If you’ve been to Spain before but have primarily spent your time in its largest cities, this guide is for you! If you haven’t been to Spain but are interested in exploring some of its most stunning (but lesser known) scenery and understanding its exquisite intertwining of many cultures, this guide is also for you! I want to encourage you to visit coastal Spain on a road trip that will take you through the regions of Andalucía, Murcia, and Valencia. There will be plenty of opportunities for stops along the way, and this easy to follow itinerary will help you explore the welcoming, passionate, and plentiful southern and eastern coasts of Spain. I’ll start with how you should prepare for your road trip and then share information on what to see and eat along the way.
I also want to highlight that another great aspect of this guide is that it’s applicable year round. During the spring and summer months, you’ll have access to seemingly unlimited sunny beaches, perfect for swimming and sunbathing. In fall and winter, the coastal cities are free of tourist crowds and the weather is pleasant for days spent out-of-doors. No matter the time of year, this region is great for affordable travel, friendly Airbnb hosts, and savoring the untouched outdoors away from the masses.
- Spain is well-connected by easily navigable roadways and reliable public transportation. While this post specifically covers how to plan for a road trip through Southern Spain, it will still prove useful if you are travelling via trains and buses to any of the places I recommend herein. A combination of driving a vehicle and commuting via public transportation is also a great option, but in my opinion, driving along the coast is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.
A couple of important basics to know about driving in Spain:
- Drive on the right side of the road.
- While manual vehicles are more common, automatic vehicles are available to rent, but note that you will pay more for your rental.
- Outside of the largest cities, don’t count on gas stations being open past 6 or 7 PM, and furthermore, don’t be surprised if you pump your gas first before paying (a rarity in the US).
- In order to drive in Spain, you are required to have either a valid European driver’s license or an International Driving Permit (IDP). The IDP translates your domestic license into other languages and therefore assists local authorities in reading the information on your license. Anyone can apply for the IDP through AAA by completing the application, submitting two passport photos, and paying $20. Note that your domestic license should still be carried with your IDP as they are meant to function in conjunction should a local authority need your information.
- In regards to how much time you’ll want when undertaking this road trip, I would recommend a minimum of one week so you can easily cover the distance between Málaga on the southern coast and Valencia on the eastern coast, without feeling too rushed. Plan your overnight stays in cities that allow you to relax seaside, explore the unique landscapes, or wander the historic city centers. Also know that what makes this route so appealing is the plethora of options for places to stop for lunch, a hike, or a great view.
Take time to enjoy your stops along the way!
- Spain has tollways that are indicated by road names ending in “P”, such as AP-7. Prepare to pay by having Euros on hand or a credit card that is reliable internationally. There is an electronic toll system that allows drivers with a “Via-T Bip&Drive” device installed to bypass tollways without stopping, however do not count on your rental car having one installed.
- Carrying Euros on you is also good idea in case you encounter an issue with your credit cards or are making purchases from rural businesses and gas stations that may only accept cash. I have occasionally had difficulties using my US credit cards at gas stations in Europe and it’s not fun to be running low on fuel and cash.
- While English will be more widely spoken in the larger cities of Málaga, Almería, and Cartagena, learning a few simple Spanish phrases will be helpful to you and facilitate polite exchanges with your hosts and other locals you meet off the beaten path.
- Most are familiar with Hola and Gracias, but if you want to greet someone in the morning try Buenos dias, or in the evening use Buenos tardes
- Sometimes a simple please, Por favor, goes a long way
- If you would like a table at a restaurant, you could get by with saying Una mesa por favor
- Requesting the bill after a meal is as simple as La cuenta por favor
- If you’re looking for the toilet, ¿Donde están los servicios? will get you pointed in the right direction
- If you are in need of help, you can approach someone with Me puedes ayudar?
- If you’ve reached the extent of your Spanish language skills, you can inform the other party that you don’t speak Spanish by saying No hablo Español
- Generally speaking, across Spain, the opening and closing hours of restaurant and business that are listed online are not always accurate (especially during any holiday) so don’t fully rely on this information when planning your day. A reservation at a restaurant is always a good idea, but keep in mind that meals are generally served later in Spain and therefore a restaurant may not open until after 7:00 PM.
- Tipping is not as common in Spain, but leaving small change at cafes or following a cheaper meal is appreciated. Having received great service during a longer meal, a 10% tip at a dining establishment is appropriate.
