Our northern Spain road trip took us from La Coruna on the Atlantic coast to Barcelona on the Mediterranean Sea through a variety of landscapes, architecture, and gastronomic adventures.
We explored the regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Basque, and Aragon, ending our travels in Catalonia. Our highlights ranged from an eclectic mix of coastal fun and relaxation to cave exploration.
Often heading off the beaten path, we saw 40,000-year-old cave drawings, ancient palaces, half-hidden underground ruins, Roman baths, torture chambers, unusual cemeteries, and stunning beaches. We even saw replica ships from Christopher Columbus’ fleet.
In addition, we visited world-class museums, major pilgrimage destinations, and several stunning cathedrals.
While a northern Spain road trip may not be one of the most popular ones in the country, it certainly was an impressive eye-opener and one which we recommend.
Read on for details of our adventures.
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Interactive northern Spain road trip map
Key stops on our northern Spain road trip
- La Coruna
- Santiago de Compestela
- Santillana del Mar
- San Sebastian
Our northern Spain road trip started in Galacia
We were based in La Coruna at a two-week home exchange house. From here, we explored Santiago de Compostela and Lugo as our first stops across the top of Spain, returning to our other home exchange property in Catalonia.
Living in La Coruna for two weeks was just about enough time to really fall in love with this coastal city. Aside from spending our time on the beach, we also explored several fascinating museums and historic sites.
The city boasts the world’s oldest working lighthouse. From the top of Hercules Tower, it’s easy to enjoy the beautiful coastline, provided you can tolerate the wind. We also enjoyed fabulous views from San Pedro Hill.
Suggested activities: We have detailed all our favourite things to do in La Coruna here. But if you have limited time or want to start off with an overview, we recommend this top-rated 2-hour walking tour. Also, quite popular, but not my thing, is a tour of Mundo Estrella Galicia brewery, complete with a beer and cheese tasting. Reserve your beer museum tour here.
Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela is the world’s third most important Christian pilgrimage destination after Vatican City and Jerusalem. The cathedral is the final resting place of St James the Great, an apostle of Jesus Christ.
We visited on July 24, the eve of St. James Day, one of the most important days of the year, so the crowds were pretty intense. On the plus side, we enjoyed a mass by the archbishop and saw the swinging of the Botafumeiro that takes place only a few days each year.
- If you are visiting on your own, be sure to enter the cathedral’s crypt to see the tomb of St James.
- However, the best way to see the cathedral and its museum is with a guided walking tour. Reserve your Santiago de Compostela Cathedral and museum tour here.
- Foodies will also want to explore the town’s cuisine with one of these tours: Reserve your daytime gastronomic tour here or reserve your nighttime gastronomic tour here.
Lugo is home to the last remaining fully intact Roman Wall. We walked on the path on top of the wall for much of the perimeter. However, we spent the majority of our time within the walled city, discovering some of the highlights of Galicia’s oldest town.
Areas of Lugo grew up over ancient ruins, leaving the ruins visible yet well protected. And this is not just inside the city wall, there are ancient Roman baths under a modern hotel and a nearby Roman bridge.
Suggested activities: We have detailed all our favourite things to do in Lugo here, but the three that top our list are: walking along the wall; visiting the Cathedral de Santa Maria in the old town; and experiencing the Provincial Museum.
(If you don’t want to visit Lugo on your own, check out this top-rated tour from La Coruna)
Northern Spain road trip stops in Asturias
We definitely drove through Asturias too fast. Our two key coast stops were Cudillero and Gijon, where we mostly just enjoyed the quaint villages, cafes, and beautiful beaches.
Cudillero is a small fishing town along the St. James pilgrimage route that is best known for its taverns. We stopped for the coastal views at one of its beaches and then saw the fishermen’s taverns in the cobbled square.
Gijon is a city that has transformed from an industrial and fishing port to a modern tourist destination. Great seafood restaurants (some Michelin star rated) make it an ideal place to stop for lunch. There is no shortage of activities and sites in Gijon, including a beach (Playa de San Lorenzo), botanic gardens, an aquarium, museums, and ancient Roman baths.
Cantabrian coast road trip stops in northern Spain
The small towns along the Cantabrian coastline were my favourite portion of our northern Spain road trip.
To explore Cantabria, we stayed in the colourful village of Santillana Del Mar. From here, we made day trips to Comillas, Santander, and El Castillo in Puente Viesgo.
Comillas is a charming town most noted for its old university, palace, monuments, cemetery, and its main drawing card, Gaudí’s summer home.
El Capricho, the modernist-style summer home, was designed by world-famous architect Antoni Gaudi and is one of only three of Gaudi’s works found outside of Barcelona.
We also walked through the cemetery of Comillas, where we saw covered recesses that contained the coffins. Interestingly, these spaces are rented for a pre-determined number of years. Later, the coffins are moved to a common burial ground. An angel by Llimona (1895) towers above the cemetery.
