Admit it. When you hear “Spain,” you think of Seville’s flamenco, Madrid’s traditional bullfights, or Barcelona’s beaches. Rarely does Northern Spain immediately come to mind. And while it’s a little off the beaten path for most tourists, Northern Spain is well worth the visit! It’s filled with a unique culture, gorgeous cities, and diverse landscapes ranging from rolling green hills to the stunning Pyrenees Mountains. While living in Lugo, Galicia, I embarked on a Northern Spain road trip. Here’s how I did it and road trip stops in Northern Spain that you can’t miss.
Table of Contents
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Renting a Car in Northern Spain
Like most of Europe, Spain has excellent public transportation. In a few places, like parts of Galicia, it’s not as extensive as it could be, so it can be a little tough to visit some of the best beaches and rural areas. This is when a car is perfect. As an American, it was very easy and comfortable to drive in Spain because they also drive on the right.
Tips for Driving in Spain
- Cellphone: Make sure you have a cell phone plan with working data. Google maps and Apple maps both work great in Spain. For cheap data in Spain, I recommend buying an European Travel sim, or a local eSim.
- Signs: Look up the infographics of all the road signs. Just google “Spain road signs,” and you get dozens of handy pictures with all the different signs and their meanings.
- Roundabouts: Spain is roundabout land, which is odd for Americans at first but is actually a very good thing. If you take the wrong exit, you can just get right back on the highway.
- Tolls: Tolls are not cheap in Spain, and they can make no difference or 2 hours difference in the amount of time it takes to get somewhere.
- Cameras: You will get a bill sent to you in the mail months later if you get a speeding ticket via camera/Radar. Google maps always told us when a Radar box was coming up.
Where to Rent a Car in Northern Spain
Look at the typical car rental sites to rent a car. I used Kayak for all my car rentals in Spain. It always sent me to a secondary website like DiscoverCars.com. If you need an automatic car, rent ahead of time.
Rental Costs, Gas, & Tolls
- Rental: Car rentals have been expensive ever since the COVID-19 pandemic. I paid 500€ to rent a car for 14 days from Santiago de Compostela to Madrid. We split that between 2 people, so it was affordable. This was for an automatic car. Manuals are cheaper. Remember that prices will vary depending on where you get the car, the time of year, etc.
- Fees: Remember that you will be charged a one-way fee when you pick up the car. It usually costs a little over 100€. The gas deposit was 40€. The big thing to always remember is the “hold” that gets put on your credit card when you rent a car. In Spain, it’s around 1,000€.
- Gas: Like everywhere else in Europe, gas is by the liter and expensive. It usually costs about $70 to fill up the tank of a small automatic car.
- Tolls: Toll roads are primarily present in the northeast and around Madrid and Barcelona. This is largely due to many toll roads being built to make transportation quicker in and around the Pyrenees. The toll roads can be as expensive as 12-25€ one-way.
Northern Spain Road Trip Itinerary
For this itinerary, I recommend starting in Northwest Spain and traveling east, ending in Barcelona. If you end up in a major city like Barcelona, it’s very easy to fly out. You could always do this trip in the opposite direction or only do part of it and then end in Madrid, which is also a very easy base to fly in/out of.
1. Santiago de Compostela, Galicia
Start in the capital of Galicia – Santiago de Compostela. The city is popular for being the end of the Camino de Santiago— a famous pilgrimage/hike. It ends at the beautiful Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. You can do a guided tour to visit the cathedral, and even book tickets for a designated time to go to the top of a bell tower. I recommend sitting on the ground in Prazo do Obradoiro, the square in front of the Cathedral. From Spring – Autumn, there are hundreds of pilgrims and tourists sitting in the square, drinking, eating, and talking.
You can also join a guided tour like this one to see some of the main highlights of Santiago de Compostela, such as Finisterre, Muxia, and Costa da Morte.
Most people recommend you take a few hours and walk the Camino. I don’t recommend that here. The last bit of the Camino before Santiago is urban and not very special. You should walk it in Asturias. But definitely grab a coffee at my favorite café in Galicia, Ratiños, and eat dinner at A Gamela. Get the pork cheeks!
Stay in Santiago for a few days and settle into the uniquely Galician way of life. Learn a couple of Gallego words, the primary language spoken in Galicia.
When you’re ready to start your road trip, head to the Santiago de Cathedral airport, book an airport pickup, and get the car from there. It’s also a great spot to get comfortable driving – there are no massive highways, and it’s not very busy.
2. Northern Galicia: Punta de Fuciño do Porco
Most people would probably go straight from Santiago de Compostela to the more well-known region next door – Asturias. Before you do that, take a day to drive along the coast of Galicia. Visit Punta de Fuciño do Porco. It’s a small nature reserve along the cliffside with a walking path. It’s dramatic and gorgeous and will be a great start to your time in nature in Spain. It’s not a very long walk. You can leave Santiago, drive here for a couple of hours, then get lunch in a nearby town before you continue on your way.
