If you‘re planning a Northern Spain itinerary, renting a car and going for a road trip is one of the best things you can do. Sure, you can use buses or even take advantage of the superb train network but nothing really beats having the flexibility to stop wherever you want and enjoy your trip. With that being said, planning a Northern Spain road trip isn’t always easy but don’t worry; we wrote this guide to make sure you’re well informed before embarking on your journey. Let’s start!
Getting to Northern Spain
There are several different ways to get to Northern Spain and this is why we have a few different itineraries for you.
ROUTE A: You enter Spain by driving from France. In this case, your journey would start somewhere in Basque Country.
ROUTE B: You enter Spain by driving from France or via a flight to Barcelona. In both of these scenarios, your road trip starts in Barcelona.
ROUTE C: You enter Spain via a flight to Madrid. In this case, your trip starts in Madrid.
ROUTE D: You enter Spain via boat somewhere along the Galician coast.
ROUTE E: You arrive directly at one of the largest airports in Northern Spain. Those would be Bilbao, Santiago de Compostela, A Coruna, or San Sebastian (all four are part of the top 30 busiest airports in Spain).
Now that we covered the routes, the next step would be to help you with…
Renting a car in Spain
Personally, I always think it’s better to travel in your own car. However, if you’re coming from outside of Europe, this would be just too much of a hustle and it’s probably best if you rent a car. And the biggest mistake you can make renting a car in Spain is booking it straight from the airport when you arrive. I’ve learned that you can save a lot of money by pre-booking your vehicle online. My personal favorite rent-a-car website for traveling around Europe is AutoEurope.
AutoEurope allows you to see the prices of all rental companies in the area, compare them, and make sure that you’re always getting the best possible deal. In addition to this, you can also use my AutoEurope voucher that can help you save up to 20% when renting a car in Spain.
Another great, budget-friendly alternative for renting a car in Spain is Orbitz. At a first sight, you might even think that it’s cheaper than AutoEurope but that’s the case only because Orbitz does not include car insurance by default while AutoEurope does. However, when traveling to a foreign country, it’s always better to have full insurance in case something unpredicted happens.
Also, if God forbids, something like this happens, this insurance will cover only the car but not your medical bill. For this, it’s a good idea to get travel insurance and my personal choice is always World Nomads because I never have to worry about whether my travel insurance covers certain things or not; it covers practically everything.
Driving in Spain
I might made the previous part sound a bit scary but that’s only because I want to make sure that all travelers planning a Northern Spain road trip stay safe. However, in reality, you have nothing to worry about. Driving in Spain is relatively easy but there are a few things you should know before departing.
There are a lot of routine radar speed traps all across Spain. So, if you’re not familiar with the roads and where the radar speed traps are located, always drive within the allowed speed and keep an eye on the changing limits. On-the-spot fines can be ridiculously expensive.
Another thing to note is that you must not use radar detectors. In Spain, they’re illegal and if you’re caught with one, you might be looking at another hefty fine and this can happen if you’re not even using the radar detector. Do keep an eye on vehicles that flash their headlights when coming from opposing directions. This usually means that they just passed by a radar speed trap. So, if you see a radar speed trap on the road, be a good guy/girl and do the same.
Last but not least, if you want to take your time to enjoy some of the scenic journeys we’ll discuss in this article, consider taking the E roads. They’re not as busy and as fast as the motorways. Another thing that makes them a great choice is the fact that they are toll-free, unlike the motorways that can get quite expensive if you’re covering long distances.
Here are a few more things you should know about driving in Spain.
50 km/h (31 mph) for urban areas
90 km/h (56 mph) for rural areas
100 km/h (62 mph) for country roads
120km/h (75 mph) for highways
On roads with more than two lanes, you should always only overtake from the left side, never from the right.
Drinking and driving
I never encourage drinking and driving but according to local regulations, you are allowed to have up to 0.5 per mil of alcohol in your blood and 0.3 if you’re a beginner with less than 2 years of driving experience.
