This Northern Spain Road trip itinerary includes a few of my favorite spots to explore in 10 days. But you can easily make this trip shorter or longer with the tons of suggestions from me. Ready for an epic adventure across the Spanish North?
Northern Spain Road Trip: Must-See Places in 10 Days
Why you should plan a Northen Spain Road Trip
Northen Spain would be a perfect match for those of you who enjoy wild nature and hiking in Spain, looking for jaw-dropping cliffs and charming fishing villages. It´s also one of my favorite Spanish destinations to enjoy a quiet getaway: Northern Spain could barely compete with Andalusia, Barcelona, or Madrid in terms of international visitors (even during the summer peak season).
While Northern Spain definitely has a few epic beaches along the Atlantic coast, the region is honestly not the best match for a laid-back sunny vacation in Spain. You should be ready for occasional rains and pack up some extra layers. However, to be fair, that´s never been a drawback for me, personally. Being based in the Valencia Region with its hot touristy summers, you learn to appreciate lesser-known destinations in Spain.
This itinerary is flexible
Northern Spain actually includes more regions than one could possibly fully discover on one single trip – Rioja, Navarra, Asturias, Cantabria, Castille-Leon, Galicia, and The Pyrenees. But this does not mean that you couldn´t get a brief preview of each Northern province, and maybe, pick favorites to plan your next road trip in Spain.
Therefore, I´ve curated this 10-day itinerary to show you a bit of everything Northern Spain has to offer.
But, let me put this clear from the very beginning – most likely, you won´t be able to visit every single place I´m suggesting in this post. Yet, my aim is to give you as many alternatives and ideas, as possible – so that you can adapt this Northern Spain Road Trip and turn it into your dream adventure.
Your travel preferences usually depend on many factors: first time in the region? traveling with kids? solo? with a partner on a romantic getaway? – All these things do matter. So, I feel obliged to give you as many travel suggestions as possible. Feel free to see this Northern Spain Road Trip as something flexible and easy to personalize.
Where to begin
This Northern Spain Road Trip is planned so that you have less than 2 hrs of driving between each of the main cities-stops. It does not include Asturias or Galicia, and focuses on The Basque Country, Cantabria, La Rioja, with a stop in Burgos (Castile-Leon).
I set Bilbao as the first stop: but this route is actually circular ( eg. Bilbao – San Sebastian – La Rioja – Burgos – Santander – Bilbao). Therefore feel free to begin your Northern Spain Road Trip in San Sebastian, Burgos, or Santander.
Still, need more ideas? – Check my list of Spanish road trips, where I´ve divided Northern Spain into 2 separate itineraries – 1) The Basque Country+Cantabria+La Rioja+Navarra and 2) Asturias+Galicia.
When to visit Northern Spain
Summer is a great moment to plan a Northern Spain Road Trip. The temperatures in the North are really comfortable for sightseeing, and except for Bilbao and San Sebastian, you won´t even feel the well-known peak season in Spain.
By the way, early autumn and late spring would work great for any Northern Spain Road Trip.
Traveling in winter might be tricky, a few years ago we experienced a heavy snowfall on the road in Oviedo. So, Spain in winter has been about the Southern regions of the Iberian Peninsula for me ever since.
10-days Northern Spain Road Trip
1. The Basque Country (2 days)
The city of Bilbao
Bilbao is one of the must-stops on every Northern Spain road trip. It is the capital of the Basque Country and home to one of the most famous landmarks in Spain – the Guggenheim Museum. Even if you´re not a fan of modern and contemporary art, you can´t possibly deny the eye-catching shapes and forms of this avant-garde museum, created by the genius architect Frank Gehry.
Some of the biggest art pieces of Bilbao´s Guggenheim Museum include names like David Salle, Eduardo Chillida, Jeff Koons, Louis Bourgeous, Andy Warhol, Anselm Kiefer, and Robert Rauschenheim. The good news is that the museum embraces virtual travels with its online tour.
Another interesting place in Bilbao is Akzuna Zentroa Alhondiga Bilbao, another unique modern art center.
The Basque Country
While you can find enough things to do in Bilbao for two days, I suggest you plan at least one day trip to see something else across the Basque Country. While Bilbao is a must-stop for first-timers in Northern Spain, in my opinion, the gems of the region do actually overshadow the city. You definitely can´t see it all in 2 days. Exploring the Basque Country is a separate road trip.
