Pictures of the intricate Moorish courtyards and colorful gardens of the Alhambra sparked my curiosity to travel to Spain over two decades ago. Since that time, I have been collecting ideas for my Spain road trip, not just to tour the Alhambra of Granada, but also to experience Seville, Cordoba, and the warm beaches of the Mediterranean.
Experience Southern Spain with Kids on a Spain Road Trip
Renting a car and driving is really the best choice when visiting Andalusia and Southern Spain on a road trip. Families will miss out if they don’t go beyond the cities and get up into the mountains to explore the smaller towns and beautiful rock formations in the hills. But, be forewarned, the distances are longer than they look in this part of Spain due to the winding mountain roads. I had no idea that there are so many mountains in Spain!
New to Driving in Europe? Check out Trekaroo’s Guide to Driving in Europe and Planning a European Road Trip with Kids.
The Quaint City of Zafra – The Perfect First Stop on a road trip through Spain.
Lisbon, Portugal is one of the easiest cities in the region to reach for American families. The small city of Zafra is located only 2-3 hours from Lisbon. It is the perfect first stop for families headed towards the Andalusian cities of Córdoba, Seville, and Granada. Zafra has several pedestrian only streets lined by stores. This is a town where locals are out walking their dogs. Few tourists walking about town in the evening hours.
Parador de Zafra is the most prominent hotel in town. It is part of a chain of hotels across Spain whose properties are all converted historic buildings. The Parador in Zafra is a former castle-like palace with a charming fountain in its historic courtyard. Parador’s family suite is accessed by its own staircase. There is even a tiny reading nook inside a small castle turret hidden in one corner of the room!
Spend a Day in Córdoba
Córdoba is a 2-3 hour drive to the southeast of Zafra. It is an easy stop to make on the way to Granda or Seville. With tourists flocking to the famous Mezquita, Córdoba is a much busier city than Zafra. The Mezquita, the Great Mosque of Córdoba, was constructed in the 10th century. Since the 13th century, this historic mosque has been in use as a Catholic church. The interior of the large building is characterized by hundreds of arches as well as beautiful doorways featuring Islamic designs. The archways are unique and seem to stretch on infinitely. Pictures hardly capture the vastness of this place!
In the springtime, the small, historic alleyways of Córdoba are adorned with hanging flower baskets. Mid-March, during our visit, they were just beginning to bloom on the streets and in the patios of the old town. During April and May, the beautifully decorated patios are a destination for tourists around the world.
Families should be sure to explore the maze of streets. My kids were instantly reminded of Venice as we got ourselves lost in the alleyways eventually stumbling upon a tiny shop selling churros y chocolate. Of course, a stop for fried Spanish donuts with chocolate dipping sauce was an obligatory cultural lesson for the kiddos!
El Torcal de Antequera – An Easy Day Trip from Seville, Córdoba, or Granada
The rocks of El Torcal remind me of the formations found across America’s Southwest. Do you see it too? You can’t tell from the pictures, but these rocks are perched high on a mountain above the city of Antequera. El Torcal and Antequera are an easy day trip from Granda, Seville, or Córdoba. Each city is about 1-2 hours away by car. A drive on the winding road to reach to rock formations of El Torcal and its hiking trails is an experience in itself! When we visited mid-March, snow was still in the shadows on the ground. Families are rewarded with views of the Mediterranean Sea and cities below after the somewhat treacherous, certainly nerve-wracking drive.
There are only a few hiking trails at the top of El Torcal. Few were braving the longer trails on a March day with windchill temperatures hovering near freezing. During the summer months, tourists looking to catch a cool breeze are rewarded up at El Torcal. Be aware of the likely crowds jockeying for the limited parking spaces at the trailhead by the visitor center.
While exploring Andalusia, we stayed at Villa Complejo Rural el Molinillo. It is out in the middle of orchards by a reservoir well off the beaten path, definitely rural but also beautiful.
Appreciate History at the Alcazaba of Antequera
The Alcazaba, a Moorish fortress built in the 14th Century, sits atop the hills in the Andalusian city of Antequera, 30 minutes from El Torcal. A visit to Antequera and it’s Alcazaba can easily be combined with a hike at El Torcal as a day trip from any of the cities in the region. The entrance fee to the Alcazaba includes an audio tour, available in multiple languages including English. My kids have grown to appreciate audio tours as they love the technology and having something to do as we visit a historic site. Personally, I like the fact that we can skip spots along the way as the children begin to tire of listening.
The Alcazaba is reached by climbing stairs up from Antequera. At the top of the stairs is an amazing view and huge archway, Arco de los Gigantes, a fun photo-op for the kids. We climbed up to the Alcazaba after a leisurely lunch of tapas at Mesón Ibérico Dehesa Las Hazuelas in Antequera. Our tapas fueled us as we climbed up the towers of the fortress for sweeping views of both the city and the mountains all around.