A very small glimpse of the drive along the coast outside Málaga
Travelling along the coast will provide you with plenty of beautiful views and ample places to stretch your legs or rest overnight. Whether starting your road trip on the Costa del Sol in the south or in Valencia on the east coast, here are places worth a visit along the way. Note that this itinerary starts in the south in Málaga and takes you into the region of Valencia, but I have a separate post on What to Know & What to See in the city of Valencia.
Málaga – Málaga makes for a great starting or ending point of your road trip as it has a large international airport as well as national bus and train connections. As for what to see in Málaga,
- There is no shortage of beaches in the vicinity of Málaga, but if you are staying in city center and prefer convenience, Playa de la Malagueta has you covered. With ample eateries, good facilities, sandy shores, and sidewalks for strolling, it’s a nice place to pass a sunny day.
- Within the historic center of the city you will find plenty of shops and restaurants, along with the Cathedral de la Encarnación de Málaga and Pablo Picasso Museum (Picasso was born in Málaga). You can tour the inside of the cathedral and the dome for a fee of around 10 Euros, but if visiting at Christmas, stop by to see the elaborate Nativity scene on display for free.
- To understand the influence and legacy of the Moors in Andalucía while also enjoying a spectacular view over the city, walk up Gibralfaro Hill to the Castle of Gibralfaro. There are a couple pathways up to the ramparts, and on the way you can also tour the Alcazaba fortification which was built in the 11th century and is recognized as the best preserved citadel in Spain today.
Almería – Now that you’re on the road and heading east along the coast, let’s talk about where you can stop to stretch your legs and enjoy an authentic tapas lunch. Almería is another city easily accessible by public transportation that serves as an excellent starting point for exploring Spain’s desert and southern coastline. The region received particular attention and hotels in the city reached capacity during filming for Game of Thrones on account of there being several locations nearby where filming for the series took place.
As you’re travelling around Almería, you won’t miss the endless rows of white structures nestled into the plains between jagged hills and alongside the highway all the way down to the coast. Europe’s tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, avocados, and mangos to name a few are now grown in this region with a climate so inhospitable that, until the emergence of these greenhouses in the 1980s, the arid landscape was better suited to filming western movies. See further below for how to get this locally-grown produce on your plate.
Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park – Less than an hour drive east of the city of Almería, you’ll find the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park. The natural reserve is home to Spain’s largest volcanic rock formation and mainland Europe’s only hot desert climate. If you delight in exploring breathtaking coasts, solitary beaches, and visiting less touristy small towns, I cannot recommend this area enough. By car, you can easily reach the following places in the area of Cabo de Gata:
- For an amazing spot to watch the sunset, walk about two and a half kilometers (1.5 miles) from a tiny parking lot to Torre de los Lobos. To reach this gem just outside Rodalquillar, follow a barely distinguishable unpaved single lane path until you reach a locked gate at the trailhead. Park your vehicle and follow the trail to the top of the cliff for sweeping views of the coastline that you could end up having all to yourself.
- The village of Mojácar sits elevated above the beach and is famous for its beautiful whitewashed buildings in the old town. This is a nice spot to grab a bite to eat and then stretch your legs while strolling the streets.
- Carboneras provides access to “hidden”, or at least lesser-known, beaches and is near to the Torre de Mesa Roldan which served as a Game of Thrones filming location for the (made-up) city of Meereen.
While we did not camp, I’d add that there are ample places to park your vehicle and stay the night in this area.
Cartagena – At the present, the city is mostly undiscovered by mass tourism on account of there being several larger holiday resorts nearby and its reputation as an industrial hub. The city has been strategically important to the Iberian Peninsula because of its mining industry and remains as such due to its deep port that is well suited for Spain’s naval base. As a visitor, you’ll want to see the historical sites dating from the time of Cartagena’s flourishing in the Roman Empire and nearby coastal areas that offer excellent swimming and trekking spots.
- In the historic city center, you’ll find the Roman amphitheater – the second largest on the Iberian Peninsula in fact. The ruins were only discovered in 1988 after centuries of construction directly on top of the theater where a 6,000 person seating area was carved directly into the rocks.
- Outside of the city, there are several old fortifications – closer to Cartagena at Batería de Roldán and tucked away further into the Sierra de la Muela, Cabo Tiñoso y Roldán Nature Preserve at Batería de Castillitos. At these historical sites, you can hike to remnants of old forts constructed just prior to the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and then explore the untamed seaside peaks and valleys. The military forts were built to defend the Spanish Navy headquartered in Cartagena, but today you can drive up a winding road, park your car, and walk around the decommissioned batteries while taking in the expansive views over the cape.
