FAST TRIP IN 1 WEEK : Madrid, Seville, Barcelona:
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- Experience the music and atmosphere of real flamenco, in a small Seville tavern where the art form takes its roots
- Feast your eyes on the art and architecture of Toledo, an evocative medieval city just outside Madrid
- Feel the beauty of the Moors in Cordoba, where Le Mezquita is beyond comparison
- Explore the highlights of Barcelona, including Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia and Montaner’s Palau de la Musica Catalana
- Discover authentic tapas by hopping between bars in old-world Seville
- Tour Spain’s pre-eminent gallery, the Prado, then find out why Madrid is Europe’s most local-feeling capital city
- Marvel at part-monastery part-palace El Escorial, later comparing it to Catalan Montjuic
Spain is always authentic, and this handcrafted tour puts you in the heart of the local experience. Think tapas hopping through Seville’s cobbled lanes, and then wandering through a part-monastery part-palace that evokes Spain’s coming to global power. There will be an evening of flamenco, not a tourist show but a performance in the place where flamenco began. You can delve into the art world, not merely in museums and galleries, but also in small churches where dazzling works hide. With just seven days you are never going to see all of Spain, as that is not possible even with seven months. But transport connections are reliable, and this route will take you around the diversity of highlights with four very distinct overnight destinations.
Handcrafted to maximize experiences and minimize wasted time, this is an action-packed itinerary yet one that can still be truthful to Spain’s laid-back style. They do not like to rush things here, and you will be able to take it slow, especially during the evenings. Relaxing on a cafe terrace or dining al fresco is part of local culture, and your hotels have been handpicked for their location as much as anything, ensuring that you are close to everything after dark. Mostly, you will travel on first-class high-speed first-class rail, the quickest way to go from city center to city center, although there is a flight from Seville to Barcelona.
Fly into Madrid and the first day is all about superb art and Spanish experiences found in the Prado, and then around the Plaza Mayor. After sleeping in the next morning, you can take a day trip to Toledo, a medieval city of harmonious religion and famous El Greco artwork. Sink all of your senses into the history and stay until dusk, when Toledo exquisitely changes color. The next you will visit El Escorial, the most dramatic of all the Golden Age architecture, part monastic retreat, and part flamboyant palace. That afternoon you’re on the train to Cordoba, an old Moorish city with a lively local atmosphere and a great sense of Andalusian change.
It’s the Mezquita that Cordoba is famous for, and you will need the whole morning of the next day to appreciate why. It will then be a short hop to Seville for an evening of flamenco, Triana the district where it all evolved, a couple of centuries ago. The next day is dedicated to the best of Seville, from its architectural highlights and treasures to local tapas bars that each have their own specialty. Fly to Barcelona the following day, and you will find Catalan culture, and some hours to spend on the beach. The flamboyant Modernist architecture is saved for your last day, Gaudi and Montaner providing fitting final memories before you fly out late in the evening. Consider reading some of our travelers’ Spain tour reviews for more ideas to perfect your dream vacation.
Madrid always proves to be a romantic place to land as elegant tree-lined boulevards mark your way from the airport to the city center, the odd statue sneaking its way above the branches. Closing in on the heart of the city, the roads become narrow, most of them made from cobbles. Your hotel is within this old area, barely a five-minute walk to the Plaza Mayor, Madrid’s grand 17th-century centerpiece. Check in, freshen up, and then grab a coffee with your guide on a cafe terrace. Ease your way into Spain and gain some historical perspective from the guide, before heading out into the city’s famed art scene.
The Prado is world famous, a museum of classical art that covers the very best of Spanish painters up until the 20th century along with the world’s finest collection of Flemish art. Explore the galleries and the masterpieces following the chronological artistic timeline. You could spend a full day here, but two hours is usually enough to get a feel for who is who and why such painting are so revered. You will likely be a little weary after your flight, so most of the afternoon is left free, although the private Thyssen-Bornemisza collection is a great complement to the Prado.
This evening you can head to the Plaza Mayor and stroll without a plan. Cafes and restaurants line this central square, their terraces emanating chatter and enthusiasm. Narrow pedestrianized roads jut out between the terraces, leading you towards the smell of coffee, chocolate, and tapas. One way to soak up the Spanish atmosphere is to hop between the tapas bars. Another is to dine at one of the small restaurants in the area, before returning to the Plaza Mayor for a glass of wine or short coffee later in the evening, when there’s a real hum to the atmosphere.
Madrid is vastly different to London and Paris. In those two capitals, there are countless attractions, abundant tourists, and an international ambiance. In comparison, the Spanish capital has less to see but feels instantly Spanish, a city that does not need abundant attractions to show off its charms. Take some time to walk around with your guide this morning, seeing the old palace and new cathedral, taking in the views from the Egyptian Obelisk and Don Quixote statue, exploring the townhouse architecture. Late in the morning, it will be a 50-minute train journey to Toledo, where you will step out into a carefully preserved medieval world.
Cross the bridge and stop for lunch on a small plaza, and then ascend through this dramatic old city. A narrow doorway leads to a synagogue, and gazing up you can see church spires, one, two, three, four, and then more jutting up above the cityscape. Entering Santo Dome you admire one of El Greco’s famous works, the paint so luscious it seems to still be drying. In a 14th-century monastery you can listen to tales from the nuns, then around the corner, there’s something unusual: a mosque, in the old Moorish style.
