While the picturesque sun-kissed shores in the south have long been a magnet for beach lovers and thrill seekers from all over the world, Northern Spain remains an undiscovered gem to many foreign travelers.
The Green Spain, or Secret Spain, how many use to call it these days, is a place of great charm and surprises, where what may lack in sunshine and hordes of tourists is made up in a feast for the eyes, mind, and palate.
As soon as you leave Madrid and drive toward the Bay of Biscay, everything changes – the air becomes cooler, the landscape greener, and the Moorish remains increasingly rarer. For those used to the Spanish stereotypes, this corner of Spain might seem like a completely different country, one that encompasses four wonderful provinces full of history and natural beauty: Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country (Pais Vasco).
Santiago de Compostela
Probably the most famous destination in Northern Spain, Santiago de Compostela draws visitors primarily with its magnificent cathedral, which marks the end of the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James), one of the world’s most renowned pilgrimage routes. Nevertheless, this monumental Spanish city has much more to offer than just spiritual experiences and religious culture. Although it is the capital city of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela is a small, compact town full of charm and cool university vibe. The delightful Old Town, with its arcaded medieval streets and quaint squares, will make for a wonderful backdrop for strolls and shopping around the city.
Picos de Europa
Spanning three northern Spanish provinces – Asturias, Cantabria, and Castile and Leon, the Picos de Europa mountains and their protected spectacular surroundings form what was once the only National Park in Spain. Nowadays, the region welcomes travelers and mountaineering fans with an amazing variety of flora and fauna, an abundance of adventure opportunities, and landscapes that take your breath away.
Besides nature and outdoor pursuits, the area offers plenty of history and tradition, and a lovely array of remote villages that still preserve their authenticity and ancient practices.
Among the most popular attractions in Spain’s stunning Picos de Europa are Covadonga, with its Holy Cave, majestic Basilica of Santa Maria la Real, and spectacular lakes; the charming Cantabrian village of Potes, and the 12km Cares River Route, often regarded as one of Europe’s most spectacular trekking trails.
Moreover, the area is characterized by a distinguished cuisine that blends the freshest local ingredients with centuries of tradition. Of special interest are the amazing artisanal cheeses made here by skilled shepherds and matured in humid caves, such as the piquant blue and the extremely delicious Queso de Cabrales.
With one of the best city beaches in Europe (La Concha), the most exquisite restaurant scene in Spain, and an elegance that rivals that of any European capital, San Sebastian fully deserves its nickname of the Basque Country’s jewel.
Donostia, as locals call it, lies on the shores of the Bay of Biscay, and, in addition to its unmistakable natural beauty, offers travelers a sophisticated mix of old-world charm, Belle Époque refinement, urban beach lifestyle, dynamic cultural scene, and decadent Michelin-starred cuisine. It is one of Spain’s most beautiful cities and an excellent destination for anyone who enjoys his holiday laced with wonderful cultural events, historic grandeur, art galleries, and a taste of Spain that is rarely found in travel guides.
To make the most of your trip to San Sebastian, check out the city’s Parte Vieja (Old Town) for cool designer boutiques, quaint pinxtos bars, and top-notch restaurants; take a walk along the elegant Paseo de la Concha or stroll the city’s New Promenade; soak up the wonderful 19th century architecture of the Area Romántica, and hike to the top of Monte Igueldo for the best views of San Sebastian. If the weather allows it, go swimming in the clean shallow waters of La Concha beach or test your surfing skills on La Zurriola. If not, pay a visit to San Sebastian’s spectacular 100-year-old aquarium.
The largest city in the Basque Country, Bilbao may lack the appeal of San Sebastian, but it’s a down-to-earth city with lots of character and plenty to offer the visitor, from world-class art and culture to lovely green spaces, distinguished gastronomy, and raucous nightlife.
Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum and the flux of avant-garde architecture that came with it are by far Bilbao’s main attractions, but its innovative gastronomy is another reason why hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the northern Spanish city each year.
Other places of interest include the wonderful Museo de Belles Artes; the Euskal Museoa (Basque Museum), where you’ll have the opportunity to learn about the Basque culture and history; and La Ría Maritime Museum with its impressive outdoor and indoor exhibitions that depict the city’s rich maritime legacy. Last but not least, Bilbao boasts an atmospheric Old Town (Casco Viejo) filled with lively bars, beautiful churches, and idiosyncratic little shops.
No trip to northern Spain would be complete without a visit to La Rioja, Spain’s second smallest autonomous community and its foremost wine region.
With more than 500 vineries, stunning landscapes, a pleasant unhurried atmosphere, and a plethora of spectacular monasteries and quaint ancient villages, Rioja delivers with such ease and perfection that authentic Spanish experience that most people crave about.
In addition to its brilliant wines and amazing variety of bodegas with state-of-the-art tasting rooms, the region offers a wealth of activities. You can go skiing in Valdezcaray; visit the outstanding Unesco-listed monasteries of San Millan; get a true taste of rural Spain in the medieval town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada; follow the dinosaur footsteps in Enciso, and indulge in regional tapas in Logrono, Rioja’s lively capital.