- Calblanque, Monte de las Cenizas y Peña del Águila Regional Park, a 30 minute drive from Cartagena, has a series of adjoining beaches that are excellent for sunbathing, swimming, and sunset admiring. There are no amenities on the beaches so you should bring what you will need. Also note that during the summer there is a bus to shuttle visitors from the main car park near Los Belones to the beaches in order to reduce disturbances to the environment and preserve the tranquility of the park. If you are visiting in winter, don’t count on being able to swim, but you will be able to drive into the preserve, park you vehicle close to the beach and enjoy spectacular and peaceful sunsets.
Xàbia or Jávea – Situated on the most easterly point of mainland Spain, about 100 kilometers south of Valencia and 90 kilometers north of Alicante, Xàbia is appreciated for its natural landscape and accessibility to the outdoors. The town is popular with holidaymakers and ex-pats, specifically the British, but is also adored by locals, as confirmed by a Spaniard we met in Valencia who said she has a place there. Highlights in the area include:
- If you aren’t yet sick of clear water and accessible beaches, there are plenty more to be found in the area of Xàbia, the most convenient of which from city center are the sandy beach at Playa del Arenal and rocky shore at Playa Primer Mutanyar/Benissero.
- There are 14 Miradors, or lookouts, along the coast which are well marked for trekking. We hiked trail PR-CV 355 from the Port Xàbia to Mirador de Cap Sant Antoni, which was four kilometers round trip, but the trail continues on to Montgo. A 2016 brush fire burned the hillside through which this trail passes so there is no coverage overhead on hot days, but the vista from Mirador de Cap Sant Antoni is great. If you want the views without the hike, you can drive up the CV-7362, which leads right up to a parking area in front of the lighthouse. On clear days, look for the island of Ibiza in the distance.
Whether you are in the mood for pescado fresco or frito (fresh or friend fish), locally sourced vegetables served with olive oil and balsamic dressing, or savory dishes made with rice, eggs, or potatoes, you will taste something you love while visiting the Andalucía, Murcia, and Valencia regions. Here are just a few eatery recommendations you’ll find along the coast starting in the south and making your way east:
- El Último Mono in the historic city center is ideal for breakfast fare, such as smoothies.
- Visit Astrid Taperia Organica near the Iglesia De San Juan Bautista for at lunch for affordable and delicious tapas, including vegetarian options.
- At the base of Gibralfaro Hill and not far from the Malagueta Beach, you’ll find Anyway Wine Bar offering friendly service and excellent wines in a quaint setting.
- On a visit to the plentiful Mercado Central (Central Market) you can stock up on fresh fruits, vegetables, seafood, and meat to take away for a sunset picnic on the Cabo de Gata-Níjar coast.
- A less than ten minute walk from the Central Market, you’ll find yourself in the Old Town, or Almedina neighborhood. Park your car in an underground structure and walk the area to find authentic tapas bars like Jovellanos 16 where you can enjoy bacalao (baked cod), patatas bravas, and cucumber rolls at very reasonable prices while rubbing elbows with the locals.
- For fresh seafood and marina views, head to Club Nautico Santa Lucia where you can dine on squid, shrimp cakes, prawns, and plenty more on the outdoor patio.
- If you’re looking for a casual eatery in the Casco Antiguo area of the city, Pizzería Mano a Mano has you covered.
- Finish your meal with excellent gelato at Gelateria del Bianco where the owner is friendly and the flavors are decadent.
- Grab a table on an outdoor patio at one of the seaside cafes on Plaza Adolfo Suarez, such as Café Mira Luna, and order a fresh Valencia orange juice with your meal.
A visitor myself, this is a guide to get you started and help you plan, but I would strongly encourage you to ask locals for their advice, seek out the hidden gems, and get off the grid on your road trip so you can discover why Spain’s south and east coasts are so irresistible. A country with something for everyone, it’s hard not to feel like you’re seeing a new place each time you visit Spain.
If you’re feeling inspired and want more of southern Spain – check out my posts on What to Know & What to See in Granada and What to Know & What to See in Valencia (coming soon). To read anecdotes about our experience at the Alhambra in Andalucía and how many sunsets we saw in Murcia, take a look at my trip recaps.