Suggested activities: Plan your day around your timed entry to El Capricho. You can reserve your skip-the-line timed entry ticket here. Spend the rest of your time walking around town and exploring the cemetery.
Santillana del Mar
The picturesque medieval town of Santillana del Mar is a well-preserved historical masterpiece. A village handed down through the generations, it is still governed by town-planning laws created in 1575. The cobblestone streets and flower-filled balconies make it a photographer’s paradise (see photo at top of page).
The Church of the Colegiata, a Romanesque church and former Benedictine monastery, is the most famous building in town. Located inside are the remains of Santa Juliana (or Santa Illana), the town’s namesake. Pilgrims carved crosses into the stone wall around the church.
We also visited a torture museum that we do NOT recommend for kids, and the family-friendly Altamira Museum, where we learned about the ancient pre-humans that lived in the caves and hunted for food. Here we signed up for and participated in a free workshop on buffalo hunting, and while we couldn’t understand all of the Spanish, we had fun learning to throw spears.
Suggested activities: We enjoyed walking around this town and taking photos, visiting the church, and we highly recommend the Altamira Museum. Our girls also enjoyed horseback riding.
Caves of Altamira and El Castillo in Puente Viesgo
There are about a dozen caves in the area that you can visit, although many, like Altamira (and Lascaux in France), are no longer open to the public. In their place, visitors enter caves created as exact replicas.
We recommend visiting Museo del Altamira in Santinalla del Mar before entering any of the caves, as the background is helpful. Following our visit, we had timed tickets to enter the Altamira cave. Despite it being an exact replica of the original cave that sits right next to it, we still wanted more.
We chose and recommend Cuevo de la Castello in Puente Viesgo. Inside, cave drawings and handprints lined the walls. In 2012, new technology determined some of these to be 40,000 years old, suggesting they may have been put there by neanderthals. (Photos were not permitted.)
Tips for visiting El Castillo
Possibly the highlight of our northern Spain road trip, our tour of El Castillo was captivating. We highly recommend booking in advance. The online form requires a DNI number, which only Spanish residents will have. We entered 00000000-A, and had no issues.
Bring a jacket if you go into El Castillo. It is about 12ºC (54ºF) inside the cave.
The tours are in Spanish, but the cave artwork is visual.
Another interesting city along the Cantabrian coast, Santander, is the capital of the region. It was once the summer home of the royal family.
We walked out to the palace, Palacio de la Magdelena, near the end of the Magdelena peninsula. Along the way, we passed seals and penguins in large enclosures. Next, a historic boat exhibit featured several replica ships from Christopher Columbus’ fleet.
Locals at our home exchange city referred to Santander as a hidden gem with beaches equivalent to San Sebastian, without the high price tag, stating they are great for surfing.
Suggested activities: Aside from walking along the peninsula, we recommend getting out on the water with a one-hour city cruise around the bay or surfing. Reserve your 2-hour surf lesson here.
Our stops in the Basque region
Geographically, the Basque region is smaller than others we drove through but still unique, as evidenced by the Basque language spoken here.
The region is well known for pinchos, a Basque tapas that is typically eaten well before dinner. In fact, we were told (and found it to be true) arriving between 6.30-7pm is the best time to get the full selection.
(Note both spellings are correct: Pintxos in Basque; pinchos in Spanish.)
If you are a modern art fan, you wouldn’t want to miss Bilbao. It is home to one of the Guggenheim Museums, which has its main museum in New York and branches in Bilbao, Berlin, and Venice. The free English language audio guide made it much more interesting, especially to me, a person who doesn’t fully understand modern art.
Public transportation in the city is easy to use, but don’t miss the attractive mix of architecture while walking along the riverfront.
Suggested activities: Even if you are not a fan of modern art, visit the Guggenheim museum with this skip-the-line entry ticket and guided tour (in English) and afterwards, enjoy some pintxos before heading out for dinner. Or, if you’re a total food enthusiast, enjoy this top-rated premier Bilbao gourmet food tour.
Identified as the cultural capital of Europe back in 2016, San Sebastian is a playground for the rich and famous in the heart of the Basque region.
It’s best known for its surfing beach and culinary excellence. In fact, San Sebastian restaurants hold over half of the Michelin stars awarded in Spain.
Although much smaller than the one in Rio, there is a large statue of Jesus overlooking and protecting the city.
Suggested activities: It’s a beautiful city best explored by walking. We enjoyed a free walking tour of San Sebastian or, foodies will love this gourmet pinchos tour.
Road trip in northern Spain through Aragon
As we drove through Aragon, we stopped in Zaragoza to see El Pilar.
Zaragoza (Saragossa in English) holds significant religious importance. It’s the capital of Spain’s Aragon region and our only stop as we passed through.
