Spain continues to be one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations attracting 82 million visitors from across the globe each year. This is not surprising, the diverse nation really does offer a whole lot of something for absolutely everybody. There is first class watersports up in San Sebastian, quirky architecture in Barcelona and a thousand sun lounges perpetually parked in Costa Brava.
This spring, me and my girlfriend headed to the historic Andalucía region for an epic Andalusian road trip in search of our very own Spanish adventure.
Andalucía is one of Spain’s 17 semi-autonomous regions stretching along the countries beautiful Southern coast and retreating into the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Andalucía is where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic ocean and where Europe meets Africa – indeed, the (British territory) Rock of Gibraltar is a mere stone throw from northernmost Morocco.
Because of the province’s proximity to Arabian Africa, the region was occupied by the Moors & other Islamic dynasties for 800 years and they left their clear influence on the culture. The Moorish influence, particular on the historical architecture, can still be seen to this day. Exploring Moorish Spain is fascinating and rewarding.
Despite the Moorish influence though, Andalucía is in so many ways, quintessential Spain. It is the home of Flamenco, of Sherry wine and is jam-packed with sleepy white villages where the siestas fade into the sunset. If you are considering a visit to Spain then you really must visit Andalucia.
There are many ways to backpack Andalucía. The public transport links are fast, reliable and reasonably priced but we decided to do it by car which was a first for me.
Both Spain’s bus and train networks are very first world. The services are fast, reliable, comfortable and reasonably priced (though seldom “cheap”).
Renting a car in Spain is also pretty easy and relatively cheap and there is a section about how to rent a car in Spain further down in this post.
In this post, I will tell you everything you need to know about Backpacking Andalucía including where to go, what to do, what to eat, how to get around and where to stay.
Best Time of Year To Visit Andalucia
Andalucia receives visitors all year round. Note that summers in Andalucia get very hot (40 degrees) and this can make exploring the exposed parts of the Alhambra and Royal Alcazar very uncomfortable. The coast also gets giddily busy during the school summer holidays.
Spring is perhaps the best time to go. The weather is just right and if you come at easter you can check out the austere Semana Santa festivities. Autumn also offers great weather and winter promises warm days and cooler evenings. A lot of elderly people from Northern Europe head to Spain for the winter.
Money in Spain
Spain is in the Eurozone and adopted the Euro as its currency at its very inception in 2002. The Euro replaced the peseta which quite helpfully shaved a good few 0’s from every transaction.
As such, Spain is not a particularly cheap destination to backpack/travel. However, it is still amongst Western Europe’s cheapest countries and you may be surprised at how far your money can go. In any event, the services and experiences are all top notch and the experiences you have guaranteed to be priceless. Whilst it is not a bargain destination, I do feel it is amongst the best value in Europe and the overpriced and underwhelming France, UK and Germany could learn a lot.
Examples of Costs
Private Air BnB in Seville – 70 Euro
Private Air BnB in Granada – 50 Euro
Hostel-dorm in Malaga – 8 Euro
Beer in a bar – 2 Euro
Almuerzo (set lunch) – 7 Euro
Train Ticket From Malaga to Seville – 20 Euro
Local Bus – 1.20 Euro
Ticket To Alhambra – 17 Euro
ATM’s are found throughout Spain and across the Andalucía region. However, if you are headed into the villages or the countryside then I would stock up on cash before you set off to be safe. However, note that you will most likely be charged a transaction fee and given the least favorable exchange rate each time you withdraw cash from an ATM. I therefore highly recommend bringing as much cash as you feel comfortable in carrying and getting yourself a Monzo, or other pre-paid travel card as these have lower, or no, fees.
The language of Andalucia is Spanish (or Castilian). English is widely spoken around the coast (in fact, many of the signs are in English) and a lot of the younger Spaniards speak at least a little English. However, once you get into the local neighborhoods or villages, English speakers can be few between. Thankfully, Spaniards are friendly and helpful so you should still have no trouble getting by.
