15 August 2017 by Simon Langley
From wild coastlines and beach curves to mountain peaks and rolling countryside, the charms of the Iberian Peninsula are seemingly endless. To help point you in the right direction our destination experts have put together the following self-drive routes that showcase the best of it all.
Although the cities of southern Spain are resplendent in Renaissance treasures and Moorish fortifications, the routes that knit them together are just as impressive. Golden curves are mapped by picturesque coastal roads, quiet country lanes sweep through never-ending plains and switchbacks zigzag lazily through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Indeed, along with the mosque-cathedral of Córdoba and the palace-castle of the Alhambra, there’s a dizzying array of plateau-top towns to discover, full of authentic charm and culinary treats.
Fiercely independent yet faultlessly welcoming, Catalonia has much to be proud of. That great crumple that forms the Iberian Peninsula’s border – the Pyrenees – also forms some spectacular driving routes, bringing you between medieval villages and hilltop towns in stunning valley sweeps and mountain climbs. Don’t forget, there are always the golden sands of the Costa Brava. In between, you’ll stop for national-park hikes and seasonal skiing, returning each night to stay in lovingly converted farmhouses and even millennia-old castles.
The delights of the Basque Country are twofold. After tracing the beaches of its fishing-village coastline, you’ll turn into its verdant interior to be greeted by award-winning wineries and Renaissance-era treasures. Here, verdant undulations see you between Napoleonic battlefields and nights spent in hilltop castles. There’s also plenty of urbane intrigue as well, with Bilbao’s architecture at the bleeding edge of modernism and San Sebastián’s pintxo tapas bars adorned with Michelin stars.
If you head west out of Bilbao – instead of east as above – you’ll be treated to an altogether wilder proposition. Roads wind around glacial lakes, majestic mountains make for dizzying passes and the coast is carved into lonely coves. Then, after hopping over rivers on centuries-old bridges, you’ll have some time to rest in seaside villages and Gijon’s sandy beaches before arriving at your reward – Santiago de Compostela, detailed below.
The Camino de Santiago – Way of St. James – has attracted pilgrims for well over a millennium, with Santiago de Compostela reputed to be the final resting place of the saint himself – a claim solidified by the city’s wondrous 13th-century cathedral. And, while it’s still possible to walk the route, the gruelling journey is today best taken in on pretty drives through old-growth forests, fruit orchards and seemingly endless farmlands. Put simply, it’s Spain at its bucolic best, complete with Roman ruins and church-fortresses to explore.
There’s perhaps nothing more indulgent than ending a lazy day’s driving with a glass of the local tipple, enjoying views over the very winery that produced it. And, our Spain experts have put together this itinerary to showcase the very best of the country’s premier wine region, with stays in castle palaces and converted hospitals that date back some 900 years. It’s all linked by impossibly scenic drives that follow the vineyard contours to take in pretty stone villages and stops at plaza-side cafés.
The joy of a driving holiday comes from the flexibility, the freedom to explore. And Portugal’s network of historic hotels – known as pousadas – is perfect. Found scattered throughout the country, they range from Baroque palaces and Rococo manor houses to converted convents and imposing Moorish castles, each resplendent in centuries of Portuguese history. So, whether it’s the vineyards and seaside charm of Alentejo or the medieval towns and rolling green valleys of the country’s north, the pousadas make for truly evocative stops. Take a look at our curated routes for more inspiration.
While the picture-perfect sands of southern Portugal have long adorned postcards and social media, this considered itinerary brings you off the beaten track to the region’s quieter charms. Jagged coastal drives and valley sweeps will keep you off the toll roads, bringing you between fishing villages, Roman ruins and those iconic whitewashed towns. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of time for some beach relaxation as well. What’s more, we’ve featured some of Portugal’s finest pousadas, with stays in medieval castles and 19th-century palaces all included.
While you’ll know Madeira for its year-round sun and sumptuous wines, this volcanic jut also makes for some seriously scenic drives. It’s often termed the ‘Garden Island’, with old-growth forests spread over skyscraping mountain peaks that crag down towards a coastline spectacular. Then, in between drives, you can get out and explore on nearly 1,000km of hiking trails that trace Madeira’s century-old system of aqueducts. You’ll also spend your nights in charming farmhouse properties, with plenty of opportunity to taste your way through those world-class vineyards.
To complement our route through the Algarve featured above, this itinerary also takes in the twin delights of Lisbon and Porto. Ever the rivals, each impresses with a certain cobblestone charm, with winding medieval streets leading between sun-soaked plazas. You’ll just have to decide whether you prefer the quieter, riverside cafés of Porto or the headline-grabbing sites of Lisbon; there’s everything from floating, 16th-century towers to the 400-year-old Castelo de São Jorge that towers over the entire city.