More than just a trip to a big city worth your attention, Madrid is also the epicenter of travel throughout Spain. The capital, located in the center of the country, is the optimal starting point to travel in any direction and explore one or more regions of Spain.
Spain is the second largest country in Western Europe after France. However, its accessibility through Renfe’s AVE train network makes navigating different parts of the country and getting anywhere from Madrid by train easy. With trains reaching speeds of up to 350 km per hour, you can travel from Santander on the north coast to Malaga in the south in 8 hours, or from western Salamanca to eastern Castellon de la Plana in 6. Madrid Atocha is the most common station change, the hub of the high-speed tracks.
Beyond Madrid, planning a myriad of Spain trips ultimately comes down to which city to choose, while also taking into account travel time and ticket budget. To help you shortlist, I’ve put together a selection of my top picks, the most searched train journeys from Madrid on the Renfe website, and the Spanish highlights that set the scene for Spanish culture, history and scenery.
I’m looking forward to getting back on the (rail) road when we can travel again and head south to explore new terrain.
Train stations: Madrid’s main train station is Madrid Atocha (Madrid Puerta de Atocha). It is also the largest railway station in the city, the central station for AVE trains and houses a large botanical garden, a tropical greenhouse in the capital.
Is Madrid worth a visit? The capital’s scruffy elegance competes with touristy, seaside Barcelona for visitors’ attention; still, I don’t think it should be overlooked, especially if you like the buzz of big-city life and have plenty of terrain to discover.
It takes a long time (three-four days) to explore the remaining threads of medieval history, the Habsburg Renaissance, and 19th-century neoclassical architectural styles, along with art museums, markets, and grunge and bohemian neighborhoods. Madrid is a heady mix of grandiose sites and local subcultures, fuelled by a bustling tapas bar culture, day and night. A walkable city, the best way to get around Madrid is by metro.
Madrid’s Royal Palace is the largest in Europe, with over 3,000 rooms. Daily tours take you through the highlights, such as the Main Staircase and the Royal Gallery. A stroll through the adjacent Sabatini Gardens allows you to view the palace in a green setting, and every Wednesday and Saturday the changing of the guard takes place.
The Plaza Mayor is outlined with the pretty arched porticoes of its marketplace past, which was the heart of Old Madrid when it became the capital during the reign of King Philip III of Habsburg. Today’s bustling square is the Puerta del Sol, whose semicircular thoroughfare is the crossroads of some of Madrid’s busiest streets. It was once the site of an ancient city gate and the starting point for all of Spain’s major roads.
The Temple of Debod is a 2nd-century Egyptian temple located in the elevated Cuartel de la Montaña Park and the quintessential place to watch the Madrid sunset. The Egyptian government donated the temple to prevent it from being submerged in the construction of the Aswan Dam.
The 19th-century El Retiro Park is the most beautiful and famous park in the city, with a boating lake, monuments, and botanical gardens. It is also close to the Atocha train station. The striking white, crown-shaped Palacio de Cibeles stands at one end of the park.
Art enthusiasts could spend all their time engrossed in the city’s 50 museums, about half of which are art galleries. If only one is to be chosen, the Museo Nacional del Prado is the best known worldwide and the most famous locally. I took a guided tour of El Prado to see this treasure trove of European masterpieces spanning from the 12th to the 20th century.
I spent most of my time scratching the surface of Madrid’s neighborhoods. It’s the way I like to understand the ins and outs of a city. Malasaña and Chueca are the trendy, chic, bohemian neighborhoods, Lavapiés is the multicultural, avant-garde neighborhood, and La Latina is the center of tapas culture. Barrio de las Letras is a compact artists’ centre where writers of the Spanish Golden Age lived. Los Austrias is the historic district where the Plaza Mayor and the Mercado de San Miguel are located.
Short on time or looking for a different way of sightseeing? Take a thrilling tour of Madrid in a nostalgic SEAT 600 or venture out to see the highlights of the city on the hop-on-hop-off bus.
Places to go in Spain from Madrid by train.
Madrid to San Sebastian
A visit to the northern Spanish coastal city of San Sebastian (Donostia) takes you to a very different region of Spain. A gastronomically acclaimed city, replete with Old Town architecture from Baroque basilicas to Belle Époque buildings, full of music, arts and home to Balenciaga, and root of some of Europe’s oldest traditions and language of Basque heritage.
A city surrounded by sea that once attracted royalty and aristocrats for summer holidays, it can include beach walks, surfing lessons and stand-up paddleboarding with the city’s creative mainstays that made San Sebastian a European Capital of Culture. I took in the city from the heights of Mount Igueldo, explored the terrain by bike on the city’s 30km of bike paths, and made sure to find time to enjoy the walks and the delights of the pintxo bars.
