There are many beautiful places to visit in Northern Spain. Often overlooked for the more famous places in the South – Andalucia, Costa Brava, Costa del Sol and the famous Barcelona and Madrid, Northern Spain will blow your mind with its stunning landscapes, its charming cities, its beautiful villages, its lovely beaches and the delicious food and wine.
I have been to Spain more times I can remember – probably at least once a year since I was 8, when my parents took me there on what was my very first trip abroad. This is a country I love through and through – I appreciate and understand its culture, I speak its language, I love its people, and I am even obsessed with Spanish cinema and TV series.
What many people seem to ignore, however, is that Spain is actually very diverse. For as much sun and light you are going to find in the South, the North is gloomy, rainy and incredibly green. Come to think of it, Northern Spain is called “Green Spain” – for very good reasons!
If this part of the country caught your attention, or if you want to visit places that have yet to fall under mass tourism radar, you have come to the right place. Continue reading this post for a selection of the best places to visit in Northern Spain.
GOOD TO KNOW: Northern Spain can be easily reached from anywhere in Europe and you will find direct budget flights. It is also included in the countries that accept the Eurail Pass.
The Best Places To Visit In Northern Spain
Bilbao, the capital of the Basque Country, is a lively city where locals, tourists and the occasional pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela happily meet. What makes Bilbao one of the places to visit in Northern Spain is a great mixture of old and new architecture: next to cobbled streets, colorful balconies and windows, you will find the gothic style Basilica de Begoña, as well as state of the art examples of contemporary architecture such as the Guggenheim Museum.
These are some of the best tours of Bilbao:
- Bilbao like a local: customized guided tour
- Bilbao hop on hop off boat trip
- Bilbao 3 hour guided bike tour
- Guided tour of the Guggenheim Museum
GOOD TO KNOW: Guggenheim isn’t Gehry’s only work in the Basque Country. He also planned the building of Hotel Marqués de Riscal, in Elciego, which is beautifully immersed in the vineyards.
Make sure to check out my post 7 Great Reasons To Visit The Basque Country.
TIP: At easy driving distance from Bilbao, you should also visit Delica Canyon, home to the Salto del Nervion (Nervion Waterfall), one of the most impressive in the country. It’s a great place for hiking.
Vitoria Gasteiz is a truly pleasant city. Among its must-see there are the interesting Artium Museum and the Cathedral of Santa María. Plaza de la Virgen Blanca is one of the prettiest in town. You should also walk the medieval walls and by all means enjoy food at one of its many fantastic restaurants.
Pasai Donibane and Pasai San Pedro
Of the many places to visit in Northern Spain, Pasai Donibane and Pasai San Pedro will easily capture you. These fishing villages are on two different sides of an estuary. A series of tiny, cobbled alleys goes a long the river. The pace of life is slow: elderlies sit at coffee shops for a drink, to observe people passing by; groups of kids enjoy a hot summer day jumping in the water dogs in toe. The atmosphere is incredibly pleasant.
TIP: For more quaint city charm, make sure to visit Laguardia, a 10th century walled city that is beautifully kept.
Not far from Pasai San Pedro, Albaola, the Sea Factory of the Basques, is a museum as well as a research centre where historical whale ships are being built, to uncover one of the most traditional occupations of the Basque Country: whale oil trading.
Urdaibai Bird Centre
If you wish to discover the nature and environment of this part of the country, go to Urdaibai Bird Centre, in the Basque Country. You will learn that this part of Europe is one of the areas used by various species of birds to stop along their migrations: a lot of them come here to nestle. The centre was opened to monitor and research the migration and reproduction cycle of various birds, and there even is a stunning view of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve (a UNESCO site since 1984) from which it is possible to observe various species, including ospreys.
If surfing is one of the most popular things to do in Spain, San Sebastián is its capital. This pleasant coastal town with several lovely urban beaches with incredibly clear waters is a favorite of both locals and tourists, who flock there during the hottest days of the summer. Its most famous beach is Playa de la Concha beach (known as La Perla) – which you can admire from Mount Idalgo and Palacio Miramar.
