I will be visiting Spain for 9 days in March. We will be flying into barcelona and out of Madrid so we plan to spend time in both cities. We also want to see Toledo and possibly some other day trips. How many days would you suggest in each city and are there any other day trips that you think we could feasibly fit in.
This really depends on your interests. You need to get hold of a guide book and read about the attractions in each city.
How many nights do you have in Spain, not counting the night on the plane? Some travelers think they have nine days, but it turns out they're spending only nine nights in Europe, which gives them only eight full, non-jetlagged days. Or even just eight nights in Europe, which is only seven full, non-jetlagged days. On a short trip, one day more or less makes a big difference.
Barcelona has a lot of good museums, but the modernista architecture is probably what draws the most tourists. There are about six sights in the city, most of them related to Gaudi, so popular that you need to buy timed tickets at least a bit in advance, because the tickets lines will otherwise eat up too much of your time, and you might be told to come back hours later or the next day. You'll have to guess how long you'll want to spend at each sight, how long it will take you to get to the next one, and how long a lunch break you'll take. That makes the city really tricky to see on the run. And if you're flying into Barcelona, your first (partial) day may be pretty much worthless for sightseeing due to a combination of sleep-deprivation on the overnight flight and jetlag. Some folks are even sluggish the next day.
Unless you are absolutely nuts for Salvador Dali (in which case your top priority for a day-trip from Barcelona might be the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres), I'd definitely rank Girona as the most attractive side-trip. Whether you have time for it will depend on how you split your time between the two big cities and how much you want to see in Barcelona itself.
Madrid, to me and to many others, is just not as interesting a destination as Barcelona as a city. It's not as old, for one thing. But if you're big art fans, you have three major museums to tackle, and seeing them fairly comprehensively would take about two days. No interest in art? Well, that's going to give you more time for side-trips unless you really heavily tilt your time toward Barcelona.
For me the best day-trips from Madrid are Toledo (no question about that), Segovia and Cuenca. They are all definitely worthwhile, but I suspect Cuenca, which is a hill town, could be rather windy in March, and it's likely to be a few degrees cooler than Madrid. I think Toledo is so interesting that it's worth spending a couple of nights there (or more), but packing up and changing hotels takes a fair amount of time. You might reasonably decide it's not worth doing that on a short trip unless you have very little interest in Madrid itself and want to base primarily in Toledo instead. I know some travelers have found it impractical to stay in Toledo the night before a flight departing from Madrid, but that depends on the departure time of your flight, and possibly also on the day of the week. Train service from Toledo doesn't start very early on weekends. This weekend, the first train of the day doesn't leave Toledo until 9:25 AM.
I would give 4 nights to Barcelona and include a day trip to Monserrat. Don't miss going inside Sagrada Familia.
Take the high speed train to Madrid. Take day trips to Toledo and Segovia. Take the train for both, it is easy.
The Prado Museum in Madrid is one of the best in Europe.
I will go on the assumption you have 9 nights, and you can adjust accordingly if I am wrong. I agree with acraven that one day more or less on a short trip makes a big difference. And I agree with her that Barcelona is difficult to visit on the run because of the necessity to buy some tickets in advance.
I would spend 5 nights in Barcelona because it is a large city with many, many interesting sites to visit. And you may not be able to see a lot on your arrival day because of jet lag and lack of sleep. If it were me, I wouldn’t attempt any day trips from Barcelona because I like to see as much as possible in the city I am visiting and also have time for leisurely wandering through neighborhoods. But if that’s not as important to you, then a day trip to Montserrat or Girona would be nice.
I would spend 3 nights in Madrid. I love Madrid. Madrid has outstanding art museums. We love art museums, so we spent a lot of time in the Prado and Reina Sofia. I actually like the Prado better than the Louvre. We didn’t have time to visit the Thyssen. You can also visit the Royal Palace, Retiro Park, Temple of Debod, San Miguel Market, and wander through the neighborhoods.
I would spend one night in Toledo. Toledo is very,, very crowded during the day with day trippers, and I would not have enjoyed it as much if we didn’t stay overnight. However, if you don’t like the idea of checking in/out of hotel, etc. then see Toledo as a day trip from Madrid. A day trip is better than not seeing it at all.
If you decide to stay overnight in Toledo, I would visit Toledo before Madrid. Make Madrid your last stop so you are closer to the airport.
Toledo was gloriously empty before 11 AM, that's when the day trippers all arrive. We stayed there at Hostal Casa de Cisneros and loved loved loved it. Right next to the cathedral, terrific breakfast, beautiful hotel. I loved Toledo. If you can stay the night there, then do it!
Montserrat was my favorite side trip from Barcelona, just stunning. You can climb on top of the mountain of you're in good shape, even if you aren't there is hiking worth doing that is easy. Plus the monastery and the angelic choir!
Figueres and the Dali museum were interesting but I think we spent more time in transit than at the museum. I might not recommend that one, even though I enjoy Dali a lot.
I'm not a fan of surrealism. I was pleasantly surprised to find some other styles of art in the museum, and I loved the jewelry collection (separate building but covered by same ticket). However, the town of Figueres isn't especially attractive compared to many others. For me Girona is a superior option for folks with time for just one side-trip from Barcelona, for all but diehard Dali fans. I haven't yet been to Montserrat so can't make that comparison.