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Impulsively booked Spain trip part 2

Thanks to all who helped with my previous inquiry. Link to that one here.

My husband really wants to visit the Basque region, and with the food scene in San Sebastian being what it is, we are considering cutting time short in Barcelona and Madrid and doing a road trip to the coast. We figure that if/when we return, we'll likely fly into/out of either Barcelona or Madrid and can pick up whatever we didn't get to see this time. We do enjoy a road trip and seeing the smaller, off-the-beaten path type places over yet another museum. Are we nuts?

I've been studying the map and posts here trying to see what is possible and interesting between Barcelona, San Sebastian and Madrid by car, but it's difficult to know real distances and how long we should allow to see what's along the way. We don't mind a one-nighter occasionally. We pack light and it is always easier with a car, it seems. Would love any suggestions or input, good or bad.


Posted by
1522 posts

Celeste - The cities of Zaragoza, Andorra, Burgos, Cuenca, Tarragona, Soria, and Segovia are places worth exploring between Barcelona, San Sebastian and Madrid by car. You don't have to do all but Include a few on your journey.

Posted by
17636 posts

I understand your thought process and agree that the Basque Country is somewhat awkward to get to (given the usually-high extra cost of booking flights in and out of Bilbao), so it makes sense to try to do a good job of that area if you're going to go. My short response to this new inquiry is that I don't see that you really have time for any more destinations beyond one brief stop in each direction. You have nights you must spend in Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao (optional but I recommend it because I like it better than San Sebastian) and Madrid: That's already too much for the time you have available.

Your earlier thread indicated arrival in Barcelona on March 3 and departure from Madrid on March 11. So that's only 8 nights and seven full, non-jetlagged days. It's not safe to hop in a car and drive to San Sebastian on the day after an overnight flight, so it's best to spend at least the first night in Barcelona. You won't be able to see any of the top sights that day unless you're willing to risk sleep-walking through them (and they are rather expensive sights). All the most popular places require purchase of timed tickets in advance. So on arrival day, if you're up to it, you can walk through the Barri Gotic and/or the Eixample. If you're in good shape you can go to the lovely but not overrun Sant Pau Modernista Site, where you should be able to walk right up to the ticket counter and go inside.

Now we're up to Day 2. Do you want to see La Sagrada Familia? Parc Guell? Casa Mila? Casa Batllo? Palau de la Musica Catalana? One of the museums? If so, you'll need another night (at least) in Barcelona.

Let's hypothetically say you're going to sleep in Barcelona on Night 2 and head west on Day 3. offers up three possible routes to San Sebastian, the fastest of which is estimated at almost 6 hours, and that doesn't include stopping, getting lost, traffic delays, finding a parking place or the time required to pick up the rental car and actually be ready to leave Barcelona in the first place. Realistically, it's going to be fairly late when you reach San Sebastian even if you don't stop anywhere except for a quick lunch. You will not have much time for sightseeing in SS that first day.

I think Zaragoza is kind of large to be a practical quick stop on the way from Barcelona to SS. The big-ticket sight there is the Moorish Palace (Aljaferia), and it's not a place you run in and out of quickly. Olite might make a better stop, being smaller, but it has an interesting castle that also takes time to visit. Olite is also famously short on restaurants and not a place you could hope to get a meal at an unsual hour. (Spain eats lunch from 1:30 or 2 PM till 4 PM.) I don't know what to suggest here, but I'm sure someone else will have suggestions.

So by Night 3 you're in San Sebastian. You just have Days 4 - 7 in the Basque Country, because by Night 8 you need to be in Madrid or quite close to the airport. Don't you need all four days to feel as if you've given decent attention to the Basque Country? estimates the drive from Bilbao to Madrid at about 4-1/4 hours by the fastest route--again with no stops, etc. So if you get an early start you could make one stop along the way. There are multiple possibilities. I like Burgos a lot but don't know how big a hassle parking would be. Also, Burgos is an extremely windy city and we're talking about March, when it could also be rainy. Vitoria-Gasteiz is a lot closer to Bilbao. It has a very attractive hill-top medieval district. I think the nearest parking is a bit of a walk away and might even require a bus or tram ride.

If you have plenty of time to drop the car before your flight on departure day you could spend the last night in the picturesque university town of Alcala de Henares if you don't want to go into the big city for just a few hours. AdeH is relatively near the airport.

Posted by
3807 posts

On our last Spain trip, we started with a week in Madrid, where we didn’t need a car. We took day trips by train or bus to Toledo, Segovia, and surrounding towns and sights.

Then we took a train straight to Bilbao, saw the Guggenheim museum there, stayed in the old town one night, and rented a car to tour the Basque area, reaching San Sebastián for a few nights. We had lunch at Michelin 3-Star Martin Berasategui, outside of town (good thing we had the car), probably the finest meal of my life. San Sebastián parking garages are on the expensive side, though.

Then, onwards to Barcelona and surrounds.

Posted by
11197 posts

Acraven gave the detailed explanation for what I was going to say: the Basque country is far from both Madrid and Barcelona. If you want to make it the focus of your trip, you can, but you can only do this by spending 1-2 nights each in Barcelona and Madrid, and being willing to have substantial driving time on the trip.

Posted by
1962 posts

I personally think the Pintxos scene in San Sebastian is a tad overrated, a bit of clever marketing on their part. I ate much better and at a fraction of the cost in Bilbao :)

Posted by
785 posts

I was considering two nights in Barcelona, see Sagrada Família, Park Güell, and Palau de la Musica Catalana (DH is a musician). One night in route to San Sebastian (Olite?), three nights in San Sebastian and two nights in Madrid. Unfortunately (well, not unfortunately but... ) we have two other international trips this year due to my work schedule. I wish we had two or three weeks but it's not in the cards this time. Is there enough within driving distance of San Sebastian to justify three nights there given that we will have a car to drive around the area?

Posted by
1663 posts

I wouldn't do it either, but yes there is ton to see and do near San Sebastian, far more than three days could cover. I'm afraid you won't find SS very off the beaten path, but in March it might be less mobbed.
You can actually get pretty good fares into Bilbao, so don't think you won't have a chance to easily get to the Basque region.
If you really won't be happy with Barcelona and Madrid, I'd still consider something less taxing instead--Valencia (paella!) or drive up to Girona.

Posted by
17636 posts

You can get to Bilbao and back by public bus if you don't want to drive. I think it's a shame to miss Bilbao. As a large city it will definitely not be dead in March. Nor would Vitoria-Gasteiz to the south. The other places I visited (Hondarribia and Zarautz/Getaria/Zumaia near San Sebastian; Bermeo near Bilbao) I am not at all sure of. I went to Hondarribia (which is not a tiny place) on either Sunday or Monday in June 2016 and was surprised at how quiet it was. It wasn't a problem, but there certainly was no lively tapas scene to enjoy.

Posted by
2869 posts

Barcelona to Zaragoza is 158 miles, to Olite it’s 210 miles. If driving, there is so much to see that you’ll just be passing by. One could easily spend 3 weeks between Barcelona and San Sebastián, then back to Madrid. With no additional stops, the roads are all interstates. Once off those, you’ll be driving 40mph at most.

Posted by
311 posts

Hi, another option is to forget the car and take the train from Barcelona to Sant Sebastian — prices from as low as around 26€. Takes around 5 and half hours but saves a lot of money and hassle.
Agree with Carles: "I personally think the Pintxos scene in San Sebastian is a tad overrated, a bit of clever marketing on their part. I ate much better and at a fraction of the cost in Bilbao."
What ever you choose to do — enjoy your visit.