On Monte Urgull you will find the 12th century Castillo de la Mota, which is a must see. Another landmark is the Museo de San Telmo and the Parte Vieja – AKA Old Town San Sebastián.
To top this off, San Sebastián has a thriving nightlife and is one of Spain’s best places for food, home of the famous Pintxos – Northern Spain version of the Tapas. The best food is known to be at Murador de Ulía.
These are some excellent guided tours of San Sebastián:
This lovely fishing village at 20 km from San Sebastian is known for its walled medieval Old Town and a stunning beach. You will find some excellent restaurants and a fabulous hotel – the Parador de Hondarribia – located in 10th century fortress.
Located near Bermeo, in the Bay of Biscay, the hermitage of Gatzelugatxe is famous for being one of the filming locations of Game of Thrones. There is a trail that will take you all the way to the hermitage from where you can get impressive coastal views – though watch out, it can get incredibly muddy after it rains.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION: You can easily get to Gatzelugatxe by bus from Bilbao. Alternatively, opt for one of these guided tours:
- Gatzletugatxe and Gernika tour from Bilbao
- Basque coast from Bilbao
- Game of Thrones guided tour from Bilbao
I have never been one to fully enjoy cities. Even the most beautiful ones tire me after a short while. So I ran away from Buenos Aires after a few days, for example.
The capital of Cantabria is one of the most pleasant places to visit in Northern Spain. This beautiful, elegant city by the sea used to be a favorite of Spanish aristocracy who up until the beginning of the 20th century traveled there for their summer holidays. The center of town was unfortunately destroyed by a fire in 1941.
One of the highlights is actually located a bit out of the city: the Palacio de la Magdalena, built between 1908 and 1912 and gifted by the city to the royal family, overlooks the ocean and offers breathtaking ocean views. During the summer months it hosts the courses and the students of the Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo.
Make sure to read my post 5 Reasons To Love Cantabria.
You can’t skip the Altamira Caves. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Altamira Caves are a fabulous example of prehistoric art, with paintings of animals such as bisons, deers, horses and boars that date back to up to 16000 years ago.
The caves are close to the public in order to preserve their delicate environment. However, the Altamira Museum hosts a perfect reproduction, so make it a point to go.
Santillana del Mar
This perfectly kept medieval village is locally known as the “town of the three lies.” Indeed, it is neither saint (santa), flat (llana) or by the sea (mar). The name actually derives from Santa Juliana, whose remains are kept in the Colegiata, a former Benedectine monastery and one of the most interesting sights in the village.
GOOD TO KNOW: You can visit Santillana del Mar and Altamira Museum on day trips departing from Santander. For more information, click here.
Located in Comillas, a small village of Cantabria, El Capricho is one of Gaudì’s masterpieces. Built between 1883 and 1885 with the purpose of being the summer residence of Màximo Dìaz De Quijano, Gaudì mastered in his intention of capturing the attention of visitors as well as sunlight. It is a colorful unusual building with a tower that looks much like a minaret.
GOOD TO KNOW: You can visit Comillas and El Capricho on day trips from Santander. For more information, click here.
Palacio de Sobrellano
Unique in its gender, this palace, located in Comillas (Cantabria) is a real gem. It was built in 1888 by architect Martorell in a neo-gothic style, and used to belong to the Marqués de Comillas.
GOOD TO KNOW: One of the best kept palaces in Cantabria is the one that belonged to the Marqués de Villa of Valdecilla.
The Picos de Europa
Among the best places to visit in Northern Spain, the Picos de Europa are definitely worth mentioning, especially for the nature and hiking lovers here. For stunning views, make sure to walk the Camino Lebaniego, a 65 km route that connects the Camino del Norte with the Camino Francés and which is often used by pilgrims to move from one route to the other.
For more impressive views, hop on the cable car from Fuente De all the way to the Mirador de Santa Catalina – but make sure to go on a clear day, and layer up as it is freezing up there, even on summer days!
