• Leslie

One Week in Northern Spain, the Perfect Itinerary for "Green Spain"

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

you'll see these beauties all over the rolling hills of northern Spain

I fell utterly in love with northern Spain on a recent geographical cure. Here's a fantastic 7 day itinerary for touring or road tripping through beautiful northern Spain.

I've written about Barcelona in other posts. This itinerary focuses on the less touristy and drop dead gorgeous regions of natural beauty -- the Basque country, Cantabria, and Asturias. If you're an "is it pretty?" person, northern Spain is for you.

Road Trip in Northern Spain

I drove to northern Spain by car from southern France. If you're doing the same, I stopped in two idyllic little towns on the way, the elegant town of Pau France in the French Pyrenees and the colorful Basque town of Hondaribbia just over the Spanish border.

Because I don't like to switch hotels or Air Bnbs every night, I based myself in two cities in northern Spain, Bilbao and Oviedo. From there, I could access the best sites -- spectacular coastlines and natural wonders, tiny medieval villages that seem stuck in time, and the cultural hotspots of the two cities.

the elegant Chateau de Pau in Pau France

flower bedecked balconies in Hondaribbia Spain

If you've been to sunny Andalucia in southern Spain, you'll find that these two regions of Spain are utterly different. You'd hardly believe you were in the same country. Andalusia is sunny and sand-baked with Moorish goodies galore. In contrast, Northern Spain is a glossy green, with mountains reaching to the sky and rocky coves and crescent beaches that beckon.

Here's my step by step guide to touring northern Spain by car. A car will give you much more flexibility. It's not that expensive, if you can drive a clutch. And it's perfectly safe and easy to drive, as long as you don't venture into a busy city center or a tiny medieval village with one way lanes. Most of the places on my itinerary can be accessed by bus, but it won't always be easy.

the Nervion River in old town Bilbao

Must See Sites and Villages on a Road Trip in Northern Spain

Day 1: Bilbao: Art and Starchitecture

On day 1, explore your starting point, Bilbao, pronounced Bilbow. It's the cultural hotspot of the Basque region. Bilbao is beautifully situated amid rolling green hills and tucked between mountain ranges.

It's a surprising and avant garde place, casually combining historic Spanish flair with modern starchitecture. Bilbao is no longer the industrial city that people think of from past decades, though it's still agreeably down to earth.

La Salve Bridge in Bilbao, also known as the Prince and Princess of Spain Bridge

the iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry

Bilbao is a great Spanish city to explore if you fancy art, culture, and ancient cobbled lanes. It's alive with local energy. Bilbao is a hip haven for foodies, overflowing with fantastic restaurants, many of the Michelin variety.

While you're there, visit the iconic Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum, stroll the "seven streets" of the historic center (Casco Viejo), and indulge in the inventive tapas. I have big love for Bilbao. Here's my complete guide to the must see sites in Bilbao.

The Bay of La Concha in San Sebastian -- look at that perfect crescent shape. But it's usually filled with people, not this pristine.

Day 2: San Sebastian: International Culinary and Beach Capital

Bilbao is a great base for day trips in northern Spain. Your first point of call is San Sebastian. This Basque city is objectively beautiful, and tourists flock there. It's renowned as a foodie resort town and beachy playground. Its stunning beach, La Concha, is world famous and considered one of Europe's best beaches.

If you're a food traveler, you'll be in seventh heaven. San Sebastian is frequently called the "food capitol of the world. It boasts three restaurants with the rarest of accolades: a three star Michelin rating.

San Sebastian also has a thriving pintxos scene. Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas. You can spend the day wandering around and indulging in these haute cuisine mini meals.

San Sebastian's historic center, Parte Vieja, is picturesque, though I found it fairly underwhelming. It's much tinier than Bilbao's Casco Viejo and the sites will be quickly exhausted. It's also quite touristy. If you don't like crowds, try to visit San Sebastian in the off season.

the island of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a perfect day trip from Bilbao

Day 3: Gaztelugatxe: a Natural Wonder

The next day, take an easy day trip to the absolutely jaw dropping San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a magical spot only about 45 minutes from Bilbao. Gaztelugatxe is really a must see destination in the Basque Region. And now it's TV-famous.