In Spain, you only pay for driving on some roads but not on all. If you want to distinguish between roads with pay tolls and roads without pay tolls, keep an eye on the signs. A toll road should always be marked with a sign saying “Autopista de peaje”.
What’s the best time for visiting Northern Spain?
Most tourists visit Northern Spain between the months of June and August. But if you’re like me, this is probably the time you don’t want to be around. Sure, you can always find beautiful, non-touristy small towns but the main tourist attractions will likely be flooded with tourists and some of the region’s most beautiful beaches will be extremely crowded. That’s why it might be a good idea to visit in Late April/May or September/early October. The weather will still be quite nice, not too hot and not too cold and you won’t find as many tourists as in the summer.
Additionally, cities near the Atlantic are quite warm and pleasant to visit even in the winters but keep in mind that rain is very common during this time of the year. Last but not least, if you’re planning to do some trekking (i.e. Picos de Europa or Urkiola Natural Park), the best time to visit is probably early autumn (late September-October).
A few more helpful resources for planning your trip
Since you’ll be traveling around a lot, you could use some of our discount vouchers for your accommodation in Northern Spain.
You can use our Booking.com discount code to get up to 10% off on all properties in Northern Spain.
And last but not least, you can get a $50 bonus on your first Airbnb booking by using this link.
If you’re looking for some tours that cover the highlights of Northern Spain, GetYourGuide has plenty of affordable tours organized by local tour guides that will help you experience most of the region. Here are some of our favorite picks.
If you’re in Bilbao, check out this Bilbao highlights tour that covers some of the city’s main attractions. Alternatively, check out the Getxo and Vizcaya tour. It’s guided by locals and this tour will show you some of the city’s more underrated sites.
For experiencing the best of San Sebastian’s rich food scene, check out this Ultimate Pintxos and wine evening tour. If you’re looking to cover some of the city’s main attractions, definitely consider this amazing walking tour.
Some other great tours of some of the bigger cities in the region include
- A Coruna- tour of the old and new city;
- Santander- Camillas and Capricho de Gaudi;
- Santillana Del Mar and Altamira Museum Tour;
- La Rioja wine tour (with a traditional lunch);
- Zaragoza highlights private tour.
With that being said, let’s show you some of the most popular…
Northern Spain road trip routes
Sure, it would be awesome if you could have 2-3 months to road trip around Spain from South to North. However, we know that this isn’t possible most of the time but don’t worry. In this part of the article, we’ll briefly go through five different routes for a Northern Spain road trip and try to help you choose the one that best suits you.
Route 1- Madrid-Basque County
Route: Madrid-Rioja-La Guardia-Vitoria-San Sebastian-Bilbao-Basque Countryside
Total distance covered: 689 kilometers (429 miles)
Number of days: 9-10 days
This route is perfect if you’re departing from Madrid. You can spend a day in Madrid drive up to La Rioja, take a wine tour, and the next day, head to Basque Country capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz. On the way, you can visit the beautiful small town of La Guardia before spending two days in San Sebastian. Alternatively, you can also take a day trip to Hondarribia, a charming small town on the border with France.
This itinerary leaves two days for Bilbao as well even though that may not be enough to fully experience Basque’s largest city. If you choose to, you can spend a couple of more days in Bilbao but if you’re planning a road trip, I strongly suggest you tour deep into the Basque countryside; there’s nothing quite like it and it may even be the highlight of your trip.
Some notable places you can visit from Bilbao include the sleepy town of Mundaka at the Bay of Biscay, the historic town of Guernica, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (known as Dragonsotne among Game of Thrones fans), and Zarautz- one of the most beautiful coastal towns in Basque Country.