That said, I wholly recommend learning some Spanish. The locals really do appreciate the effort and doing so will vastly enhance your experience of backpacking Andalucia. Spanish is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn and as it is the 2nd most widely spoken language on earth, is quite useful even after your Andalucia visit is over.
Phrasebooks are a bit outdated so I recommend using Duolingo and also downloading the 10 hours “Learn Spanish in a Week” course by Michel Thomas – if you put in an hour a day for 20 days (to do the course twice) I promise you will be astounded with the results.
Airports in Andalucia
Andalusia is well served by air. The main airport is Malaga which handles CHEAP flights from all over Europe. Andalusia is very well served by public transport so it is possible to use Malaga as your transit hub. Malaga is also one of the easiest and cheapest places to arrange a hire car and you can pick up a rental car at Malaga airport. Additionally, Seville & Grenada also have international airports although in my experience, the flights are not as cheap. It may prove economical to use Malaga as your air-hub and travel around the region by car or by public transport – this is exactly what I did.
That said, if you are starting in Granada and finishing in Seville, then it may be worth flying into one and out of the other rather than incur time and cost going back on yourself. Whilst this may prove more costly than a simple Malaga return, I do have one little tip for you- try signing up to Jacks Flight Club to find insanely cheap airfares.
Where To Go In Andalucia
Stunning Seville is apparently amongst the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe and this rich heritage is evident at every twist and turn. There is evidence of Moorish splendor and Castilian might in what is one of Europe’s great classic cities. It is also amongst the hottest cities in Europe and does get stifling hot in high summer (July & August).
The Sevillian centerpiece is the mighty Alcazar Palace. I recommend buying your tickets in advance and arriving early to beat the queues. Half a day will be enough to explore the Alcazar – if you are going in summer be warned that it will be very hot.
The Cathedral and its Bell Tower are both situated near the Alcazar and there is a lot of first class, well-priced Tapas bars on the narrow streets nearby. Set aside a whole day to explore the Alcazar and surrounding neighbourhood.
Aside from the Alcazar, the Plaza De Espana is also not to be missed. It is about a 30-minute walk from the Alcazar and is well signposted.
There are also loads of cracking art galleries hosting classical, renaissance and modern masterpieces by international artists. The city is great for cycling and there are now miles of dedicated cycle lanes and a cheap and handy bike hire service. There are also a few cycle tours available and this may be a great way to take in Seville whilst burning of all of that excess tapas you are going to eat.
Seville is a classic place to sample tapas. Most days offer decent tapas options but for our picks, see the food section (see this post).
Granada was my favorite city in Andalucia and is perhaps even one of my favourite in the whole world. It is built into the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains and was one time a military stronghold. There is a rich Spanish Gypsy heritage in Granada and this spirit lives on to this day, it is one of the most bohemian cities in Europe and a bit of a mecca for hippy types.
The highlight of Granada is surely the mighty Alhambra which is a UNESCO heritage site which is amongst the best things to see in Andalucia and best things to see in Spain. The Alhambra is one of the great masterpieces of the Moorish dynasty and still stands as one of the most impressive constructions in the whole of Spain. It is an epic, sprawling hillside fortress, palace and a miniature city which overlooks the town of Granada. Booking tickets well in advance is highly recommended especially during high season. A full tour should take you around 5 hours. Tickets for the Alhambra cost 17 and can be obtained from the official website. Once again, be sure to book in advance as far as you possibly can as it DOES sell out and people are frequently turned away. The best way to enjoy the Alhambra is by joining a guided tour. Not only do you get to beat the lines but you learn the full, fascinating history of the complex.
For an epic view of the Alhambra head to Mirador San Nicholas. The plaza is also where the travelling musicians and gypsy street vendors hang out. It’s a great place to enjoy a beer and enjoy the sunrise before heading into the bars and restaurants for some dinner. If you are staying in the city center (the flat part) the walk up should take around 30 minutes – pack sensible shoes.
