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cathedral of santiago de compostela in northern spain

8 of the best places to see in Northern Spain

Dec 09, 2022 by Alejandro López

Visit Northern Spain for the first time, and you might ask yourself: Am I still in the same country? And we wouldn’t blame you! Rocky shores and rolling green mountains replace sun-kissed beaches. Moorish influence gives way to reveal Celtic roots, and in some spots, you’re just as likely to hear Galego (Galician) or Euskera (Basque) as you are Spanish. Wonderful as our other top-rated itineraries in Spain are, there’s nothing quite like it.

Sound daunting? Tranquilo. From cultured Bilbao to sleepy Santillana del Mar, we’ve curated a list of eight of the best places to visit in Northern Spain. Once you’ve found some itinerary inspiration, give our Spain tours a look—or book your place on our brand-new Northern Spain: Basque Country to Madrid tour.

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1. Bilbao

As recently as the 1990s, the Basque city of Bilbao was better known to ironworkers and fisherfolk than tourists—not that a first-time visitor to Northern Spain would know. Extensive urban renewal projects have transformed this once-industrial port into a cultural powerhouse. Headlined by the world-famous Guggenheim Museum, we consider Bilbao one of the best places to visit in Northern Spain.

How to spend three days in Bilbao

  • Follow the winding Nervión River, popping into attractions like the Guggenheim, the maritime Itsasmuseum, and others you won’t find in any other city in Northern Spain.
  • Hit the medieval alleys of Casco Viejo—the city’s historic quarter—and make your way to the centuries-old Church of San Antón and Santiago Cathedral.
  • Head to San Mamés Stadium, the 53,000-seat home of Athletic Bilbao—a professional team known for its policy of only fielding players of Basque descent.

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2. San Sebastián

San Sebastián (or Donostia, as the Basque call it) might be roughly half the size of neighboring Bilbao, but we’d recommend spending the same amount of time there. Why? The food’s a must-add to any Spain bucket list. Some call this city in Northern Spain the culinary capital of the nation, and with more Michelin-starred restaurants per square meter than any other town in Europe, we’re inclined to agree.

How to spend three days in San Sebastián

  • Lounge on Playa de la Concha, then amble through the old town on your way to Plaza de la Constitución.
  • Work through your gastronomical map of Northern Spain. Pop into a pintxo bar for skewered Basque-style tapas and enjoy them with wine and beer.
  • Reserve a table at Arzak or Akelarre—two restaurants that boast three coveted Michelin stars.

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3. La Rioja

Nestled beneath the Basque Country, La Rioja might just rank as the most famous of Northern Spain’s regions, and it has one exquisite export to thank. Rioja wine comes from a DOCa (denomination of qualified origin) growing area—one of only two nationwide to earn this designation—and that quality shows in popular varietals like tempranillo and garnacha blanca.

How to spend a day in La Rioja

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4. Santander

The latest addition to our list of destinations, the coastal capital of Cantabria slightly differs from the other cities in Northern Spain we’ve called out. In 1941, a devastating fire ripped through Santander, charring most of its old town and sparking a significant rebuild. However, what it lacks in historic charm, it more than makes up for with naturally good looks: You can find seaside parks, rugged rock formations (like the Puente del Diablo—the Devil’s Bridge), and various lookouts across one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. And remember what we said about beaches? You’re in for a treat!

How to spend two days in Santander

  • Walk from the former royal residence at El Palacio de la Magdalena to El Sardinero and sunbathe on the beach’s crescent-shaped shore.
  • Stroll through Plaza Porticada before admiring modern art exhibitions inside the futuristic Centro Botín.
  • Visit more of Santander’s beaches on our Northern Spain: Basque Country to Madrid tour. (If you’d rather hike across lush limestone mountains, book the Picos de Europa excursion.)

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5. Santillana del Mar

Just over 1,000 people call one of the most beautiful towns in Spain home. A hamlet that clocks in at six blocks long, Santillana del Mar traces its roots back to a ninth-century monastery. Cobbled roads and rough-cut stone houses transport visitors across the ages, illustrating just why the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre dubbed it the prettiest village in Spain.

How to spend a day in Santillana del Mar

  • Enter the Cave of Altamira UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first place modern man discovered Paleolithic cave art.
  • Pay a visit to the Romanesque Collegiate Church and Cloister of Santa Juliana.

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6. Oviedo

The “cradle of Spain,” proud Asturias was one of the few Iberian provinces to avoid full Moorish rule. In fact, a local nobleman, Pelayo, touched off the Reconquista (Reconquest) with a victory at the Battle of Covadonga in 718. Less than 50 years later, a pair of monks established Oviedo, the future capital of this Northern Spanish region.

How to spend two days in Oviedo

  • For a glimpse back at the early days of Northern Spain, be sure to visit Oviedo Cathedral and San Julián de los Prados—a pair of UNESCO-listed churches that date back to the eighth and ninth centuries, respectively.
  • Scale Monte Naranco for a close-up of the 100-foot-tall Monumento al Sagrado Corazón before heading back to town for a pint of cider.
  • Did we mention the cider? Asturias is famous for the brew. Enjoy a glass alongside traditional and local dishes at any number of sidrerías (cideries).

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7. Lugo

By now, you’ve probably realized that the best places to see in Northern Spain offer heaping helpings of history—but the Roman walls of Lugo stand in a class all their own. Shooting close to 40 feet above the city’s old town, this third-century structure runs for close to 7,000 feet, completely encircling the medieval quarter and making it one of the prettiest cities in Spain.

How to spend a day in Lugo

  • Climb up those UNESCO-recognized walls and plot your route through old Lugo to reach the Ponte Vella—yet another indicator of the town’s Roman past.

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8. Santiago de Compostela

Towering above Praza do Obradoiro, the ornate façade of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is one of the most iconic sights in all of Northern Spain. Look beyond the throngs of pilgrims, though, and you’ll discover a culture unlike any other in the country. More than any of Northern Spain’s regions, Galicia’s inextricably tied to the ocean. Even in its landlocked capital, the seafood makes a worthy addition to our ultimate food and wine guide of Spain.

How to spend three days in Santiago de Compostela

  • Marvel at the town’s famous cathedral, then find a place to order a plate of pulpo a la Gallega: tender, cooked octopus generously seasoned with olive oil, salt, and paprika.
  • Take a drive along the treacherous Costa da Morte, the “Coast of Death” responsible for more than its fair share of shipwrecks over the decades.
  • Want to plan a day trip to other cities in Northern Spain? Consider A Coruña—home to the Torre de Hércules, the oldest lighthouse on the planet—and Fisterra, once considered the end of the world.

Ready to go? Let’s plan your perfect tour of Northern Spain →


About the author | Alejandro López
Alejandro thinks some of life’s enduring moments begin with travel—whether that’s slurping water from a falling brook on the Schlossberg in Freiburg, Germany, or taking silly Polaroid selfies with his wife on a six-hour train to Budapest. Beyond the keyboard, he loves a lunch-break soccer game; at home, he enjoys throwing on some lo-fi beats and cuddling with his six-year-old Wheaten Terrier, Piper.

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