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The highlights of Northern Spain

A northern Spain road trip can be a great way to discover this part of Europe. From beautiful beaches to historic cities, Northern Spain has it all.

A great alternative to the ferry to Northern Spain

If you are looking to explore a little further by car, this guide to Northern Spain is for you. A great alternative to taking the ferry is to drive through France to Spain. Pack up the car and get ready to discover relaxing beaches, traditional towns, and epic countryside. Plus, some exciting cities dotted amongst the region are perfect if you like a little more action.

You have a lot of options by travelling this way, including more opportunity for stops and seeing the sights in your own time. However, if you're keen to get to your destination without many stops, then you could save time on the 24-hour ferry crossing, with the total driving time taking 12 hours. Travelling with Eurotunnel gives you the freedom to choose and tailor your holiday to suit you.

Cantabria is filled with traditional towns like Potes -tag: river running through an old Spanish town with mountains in the distance

The regions of Northern Spain

Northern Spain is a treasure trove of elegant cities, unique restaurants, and stunning natural landscapes. It’s split into four separate regions which we’ll explore below, although all four are home to beaches, mountains, cultural, monuments and parks.

Basque Country

Highlights of this region are its natural thermal baths (once bathed in by Queen Isabel ll) and La Concha beach, perfect for walks. Mountains and rocky coves are great for hikers or those who love to really get into the great outdoors, however the main cities of Bilbao, Vitoria and San Sebastián provide a cosmopolitan element.

Cantabria

Cantabria has a bit of everything: beaches and fishing ports provide perfect seaside escapes (weather permitting), mountains further inland and steep valleys make for fun or challenging hikes. Sleepy villages and towns are wonderful for stopping off as you drive the winding country roads, offering traditional shops and local eateries.

Asturias

Dramatic landscapes, superb beaches, excellent food, and unique pre-Romanesque architecture, Asturias is often called Northern Spain’s ‘best kept secret’ with its horizon defined by the beautiful Picos de Europa (the Peaks of Europe) mountains. In the Middle Ages, Asturias was its own separate kingdom in Spain, so there’s a wealth of history here too.

Galicia

Galicia has its very own language (Gallego, a cross between Portuguese and Spanish) and distinctive culture. Every year it attracts over 250,000 people to Santiago de Compostela, as part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrim trails and its city, Santiago, is one of Spain's most beautiful and magical places to visit – at any time of year. Being surrounded on two sides by the Atlantic Ocean, Galicia has some of the best seafood on offer too.

Impressive cathedral against a blue sky set in a Spanish town square with a bronze statue of a woman in the foreground

Must-see cities to include in your road trip

Architecture, gastronomy, heritage – these Spanish cities have it all. For those that like a busier scene, stop at any one of these places on your trip to be thoroughly entertained. Plus, stunning coastline can also be found here – with plenty of chances to be beside the seaside.

San Sebastian

It’s no wonder the Spanish kings chose to summer in this city of Cantabria, the thermal baths and beaches have a luxury feel and stately buildings line the bustling streets. The restaurants here are probably best described as avant-garde, but feature an excellent blend of traditional Spanish cuisine with the new and trendsetting dishes. This is definitely a city for the foodies amongst you.

Night life is best experienced at the taverns in Casco Viejo, which has many a winding street that feels like its been plucked from a movie set. In warmer weather, be sure to walk the coastline at La Concha beach – especially beautiful at sunset.

Bilbao

An industrial city reborn with the help of a thriving arts scene, Bilbao in Basque Country highlights just how impressive Spanish architecture can be. The Museo Guggenheim is a must-see, even if that’s just the outside, or you can select the more natural art of the city’s landscapes. The beautiful coastline around San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is about 50-minutes from the centre of Bilbao, but well worth the trip if you’re wanting to see the stunning Bay of Biscay.

The Casco Viejo comprises the quaint and totally original seven streets that once formed the Medieval town itself. Experience the historic Basque buildings and pop into one of the numerous taverns for a round of pintxos, a delicious type of local tapas.