The best pintxos in San Sebastian, Spain: gastronomic culture in miniature.
Madrid to Gerona
Barcelona hogs the limelight for those planning to visit Spain’s northeastern Catalonia, but think of the neighboring city of Gerona, whose walled neighborhoods and narrow streets will take you on a journey back more than 2,000 years. The secluded beaches of the Costa Brava are just 30 minutes away.
Gerona’s medieval history can be found in the historic centre Old Town (Barri Vell), garrison of a preserved medieval old town whose Roman past is marked by the Força Vella Fortress. Built by the Romans in the 1st century BC, parts of the walled fortress remain, with extensive walls that you can walk along. Take a walking tour to find Game of Thrones filming locations.
Other points of interest in the city include the Cathedral, with a Romanesque tower and Baroque façade, built between the 11th and 18th centuries, getting lost in the maze of narrow streets and alleys of the Jewish quarter, and the magnificent Islamic-model architecture of the Arab Baths, built by the Christians in 1194. The red iron bridge of the Peixateries Velles, dating from 1827, is a famous postcard viewpoint of the city.
Madrid to Zaragoza
Nestled between Madrid and Barcelona, the capital of the Aragon region of northeastern Spain is a compact city that could work as a day trip. Zaragoza is a mix of urban boldness and old-world grace.
The 11th-century medieval Islamic palace of Ajafería is the most symbolic place to visit. Zaragoza’s UNESCO World Heritage status comes from this display of Mudejar art indigenous to Aragon, a blend of Islamic and Christian elements when both faiths coexisted after the Christian Reconquest. Beyond Zaragoza’s palatial center, best seen from the heights of the Cathedral-Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, you’ll soon see that street art paves the way to the city’s other person.
The colossal murals on the buildings are part of an annual urban regeneration initiative that breathes new artistic life into forgotten neighborhoods. Consider hiring a local guide for insider information. In Goya’s home, with a museum dedicated to his works, it’s no surprise that art plays a central role in the city’s personality. Ultra-modern architecture, such as the Alma del Ebro sculpture in Zaragoza’s Expo Zone, continues the decorative trend.
Madrid to Barcelona
One of the most popular long-distance trips from Madrid by train is to Barcelona, the coastal capital of the Catalonia region. I’ve visited the city twice, choosing new landmarks to tour leisurely, savoring long walks along boulevards, bike tours of Barcelona and beach days, and spending long afternoons sipping pitchers of sangria in a neighborhood plaza. Along with Madrid, you’ll need a bit of big city steam.
A stroll along the mile-long Las Ramblas is a rite of passage, and Gaudí’s architectural masterpieces are the stars, especially the Sagrada Familia, the white curves of Casa Milá, the mosaic wonders of Casa Batlló, and Park Güell. The Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic) brings together an incredible maze of narrow streets, medieval squares and striking Gothic facades. Shop for local produce, from seafood to Iberian ham and cheese, at the market institution that is La Boqueria, and catch a local bus to a stretch of La Barceloneta, the long stretch of yellow sand and promenade of Barcelona’s city beach.
Madrid to Valencia
Valencia is a city full of accolades. Start with the cobbled labyrinth of the old town (Ciutat Vella). The historically rich Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque cathedral protects the Holy Chalice and the Lonja de la Seda, a World Heritage Site, demonstrates why it is one of the most famous civil Gothic monuments in Europe. The thousand-year-old district of El Carmen, whose Muslim and Christian walls are still standing, preserves some of the city’s most emblematic medieval structures, such as the Serrano and Quart towers.
As for food and nature, Valencia’s Central Market, with its 1,200 food stalls, is the largest fresh produce market in Europe. The wet oasis of L’Albufera National Park is where the famous culinary paella was invented. The trio of museums in Valencia’s port area, known as the City of Arts, connects to the Turia Gardens. The extensive network of tree-lined paths, lakeside playgrounds and 18 bridges of different architectural styles in this urban park make it one of the largest urban parks in Spain.
From Madrid to Cordoba
A trilogy of cultures from its founding as a Roman city to the Arab conquest and Christian rule, Cordoba of the golden stones is an ancient architectural marvel. By preserving this legacy, Cordoba holds the title of being the first city to have four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, more than any other city in the world.
Visit the Mosque-Cathedral, the most famous of the four UNESCO World Heritage Sites as a distinguished monument of Islamic architecture, along with the remarkable Historic Center and the surrounding Jewish Quarter. Also included are the excavated ruins of the palace of the Caliphate city at the foot of the Sierra Morena, which the ruler Abd-al Rahman III had built in 929 AD to showcase the power of his kingdom. Cordoba’s beautiful symbolic domestic courtyards and its acclaimed Courtyard Festival, which open up private communal spaces to public view, are a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Other sights include the fortress-turned-royal residence, the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos and the 1st-century BC Roman bridge over the Guadalquivir River. The old Calahorra Tower, at the end, is now a museum detailing the city’s long history of conquests and achievements.
