A Northern Spain travel is one of the most spectacular trips you can take in Spain. This is because Northern Spain is a region full of scenic highlights. The sea is mostly very rough, the cliffs very steep and yet the landscape is characterized by dense forests and green meadows. It rains here quite a lot, at least much more than in the much more popular region of Andalusia in southern Spain. Northern Spain has so far been spared from mass tourism, so you rarely see German license plates on the road.
This is a bit surprising, because northern Spain is not poor in spectacular sights. In addition to the rugged coastline, there are beautiful beaches, reminiscent of the beaches of the Algarve in Portugal. In addition, there is a high mountain range right on the coast where you will feel like you are in South Tyrol. And as the most glaring highlight, which you would not expect here, a dry desert, which reminded us strongly of the Atacama Desert in Chile.
How to summarize all these northern Spain highlights in a 2 week itinerary and what important tips we have for your northern Spain road trip, we tell you now.
We are Sabrina and Andreas, two adventurous travelers who never miss an opportunity to discover the world. Whether by plane to distant countries or with our campervan Bruno, we just love to travel. We hope to give you helpful tips for your next trip on our blog.
Sabrina & Andreas Globetrotters, Travelers, Adventurers
Northern Spain Road Trip Itinerary – Overview
The itinerary for our northern Spain travel is clearly oriented towards the natural highlights of northern Spain and the most beautiful scenic sights. Cities we have mostly left out, on the one hand because we are rather nature than city types and on the other hand because there are only a few cities in northern Spain that are really worth seeing in our opinion. Exceptions, like San Sebastian, confirm the rule.
Our route starts in the east of northern Spain in San Sebastian and ends in the west at Santiago de Compostela. Thus the route can be used wonderfully for the journey to Portugal, in order to discover the best things to do on a Portugal itinerary.
Day 1 | San Sebastian
We start our northern Spain travel in the very northeast of Spain at the border to France and there is a very special city waiting for you.
Although we are not really city people and prefer to be in nature instead of civilization, San Sebastian totally blew us away. In our northern Spain travel guide we read something about the “most beautiful city in the world” and although we have an aversion to such exaggerations, we wanted to give the city a chance. And what can we say, it was worth it, and really worth i.
The old town of San Sebastian is super small, but also super worth seeing. There are medieval walls, beautiful churches, authentic restaurants and a lot of charm. Plus, there’s a great city beach here, framed by Concha Bay. You can also climb the hills on both sides of the Concha Bay and have a wonderful view of the sea and the old town.
Day 2 | Bardenas Reales
The highlight of today’s Northern Spain tour is about 2 hours south of San Sebastian. And you will hardly believe your eyes when you see this area for the first time. Moreover, you will hardly meet other people here, because the Bardenas Reales is a little insider tip in northern Spain.
The spectacular Bardenas Reales is a rugged and inhospitable desert in the region of Navarra and is located a bit away from the coast of northern Spain, but is still worth the long journey.
Because the desert is a spectacular highlight in northern Spain and should not be missed on any northern Spain road trip.
The Bardenas Reales consists mostly of bizarre, ocher-colored clay landscapes spread over several hundred square kilometers. Partly one feels here like in the American Grand Canyon, although here of course everything is much smaller.
The semi-desert Bardenas Reales de Navarra is more than 400 km² in size, which is about the size of Cologne. In half a day you will have driven through it by car and will see landscapes that you would not expect.
More information about the incredible desert can be found here:
Day 3 | Bilbao
Bilbao is not the most beautiful city in Spain, but since it is on the route of a northern Spain tour, it is still a good stop. You’ll be on the road for just under 2.5 hours to get from the Bardenas Reales desert back to the coast.
Bilbao is actually an industrial and port city and is nevertheless visited by many tourists. This is because the world famous Guggenheim Museum is located here. Its exterior is also the real highlight for many, but inside it still houses some famous modern and contemporary artworks. The museum is absolutely worth seeing for art lovers.
If you are more interested in architecture or technology, then we can recommend a very special ferry, which is actually a bridge. The Puente de Vizcaya (Biscay Bridge) was inaugurated on July 18, 1893 and is the oldest floating ferry in the world.
The special thing about it is that you are pulled across the Nervion River on a platform. The platform hangs on a 45 high bridge, which spans the river on 160 meters. You can cross the river with your car for a few Euro. You can also get to the upper part of the bridge by elevator and cross the construction on foot.
Day 4-5 | Picos de Europa
On your northern Spain round trip you will drive along the coast and pass Santander. The city is not really worth seeing, but it has an impressive coastline to offer. Here you can walk for miles directly along the sea and climb over the rough rocks.
It’s best to park behind the soccer field on a large meadow (Google Maps) and start walking from there. There are great views for several miles in either direction.
About an hour away is one of Spain’s most imposing national parks. The Picos de Europa (in the national park of the same name) are a high mountain range on the coast of northern Spain and totally remind us of the Dolomites in South Tyrol. The mountain massifs here are over 2000 meters high and there are many opportunities to hike and discover the fantastic mountain scenery.
One hike in particular is considered one of the most beautiful in Spain and definitely the most spectacular in the Picos de Europa. On the Ruta del Cares you hike over 11km along a gorge, which is partly only a few meters wide.
But also otherwise there is a lot to discover here. Beautiful mountain lakes in picture book scenery, authentic mountain villages and narrow serpentines winding up the mountains.
- More about the Picos de Europa: Picos De Europa | 6 fantastic highlights you have to see
Day 6 | Playa de las Catedrales
Today you will continue along the coast for about 2 hours, heading west. On the way you will pass the beautiful Silence Beach. Here there are hardly any parking spaces and pebbles instead of sand, but still the beach is absolutely worth seeing. But today’s destination is even more impressive.
