The ultimate road trip in Northern Spain – a 10 day Itinerary

Stretching along the Atlantic Coast from Portugal to France and inland over the lush Pyrenees Mountains, Northern Spain is a sight to behold. Remarkably, however, this region of Spain is often overlooked in favour of more popular city breaks in Barcelona and Madrid, leaving the northern cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián almost entirely to the locals. Ditch the Mediterranean for the Atlantic however and you’re sure to be glad, exploring any number of quaint coastal villages by car, driving through rolling hills scattered with vineyards, lake scenery, hiking trails and more. Read on for Mr Hudson’s ultimate 10-day Northern Spain itinerary.

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Bilbao | Photo: Jorge Fernández Salas

Northern Spain

Touring the north of Spain by car is a joy, allowing you to see many of the lesser-known towns and villages dotting both coast and countryside. Besides Bilbao and San Sebastián, other places in Northern Spain worth checking out include Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria, but make sure to also tour the Basque Country to get a wider taste of regional cuisine and cultural traditions. Many of the best Spanish dishes were invented in the north, including the popular tapas dishes of pulpo a la gallega, aka Galician octopus, and cured chistorra sausage, owing to the region’s position on the Atlantic as well as its long-standing agriculture.

As well as eating your way through the region, holidays in Northern Spain can unfold on the beaches or even deep in the countryside at one of many wine country hotels. Our ultimate road trip Northern Spain skirts the Atlantic border passing through the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia.

The Best Time to Visit Northern Spain

A well-thought-out North Spain itinerary will take into account the travel season. Both rain and extremely hot weather are possible in the region, affecting what mischief you can get up to. Northern Spain in summer (particularly July and August) is considered the best for Atlantic getaways, in towns and cities such as Santiago de Compostela, Oviedo, Santander and San Sebastián, all offering full days of sunshine with the least amount of rain. Spring in these areas runs the risk of rain, while winter can be a little too chilly for the beach, but if indoor cultural venues appeal, winter is still great for museum touring and eating!

While summer is most likely to see warm and dry weather, the same is not uncommon from June to late November. Bear in mind that temperatures can get more unpredictable to later into fall you arrive and, if hiking in the Pyrenees and Picos de Europa, you should pack for cooler weather (even in summer) as there are micro-climates at higher elevation.

Photo: Pedro Sanz

Photo: LisboaInd

The Basque Country

Known by many names – Basques as Euskadi, Euskal Herria and El Pais Vasco in Spanish – The Basque region Spain is also one of many landscapes, varying from verdant peaks to rocky Atlantic coves. Within its clutches lie the cities of Bilbao, Vitoria and San Sebastián, as well as numerous towns and villages, all making for perfect jumping-off points into the wilderness. Of the smaller towns, Hondarribia (Fuenterrabía in Spanish) deserves a mention, hosting a cobblestone square lined with Basque houses, a Parador hotel and local church beside swimmable rivers that flow to France. Onwards from Hondarribia, there’s the small fishing village of Getaria on the Bay of Biscay. Wash down the freshest seafood with a local pouring of Txacoli wine, whiling an afternoon at the Balenciaga Museum or on a wine tour of the area (also bookable as a day tour from San Sebastián).

Day 1 - Basque Country: San Sebastián

Hosting one of the more well-connected North Spain airports and an easy starting point for your road trip is the city of San Sebastián. Here you can hire your vehicle direct from the airport, driving just 20 kilometres to the city centre to arrive at your coastal accommodation. The beaches of San Sebastián are renowned across the country as is the food, which has been awarded the most Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in Spain. Work up an appetite with a 2-kilometre walk along La Concha Promenade passing 3 separate urban beaches (Concha, Ondarreta and Zurriola), before coming back to town to enjoy specialty pintxos; the region’s own take on tapas.

Later in the afternoon you can see the architecture of the Old Town from prime position at one of the many traditional bars, or, if you’re feeling active, hop on the funicular railway for inspiring bay views atop Monte Igueldo. Discover more things to do in San Sebastián before moving on.

San Sebastian | Photo: Ultrash Ricco

Day 2 - Basque Country: Bilbao

The largest city in Northern Spain and our next stop is Bilbao, around 2 hours 40 minutes’ drive from San Sebastián. To break the trip up, however, we’ll stop halfway in San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a town popular for its appearances in Game of Thrones and often busy because of it (especially on public holidays). Stretch your legs on the 3-kilometre round trip hike, passing a number of fortified viewpoints and ending at a monastery where you can take turns to ring the bell for luck.

