A dream South Spain road trip: discovering Andalusia

Cast yourself into the dream world of Andalucía, Islamic Spain’s ethereal realm of ancient ruins, Moorish palaces and rustic taverns, set to the outrageously blue backdrop of the Mediterranean. Away from the coast discover white-washed villages straddling mighty gorges, nature reserves spanning great sierras and city’s congregating on vibrant plazas dancing to the flamenco like there’s no tomorrow. Intrigued? Read on for our vision of a dream South Spain road trip from Seville to Cádiz.

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Granada, Spain | Photo: Cayetano Gros

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Appreciating Andalucía on four wheels can allow complete freedom to explore all the secrets of the south, filling your boot with jamón and sherry along the way

Andalucía

Once the frontier of an 8-century-long religious battle between Christianity and Islam to win the peoples’ faiths, Andalucía has mellowed out nicely in the days since, now at ease with its cultural mishmash of mosques turned churches, stuccoed palaces, North African infused cuisine and Moorish tea culture. See it on display within Albayzín, Granada’s old Arab quarter, seeking out more artistic attractions in Seville and Cordoba. Along the journey you may be serenaded by troubadours, wowed by bullfighters and lifted from your own thoughts during a feisty flamenco performance, which is exactly what the locals mean when they use the term ‘duende’; the heightened feeling of watching great art and performance. Seek it out with tickets to a Lorca play or an organ recital at a Gothic church.

History may make an appearance at every crumbling corner but arguably it’s Andalucía’s natural beauty that makes her a star. Some 30 percent of Andalusian land comes protected, allowing for the Iberian lynx, ibex and lammergeier vulture to thrive. Take 10 days to lie back at your luxury resort overlooking intense blue coastline, venture in land to the wild mountains (Sierra de Grazalema, Sierra de las Nieves or Sierra Nevada), slap the cobbles on ancient city breaks, or – ideally – hire a car and do it all. Appreciating Andalucía on four wheels can allow complete freedom to explore all the secrets of the south, filling your boot with jamón and sherry along the way.

Photo: Kenzie Kraft

Photo: Victoriano Izquierdo

The best time to visit Southern Spain

Boasting 300 days of sunshine a year across most of the region, we’d argue that there’s rarely a bad time to visit Southern Spain. This is especially so if sticking to the best Southern Spain beaches, such as those along the Costa del Sol, where the winter weather comes warmer than virtually anywhere else on the European continent, though night times between November and March can still get chilly. At all other times Andalucía is hot, hot, hot, beating much of Europe with summer highs of over 40°C. During peak summer in Spain (from June to August) the coast comes crowded, while inland cities Seville and Córdoba thin out for lack of cooling Mediterranean waters.

When planning a road trip in Spain avoiding peak summer is a wise choice. The shoulder seasons of March to May and September to October please us especially, both for the lesser crowds and the milder (though still warm and sunny) weather. While this is true across most of the region, be aware that the high Sierra Nevada mountains are an exception, particularly in the winter when freezing temperatures are recorded at elevation.

Photo: Manuel Alvarez

How many days in Southern Spain?

How long’s a piece of string? The answer: however long you want it to be (or however many days you can wangle from your boss!). If planning a Spanish road trip through Andalucía, don’t underestimate the scale of the undertaking. The region is vast, inclusive of major cities, sub-regions and provinces, each begging for you to spend longer and soak up its distinct character. At a push, we’d say that 10 days is sufficient to explore the highlights of Southern Spain, giving an unhurried experience of culture and history in the key towns and cities. Better yet, 14 days will even allow you to get off the beaten path and get an authentic feel for the region.

For the sake of this particular South Spain road trip itinerary, we have tried to fit our Andalucía highlights into a 10 day period, but we won’t be offended if you choose to cut or extend certain day trips based on how far your string stretches.

Photo: Dimitry B

Southern Spain Itinerary: Highlights of Andalucía

For this itinerary we’ll hit the region’s biggest cities first – Seville, Córdoba and Granada – spending an average of 2 days in each, venturing on day trips into mountain-side towns and villages from Málaga’s coastal resorts before ending with a drive along the entirety of the Costa de la Luz into Cádiz.

1. Seville

A gothic beauty set on romancing its visitors by way of Mudéjar majesty and Moorish mansions, Seville also has a playful side that shows itself on flamenco club dancefloors after dark. Medieval it may be, in the narrow alleys of the historic centre and beyond, but Seville doesn’t ignore the modern either, offering trendy tapas bars and moat-side drinking spots that entice at sundown. We recommend spending at least 3 days here in Seville, using the first 2 days to cover the major attractions, including the showstopping Seville Cathedral and Real Alcázar royal palace, which alone may take half a day.

