Tips for Planning Your Road Trip through Spain and Portugal
• When renting a car for a Spain and Portugal road trip, go for the manual option. It’s much cheaper than an automatic. If you don’t know how to drive a stick shift, either learn or travel with someone who does (hint: my husband)! Just be careful when driving uphill. The streets of Spain and Portugal are like a labyrinth. They are notoriously narrow, steep, and have unexpected turns and one-ways.
• Rule of thumb for a Spain and Portugal road trip: always park in one street or garage. Then explore the city on foot or go for public transportation. Either way, it saves precious time which you would have wasted in navigating the roads and searching for parking spots.
• Depending on your length of stay, I would recommend familiarizing yourself with the toll roads in Portugal. (You could also avoid the toll roads using a GPS.)
- If you want to pay as you go, look for the green Via Verde signs. While the Via Verde lane itself requires a prepaid electronic transponder, you can use the other lanes to pay as you go (credit cards, coins, bills or prepaid cards).
- The other toll system runs electronically. If you are driving from Spain and heading into Portugal, look for signs for the EASYToll dispenser.
- Via Verde devices work on electronic toll roads, but not vice-versa.
• Credit cards were accepted almost everywhere in Spain and Portugal. I didn’t have any problems even in smaller cities and roadside stops.
• Finding someone who spoke English was never a problem in major cities and hotel groups throughout Spain and Portugal. I only ran into problems in the Galicia region of Spain. Our B&B hosts did not know a word of English, and we knew nothing of Galician. But we figured things out by sign language and excessive gesturing!
• If you are vegetarian like me, look for the words “vegetal” and “verduras” on food packaging, cafes, restaurants, supermarkets, and other outlets along your Spain and Portugal route. It also helps explain your dietary preference in places where people are not familiar with English.
• Toilets in Europe are known to be pay-to-use. However, all the toilets I visited during my Spain and Portugal road trip were free. They included parking garages, gas stations, restaurants, and tourist attractions like museums and castles. If you plan out your “pee-pee” schedule, you can easily go through your entire trip without paying for a toilet. Most toilets in gas stations and tourist attractions are well-maintained and stocked with soap and toilet paper. The only place which was really bad was a toilet in sandwich-chain Subway (La Rambla, Barcelona). Moral of the story? Always carry soap and sanitizer.
My Spain and Portugal road trip took me through 26 cities in just 12 days. Each of these places had their own local culture, traditions and history unique to that region of the country. I always emphasize that you don’t need to spend an extraordinary amount of money to soak up the flavors of a country. All you need to do is stick to a budget, travel light, juggle your time, and of course…. plan, plan, plan.
I started my Spain and Portugal road trip in Barcelona. After flying into Barcelona El-Prat Airport, we rented a car at the airport and drove into the main city center. Barcelona is a captivating city by the seaside, famous for its exquisite architecture, Modernisme masterpieces, market-fresh Catalan dishes, and interweaving lanes decorated with murals. From the world famous Basilica de la Sagrada Familia to the streets of La Rambla and Barri Gotic, Barcelona was a great way to kick-off my Spain and Portugal road trip adventures.
Day 2 of my Spain and Portugal road trip began with Tarragona,a port city in Spain’s Catalonia region. Tarragona’s main highlight is the Passeig Arquelogico, an archaeological promenade that borders the city’s Old Quarter. Built in 2nd century B.C., the walls are the oldest conserved Roman construction outside Italy. Originally 3,500 meters long, today only 1,100 meters of the walls remain.
As you walk along the walls, you will find many shaded gardens, cafes and historical displays on your path. But since my plan was to head for Valencia next in my Spain and Portugal road trip, I didn’t want to waste time wandering aimlessly. Look for the signs reading “Circ Roma Capcalera Oriental” and “Circ Roma Graderies” for Tarragona’s two most famous sites: the Roman Forum and the Roman Amphitheatre.
Tarragona is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its ancient treasures. The Roman Forum is a rectangular square or plaza, which essentially consisted of shops and various establishments during the Roman times. It served as a marketplace, and was often surrounded by temples and public buildings.