Once a fishing port, Llanes is a charming small town with a bunch of good bars and restaurants, and some lovely shops. The main attraction is the romanic-gothic Basilica of the Virgin Mary, and – especially in the summer months, the gorgeous Sablon, an urban beach where you will find Los Cubos de Memoria, designed and painted by Augustin Ibarrola to break the water which, with time, became a nice art installation.
If you walk up the flight of stairs west of the beach you can get stunning views of Llanes, Sablon beach and the gorgeous Bay of Biscay and also reach Paseo de San Pedro, which goes all the way to the nearby beaches – you can walk it, bike it or even go on a horse ride.
Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, is a fun city. The historic center is beautiful, lively yet relaxing. The city is packed with history and culture, with a gorgeous cathedral and a number of beautiful squares and markets where you can observe some good local action.
GOOD TO KNOW: Cider is king in Asturias, and if you enjoy it one of the coolest places to visit in Northern Spain is definitely a proper cider house such as Sidra Crespo.
Lesser visited Gijón is a good place to browse around for a few hours. You will find an interesting mixture of modern architecture and old sights. As it is located on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, you will find a pleasant beach perfect for a walk – San Lorenzo beach. Walk up to the Parque del Cerro de Santa Catalina for great coastal views and to admire the bold sculpture “Elogio del Horizonte.”
Check out my post 10 Gorgeous Places To Visit In Asturias, Spain.
Cudillero is a small picturesque fishing village that sits on the side of a mountain. The brightly colored houses literally hang from the cliffs and all overlook the small bay and the port. Here, life goes by slowly. Locals still walk everywhere (most houses don’t have access to a road where cars can drive). Cats hang out in the street. There are various viewpoints from which to enjoy the view, which is simply stunning – making Cudillero one of the nicest places to visit in Northern Spain.
Another coastal village you shouldn’t miss is Luarca, known as the white town. Here the buildings all preserve their original charm. The atmosphere is special: welcoming locals enjoy a late afternoon drink and enjoy talking to visitors.
Colombres and its Indianos Archive
Colombres, located in Ribadedeva municipality, is yet another pleasant, peaceful village to walk around. Its main point of interest is La Quinta de Guadalupe, once the mansion of Iñigo Noriega, an “Indiano” – AKA a local emigrated to Latin America (in this specific case, Mexico) in search of fortune. The palace hosts the Fundación de Archivos de Indianos, a large archive of documents about the people who emigrated to the Americas in the 19th century.
Ribadesella is one of Spain’s best kept secrets. This pretty small town taking the name from the river Sella, which has its delta right there, has a beautiful waterfront and a viewpoint to enjoy views of Playa de Santa Marina.
This lovely coastal village is a pleasant place for a quick stop. Pancha Island and Playa de Mexota are perfect on a sunny day.
Cabo Vidio, Oviñana
Outside the city of Oviñana and overlooking the Bay of Biscay, Cabo Vidio offers some of the most stunning coastal views in Asturias. The area is packed with good hiking trails, so there is plenty to explore.
GOOD TO KNOW: For one of the best sunsets in Northern Spain, go to Lastres – the viewpoint of San Roque will have views that embrace both the ocean and the mountains in the distance.
Playa de las Catedrales
This is one of the most unique beaches you can ever hope to see. It uniqueness is due to the rock formations that have been carved by the wind and by the sea, forming curious shapes that can either be observed from the beach itself when the tide is low, or from above, when the tide starts rising.
Cistercian Monastery of Santa Maria de Sobrado dos Monxes
The last stops before along the Camino del Norte before actually reaching Santiago de Compostela, Sobrado dos Monxes is a UNESCO Heritage Site, originally a Benedectines monastery dating back to the 10th century, then abandoned and eventually re-founded as a Cistercian monastery in the 12th century. It has a gorgeous Baroque façade which was built in 1708. However, the interior is completely empty – there are no paintings, no furnishing, no statues. It is a truly unique place.
Santiago de Compostela
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, Santiago de Compostela is famous for its Cathedral which is a real work of art and where the Crypt of St. James is found. Among the places to visit there is the Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos, a lodging for pilgrims since the 15th century.
