12 Highlights for a Road Trip across Northern Spain
Northern Spain is famous for its gastronomy, its elegant cities, which contrast with its small villages, natural landscapes, and sandy beaches. In this post we provide you with lots of details and information that our destination experts have put together as part of of the road trip itineraries they prepare. In broad terms, you have three options to enjoy Northern Spain.
1) Rent a car and organize a roadtrip. This is our favorite option. Motorways and roads in Spain are generally safe. Smaller roads provide fantastic scenery. On the negative side, building a good itinerary can be very time-consuming. In this section, we provide with FREE GUIDE to enjoy an itinerary that covers most highlights shown on this article. BEST NORTHERN SPAIN ROADTRIP ITINERARY
2) Join a guided tour. Guided tours are not a perfect fit for everybody since they reduce flexibility. On the positive side, however, they remove all the burden to get the trip organized, manage time very efficiently and cover the most important highlights. There are not so many guided tours that cover Northern Spain. This one can be a good fit if you are keen on joining one. GUIDED TOUR SPECIAL OFFER
3) Travel with public transportation. Spain has a fantastic public transportation network and this is also the case for the Northern regions. Traveling by public rail and bus is possible but it will take lots of time to build the itinerary and you will have to bear in mind the waiting time for connecting the options available.
Map with the main highlights we will cover in this post
While Spain´s large and well-known cities (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville…the list goes on) are well worth visiting, you cannot get a real feel for Spain until you visit its beautiful and charming Northern regions. Here is a list of 12 amazing highlights in the North of Spain. All next to the coast and with unbelievable food (and wine, of course). We recommend including a few of these highlights on a road trip across northern Spain. Our list starts at the eastern border with France and ends all the way on the western border where Spain meets Portugal. Visit one or visit them all, exploring the North of Spain doesn´t get any more authentic than this!
This itinerary and its ideas was selected by the Times.co.uk as one of Spain´s best holidays.
The North of Spain comprises of different regions (Comunidades Autónomas). In this post we will concentrate on the 4 regions which are located between the borders of France and Portugal: they are the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia. All of these 4 regions have in common beaches and mountains, fantastic gastronomy, culture, monuments and natural parks.
We will cover the main cities in Northern Spain first, then the most charming villages in each of the 4 regions in North Spain. We will not forget the natural parks and beaches, local gastronomy and the culture and heritage you will enjoy in Northern Spain.
Main cities to include in a road trip in Northern Spain (5 highlights)
Highlight 1 - San Sebastian (Basque Country)
The Spanish kings decided to spend their summers in San Sebastian ever since Queen Isabel II received the medical recommendation to bathe in the region’s thermal baths. Queen María Cristina installed the court and the government in San Sebastian during two months each year and, today, the city recalls a glorious past with stately buildings and memories of the Belle Epoque.
OUR TOP RECOMMENDATIONS IN SAN SEBASTIAN
1- We recommend a walk on the La Concha beach from the “peines del viento” to the Casco Viejo.
2- Get lost through the streets of the Casco Viejo and enjoy its many pintxos taverns.
3- We also recommend eating at a traditional sidrería and at one of San Sebastian’s avant-garde restaurants to witness the connections between the old and the new gastronomy.
4 - Pintxos Tour. We recommend you to enjoy a pintxos tour (the way tapas are called in the Basque country) during your stay in San Sebastian. it is a good way to combine dining and learning about the city. There are many tours available but they are a bit over-priced in our opinion. During high season you should make sure you book well in advance! in THIS LINK YOU CAN FIND A GOOD PINTXOS TOUR OPTION.
You can decide to check the best bars in this section with best things to enjoy in San Sebastian and build your own itinerary.
HOTELS IN SAN SEBASTIAN
The bad news is San Sebastian is expensive. the city was isolated for many years due to terrorrism and hotels were not built for decades. Whilst all that belongs to the past and the number of hotels has increased significantly lately, prices are still high compared to the rest of Spain. Here are some of our favorites. We strongly recommend to book as soon as possible. We recommend using Booking.com since you do not need to pay at the time you book and their cancellation policy is very flexible.
Our favorite hotels:
- Overall good value: Astoria and The Barcelo Costa Vasca (Location and overall good value for money).
- Something special: HOTEL VILLASORO has the elegance and charm you expect to find in San Sebastian. AMAZING BUILDING!
- The Classical and luxury ones: MARÍA CRISTINA. Maria Cristina hotel is an icon in San Sebastian. This is not a cheap hotel but one where most rich and famous people stay when visiting the city. The second most famous hotel is HOTEL DE LONDRES E INGLATERRA. Matahari stayed here, lots of glamour and great sea view too. Both these hotels are nearly always fully booked, so if you find a room book it!
Highlight 2 - Bilbao (Basque Country)
A formerly grey and industrial city, Bilbao has been reborn with beauty and splendor thanks to its culture, art, and gastronomy. Today, Bilbao is a must-see in Basque Country.
