Travelers to Spain start their visit to this Iberian Peninsula country in Madrid, and usually that’s a good thing. Afterwards, they’re likely to head south where the climate is more temperate to see historic Moorish castles or east to Barcelona or Valencia. They don’t realize what they’re missing out on northern Spain.
I’m talking about well-preserved medieval villages, picturesque wine regions, the beautiful Bay of Biscay coastline, Basque country and much more than that, all waiting for visitors to get a clue and head on out there. Here are 10 incredible destinations in Northern Spain.
10. Picos de Europa National Park
Picos de Europa National Park is Spain’s first national park, founded in 1918 when it was known as Montana de Covadonga National Park; its name was changed in 1995. The park’s high mountains and deep ravines appeal to hikers, who need to be alert for deep fog banks. This biosphere reserve also boasts forests, oak groves and four rivers.
The beaches of Santander are the main attractions of this port city on the Bay of Biscay. With its wide stretch of golden sand, the long curving arc of the Playa el Sardinero is one of the most beautiful beaches in Northern Spain. Approaching the beach through the pathways of the beautiful Piquio Gardens enhances the experience.
8. Rioja Wine Region
Travelers who enjoy their vino will definitely enjoy a visit to La Rioja Wine Region, home to more than 500 wineries. What makes these vineyards so unique is that some wineries allow horseback and all-terrain vehicle riding within the vineyards. In addition to sampling their wines, some wineries offer classes on how to become a winemaker. The main wine regions are Rio Baja, Rio Alta and Rio Alavesa.
Oviedo, the capital of Asturias province, is well known for its religious monuments. Also a stop on the Pilgrims Road to Santiago, Oviedo has churches that date back to the eighth century, including the Cathedral of San Salvador and the well-preserved Basilica of San Julian de los Prados. Another top architectural draw is La Foncalada, a ninth century pre-Romanesque fountain.
Once known primarily as an industrial port city, Bilbao has reinvented herself as a center for modern art and architecture. Bilbao is home to the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, a gleaming, modernistic structure clad in titanium designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. Bilbao’s historic architecture is a stunner as well, featuring many beautiful buildings like the 14th century Gothic Cathedral of Santiago and the Basilica de Begoña.
Gaztelugatxe is a small peninsular island in the Bay of Biscay that resembles a castle; in fact, its name translates as “castle rock.” It is accessible from land via a footbridge over the rocks. A small chapel dedicated to San Juan (St. John) sits atop the island. Past visitors recommend taking the steps slowly as rushing can be a pain; but, they say, the breathtaking views are well worth the exertion.
Pamplona is an historic city that once served as the capital of the Kingdom of Navarre. It is better known today for its annual San Fermin festival in which fearless souls try to outrun a herd of bulls through city streets; the festival takes place over six days in July. Bullfighting is another popular activity here, with the city having the fourth largest bullring in the world.
3. Santiago de Compostela
The capital city of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela is famous as the final destination of the traditional pilgrimage known as Camino de Santiago. Also called the Way of St. James, this pilgrimage dates back to Medieval times and is important to many because it is believed that Santiago de Compostela is where St. James, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, is buried.
2. Santillana del Mar
Comfortable shoes are a must for visitors to Santillana del Mar, a perfectly preserved medieval village that is limited to foot traffic. Located on Spain’s west coast, this Cantabrian treasure is less than 30 km (20 miles) from Santander and near the Caves of Altamira that are famous for its prehistoric paintings. Another top attraction is the Museum of the Inquisition with its instruments of torture.
1. San Sebastian
Found in Basque country, just 19 km (12 miles) from France, this popular beach resort is surrounded by hills that add to its beauty. San Sebastián’s most famous attraction is La Concha, one of the world’s best urban beaches. Parte Vieja or Old Town has many bars, making it popular with partiers. Most buildings date from the 19th century, since San Sebastián was destroyed by the English and Portuguese in 1813. The city is well known for its July jazz festival, the oldest in Europe, as well as other festivals and cultural events throughout the year.