Spain is one of the countries that should be on everyone’s bucket lists of places to visit in their lifetime. There are plenty of things to experience and explore in Spain, so much so that it will require more than one trip to get the full experience. In this post, we’ll focus on planning a Northern Spain itinerary. Northern Spain is perhaps one of Spain’s most underrated regions despite being home to some of the most picturesque landscapes, beautiful hidden beaches, countless sleeping fishing villages, and even some mesmerizing national parks. But more about this later, let’s start by covering some basics.
Spain is home to 17 autonomous communities. The northern part of Spain consists of the regions Galicia, Asturias, and Cantabria (that form the so-called “Green Spain”), the Basque Country, Navarre, and La Rioja. Some people like to classify parts of Castile-Leon and Aragon as Northern Spain but we won’t include them in this article because Castile-Leon is geographically and culturally closer to Central Spain while Aragon is culturally closer to the autonomous regions that made up the former Crown of Aragon (Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands).
Even though it might not feel like it when looking at the map, Spain is a very large country, so if you’re planning a road trip, don’t underestimate the distance. A road trip around Spain or even around one of its regions (in this case, Northern Spain) requires a lot of planning. You can always rush through the region in 4 or 5 days but this way you won’t have a lot of time to indulge in the activities that make Northern Spain… well, Northern Spain.
Spanish people are rarely in a hurry and when visiting Spain, I suggest you do the same. Take your time and explore. This Northern Spain itinerary can be covered in two weeks but if possible, I suggest you extend the trip as much as you can.
Important info before your trip
The first thing to do before visiting Spain is sorting out your travel documents. You can check about Spain’s visa policy here but you’ll also be happy to hear that international travelers can now apply for the ETIAS for Spain in order to visit all these incredible places in Spain. Travelers will need to ensure they have all the necessary requirements in place before beginning the online application process. After submitting their online application, travelers can expect to receive their ETIAS Spain via email in a few days’ time.
Another important thing you need for the perfect Northern Spain itinerary is a car. Sure, you can use buses or trains but nothing beats having the flexibility of driving your own vehicle. A lot of people are renting cars from the airport but this can be quite expensive. Personally, I always use Auto Europe because it allows me to see the best deals from local dealers and compare them even before setting a foot in the country, in this case, Spain. It also gives you the flexibility of canceling your booking until 24 hours before your trip. For more information about it, you can read our honest Auto Europe review.
And last but not least, travel insurance is mandatory in Spain for international travelers. You can always find a cheap provider online but many of these cheap providers sell travel insurance that doesn’t cover a lot of conditions you may come across during your trip. That’s why when choosing travel insurance, you should never go for the cheapest one. It’s better to be safe than sorry and that’s why World Nomads is my go-to choice. Sure, they may be one of the more pricy travel insurance companies out there but their plans have you covered no matter what happens on your trip.
Best time to visit northern Spain
This part of Spain has very hot and dry summers and wet and chilly winters and the closer you get to the Atlantic Coast, the warmer it gets. Having this in mind, I’d say that the best time to visit Northern Spain is early spring or early autumn. The temperatures around this time of the year aren’t very hot and there isn’t a lot of rain either.
Essential items to pack
Once you decide around what time of the year you’ll visit, the next step is to make a list of things you need to pack. Fortunately, we did this for you to make planning your Northern Spain itinerary a lot easier.
- Loose-fitting clothes (for the summer);
- Waterproof and warm clothes (for the winter/late autumn);
- Road survival kit (if renting a car);
- Wireless hands-free kit (for driving)
- Portable charger;
- Reusable water bottle;
- Travel pillow
Where to stay in Northern Spain
There’s no shortage of good hotels and even hostels in Northern Spain. The places with the most choices are, of course, the large cities like San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Santander. In rural areas, accommodation options are more limited but also cheaper. If you want to save on accommodation, you can use our Booking.com discount code to get up to 10% off on all properties in Northern Spain.
Alternatively, you can also use our discount code for Hostel World if you’re planning to stay in hostels.
And last but not least, claim your $50 bonus on your first Vrbo booking with this link.
Why visit Northern Spain?
Northern Spain is home to some of the most stunning natural attractions (they don’t call this part of the country Green Spain for nothing) but you’ll also encounter rich displays of Spanish culture and cuisine, regardless of where you decide to go. History buffs can choose from a myriad of museums and historic buildings that showcase the rich history of Northern Spain, and last but not least, beach lovers will find a lot of peaceful beaches to relax and unwind.
