Road tripping in Northern Spain seems to be having a bit of a moment currently. I can’t count on both my hands how many people I know of who have been in the past few months. I wasn’t aware of this when we booked flights to Santander earlier this year to celebrate Thom’s birthday. We booked the flights as they were cheap and the beaches looked nice. It was only when I started doing research into where we could go that I realised what beauty and adventure lay in store.
I eagerly put together a northern Spain road trip itinerary and afterwards realised it follows a lot of the Camino de Santiago. The Camino de Santiago is a long walking trail that was historically done by pilgrims but is now done by anyone looking for a good hike. If you’re not so keen on walking the trail, but want to loosely follow the route across Northern Spain then take a look at this road trip itinerary in Northern Span.
Perhaps I’d been put off considering northern Spain as a holiday destination from my first experience of it back in 1998. I was only seven so I don’t remember much apart from getting really, really bad food poisoning. Thankfully that didn’t happen the second time!
What is the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James) in Northern Spain is one of the world’s oldest pilgrimage routes. It’s an unforgettable hiking experience and nowadays is popular with both hikers and cyclists. However, we took the lazy option and our road trip in Northern Spain accidentally followed much of the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino de Santiago begins in France and traverses 500 miles across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela where St James was buried.
The trail is marked by blue signs with a shell on them. You’re sure to see plenty of them on this road trip in Northern Spain.
Our Road trip itinerary in Northern Spain
We opted out of joining the hundreds of thousands of backpackers currently walking across Spain for many reasons.
The weather isn’t kind to walkers in July. It’s likely to be pouring with rain, or blisteringly hot (great for the beach, not so much for trekking). Part way through the week I ended up pushing Thom around Bilbao’s Guggenheim in a wheelchair and also, it’s such a long way; far too long for 1 week!
Whether walking, cycling or driving, rest assured that the scenery and towns along the way are incredibly beautiful. Wetter than southern Spain, the north looks less dessert-y and arid for the most part, meaning flowers and green decorate the landscape.
Although we only spent one week in northern Spain, I’d recommend two weeks. This gives you more time to explore the various towns and countryside than we allowed for.
How To Get There:
Flying London to Spain
Fly in and out of Santander (this northern Spain road trip itinerary can be done in either direction). We always use Skyscanner to find the cheapest flights.
Ferry to Spain
You could also take your own car across on the ferry from Portsmouth. This might be the best option if there’s more than two of you, but for us flying and hiring a car was cheaper than the ferry.
We used Gold Car for our hire for no particular reason other than we’d used them before. When it comes to car hire companies, they’re all as bad as each other. I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t try and pressure you into every little extra.
UK to Isla
Arriving in Santander leave the airport and hit the coast headed towards Isla.
Surfers dominate the sea along the coastal route from Santander to Noja. The ever-present waves are small enough for beginners but large enough for those more practised to demonstrate their skills. Surfing lessons are best taken in Somo. Here there are plenty of surfing schools and wide beaches with no rocks.
You’re spoilt for good beaches in Cantabria and, although busy on the beaches, there’s plenty of room. Things aren’t like they are in Bournemouth here. The beach at Noja, just a short drive from Isla, is particularly worth a mention. Long stretches of sandy beaches, sand dunes to climb for even better vistas, and small rock pools to explore when the tide is out. This makes Noja the perfect beach for a chilled out day to get you in the holiday mood.
Restaurants in this part of Spain serve some fish, as you would expect. There’s also more hearty fare such as lentil stews.
Best places for Pinxtos
When the hunger pangs strike, head to Castro Urdiales just 50km east of Noja. Here you’ll come across some of the best Pintxos in northern Spain (and we ate a lot!) for the best prices.
Pinxtos are small, tapas like dishes. They’re served all over the Basque region of Spain and in many towns in Cantabria. The name comes from the cocktail stick which holds the tapas ingredients together. It’s the perfect food for evenings with friends (a vast improvement on pub crawls). They’re also great for those of us who want to try a bit of everything!
Where we stayed in Isla: Los Anjanas de Isla
Isla – Bilbao – San Sebastian – Pamplona (260km)
If you mention Bilbao to someone chances are they’ll think of the Guggenheim museum for which the city is best known and the giant dog curated out of fresh flowers, ‘Puppy’, by Jeff Koons, which stands guard at the museums entrance.
Jeff Koons was the main exhibition at the Guggenheim. His work is, unlike most modern art, accessible due to the use of instantly recognisable objects in his artworks. He’s known for taking the everyday and turning it on his head.
Whatever you personally make of his work, the current exhibition at the Guggenheim is well worth a browse.
TOP TIP: Book tickets to the Guggenheim in advance and avoid having to queue in the rain!
From Bilbao your northern Spain road trip itinerary continues along the coast to San Sebastian.
Just 20km from the French border, San Sebastian is a city which loves to indulge in food and frequently tops the lists of the world’s best places to eat. Perhaps it’s because of this that the food, whilst cheap compared to London, was some of the more expensive we had all week.