Granada is one of the best places to sample Tapas as a lot of bars still offer it for free. You simply buy a drink and along comes a free nibble. The quality and portion size also get better with each round so by the time you’ve bought 3 or 4 drinks you may well have had a free meal. My favorite Tapas joint in Granada is Bodega Castaneda on Calle Almireceros, near the Arab quarter.
The ancient port city of Cádiz is home to the Spanish Navy. It boasts over 100 watchtowers, including the iconic Torre Tavira. On the waterfront is the domed, 18th-century Cádiz Cathedral, featuring baroque and neoclassical elements.
Cadiz is a historic and pretty port city and well worth a visit if you want to combine some classical Spain with sea air. If you are pressed for time it is perfectly possible to do Cadiz as a day trip from Seville.
Malaga is actually a lot more than an air and car hub and I was surprised by how much I liked it. The birthplace of Pablo Picasso is now a major tourist draw in its own right and is well worth checking out. The Picasso Museum (free on Sunday evenings) is worth a visit and the interior of the Cathedral is utterly breathtaking. There are also a few cool street art tours which you can join.
There are plenty of hotels, hostels Air B n B’s catering for all price ranges – note that some of the hostels are very much “party vibes” catering for drunken Brits on long weekends. The food scene is a mix of modern Spanish, classic Spanish, world food and tourist tat. The bar scene is also mixed with some fine watering holes and some aimed at tourists on weekenders – you will quickly see for yourself which is which.
There are also some great beaches in Malaga so you can get your fix of sand, sea, and sangria from the many Chirrinquitos.
The primary dray of Rhonda is its big ass bridge dramatic bridge cut down into a ravine. There isn’t too much to see in Ronda other than getting your Instagram fix but it can be done in a single day trip along with Cordoba or can be visited en route from Malaga to Seville like we did.
The city of Cordoba is another classical Moorish/Spanish city and should be firmly placed on your Andalusian itinerary on account of the stunning Mezquita – The Cathedral-Mosque at the heart of the cities old town. The cathedral is a masterpiece of Islamic art with is geometric, fractal design and intricate mosaic work. It kind of has the feel of a Bosque inspired DMT trip with some twisted catholic art chucked in. The neighbouring bell tower is also worth a climb – admission is 2 Euro and doors open every hour on the hour from 9.30am.
The entire old city is very picturesque and you can easily spend a day exploring the streets, the old walls and crossing the bridges. We found a cracking and cheap tapas restaurant called La Tata. The downside of Cordoba is that it feels a bit touristy and didn’t seem to have the same life pulse as Seville and Granada. We stayed one night and felt this was sufficient.
If you are short on time, then the highlights of Cordoba can be done in a single day trip along with Rhonda – trying this on public transport could prove to be a bit ambitious so I would only attempt this if you have a car or by joining a tour operating out of Seville.
The Andalucian Coast
Andalucia boats 900 km of coastline. The sea is warm and many of the beaches fine and sandy. Because of this, the explosion of tourism over the last 40 years has utterly transformed the region and most of the coastline is now overdeveloped with high rise hotels, condors, and beach shacks.
Because of this, I didn’t particularly like the coastal areas. In many ways it hardly even feels like Spain at all, the first language is pretty much English and the region is packed full of British expats. The supermarkets feel like they could easily be in Essex.
Almeria is the relatively quiet, slowly developing region and you can still find a few smallish towns dotted around. Torremolinos (terrible Torre) is everything that is bad about (1) tourism and (2) The UK with sunburned bodies and drunken louts at every turn.
Marbella is a bit further along. It used to be a big exclusive beach club where the rich and famous would sun themselves. These days though, it is mainly the rich and notorious of the British criminal underworld.
We stayed in Caja de Mijas. It was pleasant enough but just lacked any soul whatsoever.
White Villages of Andalusia
There are loads of charming, quaint old villages all across Andalusia and one of the absolute highlights of any Andalusian Adventure is touring them and soaking up the old way of life. The best way to do this is to discover your own favourites on your own terms in your own time.
