Spain road trip guide: Granada, Ronda, Gibraltar, Cádiz, Seville
So you read the first Spain road trip guide and thought 'Hey, this looks cool. I could totally drive from Barcelona to Valencia and wander around all those towns on the way.' Well, you're in luck: you don't have to stop there.
Venturing further south, you can make your road trip even more magical with the addition of a drive through Andalusia. It's good enough to be a standalone trip in itself, so don't worry if you don't have the time / budget to add it to the aforementioned Barcelona to Valencia route.
From the magnificent Alhambra palace and gardens in Granada to the cobbled streets of Seville, Andalusia will reel you in. This road trip meanders past fields filled with sunflowers, through fairytale towns, seaside cities and even a tiny overseas territory.
Ready to hit the road? Here's what to see, eat and do on your way:
Home to one of Spain's most popular attractions, Granada is a swirling blend of Andalusian and Islamic architecture and history. The Alhambra fortress, perched on top of a hill, looks over the town with its imposing towers, calling back to a time of palaces and sultans.
The older part of Granada is best seen on foot (warning: it's hilly) and parts of the Albayzín area are off limits to cars, so you'll have to park in one of the underground garages in the newer part of the city and hoof it the rest of the way. It's not a bad walk though - there are cathedrals, interesting shops and winding narrow streets to explore.
Before you head to see the Alhambra for yourself, spend some time wandering around Albayzín and walk up to the church of San Nicolas. It is a steep climb to the top, but the view of the buildings that make up the Alhambra is incredible.
The whole area is filled with a general otherworldly air, with medieval architecture and cafés that spill out on to the streets. Carrera del Darro, a road alongside a river at the foot of the hill, is a great place to take a seat and soak in your surroundings.
While you are able to walk around some of the lower gardens and exterior areas of the Alhambra for free, you will need a ticket to go inside the various sections. It is an incredible way to spend a day, so I'd recommend getting the full ticket (in advance) and exploring as much as possible.
The 13th century UNESCO World Heritage Site will take 2-3 hours to see properly, from the intricate carvings inside the palace, to climbing to the top of the towers in the fort and wandering around the beautiful Generalife Gardens.
Before you go, I would recommend reading Sher She Goes' very comprehensive guide for how the Alhambra ticket system works, but a few of my own suggestions are in the tips section at the end of this article too.
Once you've drunk in your fill of the Alhambra, eat your fill in one of Granada's many restaurants. My favourite was El Mercader, a small spot run by a husband and wife team who make incredible food. There were a number of vegetarian options on the menu, all of which had interesting flavour combinations (think roast apple + goats cheese + caramelised raisins) and were freaking delicious. Warning: It is small and very popular, so you have to book a table in advance (especially in peak season).
If you're looking for a shot of caffiene to get you up and down Granada's many hills, I recommend trying Duran Barista out. From cold brews to amazing artful lattes, it is open for takeaways in the mornings to start your day right. It also offers a breakfast buffet that is mercifully filled with things like eggs, fruit and yoghurt, which you will appreciate if you've spent a few days eating a typical Spanish breakfast of bread or tomato-and-olive-oil toast.
As you continue your adventures south through Andalusia, consider a detour to one of the region's smaller towns. Ronda is around 178 km (110 miles) away from Granada, and is a bit off the main road to Málaga. But the drive along twisting roads through farmlands and sunflower fields will be worth it.
Ronda's old town is separated from the main part of the city by a deep gorge, offering dramatic views of the valley below and quaint buildings perched on the edge of sheer cliffs. The old and new(er) areas are linked by the puente nuevo (the "new bridge" that was finished in 1793), creating the kind of scenes you expect in a fairytale. Seriously, they were filming scenes for a TV show when we visited.
The town is filled with lookout points, cafés, cathedrals and shops selling local ceramics and keepsakes. You can wander around for ages, stopping to rest in small public squares and parks or to devour an ice cream. It's a great place to explore, and you can either stay the night or head on to bigger nearby towns like Málaga.
Okay, I know this is a Spanish road trip guide and I'm technically going off track by including this one... but if you're a geography enthusiast visiting the south of Spain and you don't go to this geopolitical anomaly, you're missing out. Gibraltar is a tiny British overseas territory, encompassing the southern most point of Europe and overlooking a busy shipping passage.
It's a tiny slice of the UK in the middle of Spain. I mean, aren't you curious?
You can access Gibraltar through the neighbouring Spanish border town of La Línea de la Concepción, about 107 km (66 miles) from Ronda and 130 km (80 miles) from Málaga. It's easiest to just park your car in Spain (crazy, I know) and walk across the border into Gibraltar. There are buses and pedestrian-friendly walkways, so getting around on foot once inside isn't a problem.
Warning: If you have a passport that requires a visa for entry into Spain or the UK, remember that this is technically another country, and you'll have to plan for that (see more in the tips section).
Gibraltar is the size of a small town, which is mostly dominated by the famous 426 metre (1,398 ft) high Rock of Gibraltar, with everything else squished into the space around it. The area is so limited that the airport doubles up as a road -- when there are no planes landing, you walk across the runway to reach the border crossing. It is equally bizarre and wonderful to witness.
