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A Northern Spain road trip is the best way to see a part of the country that’s not often visited. People head to the east coast to Barcelona and Valencia instead, and the north of Spain gets neglected.
But this is a mistake.
This part of the country is beautiful and has some incredible sights and places to visit. Cities such as Bilbao and San Sebastian are beautiful, while Asturias and Galicia are renowned for their stunning scenery.
With so much to see, the best way to visit this part of Spain is to rent a car. You will be able to control your itinerary, stop when and where you want, which allow you to have a fantastic trip!
Backpacking Spain is an incredible experience, and a trip to the North of Spain is no different. This post will show you where to go, where to stay, what to do and offered a detailed itinerary for you to follow if you wish.
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
Northern Spain road trip
Quick Northern Spain Road Trip itinerary Distance – 879.3 km (546 miles) Time – 7 days Day 1 – San Sebastian to Bilbao: 101.5 km (63 miles) Day 2 – Bilbao to Santander: 99.6 km (61.8 miles) Day 3 – Santander to Gijón: 175 km (108 miles) Day 4 – Gijón to Lugo: 242 km (150.3 miles) Day 5 – Lugo to A Coruña: 98.3 km (61 miles) Day 6 – A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela: 73.4 km (45.6 miles) Day 7 – Santiago de Compostela to Vigo: 89.5 km (55.6 miles)
Spain is a deceptively big country and although it may look like a short distance, driving across the north of Spain is still a big trip.
You can do the trip at a fast pace in five days, but this would be a waste. You won’t see as much as you could, and you’ll be rushing to reach the endpoint.
My advice would be to take seven to eight days to do the trip. This way you’ll be able to take your time and see as much of this beautiful part of Spain as you can.
Before setting off
Before you do any road trips in Spain, you should have as much sorted as you can. The most important thing you need to do is to have a vehicle ready when you arrive in Spain. Most people will rent a car from the airport once they arrive.
If you live nearby in Europe, the other option is to drive your car to the Basque Country and start the trip in San Sebastian. Whatever you decide to do, there is no road trip without a car. Another thing you have to consider is whether you want to do the trip in a car or campervan.
If there are more than four of you, it may make sense to hire a campervan. The car will be very crowded otherwise. If there are less than four of you, a car should suffice.
You will be able to find places to stay in Northern Spain without any issues. This is the main benefit of staying in a campervan and the benefit of having one decreases when there are less of you on the trip.
You can book a rental car directly with companies, but my advice would be to use Rentalcars.com instead. They are a comparison website, which takes all the prices from the main rental car suppliers and gives you the best price. You can often get an upgrade free of charge when you go to pick up your car too!
Driving in Spain can be a challenge at times due to the distances involved. Driving in Northern Spain can mean large distances, but they are not too big to be daunting.
One of the most important things to remember is that you drive on the right-hand side of the road in Spain. If you’re from a country that drives on the left, like me, then it’s an important fact to remember.
If you feel tired while driving, take a break. Driving in Spain can involve long distances. You want to get to wherever you’re going quickly, but this should come at the expense of safety. Check out my road trip food ideas too, to ensure you’re full and well hydrated while you travel.
Make sure you take regular breaks when driving. You can be driving for long distances and it saps your energy the longer it goes on. Accidents can happen if you’re not careful. You should already be stopping at regular intervals anyway to check out the amazing scenery that is in Northern Spain!
Before doing any road trip, ensure that you have proper travel insurance! I use World Nomads to keep me safe on the road, it’s designed for backpackers and adventurous travellers.
Essential items to pack for a Northern Spain road trip
As well as these items, it’s important to know what to pack for Spain too. Even you’re in the north of Spain, it can still be hot during the summer and if you’re visiting in winter, you will need to be prepared for wet weather!
Don’t forget to take suncream, sunglasses and a hat to protect you from the sun. While loose-fitting clothes are ideal in the hot weather! Jackets, waterproofs and warm clothes are essential during the Autumn and winter months.
Below are a few items I recommend you take on your Northern Spain self-drive, to make the drive that little bit easier!
One of the main reasons for driving around Northern Spain is that it’s one of the most beautiful parts of Spain. A Basque Country road trip is fantastic on its own! When you include the rest of northern Spain, the trip takes on another dimension!
The stunning hills and beauty of the region make it one of the best places to go in Spain. The further you head towards Asturias and Galicia, the scenery does not get any worse.
Arguably, it gets better.