In the wildly popular HBO series Game of Thrones, Gaztelugatxe appears as Dragonstone -- the haunting ancestral home of Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons. In real life, Gaztelugatxe is a fantastical ancient stone foot bridge winding up to a tiny hermitage chapel on Spain's Bay of Biscay.

wearing very inappropriate flip flops at Gaztelugatxe

Here's my complete guide to visiting Gaztelugatxe, and hiking to the chapel.

When you're done gasping over the ethereal place, head back to Bilbao. Tuck into some nummy food at one of its fine restaurants. Bilbao has 22 Michelin starred restaurants. Like San Sebastian, it's considered a foodie haven. Azurmendi is the jewel of Bilbao and this restaurant alone is worth a trip to city. Restaurant Mina is also quite wonderful.

the medieval village of Santillana del mar in Cantabria

Day 4: Drive to Oviedo with Beautiful Stops En Route

Now, it's time to head to your next base, Oviedo. The distance between Bilbao and Oviedo isn't that far, about 2:45. So if you start early, you'll have time for two stops along the way.

To my mind, the best two places to spend half a day are Santillana del Mar and Comillas in the Cantabria region. Cantabria is spectacularly beautiful, dotted with rolling hills and cows. It's so verdant and eye catching, you can almost imagine that you're in a Van Gogh painting.

Santillana del Mar: a Magical Medieval Village

There's a car park right outside Santilla del Mar. Park and take your pedestrian only stroll in the jewel of Cantabria. Santillana del Mar is Cantabria's most charming hamlet and one of the prettiest villages in all of Spain.

It's a "living museum" -- a delightful warren of dreamy cobbled streets, caramel colored architecture, and romantic wrought iron Juliet type balconies. At the end of its main drag, Calle Santa Dominga, is the Collegiate Church, which is the most important religious Romanesque monument in Cantabria.

La Colegiata, an important Romanesque church in Santillan del Mar

My complete guide to Santilla del Mar is here. By northern Spain standards, the town is somewhat touristy. But, hey, it's in rural Spain and nothing like busy Barcelona, so don't be put off. I wasn't even remotely fazed.

Comillas: Unexpected Architectural Gems

After you've fueled up on some hot chocolate and churros, it's time to head to Comillas. The town isn't as picturesque as Santillana del Mar, though it has a wide beach for you to sun bathe when you're done site seeing. But mainly it's impressive for its architecture. You'd never expect to find such treasures in an unassuming, almost unknown, small town in Spain.

Comillas has two main sites, both architecturally interesting -- Gaudi's El Capricho and Sobrellano Palace. El Capricho is a rare Gaudi building outside his more well known Modernist architecture in Barcelona.

I like to think of El Capricho as Gaudi's sunflower villa. El Capricho was a youthful project for Gaudí. In 1883, Máximo Díaz de Quijano commissioned Gaudí to build him a summer villa. Quijano, an amateur musician and botanist, chose the lilting name El Capricho, which means whim or folly in Spanish.

Gaudí's villa, El Capricho, in Comillas Spain

me hanging out with a statue of Gaudi at El Capricho in Comillas

Sobrellano Castle in Comillas Spain

Gaudí designed the villa. But he'd also begun work on his famous opus, the Sagrada Familia. So his fellow architect Cristóbal Cascante supervised the villa's construction. The villa became a museum in 2010. When you enter, you can sit down and watch an orientation video with English subtitles.

A short walk up the hill, not far from El Capricho, you'll find Sobrellano Palace. The rather over the top Neo-Gothic palace was commissioned by Antonio López, the first Marques of Comillas, and designed by Juan Martorell. The palace was a vanity project; it was the fashion for aristocrats to have fancy country estates. Interestingly, Sobrellano Palace was the first building in Spain to have electricity.

