Over 10 days you'll leave the tourist traps and discover the real Spain, the ancient Spain—Don Quixote's Spain. From Madrid, you'll embark on a road trip into the plateau region of La Mancha, famous for its medieval towns, national parks, and vineyards. By the time the adventure ends, you'll have experienced a region that has captivated the world ever since Spain's golden age of literature.

Highlights

  • See the most famous sights of Madrid on a guided tour
  • Visit Toledo, a historic city that was once the capital of Old Spain
  • Embark on a road trip through La Mancha
  • Stop at unspoiled national parks like Daimiel and Ruidera Lakes
  • Take a wine tour of the Valdepeñas region

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Madrid Madrid
Day 2 Private City Tour - Discover Madrid's Royal Legacy Madrid
Day 3 Pick up Rental Car - Day Trip to Toledo Toledo
Day 4 Drive From Madrid to Daimiel - Tour La Mancha Daimiel
Day 5 Drive From Daimiel to Almagro - National Park Tour Almagro
Day 6 Tour Almagro - Optional Trip to Campo de Calatrava Almagro
Day 7 Drive From Almagro to Villanueva - Wine Tour villanueva de los infantes
Day 8 Tour Villanueva de los Infantes villanueva de los infantes
Day 9 Drive From Villanueva to Alcázar de San Juan - Stop at Ruidera Lakes Alcazar de San Juan
Day 10 Drive to Madrid - Optional Activities - Departure  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Madrid

Madrid at night
Madrid at night

Welcome to Spain!

Upon arrival at the nation's capital, you'll enjoy a private transfer to your hotel in the city center. Take some time to settle in before heading out to explore. You'll definitely want to see some of the highlights like the Puerta del Sol, one of the most historic and expansive plazas in the city. There's also Madrid's famous Fountain of Cibeles. Located in the city center it features a sculpture completed in 1782 and depicting Cybele, the Greek goddess of fertility, riding in a chariot pulled by lions.

Perhaps you could take in a show. Gran Vía is Madrid's answer to Broadway, and on it, you'll find plenty of theaters showcasing plays and musical productions. Needless to say, the options for culture in this city are vast, and you could also visit museums, art galleries, and live music venues if the mood strikes.

When night falls, be sure to indulge in Madrid's world-class culinary scene. If you want to dine amid history, head to Botín. No less than Ernest Hemingway described it in his seminal novel The Sun Also Rises as the best restaurant on earth. 

Day 2: Private City Tour - Discover Madrid's Royal Legacy

The Royal Palace, Madrid
The Royal Palace, Madrid

Enjoy a half-day tour of Madrid led an expert local guide today. Madrid has a long history, and today the city adorns itself with that history in its architecture, public spaces, and culture. An organized tour is ideal, and your guide will reveal insight into how different time periods influenced Madrid's neighborhoods and buildings, as well as point out the most interesting sights.

One area you'll visit that's awash in splendor is the Madrid de los Austrias. It was built in the 16th century during the reign of the Hapsburg Dynasty's first ruler, Charles I. Located in the city center, it's home to one of the grandest plazas in Spain, the Plaza Mayor, which was once the heart of Old Madrid.

Also here is the Royal Palace, which was the official home of the Spanish monarchs until 1931. You'll tour both the grounds and interior of this 3,418-room monument to opulence, entering the parade ground, the bedchambers of Charles III, several salons, the Royal Chapel, and the Hall of the Crown, which displays Charles I's crown, scepter, and throne.

Later you could visit El Retiro Park. This 308-acre expanse of verdure is the green lung of Madrid, abounding with sculptures, fountains, and a man-made lake perfect for taking a boat trip. There are also must-visit gardens here including the Jardín de Vivaces ("Garden of Vivacious Plants"), Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez (inspired by the Andalusia region), and a garden home to over 4,000 roses. The best time to see these blooms from May through June. 

Day 3: Pick up Rental Car - Day Trip to Toledo

Toledo and its iconic Alcázar
Toledo and its iconic Alcázar

In the morning you'll pick up your rental car and embark on a day trip to Toledo, located about an hour south of Madrid. You'll meet a local guide for a walking tour of this historic city, which enjoys a dramatic location atop a gorge overlooking the Río Tajo.

