Road Trip Spain

Sand Castles and Cathedrals: a Northern Spain Road Trip Itinerary

Beach in Northern Spain
Written by Kirstie Pelling

Sand Castles and Cathedrals: a Northern Spain Road Trip

Kirstie Profile Small On our latest Road Trip Adventure Idea we’re off to Northern Spain, on a journey of two halves. Sandy beaches and family attractions punctuate the first half of this itinerary, until sun and sea become saint and sinner when you start to follow the route of thousands of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela. Then it’s a loop back through some of Spain’s classic cities to Bilbao where modern art meets the outdoors. Our European family road trips series is brought to you in conjunction with Avis Car Hire.    

Castrojeriz Camino de Santiago

Northern Spain has an incredible variety of landscapes from coast, to plain to mountains.

In the beginning there was Bilbao

Is it possible to stand outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao and not be in awe of this landmark building? I challenge you to view that wonky, blingy, fantastical architecture without breaking out into a smile. But don’t stand around for long; there’s loads to see in Bilbao as we begin our journey around Northern Spain. Check out the sculptures on the riverbank, the atmospheric Old Quarter and Bilbao’s oldest building, the Gothic Santiago Cathedral (a warm up for a later part of the itinerary) .

Outside the Guggenheim Bilbao Spain

The Guggenheim in Bilbao is guaranteed to make you stop and stare.

When you’ve had your fill of a city that excels in modern design, it’s time for some fresh air. Hop in your car and let’s go, but do take care while driving the coast road from Bilbao; it’s a busy strip!

Emergency beach stop at Gexto

If the weather is good and you’re keen to have a beach stop, like NOW, then go directly to Gexto, a Biscay town close to Bilbao with a generous helping of bays with beaches ranging from sand to pebble. There are some great dunes and towering cliffs on offer, and if you’re feeling energetic you can indulge in water sports including surfing. If you’re lucky you might even catch a beach football tournament; they’re held regularly at Ereaga.

One stop on a road trip of Northern Spain

If action is not your thing, then sit and breathe at Gexto or quiet locations in the Bay of Biscay.

Lighthouse walks and swimming Costa Verde

Or if you can hold out, head West to Santander where you can expand your coastal  horizons even further with lighthouse walks around the Magdalena Peninsular or swimming at El Sardinero beach. Santander has a pretty historic quarter too with buildings set between mountains and the sea. If you don’t like the idea of going up mountains at this part of your Spain road trip, or want to get out of the sun, you can go underground to view the masterpieces of creative Paleolithic genius that is the cave art in the nearby World Heritage listed Altamira Caves. Santander is part of the Costa Verde, Green Spain, a region of lush vegetation that is ripe for exploring. And full of colorful surprises.

Your Spain road trip continues to the Meseta, Camino de Santiago

Spain’s Costa Verde is full of colourful surprises.

Festival stop at Oveido

Carrying on around the coast, ports like Ribadesella are ideal for a pit stop. You’ll find some great bars and restaurants in their maze of streets serving fish dishes such as centolla (crab) and lubina (sea bass).

Further West Oviedo is famous for its festivals, the most famous of which is San Mateo, an eclectic celebration of opera, rock, pop, sporting events and bull fighting, held in late September. Oviedo is also a lively student town and the capital of the region of Astrias. The aquaduct, the city walls and the fountain are also worth a look.

Inland to Santiago for a change of scenery and subject.

There are plenty more coastal gems to be explored, but maybe that’s for another Spain itinerary. For something completely different, a couple of hours drive across stunning Asturian countryside, will take you to Santiago in Galicia.

Cathedral Santiago de Compostela

The Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. A place of pilgrimage and end of The Camino.