Do as Sevillanos do and walk the city, managing the cobbles of the old centre with practical footwear. For attractions further out, Seville is well connected by train and bus as Spain’s 4th largest city, though staying put and people watching around the Plaza de España’s ponds, gardens and pavilions is equally rewarding. Another of the city’s accolades is as the birthplace of flamenco, a dancing style performed and taught across the city, especially in downtown. The Museo del Baile Flamenco is one such place to see a flamenco show, taking place within its stunning pillared courtyard. As for the Seville barrios to check into; there’s the Jewish quarter over in Santa Cruz, the futuristic architecture of Las Setas and the happening area of Triana across the Guadalquivir river. Want more? Fill the rest of your time with our dedicated Seville travel guide.

Seville | Photo: Shai Pal

Seville | Photo: Hasmik Ghazaryan Olson

2. Córdoba

Moving north east to the criminally underrated city of Córdoba (142 kilometres, 2 hours’ drive from Seville), we see the one-time capital of Islamic Spain, its time-honoured Mezquita at the centre of it all, a mosque-turned-cathedral gilded in mosaic and Mudejár charms. Though many will try to complete Córdoba in a day trip from Seville, do yourselves a favour and plan for at least 2 days to make the most of the city’s other attractions, such as the Alcazar de Los Reyes Cristianos and the Roman bridge. With more time to spend, take it slow exploring the winding lanes of the medieval city, sidestepping the touristic centre to find all the best secret plazas lined with golden-stone architecture, wrought-iron fixtures and greenery at every turn.

Step inside the buildings and you’re in for further surprises, particularly the medinas within the Jewish quarter where interior patios form the perfect hideaway for sunset drinks. While the 10th century Medina Azahara ruins and the Renaissance Palacio de Viana are great for history buffs, the small-scale Casa Andalusi museum is just as enthralling, set up to recreate a typical 12th-century Islamic paper factory. One thing to consider when planning your Southern Spain road trip is the temperature. Córdoba has some of the highest summer temperatures in Europe meaning that the afternoon is too blistering to do anything other than siesta. Book a hotel with an outdoor patio and/or pool to mitigate the heat, or otherwise plan for a week in Spain later in the year.

Córdoba | Photo: Eliott Van Buggenhout

Photo: Jean Baptiste

3. Granada

Also among the top 3 must-see cities in Andalucía is Granada, 200 kilometres south east of Córdoba (2hr 15 via A-45 and A-92) where you can almost – almost – feel the breeze coming in off the Mediterranean. Expect to find more in the way of Moorish legacy, still seeing grand Islamic architecture interwoven with showy Catholic churches, though, when compared to Seville or Córdoba, this city comes grittier, coloured in counterculture graffiti and rowdy student nightlife. A big reason to visit Granada is for its famed Alhambra, a palace and fortress complex telling the story of Andalusian history and traditions through its Islamic architecture, décor and landscaped gardens. But, outside of the fortress there’s still so much to uncover, firstly within the historic Arab quarter (Albayzín) where spicy street food and teahouse culture takes over.

One of the best cities to live in Spain for artists thanks to its thriving arts scene, Granada also boasts the tastiest tapas culture in all of Andalucía. Taste for yourself at any of the city’s many Arabic-influenced tapas bars, before dancing the night away at intimate flamenco clubs or less fancy student dives. If time allows take a day trip from Granada into the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains (the snow-capped peaks of which can be seen from the city centre), or take a shorter hike into the Sacromonte area, Granada’s so-called Roma quarter where ancient cave dwellings now host alternative communities.

Granada | Photo: Girl With Red Hat

Photo: Rana Sawalha

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A big reason to visit Granada is for its famed Alhambra, a palace and fortress complex telling the story of Andalusian history and traditions through its Islamic architecture, décor and landscaped gardens

4. Málaga

Around day 5 or 6 of your road trip Southern Spain, you’ll likely get a hankering for a swim in the Mediterranean. Luckily, Málaga with its perennial sunshine and beachside resorts is on the horizon, just 125 kilometres southwest of Granada (1hr 40 via the A-92). Málaga may not be the most beautiful of the cities Southern Spain has to offer but it is still one of the cheaper and more convenient cities to start a Spanish road trip, thanks to cheap flights and its plethora of car rental companies around town. It is also the second-biggest city in Andalucía and has much culture to show for it, particularly around the old port, cathedral and central market where all the off-beach action happens.

Marking its name as the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, Málaga offers up the Picasso Museum comprised of the Picasso family’s own collection and housed within a huge palace, itself a work of art. The Centre Pompidou Málaga is another for art lovers, with free entry on Sunday afternoons. Otherwise, take the trip out to the surrounding hills to see the Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress based above a Roman theatre, with prime views over the city. Learn more with our Málaga travel guide.

Málaga, Spain | Photo: Tabea Schimpf

5. Ronda

A common feature on all the best itineraries for Spain is the mountain town of Ronda, one of Spain’s oldest and most popular destinations, some 100 kilometres west of Málaga (1hr 30 via A-357 and A-365). On your approach, slow sown for epic views of the El Tago gorge, carved out long ago by the Río Guadalevin, with white-washed Ronda split between the two sides. South of the gorge you’ll find the old town which comes filled with the mosques and palaces of Islamic times, while north you’ll find the newer town, designed atop a plateau facing sheer cliffs for impressive views of the gorge.

