Spain road trip guide: Barcelona, Montserrat, Tarragona, Peñíscola and Valencia
I'm not sure where the idea to road trip through Spain came from. It's not how I am used to getting around Europe (with the massive rail network, I've never thought about hiring a car before), but once the idea was in my head, it nestled deep inside my brain tissue and wouldn't budge. So planning for the Great Spanish Summer Road Trip began.
I imagined long stretches of roads through mountains and snaking along the coast, with stops at small towns for coffee or an ice cream. There would be a killer road trip playlist, of course, and long sunlit days filled with blue skies and new adventures. There would be architectural marvels, wind in my hair and a lot of churros. With chocolate. And maybe more churros.
In reality, there was a lot of detouring through farmlands to avoid paying tolls, sighing as the GPS suggested driving the wrong way up a one way road (again), and careful manouvering through tiny Spanish city streets. But there were also fields filled with sunflowers and solar panels, winding mountain paths and surprise stops at unexpectedly beautiful towns.
While driving around an unfamiliar country involves a bit more planning and budgeting prowess than flying or taking a train, it also gives you the opportunity experience the landscape in an entirely different way. If you're interested in seeing Spain from the driver's seat, I've put together a starter itinerary and some tips on how to make the most of the trip.
If you're more interested in Southern Spain, part two of my road trip guide to Granada, Ronda, Gibraltar, Cádiz and Seville is over here.
With fantastic cathedrals, shopping streets, parks, quirky cafés and beaches, the capital of Catalonia is a great spot to start your trip (and an easy place to track down rental cars).
While you can pick up your car at the airport or train station when you arrive, Barcelona has a good metro system and walkable streets, so consider exploring the city on foot for a few days and saving yourself the parking and rental fees.
Visit iconic landmarks such as La Sagrada Família, wander around Park Güell, and explore Barcelona's many interesting neighbourhoods. If you're looking for ideas on what to do, I've explained my favourite sites and rounded up all my tips in my Barcelona travel guide.
Once you've had your fill of Barcelona, you can fetch a car from one of the multiple pick up spots in the city and hit the road.
Just a short 60 km (37 mi) drive on a snaking road out of Barcelona lies Montserrat ('serrated mountain'), home to a 11th century monastery that is one of Spain's major religious sites. Drive towards these jagged beauties, cross a narrow one-way bridge and park your car at the free parking lot next to the cable car.
There are technically two ways to reach the top of the mountain: the cable car or the funicular, but the cable car takes a longer route over a river and offers 360 degree views of the surrounding landscape.
Once you reach the top, you'll step out into an entire miniature town, complete with a post office, gift shops, restaurants, and museum. One of the main attractions is the basilica, which houses a 12th century sculpture of Mary and Jesus that draws huge crowds. The museum has collections including an Egyptian sarcophagus and art from around the world.
If you want to pick up a snack or souvenir, there are a number of smaller farm stalls and shops selling local produce. Otherwise, take in the views of the valley or send off a post card to your friends and family back home.
Located 107 km (66 mi) from Montserrat is Tarragona, a lovely seaside town filled with ancient Roman ruins. Yes, filled. You'll be wandering around, casually drift into a cute square with cafés and shops, and bam! There are some crumbling walls just sitting there. It's pretty incredible.
The most impressive ruin is the Roman amphitheatre; so close to the sea it's practically on the beach. There are a number of other structures to see too, including towers, the remains of the forum, and old city walls. On the way, you can stop at the new(er) 14th century cathedral or wander the gorgeous old streets until you hit Placa de la Font, where you can stop for drinks or tapas.
On your way out of the old town, take a walk down the Rambla Nova. This is the main shopping street (with yummy ice cream shops, restaurants and cafés) which leads down to a balcony area with great views of the sea.
As you head out of Catalonia, stop off at this gorgeous beach town around 130 km (80 mi) from Tarragona. While the sandy shores and cute cafés will be a draw for saltwater lovers, it's the castle that got all my attention.
Perched on a hill overlooking the sea, the 14th century structure was built by the Knights Templar and was at various times a papal residence and a military outpost. More recently, it was used as a film location for season six of Game of Thrones, where it was the setting of the fictional city of Mereen. Yep.