3. Northern Galicia: As Catedrais Beach
Another recommendation is to visit As Catedrais Beach. This will require a little bit of planning. During low tide, this beach reveals rock arches and caves that you can walk through. You can visit at any time, but it’s only during low tide that you can see these formations that make the beachside unique. The website is helpful and even has a tide table so you can figure out when to visit. Also, during the summer season, there are now so many tourists that you must pay to visit.
You could visit both Punta de Fuciño do Porco and As Catedrais Beach in one day. It would be a bit of a long day though, especially if you start in Santiago de Compostela and are ending the day in Oviedo. I recommend staying in Ribadeo, a small town near As Catedrais Beach if you just want a place to spend the night.
If you’re staying in Santiago de Compostela, you could join a day trip excursion that visits Lugo and As Catedrais Beach. You’ll visit Lugo’s historic center, and see the Roman Wall, and Cathedral. You’ll visit As Catedrias beach during low tide so you can see the rock formations. If you’re staying in A Caruna, there’s a similar tour departing from there that also visits Lugo and As Catedrais Beach.
Cudillero is a tiny brightly colored village. It’s a perfect place to visit for an afternoon and see a small Asturian fishing village. When you arrive, work up a sweat by walking to a viewpoint at the top of the village, then walk back down and grab lunch, sit outside and soak up the sun with a caña (the beer on tap) or a clara con limón (beer mixed with lemon soda for something lighter than a beer).
If you’re staying in Oviedo, or Gijón you could join this private tour that visits Cudillero. You’ll have your own private guide, which will take you to the best photo spots. As well as visiting Cudillero, you’ll also go to Luarca town and As Catedrais Beach. For a more affordable option, you could join this tour where you’ll a day trip to Cudillero, Luarca, and Avilés.
Gijón is a city on the coast of Asturias. I went for lunch one day with a friend because the food scene was reportedly pretty good. Lunch was great to be fair and there were several other restaurants I would have loved to eat at if I visited again. There is a large promenade so you can walk along the water. Other than that, it didn’t feel very special or unique to me, but I’m still mentioning it as a possible lunch trip because the day I visited was rainy and chilly so maybe it’s the type of place that feels brighter and better on a sunny warm day.
6. Lakes of Covadonga
The Lakes of Covadonga are in the Picos Mountains. When I was in Oviedo, the weather was never good enough for us to drive to the lakes. You want perfect weather. These lakes are high in the mountains, so you want it to be sunny, clear, and warm. I visited them when I was staying in the eastern part of the Picos and we had to drive about 2 hours each way. It was worth it, but it’s less time to visit from Oviedo so that’s why I recommend visiting them now if possible.
During the peak summer season, this place gets BUSY, but the signage is great here. You’ll probably have to park in one of the large parking lots and take a bus to the top. You will spend hours here taking pictures of the lakes, walking along the paths, snapping pictures of the cows, and trying not to step in their poop. This was one of my favorite places to visit. I walked a little, took tons of pictures, and spent the day outside looking at cows.
If you’d prefer to take a guided tour of the Lakes of Covadonga then why not consider this day tour that departs from Oviedo? You’ll be able to enjoy views of Picos de Europa National Park and Roman Bridge of Cangas de Onís, as well as see the Lakes Enol and Ercina.
7. Asturia’s Beaches
One of my other favorite days on the entire road trip was the day we drove from Oviedo to our hotel in the Picos. Along the way, we stopped at a couple of the beaches in eastern Asturias. One of these beaches even reminded me a little bit of Thailand and my friend of Hawaii. It was very unexpected.
Visit Playa de Gulpiyuri first. It’s small and you walk down the side of a sand dune on some rocks to get to the bottom. It’s worth it. This isn’t a beach for swimming though. This is a beach to rest on your towel, take pictures, and get your feet wet. There’s also a cafe where you park the car with bathrooms so you can walk 5 minutes when you’re done and get a fruit smoothie before you move on to the next beach.
The next beach that I recommend you visit that will take up most of the day is Playa de Torimbia. You must park at the top of a cliff and walk 40 minutes down to the crescent-shaped secluded beach. This beach is perfect for swimming. It’s also a nude beach. Being topless on the beach in Spain is the norm, but fully nude isn’t so be prepared to see below the belt on this beach.
There are several other beaches along this strip that you can visit, but after 2, I was all “beached” out so we drove off to the Picos by the end of the night
8. Picos de Europa
The Picos are a small mountain range across three regions in Spain. It’s also a nature reserve where people live in small villages in and around the mountains. There are dozens of hikes and various places to stay if you want to visit the Picos.
