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Itinerary & Small Town suggestions

We will be visiting Spain for the first time this October for a milestone birthday for my husband. We are taking a Mediterranean cruise, departing from Barcelona and ending in Rome. Our plan is depart the US a week early to explore Spain prior to boarding our ship. I am trying to decide on our itinerary and most importantly (for now) where we will fly into. My first thought was to fly into Madrid and then after a couple days, take the train to Barcelona. However, those are both big cities and my husband doesn't love cities (Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Florence), even Bruges was maybe too big for him. I would like to fly into a location which requires only 1 connection from our home; the options are: Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, Bilbao, Alicante, and Santiago de Compostela. I have already researched how far the other places are from Barcelona so understand the travel times we may be in for. We would prefer to use public transportation but are willing to consider renting a car for the right places. We like interesting topologies, nature, people watching, architecture, good food and drinks, mindless meandering, water (river, lake, ocean) is a plus. Some locations we've been and liked, to give you an idea, are (France) Honfleur, St. Malo, Carcassonne, Nice, (Italy) Montepulciano, Verona, Venice, (Germany) Rothenburg OBT, St. Goar, Munich.

I do have the Rick Steves guidebook on order. What small or quaint/charming/breathtaking towns do you recommend? What would you do in terms of travel into Spain. Thanks much!

Posted by
3918 posts

Sorry I'm a bit confused with the question, are you basically looking for a small town somewhere close to Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, Bilbao, Alicante, or Santiago de Compostela? How small are we talking about here under 100k pop or under 50k? Would you want to stay in the small town or just visit from a bigger homebase?

If you want to stay overnight a car is invaluable due to the lack of frequent public transportation in more rural areas. I'd probably shy away from somewhere in Catalonia due to the devastating drought the region is going through. I'll just mention a few smaller towns/regions that I think off the top of my head:

Villages of the Matarraña Region
Peñíscola
Xàbia
Alcoy
Teruel
Albarracín
Tarazona
Santillana del Mar
Alcala de Henares
Ávila‎

Here is my recent trip report for a roadtrip I did in some of these places:
https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/trip-reports/undiscovered-spain-mediterranean-roadtrip-2023

Posted by
36 posts

Hi Carlos -
Thanks for your reply, suggestions, and the link to your trip report. I will check that out. I would say the population is not the driving factor for a town but more the overall feel. Characteristics would be something compact, where you can walk from one side of town to the other in 30 minutes, (some) pedestrian-only streets, no skyscrapers, and then something that makes the town unique and memorable whether it be perched on a hill-top, overlooking water, be a walled town, etc.

We would want to stay in the smaller town(s) for the beginning of our trip and will stay in Barcelona before our cruise. What I am asking is which location would people suggest we fly into and which towns to visit before heading to Barcelona. I will look at the ones you have already suggested.

Posted by
27253 posts

It's too bad about the drought, because I think you might really like Girona, and it's well-positioned for day- trips by public transportation to Figueres, Besalu and Cadaques.

I've been to the last six places on Carlos's list. I'm not a fan of Avila, which to my mind has a wall and precious little else. The others I'd happily revisit. However, you should delve into the transportation options carefully. I'll comment on a few of the suggestions:

Teruel is a regional capital but is rather obscurely located on a secondary rail line running from Zaragoza to Valencia. Trains on that line are not fast. But Teruel is a modest-sized city with few tourists and some very attractive, quirky architecture. I like it a lot and think it would be fun for a couple of days.

By public transportation Albarracin can be approached only from Teruel, and only by a bus that runs once a day--on a schedule that requires you to stay overnight in Albarracin. It's not a very practical destination if you don't have a car unless you want to spend what I assume would be quite a lot of money on taxi service.

If you decide to rent a car, I think you could enjoy yourselves in the Teruel/Albarracin area and also include Cuenca, which is built on a gorge and has some hanging houses. Cuenca itself is readily accessible by public transportation, because it's located on the express rail line connecting Madrid and Valencia. It has no public transportation to Teruel and Albarracin that I know of, and I can't comment on the condition of the rural roads in that area.

I've only day-tripped to Alcala de Henares, but I really liked it. It's in Madrid's orbit and has very frequent, inexpensive commuter trains from the capital. I have my doubts about public-transportation connections to other places.

Santillana del Mar is west of Bilbao (actually west of Santander) and would therefore leave you with quite a time-consuming trip back to Barcelona. It's very touristy during peak hours, and I think you might run out of things to do on your second day there.

I wonder about the possibility of Toledo. Yes, it gets a lot of tourists, most of them seemingly day-trippers, because it's so close to Madrid. But the short-term visitors seem to stay mostly in the area between Zocodover Square and the Cathedral. Wander a bit off that axis and you can be surrounded by medieval architecture with few other people in sight. There's well-priced express-train service between Madrid and Toledo. Toledo has a lot of sightseeing for a place its size.

Posted by
316 posts

Andalucia is nice in October, weather still warm and sunny without being too hot. You could fly into Málaga and stay there. I don't like big cities either (didn't like Barcelona) but I love Málaga.
Good for wandering, lots to see and do, on the sea, easy day trips to places like Nerja, Córdoba, Antequera (any of which could be good alternatives if you want to stay somewhere smaller)
https://slowtravelitalyspain.blogspot.com/2020/01/malaga-in-november-trip-report.html?m=1