos. That's definitely feasible by bus and/or train. I like it much less than the north coast, though.

Posted by
167 posts

Some have recommended rental cars for certain parts of your trip, and I won't deny that at times, a car could be convenient. However, the Lisbon-Coimbra-Porto route, for which someone above recommended a car, can easily be done by train. And for trains in northern Spain (and indeed the rest of Iberia and anywhere in the world) you may want to consult the excellent web-site "Man in Seat 61." I've also found that Lonely Planet guidebooks give good, detailed information about train and bus service.
Also I've found that when travelling solo, as you will, I have more flexibility in some ways when depending on public transportation. For while I always like to be fit and awake when I drive, I feel I have an enhanced obligation when in someone else's country, and the circumstances of travel do not always lend themselves to this condition. Without a car, I can have a beer or wine whenever I like, or tour Spanish tapas bars as late into the night as I want, without having to worry about being in any condition to drive. I realize, though, that not all tourists worry about this.

Posted by
1817 posts

Thank you all for you great feedback!

I will take your thoughts into consideration and work on the itinerary.

A few additional questions:

  • Which of the following could be done as a day trip from Madrid? Which are skippable? Which deserve more than a day trip?

    • Cuenca
    • Segovia
    • Ávila
    • Salamanca
    • Toledo
  • Could Girona and Besalú both be done as a day trip from Barcelona?

  • For Andalusia, does it make sense to stay some time in Granada and some time in Seville and explore the rest as day trips? Or is there another city that I should add as a base?

Thanks again!

Posted by
27360 posts

Cuenca (which has two modern-art museums as well as the historic center to explore) works as a day-trip only if you take AVE trains. The distance is so great that regional trains just aren't viable for a day trip. You'd probably need to pin down the date and times of the trains to and from Cuenca pretty early so you can snag promo-priced tickets. If you wait too late, that will turn into a very expensive day trip. Cuenca is on the Madrid-Valencia AVE line, so don't count on low demand for those trains. Also note that the AVEs use a separate station outside Cuenca that is too far from the city to walk. There is some bus service, but it may not be very frequent, especially on weekends. Definitely check on that ahead of time.

Avila is nothing but a wall as far as I'm concerned. I'd skip it. Lots of other places have walls. Your time would be better spent in dozens of other towns.

The other places you list in Madrid's orbit can work as day trips from the logistical perspective, but I spent multiple nights in each of them (that includes Cuenca) and had no trouble filling my time. However, I do a lot of walking around in historic towns. I'd say Toledo is the one with the longest list of sights.

I'd feel rushed doing Girona alone as a day trip. I think adding Besalu would really crunch Girona. Besalu is served only by bus; I think it has connections to Barcelona (not a short trip) as well as to Girona. Girona works very well as a base for seeing that city, Besalu and the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres. In fact, you can see Cadaques from Girona (train to Figueres and then bus). Edited to add: I don't mean you can go to all those places in one day.

Cordoba is worth at least two nights (1-1/2 days).

Otherwise, it depends on what places you want to see. I spent a bit over a month in Andalucia in 2019 (slowed down just a bit by Holy Week). I had no car and opted to stay in Ubeda (seeing Baeza and Jaen), Cordoba, Seville (seeing Carmona and Arcos on separate days), Cadiz (seeing Vejer de la Frontera; skipped Jerez), Ronda (sering Grazalema), Malaga and Granada (seeing Priego de Cordoba and the Alpujarras on separate days).

I found all my stops worthwhile, but getting to Ubeda, Baeza. Ronda, Arcos, Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra (where I've never managed to go) can chew up a lot of time. Those places aren't served by fast trains; in many cases there are no trains at all.

Posted by
15647 posts

To get a good idea of what the weather's like, look at this site for daily weather conditions for a city for the last few years. I just looked at May in Guadalajara and Sevilla, for 1-2 years and Sevilla (like the rest of Andalucia) is hotter, but with similar low humidity. Barcelona is probably a little less hot but a lot more humid. Madrid is similar to Sevilla. I try to avoid the heat, so I'd try to start in Andalucia and end in Galicia, Basque country. Portugal is more temperate due to the Atlantic coast and even inland.

Another big consideration is holidays and festivals in Spain. Easter Sunday is April 9. Holy Week is the biggest celebration in Andalucia. There will be huge crowds and high high season prices. It's something you either go to experience or avoid. You will have ample time to sightsee in between the processions but streets are be crowded and public transportation is often curtailed and/or rerouted. Sevilla's week-long Feria de Abril begins on April 23. Another crowded high season week in Sevilla. Jerez has its Feria del Caballo next year on May 6-13, another crowded yet excellent experience.

Madrid has a few day trips, Barcelona has many. Andalucia is spread out so there aren't many viable day trips. I'd say 2 full days (3N) in Granada is enough to see the sights. Madrid has world-class art museums. If you love European painting, you need 2 days there just for that. There are people here who will tell you there is much much more to Madrid but most of us think that while they may be right, the rest of the country has lots more to offer. With a car you could base in Jerez and/or Ronda and take several .day trips. I'm told that once you head west from Bilbao, a car is the best way to travel to loop back to Spain IF you stay in the north. North of Porto, through the Douro Valley and along the eastern side of the country a car is a very good option. It can also be helpful between Porto and Lisbon, though most of that part of the country is easiily accessible by train, and driving in Porto and Lisbon is a nightmare and parking can be both hard to find and expensive.

Unless you are planning to stay in dorm rooms in hostels, you will probably need to book most of your hotels in advance and if you plan to be experience any of the big celebrations, you may need to book in advance even then.

If you rent a car in Portugal, be sure to add on a toll reader. The toll roads save lots of time and with the reader you can zip through the frequent toll plazas. . . . otherwise you add hassle and time to any trip. Once you are not on a toll road, add at least 25% to the driving time any app tells you. On those back roads, especially in the hilly east and through the Douro Valley, at 50%.

Posted by
1 posts

I spent last winter touring Spain and only used trains and busses. Not driving was wonderful! Use Google maps for suggestions. Madrid, for example, has an express bus from the airport to downtown every 15 minutes for 5 euros.