You can only visit the palace on a guided tour. There's hourly tours (in Spanish) that last 40 minutes. But you can cast your eyes on Gaudi-designed furniture, magnificent fireplaces, paintings, and stained glass. Outside the palace is a beautiful chapel-pantheon, also Gothic in design.

the UNESCO-listed San Miguel de Lillo chapel in Oviedo

Day 5: Fairytale Oviedo: Sculptures & Cider

I just loved storybook Oviedo. The sparkling clean capitol of the Asturias region of Spain is a vibrant and enchanting place. Like a giant museum, it's filled with beautiful architecture and dotted with whimsical sculptures. It's surely one of the most beautiful and historic places in northern Spain.

Woody Allen famously loves Oviedo, which he describes as "a delicious, exotic, beautiful, clean, pleasant, tranquil and pedestrianised city, like it didn’t belong to this world, like it didn’t exist…Oviedo is like a fairy tale." Allen filmed portions of his 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona in Oviedo. There's a statue-monument to him on Calle Milicias Nacionales, created by the Spanish artist known as Santarúa.

Founded in the 8th century, Oviedo is also an ancient place. It's delightful old town makes you want to stroll endlessly through its parks and plazas, gazing in admiration at its colorful terraces and balconies. During your walkabout, be sure to take in Oviedo's must see sites -- the flamboyant San Salvador Cathedral, the Romanesque churches, the stately Plaza Alfonso II, and the university.

colorful facades in pretty Oviedo

San Salvador Cathedral in Oviedo

Of special note is the San Miguel de Lillo chapel, just outside Oviedo. It's a pre-Romanesque royal chapel from the 9th century used by King Ramiro I. It was designated a UNESCO heritage site in 1985. It's a 30-40 minute uphill walk or 10 minute drive from the Oviedo city center.

Be sure to indulge in the local Asturias cuisine while in Oviedo. It's hearty, to say the least. Think meat, fish, and strong stinky cheeses. Be sure to try fabada, which is a local dish made of beans, sausage, bacon, and ham. Oviedo has many fine restaurants. But I recommend La Corte de Pelayo or La Genuine de Cimadevilla.

Try the the local tipple, Asturias cider. For a proper Sideria, head to Calle Gascona to best sample the local drink. Cider is poured from an impressive height -- performance art style -- and meant to inject effervescence into a flat drink. To me, it seemed a little bitter and acidic. It's best sipped with food.

the fishing village of Cudillero in Asturias Spain

Day 6: Cudillero: Color by the Sea

The next day you're off to the ridiculously eye catching fishing village of Cudillero, which might be Spain's prettiest seaside village. Cudillero is just 40 minutes from Oviedo and well worth the detour. A place of hills, you'll have to park outside the teeny tiny town and walk in.

In Cudillero, white and pastel houses are piled in a mishmash on top of each other. There's a pleasingly startling contrast between the terra cotta roofs and the blue sea. It's said that each house in the village matches the color of the owner's fishing boat.

pretty stacked houses in Cudillero

I took a nice walk along the harbor in Cudillero

There are ample cafes to rest your feet, feast on seafood, and take in the sweeping views of the village and the sea. Picture perfect Cudillero is really a must see gem in northern Spain. Don't miss it; it only takes a half day.

If you're feeling ambitious, you can add nearby Gijon to your itinerary for Day 6. It's less than 40 minutes from Cudillero. Spend a half day there or relax over cocktails and dinner.

the seaside city of Gijon in Asturias

views on the coastal path in Gijon Spain

Gijon is a handsome oceanfront city. It's packed with buzzy cider bars, cafes, and fishing village vibes. It doesn't have the crumbling old world charm of Cudillero. But it's definitely worth a visit.

If you have enough time, take a walk along Gijon's coastal path. Hugging the crystal clear Bay of Biscay, it goes from Playa de San Lorenzo, Gijon’s main beach, towards La Nora.