Overall, this part of Spain is brimming with its joyous celebration of life, its unique history, and culture that seems old and yet new at the same time. And as hard as it is to narrow down some of the most remarkable attractions in Northern Spain, we’ll try to do our best. Here are the best places to visit for your Northern Spain itinerary.
Day 1: Hondarribia
Hondarribia is a vibrant small town located at the border with France. If you’re entering Spain with your own car from another country in Europe, this would be the perfect starting point for exploring Northern Spain. Hondarribia has one of the most beautiful historic old towns in Basque Country, a Medieval castle, a beautiful coastline dotted with charming beaches, and a hilly surrounding that provides a beautiful backdrop to the town. What more do you need to relax after a long drive?
Day 2: San Sebastian
If you want to save some time, you can also travel from Hondarribia to San Sebastian and stay here overnight. There are a lot more accommodation options and it’s only a 20-minute drive. San Sebastian is one of Basque’s largest cities and also one of the best food destinations in Europe. The city lies on the Bay of Biscay and can also be a great starting point for a Northern Spain itinerary.
While you’re around, don’t miss out on La Concha Bay with some of the most spectacular views of the sea, Monte Igeldo for the best views of the city, and one of the most fascinating museums devoted to Basque history and ethnography, the museum of San Telmo.
Planning a trip to Spain? You may also want to check out this list of amazing activities in the Canary Islands
Day 3: Laguardia and San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
Another great starting point for your Northern Spain itinerary is Laguardia. It’s a good starting point because it’s only 3 hours away from Madrid and 4 hours away from Barcelona (the two largest international airports in Spain). So, if you’re arriving by flight and traveling by car, this can be a great first stop for your trip.
Laguardia is one of the most important historic towns in the region. In the past, it used to be an underground village connected via underground tunnels, and today, it’s a charming, vibrant town brimming with history, archaeological sites, and Medieval architecture. In other words, it’s a great mix of the old in the new (as cliché as that may sound, in this case, it’s true).
If you have the time, you may even combine your trip to Laguardia with a trip to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, more commonly known as Dragonstone (yes, it’s a GOT reference). Since the castle is only a short drive away from Bilbao, it’s the perfect fit for a quick afternoon visit before settling in Basque’s largest city.
Day 4: Bilbao
Once a thriving industrial city, Bilbao is now one of the most impressive cities in this part of Spain. The city is surrounded by exquisite green hills and a golden sandy coastline.
The city is also home to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum which draws in international travelers from all over the world. There are also plenty of ways to immerse yourself in the local Basque culture and cuisine. There are plenty of restaurants, cafes, and museums that show off the local Basque influences in all their glory.
While you’re in Bilbao, also don’t forget to check out the Bilbao Cathedral, the Azkuna Zentroa Culture Center, Begoñako Basilika, and of course, the Bilbao Old Town.
Day 5: Noja
Noja is a sleepy beach town with long and pristine beaches perfect for a lazy day after exploring the beautiful city of Bilbao. There are many beautiful beaches to choose from and the town is also a rising surfing destination. The most popular beaches in Noja are Playa de Ris, Playa de Trengardin, and Playa de Noja but you should also not miss the Nature Park of Marismas de Santoña for some amazing landscapes and nature photography spots.
Day 6: Santander
Santander is one of the more underrated destinations in Spain. It’s located west of Bilbao and similarly like Noja, it has a lot of beautiful beaches but also a lot of history and interesting monuments. It’s one of the favorite holiday destinations for locals and that’s always a good sign (if the locals don’t know what’s a good place to visit, who does?).
In addition to beautiful beaches, Santander is home to one of the most famous architectural landmarks in Cantabria, Centro Botin, the Santander Cathedral, the opulent Palacio de la Magdalena, and the Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria.
Day 7 and 8: Santilana Del Mar & Picos de Europa
One of the most artistically enriching places to visit in Spain is Santillana del Mar. It is a quaint little town that grew around a monastery that transformed itself into the Santa Juliana Collegiate Church, which still functions to this day.
The Church gets its fair share of attention from visitors, but travelers also like to visit the nearby Altamira caves (A UNESCO cultural heritage site) that contain prehistoric paleolithic cave art drawings.
Another major attraction in this location that makes it an unforgettable place is the majestic Picos de Europa or Peaks of Europe mountains that are ideal for going on nature hikes and connecting with the land.