Puente Nuevo is Ronda’s most famous landmark, a stone bridge built in 1788 that spans the entire gorge, from La Ciudad in the old town to El Mercadillo in the ‘new’ town (a market area dating back to the 15th century). Combine a walk across the bridge with a gorge hike, settling on El Mercadillo’s Plaza de Toros, Spain’s second-oldest building and functioning bullring. Said to have invented bullfighting in the 18th century, Ronda today honours its matador culture with a museum and a bullfight festival each September, which takes place in the central arena flanked by two tiers of viewing galleries. If you’d rather not spectate on such as sport, however, Ronda still has intrigues, notably its history of bandits, outlaws and guerrilla warriors for which there is a museum as well as its 12th century Arab Baths on the outskirts of town.

Ronda, Spain | Photo: Julian Braunecker

6. Marbella – Estepona

Nearing the end of our road trip returns us to the Costa del Sol for more time soaking up the sun. This time, it’s Marbella’s ‘Golden Mile’ that attracts, where the region’s flashiest marina makes way for an extravagant collection of flashy clubs, restaurants and luxury hotels stretching all the way to Puerto Banús. If you don’t own a yacht or a Merc, don’t be discouraged as Marbella still has her more humble attractions, not least its stunning natural scenery in the eyeline of the Sierra Blanca mountains. Marbella’s quaint old town is also made for strolling, harking back to a time of Phoenicians, Romans and Moors rather than today’s retired billionaires.

To avoid the ostentatiousness of Marbella, Estepona just 15 kilometres west is another consideration, offering traditional charms and less commercialisation than elsewhere on the Costa del Sol. While there’s not all that much to do, you can take it easy on the beach and promenade, wandering through the whitewashed town to smell the flowers and dine in comfort.

Another little day trip to consider comes closest to the coastal resort town of Marbella, yet is also just a 1-hour drive from either Málaga or Ronda. It’s a small village named Ojén, hidden 300 metres up in the Sierra de las Nieves mountains yet in easy enough reach of the Costa del Sol (a 15-minute drive away). White-washed in typical southern style, this village is a great base for all kinds of hikes into the mountains and Juanar nature reserve. Start at the trailheads beside the Refugio de Juanar hotel, tackling the 3-hour Pozuelo or more challenging Cruz de Juanar trail for rewarding mountaintop views by lunchtime.

Marbella | Photo: Drew Dizzy Graham

Photo: John Fornander

7. Cadiz Province

The most southwestern part of Spain, Cadiz Province stretches along the Costa del Sol from Estepona to Tarifa (including Gibraltar) and then up the west coast along the Costa de la Luz (Coast of the Wind). On the way towards Cádiz capital, you’ll find countless white cities and broad beaches, all made for stopping and strolling in breezy climes. Extreme water sports and windsurfing all trump sunbathing in these parts. Of the more notable places to stop include coastal villages such as Tarifa along the Strait of Gibraltar with its surfer culture and Arabic influence, as close to the African continent as you can get. Also on the coastal road to Cádiz is Bolonia (a Roman gem) followed by Zahara de los Atunes (a tuna town) and Barbate (a beach babe). In land a little you’ll also find the hillside white town of Vejer de la Frontera as well as the much larger city of Jerez de la Frontera, in land northeast of Cádiz and known for its 11th-century Moorish fortress as well as a fun flamenco scene fuelled by the city’s own sherry bodegas!

Cadiz | Photo: Mitchell Orr

Photo: Kenzie Kraft

8. Cádiz

The oldest settlement in Mainland Europe and a perfect endpoint for Andalucía holidays is the city of Cádiz, flanked by both coast and countryside as a great base for several off-the-beaten-track day trips. With limited time, however, stay among the hilltop settlements of the city tucking into a history that starts in Phoenician times around 1100BC. Of the best attractions are the Castillos de San Sebastian, Santa Catalina and Cádiz Cathedral, closely followed by the Tavira Tower where a camera obscura offers 360-degree views over the city. For shorter road trips in the region, going straight from Malaga to Cadiz along the coast (235 kilometres, 2hr 40 non-stop) is also an option – foregoing nights in Ronda and Marbella to instead just break for lunch at any of the picturesque Costa del Sol towns on the coastal road.

Now what?

So, you’ve seen Andalucía but what’s next? Get expert advice from our team of trip curation gurus, who’ll help you plan a unique daily itinerary based on your travel needs, wants and wallet. As well as the best attractions in your destination, we’ll also provide up-to-date information on bookings, nightlife and more. No stress just travel joy! Sign up to Trip Design today.

Playa La Rijana, Granada, Spain | Photo: Jorge Fernandez Salas

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