The Picos de Europa can be found in Cantabria and are a magnificent mountain range. If you’re a mountaineer, this is somewhere you don’t want to miss out on. You will find numerous trails and the highest peak in the range is 2650m, which makes it a worthwhile visit if you want to bag a few peaks.
While Galicia is one of the most interesting parts of Spain. From beautiful beaches to historic cities and towns, again, you could spend a week in Galicia visiting all the interesting places in the region.
The main reason I feel you should do this road trip is that this part of Spain is lesser-visited than the rest of the country. Most people tend to head to the coast or go on a road trip in Andalucia.
While these places are brilliant in their own right, the North of Spain is just as good if not better. There are many sights to see, lots of interesting cities and towns and the food in this part of Spain is arguably the best in the country!
Spain is a big and diverse country, the main reason you should do this road trip is to see a part of the country that you might otherwise miss.
Where to stay in Northern Spain
The good thing about a road trip in the north of Spain is that you will have no trouble finding places to stay.
One of the pluses about doing the trip in a campervan is that you won’t need to book accommodation. You can just sleep in the van. This would be a better way to travel if you want to climb mountains in the Picos de Europa mountain range.
However, if you’re not planning on going mountaineering, hiring a car is the cheaper and practical way of getting around. This means you will need to stay in hotels or hostels during your trip.
Depending on where you plan to stay, hotels in Spain can vary from cheap to expensive. Hostels are a lot cheaper and they usually have kitchens which means you can cook food, saving you money on eating out.
Bilbao, Santander and San Sebastian have lots of places to stay. you won’t have any difficulty in cities on the trip, but if you head into rural areas, accommodation can be more sparse.
An alternative to hostels or hotels is to stay in AirBnB’s or rent an apartment. This gives you more space to yourself, allows you to cook food and can work out cheaper sometimes too!
Below are a few of my recommendations for places to stay during your road trip in Northern Spain.
Bilbao is one of the best cities in Spain. Despite its past, as an industrial heartland, it has undergone a renaissance in recent times. This is encapsulated in the striking Guggenheim Museum, which sits by the river.
It is an unusual, yet beautiful building and one you can’t miss as you’re walking around the city. There are also several unique sculptures outside the museum including a giant spider and a big dog made from flowers.
Another good spot to head to is Mt Artxanda. From here, you will get a magnificent view of the city below and the surrounding area. You get to see how Bilbao is framed by the mountains and squeezed into a tiny spot.
Finally, you have to check out the local food. Basque cuisine is renowned around Spain and the world. Head into the local bars to try some of the delicacies.
San Sebastian is one of the best places to visit in Spain, not just on this road trip. It is a beautiful city located on the Bay of Biscay and a fantastic starting point for the trip.
One of the first things you should do is to head to La Concha bay. This is the main beach in the city and has spectacular views out to the sea. It’s a semi-circular beach and the rocky outcrops in the bay make it all the more beautiful.
Another place you have to head to is to Monte Igeldo on the far edge of La Concha bay. From the top, you will get a brilliant view of San Sebastian below, while there is an old amusement park at the top which is also worth checking out.
Similar to Bilbao, the food in San Sebastian is fantastic. It has the highest number of Michelin starred restaurants per square mile than any other city in the world. If fine dining is too far out of your budget, you can eat some pintxos at most of the bars around the city instead!
Santander isn’t the most well-known city in Spain, the bank which originates from the city is more famous, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to see.
The truth is that Santander is a fascinating place to visit and one of Spain’s hidden gems.
It’s located to the west of Bilbao and if you love beaches you have to stop here and check out the main beach in the city. Playa Sardinero above is a spectacular sight and the perfect place to relax on a warm summer’s day.
You can also go for a walk around the Magdalena Peninsula, which has some spectacular views. It may not be the most well-known city in Spain, but you should not miss out on it during this road trip!
Gijón is the largest city in Asturias and like San Sebastian and Santander, it is located on the Bay of Biscay. It’s an interesting place and despite not being the biggest city, there is a lot to do here.
One place you have to check out is Cimavilla, which was once home to the local fishing community. you will find lots of small houses packed into the sloped streets. Strolling through the streets with the narrow alleys and colourful buildings is a must when in Gijón.
Gijón is home to the ruins of Roman Baths too. A visit is well worth it, you’ll be able to see the Cold and hot rooms as well as the underground heating system. Considering they were built in the 2nd to 1st century BC, it’s amazing the Romans were able to construct something so ingenious!