Carved out of the underlying bedrock, the Roman amphitheatre is extraordinarily well-preserved. You have a clear idea of the sheer size of this structure, and how it must have served to entertain the Roman public by pitting gladiators against wild animals. From here, you also have a beautiful view of the beach and the ocean. Some visitors pay to walk inside the amphitheatre. Since the balcony from the boulevard provides a sweeping view of the entire structure, I was content with not spending more money than necessary.
The third largest city in Spain, Valencia was the next stop in my Spain and Portugal road trip. The city has a unique mix of medieval buildings and art deco architecture. From the ultra-modern and sleek Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, to the historic bell towers of Santa Catalina Church and Seu Catedral, Valencia is an architectural lover’s delight.
Ubeda and Baeza, Spain
Between the two, Ubeda was the one that really stood out to me, and was totally worth the stop during my Spain and Portugal road trip. The city exemplifies the core of Spanish history and its narrow streets are dotted with many monuments.
The center point of Ubeda is the Plaza de Vasquez de Molina Square. Here you will find yourself surrounded on all sides by fine examples of Renaissance architecture. They include the Santa Maria de los Reales Alcares Church, Palacio del Marques de Mancera, Las Cadenas Palace, the El Salvador Chapel, as well as the popular Parador Hotel.
But the real show stopper is a few streets away, and is the place to be if you just want to cut to the chase. The Hospital de Santiago is distinguished by its two gorgeous towers, the domes covered in colorful glazed ceramic tiles.
The central courtyard is flanked by white marble columns, while the corridors are marked by high vaulted ceilings decorated with classical frescoes. The entire facade is quite lovely and well-preserved. Personally, I liked the Hospital de Santiago better than the monuments in the historic center.
Córdoba was one of the most memorable cities on my Spain and Portugal road trip. Whether walking through the streets of Juderia, or marveling at the UNESCO recognized architectural wonder Mezquita de Córdoba, I remember the words of an ancient Chinese proverb:
” The miracle is not to fly in the air or to walk on the water, but to walk on the earth.”
The capital of Moorish Andalusia, Granada is definite stop on any road trip through Spain and Portugal. The city is filled with treasures, dating as far back as the 9th century. They include the fourth largest cathedral in the world. The marble tombs of the Christian Monarchs, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. One of the oldest grain houses in the Iberian Peninsula. And many more including the UNESCO World Heritage Site and the gem of Granada, the Alhambra.u
While many travelers to Spain dedicate at least 2 days for Malaga, I set aside just 3-4 hours from my Spain and Portugal road trip. Another option for visitors is to stay in Malaga, and make day trips to surrounding Andalusian cities like Cordoba and Granada.
Why would I make a stop at Ronda during my Spain and Portugal road trip? Good question. Ronda is nowhere as popular as the big cities of Barcelona and Madrid, nor is it a place of pilgrimage or historic value like Ubeda and Santiago de Compostela.
I came to Ronda for two things. First, the Alameda de Jose Antonio. This park offers panoramic views of the El Tajo river gorge and spreading plains from its promenade. With the early morning chill giving way to the warm late morning breeze, it was great to just relax here for a little while. Given that there were busloads of tourists, I couldn’t really find the serenity that I would have liked, but a few quiet minutes to myself was satisfying.
The Puente Nuevo is a 70 meter long bridge that crosses the El Tajo Gorge, connecting La Cuidad (historic old town) with El Mercadillo (modern market quarter). It was my second site to visit in Ronda. The views of the gorge and the Rio Guadalevin from this bridge are just phenomenal. Just look at the rugged slopes!
I had to just be careful with my iPhone, what with all the tourists bustling around (there are so many in Spain and Portugal even in off-peak season). The last thing I wanted was to accidentally drop stuff into the gorge. There are of course two hiking paths for anyone wishing to descend into the gorge, seeking a more intimate experience with the natural environment. But searching for a iPhone doesn’t count as “seeking a more intimate experience”! 🙂
And before continuing on my Spain and Portugal road trip, I snuck a peek of Spain’s second oldest bullfighting ring, Plaza del Toros. The place was immortalized in Hemingway’s novel Death in the Afternoon.