From Madrid to Seville
From bustling Madrid to charming Seville, famous for its flamenco dancing, this city is where colorful, artistic streets meet the delicate classical architecture of open squares and boulevards. As the capital of Andalusia, and another of the most popular trips from Madrid by train, it’s also likely to be your introduction to the region.
The Cathedral is a centerpiece of the city, as is the exquisite Plaza de España, located in Maria Luisa Park. A mix of Islamic and Renaissance designs, this 1928 masterpiece is a symbol of the city known for its grandeur of tiled fountains, opulent bridges and lush gardens. Spend at least half a day exploring the vast landscapes and vivid details of the stunning Mudejar architecture of Seville’s Real Alcazar, a 14th-century royal palace built by Muslim kings.
Seville has no shortage of modern architectural additions. Occupying one of Seville’s squares, the city’s Metropol Parasol (more affectionately known as “the mushrooms”) is the largest wooden structure in Europe, whose twisting walkways up to 26 metres high offer a new panoramic view of the city. Designed by German architect Jürgen Mayer, it has been the subject of much controversy since its completion in 2011.
Madrid to Granada
Granada’s icon is the fortified Moorish citadel of The Alhambra, rising defiantly from the Sierra Nevada mountains. It is an opulent complex of palaces, courtyards and terraced gardens, tiled and terraced, and is preserved as one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture on the continent.
In the historic city center of Granada, Catholic architecture is the protagonist, with the Renaissance masterpieces of the Cathedral of Granada and the Monastery of San Jeronimo, along with the Baroque basilica of San Juan de Dios and the Royal Chapel, mausoleum of the last Catholic Monarchs. Admire the cave houses of Sacromonte and join the hustle and bustle of the Plaza del Campo del Prínicpe, in the Jewish quarter of Realejo-San Matías, and let yourself be carried away by the tradition of free tapas in Granada, where you get a bite to eat with every drink.
Next to the Centre of Granada, spend some time getting lost in the streets of the Albaicín, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its traditional Moorish architecture and courtyards, and relax in the buzz of atmospheric Moorish tea houses.
Madrid to Malaga
The elegant city of Malaga, situated on the golden sandy southern coastline of the Costa del Sol, is one of the oldest cities in the world. Its 3,000-year history dates back to its founding by the Phoenicians in the eastern Mediterranean in the 7th century BC. Today, Malaga is best known for being the birthplace of the revered artist Pablo Picasso.
History is found at the base of Gibralfaro Hill with the surviving palatial structure of the Alcazaba de Málaga, a Muslim monument partially built in 1057 with stone materials from the 1st century AD Roman theatre opposite. The hilltop Gibralfaro Castle was built to protect the Alcazaba, captured in 1487 by the Catholic Monarchs during the Reconquest that expelled the Moors and used as a residence by the King. Visitors also come here for the sweeping views of the city. Malaga’s Christian-era monuments include monasteries and basilicas and the imposing Renaissance charm of the Cathedral Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación.
Art lovers can follow the trail of Picasso at number 15 Plaza de la Merced – the building where he was born in 1881 – before heading to the 16th-century Renaissance beauty of the Palacio de Buenavista, home to the Museo Picasso Málaga. Complete your visit to Malaga’s highlights with a trip to one of the city’s 15 beaches.
Tips for planning trips to Spain
When to go
The best time for this trip, depending on optimal weather conditions, are the months of May to October, according to all average forecasts for Madrid, San Sebastian, Gerona, Zaragoza, Barcelona, Valencia, Cordoba, Seville, Granada and Malaga.
Travelling from Madrid by train
All train tickets on the AVE rail network must be booked in advance, as it is not possible to turn up on the day and book at the station. Tickets can be submitted electronically via a smartphone. There are nine classes, of which Turista (a second class option with 2 x 2 rows of seats) and the more spacious Turista Plus (with 2 x 1 rows of seats) are the most common and economical.
If you are booking a multi-stop trip, consider purchasing a “Spain Pass”. This means you can travel on a single ticket for the AVE and other long distance trains. You must reserve a seat before each journey, as space allocated for Spain Pass holders is limited.
Disclaimer: This article has been created in collaboration with the Spain Tourism Board as inspiration for when we can travel again. For more Spain travel tips and help planning your trip, visit Spain’s official tourism website. Borders of Adventure maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site.
Photos of Malaga by former local David Brennan and an image of Valencia used with permission of the Spanish Tourist Office in London for this campaign.
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