Amazing places to visit in Spain along the Camino del Norte
I visited Spain for the first time when I was 8: my parents took me and my sister to Barcelona, one of the most well known places to visit in Spain. In fact, I think it was our very first trip overseas, and the one that eventually got me addicted to travel. It felt so exotic, so different from home (although growing up, I realized that Spanish culture is perhaps the most similar to the Italian one!) and there were so many cool things to do in Spain that were new to me, that I obviously loved it.
Since that time, I have been to Spain countless times – more than I can remember, actually. After all, it is fairly easy to visit Spain from anywhere in Europe (including from the United Kingdom, where I have lived for over 8 years) as there are direct budget airline flights. Compared to the rest of Western Europe, the prices are still more than affordable. Besides, with so many places to visit in Spain, and with the amount of things to do in Spain, it is only obvious that I would want to go back.
Yet, for reasons I can’t really explain (other than obviously loving it there), every time I visit Spain I end up visiting the South of the country. Barcelona, Costa Brava, Costa del Sol, Andalucia, Valencia, the Baleares islands – I keep going again and again.
I ought to visit Spain – again
Until last time, when I eventually decided it was time for a change, and decided that of all the places to visit in Spain, I’d want to see some that really look different from the ones I already know so well.
Besides, I really wanted to fulfill one of my biggest traveling dream – walking the Camino de Santiago. This is considered one of the top things to do in Spain (if not in Europe). It literally is a pilgrimage, and there are a number of ancient pilgrim routes that all connect to the burial ground of Saint James (Santiago, in Spanish), one of the apostles, which was found in 814 in Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia.
Every year hundreds of thousands of people embark on this journey, which is both a physical and spiritual one, not to mention a leisurely one that provides an incredible boost to Spain tourism. A bunch of my friends walked the Camino de Santiago – some of them more than once – and came back with some incredible stories. I thought that definitely, walking the Camino de Santiago must be one of the top things to do in Spain and it was finally time I also did it.
My reasons were spiritual (though not religious, because I am an atheist, but I feel the two things don’t necessarily have to be connected): I felt the need to spend some quality time with myself, and to challenge myself too. But there was more than that: as I am an insatiable traveler, I felt ready to see some new places to visit in Spain that I hadn’t seen yet, and to hit both some of the most well known as well as some of the less famous Spain tourist attractions.
Walking the Camino del Norte – one of the top things to do in Spain
Of all the routes that from various places in Europe lead to Santiago de Compostela, I opted to walk the Camino del Norte – which crosses the Northern regions of the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, considered among the most beautiful places to visit in Spain. I decided not to follow the more popular Camino Francés, which starts in St. Jean-Pied-du-Port near Biarritz, in France.
A number of reasons made me opt for this route. First of all, the weather conditions would be more favorable. I knew I would be walking in June, when the most well known places to visit in Spain get incredibly hot. On the other hand, this would be the best season to visit the North of the country, which is typically much colder and gets much more rain, but where the summer months are more pleasant and not nearly as hot.
Furthermore, as one of the best things to do in Spain, especially along the Camino de Santiago, is walking, I wanted to make sure that this was fully enjoyable, with pretty views throughout. Rumor had it that of all the places to visit in Spain, the North would be the one with the most varied landscape and challenging walks, with lots of vegetation, mountains, beautiful beaches, charming coastal villages and nice cities. There must be a reason why this is considered the greenest part of Spain, after all.
Top this off with the fact that significantly less people opt for this route and that the accommodation options are generally of a better quality (I can do with some pampering at the end of a long day of walking!), and it is easy to see why I decided to walk the Camino del Norte and cross the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia: I wanted to visit Spain on my own terms and I knew the North of Spain would suit my needs.
Discovering more of Spain tourist attractions
I knew the minute I arrived in Bilbao, the capital of the Basque Country, that I had made the right choice: there wouldn’t be shortage of places to visit in Spain, there wouldn’t be wanting for more things to do in Spain, as I would hardly have a break from being completely amazed.
Of all the places to visit in Spain along the Camino del Norte, some completely stole my heart and I would love to go again and spend more time there. However, it would be impossible to mention them all. So, here’s what I think are the most beautiful places to visit in Spain along the Camino del Norte.
Amazing places to visit in Spain along the Camino del Norte
Amazing places to visit in Spain – the Basque Country
I truly enjoyed visiting the Basque Country, it is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Spain. For some reason, it really reminded me of Sardinia. Not so much for what I saw, as in this sense it is obviously different, but because of its character: independent, resilient, proud and unique.
Find out more about Sardinia on my post “Beyond the sea: fantastic things to do in Sardinia other than going to the beach.”
