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Trip to Madrid / Salamanca / Sevilla / Granada in July -- Advice needed please

I know . . . I know . . . July is NOT the best time to go to Spain! But, our kid is doing a travel abroad program at the University of Salamanca and we figured we would pick him up and do a family vacation out of it.

IBERIA now flies to Dulles Airport in the DC area and the fares are dirt cheap. Yay! Finding hotels and places to stay was a challenge since there will be three of us, but I have figured that out. Hotels.com was a great resource.

My challenge is that for the life of me I have not been able to get train tickets between these cities. Since there are four of us, including our 17 and 13 year old sons, we figured that driving was probably faster and more economical. I am thinking of renting the cars to just to get between the cities and then dumping it the same day. I sure don't want to be trying to find parking. I also want to do Ronda between Sevilla and Granada for a day.

I still just want to take a train between Madrid and Salamanca. But, I can't figure out how to do it. Is it too early for the schedule to show on their website? I am pretty sure there is a train between Madrid and Salamanca, is there? How should I go about booking that train?

I am also looking for great tour guides in Sevilla and Granda if you can recommend one please. I REALLY want to do the Alhambra but I can't buy tickets yet. Should we do that on our own? Or, is it best to hire a tour guide? If so, anyone you can recommend? Is the day or night tour the best? I hear it's hard to get tickets so I am nervous about that.

I would be so grateful for any advice you can give me (other than don't go in July!). LOL! Thanks!

Posted by
821 posts

It’s too early for train tickets. They generally go on sale about 60 days in advance, but sometimes later than that. You should be able to see the schedules for closer dates, and I don’t think they change too much. I used the Trainline app to see schedules, but purchased directly from Renfe.

We just went to the Alhambra in November with our boys (16 and 13). We did not have a guide. Tickets go on sale 3 months (90 days?) in advance. Don’t miss it! Beware that if you buy the youth ticket for your 13 yo, you cannot print the tickets in advance. You must print a voucher that you exchange for real tickets at the main entrance after showing his passport to prove his age. Not worth it IMO to save about 4€. With pre-printed tickets you can enter at the Justice Gate, very close to Nasarid Palace. The main entrance is about 15 minutes walk away. We had 10:00 tickets for the Nasarid Palace and arrived at the main gates at 8:30. We had time to explore the old fort area before seeing the palace. I would get tickets, then if you decide you want a guide you can book that separately.

DO NOT plan to drive in Granada. Drop off your car at the train station and take a taxi to your hotel. Taxis are cheap in Spain.

I wouldn’t always say that driving is fastest, but it’s often cheaper for 4. Just make sure you get a car big enough for 4 suitcases plus day bags.

Posted by
836 posts

I took the bus to Salamanca. You can buy tickets close to departure.

Posted by
14783 posts

Use renfe.com for train schedules. Trains only appear when tickets are being sold. Just use next week's schedule, on the day of the week you expect to travel. Schedules don't change much from winter to summer, and most schedules are the same every day of the week, they may be a little different on weekends or holidays. Usually, tickets are sold about 2 months in advance, but Renfe is erratic, sometimes some trains may appear 3-4 months ahead, sometimes not until a couple weeks - even for trains on the same day. There are 2 ways you can save money on trains. First, buy no-refund, no-exchange tickets at low promo prices when they first go on sale (keep tracking the website). Second, on most trains there are 4 facing seats that are sold as a unit, called mesa. There's sorta less leg room but it's suitable for a group to manage. Most US credit cards don't work on Renfe but PayPal does.

travel4fun is right. The discount on Alhambra tickets is far outweighed by the inconvenience of collecting them. Right now tickets are on sale through April. So I'd start checking in March/April for July tickets. You'll have no trouble. Whether you want a guide or not is a different question. A tour guide usually enhances a visit to any sight, OTOH most people visit on their own. The day tour covers all the areas of the campus. A night visit is limited to either the Nasrid Palaces or the Generalife and is not offered every day. I did the Nasrids at night before my day visit. Completely different. I highly recommend it, but in addition, not in place of, a day visit. Note that in July, night visits aren't likely to start before 10 pm.

