Northern Spain

What To Visit in Northern Spain

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 call it these days, is a place of great charm and unexpected discoveries, 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).

Below are 5 best places to visit in northern Spain:

Santiago de Compostela

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. The compact capital of Galicia has tons of small-town charm and a cool university vibe, whereas its delightful Old Town, with its arcaded medieval streets and quaint squares, makes a wonderful backdrop for leisure strolls and artisan shopping.

San Sebastián

Best city beach in Europe

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 Sebastián fully deserves its nickname as 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 Belle Époque refinement and urban beach lifestyle.

Its decadent Michelin-starred cuisine and dynamic cultural scene make it one of Spain’s most elegant and refined cities, hence a brilliant destination for anyone who enjoys his holiday laced with art, history, and a taste of Spain that is rarely found in travel guides.

To make the most of your trip to San Sebastián, explore the city’s charming Parte Vieja (Old Town), laden with cool designer boutiques, quaint pintxos bars, and top-notch restaurants. Also, take a walk along the elegant Paseo de la Concha or the city’s New Promenade, admire the handsome 19th-century architecture of the Area Romántica, and hike to the top of Monte Igueldo for the best views of San Sebastián.

If the weather allows it, go swimming in the clean, shallow waters of La Concha beach, or test your surfing skills on La Zurriola. Otherwise, pay a visit to San Sebastián’s spectacular 100-year-old aquarium.

Bilbao

Bilbao Old Town

The largest city in the Basque Country, Bilbao may lack the appeal of San Sebastián, 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.

Additionally, the Museo de Bellas Artes houses works by Murillo, El Greco, and Goya; the Euskal Museoa (Basque Museum) offers an insight into the Basque culture and history; and La Ría Maritime Museum features impressive outdoor and indoor exhibitions that depict the city’s rich maritime legacy.

Needless to say, the shimmering Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is worth a visit for its striking Frank Gehry architecture alone, never mind the monumental contemporary art exhibits inside.

Last but not least, Bilbao boasts an atmospheric Old Town (Casco Viejo), filled with lively bars, beautiful churches, and idiosyncratic little shops.

La Rioja

La Rioja region, Spain

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 spectacular monasteries, quaint ancient villages, and more than 500 wineries dotted around its stunning landscapes, La 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.

Picos de Europa

Picos de Europa

Spanning three northern Spanish provinces – Asturias, Cantabria, and Castile and León, 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 beautiful nature and great outdoor activities, the area is brimming with history and tradition, offering lots of lovely remote villages to explore.

Some of 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.

  1. Agh, these places look so gorgeous! San Sebastian and Bilbao look wonderful. I wonder if people in the region speak much English? As obviously Basque is a language so like any other in the world, I probably couldn’t even begin to guess what some of the words mean haha! Then again, that’s all part of the adventure. Your photo of Santiago de Compostela is stunning.

    1. Being from Bilbao, I feel the need to contribute to this post. First of all thanks for including my city and the Basque Country in the list. If you are looking for gorgeous landscapes, magnificient culture, outstanding gastronomy and helpful people this is your place for sure. What would I say bout my place though? 🙂 The highest rate of English speakers per region in Spain belongs to the Basque Country. I’ve always thought this is due to the handling of two completely different languages (Basque & Spanish) of a big part of the population since an early age. That always makes it easier to face a new language. The north of Spain, in general, is the most underrated part of the country. Tom Stockwell you are more than welcome to visit us northeners!

      1. I am ready to come visit you Bilbo lol Just that one picture of Bilbao is stunning. I bet it’s a wonderful place. I can sleep on the couch, in the closet, the garage or even on the roof if needed 😀

      2. Hi,
        I am planning a trip to Bilbao for December. What other 3 cities do you recommend me to visit? I am planning to take the train within Spain.