If you visit Gijón during the summer, you can head one of the numerous beaches in the city. Playa de San Lorenzo is one of the best and offers spectacular views into the Bay of Biscay!
Santiago de Compostela
The capital of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, is a city teeming with history. It is the endpoint of the famous pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago, which sees pilgrims make their way to the beautiful cathedral in Santiago.
The cathedral has a shrine to the apostle St James the Great and is a popular tourist attraction.
Galicia is one of the more interesting parts of Spain, as it has a varied history. You have lots of religious significance in the region, but also a Celtic heritage too!
Santiago is a beautiful city and you will find lots of stuff to do here such as visit Praza do Obradoiro and check out the Monastery of San Martiño Pinario. It’s an essential stop when driving in Northern Spain.
Things to do on a Northern Spain road trip
If you love mountains and climbing them, this road trip through Northern Spain is one you should consider doing.
The Picos de Europa mountain range that lies in the heart of Northern Spain is the perfect place to go and climb a few mountains. These are proper mountains, with a lot of them topping out at over 2,000m.
If mountains aren’t your thing, you will find plenty of excellent hikes in Galicia. One is the Lighthouse Way which connects fisherman’s ways and farm tracks. It’s a 124-mile track, but you can walk a portion of it, or all of it if you’re that way inclined.
Whether you love climbing mountains or just walking in the wondrous outdoors, you will find lots of both while driving around Northern Spain!
This may seem like an odd thing to do while you’re on a road trip, but there is a method to my madness.
Here’s the thing:
The food in this part of Spain, the Basque Country, in particular, is arguably the best in the country. The array of delicacies and dishes you can try is mindboggling. It would be crazy not to sample it while you’re there.
The best place to do a food tour is either in Bilbao or San Sebastian. These two cities are renowned for their food, in particular, Pintxos. While San Sebastian is home to several Michelin starred restaurants.
Food is a window into the soul of a region and it’s no different in the North of Spain. A food tour is a great way to experience local culture and try some outstanding food at the same time!
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Example Northern Spain road trip itinerary
Day 1 – San Sebastian to Bilbao
Distance: 101.5 km (63 miles) | Time without stops: 1 hour 12 minutes
The first of the road trip is an easy drive from San Sebastian to Bilbao. If you want, you can do the drive quickly in just over an hour.
This is a good idea if you’re desperate to get to Bilbao, or you want to spend longer in San Sebastian. The short drive even means you could spend the morning and part of the afternoon in San Sebastian before heading to Bilbao for the rest of the day.
This is your best bet at an itinerary for the day. You can stop at Eibar or Durango along the way, the latter is close to the Urkiola Nature Park, which is a nice spot, otherwise, it’s better to head to Bilbao or stay in San Sebastian.
If you’re doing the drive during the summer, I would stay in San Sebastian longer. You’ll be able to relax at the beaches in the city and bask in your surroundings. Then you can spend the evening in Bilbao sampling the amazing food and checking out the stunning Guggenheim Museum.
Day 2 – Bilbao to Santander
Distance: 99.6 km (61.8 miles) | Time without stops: 1 hour 14 minutes
The second part of the trip from Bilbao to Santander is another short drive. It clocks in at an hour and a bit, which gives you the same option as the previous day.
You can either spend half the day in Bilbao and half in Santander or longer in one of the two cities. It’s up to you which you prefer. They’re both great cities and you will find lots in Bilbao and Santander.
The good thing about the drive is that it’s a scenic one. You will hug the coastline as you make your from the Basque Country into Cantabria.
Make sure you stop at a few places before you reach Laredo and the road heads inland. You don’t want to miss the beautiful views you can experience along the way!
Day 3 – Santander to Gijón
Distance: 175 km (108 miles) | Time without stops: 1 hour 49 minutes
This is the longest drive of the trip so far, coming in at just under 2 hours. The drive from Santander to Gijón takes you through the Picos de Europa mountain range, which is spectacular.
If you’re a mountaineer, this is ideal territory for you. It may be worth spending a few days here to climb a mountain or two.
Even if you’re not a fan of climbing mountains, I still recommend you stop off at the Picos for a bit. It’s a spectacular place and you can do a few walking trails instead of climbing the mountains to get a feel for the place.
Another place you should stop is at San Vicente de la Barquera, a small town at the foot of the mountains. It’s a lovely place and you’ll be able to get a good deal on food if you stop here for lunch.