Local legend tells us that Saint James the Apostle came to Zaragoza to spread Christianity. As he prayed one day in 40 AD, an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared to him. She gave him a 39 cm tall statue of herself and a pillar made of jasper.
Following her instructions, he built a small chapel on the spot, thus creating the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The church has been rebuilt many times, each time increasing in grandeur.
The current Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar (or just El Pilar) was designed in 1681 and remodelled in the 18th century, although construction on the towers finished in the early 20th century. It’s one of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Zaragoza.
Thousands of pilgrims make their way here every year to kiss the small stature. For many, it is a stop on their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. In fact, El Pilar is the second-most visited pilgrimage destination in Spain.
Barcelona ends our northern Spain road trip in Catalonia
Barcelona certainly deserves more than the three days we gave it. And, as the final city, or starting city, if you follow this northern Spain road trip in the opposite direction, it should be easier to schedule the extra time.
For good reason, everyone’s top pick seems to be Barcelona’s most famous and still unfinished landmark, the cathedral La Sagrada Familia. Construction began in 1882, and the current estimate is for completion in 2026. Above is one of my favourite shots to date, captured in 2012.
We toured La Sagrada Familia with an audio guide and highly recommend doing it this way. Reserve your tour and audio guide here.
It, along with13 additional buildings in Barcelona, was designed by the famous architect Antoni Gaudi. Plus, there is the not to be missed Park Güell, also designed by Gaudi. Reserve your Park Güell entrance here.
Barcelona is more than just Gaudi. There are museums, an evening stroll and dinner on La Rambla, uncover history as you discover the old town, relax at the beach, or head out and explore one of the nearby medieval towns.
Save on your trip with these resources
We use these aggregator companies to save time and money. They do the work for us by providing a list of options, prices, and reviews for anywhere we are travelling worldwide. Plus, we have personally had positive customer service experiences with all of them:
- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Hotels: we use Booking.com as they consistently return the best rates and their reviews are from actual guests. However, for self-contained lodging, use VRBO
- Cars: we use RentalCars to find the best deals and dealer ratings.
- Private guides: we often hire private guides from Tours by Locals
- Travel Insurance: we start at InsureMyTrip as they are the best option to compare plans and find the right coverage for you.
Before you book the rest of your trip: Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
We believe this list to be the best in each category. You can’t go wrong using them on your trip too.
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Continue your discovery of Spain
- Things to Do in Segovia Spain: From an Ancient Aqueduct to a Fairytale Castle
- Madrid Highlights: 10 Unique Things to Do in the Spanish Capital
- Central Spain Road Trip: Madrid to Granada (Barcelona add-on)
- 7 Unique Things to Do in Seville from Flamenco to Columbus’ Tomb
- Home Exchange in Palamós: A Taste of Daily Life in Spain
Photos on this page are either shot by our team and watermarked as such, in the public domain, or some stock photos were supplied by DepositPhotos.
Thank you so much for sharing these beautiful photos and travel tips.
Our second stop in Spain after disembarking from a ferry in Bilbao in 1976 . My mum , my sister and I in a commer van . We were from a small country town in out back Australia , and had never travelled before . The shop selling leather goods and postcards looks the same as I remember . We saw the cave paintings at Altamira before they were closed to the public a year later . We camped at a spot out of the village . It was very green , and I remember a beautiful gypsy girl .
Santillana del Mar is so amazing! I loved the pictures with so many flowers and that rustic feels. Looks like a great place to explore in Spain. I have only read about torture museums and the picture above looks disturbing indeed. I would probably skip this one if I were to check out Santillana del Mar – I’m amazed by the story behind its name as well. A great find here!
Honestly, the torture museum is one destination I wish I avoided. Some of the hideous images got stuck in my head. The rest of the town is well worth a visit.
It looks absolutely gorgeous! And how have I not heard of it before? I need to add this to my list for when I go to Spain – I still haven’t been!
Such a beautiful little city with a very deceiving name. It surely is a photographer’s dream with all these flowered balconies. The workshop you attended sounds fun, I wonder how it must be to hunt with a spear.
Looks like quite the charming medieval town! Exception being maybe the torture museum – I’ve visited one in the past and they are quite graphic indeed – will probably give that a pass! Horse riding though I would love, as well as just wandering leisurely through the town and appreciating the architecture 🙂
The places looks awesome!! You were right that this is photographers heaven!
Sandy N Vyjay
Santillana del Mar is indeed a revelation. What a charming town and seems so pristine and untouched by the ravages of time. Maybe the reason for its charm and endearing quality is that it has been spared the footfalls of many tourists. The torture museum looks like a blemish on the beautiful town, but then adds to its intrigue.