LLanes Spain, Image @ Spanish Coches flickr

Day 7: Drive Along the Coast From Oviedo Back To Bilbao

Ah, what a beautiful drive this is. I saved my last day in northern Spain to drive along its spectacular coast. My flight back to the US was from Bilbao, a much more central hub than Oviedo. I stopped in 3 villages -- Llanes, Ribadesella, and St. Vicente de la Barquero. They were all incredibly lovely in their own distinct way. You could easily plop yourself down for a week to admire them, preferably in Llanes.

1. St Vicente de la Barquero: a Town Awash in Water

The beautiful village of St. Vicente de la Barquero had my heart at first sight. The drive toward the town is breathtaking. The ancient Puente de la Maza, with its 28 arches over the river, welcomes you. St. Vicente is surrounded by gorgeous beaches -- Meron, Tostadero, and Oyambre.

The pretty village dates from Roman times. For centuries, St. Vicente de la Barquero was a stop on the pilgrimmage to Santiago de Compostela. Step back in history at the Castillo del Rey, San Vicente's 13th century medieval castle. From atop the hill, you have beautiful views of the town and, on a clear day, the Picos de Europe mountain range.

St. Vicente de la Barquero

Castillo del Rey, San Vicente's 13th century medieval castle

2. LLanes: Sophisticated Beach Resort

You don't necessarily expect sophisticated charm in Asturias, a Spanish region known mostly for its incredible natural beauty. But LLanes is a cosmopolitan European town. In fact, I was quite captivated by Llanes.

Others adored the beachy town too, judging from the number of people strolling through the vibrant old center, eating and drinking at the many restaurants and cider houses. Try Covadonga Restaurant on Street Manuel Cue, if you're hungry and need a lunch break.

the Playa de Toro beach in LLanes Spain

Llanes boasts a well preserved medieval city with ancient palaces, still housed within the remains of crumbling city walls. It has a doughty defensive tower, an active harbor, fantastic beaches, and top notch views. LLanes would make a good base for Asturias, if you want to settle in and relax. It has 32 beaches within its jurisdiction.

Walk out to the breakwater to see Los Cubos de Memoria or The Cubes of Memory. It's an installation of 66 cubes designed and painted by famous Basque artist Augustin Ibarrola. The brightly colored work (which was a bit faded when I clapped eyes on it), is the artist's Andy Warhol-like unsettling contrast between art and nature.

the Cubes of Memory in Llanes Spain

pretty side street in LLanes

3. Ribadesella: Pretty Port Town

Ribadesella is an old port city, and also very picturesque. Its beautiful broad beach makes it a popular holiday spot. For a little history, take the 10 minute stroll inland to the UNESCO-listed Cueva de Tito Bustillo. It's a series of connected caves with a veritable feast of prehistoric drawing. They date back 35,000 years to the Palaeolithic era.

Ribadesella Spain

Extra Time? Head to the Picos de Europe National Park

If you have extra time before landing in Bilbao or elsewhere, take a day or two to explore the Picos de Europe, a national park. The park's quite large, covering the Asturias, Cantabrian, and Castilla regions. With its breathtaking scenery, it attracts mountaineers and regular adventurers alike.

There are mountains, gorges, verdant valleys, and the stunning Lakes of Covadonga. You may think you've fallen into Switzerland. The atmospheric villages in the Picos de Europe are worth visiting too -- Covadonga, Canga de Onis, and beautiful medieval Potas.

Fuente De in the Picos de Europe National Park

the Church of Santa María la Real de Covadonga in the Picos de Europe

If you're brave, take the Fuente De cable car, named Teleferico Fuente De. You'll ascend to a rocky plateau, at an elevation of over 6200 feet. Once there, from the Miradour del Cable, you'll have epic panoramic views over the Picos (if it's not a foggy day).

If you'd like to visit northern Spain, pin it for later.

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