You can usually see them for miles around as most of them have a fortress and or church (often now in ruins) sat atop a mini-mountain. The villages themselves are built up into the slopes. If you have a car, this is pretty easy as all you need to do is go for a long drive and avoid the motorways!
If you are limited to public transport, then one idea is to head down to the central bus station and see which nearby villages are accessible – ask the service desk attendant which one is the best! Or you can ask at your guesthouse and try hitchhiking up.
My personal favourites (of the few I’ve seen) are Guadix and Pueblo Mijas.
Guadix is situated about 53 km east of Granada. It is a troglodyte cave town where many of the houses are actual cave houses hewn straight out of the rocks. The cave houses are utterly remarkable and must be seen. There is a cave house museum which I suggest you seek out. You can also use the car park. Many locals will invite you to look around their cave houses in exchange for tips.
The craggy hills around the town are great for a bit of hiking. A lot of the cave houses are derelict so there is also the potential for some epic urban exploration.
Pueblo Mijas rises up from the coast and overlooks the blue mediterranean sea. It has become very popular with day tripping tourists on account of its proximity to the coastal regions and as such, the areas around the main square are a bit expensive and generic. However, the town still retains some charm and wandering away from the main square and into the old streets offers rewards.
Pueblo Mijas is a wonderful place to come for dinner whilst admiring the sunset. Drive safely after dark on the winding mountain road that snakes back towards the coast.
Top Experiences of Backpacking Andalucia!
You could spend lifetimes exploring this wonderful region and I wholly recommend getting off the beaten track to find your own adventure and favorite hidden little corner. However, there is some stuff you just absolutely need to do on your visit to Andalucia.
Tour of the Alhambra
Granada’s Alhambra is one of the most visited destinations on earth with good reason. It is a gigantic, epic, romantic, mystical, wondrous fortress complex containing gardens, arenas, houses, churches, mosques, and palaces. It will take you hours to explore and repeat visits to fully understand and appreciate it.
Tickets do sell out in advance and you must book well ahead if you want to see everything. Set aside 3 to 4 hours to explore and maybe another jour to get and down the hills leading up to it. For a cracking vista of it, head to Mirador San Nicholas in the near the atmospheric Albacin neighbourhood. No Andalucian visit is complete without at least a few days exploring the Granadan region.
Photographing the bridge at Rhona
Andalucia is a photographer’s paradise and there is an abundance of old forts, narrow streets and olive groves to snap. The bridge at Rhonda though is something else altogether. It is one of the most photographed bridges in the world and there is a reason for that. Granted, getting a unique perspective on it may be a challenge but it’s hard to resist. Your snap will make the journey worth it and you will be glad you braved the hordes of tourists.
Flamenco in Seville
Flamenco is a style of music and dance which originated in Spain, and many maintain here in Andalucía. Purists consider the art-form to be more than mere entertainment and are a way of life. The music and the movements are fiery and impassioned encapsulating both the scorched county sides of Andalusia and the flamboyant character of its inhabitants.
The music revolves around the complex, intricate classical guitar arrangements, some simple percussion (the castanets being the most prominent example) and token shouts of “Olay” thrown in. Taking in a Flamenco performance is an essential Andalusian experience. The best places to catch a Flamenco happening are in one of my Seville’s famous clubs or in one of the cave houses/clubs in Granada. Even the shows aimed squarely at tourists are usually pretty decent in Andalucia. Andalucian Flamenco is not to be missed.
The landscapes of the Sevillian hills l may look familiar to some of you. This is because they were used for filming a number of classic “Spaghetti Westerns” including Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, The Good The Bad The Ugly. You can explore the landscapes yourself and take a trip to Oasys, mini Hollywood to explore the recreated Wild West frontier towns used in various films.
Oasys or Mini Hollywood makes a logical day trip from Grenada or the coast. The easiest way to get here is by taking your own vehicle or by joining an organised tour – several operate from Grenada, Malaga and Almeria.
Sherry or Xeres, the world famous, sweet red dessert wine comes from the region and it is a perfect place to acquaint yourself with it. You will be sure to encounter the tipple at some point as many restaurants offer it as a complimentary digestive.