However, depending on your travel tastes you can pick a few places. Nature lovers can´t miss Salto de Nervion, Cascadas de Toberia, Salinas de Añana, and Gaztelugatche (also one of the GOT filming locations in Spain). The first one is a 7,2 km-long hike, the rest are easy walks: the second – 3 km, the third – 2,6 km, and the fourth – 3,6 km. Therefore, most of the Spanish natural wonders in the Basque country could be quickly done with the kids.
If you are not into hiking even in the slightest way, there are more places in the Basque country you might enjoy – Santuario de Arantzazu, Guernica (commemorated by a famous painting of Pablo Picasso), and Cueva de Pozalagua (a unique cave with the greatest concentration of eccentric stalactites in the world).
In case you are on this Northern Spain road trip with kids, don´t miss Pagoeta Natural Park, full of animals and child-friendly hikes. Drop by Centro de Visitantes de Iturraran for detailed info about their activities. Other cool museums to visit in the Basque country are Chillida Leku in Hernani, and Topic in Tolosa (don´t forget to try local sweets – tejas, xaxus, cigarillos).
2. San Sebastian (2 days)
The city of San Sebastian
San Sebastian is one of the most beautiful cities on the whole Iberian Peninsula and one of my favorite places to visit in Spain. Although I should admit that since my first visit (back in 2011) the city has become way more touristy. Nevertheless, San Sebastian still preserves its original charm and could be a perfect match for any Romantic Getaway in Spain.
While Spain’s Basque Country is one of the best dining destinations in the world (with 40 Michelin-starred restaurants over only 21 000 square km), the foodie obsession in San Sebastian mainly rolls around the famous pintxos (diverse mini-bites all laid out in front of you). Every year a local competition Euskal Herria Pintxo Championship takes place, where local bars and restaurants pitch themselves against each other to make yummy creations.
I´d recommend you take a pintxo tour or at least research the recent winners to make the most of your foodie experience in San Sebastian. Although it´s almost impossible to choose a bad place to dine since everything everywhere is delicious. You can spend a whole evening pintxo-hopping from bar to bar. Pay attention to the walls, they usually display certificates from past pintxo competitions so you´ll know exactly what to order.
Besides its unique and diverse food arena, San Sebastian is unapologetically beautiful. What could possibly be more romantic than a long stroll at San Sebastian´s Bay of Concha, set amongst scenic mountains and swelling waves? The atmospheric Old Town of San Sebastian with its quaint cobblestone streets and excellent pintxo bars never goes out of style.
The panoramic views of San Sebastian from Monte Igeldo, Monte Urgull, and Monte Ulia are simply to die for. San Sebastian gets a fair share of tourists in Spain – its allure is undeniable. No wonder historically, the Spanish monarchy used to spend their summers at Palacio de Miramar in San Sebastian.
As this Northern Spain Road trip itinerary is meant to be packed with experiences, I´d leave for the city of San Sebastian only one day (but you could easily spend in it the whole weekend, if not a week). But as there are quite a few interesting places to visit near San Sebastian, you simply owe it to yourself to plan at least one day trip.
San Sebastian is located close to the French border, so you can easily head to the charming small town of Biarritz, which is very dear to my heart. Years ago I spent two weeks in Biarritz learning French and taking surfing classes – it was one of the most unique solo experiences in my entire life. On the way from San Sebastian to Biarritz, don’t miss Hondarribia (also called Fuenterrabia) – one of the most colorful villages in Spain.
Another cool San Sebastian day trip idea is to visit the Caves of Zugarramurdi, one of the trendy mysterious places in Spain. While the cave belongs to the Navarra region, it´s actually located closer to San Sebastian. Since the XIIth century, it used to be a place to celebrate witch covens. Consequently, locals suffered a lot from the Saint Inquisition ( you may have heard that especially since Isabel I of Castile Spain has been an extremely religious country).
Also, the city of Pamplona could be a day trip option, as it is only a 1 h-long drive from San Sebastian. Navarra´s capital is globally known for the Festival of San Fermin (from July 6 to July 14). As I do not include Navarra on this itinerary, you can read more about Pamplona, the dreamy castle of Olite, and other top attractions of Navarra in this post (especially if you have more than 10 days for this Northern Spain road trip).
The region of Navarra is also known for a few great adventure parks you can enjoy as a family – Sendaviva, Irrisarri Land, Bertiz Abentura Park, Baztan Abentura Park, Urbasa Aventura, and Artamendia.
3. La Rioja Region (2 days)
One of the top things Spain is known for internationally is the Rioja wine.
