- See the most famous sights of Madrid on a guided tour
- Visit the Ribera del Duero wine region for a tasting
- Travel the pilgrimage route and stop at beautiful locales in Galicia
- Enjoy the white-sand beaches of the Cíes Islands
|Day 1||Arrival in Madrid - Evening Tapas Tour||Madrid|
|Day 2||Madrid's Highlights, Prado Museum, & Food Tour||Madrid|
|Day 3||Drive From Madrid to Ribera del Duero||Peñafiel|
|Day 4||Drive to León - City Tour||León|
|Day 5||Drive From León to Ribeira Sacra - Stop in Astorga||Monforte de Lemos area|
|Day 6||Boat Tour of Ribeira Sacra - Drive to Vigo||Vigo|
|Day 7||Day Trip to the Cíes Islands||Vigo|
|Day 8||Drive From Vigo to Santiago on the Camellia Route||Santiago de Compostela|
|Day 9||Santiago de Compostela - Cooking Class & City Tour||Santiago de Compostela|
|Day 10||Depart Spain|
Day 1: Arrival in Madrid - Evening Tapas Tour
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.
In the evening, you'll really dig into Madrid's culture on a food tour. A local expert guide will lead you on a two-hour walking excursion that stops at some great tapas bars. On this tour, you'll visit Barrio Las Letras, which is known as the "literary quarter." This historic neighborhood in the city center was once home to Spanish lit legends like Cervantes and Quevedo. Besides visiting some historic sights around here, you'll also stop on Calle Huertas for a bite at one of the many tapas bars that line the street.
Day 2: Madrid's Highlights, Prado Museum, & Food Tour
After breakfast, a private guide will pick you up from your hotel and take you on a half-day walking tour of the city. This excursion covers all the highlights from throughout Madrid's long history, from the times of the Habsburgs and the Bourbons to the present day. This, of course, includes a stop at the opulent Royal Palace, which is the former residence of the King and Queen of Spain. You'll also visit the expansive Plaza Mayor, the shopping area along Gran Vía, and a stroll through El Retiro Park, the "green lung" of Madrid.
The tour culminates with a visit to the magnificent El Prado Museum, which features one of the finest collections of European art in the world. This includes works by Velazquez, El Greco, and Goya. Your guide will lead you through some of these exhibits before leaving you to continue exploring on your own. There's a lot to see, too, as the galleries here are home to masterpieces from the Spanish, Italian and Flemish schools.
After the museum, you'll have a break to relax and recharge after all that walking. Then, you'll head out for an evening hopping from one great tapas bar to another. These are the classic taverns that defined Madrid for centuries, and at each one, you'll be treated to delicious and authentic Spanish food. Your guide will accompany you and offer insight into this cuisine as well as which wines pairs best with certain dishes.
Day 3: Drive From Madrid to Ribera del Duero
In the morning you'll pick up your rental car and drive north from Madrid two hours towards Valladolid, a medieval city known for its Gothic churches. This route heads deep into Spain's Old Castile region, which is famous for its high plateaus and mountain scenery. It was once the heart of the Kingdom of Castile, which thrived in the 11th century, and its old castles stand to this day. You'll see one fortress, Peñafiel Castle, when you arrive in the town of the same name. Nearby is where your hotel is located.
The town of Peñafiel sits in the Ribera del Duero wine region. This fertile grape-growing area enjoys Designation of Origin (D.O.) status, a certification reserved only for the top wine-producing spots in the country. It has earned this appellation, too, as the wines from Ribera del Duero rival those produced in Spain's most popular viticulture region, La Rioja.
Upon arrival in Peñafiel, you'll check into a hotel located right on the vineyards. You'll have the rest of the day to enjoy the hotel's amenities or head out for some fresh air and a walk amid the grapevines. You could also venture into Peñafiel for a self-guided tour. From the expansive Plaza del Coso, you can see the famous castle overlooking the town.
Day 4: Drive to León - City Tour
Today you'll drive north to the coast, stopping in the city of León. What began as a Roman military camp on the Bernesga River in the 1st century BCE then thrived through the centuries, reaching its peak in the Middle Ages. The medieval and Roman heritage of León is well preserved and you can see it in the many historic landmarks. Upon arrival, you'll check into your hotel and settle in.