From there it’s one more hour in the car to Bilbao, where you can finally fill up on lunch at the Mercado de la Ribera, a fine introduction to the city’s foodie scene. A post-industrial city, Bilbao has fast become a cultural mecca, following the creation of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim which blazed the trail for arts and architecture in the region. Take a guided tour or save more time for other cultural attractions such as the Philippe Starck cultural centre based within an old wine cellar, or hopping on Norman Foster’s futuristic metro to quickly pass through the old town to the riverside and the Santiago Calatrava Bridge. With more time, check out all the other things to do in Bilbao.

Plaza Nueva Bilbao

Plaza Nueva, Bilbao | Photo: Kerry Murray

Photo: Logan Weaver

Cantabria

A small-scale region next to Asturias, Cantabria offers a taste of everything, including sunny beaches, fishing villages and blustery cliffs that lead to inland mountains and valleys. The capital of Cantabria is Santander, though Santillana del Mar and Comillas both bring medieval and modernist allure. Archaeology lovers may also wish to see the prehistoric cave art in Altamira, El Castillo and Covalanas, the latter also hosting mountain ranges that lead to Picos de Europa.

Day 3 - Bilbao to Santander

With about a week in Spain left, we enter Cantabria on its east side, passing through the seaside village of Castro Urdiales where the gothic church, stunning beaches and Roman intrigue will almost certainly have you pulling over. Then, around halfway to Santander (with 50 kilometres to go), Comillas may also appeal, a former whaling town turned historic fishing village full of peaceful plazas and beaches.

Enjoy the rest of the hilly, green drive to Santander, waving at stumpy monchino horses and marvelling at vintage stone farmhouses, finally arriving in Santander for a late lunch. Since the Centro Botin museum was built here, Santander (like Bilbao) has seen a change of fate, now an artsy town and popular summer destination. Most of the action in Santander takes place on the coast, near the likes of El Sardinero Beach, Playa de Los Peligros, Playa de Los Bikinis and Playa del Puntal. Take surfing lessons, follow the coastal path to Cabo Mayor Lighthouse, or head straight for a feast at Mercado de la Esperanza, passing by the cathedral which is actually two Gothic churches built atop each other.

Santander | Photo: Willian Justen de Vasconcellos

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Along a stretch of almost 200 beaches, the road will take you through the colourful fishing ports of Ribadesella and Cudillero, with optional detours into the Picos de Europa and its valleys

Asturias

As green as its neighbours with a coastline just as dramatic, Asturias is said to be the real Spain as it was the only part of the country never to be conquered by the Islamic Arabs in 700 AD. Along a stretch of almost 200 beaches, Northern road trips Spain will take you through the colourful fishing ports of Ribadesella and Cudillero, with optional detours into the Picos de Europa and its valleys. For the region’s pre-Romanesque architecture, it’s Oviedo that wins out as the cultural capital while Covadonga was the site of the first Spanish nation around 1,300 years prior.

Day 4 - Cantabria to Asturias

Day four has us happily lost in Asturias, stopping by a number of destinations before settling on a favourite for the night. Of your options, there’s Santillana del Mar for medieval streets and Renaissance palaces away from the coast, while you can also think about visiting the caves of Altamira before settling (possibly) on Llanes for the night. If passing back through Comillas, consider the fairy-tale house of El Capricho, designed by Gaudi in stained glass and wrought-iron to whimsical effect.

Asturias | Photo: Carlos Urteaga Pintado

Day 5 - Asturias: Llanes

So, you’ve arrived in the tiny town of Llanes to find medieval magic at every corner. Move through town on foot to catch the best sights, careful not to fell the crumbling walls or waylay busy fisherman at the bustling harbour. Walk the waterways to eventually reach the town’s beaches, most notably Playa de Tóro, Playa del Sablon and Playa de Puerto Chico. Visitors who have rented cars in Spain can also venture further out to the snorkelling beach of Playa de Toranda, or surfer paradise of Playa de San Antolín among others.

Higher up above the Bay of Biscay, another walk awaits, namely the Paseo de San Pedro which runs along the dramatic cliffs that host some of the most dramatic scenery imaginable. If walking doesn’t suit, however, scour the art of Los Cubos de Memoria, a mural turning the harbour’s water barrier into a thing of beauty. Asturian cider is another thing of beauty you can get acquainted with on your travels, heading to a ‘sidreria’ to try apple-y dishes such as cachopo, chorizos a la sibra and more.

Asturias | Photo: Javier Alamo

Day 6 - Asturias: Ribadesella, Oviedo & Gijón

Staying in Asturias, the morning is spent wandering the colourful plazas and narrow streets of Ribadesella, walking the promenade to take in the view over Playa de Santa Marina before cheers-ing at a harbourside bar. For an added spot of history, head inland from the beach to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cueva de Tito Bustillo for cave drawings dating back 35,000 years.

