Driving Tour of Northern Spain

The north-coast of Spain runs from the French border at Irún as far as A Coruña (La Coruña) in Galicia. This suggested driving tour of northern Spain recommends the best places to visit on the 500km journey from the Basque Country in the east to the border between Asturias and Galicia in the west. Considering the countless beautiful places to see on this route, a minimum time of two weeks is recommended for the trip.

Whilst some people will begin this journey at the Irún/Hendaye border, others will arrive by ferry in Santander or Bilbao or drive up through Central Spain or Portugal. For this reason I haven’t written the article as a “Day 1, Day 2, etc” but have instead recommended the highlights of Northern Spain on a journey travelling from east to west.

Irún/Hendaye to Hondarribia

The border between Hendaye in France and Irún in Spain is defined by the Bidasoa River. Interestingly there’s an unoccupied island called Isla de los Faisanes (Pheasant Island) which lies between the two countries who exchange sovereignty over it every six months.

A 7km drive north of Irún, passing the Airport of San Sebastian, leads to the beautiful village of Hondarribia. This is one of the most beautiful towns in the Basque Country which is centred on a historic Old Town filled with ancient Basque houses with colourful, wooden balconies. It is well-known for its excellent tapas bars and restaurants and is home to the Parador de Hondarribia, a luxury hotel which was built from the remains of the 12th century Castle of Charles V.

Hondarribia to San Sebastian

Beginning our journey west we now join the AP-8 toll road just beyond Irún and drive a total of just 23km to the beautiful city of San Sebastian. Overlooking the beaches of Playa de la Concha and Playa de Ondarreta, San Sebastian is probably best known for its gastronomic scene. The city is home to eleven Michelin-starred restaurants including the famous Restaurante Arzak which is recognised as one of the world’s top restaurants.

If the 410 Euros per person tasting menu (with wine included!) is a little over your budget you should head for the Casco Viejo and take a tapas tour of the many bars of the Old Town. In the Basque Country tapas are known as ‘pintxos’ which are all kinds of seafood, meat or vegetables served on bread with a toothpick holding it together. A glass of txakolí wine or local cider is the perfect drink to go with your pintxos.

For a short excursion outside the city it’s well worth visiting the seafaring town of Pasaia which lies just 5km to the east. This is one of one of the most picturesque villages in the Basque Country which is best known for its multicoloured houses overlooking the estuary. Time permitting this is well worth a detour on any driving tour of Northern Spain.

San Sebastian to Bilbao

Heading west out of San Sebastian along the AP-8 we drive as far as Junction 8 where we leave the toll road and head for Zumaia. This town is the gateway to 13km of spectacular coastal scenery known as the Ruta Del Flysch which is the planet’s longest set of continuous rock strata. There’s a well marked walking route from Zumaia to Deba or you can view the rock formations on boat trips from Muelle Txomin Agirre in Zumaia.

Back in the car we rejoin the AP-8 and make our way directly to the great city of Bilbao (76km) or take a detour via the town of Guernica. This town is famous for the horrendous bombing attack it suffered during the Spanish Civil War which inspired Pablo Picasso’s painting ‘Guernica’ which is currently displayed in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid.

Historically, Bilbao was an industrial city focused on the iron and steel and shipbuilding industries until their decline. Over the last 30 years the city has been completely transformed into a cosmopolitan city with a thriving tourist industry. The catalyst for this transformation in the city’s fortunes was the decision to locate the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This iconic structure overlooking the River Nervión opened its doors in 1997 and remains the city’s major tourist attraction.

Other attractions include the funicular railway up to Mount Artxanda and the Casco Viejo which is a great place to wander around some typical Basque tapas bars. An interesting site just outside the city is the Vizcaya Bridge which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A more recent addition to the local tourist trail is San Juan de Gaztelugatxe which lies 50km north-east of the city. This became famous when it appeared as Dragonstone on the TV series Game of Thrones. Just 11km further along this section of the Costa Vasca, beyond the Matxitxako lighthouse, is the picturesque fishing port of Bermeo.

Bilbao to San Vicente de la Barquera

Travelling today from the Basque Country into Cantabria we drive 30km from Bilbao by way of the AP-8 motorway to the charming port town of Castro Urdiales. It’s then a further 70km to the Cantabrian capital of Santander This lovely city overlooks the magnificent beach of El Sardinero and is home to the Palacio de la Magdalena which was built as a summer house for the Spanish Royal Family.