In the afternoon, you'll meet an expert guide and embark on a city tour. León's rich history means there is no shortage of can't-miss sights. These include the famed Roman Walls (remains of stone defensive walls from the 1st century), beautiful old manor houses, and a dizzying array of churches housing Romanesque and Gothic artworks.
You'll also visit the expansive Plaza Mayor, which is located in the city's Old Town and is rimmed with medieval buildings and long arcades. Plus there's a stop at Casa Botines, an incredible work of modernist architecture designed by the legendary Antoni Gaudí.
The highlight of the tour is undoubtedly the 13th-century Catedral de León (Cathedral of Santa María de Regla), a marvel of Gothic architecture and one of the most beautiful churches anywhere in Spain. It's an enormous place that takes up 1,800 square meters and features impressive stained glass mosaics dating from the 13th through 16th centuries. Interestingly, the cathedral was built over the ruins of Roman baths.
Day 5: Drive From León to Ribeira Sacra - Stop in Astorga
Today you'll drive west from León into the Galicia region of Spain. Not only is Galicia regarded as one of the most beautiful parts of the country, but the city of León actually sits at the crossroads of one of the most famous walks in the world: the Camino de Santiago.
This ancient network of pilgrimage routes begins as far away as France and leads to the cathedral in Galicia's capital of Santiago de Compostela, where the apostle Saint James the Great is supposedly buried. While many still make the pilgrimage for spiritual regions, it has become a popular route for hikers and cyclists from around the world because of the gorgeous scenery.
In fact, most view the final section between León and Santiago as having the most incredible scenery of all. This has much to do with the region's beautiful green mountains and rich Roman and Celtic history, which can be seen in the Roman-era walls and bronze-age stone ruins.
You'll witness Galicia's beauty first hand as you drive west from Léon into the Ribeira Sacra region. The rivers Sil and Miño wind through the green mountains of this unspoiled area, which is dotted with monasteries and hermitage sites that date back to when the first Christians arrived in the 12th century. The name Ribeira Sacra actually translates to "Sacred Riverbank."
First things first, though. You'll stop en route to Ribeira Sacra just a few miles outside of Léon in the village of Astorga. This is the capital of Maragatería County in the province of León. For many hikers and cyclists, it's also the starting point of the Camino, as Astoria is where the two main routes into Santiago—Vía de la Plata and the French Way, meet.
The town is also a throwback to earlier ages. Stone walls dating to Roman times encircle Astorga, and within them, you'll find many medieval churches, convents, and hospitals. On a tour of its cobbled streets and town square (the Plaza Mayor de Astruga), you'll see these landmarks plus the most famous of all: the Episcopal Palace. This late-19th-century modernist masterpiece by Antoní Gaudí is one of only three buildings designed by the legendary architect that exists outside his home region of Catalonia.
After walking around Astorga for a while you can stop at a restaurant for a traditional lunch. Be sure to try a Galician specialty like roast suckling pig or polbo á feira (boiled octopus with paprika and olive oil). Other regional favorites include caldo gallega (a hearty broth of potatoes, beans, greens, and pork), fried padrón peppers, and queso de tetilla, a soft, cone-shaped white cheese known for its buttery taste.
After lunch, you can work off the meal with some countryside hiking on the section of the Camino route between Astorga and the city of Ponferrada. Afterward, you'll press on by car to the Ribeira Sacra region and your hotel, located near the town of Monforte de Lemos.
Day 6: Boat Tour of Ribeira Sacra - Drive to Vigo
You'll have the day to enjoy the Ribeira Sacra, a mountainous river canyon of unparalleled beauty. Remote and lesser-developed than many parts of Spain, since the 12th century, this area was primarily home to monks and hermits who came to live ascetic lives near the confluence of the rivers Sil and Miño.
The River Sil winds between green mountains and through canyons, affording some uniquely incredible views. You'll witness them on a 1.5-hour riverboat tour of Ribeira Sacra, where you can bask amid gorgeous scenery that includes sloping hills and high plateaus. Also here, flourishing amid the cypress and chestnut trees, is another bit of vegetation famous throughout the region: grapevines.