Day 4 – Gijón to Lugo
Distance: 242 km (150.3 miles) | Time without stops: 2 hours 22 minutes
This is the longest leg of the trip as you drive for roughly two and a half hours from Gijón to the Galician city of Lugo.
It’s another scenic drive as you hug the Asturian coastline before heading inland towards Galicia. Before you leave Gijón I would explore the city a bit.
Gijón is a beautiful place, it’s a shame to drop in and then leave straight away. Check out the Roman baths for a shot of history before you set off.
You have a few spots to stop at along the coast which provides epic views. Once you get inland, I recommend you head straight to Lugo and spend some time there.
The city has a lot to see and like most places in Spain, is full of history. The towering Roman walls are a sight to behold and the cathedral is an impressive sight too!
Day 5 – Lugo to A Coruña
Distance: 98.3 km (61 miles) | Time without stops: 1 hour 4 minutes
The drive from Lugo to A Coruña comes in at just over one hour. It’s a short drive from the interior of Galicia to the coast.
You have two options. either you can spend more time in Lugo, or head to A Coruña for the majority of the day. My advice would be to spend as much of the day in A Coruña as you can.
It’s a beautiful city that has great food and a lot of interesting places to see. One of which is the Tower of Hercules, which is an ancient Roman lighthouse still in use today!
You will get fantastic views of the Spanish North Atlantic coast from the hill the lighthouse perches on and there is a park in the area to check out as well.
If you’re travelling during the summer, you can check out the Riazor beach, which is a lovely spot. It’s an underrated part of Spain that you will thoroughly enjoy.
Day 6 – A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela
Distance: 73.4 km (45.6 miles) | Time without stops: 53 minutes
This is the shortest of the road trip coming in at just under an hour. With such a short drive, you can either spend more time in A Coruña or head to Santiago de Compostela first thing.
There isn’t an awful lot to see along the way, especially on such a short drive, so you want to make the most of your time in Santiago.
You will find lots of things to do in the city. Primary among them is visiting the cathedral, which is the endpoint of the Camino de Santiago and home to a shrine to the apostle St James.
As well as the cathedral, you can check out the amazing architecture in the city and find some incredible Galician cuisine which you should try before you leave!
Day 7 – Santiago de Compostela to Vigo
Distance: 89.5 km (55.6 miles) | Time without stops: 1 hour 5 minutes
The final leg of the trip sees you drive slightly over an hour from Santiago de Compostela to reach Vigo.
While this may be an issue for parking, it means you can explore the city with ease and without the smell of fumes or the noise that accompanies cars!
Once you get to Vigo, you will find there is no shortage of things to do. Casco Vello is the old town and worth taking a stroll around to get a feel for what life in Vigo was like in the past.
You can also head to Playa de Samíl if you’re travelling in the summer and relax at this lovely beach, while you enjoy the sunshine!
How much does a Northern Spain road trip cost?
One of the things you can’t avoid on a road trip is spending money. From fuel to food and accommodation, you will be spending money every day.
A benefit of doing a road trip in Spain is that the country is one of the cheapest in Europe. Fuel is a lot cheaper than in places such as the Netherlands or Germany, while you can eat cheaply too.
If you’re doing the trip in a campervan, you won’t need to worry about accommodation. However, you should only do the trip in a campervan if you’re in a group of four or more people. Otherwise, the cost of renting a campervan doesn’t work out compared to what you would be paying staying in hostels.
Here’s a link to a fuel cost calculator, which should come in handy for your trip. Using the fuel price data from a Google search for “petrol prices Spain”, input the figure into the calculator and you’re set.
I got a quote of €1.21 per litre driving the distance in a car with average fuel consumption of 5.7 litres per 100km. This led to a total of $52.76 for the trip. Considering the distance covered, that is a very reasonable price!
Even for one or two people that is a reasonable expense. Factor in the cost of renting a car a day, which is around €60, food and drink and any tours/activities you decide to do and the trip could come to around €200 per person for the whole trip.
This offers great value considering how many places you get to see along the way. Driving around Northern Spain is an excellent idea if you want a cheap holiday in Europe that will allow you to see many different and beautiful places!
A road trip through Northern Spain is a fantastic experience. You will get to see a different side to many and visited places that are often neglected by tourists.
Have you been on a road trip around Northern Spain? Did you do a similar itinerary to mine? Is there anything I have missed out?
Leave me a comment below and let me know your thoughts!
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