Visting the Alhambra Palace Spain in Granada
Of all the historic Moorish buildings in Andalusia, the Alhambra overlooking the city of Granada is certainly the most spectacular. Granada is only a 1-2 hour drive from Córdoba, Málaga, or Antequera so it is certainly possible to visit the Alhambra on a day trip, as we did.
The Alhambra is the most crowded and popular tourist destination in the region. Purchase your tickets months in advance. Families should plan to spend the majority of their day exploring the grounds. There are three main areas to visit at the Alhambra: the Alcazaba fortress, the Generalife summer palaces, and Nasrid Palace.
The main entrance to the Alhambra is located by the Generalife and its magnificent gardens. The Generalife is generally less crowded than the other areas of the Alhambra as it is located a 15-20 minute walk from the famous Nasrid Palace, which people from around the world come to see. The gardens of the Generalife aren’t as recognizable as the iconic Nasrid Palace, but they are beautiful in their own right. We enjoyed wandering along with the audio tour that we purchased at an additional fee at the request of my 7-year-old son. Who can turn down a second grader begging for an audio tour of one of the world’s greatest architectural wonders?
I would also recommend visiting the Alcazaba, military fortress, before your visit to the Nasrid Palace. The Alcazaba is not fancy but its towers afford the best views of the entire Alhambra complex. In the winter and spring the view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains is especially stunning. From the Alcazaba, it is also possible to see how far down the city of Granada actually is. I thought we might walk down for lunch, but after taking in the view, I decided against it.
The Nasrid Palace is the reason why the Alhambra is one of the most beautiful and recognizable tourist destinations in the world. Be sure to time your visit so that you can arrive during your ticketed time. Each of its rooms and courtyards are more spectacular than the last; the Islamic designs are simply mesmerizing.
By the time you’re finished touring the Alhambra, you’ll likely be very hungry! We walked part of the way down the hill towards town to the Restaurante Carmen De San Miguel. It has spectacular views of the city that you can appreciate while you’re waiting for your paella to simmer.
Southernmost Point in Tarifa and Baelo Claudia Roman Ruins
No southern Spain road trip is complete without a drive towards the southernmost points of Spain. Africa is clearly visible just across the Strait of Gibraltar. If the border crossing and traffic sound like too much of a headache, the city of Tarifa, the actual southernmost point on mainland Europe, is an easy and worthwhile stop. There are playgrounds and seafood restaurants near the the windswept beaches making it a nice place to break up a drive on the Southern coast of Spain, the Costa de la Luz.
Continuing to the west from Tarifa, the archaeological site of Baelo Claudia (pictured above) is striking against the blue of the nearby ocean. It takes about a half hour to walk on the pathway around the site and read about the history of the Roman city that existed there in the 2nd century AD. While I attempted to share a history lesson with my children, they were much more amused by the sheep grazing in amongst the ruins. Still, this site offers a nice history lesson on the rise and fall of Roman trade in the Mediterranean region.
Exploring Seville with Kids
Seville is one of the most fun cities to explore in Andalusia; it is an important stop on any southern Spain road trip. Scenic parks and historic buildings extend for blocks. A walkable historic center boasts squares perfect for people-watching while enjoying a sweet treat.
Read more things to do in Seville with kids
Portugal’s Beautiful Algarve Beaches
True, there are beaches all along the the Southern coast of Spain, but the beaches along Portugal’s Algarve offer something totally unique. When driving though Andalusia, families really should make a detour over to Portugal’s beach for a couple of days. The Algarve’s stunning, rocky coves are protected from the notoriously windy conditions along the coastline. Many of these beaches are only accessible via a steep staircase of hundreds of steps. Generally, the more steps, the more rewarding the view.
A boat ride through the grottos is a highlight for many visitors to the area. I booked our tour ahead of time with Days of Adventure, but during the spring season, it was totally unnecessary. There are several tour companies that operate out of the Marina de Lagos and offer a tour of the Ponte da Piedade sea caves. We found that the tide during the time of your tour makes more difference than the actual tour operator. At the mid-point of the tidal fluctuations, we could enter most of the caves. With too high a tide, there was not enough clearance, but with too low a tide, there was not enough water.
A small bed and breakfast, Quinta da Falcoeira, outside of Lagos was our home base for exploring the area. They gave us excellent recommendations for both beaches and restaurants.
Spain Road Trip: Know Before You Go
- Our road trip through southern Spain began and ended in Lisbon, Portugal. Lisbon is an easy entry point for Americans flying from East Coast cities like Boston, New York and Miami, serviced by direct flights by TAP Portugal.
- Spain is a place to rent the smallest car that you can get away with. Do carefully check what each car can carry to make sure it is big enough. We noticed that people tended to drive much smaller cars in Spain and Portugal than in Germany and Central Europe. Small vehicles easily navigate Spain’s mountain roads and parking garages.
- There are toll road in Spain. We found them easy to pay by either cash (Euros) or card. Alternatively, in Portugal a transponder device attached to the front windshield really is necessary to drive on many toll roads. We found that renting a car in Portugal with the transponder device and driving into Spain was no problem at all.