From Galicia to Catalonia, here are the best places to visit in Northern Spain to help you plan your next trip to this country’s green part.
Northern Spain is also called “green Spain” because of the large numbers of coniferous and deciduous forests and green hills. It is a wonderful area for a great vacation in Spain. You have imposing mountain peaks, rugged coasts, and atmospheric villages, while traveling in Northern Spain you can escape crowded beaches and busy seaside resorts. Experience Spain at its purest in impressive pilgrimage sites, vineyards, picturesque villages, and amazing hikes.
What to see in Northwest Spain
1. Santiago de Compostela
For almost a thousand years, people have walked the Camino de Santiago and from Spain and far beyond they make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, ending in the tomb of the apostle James the Greater or continuing to Fisterra and Muxia. It is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world.
Santiago de Compostela is a city located in northwestern Spain, in the region of Galicia, of which it is also the capital. The city grew up around a Roman tomb found in 814 by a shepherd who, according to legend, was led into the forest by a mysterious light or star to the site of the tomb. In the end, King Alfonso II, who was the very first person to make the pilgrimage to the site of the tomb of James the Greater, decided to build a church there, which eventually became the cathedral as we know it today, with an entire city built around it.
One of the sights is the many pilgrims who have come to Spain’s most famous pilgrimage site for centuries. Furthermore, Santiago de Compostela also has a beautiful old town, cozy squares with narrow streets and impressive buildings that you can visit. A must-visit place when you visit Northern Spain!
Gijón is the largest city in Asturias and is located on the Cimadevilla peninsula. It used to be mainly an industrial city and has no “historical” character. But Gijón has given itself a new image with its beautiful pedestrian streets, green parks, beautiful seaside promenade, and cultural attractions. In addition, Gijón is a mecca for foodies and shopaholics and its bustling atmosphere is contagious for young and old. Despite the modern and hip features, the city does have an old center; the old fishing quarter. A wonderful mix of both worlds.
Here they have numerous good restaurants with classic cuisine where you can taste the Fabada and more refined dishes while enjoying a glass of cider. In the harbor, it is possible to book a diving or sailing trip to explore the coast from the sea.
Here are a bunch of great things to do in Gijon rain or shine.
A place that should certainly not be missed during your trip through Northern Spain is Oviedo. Oviedo is located in the heart of Asturias and is considered the capital of the region. Since ancient times it has retained its Monastic and Royal character and its hospitality and dynamism are contagious.
Culturally and historically, Oviedo has something to experience every day and many important Asturias sights can be seen here. See the Fontán Market, the Cider Boulevard, the Pre-Romanesque Fountain of La Foncalada, the Gothic Cathedral, and more! In addition, stroll around the beautiful historic center that has been a source of inspiration for many writers.
4. Picos de Europa
One of the best places to visit in Northern Spain is Picos de Europa. Picos de Europa is a national park and is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Europe. Despite the overwhelming beauty of nature, the mountain area is still relatively undiscovered by the general public. Walk past old villages, untouched nature, and crystal clear streams and have a small chance of seeing bears or wolves who still live there.
During a holiday at Picos de Europa, you can drive around by car through nature, or put on your mountain boots and go hiking. We have done several hikes ourselves in this beautiful nature reserve. When you are looking for a detailed overview of the best hikes in Picos de Europa you can find more information via the link.
The peaks and the surrounding nature reserve are increasingly being discovered as a holiday destination for those seeking tranquillity and nature lovers. Despite the slightly increasing tourism, you can still enjoy hiking in the mountains without meeting too many other people, which is very nice! For the active traveler, the area offers plenty of fun activities, including abseiling, hiking, climbing, and kayaking. Nature lovers come here for peace and quietness and to observe birds. And in winter it is a magnet for winter sports enthusiasts and snow lovers.
Santander, capital of the green region of Cantabria, is located in northern Spain on the Bay of Biscay. This port city is located in a picturesque bay between green mountains and the blue sea.
Santander can be divided into the southern and northern parts. The southern part is where the old city center is located. Due to a huge fire that broke out in 1941, which almost destroyed the center, only a few historic buildings remain. In the old center, you will now mainly find large shopping streets and the pleasant square called Plaza Porticada.
Besides the old center in Santander, you can also take a nice walk along the quay and boulevard, called Paseo de Pereda. Here you will come across the La Magdalena peninsula in the northern part. King Alfons XIII had his summer residence built here. You will also find the two most popular beaches of Santander here. Namely Belle Epoque and El Sardinero.
There are also many places of interest around the city; on several sides of the city are the green mountains and steep rocks of the Cantabrian coast. Combine this further with various free museums and with delicious cuisine dominated by fish and shellfish and you have the perfect combination for an unforgettable city trip in Spain.
During your vacation in northern Spain, Bilbao is a city that can surprise you. In the 1970s it was still a polluting industrial city, today it is a modern city with modern architecture, design hotels, haute cuisine restaurants, and the Güggenheim museum, in which traditions are beautifully preserved at the same time.
Bilbao has flourished since the arrival of the Guggenheim Museum in the 1990s. The exterior of the museum is a work of art in its own right, designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. Inside, artworks by Dalí, Warhol, and Picasso are on display, among others. In addition to the building, don’t miss the ‘Flowerpuppy’ (over 12 meters high and covered with about 70,000 flowers) and the giant spider ‘Maman’ (9 meters high and 10 meters wide).