Back in the 16th century, Toledo was the capital of Old Spain. It was during this time that Toledo was known as the "City of the Three Cultures," a place where—legend has it—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities peacefully coexisted. You can see remnants of this in the old Arab, Muslim, and Christian monuments that still stand. These include the 15th-century Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, the former Roman palace Alcázar de Toledo, and the Moorish Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, which dates to the 12th century.

The tour includes stops at these historic landmarks as well as others, including the grand 13th century Toledo Cathedral and the 12th century Church of Santo Tomé. Throughout it all, you'll tour the ancient streets of an incredible city that could aptly be described as an open-air museum. After all, Toledo does enjoy UNESCO World Heritage status. 

Day 4: Drive From Madrid to Daimiel - Tour La Mancha

The famous windmills of La Mancha
The famous windmills of La Mancha

After breakfast, you'll begin your road trip into La Mancha. From Madrid, take the road towards the town of Consuegra on a route that passes along the arid plateaus of central Spain. This was the home region of the Ingenious Gentleman protagonist of Spain's most celebrated novel, Don Quixote. He may have been a fictional character, but the windmills featured in that everlasting work by Cervantes are very real staples of La Mancha, and you'll pass by them on the drive.

You'll also stop and enjoy a tour of the area led by an expert guide. You'll visit not only the windmills but also Castillo de la Muela, a well-preserved castle that dates to the 10th century. Throughout the tour, your guide will reveal insight into these landmarks to help you understand their history. An optional stop on the tour is the Saffron Museum, which features exhibits about history, cultivation and qualities of Spanish saffron, which is said to be the best in the world. 

You'll likely work up an appetite after all that sightseeing. Around lunchtime, you can stop off on the drive at a local restaurant for a traditional La Mancha meal. Afterward, you'll continue on to Las Tablas de Daimiel, a national park protecting the area's largest wetland eco-system. You'll overnight here in a hotel.

Day 5: Drive From Daimiel to Almagro - National Park Tour

Take a pleasant stroll through Tablas de Daimiel National Park
Take a pleasant stroll through Tablas de Daimiel National Park

After an early breakfast at the hotel, you'll drive to the entrance of Las Tablas de Daimiel National Park. Here you'll meet a private guide for a half-day tour.

At 7,413 acres, this is Spain's smallest natural park, but you wouldn't know it by the abundant flora and fauna. It's home to various migratory waterbirds, like herons and egrets, who flock to these expansive wetlands during winter. On a brisk walk around the park, your guide will lead you along wooden pathways to the best vantage points for viewing nesting flocks. Savor the experience, because Tablas de Daimiel is the last floodplain wetland in the central Iberian peninsula. 

After the tour, you'll hop back in the car and continue a short way to Almagro, where you'll check into your hotel. This town of fewer than 10,000 people may be small in scale, but it abounds with rich history and beautiful landmarks. Its well-preserved 15th-century architecture is a throwback to when Almagro was defined by its aristocratic culture, which you can see in the stately manor homes and grand Plaza Mayor that's lined with colonnaded buildings.

But the city is most famous for its 16th-century open air-theater, the Corral de Comedias. You can tour the Corral during the day, and some nights they feature performances from Spain's golden age of theater of the 16th and 17th-centuries. It also hosts a theater festival in July.

Day 6: Tour Almagro - Optional Trip to Campo de Calatrava

The Plaza Mayor, Almagro
The Plaza Mayor, Almagro

In the morning, you'll meet up with an expert guide and embark on a city tour of Almagro. This town of fewer than 10,000 people may be small in scale, but it abounds with rich history and beautiful landmarks. Its well-preserved 15th-century architecture is a throwback to when Almagro was defined by its aristocratic culture, which you can see in the stately manor homes and grand Plaza Mayor that's lined with colonnaded buildings.

But the city is most famous for its 16th-century open air-theater, the Corral de Comedias. You can tour the Corral during the day, and some nights they feature performances from Spain's golden age of theater of the 16th and 17th-centuries. It also hosts a theater festival in July.

In the afternoon, you can head to the nearby Campo de Calatrava, a comarca (traditional region) known for volcanic hills and glassy lagoons. It was named after the military Order of Calatrava, who controlled the region in the 10th-12th centuries when La Mancha was the frontier between Christian and Muslim Spain. Here you can visit well-preserved castles, like Calatrava la Nueva, and interesting archeological sites like Oreto and Zuqueca, home to the remains of a Visigoth necropolis and an ancient Muslim city.

