Driving through southern Spain provides an experience that you just can’t replicate by visiting the big cities of Spain like Madrid or Barcelona. Exploring Andalusia, you will pass through fields of waving sunflowers and hill after hill of olive groves as you wind through dusty mountains to end up at the beautiful beaches in Costa del Sol. From the oldest bullring in Spain to UNESCO World Heritage sites; from small, charming pueblos blancos to crowded beaches and amusement parks, a southern Spain vacation has a lot to offer — but first you have to get there.
Kick off your stay in southern Spain with two days in Seville. Here you’ll have a chance to get immersed in Spanish culture by exploring the largest Gothic cathedral, visiting a palace which is still used as royal residence, seeing a flamenco show, and discovering the city by foot, boat or carriage. (See Five Things to do in Seville for more suggestions.)
You’ll then want to pick up your car and head to the coast, with a couple of pitstops or day trips along the way.
If you take a day to drive to Marbella on the coast, you’ll have time to explore a couple of Andalusia’s famous white towns (or Pueblos Blancos). Arabic in design, these towns are named for their stark whitewashed buildings that gleam against the background of the blue sky and are adorned only by the flowers dripping from windowsills.
On your way to Ronda, the largest of the white towns, I’d recommend a pitstop at Zahara de la Sierra just one and one-half hours from Seville. As you cross over a bridge and look up at the mountain, you’ll see the crisp white of the town clinging to its edges and topped with an ancient tower. Wind your way up the corkscrew streets to the top and just when you feel like you’ll roll off the other side, look out at the most amazing views of the reservoir down below.
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After taking time to enjoy the views, you can either follow a footpath up to the tower at the top, or continue another 30 to 40 minutes to Ronda. Ronda is famous for its 100 meter deep El Tajo gorge, which is straddled by an 18th-century “new” bridge at the heart of the town center.
The town is also known for being the birthplace of modern bullfighting and you can tour the oldest bullfighting ring in Spain and its adjacent small museum.
When you have finished exploring Ronda, wind your way south to Marbella, home for the next three nights.
Unlike the small white towns, Marbella is a busy seaside resort, attracting both the jet set and families. But Marbella isn’t just glitz and glamour, in the old city you will also find cobblestone streets and flower-filled plazas, including the orange-tree filled Plaza de los Naranjos. Here you’ll find amazing food and plenty of shopping, but also plenty to entertain the kids nearby like Aqualand Torremolinos, Selwo Adventura, Tivoli World, and Sea Life Benalmádena.
Spend your first day enjoying the town and beaches, to break up sightseeing with a little relaxation. Just keep in mind that while the air is warm, the sea is always chilly.
On your second day in Marbella, consider adding a day trip to Gibraltar – just be sure to bring your passport as Gibraltar is a British Territory. Head out early for the hour drive to Gibraltar as the border crossing can be tedious.
You can either drive across the border, or park at the bus station and walk across. The entire territory is only three square kilometers and bus service is available (but cross-border bus service is not.) Victoria from Celebrate the Weekend recommends walking across the border and hiring a guide to show you around. The top attraction is the Upper Rock Nature Preserve, where a ticket provides entrance to St. Michael’s Cave, with its impressive stalactites and stalagmites; the Great Siege Tunnels, a labyrinth of tunnels used as a defense system; and Apes’ Den, where the Rock’s most famous residents hang out — the 200 plus Barbary Macaques.
You can spend some time enjoying the views of the rock and exploring the sites on Upper Rock – just watch out for those frisky monkeys! They can be aggressive and aren’t shy about swiping things.
After spending another day enjoying Costa del Sol, turn northeast for a two hour drive to Granada, home to the Alhambra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visiting the Alhambra can be tiring, so you’ll want to save that excursion for the next day. Instead, settle into your hotel and then explore the Albaicin, the old Arab quarter with amazing views of the Alhambra.
The next day, you’ll want to arrange to see the Alhambra in the morning if you can, before the sun is too hot. Either arrange for a private tour to get the most out of the experience, or arrive early to queue up for your timed-entry tickets (or buy your tickets in advance.)
Parts of the Alhambra, one of the great ancient palaces of the world, date back to the ninth century, while others were built by the Catholic monarchs in the 18th century. Your tour will include the beautiful gardens of the Generalife (not to be missed), the baths, the Royal Palace, the Patio of Lions and the Carlos V palace.
There is so much to see that a visit can easily take a half-day of walking in the hot sun so you’ll want to spend your afternoon relaxing before traveling back to Madrid for a flight home the following day.
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From Moorish castles and palaces, to walking in the footsteps of Christopher Columbus before we voyaged west, to leisurely days enjoying the Mediterranean Sea, a southern Spain vacation is sure to please the whole family.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Tamara Gruber.
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