My first time in Spain, I travelled the south and the Mediterranean coast — Seville, Valencia, Barcelona, Madrid. It was all so beautiful! I fell in love with the food, the weather, the beaches, the architecture, and the history. Spain is gorgeous! That being said, there is a lot more to Spain than the south. In fact, the north of Spain has some of the most breathtaking landscapes I have seen. The north is stunning, and I would argue wildly underrated (and under-visited).
In 2017 I spent two months driving along the north cost of Spain in a van named Vinnie. We drove into Spain along the west coast of France, and drove next to the ocean (almost) the entire way through to Portugal! Along the way, I discovered that the north of Spain is amazing; breathtaking landscapes, beautiful architecture, and rich cultures.
Here are ten things to do in the north of Spain:
1. Hike through the Picos de Europa
The Picos de Europa is a super stunning mountain range in the north of Spain. The mountains here are perfect for hiking, bicycling, climbing, and more! The roads are beautiful to drive, the scenery is out of this world, and what better way to see a country than from the top of a mountain? We did a few different hikes while we were in the Picos de Europa. We did an easy day along the Ruta del Cares, a quick hike up to Bulnes, and a bigger hike up to the summit of Torre de los Horcados Rojos near Fuente Dé. We also did a via ferrata, which was a totally killer experience.
2. Wander the streets of old Bilbao
Bilbao is the capital of the Basque country. It is the home of beautiful architecture, great shopping, and delicious food. Home also, to the infamous Guggenheim museum. What? But I thought that was in New York? Yes! So did I! Turns out there is a Guggenheim in Bilbao too, and I might argue the architecture of the Spanish Guggenheim outshines that of New York (sorry to offend the beehive fans). There is much to do in Bilbao, wander around the shopping district of Indautxu, drink a tinto de verano while sitting along the too-cool street, Erronda Kalea, or just sit on any bench by the river and watch the people go by.
3. Eat Pintxos and drink wine in Logroño
Logroño is the capital of the La Rioja wine region in the north of Spain. La Rioja is home to wineries that export their wine so far and wide, that I can buy a bottle in the local wine shop in my hometown of Calgary, AB, Canada. There are some big wineries here. Which means, there are lots of people, and lots of good food. Take an evening to stroll down the street of Calle San Juan and try a pintxo (pronounced peen-cho) from each place. Pintxos are tapas in the Basque language. Start at Bar Angel with a tower of garlic mushrooms and a glass of red, and at each place order a pintxo and a wine, pintxo and a wine. Then you’re doing it like a local!
4. Bicycle the wineries of Rioja
As I mentioned, La Rioja is home to some big, beautiful wineries. There are plenty of small wineries too! Sure, you can go winery hopping by car, but what fun could that be for your sad friend who has to drive? Bicycle is the only way to get around wineries. Now, a disclaimer: some of the wineries are on top of hills, some wineries are far away from each other, we planned our route accordingly — knowing that we would have a few glasses of wine at each place, and add weight to our backpacks with the bottles purchased. We rented bicycles from Navarent (their website here), and went to as many wineries as we could in half a day. Seven tasters and five bottles of wine later, we called it a successful day!
(More tips and tricks about Rioja and wineries here).
5. Take a nature walk by the Rio Urederra
As much as I love eating decadent food and drinking delicious wine, I feel like I can’t really get to know a place if this is my only activity. Just an hour outside of Logroño snakes one of the most beautiful places I think I have ever been, the Rio Urederra, or “The River of Beautiful Water.” This place is a magical getaway from the crowds, the bustling of the towns and villages, and the perfect place to spend a day. The walk is easy and takes about 3 hours, maybe more because if you’re like me, you will want to stop at every lookout point to take pictures.
(For more information about the Rio Urederra, read this!)
6. Challenge yourself with a surf
The north of Spain has some of the best surf in the world! Mundaka is home to a big, sandy, consistent wave, Bakio has multiple surf schools, and Loredo has a totally HUGE beach. Surfing may not be your strong point; it isn’t mine (though I did try river surfing in Canada and didn’t make a total fool of myself), but when mother nature presents you with some of the best beginner surf in the world, you kind of have to give it a go! Plus, I wanted a good picture of me wearing a wetsuit and holding a surfboard. In almost every village and town along the north and west coasts, you can find surf schools. Some, you can stay at for a week and take lessons, and some offer one day at a time. You will, most likely, stand up on your first day. Make sure someone has a camera ready, because you’ll be back down really quick.
7. Eat the octopus in Galicia
If there is one thing I know about Galicians, it’s that they know how to prepare octopus. Salt, pepper, paprika, and oil, grilled to perfection, and served with fresh bread. It is a definite must try! We shared a big plate in Razo, on the west coast, and the octopus was delicious. It is a really rich flavour, so I suggest ordering just one plate to share.
8. See a zebra at the Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabárceno
This wildlife park and natural reserve is built in a reclaimed mine, and unlike an ordinary zoo, gives the animals SO much room to roam. It is really beautiful. For the entrance fee of €23 (which kind of broke our daily budget), you can enter the park, drive the entire way around to see the animals, and, if you choose, take the gondolas to have a bird’s eye view of the entire park! We saw so many animals. The day we went was a bit cloudy, definitely sweater weather, and it wasn’t nearly as busy as I imagine a beautiful summer day would be. We had the gondola to ourselves!
9. Wander through a prehistoric cave
The cave of El Castillo is a cave boasting prehistoric art. Man, these caves are cool. I love wandering through and imagining the human that painted the art we are looking at. El Castillo is a great cave to see. You can go through the actual cave! The tours are only in Spanish, but our guide was able to explain a bit in English. It only costs €3 to enter!
The other cave we went to is the Cave of Altamira. This also costs €3 to enter, but is just a replica of the real thing. It is still very cool to see the art and learn about the mysterious people who painted it. On Friday mornings at 10:30am, there is a lottery and the five winners get to go into the real cave! We tried our luck and didn’t win, but maybe you’ll be luckier!
10. Drink cider in Gijón
Spain isn’t all sangrias and tinto de verano. In the northern beach city of Gijón, cider is the drink of choice. All throughout downtown are siderias, special bars that serve only cider (and food of course). It is brewed naturally and so has no carbonation. Because of this, the cider is always poured in the glass from arms length to create bubbles, and is consumed immediately while the cider is still frothy. We had no idea this was the thing. We just thought the bartender at the first sideria we went was an absolute maniac. Until we went to the next sideria, and the server poured our cider the same way.
Looking for more things to do in Spain?