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Get Bewitched in Northern Spain

With optimal weather, the north of Spain is the best place to visit in autumn.

With few exceptions, the best time of year to visit northern Spain and the rest of the northern hemisphere is October. Parents, if you have school-aged children, sorry. Autumn brings the best weather, street lighting, and vibe. That’s what you want when you’re on vacation. Wait times to experience popular attractions are shorter, no unruly schoolchildren are running around you, and it’s sweater weather—who doesn’t love sweater weather? 

Just after barely becoming vegan, my wife and I took a two-week road trip to northern Spain. Spain is the land of cured meats, hearty meat and bean stews, seafood rice dishes, tapas, and pintxos. However, Spain has one of Europe’s best selections of fresh fruits and vegetables; many restaurants offer an immense plate of grilled vegetables.

Our trip to northern Spain was indeed memorable. We still discuss, recommend, and revisit it through the hundreds of images captured along the way. 

Get lost road-tripping, enjoying new food, tasting delicious wine, and discovering beautiful scenery. Pueblando (from village to village) through the north resembles a scenic drive on Califoria’s Pacific Coast Highway. The bridges connecting the mountains in Spain are the perfect foreground for a gorgeous and panoramic landscape. The rocky hillsides and ferocious ocean waters are what remind me of California. But northern Spain also has the old-world charm of medieval structures. Knowing that some of these cities have existed since the first century B.C. gives the region more allure.

Spain is rich in culture and steeped in tradition. Nowhere is this more evident than in the usage and teaching of their regional languages. Including the Spanish language or Castellano, Spain is home to five regional languages: Aranese, Basque, Catalan, Galician, and Spanish. Of course, not all Spaniards speak all five languages. Depending on the region, most locals speak Castellano and their home region’s language. You’ll notice these languages everywhere in Spain, especially on street signs. So it might be difficult at first to decipher where you are because some of these languages don’t seem like Spanish—but they all are.

Of the 17 autonomous communities or regions in Spain, we drove through the four that are in the north and to the west of the French border, dividing our time in each: Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and País Vasco (Basque Country), where my ancestry lies.

Madrid

Madrid is right in the center of the country, making it the perfect hub for travel throughout the entire country. It’s also a desired destination. With many daily flights, your best bet is to fly into Madrid and arrange transportation for the road trip to northern Spain after you’ve enjoyed a few days in Madrid. If traveling from the Americas, stay in Madrid for a few days to taper your jetlag.

Madrid is a spectacular place to experience culture, ornate architecture, delectable cuisine, accessible transportation, and rich history. It’s a city you can return to often, so don’t fret if you only have a few days before or after you set out on your journey. Here’s a link to a post on things to do and see, especially if you’re using your time in Madrid as bookends as we did.

Burgos

Burgos Gothic Cathedral in North Spain in northern Spain
Gothic Cathedral, Burgos

We rented a hybrid SUV crossover. It’s the perfect car for a party of four. Everything fit sublimely in its spacious trunk. To break up the four-and-a-half-hour drive to the Basque Country, we stopped in Burgos for lunch and toured its historic and charming city center.

This is where the morcilla de Burgos originated. Morcilla is a blood sausage made with pork blood, pork fat, rice, onions, and salt. Yep… tell me about it—and don’t ask how it’s made. Lunch in Burgos for this vegan was a side salad and pimentones, or pimento peppers. It was good, but not the most filling meal I’ve had.

Because of its appeal as a historic city with medieval architecture, Burgos is well worth a stop and even a couple nights’ stay with its tiny Plaza Mayor and other interesting historical points of interest. We wandered around in the ancient Gothic Cathedral, which, coming from someone, not into churches, is architecturally remarkable and worth an hour of your time. The church is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

San Sebastian

On the coast of northern Spain, San Sebastian has two charming, clam-shaped beaches. It also hosts internationally renowned events like the San Sebastian International Film Festival. The film festival is held annually at the Kursaal Centre Convention Center. In 2020, the Centre premiered the Woody Allen film Rifkin’s Festival. The movie takes you through ten of San Sebastian’s famous points of interest. There’s more to San Sebastian than just those ten, though.

It’s important to note that staying in the middle of the hustle and bustle is key. Looking at a map, our hotel seemed close to the city center.  However, because San Sebastian is hilly, it was, at best, a 28-minute walk to the edge of the historic district. This got tiresome, especially when we were caught late at night on the other side of the city bridge. You’ll get lost in its magnetism at the historic center. That’s also where most of the points of interest are located, which is true for most European cities.

Of course, the beach is the most popular point of interest in San Sebastian. Shaped like half moons, three beaches cup la Bahía de La Concha (La Concha Bay): Ondarretako Hondartza, Ondarreta Beach, and Kontxa Hondartza. Kudos to the visionaries who carved out this city and paved a pedestrian path that borders almost the entire old town with a seemingly interminable promenade. 