Once in Gibraltar, you can head up the cable car to the top of the Rock and spend a few hours walking around. If the cable car queue is terrifyingly long or you're on a tight schedule, there are a number of tour companies (who depart from the cable car station) offering quick drives up the Rock instead.
The Rock is quite magnificent, offering great views of the landscape and even the distant shape of Morocco across the waters. Its most famous residents are the Barbary macaque monkeys, which are very outgoing and likely to try to sit on you and/or steal your food.
There is also the fantastic St Michael's Cave, a massive underground limestone cavern which is one of the highlights of the upper Rock. You can also visit the Moorish Castle, a historic fort which dates back to the 11th century.
Back in the town center, you can walk down Main Street, do some shopping, or people watch in Casemates Square. You can also indulge in an English pub lunch in establishments with such fittingly British names as 'The Angry Friar' and 'Lord Nelson' (the latter has a number of delicious vegetarian-friendly meals, by the way).
You can round off your visit by taking the bus all the way to the end of the continent: Europa Point. The area has a mosque, a church, a lighthouse, and walking paths offering views of the ocean below.
Stand at the lookout point and gaze across the water - you can see North Africa. If you turn to the side to see the curving bay in La Línea de la Concepción too, you can see three countries at the same time.
Once you've ventured back across the airport runway/border, you can pick up your car and continue the roadtrip. Cádiz is around 116km (72 miles) away from La Línea, and a great place to stop on your journey to Seville. This gorgeous seaside town is filled with parks, beaches and quaint streets just begging you to wander around.
If you can make it in time for a tour in your language, the camera obscura and view from Torre Tavira are definitely worth seeing. They offer a 360 degree view of Cádiz, with a unique perspective offered by the obscura's pinhole wizardry.
You can visit La Caleta beach, next to the historic town center, or talk a walk along the promenade and through the beautiful Parque Genovés. For history buffs, there are castles just off the beach, and a monument to commemorate the Spanish constitution of 1812, which was signed in Cádiz.
Around 121 km (75 miles) inland from Cádiz lies Seville (Sevilla to the Spanish people you'll meet along the way), a town famous for bullfighting and oranges. Oh, and whose palace was used as a film location for Game of Thrones. So basically, it's Dorne.
If you're only in Seville for a day or two (or even if you're not), I highly recommend taking a segway tour. You will feel a bit silly for the first five minutes, but after that it will be so darn fun and practical you won't want the tour to end. It's a great way to cover a lot of ground very quickly, saving you hours of walking around and complaining to your tour buddies that your feet hurt.
Some of the highlights to see on or off segway are the Torre de Oro (a watch tower that now houses a maritime museum), the afore-mentioned Dorne palace (the Alcázar of Seville), and the Plaza de Espana (home to the 1929 World Fair and now a stunning spot to wander around and have a picnic in the surrounding park).
One of Seville's biggest landmarks (literally) is the magnificent Seville Cathedral, the largest gothic cathedral in the world.
This 16th century church houses the remains of Christopher Columbus (yes, him) and includes a huge bell tower that announces its presence regularly to all in the area. Interestingly, the tower was originally a minaret, as the cathedral was built on the remains of a mosque. You can climb all the way to the top (up ramps, not stairs, thank goodness) for panoramic views of the city.
Seville's city center is a popular tourist area that is beautiful to walk around in, but if you're keen to hang out with real locals (and your Spanish is up to scratch), you can try some of the tapas bars in Triana. Blanca Paloma and Las Golondrinas are very popular in the evenings, with a typical order-at-the-bar vibe and delicious food.
My favourite foodie find in town was Milkaway, a tiny store near the cathedral that sold veggie-friendly (and affordable) healthy food. Think acai bowls with your favourite ingredients, comforting porridge for breakfast, and freshly prepared juices and smoothies. We went back multiple times.
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. You won't need a car once you're in the city, and can get around on foot or by using public transport.
- 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.
- Book your Alhambra tickets as far in advance as possible. There are only a limited number sold each day, and they can be all booked up if you spontaneously decide to go one morning. You can book the tickets online and collect them from the tourism office in Granada.
- If you have a large back pack or camera tripod, you won't be able to take it with you when visiting the palace portion of the Alhambra and will need to stash it in one of the lockers. Smaller day packs are fine, but need to be worn on your front like a kangaroo so you don't accidentally knock pieces of ancient plaster off the walls.
- If you want to visit Gibraltar but you hold a passport that does not grant you visa-free access to the European Union or the United Kingdom, you'll have to do some extra preparation before your trip. Since you'll technically leave Spain when you enter Gibraltar, if you want to carry on with your Spanish road trip, you'll need a multi-entry Schengen visa to get back into Spain again. You'll also need an additional single entry UK visa to enter Gibraltar, so remember to leave enough time for visa applications as your passport may need to be sent to two separate embassies.
- Seville Cathedral and the Alcázar get very busy in peak season, with long queues snaking around the entrances. As with the Alhambra, these are ones you're going to want to book in advance.
- Siesta is quite serious. Restaurants and smaller shops close in the afternoon in summer, and dinner usually starts at 20:00 or 21:00. 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.
In case you missed it: Part one of the Spain road trip guide (Barcelona, Montserrat, Tarragona, Peñíscola and Valencia) is over here.