A car is probably a good idea for Ronda, if that's a high priority. I would rate a day in Cordoba much higher than one in Ronda. The Mezquita is unique and a wow. From Sevilla, you can train (45min) to Cordoba, leave your luggage at the station, then take a train (1.5 hours) or bus to Granada. If you drive via Ronda, google maps says minimum 4 hours driving time. If you want to get an early start, rent the car the night before and park it somewhere. Rental agencies in the city probably don't open before 8 am and you have to take your luggage with you, so inconvenient and late-ish start. There is an underground parking lot in Ronda in the center but it's a little tricky to find. You'll want GPS to help you navigate in/out of the cities. If you don't get to Granada before the rental office closes, you'll have to park and return it in the morning, so another day's rental fee. The beautiful photos of the bridge and the gorge are at sunset. In July sunset's around 9.30 pm. If Ronda is high priority, then spend a night there. That way you can enjoy the scenic drives through the hills and have several hours for sightseeing in Ronda or exploring a few of the pueblos blancos.

You don't say how much time you have or how many days you plan to spend in each place or where you're flying in to and out of. You say "pick up your son." Is he going home with you (and lots of luggage?) or do you just want to see where he's studying? How are you going to get to Salamanca?

Posted by
796 posts

How many nights will you be traveling in Spain? I notice that you don’t mention Córdoba. I highly recommend visiting Córdoba on your trip. The Mezquita is an important religious/historical site (a mosque with a cathedral built inside it). In addition to the Mezquita, Córdoba has other wonderful sites such as the gardens of the Alcazar, Roman Bridge, Juderia, and Palacio de Viana, to name a few. It’s a lovely city, one of our favorites.

You also don’t mention Toledo, which is another amazing city just 30 minutes from Madrid by train.

Depending on how many nights you will be in Spain, I recommend the following itinerary:

Seville - 4 nights
Madrid - 4 nights if you like art museums
Toledo - a day trip from Madrid or overnight for 1 or 2 nights
Córdoba - a day trip from Seville or overnight for 1 or 2 nights
Granada - 2 or 3 nights

I would visit Córdoba and/or Toledo before I would visit Ronda. Córdoba and Toledo are important historical and cultural cities. Ronda is not on the same level.

Posted by
20831 posts

I agree with the others: In comparison to Seville, Cordoba, Granada and Toledo, Ronda and the little white villages are distinctly secondary destinations. They are certainly worthwhile (I've been to Ronda three times), but I would first try to see those four key cities.

The train will be much faster than driving along the main Madrid-Cordoba-Seville rail line. Traveling to and from Granada, a car might be somewhat faster, but I'm guessing that won't be the case by the time you pick up and drop off the car and deal with parking issues.

Note that trains to Salamanca depart from Madrid's Chamartin Station, not Puerta de Atocha. The fastest ones take just over 1-1/2 hours, but those are not terribly frequent. For tomorrow, the fastest ones are at 8:55 AM, 12:40 PM, 3:55 PM and 8:40 PM.

Alhambra tickets seem to be put on sale in one-month blocks, so not a fixed 90 days in advance. It may be around 120 days in advance if you want late-in-month tickets. At some times of the year the tickets sell out months in advance, so this is something you need to stay on top of. If you keep on top of the ticket situation, you will not have a problem getting tickets. It's the entry time for the Nasrid Palaces that is time-specific. You may find it difficult to get an early-morning ticket for those, because the tour groups seem to like them, but I don't think all the tickets sell out for any day as soon as they go on sale (unlike The Last Supper in Milan, for example).

I enjoyed the nighttime visit to the Palaces, but I don't think it's a substitute for a daytime visit.

Unless you opt to hire a private guide for a very long visit to the Alhambra, I think for most visitors the do-it-yourself approach might be better (audio guide recommended). These are my reasons:

  • The Nasrid Palaces are the most beautiful buildings and will be very crowded. If you want to take pictures, you'll find yourself needing to wait for other visitors to move out of the frame. That doesn't work when you need to keep up with a guide.