A stroll along this promenade is refreshing. It will lead you to the ornate and architecturally stunning Donostiako Udala (City Hall). An adorable playground and Carrousel de San Sebastian are across city hall. From there, traipse through the historic center’s pedestrian-only streets to catch the picturesque charm that is San Sebastian. It’s also a cyclist-friendly city, with bike rental stations throughout the bustling historic district. 

If you keep walking along the promenade, you’ll get to the main port. Mount Urgull will enchant you every step of the way because it’s the backdrop to this port. Perched on top of the hill is Motako Gaztelua, a medieval castle. Federico Coullaut’s statue of el Cristo de la Mota protects it. On a clear day, the views are stupendous, and you can glimpse the statue from as far as four miles away.

Before walking around the mount, though, hang a right on Portu Kalea and go to Calle Mayor. Look to your left, but be careful not to get swallowed up by Koruko Andre Mariaren Basilika (Basílica of Santa María), a historic 18th-century Baroque Catholic Church that hovers over the street.

From the city center, there are two bridges, the Kursaal and the Santa Catalina, which take you across to the surfer’s beach, Zurriolako Hondartza. Exciting things are happening on both sides of these bridges. It’s a breeze to get through, even on the busiest streets. Be sure to use their well-marked bicycle and walking paths. Both sides offer a variety of retail shops, restaurants, and bars.

Also noteworthy is San Sebastian’s proximity to France. It’s a 30-minute drive to Hodarribia, Spain, where you can cross the border into France without a problem.

Hondarribia

This small city gets a tick on my list for the destination with the most charming building facades and its scenic adjacency to the coast. This part of Spain is reminiscent of German fables and fairy tales, with its white and decorative wood-framed houses. The enclave is also pedestrian-friendly. Let it seduce you into at least an overnight stay.

Bilbao

Bilbao also gets a special mention on this list. When we go back to the north, I’d love to stay for at least two nights. We stayed in Bilbao overnight to rest before the long drive to Oviedo. We didn’t feel that it merited a longer stay at the time—we were mistaken. Bilbao is a fusion of the old and the new—it’s fashionably medieval. 

Bilbao is also home to the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, built beside Puente La Salve—a modern marvel on its own. Walking from our hotel to the museum, we were awed by this monstrosity. It deserves your full attention.

Guggenheim Bilbao Museum North Spain
Guggenheim Bilbao Museum

Also interesting are Las Meninas de Bilbao (ladies-in-waiting) by sculptor Manolo Valdés. The sculptures are an art installation from 2008, located on the pedestrian-only street of Calle Ercilla. Diego Velázquez’s painting, Las Meninas inspired these three individual bronze sculptures. If you saunter northeast along Ercilla, you’ll come to Bilbao’s version of a traffic circle (an ellipse) constructed in 1876. Federico Moyua Enparantza, with its paved footpaths, gardens, and circular fountain at the center, is nothing short of beguiling. It’s a diverting way to break up a city center tour, which can be daunting here.

Bilbao’s cuisine is also quite delectable, with more of an international flair in its flavor than most other Spanish cities. I had a bevy of fresh vegetables at my fingertips. There are hundreds of restaurants and bars in the city center alone, so finding something to eat is effortless.

Oviedo, northern Spain’s largest city

Sidra pour in Oviedo. Northern Spain
Serving Sidra table side

Just south of the coast, Oviedo is the capital of Asturias, and, fun fact: it’s where Woody Allen resides with his wife, who was once his daughter. He’s revered in the city with a bronze statue to boot. Sidra (cidre) is Austurias’s thing. You’ll find the restaurants and bars lining Calle Gascona serving up their freshest batch. Holding the bottle above their shoulder, the waitstaff pours the cold gold liquid into a glass in their opposite hand positioned way below their waist. This is the ancient method of oxygenizing the cidre, giving it bubbles.

Parrilladas (grilled and smoked) are also very popular in Asturias. I ate the best in this part of northern Spain. With an abundance of grilled vegetables on offer, it’s where I discovered las setas or oyster mushrooms. When grilled, they have a meaty, hearty taste.

Oviedo has an artsy vibe, too. It has a network of pedestrian-only sidewalks and walkways from Calle Uria to Calle San Francisco, with an adjacent park. This area is rich with public art displays—it’s where the bronze Woody Allen lives. For a detailed map of the sculptures, here’s a great reference.

Bronze statue of Woody Allen in Oviedo in northern Spain
The bronze Woody Allen

If you’re confused about the date, head to Campo de San Francisco Park—which also has a collection of art sculptures, including the Argentinian cartoon character Mafalda. Every day, the park’s groundskeepers sculpt out the day’s date into a grassy work of art. 

