The home of flamenco and paella is most often associated with scorching sun and balmy summertime weather. It’s no secret that people flock to this corner of Europe to hit the shimmering beaches of the Costa del Sol and to top up the tan on the marinas and Marbella and Malaga. But is there a Spain in December itinerary for all those off-season travelers looking to explore?
There sure is! And this guide is it. Here, we’ll run through a full plan for adventuring in the land between the shimmering shores of the Med and the soaring peaks of the Sierra Nevada, all of it tailored to the cooler month of the calendar.
There are plenty of reasons why we think a Spain in December itinerary is a good way to go. First off, you get to dodge all the crowds. Second, you should find that things like hotels and flights cost you way less in the low season. Finally, there are some unique things to do in Spain that are actually better in the winter. Let’s dive right in…
Stop 1: San Sebastian and the Basque Country
We begin our winter jaunt through Spain in the far north of the country. There, it’s the Basque Country and its buzzy student town of San Sebastian that stand out the most. We like it as a beginning point because you should find there’s plenty of life beating through the Parte Vieja old town area in the off-season since it’s a lived-in place and not in thrall to the tourist crowds like much of the south.
We also like it because winter is high time to taste your way through all the cozy pintxo (the Basque answer to Andalusian tapas) joints and see the surrounding coastline at its wildest. Hit up the age-old tavern of Juantxo Taberna before wandering through to Gipuzkoa Plaza to see the influence of French architecture on the town. Later on, cut across to Zurriola Beach, where surfers are likely to be ripping the waves while bars clink with beers on the boulevards behind.
Before leaving the Basque Country, it’s certainly worth planning a day or two to see the amazing shorelines. You can hit the lookouts of Behatokia to watch the frothing waves of the Bay of Biscay rapping the shore. There are also swells to catch at Gaztetape Beach, and bracing walks on the sands of Zarautz.
Stop 2: Madrid
There are now high-speed trains that can whiz you through the Basque mountains from San Sebastian to the Spanish capital in about five hours. It’s a good idea to book them at least a month in advance of travel, even in the low season, as prices always go up in the days prior to departure.
You’ll arrive into the beating heart of the biggest city in Spain. It’s unquestionably one of the world’s most bucket-list metropolises, and we’d say worthy of at least four full days. To begin with, you’ll want to tour the main historic center of the town. That lies between El Retiro Park and the Palacio Real de Madrid. Highlights include the vast and exquisite Plaza Mayor and the Literary Quarter where you can trace the steps of one Miguel de Cervantes himself.
One day is likely to be slowed a little on account of the hangover – Madrid is the most hedonistic destination in Spain. What’s more, its nightlife most certainly doesn’t shut down in December like it does in Magaluf and Marbella. The areas to know about include Huertas (a boho area with jazz bars and music dives) and Chueca (the LGBTQ+ district that pumps all night long).
When you’re done seeing Madrid itself, we’d also recommend making a day trip out to charming Toledo. It’s less than 30 minutes on public train, so easily doable in a single sitting. Winters can sometimes bring a dusting of snow to the highland town on the Tagus River, which lends even more of an air of romance to its great Gothic cathedral and the handsome Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes.
Stop 3: Cadiz
Cadiz is another fantastic place to add to that Spain in December itinerary because it’s much more lived-in than the out-and-out resorts that string up the costas of the Med. It’s also got a downright lovely climate throughout most of the wintertime, similar to that of the balmy Algarve, which is just across the border. We’re talking days that can hit 15 C (59 F) and plenty of sunshine, coupled with chilly nights with starry skies.
Again, touring the sights here should prove less stressful in December than it is in the midsummer. You’ll be able to go at your own pace through the narrow streets of the downtown core and won’t have so many people vying for photo spots above the main monuments. And there are plenty of those. Check out:
- Roman Theater – Unearthed from beneath the city streets, this relic of the Roman age is nearly 2,000 years old.
- Cadiz Cathedral – A beautiful Baroque cathedral with carved marble frontispieces. One of the icons of the town.
- Cadiz Market – This bustling bazaar of blood sausages and saffron doesn’t shutdown in the winter, so get in to do your souvenir shopping.
The other reason we’d suggest detouring around this southwestern edge of Spain is the surf. Winter brings the best swells all along this side of the country, and you can hit some surprisingly good waves on the beaches that stretch down from Cadiz.
Stop 4: Granada and the Sierra Nevada
The fourth pitstop on our Spain in December itinerary finally brings us down into the much-loved lands of Andalusia. Don’t expect to find the sort of place you’ve seen in the brochures. It can get cold here when the winter months swing around, lending the highland areas a wild and feral feel. That’s especially true up around Granada, a city that’s right on the cusp of the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains.
We think you should take a few days to enjoy Granada itself. This is the home of the famous Alhambra citadel. Opening times are shortened in the winter but you aren’t likely to have to jostle in a queue for hours to get in. What awaits is one of the greatest Mudejar fortresses in the country, complete with arabesque pleasure gardens and elaborate Moorish court rooms.
The Alhambra also happens to have some of the very best views of the mountains that rise like a phalanx behind the city. Take a glance at those because that’s where you’re headed next. Why? Well, because they host the finest ski field in the whole of Spain. That’s why! The pistes – all 35km of them – usually open by late December and are around 30 minutes’ drive from the town.
Stop 5: Barcelona
Barcelona makes a suitable finale to our jaunt through Spain in the winter. It might take some time to get here from Cadiz as you cruise up from the Costa del Sol to the Costa Brava, but there are some neat stops to make en route, from vibey Valencia to church-topped Malaga and its Picasso Museum. Anyway, without the summer crowds that positively brim from every street in the Catalan capital from June onwards, you’ll have the whole city laid out before you…
A jaunt to La Sagrada Familia is, naturally, a must. That’s perhaps the most iconic church on planet Earth bar St Peter’s in Rome. It’s still not finished but is considered the masterpiece of Antoni Gaudi and already has a UNESCO tag. From there, veer south into the Gothic Quarter, which is the maze-like middle of medieval Barcelona. It’s home to tapas joints and arcades and plazas picked out by mighty churches.
Winter is a great season for feeling the local buzz of this Catalan city. You can do as the natives do by bagging yourself tickets to see FC Barcelona rock the terraces at the Camp Nou. You can hit the beaches of Barceloneta to watch couples enjoying the sunsets from the promenades, or surfers whipping up the waves. There are also cozy cafes by the bucket load in hipster districts like Gracia and El Born.
Spain in December itinerary – where next?
The obvious place to go to cap off this Spain in December itinerary in real style is the great Pyrenees Mountains. The highest of them lie some 70 miles north of Barcelona, but the journey up will likely be a joy in its own right. You could swing by the cycling capital of southern Europe with a two-wheeled jaunt into Girona. You could pop by charming Berga in the highlands. Later, the ski fields of Andorra la Vella beckon, offering some of the most affordable winter sports this side of the French Alps.