Route 2- The Best of Basque Country, Asturias, and Galicia
Route: San Sebastian- Bilbao-Santander-Gijon-Oviedo-A Coruna-Santiago de Compostella
Total distance covered: 769 kilometers (477 miles)
Number of days: 10 days
This route is great if you’re already in Northern Spain and you want to cover most of it. It’s a great choice if this is your first trip to Northern Spain. You won’t have enough time to discover hidden gems and explore naturals parks like Picos de Europe but you’ll cover the major tourist hubs in the region, from Basque to Galicia, and you can visit all the most notable tourist attractions.
Similarly to the first route, this itinerary includes spending two days in Bilbao and San Sebastian, one day in Santander, and Gijon, half a day in Oviedo, and the last 3 and a half days between A Coruna and Santiago de Compostella. If you have enough time, you may even check out some of the beautiful small towns along the coast of Galicia before completing your trip.
Route 3- The best of Basque Country
Route: Biarritz- Hondarribia- San Sebastian- Bilbao- Altamira Caves- Urkiola Natural Park- Anboto Mountain- Vitoria Gasteiz- Arizkorri
Total distance covered: +-300 kilometers (187 miles)
Number of days: 10 days
If you have Basque Country on your bucket list and want to take your time exploring this beautiful region, this road trip is for you. Again, you’d spend two days in Bilbao and San Sebastian, as these are the biggest and most attractive cities in Northern Spain, and spend a day in all other destinations mentioned on this list. Additionally, this road trip is also great for nature lovers because you’d spend 3 out of the 10 days exploring some of the most scenic natural parks in the region.
Finally, another thing that makes this itinerary different than the other ones is that it starts in the charming sleeping town of Biarritz in French Basque. This would be a great option if you’re just completing a road trip around France. If you’re around the northeastern part of Spain and are looking to explore more of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, check out our eastern Spain itinerary.
Route 4- The best of Green Spain
Route: Santader-Picos De Europa-Aviles-Oviedo-Gijon- Ribadesella -Cudillero- Ribadeo-Santiago de Compostela- Islas Atlanticas
Total distance covered: +-700 kilometers (435 miles)
Number of days: 10-11 days
They don’t call this part of the country “Green Spain” for nothing. It might not have the beaches of the west coast, the architecture of the south, and the attractions of Madrid and Central Spain but in my opinion, this is probably the most underrated region of Spain. Green Spain consists of three autonomous regions; Galicia, Cantabria, Asturias, and the northern part of Basque Country. And since Basque Country is covered in all of the previous itineraries, we decided to devote this whole Northern Spain road trip itinerary to Galicia, Asturias, and Cantabria.
The trip starts at Santander, a beautiful coastal city with a busy international airport. The city is famous for its beautiful beaches and rich history. From there, this journey leads us to the depths of Picos de Europe, one of the most beautiful national parks in Spain. From Picos de Europe, we suggest you spend a day each in Gijon (Cantabria’s largest city), Oviedo (Cantabria’s capital), and Aviles (one of the most picturesque historic towns in Asturias). Day 6 includes trips to Ribadesella and Cudillero, two charming colorful villages lying on the Bay of Biscay.
The trip ends in the province of Galicia that will make you question whether you’re still in Spain or accidentally crossed the border. To put it simply, Galicia’s landscapes kind of resemble a warmer, less rainy Scotland. The first day in Galicia is dedicated to two of the most picturesque towns in the region, Ribadeo, and Castropol. The next two days feature A Coruna and Santiago de Compostela, the two most famous cities in the province and the last day includes a trip to Islas Atlanticas, a picturesque archipelago in the Atlantic.
Route 5- The best of Galicia+ Leon
Route: Leon- Lugo- Ribadeo- A Coruna- Santiago de Compostela- Fisterra- Isla de la Toja- Vigo- Islas Atlanticas
Total distance covered: +-900 kilometers (560 miles)
Number of days: 11-12 days
In case you didn’t figure it out from the last paragraph, I love Galicia. So much that I had to devote one Northern Spain road trip to Galicia. This journey would start in Leon where you could spend your first day because it’s an amazing city (that also happens to be only 2-3 hours away from Madrid). From here, the next stop would be Lugo, one of Galicia’s finest small historic towns. From Lugo, you can go north to Ribadeo (home to the iconic Cathedrals Beach) and from here start moving back south to A Coruna and Santiago de Compostela.
