A good many travelers to Spain start their visit to this Iberian Peninsula country in Madrid. Then they’re likely to head south where the climate is more temperate to see historic Moorish castles or east to Barcelona or Valencia. They don’t realize what they’re missing by ignoring northern Spain. Well-preserved medieval villages, picturesque wine regions, the beautiful Bay of Biscay coastline, Basque country and more are just waiting to be explored.
Picos de Europa National Park is Spain’s first national park, founded in 1918 when it was known as Montana de Covadonga National Park; its name was changed in 1995. The park’s high mountains and deep ravines appeal to hikers, who need to be alert for deep fog banks. Snow is possible year ‘round. This biosphere reserve also boasts forests, oak groves and four rivers. Non-hikers may want to ride the Fuentede cable car that reaches more than a mile above sea level, providing stunning views of the park.
The beaches of Santander are the main attractions of this port city on the Bay of Biscay. With its wide stretch of golden sand, the long curving arc of the Playa el Sardinero is one of the most beautiful beaches in Northern Spain. Approaching the beach through the pathways of the beautiful Piquio Gardens enhances the experience. Although Santander is an ancient city, much of the old quarter was destroyed by a fire in 1941. Since then, the Municipal Museum of Arts has been revamped to include local contemporary Cantabrian artists as well as old masters like Goya.
Travelers who enjoy their vino will definitely enjoy a visit to La Rioja Wine Region, home to more than 500 wineries. What makes these vineyards so unique is that some wineries allow horseback and all-terrain vehicle riding within the vineyards. In addition to sampling their wines, some wineries offer classes on how to become a winemaker. With vineyards dotting the hills of northern Spain, vintners have perfected the art of making world-famous wines; after all, they’ve been doing it for more than a thousand years. The main wine regions are Rio Baja, Rio Alta and Rio Alavesa.
Oviedo, the capital of Asturias province, is well known for its religious monuments. Also a stop on the Pilgrims Road to Santiago, Oviedo has churches that date back to the eighth century, including the Cathedral of San Salvador and the well-preserved Basilica of San Julian de los Prados. Another top architectural draw is La Foncalada, a ninth century pre-Romanesque fountain. Movie trivia fans may be interested to know Oviedo was featured in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
Once known primarily as an industrial port city, Bilbao has reinvented herself as a center for modern art and architecture. Set amidst the rolling green hills of Basque country, Bilbao is home to the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, a gleaming, modernistic structure clad in titanium designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. Bilbao’s historic architecture is a stunner as well, featuring many beautiful buildings like the 14th century Gothic Cathedral of Santiago and the Basilica de Begoña.
Gaztelugatxe is a small peninsular island in the Bay of Biscay that resembles a castle; in fact, its name translates as “castle rock.” It is accessible from land via a footbridge over the rocks. A small chapel dedicated to San Juan (St. John) sits atop the island. The top of Gaztelugatxe is reachable by climbing 231 steps up a rocky slope. Past visitors recommend taking the steps slowly as rushing can be a pain; but, they say, the breathtaking views are well worth the exertion.
Pamplona is an historic city that once served as the capital of the Kingdom of Navarre. It is better known today for its annual San Fermin festival in which fearless souls try to outrun a herd of bulls through city streets; the festival takes place over six days in July. Bullfighting is another popular activity here, with the city having the fourth largest bullring in the world. Pamplona also is the first city on the Camino de Santiago or Pilgrims Road to Santiago. Its many parks and historic buildings are just made for strollers.
The capital city of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela is famous as the final destination of the traditional pilgrimage known as Camino de Santiago. Also called the Way of St. James, this pilgrimage dates back to Medieval times and is important to many because it is believed that Santiago de Compostela is where St. James, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, is buried. The arriving point for most pilgrims is the main square. Situated in the heart of the city, this bustling plaza is the scene of many important landmarks, particularly the Santiago Cathedral where the tomb of St. James is located.
Read more: Top Santiago de Compostela Attractions
Comfortable shoes are a must for visitors to Santillana del Mar, a perfectly preserved medieval village that is limited to foot traffic. Located on Spain’s west coast, this Cantabrian treasure is less than 30 km (20 miles) from Santander and near the Caves of Altamira that are famous for its prehistoric paintings. There is an old saying that Santillana del Mar is The Town of Three Lies, since it is neither a Saint (Santo), nor flat (llana), nor is it by the sea (Mar). However, the town actually takes its name from Santa Juliana who is buried here in the Colegata, the most famous church in Cantabria. Another top attraction is the Museum of the Inquisition with its instruments of torture.
Found in Basque country, just 19 km (12 miles) from France, this popular beach resort is surrounded by hills that add to its beauty. San Sebastián’s most famous attraction is La Concha, one of the world’s best urban beaches. Parte Vieja or Old Town has many bars, making it popular with partiers. Most buildings date from the 19th century, since San Sebastián was destroyed by the English and Portuguese in 1813. The city is well known for its July jazz festival, the oldest in Europe, as well as other festivals and cultural events throughout the year.
Read more: Top San Sebastian Attractions