Located on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, Seville exudes a rich Moorish heritage complete with a colossal Gothic cathedral, opulent Mudejar palaces, lush gardens and winding medieval streets. The capital of Andalusia, Seville’s squares come alive with the sounds of accordions playing and the beats of the flamenco. Vibrant. Historic. Seductive. All the reasons why I stopped at Seville during my Spain and Portugal road trip.
Merida marks the last Spanish point on my Spain and Portugal road trip before I head briefly into Portugal. Merida is known for its fantastic Roman ruins and monuments, but they all come with admission fees. Now if you’re a budget traveler like me, you hate paying when you can avoid it.
The Teatro Romano is one such example. If you walk along the grassy perimeter of the site, you can stand on stone benches or peek through gaps in the hedge to catch a good view of the ruins. Pretty satisfactory and completely free!
History comes alive with the majestic Temple of Diana. This enormous building is outstanding proof of Roman architecture, and is one of Merida’s top attractions. And best of all? It is free to visitors!
The Puento Romano of Merida is the world’s longest surviving bridge from ancient times. Pretty neat right? And I cannot help but marvel at the engineering ingenuity of the Romans, considering that modern day buildings suffer damage or collapse within an individual’s lifespan.
Our first stop in Portugal, Lisbon, is a remarkable destination. The capital of Portugal is a charming mix of its medieval history and current trends. Travelers can enjoy everything in this world-class city, from Art Nouveau cozy cafes and the sea breeze, to panoramic vistas from castle tops and an iron wrought elevator. Lisbon ranks high on cities to visit during any Spain and Portugal road trip.
Known for its many Romantic architectural monuments, Sintra is a 2-3 hour stop on my Spain and Portugal road trip. As you pull into the small town, you can see Castelo dos Mouros or “Castle of the Moors” on the hilltop. Built during Muslim Iberia by the Moors, Christian forces captured the castle after the fall of Lisbon in 1147.
Castelo dos Mouros is located along the limits of the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. The park was not on my original list of things to see, and I came across it by chance when we were driving up the hill to the colorful Palacio de Pena (I ran short on time to take a tour, but I strongly recommend going on one as the palace is one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal).
The Sintra-Cascais Natural Park’s walking path takes you along the outer wall of the Moorish Castle, with its short narrow entrance and battlements. It’s such a beautiful setting to take a romantic stroll, and there are beautiful views of the surrounding natural landscape as well as of the town of Sintra below. In order to access the inner walls of the castle, you will have to pay a fee.
My Spain and Portugal road trip would not be complete without checking out the iconic conical chimneys of Palacio Nacional de Sintra. They look quaint, odd, yet intriguing against the regular white facade of the Palace of Sintra. In fact, the palace is the best preserved medieval residence across Portugal.
The city responsible for the country and port wine’s names, Porto is the second largest metropolis after Lisbon. Located on the steep banks of the River Douro, the city comes alive with its culture, artisan shops, dining, and nightlife. Rising rapidly amidst those travelling through Spain and Portugal as a must-see destination, this northern jewel of Portugal has so much to offer.
It’s my last day in Portugal. Tomorrow I will be heading back into Spain. Bye Portugal!
Foi maravilhoso ver você. Até nos vermos novamente.
Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Located in the autonomous community of Galicia in northwestern Spain, Santiago de Compostela is the third holiest site in Christendom after Jerusalem and Rome. That is the prime reason why everyone should visit this small city if they are traveling through Spain and Portugal.
For hundreds of years, the pious have hiked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route to the burial site of Saint James. What once started as a symbol of the struggle of the Spanish Christians against the Islamic rule of the Moors, has today become one of the top religious destinations in the world.
As planned in my Spain and Portugal road trip, we reach the city of Salamanca towards the evening. With a history dating back to the Celtic era, the city is famous for its stunning sandstone architecture and vibrant intellectual culture. Set against the horizon of the setting sun, glistening in the evening rays was the Cathedral of Salamanca. What a stunning welcome to the eyes of the eager traveler!