Top things to do
1- Guggenheim museum. Amazing from the outside and interesting inside (check which temporary exhibitions will be on during your visit. The Museum of Bellas Artes, very close to the Guggenheim offers a fantastic collection and is a must too!
2- Old District (Casco Viejo) Great for tapas and to enjoy a lively atmosphere. The famous 7 calles (7 streets) and Plaza Nueva are where most tapas and pintxos bars concentrate. There is a flea market in Plaza Nueva on Sundays.
3- Views from Funicular de Artxanda.
4 - The Bilbao bridge (15 minutes drive from Bilbao) A fantastic piece of engineering and great fun to try. Another day excursion worth trying is to San Juan de Gaztelugaxte (very popular since it appeared in games of Thrones)
5- Mercado de la Ribera. A great place for any foodie.
More things to do in Bilbao in this post where we have one of our guides, born in Bilbao, goes through all the best recommendations in the city.
These are our favorite hotels in Bilbao:
Barcelo Nervión. A perfectly located (at half distance from the Guggenheim and Casco Viejo) 4 star hotel that offers a fantastic breakfast and overall good value for money. Modern style
Hotel Gran Bilbao. A very modern hotel with excellent facilities. Not so close to the city center but at an area where street parking is permitted. Bear in mind that street parking is regulated in Bilbao city centre
Hesperia Bilbao. As Barcelo Nervion, located at a fantastic location and also very modern facilities and excellent breakfast.
Tayko. Great location and excellent boutique-style decoration.
If you want to enjoy a family-owned hotel, with a traditional basque atmosphere yet not far from Bilbao city center and with great value for money where you can park your car. Hotel Artexe is probably a great option for you.
Highlight 3 - Santander (Cantabria)
Lesser known by the tourist than San Sebastian, Santander is also an elegant city that lives facing the sea. Its beautiful bay and its boardwalks and palaces are witnesses to an important past.
4 Oviedo (Asturias).
No doubt one of Spain’s lesser known cities but one that leaves an impression on those who do visit. Its cathedral, its beautiful market, its cider houses and its elegant shops, buildings and the Campoamor theatre (where the Prince of Asturias awards take place) are sufficient reasons to make a stop in Oviedo.
5 Santiago de Compostela
(Galicia) End of the Camino de Santiago, the capital of Galicia receives pilgrims and tourists alike with open arms. Its famous cathedray and Obradoiro plaza make up the most important enclave of the city, where the spirit of the Way of Saint James is lived and celebrated.
Other gems: There are many other cities worth visiting in northern Spain, but time is scarce. Cities such as La Coruña, Vigo and Lugo are unexpected surprises for the traveller.
Charming towns and villages in Northern Spain
We cover now some of the most interesting villages and small towns in Northern Spain and which can be found in the itinerary we are covering and which has been designed to enjoy stops in some of this less known jewels in Northern Spain.
Highlight number 6 - Villages in Basque Country
One of those towns that does not leave anyone disappointed. There are so many reasons to visit Hondarribia (Fuenterrabía in Spanish). For one, it has some of the best bars and restaurants of the Basque Country. The small gardens, the fortified wall and cobbled streets, beautiful Basque houses, the church, the square in front of the Parador…just a few of the things that make this town so charming. And for those of you that are adventurous, you might want to make the swim up along the river until you reach Hendaye in France.
From Hondarribia, we continue to Getaria, a fishing village located on the Bay of Biscay. We highly recommend trying their fresh-caught grilled fish or “parrillada”. An experience not to be missed in Getaria. The quality of the fish is unbelievable and the town has gained fame for the use of the grill. Accompany your meal with Txacoli, a white wine produced in the surrounding txacoli vineyards. Fashion lovers will be happy to find the Balenciaga Museum, as Getaria is the birth town of the famous designer. A txacoli winery wine tour in Getaria from San Sebastian can also be a fantastic day tour. You can find here more ideas on things to do in Getaria.
The largest town of this list, and therefore less charming than the others, Bermeo has a long history of maritime tradition and is still today very dependent on the fishing industry. You can enjoy a stroll along the beautiful old port and stop at one of the many local bars for a drink and a pintxo. The best part of visiting Bermeo are actually its surroundings. San Juan de Gaztlugatxe, at less than 10km away, has become one of the most popular destinations in the Basque Country and is an absolute must.
Highlight number 7 - Villages in Cantabria
Next up is Castro Urdiales on the eastern end of Cantabria. A seaside village and popular tourist destination. The beach does get overcrowded in the summer months but it is definitely worth a stop. It is filled with beautiful scenery that makes for excellent photo opportunities: the gothic-style church, the castle, the Roman bridge and the port, just to name a few.
Situated 50 kilometers from Santander, Comillas combines its beauty and elegance with the charm of yet another fishing village in the north of Spain. The whaling industry was once the town´s source of wealth. Today, Comillas is a town full of history and one of the most beautiful in Cantabria. Historic buildings, nice beaches, lovely plazas, and for Gaudi lovers, El Capricho.
