No one would say that Northern Spain is a “hidden gem” but it when most people think of Spain, what most people imagine is southern Spain: flamenco, bullfighting, beaches, paella, tapas, … So when people visit the northern part of the country they are usually blown away. The north of Spain is green and lush, brimming with history and culturally very different from the rest of the country (especially in the Basque Country). The food is different, the nightlife is different, … everything is just different. Different and amazing.
When we are talking about the north of Spain, we are talking about Galicia, Cantabria, Asturias, Navarra, Logroño, The Basque Country, and some northern areas parts of Castilla León and Aragón.
What follows is an introduction to this huge area in Spain. This post is useful as a first guide to draft your travel plan in northern Spain. You will find more detailed recommendations and information in each of our city or attraction guides. We hope you enjoy your travel planning!
Northern Spain has a very rich history and diverse local cultures. Galicia, for example, is located in the northwestern corner of the Iberian peninsula and is heavy influences by their neighbors to the south: Portugal. Galicians even have their own language that is a mixture of Castilian Spanish and Portuguese. It is a region with a strong maritime heritage and home to such amazing sites as the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella, (where the famous Camino de Santiago concludes) and the mysterious Cies Islands.
The Basque country, on the other hand, is much more influenced by France. This influence is evident in Basque cuisine and food culture, which is considered to be world-class. The Basque people are very independent and proud and have conserved their ancestral culture for centuries. In fact, Basque or Euskera, the local language, shares no relationship with any other language on the planet. The main cities located in the Basque country are Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Vitoria, but there are tons of charming little villages, like Hondarribia for example, that is absolutely worth a visit.
Navarra, which was its own kingdom at one point is culturally similar to the Basque Country. Navarra’s main city and capital is Pamplona, where the famous running of the bulls takes palace but Pamplona and Navarra as a whole have a lot more to offer than just the San Fermines.
Cantabria and Asturias are the two regions of northern Spain that are more culturally Spanish, but there is also a heavy Celtic influence here that is unique to this region of the country. They are some of the most naturally beautiful areas of Spain. In this slice of Spain, the gigantic Picos de Europa mountain range bunches up just a few kilometers from the ocean, creating some of the most striking landscapes you will ever see. You have 2000 plus meters tall mountains just 5 km from the beach. The food in the area is also spectacular, hearty, and flavourful, perfect for seafaring folks like the Asturianos and Cantabros.
Although the winters can get colder and wetter than in the rest of Spain, that does not mean that it is dreary all the time. There are two distinct climates in the north of Spain:
The oceanic climate is typical of the extreme north, an area that is also known as “Green Spain”. This climate extends from along the coast of Galicia all the way to the Pyrenees, affecting the north of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country. The climate is mild in winter and relatively warm in summer, although the temperature does not vary much from one season to another. Rainfall and strong winds are frequent on the coasts, especially in winter, but this shouldn’t stop you from visiting the area, as the average annual temperatures are about 16 ° C. San Sebastián and the surrounding towns register in the 30’s ° C in July and August, perfect for a visit to the beach.
The more inland areas of the region enjoy a continental climate. This type of climate is characterized by strong temperature changes between day and night and between the different seasons, as well as by abundant rainfall from October to December. Winters are relatively cold, while summers are very hot, dry, and clear, with temperatures ranging from 25 ° C to 35 ° C during the day.
Spring and autumn are the perfect season’s plan a vacation to the north.
If you arent up to attempting the “French way” portion of Camino de Santiago on foot, perhaps your best option would be to rent a car to get from one place to the next. Everything is relatively close. If you were to drive from San Sebastian to La Coruña, which would take you from one end to the other, it would take you about 6 hours. So, a great option is to choose a hub city and plan day trips from there.
Santander is the most central large city in the region, so logistically this is a great option. Another great option, especially if you are flying into Spain is to travel to Bilbao and plan your trips from there. San Sebastian and a great number of other attractions are within driving distance from Bilbao, but you probably won’t make your way all the way to Galicia unless you’re up for a good old road trip.
Bilbao is the largest city of the Basque country and the cultural and economical epicenter. Bilbao is a port city that is configured around the Nervión river that cuts through the city on its way to the Cantabrian sea. Bilbao is a beautiful and inviting city, home to the world-famous Guggenheim Museum. In the cities old quarter you will find all the pintxo bars and taverns the city is so well known for.
San Sebastian is also located in the Basque Country, just east of Bilbao, very close to the French border. San Sebastian is spectacularly beautiful, artsy, and deeply cultured. The city is built around a bay and features one of the most beautiful urban beaches in the world: la Playa de La Concha. San Sebastian is also one of the greatest food cities on the planet, having the largest concentration of Michelin Star restaurants of any city and the best pintxos in Spain. It also hosts the prestigious San Sebastian Film festival every year, a testament to the city’s relationship with the arts.
Pamplona is the capital of Navarra, which as we mentioned was once its own kingdom. Pamplona was basically a military fortress that grew and grew until it became a city. Pamplona was the main line of defense from invading forces from the north. It is of course also the site of the world-famous running of the bulls which, admittedly is something everyone should experience once in a lifetime, but Pamplona is a city filled with history and cool things to be discovered.
Santander is the capital of Asturias. Santander has historically been a very rich city as many residents took to the sea during the colonization of the Americas and made fortunes which they brought back to their hometown. But as beautiful as the city is, the natural beauty of the area is unbeatable. In Asturias, you will find some of the best beaches in the country and it is a prime destination for Suffers. Also, make sure you order a Cachopo if you visit, you can thank us later.
Santiago de Compostela is also a capital city, this time of the region of Galicia. Santiago is home to the Cathedral of Santigo de Compostela, perhaps the most spectacular such Cathedral in Europe, only rivaled by the Notre Dame in Paris. Santiago is also the finishing point of the famous Camino de Santiago. Santiago is immensely beautiful and a perfect example of Galician culture.
Cathedral Santiago: A visit to the cathedral is a must for anyone in Santiago de Compostela. The Cathedral is in the top 3 centers for catholic pilgrims in the world. There has been a place of worship in the same place since the 9th century and ever since then the building has been renovated and added on to until we have the spectacular cathedral you see today. The cathedral is enormous and The interior in particular is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture. Around the nave and aisles, there is a string of chapels, which are mostly Romanesque with exquisitely decorated altars, tombs, and statues.
The Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry is the city’s most emblematic monument. The museum sits on the bank of the Nervión river and is itself a piece of art. The museum is one of the most important examples of contemporary architecture, and has been hailed as a “signal moment in the architectural culture”. The museum finally opened its doors on 18 October 1997 and was inaugurated by the King, Juan Carlos I of Spain. The Guggenheim is home to over 250 works of art and features permanent and visiting exhibits of works by international and national artists.
La Concha beach in the heart of San Sebastian. It’s almost not fair to include it on this list, it is almost like saying that one of San Sebastian’s main attractions is the whole city of San Sebastian. La Concha is considered to be one of the most, if not the most spectacular and pristine urban beaches in the world. As an added bonus, many of the city’s other attractions are within walking distance from the beach or are literally beachfront properties.
Citadel of Pamplona. Pamplona was, for the longest time a military garrison, designed as a stopper for invading forces from the north. As time went on and more people attempted to invade the peninsula the fortress began expanding and the webbing of protective walls became more intricate and sophisticated. The end result was a European heritage site and one of the largest and most complex military constructions in all of Europe.