Located between Cantabria, Asturias, and Leon, Picos de Europa is a 20-kilometers-long mountain range that features some of the best natural beauties of the region commonly known as “Green Spain”. Picos de Europa is where Green Spain starts and ends. Obviously, most people visit the range for trekking but Picos de Europe is also very close to the coast which provides an amazing contrast. It’s just one of those places where anyone can be a great photographer.
In addition to this, Picos de Europa is also home to abundant wildlife, including wolfs and bears, some of the world’s deepest caves, such as Torca del Cerro (1,589 meters) and Sima de la Cornisa (1,507 meters), and the area is also famous for the production of delicious blue cheese.
Day 9: Ribadesella, Llanes or both
After a week of traveling around Northern Spain, and especially after trekking at Picos de Europa, you deserve a break, and Llanes and Ribadesella are the perfect places for it. Ribadesella is a coastal town with a laid-back vibe, beautiful beaches, and stunning nature. It’s actually closer to Picos de Europa than Santillana Del Mar and you can also choose to visit only Ribadesella and Picos de Europa if you prefer to travel slow but if possible, I suggest you visit all three (Ribadesella, Llanes, and Santillana Del Mar), of course, if time permits.
Llanes is another small, vibrant coastal town with a lot of beautiful beaches but it’s also home to one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region, the Sierra del Cuera ridge. So, if you didn’t get tired or you just prefer mountains to beaches, that can be another exciting alternative.
Day 10: Gijon
Gijon is the largest city in the Asturias region and similarly to Santander and San Sebastian, it’s located on the Bay of Biscay. That means that you’ll find a lot of beautiful beaches and viewpoints of the coastline but there are also a lot of other interesting things to do in Gijon. The first thing that comes to mind is Cimavilla (Gijon’s Old Town) filled with charming, colorful houses and picturesque narrow pathways, as well as some of the city’s most important historic landmarks. You can also visit the well-preserved remains of the Roman Baths, the lush green paradise of Atlantico Botanical Garden, and of course, the Museum of the Asturian People where you can learn a lot about local culture and traditions.
Day 11: Oviedo or Cudillero
Similarly to day 9, you can squeeze in both of these destinations on a day trip but if you’re too tired, it’s okay to visit just one as well. Both Cudillero and Oviedo are amazing cities that have a lot to offer but still remain under most tourists’ radars.
Oviedo is the capital of Asturias. Unlike most regional capitals, Oviedo is not a big city but it has a lot to offer. If you choose to visit, you can discover some of the oldest churches in Spain, such as Santa María del Naranco that dates back to the 9th century, the glamorous Oviedo Cathedral, as well as UNESCO List Heritage Site, San Julián de los Prados. In addition to churches, Oviedo is also home to a few interesting museums like the Archaeological Museum of Asturias and the Museum of Fine Arts of Asturias, beautiful cider houses with characteristic local architecture, cute antique shops, and the legendary Campoamor theater that hosts the Prince of Asturias Awards.
Cudillero, on the other hand, is a charming fishing village located roughly one hour away from Oviedo. We previously featured the village on our list of hidden gems in Spain and to this day, it’s one of my favorite small towns in Spain. The town is famous for its colorful houses next to the port that makes up one of the most picturesque photo spots on the Biscay coast. Cudillero is also a thriving culinary destination with a lot of great (and affordable) local restaurants and bars.
Day 12: Ribadeo & Castropol
No Northern Spain itinerary would be complete without a quick visit of Ribadeo and Castropol. Ribadeo and Castropol are two charming coastal towns in the Lugo Province of Galicia. Both towns are famous for their beautiful beaches, with the most famous one being the impressive Playa de Las Catedrales which happens to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Spain.
Day 13: Finisterre or A Coruna
If you had a nice time at Ribadeo and Castropol, you’ll probably love Fisterra, a beautiful coastal town that’s often referred to as the end of the world because of its location on the Atlantic Coast. The town is home to some spectacular sandy beaches, lush green forest, rugged cliffs, and some of Spain’s most charming fishing villages. And if you’re looking for a more active holiday, you’ll be happy to hear that there are several trekking routes that lead to pristine waterfalls and some charming walking trails that lead to some of the least frequented beaches in the region.
A Coruna, on the other hand, is the second-largest city in Galicia and the 9th-largest port in Spain. The city is also known for its iconic Roman Lighthouse, the medieval Piza de Maria Pita, and the legendary Tower of Hercules that’s one of the most sought-after tourist attractions in the region.
