Going Our Way: The best of Spain in 11 days

Segovia, two hours by train from Madrid, is known for its Renaissance cathedral, 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct and scads of churches.
Segovia, two hours by train from Madrid, is known for its Renaissance cathedral, 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct and scads of churches. (David Tomlinson/Lonely Planet)
By K.C. Summers
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Who: Linda and Dave Fersch, both 59, of Ashburn

Where: Spain

Why: Spring break

When: 11 days in April

Budget: $6,000

"This is our first trip to Europe and we don't want to do a class trip-type tour. We want to explore on our own and experience the culture."

The Fersches' request sounds innocent enough: Help them figure out how to see the best of Spain in 11 days. They want to stay in historic hotels, paradors (stylish state-run inns) and B&Bs and focus primarily on culture, dining, theater and shopping.

So far so good. But the couple's wish list includes Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Valencia and Toledo, and they also want to squeeze in some beach time and maybe get a teensy glimpse of Morocco, too. Here in the travel-planning biz, we call this the if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium (IITTMBB) syndrome. Unless you want your trip to be one big blur, don't let this happen to you.

So let's start off by paring down. Right off the bat, I'd ditch Morocco (it's a rich, complex destination worthy of a trip in itself) and the beach (that's what Ocean City is for), and drop Valencia (Holy Grail, eh) in favor of the more stirring Cordoba and Segovia.

Here's an itinerary that covers a lot of ground but still allows for some down time, so you can truly savor your time in Spain. But first, a word about getting around. Spain has a highly efficient rail network, so trains are the way to go. While you can purchase tickets en route, it's easier and cheaper to reserve from the United States through Rail Europe (800-622-8600, http://www.raileurope.com). With an itinerary like this one, consider booking a rail pass. A four-day pass, for example, costs $266 per person for second-class travel ($332 for first class). Service charges and fees can add up; to save money, buy your passes online instead of by phone. Note that reservations (required for all high-speed trains) are an additional expense, about $18 a pop.

Days 1-2: Madrid. Spend a couple of days getting to know this walkable, elegant and supremely fun city. Instead of running around with a stopwatch, concentrate on two or three iconic sites, such as the Prado, one of the world's great art museums, followed by its polar opposite, the fabulous modern art museum Thyssen-Bornemisza. Then stroll through beautiful and lively Retiro Park (watch your wallet). Any extra time can be devoted to sampling the city's coffee culture, visiting Picasso's "Guernica" at the Reina Sofia Museum and prowling tapas bars at night. MadrileƱos love to eat late, so block out time for a siesta during the day.

Book a hotel in the center city so you can walk everywhere. The ME Madrid Reina Victoria (011-34-91-701-60-00, http://www.solmelia.com; rooms from $256 double), with a 19th-century facade and thoroughly modern interior, should satisfy your historic/luxe requirements nicely.

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