From Catalonia’s unspoilt coastline and Aragon’s scenic architecture to quaint cities in the Basque Country, this northern Spain road trip offers something for everyone.
Is there any better way to see a country than grabbing a set of car keys and having the freedom to explore at your own pace? If this is your favourite way to travel, then how about exploring the north of Spain?
Often it’s when you decide to travel slowly and go off the beaten track, you start stumbling across hidden gems. You’ll take a wrong turning and end up in an authentic Spanish town that isn’t in any of the tourist guide books!
While this road trip through northern Spain takes you to a few famous places, it also gives you the opportunity to explore lesser-known regions. You’ll experience spectacular vineyards a short drive from San Sebastian, the hiker’s paradise that is Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park and stop by some truly underrated Spanish cities.
A road trip here through the north of Spain offers so much. Spend your time admiring the scenic coastlines in Catalonia and Asturias, before marvelling at the architecture of Castille and León.
If you’re a foodie, you’ll fall in love with the culinary scene in the Basque Country. It’s absolute pintxos heaven! Meanwhile, if you’re keen on the great outdoors, there are plenty of gorgeous green spaces and natural wonders to explore.
Spain is often associated with summer beach holidays, but it’s worth remembering that many of the interior parts of the country offer just as much natural beauty, with vineyards, mountains, canyons, olive groves and picturesque towns! This road trip itinerary will introduce you to several authentic experiences.
So, whether you’re looking for travel inspiration or you want to start planning your itinerary, this guide will cover all of the best places to visit in Northern Spain on a road trip.
Weather in Northern Spain
This region of Europe has warm summers and cool winters. The majority of people visit during the summer holiday season, when the weather is warmest.
If you want to make the most of the great outdoors, time your trip between May and September. It’s the ideal time for beach days or countryside hikes. During this time, temperatures range between lows of 16°C (61°F) and highs of 26°C (79°F). If possible, I’d suggest avoiding the peak summer (July and August) and travel in May, June or September. You’ll enjoy cheaper prices and won’t be battling against big crowds at the big attractions!
It gets pretty chilly in Spain in winter, but there’s a bit of magic to it! Between January and March the temperatures in the north of Spain range from 4°C (39°F) to 15°C (59°F).
Northern Spain Road Trip Map
If you’re happy to move at a pretty moderate pace, moving on every single day, you could just about fit this itinerary into one week.
However, I’d recommend moving a little slower so you can soak up all the little details in each destination.
Here’s a handy map to go with this northern Spain road trip itinerary, which you can save to make your planning stress-free.
What to pack for your road trip
If you’re wondering what to pack for your trip, this guide to road trip essentials has you covered. From portable chargers to ways to stay entertained on long journeys, it’ll help you create your road trip packing list.
Northern Spain Road Trip Itinerary – Places to Visit in Northern Spain
Northern Spain Road Trip: Stop 1 – Barcelona
Barcelona is a great city to start your road trip from. Not only is it an incredible destination in its own right, but it’s also easy to reach by plane. There are lots of car rental options too, both from the airport or the city centre.
Marking the start of your Catalonia road trip, you’ll quickly fall in love with Barcelona’s scenic shoreline with sweeping views of the Balearic Sea. Enjoy the city’s unique ambience courtesy of street musicians and tapas bars dotted in the atmospheric Gothic Quarter’s narrow streets. I challenge you not to get lost in this mini maze – it’s very easily done, especially after a few glasses of Cava!
At the centre of Barcelona’s bustling social scene is tree-lined La Rambla, which boasts restaurants, cafés, and avant-garde architecture. It’s always busy with tourists, but I’d avoid most of the restaurants around here! Many are classic tourist traps, serving vats of low-quality paella at inflated prices. You’ll find more authentic dining experiences in the small bars in the Gothic Quarter.
La Boqueria food market is located just off this main street and is an excellent place to take in the amazing ingredients of Catalonia. For a very special meal, book in for a tasting menu experience at Michelin-starred Disfrutar. I’ve been lucky enough to visit twice and I would regard these meals as the best meals I’ve ever eaten! Genuinely!
If you’re interested in art there are lots of great attractions in Barcelona. You could visit the Picasso Museum, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya or the Fundacio Joan Miro. Oh, and don’t miss a visit to one of Gaudi’s many masterpieces. His unique style is visible throughout the city at locations such as La Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell. I was enchanted by these spots – I’m sure you will be too!
If you fancy a beach day, there’s also a large beach in the city centre, lined with beach bars. It’s amazing how much there is to do in this Spanish city. There really is something for everyone!