  • Some parts of the Alhambra complex (including the Nasrid Palaces) are single-entry. If you feel your tour group moved through one of those areas (which include the museum in the Carlos V Palace) too fast and you want to go back and see it after the tour ends, you will not be able to do so if it's one of the controlled-access areas. You'll only be able to remain in whatever is the last area the tour visits and then see the open parts of the complex. Even if you're lucky enough to take a tour that ends in the Nasrid Palaces (and I don't know that any do that), you will be distinctly swimming upstream against a heavy current if you want to go back to the beginning and walk through again.

  • There are some buildings in the Alhambra (a church and I think also the museum, maybe more) that may be open for only part of the day. An independent visitor can stop at the information counter to check on those schedules and plan his day so he can see what is of interest, limited only by his assigned entry time for the Nasrid Palaces. If you're on a tour, you will not have the freedom to do that and may miss out on some of those sights.

Note also that a lot of the tours are only 3 hours. The complex is huge, and many people spend the better part of a day there. I wouldn't have been at all happy with a 3-hour visit.

Posted by
2513 posts

So if I'm understanding this correct? You fly in to Madrid then take the train up to Salamanca (to pick up your son) and then drive all the way down to Andalucia? Then travel back up to Madrid to fly out?

Posted by
1281 posts

Following on from Carlos' comment, I do wonder why you are focusing on Andalucia given your start and end point are in the north. There are huge number of wonderful sights in the north-west "quadrant" of Spain/Portugal and you could create a fine holiday in that area.

Whatever you chose, one thing to remember is that the railway timetable changes in June. In practice the changes will not be significant and you can use the timetable for next week to give an idea of what's available. However, you may find you cannot actually buy tickets for July until quite late because the timetable change usually adds to Renfe's general incompetence in uploading fares.

Unless you have a lot of time available, I'd skip Ronda. Carmona is easier to visit from Seville or if driving between Sevilla and Cordoba.

Posted by
20831 posts

Another vote for Carmona. Practicality is worth considering when time is limited.

And I do agree that there are lots of attractive destinations that are not in Andalucía. But note that Extremadura isn't likely to be pleasant, temperature-wise, either. The whole stretch of the country near the coast between Galicia and the Basque Country is very interesting and much more temperate in the summer.

Posted by
9 posts

Thank you SO MUCH guys! You are amazing!

A few clarifications. We fly to Madrid and spend three days there. Then, the plan is to take a train to Salamanca to spend a day and attend my sons graduation ceremony and a dinner there. We will then pick up a rental car and drive to Sevilla and spend three days there. Then, the original plan -- which now you have me second guessing -- is to drive to Granada via Ronda. Spend the day at Ronda and arrive at Granada. But, that would put is in Granada on late Saturday and Sunday. I would have to be VERY VERY luck to get tickets for Monday, July 20th for La Alhambra. And, then drive to Madrid on the 20th to catch our flight on the 21st.

WHY SEVILLA and Andalucia? Well that is where my ancestral roots are from. That's where my grandparents were from. I feel like a little salmon fish that needs to swim upstream and go the the place of her ancestors. (OK . . . I hope that makes some sense to you! LOL!) I have tried to make it to Sevilla so many times, but it just never happened. I took a cruise that had "Seville" clearly labeled on the itinerary, only to find out that there was no way I could make it there and back. I cried like a two year old when I found out that our stay on that port had been cut to half!

It's been hard to carve time for this trip. I really can't take more than the 10-days (all at once) we have managed to scrape together. Honestly, I was super intimidated about putting together this trip by myself without a travel agent (which have gone extinct!) But, now that I have my plane tickets, all my hotels, and rental cars set, I am finding out that it was NOT THAT HARD as I had thought it would be. I am so surprised!

Your advice is a huge help! Please let me know about anything else you can think of. This is incredibly valuable.

Should I scrap going to Ronda and Granada and go to Toledo instead? Any other advice? I really don't want to miss going to Sevilla. That is my number one priority. But, given that it's going to be so hot, I am just trying to make the best of it. This is a little "sampler tour." I KNOW I have to go back another time. Every cell in of my being, and every bone in my body wants to go to Spain, I am being called to the place of my genesis. This is just not a vacation for us.

