If you're also obsessed with tapas, Rioja, and the natural beauty, I recommend seeing Andalucia. It's just as charming as its big sister cities (Madrid and Barcelona) although it's much calmer withstanding the busy Costa del Sol. You can fly into either Seville or Malaga for a low price using a number of budget airlines from within the EU: Transavia (from the Netherlands), Easyjet (EU), Ryanair (EU), Vueling (major cities EU), and Wizzair (Eastern Europe). Outside of the EU, it might be cheaper to fly into Southern Spain via Barcelona, Lisbon, or another European hub.
The quick: why visit Andalucia!?
- Gorgeous beaches
- Unspoiled white towns in the mountains
- Incredible mountains
- Historic cities and palaces
- Scenic drives through small, charming Spanish towns
- Great hiking (and via ferrata) in unspoiled landscapes with minimal tourists
Although a lot of people tend to go car-less or simply stick to the Costa Del Sol, I highly recommend renting a car...and hiding your valuables (more about this later). The major cities of Andalucia aren't that far apart (maybe 1-2 hours) and the drive is stunning. Some parts remind me more of Texas than Spain due to the dryness of the landscape although I loved all the incredible/strange rock formations. (Below photo pictures La Peña de los Enamorados (Lover's Leap due to a local legend) in Antequera behind the castle).
Parking and driving in Granada is quite difficult, especially as you near the old city. Most streets are limited to residents and taxis, which makes it quite difficult to find parking. If you're driving, search for Colegio Ave Maria San Cristobal on Ctra. de Murcia. It's not a terrible walk down to the old city although admittedly, the jagged path makes it quite easy to get lost. We stayed in an airbnb with an incredible view of the Alhambra on Calle Horno del Oro where we had an great studio to ourselves. The owner was very warm/friendly, the location cannot be beat, and neither can the price, especially for your own apartment. Below is the view footsteps from the apartment we rented in the Alhambra.
We left the next morning for Antequera. It's a cute small town and I had traditional Spanish jamon sandwiches before we set off for El Torcal. El Torcal is a natural site about an hour north of Malaga and east of Granada. The rocks have very strange shapes and hiking around it is pretty fantastic. As we were driving up into the mountains, we actually drove into the cloud, which made it quite difficult to see the incredible landscape pictured on the right. We came to do via ferrata and left our bags in the car, which is something I'll come back to. We hiked around the park for a few hours before coming back to the car.
Pro-tip: Have GOOD travel insurance (including car break-ins), HIDE all valuables if you have them in the car or carry them on you, and think carefully before leaving all your stuff in your car.
I tried to not let this get to me although we needed to drive back to Malaga before replacing the car and driving to El Gastor, a tiny white town in the mountains. Our bed and breakfast was incredibly charming and Miguel was so understanding. We spent the next morning taking in the town and the views. This region of Spain is famous for its natural beauty and its adorable white towns in the mountains (pueblos blancos). It feels a world away from Malaga.
Ronda is a fantastic place to climb due to the unique geography as well as the easily accessible routes that are walkable from town. If you have your own gear, you can do via ferrata to climb up its famous gorge. Via ferrata is quite similar to rock climbing, except for the fact that you clip yourself onto a rope that is drilled into the wall, and there are natural footholds for you. We had difficulty finding the route marker, which resulted in us mistakenly finding someone's sheep yard..and needing to eventually climb out of a backyard when we realized we were trapped.
Other side trips to consider (that we didn't get to):
- Gibraltar (for the sake of saying you went - 2 hours from Malaga.)
- Taking the ferry to Tangier,Morocco
- Visiting the strange Guadalquivir Marshlands (the subject of a fantastic movie called Marshland)
- Trying out the formerly dangerous Camino del Rey (needs to be booked months in advance for non-summer)
- Spending time in the Sierra Nevada mountains
- Visiting Seville or Cadiz for more history
Of course, share your favorite tips in the comments!