Near Cadiz, there are countless vineyards making endless versions of the drink. The best way to try it is either (1) order the house sherry after dinner each night (2) join a sherry tasting tour. The tours take place across the region and there is one to suit all budgets.
OK, so that’s enough about history, culture, and music. Let’s talk about food!
The highlight of my trip was without any doubt, savoring the delicious tapas on offer in pretty much every bar across Andalucia. Tapas is one of the definitive Spanish traditions, typically Tapas is a small free dish offered with drinks in bars. Examples include olives, ham, battered squid and of course, various form of chips/french fries. The quality ranges dramatically so it is well worth trying out a few different places to sample the range.
Tapas originated in the bars of Spain. Whilst the exact place and circumstances of its origin vary from folklore to folklore, the traditional way to enjoy tapas has always been as an accompaniment to a drink rather than a meal in its own right. Portions are small and often change with every drink you order. If you stay in one particular bar over the course of an evening you will probably get to sample its full range of tapas and also end up quite full by the end of the evening.
Wherever you go in Spain, you will find Tapas bars offering free nibbles with every drink. The best way to enjoy it is to hop from bar to bar taking in a tipple at each one and enjoying the variety of snacks. Note that tapas is a freebie and that beggars generally cannot be choosers – you pretty much get whatever your given which can make tapas difficult for vegetarians or anybody with food intolerance.
Many venues still offer free tapas although generally, you don’t get to choose what they offer you. However, all bars have tapas menus where you can order a fee dishes to your liking usually for 2 – 3 euro.
You really can do this anywhere in the region. Granada still offers a lot of free tapas and Bodega Castaneda is my personal favourite. The tapas bars near the Royal Alcazar and Cathedral in Seville are also top notch – look for the ones with the huge cures hams hanging from the ceiling.
The key to tapas is to take little portions and to keep moving from bar to bar. Drinks are generally served in small measures so you don’t need to worry about getting too plastered.
Accommodation in Andalucia is varied to suit all tastes and budgets. Couchsurfing is worth a try but like most of Western Europe, it’s a bit saturated and the novelty has long worn for most hosts. Finding a host will be easier in the smaller towns and lesser visited cities and perhaps in the bohemian city of Gypsy.
Hostels are plentiful in the cities and tourist areas. Dorm prices are often pretty low but be warned, many hostels do tend to pack in 8 or more per room. Some of the hostels near the coast are also party hostels and do expect loud, obnoxious, drunk Brits in and around Malaga.
I used Air B n B throughout my stay. The prices are a great value and we found amazing apartments in Seville, Granada, and Cordoba for as little as 40 Euro per night. This offered us privacy as well as the chance to make our own food which saved some money from the budget. In case you have never used Air B n B, it is a game-changing service in which regular householders let out their houses to visitors. You can sign up for Air BnB right here using this link – if you do, then I get a $15 credit kickback which I can use for my next trip.
Wild Camping is not legal in Spain but the Andalucian wilderness is pretty vast so there is nothing really stopping you. If you get caught, plead ignorance and do not say I told you to do it.
Public transport in Andalucia is great, especially between the coast, and the major cities. Busses and trains are reliable, comfortable, efficient and reasonably priced. I use Rome2Rio for all my European public transport needs.
Renting a Car in Spain
Renting a car in Spain is pretty easy. There are loads of agencies and all of the major ones have offices across the country and quite a few in Andalucía. The biggest car rental hub in Andalucia is Malaga on account of its airport and you may well find the best prices by picking up and collecting here. Renting a car in Malaga can be easily arranged from the airport. I found my rental through Auto Europe, an online broker who scours the market in order to find the best deal. Their search engine is simple to use and compares a wide number of agencies to help find you the right car for the right price for your trip.
Seville is also a major point closely followed by Granada. It is generally very easy to arrange to pick up and return at any of, or between these cities.
Prices vary quite a bit depending on any number of variables. When browsing for prices, do remember that some quotes are inclusive of insurance and some are exclusive of it. If £2 per day seems too good to be true then it is – the Insurance and other extras will be added at checkout and will add a good chunk onto that price.