The region of Rioja extends over 41,505 hectares of vineyards and has around 600 bodegas. In case you´re on this Northern Spain road trip with your significant other you can focus on some romantic experiences across La Rioja, like visiting a few ancient bodegas in search of your perfect sip or trying a hot-air balloon ride over the vineyards.
However, if you´re exploring Spain with kids – keep in mind that some bodegas do offer family tours. Your little ones will learn a lot about local history and the wine-making process ( for the wine-tasting part they´ll be offered grape juice). Last year we went to Bodegas Franco Españolas (you can check it on IG), which back in 1956 were visited by Ernest Hemingway himself. During his tour, the legendary writer reportedly said: “My only regret in life is that I did not drink more wine.” Can´t say it´s relatable for me, but I have honestly enjoyed the bodega tour with kids anyway.
In case you´re not into Spanish wine at all, consider visiting Arnedo caves, San Millan Yuso and Suso Monasteries, or hiking in the natural park of Sierra de Cebollera. Kids will definitely enjoy Tierra Rapaz – a theme park and educational center for birds of prey (raptors). Check the schedule as the park is mostly open during the weekends.
4. Burgos (2 days)
You simply can´t miss one of the most stunning Spanish cathedrals on your Nothern Spain road trip.
The Cathedral of Burgos is one of my favorite landmarks in Spain and one of the top Gothic architectural gems in Europe. Its full name in Spanish is Catedral de Santa María de Burgos.
The Burgos Cathedral was built from 1221 to 1260, although there once was a medieval Romanesque Church in its place (since the XIth century). Despite the record-long time of construction of Burgos Cathedral, the addition of the new structural elements and chapels went on till the XVIIIth century.
The Cathedral houses the tomb El Cid or Cid Campeador ( Spanish legendary knight Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar). Also, the Burgos Cathedral is one of the main stops on the Way of Saint James (or Camino de Santiago in Spanish).
Additionally, the city of Burgos has quite a few amazing sights you´ll enjoy – like the monastery Monasterio de las Huelga, the arch of Santa Maria, and MEH Museum of Human Evolution.
Also, there are two cool places for kids close to Burgos – Territorio ARTLANZA (the real-life medieval town) and Paleolítico Vivo (the only one in Europe park with Paleolithic animals).
5. Santander (2 days)
The city of Santander
For some reason, most of Northern Spain’s road trip itineraries skip Cantabria. In my opinion, it´s one of the coolest regions for adventurous family travel in Spain. Also, it´s conveniently located close to Bilbao (only 1h by car).
The city of Santander is the capital of the Cantabria region. Don´t miss the palace Palacio de la Magdalena, the views from funicular de Río de la Pila, the art center Centro de arte Botín, the central square Plaza del Ayuntamiento, the cathedral of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción
If you´re traveling in summer and looking for more laid-back vibes, don´t miss the beaches of Playa de los Peligros and Playa del Puntal. You can also check this post of mine about the most epic Northern Spain Beaches.
More of Cantabria Region
As I´ve previously mentioned, Cantabria is an amazing destination for adventurous family vacations. Yes, you can´t see it all in a few days, but you can definitely choose something for your own taste from this list:
- Cabarceno Park ( a natural space that is home to over 120 different species of animals that enjoy the maximum amount of freedom)
- Altamira Caves (one of the top Spanish national landmarks)
- Bosque de Secuoyas ( a park full of giant sequoias, very rare in Spain)
- Laberinto de Vilapresente (with its 5625 m2, the biggest labyrinth in Spain)
- Cueva el Soplao (a unique cave, one of the greatest Spanish wonders of geology)
- Teleferico de Fuente De ( a cable car to one of the most stunning National parks in Spain – Parque Nacional de los Picos de Europa)
From the small towns of Cantabria, you´ll definitely love San Vicente de la Barquera, Santoña (famous for its anchovies), Castro Urdiales (read its famous legend of The Mermaid of Castro-Urdiales), and Santillana del Mar.
At this point, you can end your Northern Spain Road Trip and return back to Bilbao, as it´s only a 1h-long drive from Santander.
In case you want to drive further along the coast of Northern Spain check my posts about traveling to Asturias and the beautiful villages of Asturias. Unfortunately, I currently have nothing published on Galicia (as I visited the region long before I had my blog) – but it´s not going to stay this way for long (as Galicia is in my travel plans for this Autumn). Also, you can consider adding to this Northern Spain Road Trip Itinerary my Pyrenees Road Trip, a few places from my recent Aragon Getaway, and even Andorra.