Santander

An elegant city by the sea, this place is often overlooked in favour of Cantabria’s other gem, mentioned above, San Sebastian. The boardwalks and famous El Faro lighthouse here are both gorgeous to look at, and an important part of the city’s rich history. These are especially poignant as a huge fire struck in 1941, destroying much of the city’s previous historical sites.

Italian architect and Pritzker Prize-winner, Renzo Piano designed Santander's newest architectural masterpiece, Centro Botin, which opened in June 2017, this is a place to stop for any art lover.

Oviedo

Oviedo in Asturias has some of Spain's most impressive buildings including Santa María del Naranco, a pre-Romanesque church built for the Asturian king Ramiro I in the mid-ninth century and San Julián de los Prados, dating from the early ninth century. This tiny church has a vibrant interior richly painted interior inspired by Chinese culture and traditional designs – it’s not to be missed.

Oviedo is certainly lively, its Campoamor opera house (a classic 19th-century theatre) is always busy, plus it has a beautiful traditional market and plenty of local cider houses, some of which offer tours. It’s important to note that Oviedo routinely wins awards for Europe's cleanest city, its locals are extremely proud of this, as well as very friendly.

Santiago de Compostela

Translating to The Way of St. James, the annual Camino de Santiago pilgrimage ends here at the Saint’s tomb. The town and the pilgrimage are a symbol to the Spanish Christians’ struggle against Islam in the 9th and 10th Centuries, with many commemorative monuments and architecture devoted to the theme.

The cathedral, considered as a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, showcases the remarkable Pórtico de la Gloria, an ornately structured gate. This is just one of the many testaments to how well this city preserves its history (it is, after all a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Stop here for a peaceful and authentic slice of Spain’s northern territories.

Colourful boats tied up in a harbour filled with crystal clear turquoise water

Northern Spain’s smaller towns & villages

Away from the bustle of the cities in Northern Spain, lies sleepy villages and traditional towns just waiting for you to visit. Traditional dining, friendly locals, and picture-perfect scenes are the order of the day in Northern Spain’s smaller towns & villages.

Hondarribia

Settled in Basque Country, Hondarribia, or Fuenterrabía in Spanish, boasts some of the best bars and restaurants in the region, and, thanks to its riverside location, some great views while you dine. Stop here for cobbled streets and Basque houses, as well as a lovely local church set in a charming square.

Bermeo

This is a larger town in Basque Country, known for its maritime history. See the old port and try any seafood dish (they are all excellent) in this busier spot, or simply stop at one of its local bars for a drink and chat with a friendly local.

Castro Urdiales

Nestled on the eastern side of Cantabria, this seaside village is a popular tourist destination. This can mean the beaches are busier during summer months but it also boasts a gothic-style church, castle, Roman bridge and a port – making it worth a visit any time of the year.

Lastres

This little town in Asturias is probably most famous for the houses that are set into the mountain overlooking the sea. It’s port has two amazing restaurants, frequently recommended by locals and tourists alike, El Descanso and Bitácora. The latter offers spectacular views over the water.

Cudillero

An incredibly pretty fishing village, Cudillero is also very small, tucked away on the Asturian coast around 40 minutes from Oviedo. It’s known for its colourful houses and equally vibrant boats bobbing in the harbour, plus it doesn’t often get filled with tourists, so perfect for quiet day trip or afternoon.

Luarca

With its harbour encircled by tall whitewashed buildings, Luarca’s harbour is particularly lovely at night, when the boats and buildings are lit up and twinkle in the moonlight. The beach here is backed by impressive cliffs which you can walk along – or stroll the river Negro which winds its way through the town with seven bridges to discover.

Cambados

Capital of albariño wine country, the town of Cambados makes an excellent base for touring the Rías Baixas, a prestigious wine making area of Spain. Taverns and restaurants line cobbled stone streets and be sure to stop off at Martín Códax winery for a glass or two of locally made tipple. Visit on the first weekend of August for the famous Albariño Wine Festival.

La Guardia

This was once a medieval fortress, featuring a walled old quarter that history lovers will adore exploring. It’s mostly car-free, so perfect for walking tours of the historical monuments and architecture. Thanks to its hilltop position, you can see some stunning scenery too.

A long Spanish street lined with houses leading towards a sunny square

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