Now our path forks to give us two options: the old capital of Oviedo or the even older coastal city of Gijón. Those who choose Oviedo will find a lively student environment within the historic casco antiguo, lending modern shopping streets and restaurants to the north and west, despite the humming of textile factories towards the outskirts of town.

Day 7 - Asturias: Cudillero & Luarca

Two more choices to end your stay in Asturias are Cudillero and Luarca. Firstly let’s talk Cudillero, the perfect choice for Spain road trips looking for coastal views and seafood. The houses that line the waterfront here come pastel coloured while the cove further down is the place for leisurely meals of fresh local catch. Despite some over-tourism, Cudillero remains authentic, especially on the wonky streets around the 13th century Humilladero Chapel. To avoid the people, simply hop back in the car and drive the 10 kilometres to Cabo Vidio. Eighty metres above sea level, these rugged cliffs provide awesome views over the Atlantic showcasing caves and a lighthouse looking out over Punta de Estaca de Bares, the northernmost point of the Iberian Peninsula.

Driving just 25 minutes from Cabo Vidio you can then reach Luarca, either exploring the fishing port by late afternoon or in the cool morning air the following day.

Cudillero | Photo: Moises Muniz

Galicia

The most distinctive region in Northern Spain, Galicia comes with its own language and culture, as well as a unique travelling scene centred around the Santiago de Compostela, starting point of the famed pilgrim trail known as Camino de Santiago. While the epic hiking route is the main draw, the city of Santiago itself is magical too, edged by 1,200 kilometres of wild coastline, strung with cliffs, coastal inlets and beaches. Off the coast you’ll find various islands but, closer to home, fishing ports are said to net the best seafood in Europe.

Day 8 - Asturias to Galicia

Those trekking the Camino de Santiago will see the region at its best, traversing verdant valleys, medieval monasteries and century-old vineyards, but Galicia’s beauty is accessible to everyone, entering via Asturias’ Castropol to Ribadeo in Galicia’s Lugo province. Vegadeo is another Galician town on the border, showing off more of the same mansions and palaces on a hillside overlooking the ports. Those looking for a beach day out of season should definitely move to Playa de Las Catedrales, while everyone else can head straight to Rías Baixas, stopping at Cambados to refuel on Galician food amongst old-world charms. Travellers coming on the first weekend of August will be lucky enough to take part in the Albariño Wine Festival, though wineries in the area operate all year round.

For the purest form of Galicia, Combarro takes the biscuit, offering cobbled streets edged with traditional houses and typical ‘horreos’ or granaries that serve as a key industry in the region. On a day trip from Combarro, head to Monte de Santa Tecla, where the Miño River flows into the ocean near the border to Portugal. Sea, river and mountains make up the landscape here though archaeological history at the Celtic Roman ruins above La Guardia attract many.

Galicia | Photo: Gervasio Ruiz

Days 9 & 10 – Galicia

Finishing all the best itineraries for Spain is a jaunt in Galicia, home of cured meats and Spain’s greatest trek. Running 800 kilometres across thousand-year-old ruins embedded in the Spanish countryside, the Camino de Santiago is reserved for the fittest hikers. Nevertheless, regular visitors can easily visit Galicia’s capital of Santiago de Compostela, moving through the granite maze of the UNESCO Old Town using the Romanesque churches, museums and squares for navigation. Eat at the Mercado de Abastos, following the ‘De Viños’ wine trail from Rúa do Franco to Obradoiro Square for a merry time of it.

Though the airport is just 15 minutes’ drive out of town, one last day trip out to La Coruña could tempt you with its historic port and bustling beach fringing a cultural city centre. The layout of La Coruña is interesting enough, on a narrow stretch of land jutting 2 kilometres north into the Atlantic. Lighting the way is the peninsula’s World Heritage-listed Roman lighthouse, named Torre de Hércules, with the Paseo Marítimo coastal walkway and bike path connecting all the key attractions. If you’d like to extend your trip further, Vigo is yet another option, providing history and culture in grittier, industrial surrounds. Still home to Europe’s largest fishing fleet, Vigo is both full of sailors and commerce, acting as the main gateway to Illas Cías. Before boarding a ship to the island, get lairy after dark with the locals in the Casco Vello (Old Town), tapping into a buzzing tapas scene and lazing on the greens of Praza de Compestela. Check out our article for more things to do in Vigo, or head on to the airport one happy camper.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia | Photo: Victoriano Izquierdo

Santiago de Compostela | Photo: Victoriano Izquierdo

Islas Cíes, Galicia | Photo: Isabel Pineiro

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Covadonga, Asturias | Photo: Tony Prats

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