If you like to hike, here is where you do it. My favorite hike was when we rode the Teleférico Fuente Dé cable car to a viewpoint of the Picos. You can take the cable car back down, but we hiked the 5 hours back. It was a moderately tough hike, mostly because it was muddy and pretty steep going down so your calf muscles were weak by the end. You should definitely bring snacks and extra water. There was still snow at the top of the mountains when we visited in June, so bring layers and shed them as you go.
You can also opt to take a hike, with a professional mountain guide. On this hike, you’ll visit the Lake of the Moñetas, which is a small lake located in the center of the Picos.
CAUTION: Be careful when driving on the roads in the Picos. A lot of the roads have no shoulders and curve around the base of the mountains. It’s a little scary, especially when you look up and see massive nets with rocks in them, because rockslides happen in the area. Keep your cool and sing along to the Hamilton soundtrack as we did on your Northern Spain road trip.
Where to Stay in Picos de Europa: Potes
We stayed in Potes because it was one of the biggest towns in the mountains, well-located for several things we wanted to do, and one of the only places that had rentals, restaurants, etc. all in one place.
In Potes, you could stay at the Hotel Restaurante Casa Cayo which is located in the heart of Potes. The hotel’s restaurant has amazing reviews and is one of the best places to eat in Potes. The hotel has free WiFi and free parking is available nearby, so this is a great place to stop off during your road trip.
9. La Rioja
After you’ve gotten in some hiking, you need to relax in La Rioja on a wine tour. Most people stay in charming central Logroño, but there are other small towns scattered throughout the region if you’re looking for something smaller and more local. La Rioja is known for its red wine.
Surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of tour operators in the region. Rioja Wine Trips has some great tour options. I missed my chance to go on their Unusual Suspects tour because I tried to book it too late (so book early!). When I think about visiting Northern Spain again, it would be to go on this wine tour.
You could also book this wine tour, where you visit wineries in Rioja, Rioja Alavesa, and Rioja Alta. For lunch, you’ll visit a medieval village where you’ll enjoy a traditional Spanish lunch paired with wine.
After a few days filled with beach hopping, hiking, and day trips, you should spend 2-3 days in La Rioja, walking around Logroño, drinking wine, eating tapas, and getting a taste of the relaxed Spanish lifestyle before you’re moving around a lot again.
If you’d like a more unique experience while you’re in La Rioja, then why not ride in a hot air balloon? You’ll fly over the vineyards of the Rioja Wine Country, and get a unique perspective on this beautiful region. You’ll enjoy drinking a locally produced Cava whilst soaring over Rioja then once you’ve landed, you’ll enjoy a traditional breakfast consisting of regional dishes.
You could also go horseback riding through the vineyards in La Rioja, whilst being guided and discovering the region’s beautiful nature as well as the vineyards.
10. Bilbao and Gaztelugatxe
Bilbao is the capital of Basque Country. It’s an industrial city so many people might say to skip it. I don’t recommend skipping it. San Sebastian, mentioned next, is a more picturesque and well-known seaside city in Basque Country that will people recommend you stay in. I chose to stay in Bilbao and make San Sebastian a day trip because San Sebastian is a little too expensive for me. That choice worked out well.
In Bilbao, the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum is amazing. There are several massive outdoor art installations that you can see if you don’t get a chance to go in. Take a river cruise and see some of the art structures from the water. Eat some pintxos in Bilbao’s Old Town. Pintxos are small single dishes similar to tapas. However, you order and pay for pintxos, whereas tapas in most regions typically come for free with a drink order.
Take a day trip to Gaztelugatxe, a small islet connected to the mainland by a winding narrow stone walkway. It’s famous for being part of the fictional Dragonstone, the Targaryen ancestral home in Game of Thrones. There isn’t a castle at the top of the path, though. It’s a small church. It’s not a terrible walk but can feel difficult if there is even a hint of humidity. And in Northern Spain, it’s often humid, so be prepared to sweat and bring extra water. Rest at the top.
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you should consider this Game of Thrones filming locations tour. Where you’ll visit the local filming locations that were used during season 7. Make sure to opt for a full-day tour to visit all the filming locations.
11. San Sebastian
San Sebastian is where you eat in Northern Spain. It has the second most Michelin stars per capita in the world. If you can’t afford most of the restaurants with the Michelin stars, the excellence has rubbed off on a lot of the other restaurants, so you’ll still eat well. Walk up and down the streets of San Sebastian’s Old Town, sit outside, have a few pintxos, and try txakoli, a lightly sparkling white wine. I still wish I had brought a bottle home months later.
