Of all the provinces of Spain that merit tours in themselves, the most history-rich and evocative is Andalusia in southern Spain. It offers three of the grandest cities in all of Europe: Seville, Granada, and Córdoba, in that order.
Home of flamenco, sherry, and the country's most spectacular festivities and bullfights, Andalusia also possesses the grandest monuments, especially the Mezquita in Córdoba and the Alhambra in Granada.
After visiting the art cities of Andalusia, you can relax and wind down on its beaches strung along the Costa del Sol.
Day 1: Córdoba & Its Mezquita
The ancient Islamic center of culture in the West, Córdoba can be your gateway to Andalusia, that rich, antiquity-filled province of southern Spain. In just 1 1/2 to 2 hours, a fast train (AVE or TALGO) from Madrid can put you in this once-great city where the Muslims ruled Spain in the Middle Ages. Check into a hotel for the night and set out to explore the glories of the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba. Dating back 12 centuries, Córdoba's once-great mosque can easily occupy an hour and a half of your time. Discover such treasures as its Patio de los Naranjas, where orange trees grow; its Mihrab or Islamic prayer niche; and its 16th-century cathedral. Take in its labyrinth of arches and pillars, more than 850 in all.
Wander over to Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, the former home of the Christian queens and kings such as Isabella and Ferdinand. After inspecting the fortresslike architecture inside, stroll through the beautiful gardens. Try one of the typical restaurants for lunch, our favorite being El Caballo Rojo, within walking distance of the Mezquita. After lunch, wander about the Barrio de la Judería (Jewish Quarter) and visit its old Sinagoga, dating from 1350. Allow yourself at least 1 1/2 hours to stroll through the quarter's narrow, crooked streets flanked by whitewashed, stucco-fronted houses with flower-filled patios.
Before the afternoon fades, call on Palacio Museo de Viana, one of the few private palaces open to the public. There is no finer way to see how the grand dons of yesterday lived.
There will still be time for shopping, as the city is known for its crafts. Your best bet is to go to Arte Zoco, an association of the best of the craftspeople established in the old Jewish Quarter. A final paseo along the Guadalquivir River will top off the day nicely.
Days 2 & 3: Seville, Capital of Andalusia
On Day 2, a fast AVE train will transport you from Córdoba in the morning to the even more fabulous city of Seville. Perhaps the most charming of all Spanish destinations, this is the land of Don Juan, Carmen, and flamenco. After checking into a hotel for 2 nights, begin your tour of Seville with the Catedral de Sevilla and its Giralda Tower. You can spend 1 1/2 hours wandering through this great Gothic edifice before you scale La Giralda, the adjacent Moorish tower, for the city's undisputedly most panoramic view.
Next, walk to the Alcázar, north of the cathedral. You can spend an hour wandering through its fabulous gardens, with its terraces, fountains, and pavilions, and then spend another hour exploring its chief attractions such as the Charles V Rooms, Salón de Embajadores, and Patio de las Doncellas.
Head for the Barrio de Santa Cruz for lunch and 2 hours of walking. Our favorite spot here for lunch is Albahaca. After dining, wander at your own pace through the barrio, the former Jewish ghetto with its whitewashed houses and flower-filled balconies and patios.
To cap the afternoon, head for Parque María Luisa to wander along flower-bordered paths and where you can rent boats for rides along the Guadalquivir River. At night, enjoy a typically Andalusian dinner climaxed by a night of flamenco.
On Day 3, visit Casa de Pilatos in the morning. This was the 16th-century palace of the dukes of Medinaceli. Located a 7-minute walk from the cathedral, it is filled with rare treasures. Spend about 40 minutes here before proceeding to the Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla, a treasure-trove of Andalusian art, including many works by Spanish Old Masters such as El Greco and Murillo.
Have lunch at one of the city's tapas bars before heading out of Seville for the afternoon to visit the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Itálica, 9km (5 1/2 miles) to the northwest. It can be reached by bus, which departs from the Plaza de Armas in Seville. Spend 1 1/2 hours wandering the remains of a once-great city before returning to Seville.
For a romantic ending to a romantic city, you can take one of the horse-and-buggy rides through Barrio de Santa Cruz.
To top your evening, you can catch a performance at the Teatro de la Maestranza. Perhaps a Spanish zarzuela (operetta) will be performed. Maybe you can even see the opera The Barber of Seville.
Day 4: Jerez de la Frontera & Cádiz
On Day 4, rent a car in Seville and head south for 87km (54 miles) to the sherry-producing town of Jerez de la Frontera. Here you can tour one of the wine bodegas to see how sherry is made and end the evening with a tasting. Allow about 2 hours for a visit.
You can also visit Escuela Andaluza del Arte Ecuestre to see the famous dancing horses of Jerez. After a typical Andalusian lunch in Jerez, continue south to the port of Cádiz, and check into a hotel for the night.
In the oldest inhabited city in the Western world, take a voyage of exploration along the historic seaside promenades where conquistadors set out to plunder the riches of the New World. Your paseo can end in Parque Genovés, with its exotic trees hauled in by ships sailing the Seven Seas. Visit the Catedral de Cádiz and the Museo de Cádiz before the end of the afternoon.
Day 5: Pueblos Blancos & Ronda
On Day 5, arm yourself with a good map and drive north from Cádiz to Arcos de la Frontera, where you can easily begin your journey to the town of Ronda.
Arcos is the most beautiful of the Pueblos Blancos (White Villages) sprinkled throughout Andalusia. The road to Ronda cuts through the Sierra de Grazalema Nature Reserve, which runs almost the entire length of the route of the Pueblos Blancos. You can have lunch in Arcos or in one of the little whitewashed towns along the way.
The road trip ends in Ronda, which sits on a 150m (500-ft.) gorge spanned by a stone bridge. Spend the rest of the afternoon touring its minor sights, including some Arab baths. Overnight in Ronda.
Days 6 & 7: Granada & the Alhambra
On Day 6, leave Ronda in the morning and continue your journey to the east until you reach the fabled city of Granada. Book into a hotel for 2 nights. For some travelers, the experience of the Alhambra equals or tops anything discovered in Seville.
After lunch in Granada, set out to see the Alhambra and the Generalife, the summer palace. The lavish palace, once inhabited by the rulers of the Nasrid dynasty, is the number-one attraction in all of Andalusia. That night, have dinner at the Parador Nacional de Francisco, the most famous parador in Spain. The former convent founded by the Catholic monarchs actually lies within the grounds of the Alhambra.
On Day 7, your final day in Granada, visit the Catedral and Capilla Real in the morning. The ornate Renaissance cathedral, with its Royal Chapel, was built in the flamboyant Gothic style and is the final resting place of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Allow 2 hours for a visit.
Spend the rest of the morning exploring the old Arab quarter, the Albaicín. On this hilly terrain, you'll find many old taverns for lunch. After a meal, pay a visit to the Monasterio Cartuja, dating from the 16th century. This was the Christian answer to the Alhambra, although it is hardly as spectacular. Cap the day by shopping in the Alcaicería, the old Moorish silk market near the cathedral. It's filled with shops selling the arts and crafts of Granada province.
You may wish to end your day with a visit to the Gypsy Caves of Sacromonte, which are overly commercialized but where the sounds of Gypsy music fill the Granadian night. First-time visitors persist in visiting these caves in spite of their touristy aura.
From Granada, you can make easy flight or rail connections back to Madrid, assuming that the capital is your departure point from Spain.