        1. Hello Osvaldo,

          I would say a trip to San Sebastian is mandatory. This is not only Spain’s culinary capital – with pintxos to die for and a staggering number of Michelin stars, but also one of the nation’s most beautiful cities – with elegant architecture and a gorgeous beach. I would also recommend the lovely seafront port of Castro Urdiales and Guernica (Gernika) – especially if you want to know more about the Basque culture and history. They’re both conveniently close to Bilbao. If the distance is not a problem for you, then the possibilities are endless; it all depends on your interests and preferences. As far as I’m concerned, Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, Cordoba are all fantastic cities.

  2. Wow! I am intrigued by Northern Spain. We are planning a family trip to Spain. I am having a very difficult time choosing where to go. We have about 3-4 weeks to spend there fortunately. We have a teen and 2 school age kids. I don’t want to run them ragged. I would prefer to spend time in perhaps 2-3 areas and get to know them well. Which area do you recommend to stay in as a base in the North and then make day trips? Or do you think it would be best to stay a few days in each city? Picos is so beautiful. I feel I have to see it! I speak Spanish and I can’t wait to get to know the people a little. Let me know if you have specific suggestions on places to see in the North, particularly ones that may interest ours boys. They will be 17, 13 & 10 when we travel. We are so happy to go!

    1. Hi Kim,

      I totally agree with you, it’s hard not to fall in love with this beautiful Spanish corner. Since you have plenty of time to spare, I would definitely recommend spending a couple of days in San Sebastian – it’s such a fantastic city! Also, a hiking holiday in the Picos de Europa national park is a must for anyone visiting the area. And the best part is that many of the spectacular trails can be enjoyed as day walks from various town and villages situated in different sides of the park. Some interesting options would include Potes or S. Vicente de la Barquera in Cantabria; and the seaside town of Llanes in Asturias. My best advice, however, would be to make some research and find the best destinations for you.

      Best,
      Miruna

  3. Avatar Magdalena says:

    Hi all,

    Would love to travel through these towns, I am planning to travel alone this trip portion, is it possible to get local tours in the area? I am mature women with incredible energy for travel……
    Thanks,

    Magaly

    1. Hi Magdalena,

      First of all, your travel desire is inspiring! I would love to visit Northern Spain myself (again), but unfortunately, I have other plans for this year. However, I’m sure there are tons of exciting tours and wine themed excursions to choose from in the area. Maybe your local travel agency could help you find one that suits your needs. Otherwise, just search the web for tours and activities in your area of interest.

      Hope you’ll have an amazing experience!

  4. San Sebastian is actually super bleak I think Santander is a much better destination. The beaches are nicer and the city is much more beautiful.

  5. Avatar Tina Marie Reynolds says:

    Hello,
    I would like to take my 18 yr old daughter to Spain and am inquiring as to the best area. She wants to visit a lively place with nice music and good beaches. She does not wish to do typical “touristy” things and would like to experience the culture of Spain at its finest.
    Can you give me some advice?
    Thank you kindly!

    1. Hi Tina,
      You’ll find lots of wonderful, not-so-touristy beach towns along Spain’s northern coast. Also, I would highly recommend the Balearic island of Menorca.

      Best,
      Miruna

  6. Avatar TRUADI BURGESS says:

    Looking for advise. We have a very large motor home and would like to go to the Picos de Europa and see the lakes etc., Are the roads to this area motorways or sensibly wide roads for travel. Or can you get a train there?

    Thank You Truadi

  7. Hello,
    My fiance and I are planning to relocate to this area of Spain (he’s originally from Cordoba). Can you recommend a good region to start researching small farm holding type properties? We are moving from the US and want to start making some well researched trips.

  8. Avatar Raymond Anthony says:

    I am in love with northern Spain! I’ve visited (on several occasions)San Sebastian, Oviedo, Santander, Santiago de Compostela, Bilbao, and Santillana del Mar (a small gorgeous medieval town) Leon and Burgos. The thing with Spain is there are so many options to choose- from South to East to West and of course the North.Ahh Spain!

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