Spain Itinerary- Help?
My husband and I are in the process of planning a 10 day trip to Spain. We'd like to try to hit three cities. We have done a great deal of research or restaurants in Barcelona and San Sebastian, so I'm all set in that department. What I could really use help on is planning our travel itinerary and determining what other city we should visit.
We're thinking of flying into Bilbao and spending the day there so my husband can see the Guggenheim.
Next we plan to travel by train to San Sebastian and spend three days there.
From San Sebastian we plan to go back to Bilbao and fly down to Barcelona where we will spend about five days, before flying home to the States. We wanted to do Barcelona last since the other portion of the trip will be more hectic. We're looking forward to Barcelona the most and figure it will be nice to end the trip by staying five day straight, and getting to relax and enjoy the city- especially after the first half of the trip, which could get a little crazy since we'll be traveling a bit.
My questions are the following:
1) Is it worth it to spend the night in Bilbao, or are we better off just getting on our way after the museum and lunch?
2) This is where I could use the most help- Does it make sense to go somewhere in La Rioja for a day or two between Bilbao and San Sebastian or before Barcelona? If so, any recommendations and can we do this by train? We live in NYC and neither of us drives a lot and I don't know how comfortable we'll feel testing our skills in a foreign country. That said, I've read that they train systems are not always the most reliable. I don't want to waste too much time on delays, etc. Are we making a big mistake trying to do this by train?
3) if La Rioja does not make sense, is there another city near Barcelona that we should visit as either a day trip or overnight?
I realize my second question is complicated, so a huge thanks in advance for any help you can provide. We're so excited about this trip and really want to make the most of it.
Since most of your post is non-food related, I will try to be brief. Trains are fairly reliable in Spain. For short distances, bus is often better than train for on-time and frequently of service as I've done the Bilbao/San Sebastian often. Aside from the Guggenheim, Bilbao is an old industrial city but does have a old interesting central town and some very good pintxo places. If it is easy for you to do the museum in the morning on the way to SS or before your flight to Barcelona, I would do that rather than checking in a hotel in Bilbao and then repacking again the next morning.
I am not much help on if makes sense to go to La Rioja between SS and Barcelona but if you are looking for a day trip from Barcelona, Girona is a wonderful well-preserved medieval city. Plus if you are interested in modern Spanish food and haven't had your fill of it in SS, El Cellar de Can Roca is a must for lunch. If you decide on this, there are frequent commuter trains and is easy logistically.
I have not been to Cols. Read an article on it when it first opened couple years ago. The whole complex sounded wonderful. Maybe next trip to Barcelona in October if I can stay away the trio of Can Roca, Hispania and Can Fabes; or if there is extra money left. I would love to hear about your experience (or anyone elses) if you do make it there.
We just did a similar trip to you. We rented a car since it made things a lot easier, especially in Rioja. I think if you stick with SS/Bilbao and Barcelona, a train is fine.
We spent one night in Bilbao, primarily because the hotel was dirt cheap and across from the Guggenheim and our flight arrived fairly late. We found the town to be ok for a night and there are some good pintxo bars in town to stop at.
We spent a few days in Rioja before driving down to Barcelona. Without a car, I don't know that I would recommend it. Spain does the siesta and the rioja area pretty much everything closed mid day so there wasn't a lot to do. Having the car we could drive to a winery here and there if we booked a tour or whatnot. I personally don't see how you could really make the most of Rioja without a car. We found ourselves driving town to town for a meal, a tasting, etc.
One option is to skip Rioja and spend a day in Girona which we did as well. Girona was rather nice and a good change of pace from Barcelona. It is easily accessible by train. There is a great historic area and good restaurants, particularly Can Roca, which was our best meal on our trip.
All good advice...I think a lot depends on what time of year you'll be travelling. I lived in Barcelona (30 years ago) and I've revisited over and over, last in Dec 2007. It has the hottest food scene and is truly wonderful if you've never visited. I highly recommend more time there. The Hotel Colon across from the Cathedral is a super location and a 5 minute walk from Las Ramblas. Also, if you get to Girona go a bit further to Tossa de mar, it will be worthwhile. Enjoy!
The trains in Spain are very reliable, but unlike most of the routes that connect to Madrid, the route from Barcelona to Bilbao is slow and has a limited number of trains per day.
You might also consider a stopover in Pamplona.
About driving... once you are out of the city, driving in Spain is great* (I haven't owned a car in 15 years, but I live in Madrid and road trip in Spain quite a bit). If you have the nerve to get in and out of the cities you are visiting, I think you might enjoy the freedom of exploring the countryside by car.
**Edit: provided that you aren't planning to do this in the winter, in which case it can be a nightmare with very snowy conditions in the north.
Thank you all SO much for all of your suggestions. I can't wait to sit down and sift through all of the fantastic advice and tips. This is exactly the kind of info I was hoping for and will be invaluable in our planning. We're planing to go at the end of October. I will deliver a full report when we get back. Thank you again!!
This may be a bit off the map, but follow this for the great markets of Northern Spain.
By Rail: One of the delights of the northwest is the little, narrow gauge rail system called FEVE. FEVE, www.transcantabrico.feve.es, runs a corridor from Santander in Cantabria to Ferrol in Galicia. It is a pure delight to take this rail with its old fashioned charm of train ticket attendant jovially greeting you and commuters doing the same as though you are a local going off to work or coming home. Its full schedule can be downloaded from the website. FEVE offers a serene way to witness the land in all its nuances.
Bilbao is actually a wonderful city for a couple day visit, especially during the first couple of jet-lagged days! I strongly recommend the Guggenheim for art, architecture and FOOD! Granted is has been several years since I last visited, but the tapas at the informal cafe were fabulous! I remember a small savory tart with amazing local sardines, as well as a few others. The formal restaurant has a good reputation, although I haven't eaten there.
The café culture of Bilbao is also pretty interesting. Because the city saw such a decline in the second half of the 20th century, a few of the Belle Epoque cafés of the city survived. Café Iruña (1903) and Café La Granja (1926) are wonderful places to have a morning cafe solo or chocolate (I prefer Iruña). Sitting there, sipping your coffee you feel as though you have been transported to a slower, gentler time. Savour it! If you stay long enough, you can even move to try the pintxos (Basque tapas) that begin appearing in late morning. So much fun.
When you can drag yourself out of the café, take a leisurely walk along the river that flows through town. There are some pretty amazing new bridges that are a part of the architectural revival of the city. Spain is still a place where people enjoy just strolling arm-in-arm while chatting.
After several hours at the Guggenheim (IMHO the greatest building of the last 30 years), you will once again be hungry. Head on over the the central square of the old town. There are several really good tapas bars here, although the names have slipped my mind. Look for the ones that are crowded with locals. Get a glass (or bottle!) of Rioja and ask for whatever pintxos the server particular recommends. Or if you don't speak spanish, they are all on display at the bar; just point and say "dos por favor."
As you can tell, I love Northern Spain in general and Bilbao in particular. It is definitely worth a relaxing day at the start of your trip.
Also, Rioja really requires a car. If you decide to rent one for a couple of days, do so from the US. Rates will be much lower than if you try to book it once you are in Spain. ¡Buen Viaje!