Whether you bring your own car or rent one, you should take a look at our Guide to Driving in Spain which gives you plenty tips on what you can expect on your road trip.

Whilst Santander certainly merits an overnight stay, I usually head 60km beyond the city and stay in San Vicente de la Barquera then explore the city on a day trip. This small fishing port lies just beyond the beautiful Playa de Oyambre and serves as an ideal base from which to discover the local area. Highlights include Comillas which is home to a villa built by Antoni Gaudí called El Capricho de Gaudí and the charming town of Santillana del Mar where you can stay in a historic parador. Nearby is the Cave of Altamira which is a a World Heritage Site.

Another outstanding excursion is the 73km drive from San Vicente de la Barquera via Potes to Fuente Dé in the Picos de Europa mountains. At the end of the road the Fuente Dé cable car is available to whisk visitors up to a height of 1,823m from where there are sensational views of the mountain range. If you fancy a night in the mountains you can stay at the Parador de Fuente Dé which stands next to the cable car entrance.

San Vicente de la Barquera to Ribadesella

Back on the road we begin the 60km drive towards Ribadesella which is one of my favourite places to stay on the north-coast. En route you should pay a visit to Llanes which is surrounded by some of Spain’s finest beaches such as Playa de Andrín, Playa de Cue and Playa de Poo. The detour from the main road to the Playa de Torimbia is well worth taking.

Ribadesella is surrounded by sea and mountains and is home to the Tito Bustillo Cave which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The charming old town is a great place to visit some sidrerías where locally produced cider is poured for you by the waiter/waitress from above their head so as to oxygenate it. These cider houses are also great places to enjoy typical Asturian cuisine.

There’s an essential day trip from Ribadesella to the beautiful Lakes of Covadonga which lie 50km inland. Highlights of the drive include the historic town of Cangas de Onis which was once the capital of the Kingdom of Asturias and the Sanctuary of Covadonga. The main sights within this complex include the Basílica de Santa María la Real de Covadonga and the Santa Cueva de Nuestra Señora de Covadonga.

This region was the site of the Battle of Covadonga where Don Pelayo defeated the Moors in 722. This important victory marked the beginning of the Christian Reconquest of Spain which would last another 770 years. A special place to stay is the Parador de Cangas de Onis which is a National Monument built from the remains of a 12th century monastery.

Ribadesella to Cudillero

Leaving Ribadesella we again take the A-8 and drive the 62km to Gijón which is the largest city in Asturias. This former industrial centre overlooks the large city beach of Playa de San Lorenzo where Spanish football coach Luis Enrique learned his trade as a child. The charming fisherman’s neighbourhood of Cimavilla is the oldest part of the city which is now a social hub filled with excellent restaurants and traditional sidrerías.

A further 30km to the west brings us to Avilés which is an industrial city with a major commercial port. It does have a charming, historic centre which lies just a short walk from the Oscar Niemeyer International Cultural Centre. This cultural centre has had a similar economic effect on Avilés as the Guggenheim had in Bilbao. This is most evident on the city’s waterfront which has been transformed into a major arts and leisure area.

Our next stop is the tiny fishing port of Cudillero which has a seafaring history dating back to the 13th century. It is a ‘must see’ on any driving tour of Northern Spain. The village lies 26km beyond Avilés and is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful seaside villages in Asturias. The multicoloured houses which surround La Plaza de la Marina and rise steeply above the harbour are what make it such a picture postcard destination.

The area is also well-known for its stunning beaches which lie along the rugged coast to the west of Cudillero. Favourites include Playa de la Concha de Artedo, Playa de Oleiros, Playa de San Pedro de La Ribera and Playa del Silencio which is possibly the most beautiful beach in Asturias.

Cudillero to Ribadeo

On this final stage of a driving tour through the highlights of Northern Spain we’ll first head for the Mirador del Sablón which lies just 11km west of town and affords unparalleled views of the Asturian coastline. Back on the main road we head for Luarca which lies 38 km west of Cudillero and is another attractive town with a seafaring tradition. A further 46km drive leads us to the final stop on this itinerary as we cross the Ría de Ribadeo into Galicia. A luxury place to stay at the end of this journey is at the Parador de Ribadeo. It provides a perfect base from which to visit Playa de las Catedrales whose rock formations are recognised as a natural monument.