Northern Spain Road Trip: Stop 2 – Costa Brava or Catalonia
If time permits, you might want to head north of Barcelona to Costa Brava, before heading to Montserrat. One of Spain’s most mesmerising coastlines, the area oozes charm with its whitewashed towns and fishing villages.
Alternatively, I loved the area south of here, which includes the underrated Tarragona, Reus and Siurana.
Siurana was a new discovery for me on one of my most recent trips. It’s one of the prettiest villages in Spain and sits on top of a hill in the Prades Mountains. I’d recommend spending a couple of hours there. It’s pretty small so you can wander the streets looking at the Moorish castle, the pretty houses and perhaps stop for a coffee.
The best part about Siurana? The views! Head towards the rocky cliffs and look out over the huge gorge which is filled with a bright turquoise reservoir. I’d suggest visiting first thing in the morning and you should have it all to yourself!
If you want to learn more about Gaudi, but don’t fancy tackling the crowds in Barcelona, I’d suggest stopping by Reus. This small city is where Gaudi was born. You can learn all about his life and architectural wonders at The Gaudi Centre, before checking out some of the city’s buildings which inspired him.
You can read my detailed guide on how to tour this region by car in my Catalonia road trip post.
Northern Spain Road Trip: Stop 3 – Montserrat
Montserrat is another must-visit on your road trip through Northern Spain. The area’s top attraction is the Benedictine Montserrat Monastery, perched on a rocky crag surrounded by magnificent cliffs.
Just getting there is a bit of an adventure, as you reach the monastery via cable car! Once there, enjoy panoramic views of the Catalonian countryside while soaking in the sights and history of the monastery.
Montserrat to Zaragoza: 266 km / 2h 46min approx.
Northern Spain Road Trip: Stop 4 – Zaragoza
Next stop on your journey from Montserrat is Zaragoza, the capital of the Aragon region. This is a great place for museums, architecture, and historical monuments, including the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar.
In between sightseeing, I’d recommend a bit of restaurant-hopping at Plaza del Pilar so you can taste some authentically Spanish delights. For a real flavour of the region, sit down to dinner at Restaurante La Borde de Chema. This rustic restaurant offers Aragonese dishes including roast goat, along with plenty of regional wines.
Northern Spain Road Trip: Stop 5 – Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park
Step away from the glitz and glamour of city life with a visit to the Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park. This hiker’s paradise has several trails to choose from, each leading to sweeping views of the mountains.
Be sure to pack your camera for this stop on your road trip! It’s one of the most photogenic places on this itinerary, so no doubt you’ll want to snap a lot of photos!
Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park to San Sebastian: 252 km / 3h 10 min approx.
Northern Spain Road Trip: Stop 6 – San Sebastian
The Basque Country is renowned for its food scene. Every year, many people visit Northern Spain (myself included!) purely for a wining and dining experience like no other. It’s hardly surprising, after all San Sebastian in the Basque Country has the most Michelin-starred eateries per capita in Europe! In fact, there are more in this one city per capita than in London, and that’s really saying something!
The Basque Country even has two restaurants with ‘Green Stars’, Azurmendi and Enoko, which have been recognised for their sustainable, ethical and environmental approach.
There are two sides to eating out in San Sebastian. You can either go high end with Michelin starred tasting menus, or eat the local way with dish after dish of pintxos (small dishes).
The old town of San Sebastian is filled with tiny restaurants specialising in individual dishes such as Spanish tortillas, prawns on skewers and slow cooked pork. The best way to enjoy a trip like this, is by stopping for food and drinks at multiple bars across an evening – like your very own pintxos tour.
It can be difficult knowing what to eat at each place, so I’d thoroughly recommend a pintxos tour like this one. The guide will give you tips on what to order, how to eat it and all the insider knowledge to make the most of your time in San Sebastian.
While you can’t go wrong with most restaurants here, I’d recommend the incredible steak, tomatoes and fried padron peppers at Bar Nestor as well as the famous San Sebastian cheesecake at La Viña! I popped all my top recommendations together in my post about the best pintxos in San Sebastian.
Also, if you’re looking for an extra special meal, how about going for a Michelin Starred meal with a view at Mirador de Ulia? We had a very memorable meal there!
San Sebastian is also a great beach destination, with turquoise waters, white sand and some great surf spots too!
If you want to get off the beaten track in this region, how about spending a day wine tasting? Just 30-minutes away by car you’ll find wineries including Hirutza, where the local Txakoli wine is produced. This is a dry and lightly sparkling white wine, which is absolutely delicious!
The vineyards are in a really spectacular location too, with huge mountains and lush green valleys all around. Once you’ve toured the winery, you’ll get to taste some of the wines for yourself, paired with a few pintxos of course!