The old town surrounding the castle is beautiful too... The gorgeous blue and white buildings, cobbled streets and colourful tiled balconies look like they are straight out of a picture book.
If you can steal yourself away from Peñíscola, you can get back on the highway and travel the 143 km (88 mi) to Valencia. This grand city is as arty and cool as Barcelona, but it has a more opulent sheen to its architecture. There are fancy apartments, modern museums and historical sites laced in between gritty roads filled with tons of quirky street art.
Wander through the old town to glimpse towers, notable landmarks and churches. You can see the imposing guard tower and old city gate (Torres de Serranos) or step inside the main cathedral. Stop for a delicious acai bowl, smoothie or vegan burger at Almalibre, or try one of the many restaurants in Mercat de Colom. This beautiful iron, stone and glass market house has vegetarian and vegan-friendly spots too, like healthy food café Suc de Lluna.
The Mercato Central is also an interesting experience, housed in a beautiful building filled with tables stacked with fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, pastries and desserts. While there are some grab-and-go options (like coffee and croissants), it's more of a fresh produce market than a street food spot, so don't visit if you're hungry.
If you need some more greenery in your life, Valencia's mega 9 km (5 mi) long Turia Gardens are a stunning place to take a stroll. Located in an old river bed, the gardens wind through the town and under bridges, and are filled with citrus trees and locals taking a casual bike ride or walking their dogs.
Tips for road trip bliss
- Get the smallest car you can deal with. It won't be as roomy on the open road, but it will help tremendously when you're trying not to bash into poles on the old, narrow inner city roads and or squeeze inside tiny parking garages.
- Pack light so your bags can fit in the boot of the car (it's not wise to leave things on the seats and tempt window-smashers).
- Structure your itinerary so you can factor in a few longer stays (2+ days) at the occasional AirBnB or serviced apartment with a washing machine. This will give you time to do laundry and avoid taking mountains of clothing along.
- Plot your route carefully to avoid tolls. Alternatively, factor toll charges into your budget and bring change for those which don't accept card payments.
- When booking accommodation, look for places with on site parking or which have negotiated reduced rates with local parking garages.
- Ask for a GPS device when you pick up your rental car, or download offline maps on your favourite navigation app if you don't have a local SIM card or roaming enabled.
- Be kind to yourself - stagger the number of towns you want to visit and the distances you need to drive. I found that driving for 2 hours a day was a nice amount of car time. If you want to travel further, make sure you factor in some longer stays in a city so you have some car-free days too.
- Alternate drivers if possible. Rental car companies charge extra for this, but spreading the responsibility out will save lots of stress.
- To bring down rental costs, take some awesome people with you so you can split the fees and fuel charges. You can also plan a circular route to avoid extra charges for not returning the car to the same city.
- If you are a breakfast person (like me), you may have to stock up on fruit or snacks to start your day, as breakfast isn't really a 'thing' in the smaller towns. While you can find typical breakfasty goodness like eggs benedict, healthy smoothies and granola in cafés in Barcelona and Valencia, options in other places are limited to coffee, croissants and the occasional tostada (toasted panini, usually with tomato and olive oil). It sounds okay to start off, but after a week you'll be crying out for fruit and bread-free anything.
- Siesta is quite serious. Restaurants and smaller shops close in the afternoon in summer, and dinner usually starts at 20:00 or 21:00. Again, pack snacks to avoid hangry spells.
- While getting around as an English speaker isn't difficult, make things easier by learning some basic vocab before your trip. The Google Translate app is also a great help if your pronunciation skills fail you, as it displays the words you need in a larger font when you hold it in landscape format, so you can easily show your screen to someone.
- While visiting Spain in the summer sounds like a great idea and you may not be able to get away from work/school any other time, if I could go again, I would have scheduled my trip for either spring or autumn. Besides the often intense and uncomfortable heat, June-August is peak season and makes seeing any major attraction without 500 other people in the room with you nearly impossible.
Don't want to stop just yet? Read part two of the Spain road trip guide - this one's all about Granada, Ronda, Gibraltar, Cádiz and Seville.