back here, but put me down for 1. With a car, Gibraltar, Portugal, and Tangier are all easy trips from Andalusia.
Whichever plan you go with, don't skip Madrid.
Edit: With your first itinerary, you'll have great weather.
Wife and I just did Barcelona, San Sebastián, Segovia, and Madrid back October. Loved it all, and the day and night we spent in Segovia were a highlight, at least for our tastes.
If you stay in Madrid, consider renting an apartment intead of a hotel. They have VRBO-style home rental agencies there that we used to rent a fantastic 2 bedroom apartment right on Plaza Mayor for only about 90 euro per night.
Besides the aqueduct they had a palace over a gorge that is well worth visiting.
We ate at a place called Jose Maria's and I had the best suckling pig. That is the local specialty.
The deputy mayor showed me around the town the last time I was there.
is a must see.
There is also a restaurant not too far from there that is on the "must" list as well. Email me for details.
Bilbao is a very interesting town -- the Guggenheim is sweet, and there's a lot of renewed energy up there because of it. San Sebastian is beautiful. And you're also near Guernica.
Barcelona is a world-class city. The medieval quarter is fascinating.
I highly recommend the basque country, especially if you are looking for food, drink, and relaxation.
Madrid was ok, we spent like 2 days there. It's just a European capital, not terribly unique. Good museums, food, and nightlife, but not mindblowing.
We spent our time in the basque country primarily in San Sebastian. The food is amazing. We ate at Arzak which is the best meal I've ever had and quite an experience. The pintxo bars in town have great food as well, and there's a shitload of bars in San Sebastian. The beaches in SS are solid. There are some great surf breaks nearby if you're into that.
We also made a day trip to Biarritz, FR (45 minutes by car) one day which is where I would live if I had to choose somewhere in Europe to live. Surf break right in town, great cafes, beautiful scenery and relaxed vibe. Quick stop in Hondarribia on the way was worth it (walled medieval town right on border).
Bilbao was underwhelming. If you really want to go to the Guggenheim than fine, but otherwise I'd skip it.
You can also check out the Rioja wine region pretty easily from there, maybe do an overnight trip. There's probably a ton of cool towns we didn't get a chance to see.
I've never been to Barcelona or Andalusia. My wife had been to southern Spain and said the basque country was a totally different experience. The landscape is green and rugged (think northern CA/Oregon) vs. southern Spain's San Diego/Baja resemblance.
Weather in may was decent. We had some rainy days and some nice sunny beach days, temps ranged from about 60 - 75 F for daytime.
I don't have anything else besides Madrid in Spain to compare the basque country to, but I highly recommend it for exceptional food, drink, culture and a unique experience.
Barcelona is a fun city; I loved San Sebastian but in May it could be too cold to swim. The Pintxos in San Sebastian are great, much better than the tapas in the rest of Spain. Bar hopping to eat Pintxos and drink Sidra is great fun. Bilbao is a big crowded city. We went there to see the Guggenheim but I would skip both.
Sevilla has a nice cathedral and Cordoba has a very impressive mosque but neither are as entertaining as Barcelona.
have very close friends there. The short answer is Barcelona with the comments below all well founded but if you would like a lot of suggestions, email me.
Spain is a really, really nice place. Madrid is a very cosmopolitan, modern city built around an old one that is full of history. There is a great deal to do and see in Madrid itself.
The country is fairly far north and enjoys a wide range of weather. Madrid is in a central valley and semi-arid. It's dry and hot in the summer and dry and cold in the winter. Clouds are not normally a big part of the picture. Snow is rare.
In the northwest, you have a coastal area with relatively chilly, damp weather due to the arctic current flowing south. The northeast, e.g., Barcelona, is milder as it's on the Mediterranean side and very much beachfront. Great in the summer, if a bit humid, and, I'm told, still very mild in the winter, especially on the south side. The south tends to stay pretty warm all year, especially to the southeast corner.
Food and drink is a BIG deal. The Spanish people really, really care about eating and drinking. Memorize the word paella (pie-a-ah) and feel free to try a lot of the varieties including the one with the octopus ink. Seafood is very big. Olive related foods, especially foods prepared with olive oil, are very, very big. The olive groves in the south go on for miles in every direction. The lamb is generally wonderful. Ditto the pork. They have made an art form out of ham. Tapas were invented there. The main difference in food is that some places it is spectacular rather than simply excellent.
Partying is big with the young people. Do not, repeat not, try to party competitively with the locals. Americans are amateurs. The Spanish are pros. I've watched them leave the wedding reception at 6AM to go home to change clothes to go to work. This at a wedding where the drinks were flowing and the bride was being thrown in the air as part of the celebration (not as big a deal as might be thought as Marie is actually very slender).
While in Madrid, you MUST go to Casa Patas (www.casapatas.com/) for the Flamenco. Get a table close to the stage. I'm not into dance or music but that's part of my plan every time we go.
We email you soon!
Thanks so much!
Barcelona is terrific. We took a tour of the city on a motorcycle with sidecar and it was the highlight of the trip (go on the night tour if you do it)-this outfit is terrific if you are interested http://www.ridebrightside.com/
Go to Camp Nou if you can--I didn't check the fixtures for May but I suspect there will be a match or two--well worth it
Restaurants: Very fond of 7 Portes (went twice)
Don't stay at the Rambla (and for that matter don't spend much time there either unless you want to have your pocket picked). We stayed at the W and while we were warned that it was too far off the beaten path it was not and far better than the alternatives
Train from Barcelona to Madrid is easy and fast. Trains in Spain are great
You will enjoy
If I were making up my own trip, I'd skip Madrid. I thought the Andalucian cities were a lot more interesting.
The Prado alone is worth the trip.
I really enjoyed Madrid.
But I'm biased, as I just did that for my honeymoon last july (sans Madrid).
San Sebastian is great for food - from the pinxtos at all the various local bars to the world class restaurants (arzak & mugaritz namely). Mugaritz remains my favorite dining experience of all time. Such a great meal/experience and worth the cost, in my opinion. Outside of the food, the beaches in San Sebastian are ok as welll.
Barcelona is really interesting. Sagrada di Familia is a must to visit - be sure you buy your tickets in advance so you don't have to wait in line. Obviously the gaudi architecture is really cool, and barcelona itself is pretty uniquely designed for a major city. Food wise, I cannot recommend Albert Adria's Tickets restaurant enough. Reasonably priced, unbelievable food. Fun atmosphere as well. I'm not sure if they changed their reservation policy, but it used to be their reservations go online on their site for 3 months out everyday at midnight barcelona time. A bit tedious, but well worth it in my opinion.
If you're looking for guided tours/locals to show you around - San Sebastian Food is a great company (sansebastianfood.com). We did their pinxtos bar crawl and it was a lot of fun. For Barcelona, someone on the back room (think it was Milhouse?) recommended Hi! This Is Barcelona and they were a great tour guide as well. (http://www.hithisisbarcelona.com/index.php)
Hi this is barcelona; had a tremendous, personalized tour with them two years ago.
Out of Madrid, Barcelona, and Sevilla. The Sagrada Familia is one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen. We also liked the food best in Barcelona, although it's possible that was more due to chance than a major difference between them.
So I vote your second option.