Posted by
20831 posts

I understand better now. You have such a narrow window to squeeze Granada into, I'm going to recommend that you skip it this time around. Maybe you'll want to use that day in Seville. It offers so many sights, and if you find yourselves running out of sights that excite you, you can take the bus to Carmona or the train to Jerez. I think the Jerez trip will cost 18.40 per adult, round-trip. I don't know how much of discount children get on the Media Distancia trains. I'm guessing the 17-year-old will need an adult ticket but am not sure. The bus to Carmona should be considerably less expensive.

Or of course Toledo would be lovely.

Posted by
2513 posts

the plan is to take a train to Salamanca to spend a day and attend my sons graduation ceremony and a dinner there. We will then pick up a rental car and drive to Sevilla and spend three days there.

Thank you for the clarification, in that case you're in luck! Because in between Salamanca and Sevilla is the fascinating region of Extremadura aka Spain's "best kept secret". It's a land of time warped Crusader Castles, Moorish Strongholds, Royal Monasteries, and impressive Roman ruins. I'd recommend setting aside at least 2-3 days to make the drive through Extremadura. Many of the sights hold incredible importance to the historical and cultural patrimony of Spain

Some of my recommended stops (north to south):

Monasterio de San Yuste - the idyllically monastery (still active) that Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V retired to after he was done being the most powerful man in the world ;-)

Cáceres - The old town of Cáceres is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a mix of Roman, Islamic, Gothic, and Renaissance styles.

Trujillo - This town is where some of Spain’s most famous(infamous) conquistadors came from. The town has a few baroque and Renaissance palaces and an interesting Museum of Francisco Pizarro, who led the expedition that conquered the Inca Empire.

Guadalupe - Has the beautiful Real Monasterio de Guadalupe. You can tour this monastery and its collection of art, jewels, illuminated manuscripts. You can also see two cloisters, one late-14th-century Mudéjar, the other Gothic.

Mérida - Has the best Roman ruins in Spain, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ruins are found dotted throughout the modern city of Mérida.

Badajoz - Capital of the Moorish kingdom, the Taifa of Badajoz. It has a nice Moorish historic quarter. The town is dominated by the Alcazaba, a 9th century fortified Moorish citadel.

Zafra - A white-washed walled town nicknamed "Little Sevilla", feels very Moorish. They filmed some scenes from the T.V. show Game of Thrones at the nearby Castillo de Feria, an Moorish hilltop fort.

Jerez de los Caballeros - A very picturesque small town. The old town is surrounded by a Moorish wall with six gates. After it was conquered from the Moors, the town was transferred to the Knights Templar.

Monesterio - unassuming little town that is the heart of the Jamon Iberico production in Spain and is the best at it, home of the real Museo del Jamon.

The only down side is that is can quite a bit hot in Extremadura in the summer, but I think that's besides the point if you will be going to Sevilla as well lol! Hope this gives a few ideas :)

Posted by
20831 posts

You'll probably feel like explorers if you go to Extremadura. It's neat to be (probably) the only Americans within miles. It will probably be very hot there, though I suppose not as hot as in Seville.

I can understand wanting to see the Roman ruins in Merida, and I liked the modern archaeological museum (cool mosaics), but the city itself wasn't as attractive to me as Caceres and Trujillo. I believe I'm considerably more heat-tolerant than average, but if I'm going to spend day after day mostly outdoors in 90+ F heat, I need to have picturesque surroundings.

Much as I liked Extremadura, I wouldn't recommend it in lieu of the major cities in Andalucía, given that the summer weather isn't likely to be all that much better. However, for visitors who put a fairly high priority on avoiding the most crowded, touristy places it would be a winning destination.

Posted by
2513 posts

Just to clarify, Acraven makes a good point about big sights of Andalucia, my recommendation of Extremadura was not in lieu of the major cities of Andalucia, which I assume you will be back to fully enjoy, not having to travel to Salamanca first. But rather out of practicality, for me it makes the most logical/geographic sense to string together Salamanca, Extremadura, and Sevilla all in one trip, and leave the other major cities of Andalucia (Cordoba,Granada, Malaga etc.) for another trip, that way you don't stretch yourselves too far geographically, Spain is a big country after all (relatively speaking) ;-)