Day 7: Drive From Almagro to Villanueva - Wine Tour

Tour the vineyards of La Mancha
Tour the vineyards of La Mancha

After breakfast, you'll continue your road trip to the well-preserved medieval town of Villanueva de los Infantes. However, you'll stop off along the way for a wine tour of Valdepeñas. Not only does this region enjoy the Designation of Origin (D.O.) mark of quality, but La Mancha as a whole is the largest continuous wine-growing region in the world. With over 300 vineyards and 22,000 grape growers, there are a lot options for things to do and see here. Luckily you'll have a guide for your excursion.

You'll meet a wine expert who will take you on a journey into the world of Spanish viticulture. After traveling to a local vineyard, the guide will teach you about the different grape varieties grown in the region. You'll see the care and techniques that go into harvesting grapes on a small-production vineyard. You'll learn about the external factors that can influence the quality of the grapes—everything from the weather to astrology. 

After touring the vineyards, you'll visit the actual winery and see firsthand the enormous terracotta fermentation containers where the grapes become wine. Each one holds an impressive 1,585 gallons (6,000 liters). After the tour, you'll be able to sample some wines. Popular varietals in La Mancha include Grenache and Tempranillo. 

In the afternoon, you can either hang around Valdepeñas for a while and enjoy the town or continue on to Villanueva de los Infantes. Upon arrival you'll check into your hotel and can spend the remainder of the day relaxing.

Day 8: Tour Villanueva de los Infantes

Plaza Mayor, Villanueva de los Infantes
Plaza Mayor, Villanueva de los Infantes

In the morning you'll meet a local expert guide for a walking tour of Villanueva de los Infantes. With its early 17th-century Plaza Mayor (central plaza) and various medieval hermitages and convents, this throwback village is straight out of the mind of Cervantes. In fact, Villanueva de los Infantes is generally accepted to be the town referenced at the beginning of Don Quixote as the home of the title character. 

You'll visit the major sights in town, including the Plaza Mayor and St. Andres Church, where the famed poet Francisco de Quevedo is buried. You'll also stroll cobbled streets lined with medieval manor houses that will astonish with their well-preserved history.

When the sun sets, you'll head out for dinner at a great restaurant in town. It's the perfect opportunity to discover and enjoy genuine La Mancha cuisine.

Day 9: Drive From Villanueva to Alcázar de San Juan - Stop at Ruidera Lakes

Lagunas del Ruidera
Lagunas del Ruidera

After a leisurely breakfast in Villanueva de los Infantes, you'll drive to the town of Alcázar de San Juan. On the way, you'll stop at another wetland region: Lagunas del Ruidera. This Oasis in La Mancha is comprised of 16 glassy lakes connected by cascading waterfalls. With its many beaches and swimming areas, the environment is almost tropical yet firmly rooted in La Mancha—the lakes are even referenced in Don Quixote

After spending the morning and part of the afternoon enjoying the lakes, you'll take a break for lunch. Instead of traditional Spanish cuisine, you'll dine at a restaurant that has won international awards for having the best pizza in Spain many years running. Afterward, should you choose, you can enjoy a tasting of artisanal brandies at a nearby distillery. 

Later in the afternoon, you'll continue to Alcazar de San Juan, where you'll check into your hotel. You'll have the evening free.

Day 10: Drive to Madrid - Optional Activities - Departure

The Campo de Criptana windmills
The Campo de Criptana windmills

In the morning you'll drive 1.5 hours to Madrid to catch your flight home. Not to worry, though, as you can enjoy one or two more activities in La Mancha before your plane leaves. You could visit the famous Campo de Criptana windmills, or stop in at a private workshop in the town of Villafranca for a hands-on lesson in producing traditional terracotta ceramics. You can even visit a farm that produces award-winning Manchego cheese from sheep's milk. Tastings included.

Whatever you decide, eventually you'll arrive at the airport in Madrid. This concludes your grand journey through La Mancha. Adios and come back soon!

Map

Map of Spain Off-the-Beaten-Path Road Trip: Madrid to La Mancha - 10 days
Map of Spain Off-the-Beaten-Path Road Trip: Madrid to La Mancha - 10 days