TIP: Make sure to also stop by the Parador Santiago de Compostela, a stunning five-star hotel. You may not be able to afford sleeping there, but it’s worth peeping to see what it’s all about.
Santiago de Compostela is the kind of place where you will find a good mix of locals, tourists and pilgrims – oftentimes getting here exhausted after walking the Way of St. James and gorging on some of the best dishes to try in Galicia.
Make sure not to miss the view of Obradoiro square from the Cathedral museum, and to explore the lovely Mercado de Abastos.
These are some of the best guided tours of Santiago de Compostela:
- Santiago de Compostela full day tour
- Santiago de Compostela Cathedral and museum guided tour
- Private Santiago de Compostela downtown tour
Pazo de Oca
Known as the Galician Versailles, Pazo de Oca is at just 30 minutes drive from Santiago de Compostela but a world apart. You can only visit the gardens, as the owners still live in the palace – but it’s truly worth going.
Pazo de Galegos Winery
For a taste of Albariño and Mencia, Galicia’s most famous wine, head to Pazo de Galegos, a fabulous vineyard and winery at just 30 minutes drive from Santiago. The palace (Pazo) used to be the residence of the Canon of the Cathedral of Santiago and is now a beautiful hotel. Needless to say, wines are excellent.
Near Pontevedra and right off the Atlantic Coast of Galicia, these islands are part of Galicia National Park and can only be reached by boat (best from Vigo, one of the nicest cities on the Atlantic Coast and home of a nice Museum of Contemporary Art and of the Castle of Vigo). They islands are home to some truly stunning beaches.
Other cool places to visit
Other interesting places you may want to visit are Burgos, a lovely medieval city home to a stunning Cathedral, and of an impressive Museum of Human Evolution; Logroño, where you will find the Museo de la Rioja and from where you can visit the fabulous Rioja Wineries; Pamplona, with a gorgeous Casco Viejo (Old Town) and where the Fiesta de San Fermín is celebrated; the beautiful Leon; Zaragoza, capital of Aragon and where you can see the 1700s Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar that was built in the 1700s and La Seo Cathedral; and Albarracin, a picturesque village in the province of Teruel.
A Quick Note On The Way Of St. James
Many of the places to visit that I mentioned in this post are part of the route of the Camino del Norte, one of the various trails of the Camino de Santiago – Way of St. James. This ancient pilgrimage consists of a number of ancient pilgrim routes that all connect to the burial ground of Saint James (Santiago, in Spanish), one of the apostles, which was found in 814 in Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia.
Every year a multitude of people embark on this journey, which is both a physical and spiritual one, but which also has the perk of creating life-lasting friendships and of taking you to incredible places which you wouldn’t otherwise happen to visit.
Though the Camino Francés, which starts in St. Jean-Pied-du-Port near Biarritz, in France, is the most popular route to follow, the Camino del Norte – which crosses the Northern regions of the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia – is an incredibly scenic one, perfect to do in the summer months when the rest of the country is terribly hot, and offering scenic views throughout, with mountain peaks, charming coastal villages and stunning beaches; challenging walks and lots and lots of vegetation.
What are your favorite places to visit in Northern Spain?
Further readings about Spain
Are you planning a trip to Spain? Make sure to read my posts:
- 31 Awesome Things To Do In Madrid
- The Best Guide To The Things To Do In Girona
- 11 Fantastic Attractions In Besalu
- 17 Reasons To Visit The Volcanic Region of Catalonia, La Garrotxa
- The Most Beautiful Hikes In Garrotxa: A One Week Itinerary
- Where To Find The Most Amazing Hikes In Spain
- Hiking The Picos De Europa: The Best Trails
- Hiking In Sierra Nevada: The Best Trails
- The Most Amazing Hiking In The Pyrenees
Legal Disclaimer: This article is written in partnership with the Tourism Board of Spain, and the local tourism boards of the The Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia and in cooperation with The Travel Mob as part of the #InGreenSpain and #VisitSpain campaigns. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.