Santiago de Compostela is a world capital of pilgrim travel as the city marks the end of the Camino de Santiago – an ancient pilgrim route across Europe. In peak time it can be choc-a-bloc with people looking for salvation or a cheap place to stay, but at any time of year it’s a vibrant and beautiful city. We cycled the Camino a few years back and it was one of the most beautiful and moving journeys we have done. While in the city take in the golden splendor of the Cathedral that houses the bones of a Saint, and marvel at the giant botfumario that takes eight priests to swing it. Or just enjoy the celebrations as people come to an end of their monumental walks. (Unfortunately driving there doesn’t count towards a ‘compostela’ – or pilgrim certificate. Although if you wanted one you could always ditch the car 100kms from the city and walk in. Or we cycled it – that counts too.) You can buy all manner of souvenirs with a Saint’s face on, and you can eat a special pilgrim’s bakewell tart. How’s that for a quirky part of your Spain travel itinerary.

Statue of Moor Slayer in Santiago de Compostela

Statue of Moor Slayer in Santiago de Compostela

Architectural gems in Lugo an Astorga

And now for something different again on this Northern Spain trip planner. Heading East once more will take you to Lugo where you’ll want to park up and head for the best preserved Roman Walls in Spain. They just about encircle the town. If you really like Romans then there’s an annual three 3-day Roman Festival every June, where dressing up is the thing. Whilst you are foot, you should also visit the town square (Plaza Mayor)

Further on, in Astorga, stop a while and have a coffee or two in the town square. It is a pretty, cultural and sociable community and if you look to the roof of the buildings you can watch the storks fly in and out of their nests. One of the highlights of a visit is the Gaudi Palace. It was designed by Gaudi and started in 1889. But it wasn’t finished until two decades later. While it looks like a Gothic castle, it’s a former Archbishops residence and houses a huge Episcopal museum filled with art work. And there are three enormous angels in the gardens. Get there before the pilgrims do and you might beat then into heaven!

Gaudi Palace Astorga Spain

The incredible Gaudi Palace in Astorga

Cathedral mile

27 miles on from Astorga is Leon. It’s a lion of cities, packed with history and life. You’ll find more Roman walls here; its literal translation is legion and the Old Town is based on the old barrack blocks. Leon is a lovely place to stroll; take a walk by the river, visit the market or hang out in one of the tapas bars with a beer. Oh and it also has one of the most magnificent churches in the world. Did I mention that? We were blown away by its gothic majesty

Leon Cathedral

Leon Cathedral

Gothic cathedrals are king in Leon and Burgos

Talking of churches, Burgos has another gem. It’s the ultimate in extravagant, ostentatious, Gothic cathedrals and is the third largest church in Spain. It has been said this cathedral must have been built by angels, and you can see a few of them in the hundred statues that line the walls, ceiling and floor. And if you appreciate statues, it’s worth heading over to the arch or Arcos de Santa Maria, built into the ancient wall of the city. This actually has its own Guardian Angel, protected by stone mace bearers. Burgos also has a little tourist train on wheels that takes up to the viewpoint of El Mirador so you can admire and take photos of the surrounding area. It also saves you hiking around in the heat. We love a tourist train!

Burgos Cathedral

Burgos Cathedral- that’s our bikes next to it

Full circle

Now it’s time to grab your wheels and make the short drive back to Bilbao. Your journey is done and your Spain itinerary is complete. If you are planning a trip to Spain I hope you found it useful. If you’ve still a few hours to spare, why not have a coffee and sit outside and admire that awesome Guggenheim building once again. Like a fine Spanish wine, it gets better over time.

Do check out our other posts on Spain road trips including this one on road tripping Malaga.

What else?

Have you had a Spain driving holiday or been to Northern Spain in general? If you have an idea or suggestion for a place to eat or visit, something interesting to see or do or a full Spain road trip itinerary, why not share it with us as a comment.

Sunset Northern Spain near Mundaka

Sunset in Northern Spain, near Mundaka on coast of Bay of Biscay

Disclosure Note: This post was brought to you thanks to the support of Avis Car Hire. All the research, ideas and opinions remain, as ever, entirely our own.

About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


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We're Kirstie & Stuart. We share an adventurous spirit, a passion for indie travel and 3 kids. The Family Adventure Project is our long term experiment in doing active, adventurous things together. Find out more...


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