Day 14: Santiago de Compostela
Housing the Cathedral of St. James, Santiago de Compostela is the final stop for the pilgrims retracing the steps of the revered Christian saint and also the final stop for our Northern Spain itinerary. The Cathedral is the main tourist attraction and a UNESCO world heritage site.
Travelers can take tours of the cathedral, enjoy the local museums, explore the Old Town and savor local delicacies like the octopus! Santiago de Compostela is also the capital of Galicia and a cultural hub for Spain with many art galleries, theatres, and fiestas.
In my personal opinion, if you’re traveling to Northern Spain, you should take at least 3 weeks. This way, you won’t have to choose whether to visit Ribadesella, Llanes, or Santillana Del Mar, you’ll be able to visit both, Oviedo and Cudillero, and you will be able to take your time along the coast of Galicia which is my favorite part of Spain. In addition to that, you’ll also be able to spend a second day in cities like Bilbao or San Sebastian and even check out some of the honorable mentions we saved for the end.
Covering an area of 1,200 ha (3,000 acres, Islas Atlanticas is the only national park of Galicia. The park consists of a range of linked islands dotted with sand dunes, rich sea beds, picturesque cliffs, and divine beaches. There are four archipelagos that make up the park; Cíes, Ons, Sálvora, and Cortegada. These four archipelagos form a unique sea-land ecosystem that’s home to native laurel forest, more than 180 species of seaweed, and diverse marine life, including whales, dolphins, orcas, and basking sharks.
Just like Basque Country, Galicia is another region with a rich history, heritage, and connection to the sea. It’s also one of the most unique parts of Spain that look and feels quite different than the rest of the country and Lugo is the perfect example of this. Lugo is a marvelous historic center and the world’s only city that’s entirely surrounded by completely intact ancient Roman walls that date back to the 3rd century. The city is also home to a charming cobbled street-covered old town where you’ll find some of the city’s most important landmarks and a myriad of authentic local shops. While you’re here, you should also visit the Church of St. Francis, the marvelous Cathedral of Lugo, the archaeological site of Domus Mitreo, and the City Hall.
Ponferrada is another beautiful small historic town located roughly 1 hour away from Lugo. During Medieval times, it was one of the most popular stops on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. The town is also home to a castle that belonged to the Templar Knights, the famous Cornatel Castle, and the beautiful Basílica Nuestra Señora de la Encina.
Out of all of the honorable mentions, Leon is probably the one that’s worth visiting the most. It’s one of the largest cities in the region and a city with a rich history. The city was a part of the Roman Empire, the capital of the Kingdom of Leon, and home to the first Parliament in European history (in 1188). Some of the city’s most notable attractions feature the Medieval Walls of Leon, the iconic Plaza Mayor, the Church of Nuestra Señora del Mercado, the San Isidoro Museum, the Don Gutierre Palace, and the Guzman’s Palace.
And last but not least, we conclude our suggestions for a Northern Spain itinerary with Zaragoza. It is the capital of the autonomous community of Aragon. With most of the relics of 800-years of Moorish rule in Spain located in the South of the country, Zaragoza has one of the magnificent pieces of that time-period located within its region.
The Aljaferia palace now serves as the parliamentary headquarters of the Aragon region boasting beautiful Arabic architecture and mesmerizing Muslim devotional art. The city is one of the largest compared to others and easily accessible from both Madrid and Barcelona.
The city’s monuments to Christianity cannot be missed, however, and the most prominent among them is the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. The cathedral stands on the place where St. James is said to have seen the Virgin Mary ascend a marble pillar.
How much will a Northern Spain trip cost?
This depends on how long your trip is, where do you want to go, and what’s your style of travel. The cheapest way to have a Northern Spain itinerary is by renting a car/campervan. The math behind it is simple; gas is a lot cheaper than accommodation and you can also save on transport since you won’t have to book any tickets. If you do this, you can probably go through two weeks with less than €500 per person.
However, it’s completely understandable if you don’t like this. If you choose to stay in hostels and use public transport to get places, you can complete this trip with €60-€75 per day and if you want to stay at nice hotels, have a little bit more privacy, and eat at more expensive places, you should be ready to spend between €100 and €150 per day.
Did you ever visit Northern Spain? Are you planning a Northern Spain itinerary soon? How did you like our Northern Spain itinerary? Do you think we forgot to mention something important? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!
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