A great way of experiencing San Sebastian’s food is to join a pintxos tour. You could consider joining this ultimate pintxos tour, where you’ll visit six different pintxo bars and enjoy Spanish wine. If you’re on a lower budget, you could join this pintxos tour where you’ll visit four different traditional restaurants and enjoy a selection of pintxo and Spanish wine. They also offer a vegetarian option.
If it’s a nice day out, it’s also a great place to sit on the beach and watch surfers. You should walk along the wide promenade and people-watch. You can also walk to the top of Monte Igueldo for an amazing view of the city. If you’re not up for a hike that day, then take a funicular to the top instead.
You could also join a walking tour where you’ll learn about San Sebastian’s culture, architecture, and history. You’ll also stop at a local bar, where you will eat pintxos and a drink. Another tour to consider is this city bicycle tour where you’ll visit 10 different hotspots around San Sebastian and visit some sights such as Buen Pastor Cathedral.
San Sebastian is a resort town so if you’re looking to do some shopping, do it here. There are a lot of high-end designer names, but there are also local stores and small galleries with artists’ work. I bought a print by a local Basque artist that I cherish here.
12. The Pyrenees
The Pyrenees are a trip all on their own for hardcore hikers. This massive mountain range has hundreds of hikes across thousands of kilometers. This Northern Spain road trip itinerary includes slow days, wine tours, hikes, beach days, and more so that you get a well-rounded trip. So don’t feel pressure to spend a whole week here. Spend a few days, get a couple of hikes in, and look at a lot of cows.
Many of the most well-known hikes and viewpoints are on the French side of the mountains, but there are some great options on the Spanish side. One of my favorite things on the whole trip was the day we went canyoning in Ordesa National Park. If you don’t go canyoning, make sure to visit Ordesa. There are tons of lakes, forests, and wildlife. It’s stunning.
Since the Pyrenees cover such a large area, you’ll want to first figure out what your plans are: the hikes, the tours, etc. that you’re doing. Then, base where you stay off of proximity to those. I stayed at a rural inn in Fiscal, Leyendas del Pirineo, which was very nondescript but ended up having some of the best food I ate the entire time I was in Spain. The couple who runs the place were kind, helpful, and killer cooks.
13. Barcelona & Monserrat
A guide to visiting Barcelona is a blog post all on its own, to be honest. It’s also the perfect place to end your road trip. The Barcelona airport has car rental locations to drop off your car, and an Uber into the city is only 20 minutes.
I recommend booking your car rental return for late in the day. That way, you can spend the day visiting the Abbey of Montserrat before you hand the car back. The Abbey is less than an hour outside of Barcelona but is a little tougher to visit via public transportation. It’s a mountain monastery known for a Black Madonna sculpture and a large basilica. I liked it because it’s a monastery that is high in the mountains and looks like nowhere else in the world. You can take a cable car and park at the base instead of driving up and dealing with the horrendous parking at the top.
If you’ve already handed your car back, you can still visit Montserrat by joining a tour. You could join this private tour of Montserrat that picks you up from your hotel in Barcelona and takes you to Montserrat and the Abbey. You’ll also attend a Choir performance in the Santa Maria Basilica! During the tour, you can also visit the Montserrat Museum and Santa Cueva de Montserrat.
Northern Spain Itinerary Ideas + MAP
Frequently Asked Questions: Northern Spain Road Trip
How many days is best to do a Northern Spain road trip?
I spent a month doing almost this exact road trip with a couple of differences here and there. Excluding time spent in Barcelona, I recommend 2-3 weeks. You can also just do the first half for about 7-10 days and end in Madrid and vice versa.
What is the best season for this road trip?
If you want warmth, then it’s best to visit in July and August, but that’s peak season, so I recommend visiting in June or September if possible. You’ll still be able to visit the beaches and seaside towns during nice, warm weather but it won’t be so crowded that you’ll feel claustrophobic.
What languages do they speak in Northern Spain?
In most regions, Spanish is the first language. There are a couple of key exceptions.
- In Galicia, Gallego is the primary language. Except for in very rural areas with older people, everybody also speaks Spanish. Plus, in the cities of Galicia, a lot of young people don’t know Gallego. You’ll see all the road signs are in Gallego, and a couple of keywords like street are different. (Street is calle in Spanish and rúa in Gallego.)
- In Basque Country, they speak Basque first. But like in Galicia, virtually everybody also speaks Spanish. All the street signs and names here are also in Basque. Interestingly, Basque has no relationship to Spanish. Both are different languages, not dialects of Spanish. While Gallego sounds like a mashed-up version of Portuguese and Spanish, Basque doesn’t sound or look at all like any Latin language. It’s an isolated language.
- In Catalonia (Barcelona), they speak Catalan and Spanish.