Day-tripping in northern Spain: Gijón & Avilés

If you’re into day trips, check out Gijón and Avilé. I’d have loved to explore Avilés more, but you can see most of the city center in a few hours. Both cities are about a 30-minute drive from Oviedo. Gijón is to the east of Oviedo, and Avilés is to the west.

Their historic centers complement the more modern streets and grand boulevards leading into the ports—the real draw in both cities. The colorful boats and yachts are inspiring. And since this is still Asturias, they both have plenty of gastro pubs serving fresh sidra.

It’s about preference for these two. Gijón is modern, with a small historic city center, whereas Avilés has a slightly larger historic center with wide pedestrian-only boulevards. These cities are charming, and I recommend both, but preferably not on the same day.

Northern Spain’s Highway along the Coast

Praia das Catedrais in northern Spain
Praia das Catedrais

Our drive west to Galicia took us longer because we stopped in a few villages along the way. We drove the local roads instead of the faster interstate highway to experience the charming coastal towns heading toward Praia das Catedrais (Cathedrals Beach). 

I’m sure you’ve seen something similar if you’ve ever been to the Mexican or Italian coast. It’s a landmark beach on the north shore, featuring unique rock arches and caves, but they can only be appreciated at low tide. This is where good planning skills come into play. To see this gorgeous landscape, you must time it precisely to arrive at or during low tide, just before the high tide engulfs these magnificent structures. Trust me, you’ll want to walk through these amazing geological wonders.

Santiago de Compostela: northern Spain’s mystic city

Mile Marker for Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain
The marker indicates a nearby hostel or accommodations for pilgrims making the trek to Santiago de Compostela in the north of Spain

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not religious, spiritual, or even taken in by the supernatural. I like to think of my brain as a creative muscle wrapped in the protection of science. Santiago de Compostela has an undeniable mystical draw that even my facts-based belief system has difficulty understanding. Maybe the constant moisture surrounding that area of northern Spain, with an average yearly rainfall of 70 inches, is to blame. Who knows? The wettest months are October through January, and since we got there right on October 13, there’s no wonder why it seemed transcendental. The misty atmosphere, moss-covered buildings, and fresh dew wafting about hit the senses until everything turns foggy. After a few days of all that mist, it’s bewitching.

Galicia, which covers the west corner of northern Spain, gets its name from the early Celtic people who lived there, so it’s easy to notice the similarities between the Galicians and the Irish. The architecture, folklore, and trinkets sold in souvenir shops show off the Celtic influence. The pubs offer Guinness beer on tap, and most are Irish.

Aside from the weather, there is another reason why this ancient Roman city may feel so mysterious. Santiago de Compostela is the last stop on an arduous journey known as El Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James). The purpose of the pilgrimage, for religious and secular people alike, is to pay homage to the resting place of one of Jesus’s apostles, Saint James the Great (Santiago). For some, the journey is a spiritual pilgrimage. For others, it’s another notch on their travel belt, proving to themselves they could finish the trek since “the Way” is usually made on foot. During our stay in Santiago, we met some of the pilgrims. Some made the journey on a road bike; not everyone walked.

Whatever the reason for your pilgrimage, though, there are several different “Ways” to get to Santiago de Compostela. A clam-clad mile marker guides the pilgrims along each route. This clam has become the official symbol of the pilgrimage. It’s akin to the pride flag sticker on a shop window, denoting an LGBTQ+ safe zone.

The clam symbol serves the same purpose since early Christians were persecuted in the years after Jesus’s death. Some of these markers have a capital A on them, denoting a pilgrim hostel or accommodations nearby.

It’s a fascinating feature of European history. From Santiago de Compostela, we took a day trip to A Coruña, a lovely port town. We did a little sightseeing and had lunch in their Plaza Mayor. A Coruña has its pull, being the most populated city in Galicia, but it’s definitely not as wet as Santiago.

Salamanca

Here’s a college town I think everyone will love—I know I did! Complete with Roman ruins, the oldest university in Spain, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, Salamanca is home to exciting relics, although not technically in northern Spain. We were treated to La Feria del Libro (book fair) in their Plaza Mayor while we were there. If you’re bookish like me, this annual event is right up your alley.

The university is open for anyone to walk about; Salamanca’s primary traffic comes from students and visitors. The university specializes in immersive study of the Spanish languages—it’s said that the purest Spanish, or Castellano, is spoken in this area. Because the fall semester starts in September, our three days in Salamanca coincided with the university’s rush week.

I recommend getting lost within the walls of the Old City. Its Plaza Mayor is one of the biggest I’ve been to in Spain. This baroque-style plaza is a rich, sandy clay color with ornately intricate details throughout its four stories. The Roman bridge is also a relic you don’t want to miss. This city dates back to the 13th century, but modern life is woven into its medieval façade.

Visit my travel page for more of my favorite places.

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