Toledo provided religious sanctuary, and there is a harmony to its juxtapositions, mosques alongside churches decorated by El Greco, alongside cute cafes and small boutique stores. It is a city virtually frozen in the medieval era, although your guide will point out that this era actually covers five centuries. Ascend through the city to the cathedral, and then stick around as Toledo changes color at dusk. You will follow the El Greco trail throughout, the artist proving an excellent lens to keep track of where you are on the mazy streets. It will be a 50-minute train journey back to Toledo, and you can disembark in the city center with your guide able to provide restaurant recommendations and reservations.
Explore El Escorial with one eye, and you see a monastery, a sanctified space that still functions to this day. You will see serenity and simplicity, but look with the other eye, and you see extravagance as El Escorial is stuffed with gold leaf and endless artworks. Part palace and part monastery, this UNESCO World Heritage Site reflects Spain’s Golden Age, built at a time when religion was used to cement power and showcase wealth. You will need half a day to make sense of it all, the congruence of ideas and elements baffling at first glance. Take the train here with your guide and fully explore, before hopping back to central Madrid and the high-speed train to Cordoba.
This journey is without your guide, traveling first class on one of Europe’s fastest trains. A new guide will meet you in Cordoba, and it will be late-afternoon now, the time when Cordoba really comes to life. Moorish secrets whisper through the old city, remembering a time when this was the capital of the artistic world. Calligraphy and geometric patterns are the norm, with painted embellishments found all along the vernacular buildings. This is enlivened by a gritty, modern feel, one that comes from an almost-subculture style that is a halfway point between the Middle East and Spain. Although mysterious and hard to grasp for some, this is a wonderful city if you have a good guide. So settle into local experiences, including some Islamic, Moorish inspired tapas.
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Most visitors to Cordoba come only for the Mezquita. Yesterday evening will have shown you a more local side to the city. Then you can enter the Mezquita when it opens this morning before the Seville-based crowds turn up. Red and white painted columns keep up the grand prayer hall as arched walls are covered in flamboyant symmetrical patterns, their intricacy incredible to witness first hand. This was a mosque and then a cathedral, and now it’s a museum piece, perhaps the greatest Islamic monument found in the West. It is not just the artisanal beauty, but also the size of this place, and the thought that this sumptuous style came 1,000 years ago at a time when most of the world was in the Dark Ages.
After lunch, you will cruise to Seville on the high-speed train to spend two nights at a hotel within Europe’s largest old city quarter. Tonight is will be all about flamenco as the Triana district is one corner of the flamenco triangle, so one of three places where this art form originates. The flamenco here is slow and soulful, based on impromptu tales of love and loss. A voice echoes, a guitarist strums, the dancer twirls to the music’s rhythm and you are spellbound, lost in the atmosphere. This is not a show for tourists, but a venue where all the finest flamenco musicians want to perform, a place where legends perform together, and sometimes for the first time. For true flamenco, there is nowhere in the world that can compare.
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Seville’s highlights suggest grandeur and wealth. Most of this came from the conquistadors, who returned with their New-World treasures through Seville’s port. Churches are enlivened with silver and gold; townhouses fade elegantly, a show of how well they were built. Columbus is found in the enormous cathedral, just one of the explorers in the crypt. There is history before Columbus as well, the Alcazar another fine example of Moorish architecture, so different to what you may expect when visiting Spain. While exploring old Seville, you will also encounter it’s lively, fiery style as this is a city of people who live with their heart on their sleeves and like to shout when they are happy.
This evening in Seville is dedicated to another famous Andalusian pleasure, tapas. Tapas originated here, and there are dozens of bars to try. Curried blood sausage, a mountain of olives, pan-fried squid, hams and cheeses and delicacies and treats best enjoyed as a small plate. Head off on a private tapas walking tour, stopping in four different bars to sample their specialties. Each bar has a subtly different style or a locally famous plate that everyone orders. At some, you will dine al fresco, whereas in others you get the pungent smells and lively atmosphere of a packed interior space. It will be a tour that could go on until past midnight if you have the energy because there’s always another tapas bar to try in the home of tapas.
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Fly to Barcelona and this day is left free. With seven days in Spain it is easy to rush, but this is a vacation as well as an adventure. After a transfer to your hotel in Barri Gotic, the day is left free. It is just a short walk to the beach, where bars fringe golden sand and it gets lively around late-afternoon, or you can ascend through Barcelona’s old neighborhoods to Montjuic, where a castle hangs high over the city and there is a distinct medieval flair. After dusk, you will not need to travel far from the hotel. Barri Gotic is Barcelona’s bustling center with shops, cafes, restaurants, wine bars, and everything else you could want on a perfect vacation day.
Ghouls mark the entrance, staring at you as if from on high. Columns turn in strange ways as if created by a mathematics experiment. From the outside, it is an impossible building as Gaudi’s masterpiece is still under construction after 100 years. The surreal style extends inside every inch of the space an artistic detail that other cathedrals cannot compete with. This is your last day in Spain, and you will be up early to visit La Sagrada Familia before it gets too packed. Not far away there is more beauty from Gaudi with two houses that demonstrate his development as an artist and architect.
Yet Gaudi was not the first, and it may be Montaner that is most memorable in Barcelona, Palau de la Musica Catalana a magnificent work that’s true to the original Modernista style. It helps complete your historical journey through Spain’s finest buildings, from the Moors to the Golden Age to Catalan Modernism. Later, head for a late lunch on a restaurant terrace and spend the afternoon indulging on some final Spanish flavors. Late check-out has been arranged, and you can freshen up back at the hotel before your late departure. It has only been seven days in Spain, but looking back it will feel like two weeks, such is the diversity of the destinations and the authenticity of what you’re able to experience.