Crossing into the Asturias region of northern Spain, we come across Lastres. The most impressive part of this small town are the houses that look to be attached to the mountain overlooking the sea. A must for anyone planning on stopping in Lastres is a meal at either El Descanso, Bitácora (incredible views), or at the port.
Highlight number 8 - Villages in Asturias
Gorgeous small fishing village in Asturias wedged between the sea and the mountains. When you first spot the colourful hill of houses next to the port, you will be overcome with an unexpected feeling of happiness. Lots of bars and outdoor terraces to sit down, relax, and enjoy a glass of local cider while taking in the spectacular surroundings and the liveliness of this small town.
Not too far from Cudillero, is Luarca also in the beautiful region of Asturias. It has a beautiful harbour filled with small fishing boats, delicious gastronomy, and excellent beaches. The best views of Luarca are surprisingly from the town´s cemetery located on the hills above. Truly spectacular looking point out to the open sea.
Highlight number 9 - Villages in Galicia
Ribadeo & Castropol
We continue this “northern road trip” to the border between Asturias and Galicia. Here you will find two towns that face each other, Castropol in Asturias and Ribadeo in the Lugo province of Galicia. Along with the nearby Asturian town of Vegadeo, the three form a type of triangle border with mansions and palaces that stand out against the boats and the sea. Very close to Ribadeo is the impressive Playa de Las Catedrales (literally beach of the cathedrals)… an absolute must if you are in the area, but best to go out of season.
When you reach the Rías Baixas in Galicia, make a stop in Cambados, the albariño capital of Spain. Beautiful stone buildings and architecture, cobbled streets, delicious Galician food, and of course, excellent white wine of the local albariño grape. If you´re up for a lively Spanish fiesta, come for a visit the first weekend of August for the famous Albariño Wine Festival. A winery visit in the area is also not a bad idea.
If you enjoy this itinerary we recommend you have a look at our Spain road trips section.
The most characteristic aspects of Galicia all concentrated in one small town: typical Galician “horreos” or granaries, cobbled streets, old traditional houses, stone crosses, fishing boats and the sea. A stroll in the old quarter of Combarro feels like taking a step back in time. A truly unique town that will leave you with a memorable experience of Galicia in its purest form.
Where the Miño River meets the ocean and Spain meets Portugal. This town´s landscape offers a mix of sea, river, and mountains. The Monte de Santa Tecla is one of those magical places where you can feel its history among archaeological finds. The views from the Celtic Roman ruin looking down at La Guardia from above are also breath-taking.
Highlight number 10 - Natural parks and beaches
Islas Atlánticas (Galicia)
The only national park in Galicia, the Islas Atlánticas (Atlantic Islands) extend from the Ría de Arousa to that of Vigo. Throughout the extension of the park, there are linked islands from which the Cíes islands are the most well-known and beautiful. The different islands consist of cliffs, dunes, beaches and rich sea beds, in which sunken ships are found. The island of Rodas is considered one of the best islands in the world. It is important to note that it is not allowed to camp or scuba dive in the national park without having gotten a permit beforehand.
You can find more information on the best beaches in our Northern Spain best beaches post.
Picos de Europa (Asturias, Cantabria & León)
Located among the regions of Asturias, León and Cantabria, the Picos de Europa provide an impressive mountainous contrast with the nearby marine coast. The landscape has been formed by glacier erosion and there are many lakes. The most famous are Enol and Ercina (lakes of Covadonga). Gorges like the Cares Gorge (Garganta del Cares) or the peak of Naranjo de Bulnes at more than 2,500 meters of altitude are home to abundant wildlife.
Highlight 11 – Art & Culture in Northern Spain
Museum of the Galician people (Museo del pueblo Gallego), Santiago de Compostela. An ethnographic museum in Santiago de Compostela that shows the history of Galicia and its relationship with the sea.
Mining Museum of Asturias (Museo de minería en Asturias) – Asturias is a region with a significant mining past. This museum recreates the way of life of the miners and you have the opportunity to descend to a mine.
Altamira Museum. Cantabria. The Altamira cabes are one of the most important cave paitings in the world. Visits, temporary exhibitions, and activities bring us closer to the fascinating world of prehistoric life.
Guggenheim, Bilbao. This museum, the current icon of the city of Bilbao, gave way to the transformation in the appearance of the city. The museum itself is a work of art and a must-see for any lover of architecture.
Highlight 12 - Northern Spain´s Gastronomy
Historically, the geographic location of northern Spain, with the Cantabrian Sea and the mountains of the Cantabrian Range, have contributed a rich source of raw material to shape the local gastronomy.
The Basque Country is famous worldwide for its abundance of Michelin-star restaurants and famous chefs, but we must not forget the quality of Galician gastronomy and its exquisite seafood from its estuaries (rías), or the delicious and generous Asturian gastronomy, not to mention the famous Cantabrian conservas (canned foods)
We recommend you our roadtrip in Northern Spain. A fantastic trip to enjoy the North of Spain in style, with a fantastic selection of hotels and restaurants and a very interesting itinerary full of ideas.