Be sure to read the terms very carefully and be honest about your age and how long you have been driving. Failure to do so may result in them refusing to give you the car or may mean you are not insured if you have an incident. If you don’t quite meet any of the terms, it is always worth contacting the company anyway to see if they can cut you some kind of deal. For example, if you haven’t been driving long enough they may still give you the car but a slightly higher price.
Most standard car rental insurance packages are there to protect the car, and not you. They generally do not cover your medical cots in the event of an accident. You should still obtain travel insurance which covers your medical costs for traffic and driving accidents. If you are an EU Citizen, bring your EU medical card as this will indemnify you for any emergency treatment. Even so, I fully advocate buying travel insurance for your trip.
To rent a car you will also need a credit card. The amount of deposit the provider requires varies so check in advance to make sure you have enough balance on your card.
How To Search Car Rental
The hardest part of renting a car in Spain is choosing which provider to use as there are loads of them. One option is to start with Google and work from there. Another is to use a price comparison search engine such as Auto Europe who compare low car rental prices.
Your airline may well also have a tie-in promotion with a car rental partner and you should definitely look at their offer. Some airlines such as Ryanair suggest you book a rental car at the same time as taking your flight and will try to entice you in with low prices. In my view, you should not do this as it can just be too much information to process in one go and you risk making a bad decision or mistake with your booking which is often exactly what they are counting on. Don’t worry, their offers will not disappear and the airline will email you about it after making your booking giving you another chance to book your vehicle through them.
When looking over prices, check closely for “hidden charges” The biggest one is to make sure the rental price includes Insurance. Others will charge for 2nd drivers and GPS. In many cases, the GPS may even cost as much per day as the car! Some companies are basically counting on your forgetting to bring your own and having to take one of there’s at an inflated price once you get to the office.
Costs of Car Rental in Spain
Remember to budget for petrol as this can be expensive. To do this, roughly sketch out where it is you plan on driving (ie, Malaga to Granada and back) and calculate the distance using Google or any other GPS pr map software. Up to date petrol prices in Spain can be found easily online.
Parking in Andalucia
One of the banes of hiring a car in Spain is finding places to park in major cities. Few hotels offer on-site parking and as far as hostels and Air B n B’s go, you can pretty much forget it. Parking can, therefore, prove expensive and annoying and you may wish to consider looking into Park & Ride options for larger cities and leaving your vehicle at the edge of town for the duration of your stay. I used www.parkimeter.fr. To find cheap car parks and often found a place to leave the car for 6 Euro a day – the downside is that it often meant a bus ride to our accommodation from the car park.
Parking is a lot easier and cheaper in smaller towns and even the modern beach resorts offer a lot more options for parking.
Driving in Spain
Like the rest of continental Europe, the Spanish drive on the right side of the road so you should probably consider doing the same. Drink driving laws are a bit harsher than in the UK and even just 0.25mg in your system will land you in trouble – for men that is less than 1 pint of beer.
Driving standards are reasonable like most of Western Europe but with an odd bit of Latin “passion” thrown in (racing and dodgy overtaking). Note that European police are for the most part, professional and approachable – however, they do mean business so try to do your very best to avoid getting into trouble. Carry your license, your rental documents, and your passports at all times.
Hiring a car in Andalusia can be much more than a mere practicality and a necessity to get from A to B. There are some awesome drives in Andalusia and some amazing Andalusian road trips to be had. landscapes across the region are pleasant.
Check out the post I wrote on Poor Explorer for more info about renting a car in Spain.
Safety In Spain
Spain is a very safe country and I never had any trouble and never felt threatened. However, the economic downturn of the last decade has led to a slight increase in petty crime and theft. Pickpockets operate in many major cities particularly around busy tourist sites such as the Alhambra and Royal Alcazar. There are also spates of burglaries targeting tourist condo’s and apartments around the coast – always lock your doors, windows and keep your valuables locked in a safe or at least hidden.