Playa de Catedrales is probably the most spectacular beach in northern Spain and probably in all of Spain. This beach should definitely not be missed on your northern Spain trip.
The beauty of Playa de Catredales comes from the numerous rocks and arch-like rock formations on the beach and the fact that almost the entire beach is under water at high tide. So you can only visit the beach and the crazy rock formations at low tide.
Because it is so beautiful, you are of course never alone on the beach. Playa de Catedrales is extremely popular and always well attended. This leads to the fact that in the high season you even have to buy limited tickets to visit the beach.
Where you can park at Playa de Catedrales, where you can get the tickets and what else you should consider, you can find out here:
Day 7 | Cova da Doncella
About an hour to the west, right by the sea, lies a whimsical little sight. Cova de Doncella is a small but beautiful cave right on a cliff in the Galicia region. The way here is not very easy to find. You have to park in this parking lot (Google Maps) and then walk about 500 meters through a beautiful dense forest. When you reach the cliff, you have to turn right into a small path and after a few meters you are already in front of the small cave entrance.
To get through you have to almost crawl, but at the end a very nice view awaits you. By the way, you can also walk around on the narrow rock that you can see from the cave opening.
Right next door, by the way, there is also a beautiful beach that, although not on foot, can at least be reached by car in a few minutes. Praia Abrela offers a very wide sandy beach with shallow water. There are picnic tables and in summer also a beach bar. Dogs are unfortunately not allowed.
Day 8 | Cabo Ortega & Sierra de la Capelada
Cabo Ortegal is a cape on the north coast of Galicia and a very special highlight on a northern Spain trip. Here stands a lighthouse, which was built in the 80s and protects the shipping in the often very rough sea from the steep cliffs and numerous rocks in the water.
The view from this small cape is really indescribably beautiful. You look at the numerous rocks rising from the sea in front of you, where thousands of sea birds nest.
Southwest of the cape, by the way, is the Serra da Capelada with its numerous steep cliffs that look really fantastic from Cabo Ortegal.
The Serra da Capelada is a 20 km long mountain range in Galicia and with 620 meters it is the highest elevation in southwestern Europe. At the sea, the cliff drops steeply and offers an impressive spectacle with the rugged coastline and the rough sea.
The road here winds some distance from the coast over the numerous hills and through many tight curves along wind farms and great nature, always offering beautiful viewpoints of the coast.
Fun Fact: Throughout the Serra da Capelada there are free-roaming horses and herds of cattle that can sometimes stand right on the road. So be sure to drive carefully here.
Day 9 | Santiago de Compostela
The destination of our northern Spain trip is a very famous city in northwestern Spain. Santiago de Compostela is known to everyone as the destination of the Way of St. James. But even if you are not interested in pilgrimage, this city in the very west of northern Spain is well worth a visit.
The highlight of Santiago is certainly the large square in front of the cathedral, where after a long journey all pilgrims arrive and celebrate the end of their journey. No matter when you arrive, you will definitely be able to see some pilgrims happy on the floor of the cathedral square.
But even apart from that, the old town of Santiago de Compostela is very beautiful and invites you to take a long stroll through the city.
The most beautiful beaches in northern Spain
The north of Spain has of course not only spectacular cliffs and rocky coasts to offer, but also gorgeous beaches that reminded us of the Algarve. For a listing of the most beautiful Northern Spain beaches just check here:
Road Trip Northern Spain | The Best Travel Tips
In northern Spain there are regional official languages
In the northern Spanish regions of Galicia, Navarre, Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias, there are regional dialects in addition to the Spanish that some people learned at school.
These dialects are official languages and so place names and other designations on signs are always described in two languages. This can sometimes be confusing, because some dialects have nothing to do with Castilian Spanish, which is the official language of the country.
How many days should I plan for a Northern Spain Trip?
We recommend to plan at least one to two weeks for a northern Spain round trip. However, it is also no problem to stay longer in this region. In addition to the rugged coastal landscape, there are also wonderful beaches where you can relax in the summer.
Northern Spain – The Best Time to Travel
Northern Spain is much rougher than, for example, the region of Andalusia in the south. Accordingly, the weather is less appealing. It rains here much more and also the sunshine hours cannot be compared with the sunny regions in southern Spain. The Spanish Atlantic coast is even considered the rainiest region in Spain. Therefore, you should be prepared for a lot of rain.
The main season is the summer months of July and August. Here you have the best chance of good weather with about 25 degrees. However, this is also the time when most other tourists are on the road. Therefore, the low season with the months of May/June and September is also recommended. Here, however, it is a bit cooler and swimming in the sea is not always pleasant.
How much does a Northern Spain round trip cost?
Prices in Spain are generally comparable to those in Germany, but tend to be somewhat lower. Especially in supermarkets you pay a little less than in Germany.
Is northern Spain very touristy?
In contrast to Andalusia or the Algarve in Portugal, northern Spain is not touristy at all. Most of the tourists you will meet are locals or French. For Germans, northern Spain is not really on the map yet. If at all then as a transit region on the journey to Portugal.
Of course, it can still get quite crowded at the tourist hotspots in the summer. In general, however, the region is far from being overrun by mass tourism.
Northern Spain Camping | Is Northern Spain suitable for camping?
Northern Spain is perfect for vanlife and a round trip with a camper. There are many great possibilities for free standing and wild camping in the nature. We have summarized all the information you need for camping in Northern Spain in a separate article.
We hope you enjoyed our itinerary and tips for a Northern Spain trip. If you have any questions, please write us a comment!