City Walls of Avila, Spain
Avila is a small town in the autonomous community of Castile and Leon. The well-preserved city walls of Avila make it a definite stop on my Spain and Portugal road trip. The walls are an impressive 2.5 kilometer long barrier made of stone and granite. The city walls were built by King Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile, who defeated the Muslims in 1088 AD. He built these walls in order to protect Avila from future invasions.
Today, the walls surround the Old Town of Avila. Visitors can walk on the walls at some points, as well as check out Avila’s historic buildings. One such structure is the Cathedral of Avila, one of the first Gothic cathedrals of Spain.
Segovia Aqueduct, Spain
The Segovia Aqueduct was one of my most memorable stops on my Spain and Portugal road trip. One of Segovia’s most famous landmarks, the aqueduct can be seen in the city’s coat of arms. Estimated to have been built between the 1st and 2nd centuries CE by the Romans, the aqueduct consists of 166 arches.
One cannot help but marvel at the engineering skills of the Romans. I was just gobsmacked and kept gaping at the structure. I mean just look at it! It’s incredible that the aqueduct is still standing in near-perfect condition even after 2000 years. In fact, the Segovia Aqueduct still functions today, and carries water over a distance of 17 kilometers!
El Escorial, Spain
Located about 45 kilometers from Madrid, The Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is a jack of all trades. El Escorial (as it’s known in short) has functioned as a monastery, basilica, royal palace, pantheon, library, museum, university, school and hospital. It was built to symbolize Spain’s role as the center of the Christian world, and is a must-see on my Spain and Portugal road trip. After all, the place attracts more than 500,000 visitors every year!
My last stop on Day 9 of my Spain and Portugal road trip was Toledo. Known as the “Imperial City”, Toledo was once home to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
My first point of interest is the Catedral de Toledo. Magnificent and striking in every way, the cathedral’s exterior facade is awe-inspiring to the beholder.
The cathedral’s interior does not fail to impress either. After entering through a small side entrance, you will find yourself surrounded by ornate gold reliefs, huge oil paintings, a baroque styled altar, portraits of Toledo Cardinals, as well as artworks by artists like El Greco and Raphael.
Not as remarkable as other cities, the Alcazar of Toledo can easily be missed. The large square building dates back to a Roman camp in the 3rd century.
This gorgeous 16th century church in the Jewish Quarter was built by Ferdinand and Isabella. If you look closely at the facade, you can see the chains of the christians who were freed from the Moors.
This fine architectural beauty is the Iglesia de los Jesuitas. Located on the highest point of Toledo, it offers fantastic views of the city. A great way to end Day 9 of my Spain and Portugal road trip!
Royal Palace of Aranjuez, Spain
Part of the Aranjuez Cultural Landscape and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, The Royal Palace of Aranjuez was the first stop on Day 10 of my Spain and Portugal road trip. The palace and the surrounding gardens were established when Philip II of Spain moved the capital from Toledo to Madrid.
The palace is a favorite with tourists and day-trippers from Madrid alike. You can walk around the vast grounds, as well as stroll through the beautiful tree-lined pedestrian pathways. The perfectly manicured gardens have exotic flowers and fruits, and the flowing streams are home to local birds.
Alcala de Henares, Spain
The next city on my Spain and Portugal road trip, is often called “the city of three cultures”. You can observe this at Alcala’s city center, Plaza de Cervantes. Walking along the pedestrian main street Calle Mayor, you will discover the area to be a confluence of the Moorish, Jewish and Christian quarters.
I was keeping my eyes peeled for the University of Alcala, when I stopped in Alcala de Henares during my Spain and Portugal road trip. One of the oldest universities in the world, the University of Alcala is the city’s main attraction. Did you know that the university’s unique architecture has influenced other academic institutions, including the Texas Tech University and the University of San Diego. Of course, I had to see this university building for myself!
The Alcala de Henares Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of the Santos Ninos, is another prominent building in the city. The church is home to the remains of Saints Justus and Pastor, two Christian boys martyred during the persecutions of Roman Emperor Diocletian. Don’t forget to check out the western facade. The archway is one-of-a-kind, and exemplifies the Florid or Isabelline Gothic style.