Yes, Ribeira Sacra is a fertile grape-growing region that enjoys Designation of Origin (D.O.) status for its wine production. It's uniquely referred to as "heroic viticulture" because, due to the steepness of the mountains and hills, most vineyards here are terraced. With so many vines hanging off the sides of hills and canyons, the simple act of grape-harvesting in Ribeira Sacra requires much deftness and agility.
After the boat tour, you'll head to a local guesthouse where the friendly hosts will prepare a homemade meal for you to enjoy. Then you'll hop back in the car and drive a couple of hours west to the coastal city of Vigo, where you'll overnight.
Day 7: Day Trip to the Cíes Islands
About 10 miles (16 km) west of Vigo, off the coast of Spain, lie the Cíes Islands. This archipelago is a national marine park comprised of three islands so beautiful that the ancient Romans called them the "islands of the gods." Two of them, Monte Agudo and O Faro, are linked by a crescent strip of fine white sand called Rodas Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. You'll get to discover this paradise on a private, day-long boat tour accompanied by an expert guide.
In the morning, you'll embark from the port at Vigo and first head to a group of nearby Spanish fjords known as Rias Bajas. These beautiful inlets serve a functional purpose in that it's here where Galicians harvest much of their famously delicious shellfish. The microclimate in the waters of these fjords makes an ideal breeding ground for scallops as well as perfect spots to cultivate mussels and oysters.
After stopping on the islands for some beach time and light hiking, you'll enjoy lunch onboard the ship. This will be a delicious gourmet meal featuring locally sourced products, including some of that world-class shellfish. Afterward, you'll return to Vigo and will have the remainder of the day free to enjoy however you wish.
Day 8: Drive From Vigo to Santiago on the Camellia Route
In the morning you'll hop in the car and begin the hour-long drive north from Vigo to Santiago. But first, you'll stop to smell the flowers—literally. The region of Galicia is home to over 8,000 varieties of camellia, an exotic far-east plant typically found in China and Japan. Spain began importing them in the 18th century to fill the gardens of Galician aristocrats. Eventually, they spread to public green spaces, too.
Accompanied by a guide, you'll drive along the Route of the Camellia, a network of flower-rich areas in the provinces of Galicia. You'll stop at some of the most ornate camellia gardens in rural pazos (country homes), where you can marvel at the wide variety of colors in bloom. It's a beautiful and sweet-smelling detour into the world of Galician flora.
In the afternoon, you'll reach Santiago de Compostela. This historic city is both the capital of Galicia and the culmination point of the Camino de Santiago. Upon arrival, you'll check into your hotel and will have the remainder of the day free.
Day 9: Santiago de Compostela - Cooking Class & City Tour
In the morning, you'll discover the secrets to Galician cuisine in a cooking class with a private chef. You'll prepare (and eat) some of the region's most popular dishes, like fried padrón peppers and savory empanadas stuffed with fish, shellfish, or meat. Be sure to try queimada, the famous "Galicia fire drink." Made with a liqueur called orujo (similar to grappa), it's mixed in a clay bowl with sugar and lit on fire until the flame turns blue then served hot.
In the afternoon, you'll embark on a guided tour of the main sites in Santiago. This includes Obradoiro Square, at the east end of which sits the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Construction on this Romanesque/Gothic/Baroque church began in the 11th century over the site of what is believed to be the burial place of the apostle Saint James the Great. It's been a religious pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages and marks the end of the famous Camino de Santiago walking route.
Other stops include Colexio de San Xerome (San Jerónimo College), a learning institution dating to 1501; the 16th-century Hospital de los Reyes Católicos, a hospital built to treat weary pilgrims after their arduous journey; the Pazo de Raxoi (Raxoi Palace), an 18th-century neoclassical palace that's now Santiago's City Hall; and the 18th-century San Fructuoso Church. Here you can witness pilgrim rituals and see the Botafumeiro, which is the largest silver-plated censer in the world.
Day 10: Depart Spain
It's time to say farewell to Spain! Depending on the time of your flight or train reservation, squeeze in one more morning of sight-seeing, perhaps picking up some last-minute souvenirs. At the designated time you will be picked up at your hotel and transferred to the airport or rail station for your departure onwards.
Looking for more Spain self-drive itineraries? Check out kimkim's guide to the top 10-Day road trips in Spain.