I suggest you spend at least two days in both A Coruna and Santiago de Compostela because there are just too many things to see and do but after this, things get a lot more relaxing.
In the next 4 days, you’d visit Fisterra, arguably Galicia’s most beautiful coastal town, el Isla de la Toja, Islas Atlanticas, and of course- the beautiful city of Vigo.
With that being said, this Northern Spain road trip guide wouldn’t be complete if we don’t show some of the…
Most scenic drives for a Northern Spain road trip
Here are some of our top picks when it comes to the most scenic road trips in Northern Spain.
San Sebastián- Pamplona
This road trip stretches along the Basque coast covering the A-15 which is the main freeway between Pamplona and San Sebastian. The journey lasts for two hours and features some of the most breathtaking landscapes in Basque Country. If you’re taking this road, don’t miss the chance to stop by at the beautiful village of Berastegi for some postcard-quality views. Just keep in mind that to be able to stop here, you’d have to be traveling from San Sebastian to Pamplona and not the other way around. This part of the road is reserved only for southbound traffic.
If you like wine and vineyard landscapes, you should definitely take the N-I from Vitoria to Miranda de Ebro and take the N-124 towards Logrono. This route passes through the heart of Spain’s wine country. Additionally, there are a lot of exits that lead to narrow, curvy, picturesque pathways that will make you never want to leave. However, if you have car sickness or a weak stomach, I suggest sticking to N-124. Don’t worry, the journey will still be epic!
Basque Circuit (Bilbao- Guernica)
The BI-631 takes on an unforgettable adventure in the heart of Basque Country. The final stop is Guernica, a picturesque historic town but on the way, you’ll witness some of the most breathtaking landscapes in Basque Country, including the Bay of Biscay, and the gorgeous towns of Mundaka and Bermeo.
Santander to Gijón
If your time is limited and you’re wondering what Northern Spain road trip to take, Santander to Gijon is without a doubt one of the most picturesque journeys in this part of the country. The road connecting the two cities weavers along the Cantabrian coast and passes by some of the most beautiful coastal towns in the region. Surprisingly, this scenic drive is still under most tourists’ radar and hence, the road is a lot less frequented than you might think.
Gijón to A Coruña
The road from Gijon to A Coruna is basically an extension of the Santander-Gijon highway. This journey covers some of the most iconic sights on the Cantabrian and Galician Coast. You’ll experience the laid-back atmosphere of the beautiful village of Cudillero, the beaches of Ribadeo and Castropol (including As Catedrais Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in Spain), the best of Galicia’s countryside, and finally, the Atlantic Coast of Spain.
León to Avilés
The A-66 takes you from the heart of Castilla to the high Cantabrian Mountains where a rural, archaic way of life is still preserved. The road also winds into the forests of Asturias (a reminder, a part of Green Spain) a couple of times and that makes this journey even more special. Near the end, the road also passes through Oviedo before the final stop- Aviles; a small industrial town known for being the Cider capital of Spain.
The route to Costa da Morte (Death Coast)
The popular Death Coast stretches across the northwestern corner of Galicia. The journey starts at A Coruna and passes through narrow pathways dotted with scenic cliffs, secluded beaches, and several picturesque capes like Fisterra, Vilan, and Tourinan that are home to some of the most scenic views in the area. In addition to this, you’ll also come across many fishing villages filled with colorful houses that overlook the port on the Atlantic, and a few lighthouses including the lighthouse of Cabo Fisterra where you can enjoy some of the most beautiful sunsets in Europe. It will be just you, the sunset on the horizon, and the sight of the endless ocean…
How did you like our ideas for your upcoming Northern Spain road trip? Which one was your favorite? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!
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