What a gem you’ve discovered! I love the overflowing flowers and medieval buildings and the old church. And I sure hope the number of “Torture Museums” I’ve come across in Europe is not really an indication of how much torture was used! We saw one in Rothenburg ob der Tauber and also in Toledo.
Trekking with Becky
Great shots, as usual.
I would love to see that Inquisition museum!
I’m thinking of renting a car in Barcelona next month and driving around the countryside. Is this easily accessible/doable as a day trip?
Heed my warning, that museum is quite graphic. It is shocking the cruelty that man is capable of .
Wow, Rhonda, these photos look absolutely stunning. I have never heard of this Spanish town, but I will sure to visit it on my next trip to Spain. Thanks for the recommendation.
I travelled around northern Spain a few years ago and absolutely loved it. It’s so different to the south of Spain. Your photos bring back fond memories of a wonderful region. The food was amazing and the scenery was so green and picturesque.
It is quite different from the south, and I love them both. However, for some peace and relaxation, I prefer the north.
These are the exact type of places that we love to visit! Those balconies with flowers certainly are super cute and great tip about the parking!
Such a lovely pictures!! Santillana del Mar is one of my favorite places in North Spain. Perfect place to skip the hot summer from Madrid 🙂
This town looks absolutely amazing! I’m swooning over your images!
What a beautiful heritage, balconies of ancient buildings looks amazing.
I love medieval towns –the cobblestones, the feeling that a town had kind of “frozen” in time. Lovely photos!
That first photo with all the bright-colored flowers is so lovely — one to frame for sure! I would be on the horses with the kids. What fun!
What beauty! The flower covered terraces are so lovely!
indah nuria savitri
I haven’t been there but love to come and visit…so beautiful..
What a beautiful history town to visit. Thanks for taking me there
I’m always on the lookout for a good location for my Last Home. That town looks like a good one!
Beautiful place to visit!
Amazing place!! and those flowery balconies looks beautiful. I just wish to do same with my balcony 😉 I loved reading & the beautiful flowery town.
Thank for sharing.
I like how the flowers brighten everything up and I wonder how old the crosses on the walls are?
Jim, Sydney, Australia
Looks like a beautiful place
Beautiful pictures of a beautiful site. Very nice.
I love all the balcony flowers too. Wow, they are fantastic.
Have a fabulous day. ☺
You would love this town, except for the travel involved to get here.
Those houses with the flowers…oh my! I just love traveling with you, or through you! Thanks for sharing!
L. Diane Wolfe
How gorgeous! I’d love to have plants and flowers growing all over my house like that.
Paul F. Pietrangelo
I love torture museums like this (Museo de la tortura – Inquisicion). Usually these museums are in buildings. I like this one that is outside. Sorry that you had nightmares. BOO!
Have a scary night Rhonda. See ya.
Tanja (the Red phone box travels)
love that flowery house!
Me too. It is probably one of my all time favourite shots.
Magnificent! I hope I get to explore the place in person someday.
The Cantabrian region is really beautiful, but so often skipped for the South.
I love the flower-festooned balconies! What a lovely idea. And the final pic with the orange roofs appearing in all that green is just wonderful! I think I’d bypass the torture museum, though. lol
Alex J. Cavanaugh
Like a moment of time, preserved forever. Beautiful place. I’d definitely check out the museum.
Janis & Gary
Janis & I visited Santillana del Mar last year as part of our Spanish road trip, after leaving Bilbao & heading towards Oviedo. It’s a fabulous place, full of history & charm (plus a few tourists too.) Love your post, you really capture the medieval atmosphere of the place.
I also agree with the challenges of getting into the town if you’re staying, those lanes are narrow. As we were visiting we parked just off the main road, made life much easier. I assume you tried the cider of the region? I had to wait until I was safely parked up in Oviedo, but it’s an interesting experience.
And I have to agree a photographer’s paradise.
Janis & Gary
Gorgeous shots! I just adore those flower-adorned balconies.
You’re right! This is a beautiful town. Love the landscape, houses, flowers, really lovely.
you are so right – it DOES seem a paradise for photographers. great place and great shots. I had to giggle while reading your post. 🙂
What beautiful and colourful town!
This is indeed a very colorful town. I’ve never heard about it till now. I’d love to return to Spain and visit some of these beautiful little towns.
It looks beautiful there those balconies look fantastic love the buildings, I have always liked Spain used to go regularly each year.
Have a tanfastic week and thanks for punning by
That looks brilliant. I only went on a horse once – never again, but wandering around enjoying the sights and the cafes, now that’s my style 🙂
I just feel in love with those balconies full of flowers! Such a beautiful house! I wish I could live in that mediterranean environment. You have to feel lucky to be able to get there!
I would have loved to have hopped on the horse.
I LOVE horse riding. Melissa not so much but she still laughed when her horse kept eating grass from hedges on the side of the road.
You can’t see everything, but you are doing a good job of trying!