Besides the Guggenheim, Bilbao has a lot more to offer! The oldest part of the city, Casco Viejo is a maze of narrow alleys between old and colored houses. The shopping street is also nice to stroll through. There is certainly no shortage of food and drinks in Bilbao. Everywhere you will find charming restaurants with a huge choice of delicious pintxos and local wines.
7. San Sebastian
San Sebastian (in Basque “Donostia”) is located in the Spanish autonomous region of the Basque Country. The popular seaside resort is located on the Bay of Biscay on the northern Spanish coast with about 200,000 inhabitants. The Basque coastal town is one of the most visited cities in Spain. San Sebastian is also known as the culinary capital of the world. San Sebastian has the most Michelin stars per square meter in the world! But also for a lower budget, there is a huge choice of bars and restaurants. In addition, it is the seaside resort of the Basque Country and this city is also called Rio de Janeiro in miniature. The beautiful beaches in the city are ideal for water sports activities or boat trips. In addition, in San Sebastian, you will also find beautiful shopping streets in the historic city center called Parte Vieja.
In the evening, the historic heart is the ideal place to find bars and taste the famous pintxos. When you follow a 1 day San Sebastian itinerary you have sufficient time to discover the highlights of the city.
8. La Rioja
Speaking about wines, another beautiful place to visit is the region of La Rioja. Here you will find about 600 wineries. The landscape is beautiful where you will see endless vineyards, several old and modern wineries, and picturesque villages. For example, visit one of the wine cellars where you can take a tour with a wine tasting.
Besides the many wineries, the village of Olite is also worth a visit. This village is located in the province of Navarra which is about an hour’s drive from Logrono. Here you can visit a beautiful castle. The beautiful village of San Vicente is also well worth a visit. Here it is as if time has stood still. The special thing about this village is the church that is located on top of a hill. This is also one of the few places in Spain where flogging is still performed.
Which other places can you visit in Northeast Spain?
To visit these places in Northern Spain you need at least 2 weeks. If you have more time, it is great to discover more about Spain. In this case, you can travel to the central part of Spain towards Madrid or you can head east to discover places like Zaragoza, Barcelona or the Pyrenees. Our recommendation is to head east. Below you can read briefly why these places are so nice to visit.
It is the fifth-largest city in Spain, and yet not very well known. A shame, because Zaragoza is a beautiful typical Spanish city. It is a beautiful place to walk through, with warm temperatures, delicious food, and a lot of history. There are a lot of things to do in Zaragoza that will surprise you.
The city is located on the River Ebro in northern Spain and is the capital of the Aragon region. The biggest eye-catcher is the El Pilar cathedral, which is beautifully lit at night. You will find several valleys around the city, so a road trip is also recommended. When in Spain, of course, you must have eaten really good tapas at least once. And in Zaragoza that is certainly possible. The El Tubo district is even seen as the tapas district where you can enjoy these delicious tapas.
Whether you visit Barcelona for a city break or as a stopover during your vacation in Catalonia, you must go there at least once.
Because Spain’s most famous city offers everything for lovers of architecture, history, art, good food or shopping. It also has its beaches. The weather is almost always nice, you have wonderful long evenings in the summer and even in winter, the temperature is still pleasant, with a bit of luck you can still sit on a terrace without a coat in the sun in November and December.
You won’t have to get bored in Barcelona because you are also able to visit many great places. From Gaudí’s city you can, for example, take the train to Montserrat, the picturesque seaside town of Sitges, cycling city of Girona, or Gaudí’s Crypt of Colònia Güell.
11. The Spanish Pyrenees
A holiday in the Spanish Pyrenees in the border region of France, Andorra, and Spain takes you to rugged mountains, lovely green valleys, and deep ravines. But also to villages where time has stood still and beautiful Romanesque buildings. The west part of the Spanish Pyrenees consists of a rugged landscape with steep mountains and deep canyons. And eastwards it merges into a rolling green landscape of mountains, alpine lakes, and valleys. A true paradise for walkers, cyclists, mountaineers, bird watchers, rafters, and skiers.
During your holiday in the Spanish Pyrenees, for example, you can explore Spain’s Ordesa Y Monte Perdido National Park with its jagged limestone massif and spectacular gorges and waterfalls. Or the national park Aigüestortes i Estany de Santa Maurici with, among other things, Lake Sant Maurici. So whether you love nature, culture, or architecture and are looking for a car holiday, family holiday, or active holiday: the Spanish Pyrenees are the right place for you even if you are a beginner hiker!
Please note that starting from November 2023, you could need an ETIAS visa waiver prior to your travel to Europe.
ETIAS is an acronym for the European Travel Information and Authorization System. It is an electronic system put in place by the European Union to ensure their security by screening visa-free travelers who are planning to enter the EU. The system will require travelers to submit an electronic form with their personal and travel information prior to their arrival in the EU. Once approved, travelers will receive an ETIAS authorization which will allow them to enter and stay in the EU for up to 90 days.
ETIAS is required for citizens of the 60 countries listed on the European Commission’s visa-exempt list. This list includes most countries from North America, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, Oceania, and other parts of the world. For a full list of countries, please consult the ETIAS website.
Cynthia & Alexander are the adventure travel bloggers behind Travel your Memories. They travel the world and share all the tips to inspire and help others plan their trips.