Alcala is also the birthplace of the famous author Miguel de Cervantes. You can read about his life, and see his books on display at the city museum (I am a nerd at heart!). The below picture is the Peruvian translation of Don Quixote into the Quechua language.
Note: If you are in the area around October 9th, Alcala de Henares celebrates Miguel de Cervantes’ birthday with an annual Cervantes festival.
No one can complete their Spain and Portugal road trip without visiting Madrid. The capital and largest city of Spain, Madrid is known for its artistic heritage, cultural institutions, urban parks, upscale shopping, gastrobars, and thriving nightlife.
Getting kind of nostalgic now. Its the last day of my Spain and Portugal road trip, and I really feel like I have been living here all my life. Well, let’s conclude the trip in style, shall we?
Built by the Moors, Cuenca is located in the mountains and is a bit of a drive. The city has preserved its Historic Walled Town, which means that driving through the super narrow cobbled streets in this rainy weather was not easy!
The main point of interest in Cuenca are its Casas Colgadas or “Hanging Houses”. Clinging precariously to the cliffs overlooking the Huecar gorge, these houses defy time and of course, gravity. Though I must imagine living life on the edge must not be everyone’s cup of tea.
The province of Aragon might seem like an “out-of-the-way” choice for my Spain and Portugal road trip. But I have a good reason to visit Aragon.
Mudejar art was developed in the 12th century after the Reconquista in Spain. The architectural style is influenced predominantly by Islamic traditions, as well as contemporary European styles like Gothic. Nowhere is Mudejar art seen at its architectural best than in the province of Aragon. No wonder the Mudejar architecture has made Aragon a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Aragonese Mudejar art can be found along the Ebro river valley and its southern tributaries in the Iberian Peninsula. Most of these beautiful buildings can be found in Teruel and Zaragoza (next stop in my Spain and Portugal road trip!).
The best way to explore Teruel is to let your feet and eyes guide you. Every building has its own unique form of Mudejar architecture, be it the San Pedro de Teruel or the Salvador de Teruel. The decorative use of bricks, glazed tiles, lattice work, multi-grooved arches and rhombus-shaped mouldings (sebqa) are inspired from many styles, such as Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Sassanid and Berber. Teruel definitely provides many opportunities for some amazing architecture photography!
And here I am! The very last city on my Spain and Portugal road trip. The capital of Spain’s Aragon region, Zaragoza’s skyline is framed by prominent Mudejar-style landmarks.
The most famous of these landmarks is the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the basilica is the second most holiest pilgrimage site in Spain after Santiago de Compostela. Just look how amazing this magnificent structure is! And I absolutely love the multiple domes with their colorful mosaic designs. Just stunning!
Lonja de Zaragoza is a symbol of the commercial power of Aragon in the 16th century. This pale brick, Renaissance styled building lies next to the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar. While it is today only a local exhibition hall, you should still check out the interior framework. The columns were designed to resemble giant palm fronds merging into petaled flowers. Really fine artisan work, and a reminder of the past Muslim influence in the region.
The church Iglesia de San Juan de los Panetes is free to visit. But the real highlight is the stunning hexagonal baroque brick tower dating back to the 16th century. The best views of the tower can be captured from the plaza in front of the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar.
The Catedral del Salvador de Zaragoza was built on the site of the Roman forum of Augustus, as well as the main Moorish mosque of Saraqusta. You can see that these elements played a role in the construction of the church’s bell tower, which closely resembles the minaret of a mosque. The baroque spire on top of the tower was added later.
As we fidgeted impatiently while stuck in traffic on the way back to Barcelona, I reminisced about all that I had seen, touched and experienced. What an adventure! 26 cities in 12 days. How I am going to miss everything here. One day, I shall definitely return. My Spain and Portugal road trip thus concluded, I leave you with this travel quote:
“If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of feet.” — Rachel Wolchin
Go on. Travel new roads. Discover yourself.