Northern Spain Road Trip: Stop 7 – Bilbao
Bilbao, the capital of the Basque Country, is home to centuries-old alleyways and modern-day architecture. The bustling city is small enough that you can explore it on foot, but big enough to keep you entertained for many hours.
One place you simple have to visit is the world-famous Guggenheim Museum, set by the Nervión River. This art gallery has an incredible collection, as well as being housed inside a curved metal masterpiece by one of my favourite architects, Frank Gehry.
This is another great city for pintxos, so be sure to spend some time in the Old Town refuelling. You could also dine at one of the many Michelin-starred restaurants in Bilbao.
For one of the best viewpoints in the Basque Country, make your way to Gaztelugatxeko Doniene, made famous by Game of Thrones. The scenic hike is around 3km and features several fortified viewpoints. The views are worth the tired legs, I promise you!
Northern Spain Road Trip: Stop 8 – Santander
Afterwards, stop by Santander, where you can enjoy some seaside fun on the small town’s myriad of beaches. Dive into the water or enjoy a trek to the Cabo Mayor Lighthouse.
Away from the coastline, grab a bite at Plaza de Canadio before exploring Santander’s Cathedral. It features two churches built on top of one another.
Santander to Llanes: 89 km / 56 min approx.
Northern Spain Road Trip: Stop 9 – Llanes and Piloña
As you drive from Bilbao to Llanes and Piloña, the road trip scenery really steps up a notch! Take in the views of the mountains and rolling hills which serve as the ultimate driving backdrop!
Llanes is a small-town region boasting medieval magic at every corner, as well as beautiful beach views. After some of the more touristy stops on this trip, this area is more chilled out and authentic.
Once in Piloña, you could hike up to the Area Recreativa del Monte Cayon, where sweeping views over Asturias’ Picos de Europa await. Alternatively, opt for a more strenuous hike at Picos de Europa, a green paradise surrounded by mountains.
Northern Spain Road Trip: Stop 10 – Gijon and Oviedo
Gijon has a whole load of charm! The city’s old town, nestled on top of a cliff, is filled with a mix of fine-dining and casual eateries and boasts iconic Roman baths and a scenic promenade.
Oviedo, the region’s capital, is a compact city with a lively atmosphere owing to its student population. Enjoy a culinary extravaganza at the city’s many tapas bars (Gloria Oviedo isn’t to be missed) and fine dining spots. There’s plenty more to do in Oviedo too, including shopping, museum-hopping, and marvelling at the city’s architecture.
Oviedo to León: 125 km / 1h 28 min approx.
Northern Spain Road Trip: Stop 11 – León
León, the northernmost city in the region, is ready to welcome you with open arms. Top of the list of attractions here is the Catedral de León, which boasts impressive towers and colourful windows.
For a quintessential Leon experience, stroll through Plaza Mayor and enjoy a bit of people watching. This is also a great area for trendy restaurants, tapas bars, and impressive architecture.
Northern Spain Road Trip: Stop 12 – Valladolid and Salamanca
South of León is Valladolid, a small city famed for its architecture. The Cathedral of Valladolid is a sight to behold, as is the Museo Nacional de Escultura and the exhibits inside.
The final stop in the region is Salamanca, which has a burgeoning foodie scene that really delivers the heart and soul of Northern Spanish cuisine. In between the culinary experiences, enjoy visits to the Old and New Cathedral, Clerecía Church, and the Convento de San Esteban’s plateresque. For incredible viewpoints over some of the city’s attractions, be sure to visit the Roman Bridge.
Where to Stay on a Northern Spain Road Trip
If you’re wondering where to stay in northern Spain, here are a few of my top choices along this route.
Hotel Palafox, Zaragoza
This is a great luxury hotel, offering sweeping city views from the rooftop pool.
Hotel Carlton, Bilbao
This grand hotel in Bilbao offers spacious rooms with chic decor and a great restaurant serving regional delicacies.
Hotel Villa Soro, San Sebastian
Enjoy a tranquil and chic hotel stay, just a short walk from the old town. This smart villa offers a country-house feel for your foodie city trip. Wondering how to get around? This hotel offers free bikes, making it easy to get around and see the sights.
Parador de Turismo de León, León
This luxury hotel’s rooms feature antique furnishings and a balcony. There’s also a restaurant serving the region’s top wines.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my Northern Spain road trip itinerary. There are so many great places you could visit, it’s been hard to narrow it down to just a handful.
My best advice is to use this guide as a starting point, but don’t be afraid to add some extra spots along the way too. If you’re wondering where else to visit in Spain, check out my southern Spain road trip itinerary.
For more great road trip itineraries, check out my detailed guides to driving northern Italy and southern Italy.