Porte Vieja, the old town, lies in the shadows of Monte Urgull, the bay’s eastern headland. It’s here where the most popular Pintxos bars with the locals are too be found. Knowing where’s best to eat in San Sebastian can be tricky; I’d recommend a quick scout of the main streets and opting for whichever bar counter topped with food cries out to you the loudest.
Where we stayed in Pamplona: Pamplona Plaza
Pamplona to Burgos
Between 6th and 14th July, this capital of the Navarre region is overrun with visitors who come to watch the running of the bulls. This event happens during the festival of San Fermin. Hemingway wrote about in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. The running of the bulls in Pamplona usually involves a group of people running through the historic streets of the city’s old town trying to stay clear of six bulls. This year it ended in disaster for some.
Outside of this week, the old town is a charming cobweb of narrow, cobbled streets filled with beautiful buildings. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see much of Pamplona during our flying visit as the morning was spent in Pamplona’s hospital!
The journey form Pamplona to Burgos takes you through stunning scenery Spanish scenery that remain relatively unknown. The cool blues of the the pools in the National Park of Nacedero del Urederra are a well kept secret. The park woodland is interspersed with waterfalls and pools of an extremely bright blue; a colour that seems out of this world.
Stop for dinner in Logrono, for more fantastic tapas on Calle del Laurrel. On sunny summer evenings this street is buzzing and makes for a great place to hang our with locals and fellow travellers.
Where we stayed in Burgos: Albergue La Fabrica -HIGHLY recommended
Burgos to Santiago de Compostela
A main stopping point on the Camino de Santiago is Burgos. Burgos is a picturesque town in the middle of the Spanish countryside. Its cathedral was declared a world heritage site in 1984 and a large number of churches remain in the town. A river skirts the centre of the town which is stilled housed in ancient walls.
Leave Burgos and head for Léon, the capital of the province of Castille y Léon. You’re likely to see an increasing number of backpackers making their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela from here on in.
There’s still a long way to go from Léon but fortunately there are many beautiful sights to break up the journey. Ones of these is Las Médulas, a historical site near the town of Ponferrada where you can see a sort of moon-like scenery of reddish rocks jutting up from the mountains.
Listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site, Las Médulas were created by a mining technique used back in 77AD which involved undermining a mountain with large quantities of water. A small information centre and museum provide more information on this fascinating site.
Santiago de Compostella
Every Friday evening during summer at 7:30pm a mass takes place in Santiago de Compostella’s cathedral. There’s always a huge audience of people.
This mass is different from many of the others. People usually attend to see the unique tradition of the Botafumerio. Botafumerio means “smoke expeller” in Galician. It’s a famous device in which incense is lit before being hoisted towards the ceiling and swung to great heights whilst lines are sung in Spanish.
The Botafumerio in Santiago de Compostella is one of the largest of its kind in the world and weighs around 80kg. At the top of it’s swing it reaches 21 meters high. Delicious, spicy incense smells and clouds of smoke fill the cathedral as everyone crowds together to watch.
Queues are extremely long during the summer period and we heard rumours of people queuing from midday to be in with a chance of attending the 7:30pm mass.
Top Tip: We waited half an hour before deciding to give up and find some dinner. We popped into the gift shop on our way past the Cathedral and managed to sneak in through the adjoining door with a few others to watch the mass and catch sight of the Botafumerio.
Accommodation in Santiago de Compostella: Hotel Exe Arena
Santiago de Compostella to Covadonga
Northern Spain is blessed with with varying landscapes. From the beautiful coastline to the rolling hills in the countryside and even mountains just 20km from the coast!
The Picos Mountains
The Picos mountains, Los Picos d’Europa (the peaks of Europe), are a hiker and adventurers dream. The highest peak reaches 2,650 metres with many others around the 2,500 metre mark.
Covadonga, part of the Cangas de Onis municipality is situated in the Picos National Park and is a great base to stay for adventures in the Picos mountains.
The Covadonga lakes are renowned for being one of the most beautiful parts of the Picos. However, word of this has spread and the only way to reach them, at least in summer, is to take a tour bus up there as police close the road to cars. For this reason, imaging a packed lakeside, we gave the Covadonga lakes a miss and headed over to Fuenté De to take the cable car.
Roads in the Picos are windy and extremely narrow and even the smallest sounding of journeys will take a long time. Allow for this in your plans and enjoy the scenery stopping off for breaks every now and again as you travel through this stunning area of Spain.
The Cable Car at Fuenté De costs 15.50 Euros for a return ticket. At the top there are a walking trails and also a hotel. The views over the mountains are spectacular on a sunny day, but remember to pack a lightweight fleece and waterproofs just in case!
Accommodation in Covadonga: Arcea Gran Hotel
Covadonga to Santander to Home
Santander has a huge port which sees arrivals from Portsmouth on the 24 hour ferry but is also home to a stretch of sandy beach. Before heading back home, take half a day to explore Santander’s castle and buzzing bar scene.
Accommodation in Santander: Santander Studios
Want more Spain travel ideas?
- Road trip itinerary for southern Spain
- How to take a day trip to Gibraltar from Spain & what to do there
- Vlog: Northern Spain Road Trip