Of the many places to visit in Spain that I had the pleasure to explore in the Basque Country, I was charmed by Pasai Donibane and Pasai San Pedro. These fishing villages are on two different sides of an estuary. A series of tiny, cobbled alleys goes a long the river. The pace of life is slow: elderlies sit at coffee shops for a drink, to observe people passing by; groups of younger kids enjoy a hot summer day jumping in the water (after all, swimming in the sea is one of the best things to do in Spain), dogs in toe. The atmosphere is incredibly pleasant.
Not far from Pasai San Pedro, Albaola, the Sea Factory of the Basques, is one of the places to visit in Spain that I wholeheartedly recommend. It is a museum as well as a research centre where historical whale ships are being built, to uncover one of the most traditional occupations of the Basque Country: whale oil trading.
One of the best things to do in Spain is discovering its nature and environment. One of the best places to visit in Spain in order to do so is the Urdaibai Bird Centre, in the Basque Country. Before visiting, I had no idea that this part of Europe is one of the areas used by various species of birds to stop along their migrations: a lot of them come here to nestle. The centre was opened to monitor and research the migration and reproduction cycle of various birds, and there even is a stunning view of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve (a UNESCO site since 1984) from which it is possible to observe various species, including ospreys.
I have never been one to fully enjoy cities. Even the most beautiful ones tire me after a short while. So I ran away from Buenos Aires after a few days, for example.
Read more about Buenos Aires on my post “Great things to do in Argentina.”
Yet, I have recently developed more of a taste for them, and in fact I fell in love with Bangkok.
Find out why I enjoyed Bangkok on my post “Nine fabulous things to do in Bangkok.”
Sure enough, there are a few cities that are among the most incredible places to visit in Spain. I really liked Bilbao, the capital of the Basque Country. It is a lively city where locals, tourists and the occasional pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela happily meet. What makes Bilbao one of the places to visit in Spain is a great mixture of old and new architecture: next to cobbled streets, colorful balconies and windows, and the gothic style Basilica de Begoña, there are state of the art examples of contemporary architecture such as the Guggenheim Museum, for sure one of Spain tourist attractions.
One of the best things to do in Spain that is particularly popular in the Basque Country is surfing. San Sebastián is a pleasant coastal town with several lovely urban beaches with incredibly clear waters where locals and tourists go during the hottest days of the summer. It is such a pleasant town that it well deserves to be mentioned among the places to visit in Spain.
Amazing places to visit in Spain – Cantabria
I love archeological sites and I never miss an opportunity to visit one, when I can. One of the most incredible places to visit in Spain is the Altamira Caves, and it is located in the gorgeous region of Cantabria. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Altamira Caves contain some of the best examples of prehistoric art, with paintings of animals such as bisons, deers, horses and boars that date back to up to 16000 years ago.
The caves have been closed to the public in order to preserve their delicate atmosphere. However, the Altamira Museum hosts a perfect reproduction and a visit to this museum is one of the top things to do in Spain for any archeology or history lover.
Another of the most gorgeous places to visit in Spain that is located in Cantabria is Santillana del Mar. This is a perfectly kept medieval village, locally known as the “town of the three lies.” Indeed, it is neither saint (santa), flat (llana) or by the sea (mar). The name actually derives from Santa Juliana, whose remains are kept in the Colegiata, a former Benedectine monastery and one of the most interesting sights in the village.
I had heard that Cantabria is one of the greenest regions of the country, making it one of the top places to visit in Spain for nature lovers. Sure enough, I got proof of it when I walked part of the Camino Lebaniego, a 65 km route that connects the Camino del Norte with the Camino Francés and which is often used by pilgrims to move from one route to the other.
If one of the best things to do in Spain is hiking, Cantabria is where to go and the Camino Lebaniego won’t cease to amaze. From the small villages I walked through, to the creeks that run along deep valleys; from the beautiful Picos de Europa – so called because it was the first sight that sailors coming from the other side of the Atlantic would get when they approached Europe – to the sights of herd of goats that block the traffic: Cantabria is one of the most fantastic places to visit in Spain to savor a bit of nature and traditional lifestyle.
Not only that: Cantabria is one of the best places to visit in Spain to enjoy the sights. The views from the Mirador de Santa Catalina are simply spectacular, and one of the best things to do in Spain, and preferibly on clear days, is taking the cable car from Fuente De to get to the view point. Unfortunately when I visited the sky was completely covered in clouds. It was still enjoyable – although incredibly cold!
Amazing places to visit in Spain – Asturias
I got the perfect introduction to Asturias as I arrived in Sablón beachfront, in Llanes. This has to be one of the top places to visit in Spain. It is a small, urban beach where locals go during summer days. Picture fine, golden sand, clear waters and all surrounded by gorgeous cliffs. It is simply stunning. I even walked all the way to the viewpoint of San Pedro, and from up there it was even better.
I then rented a bike to follow the pilgrims’ path and had views over some splendid beaches – so beautiful that I could not help thinking that Asturias must be the most incredible place to visit in Spain.
Lots of people who regularly visit Spain told me that Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, is a fun city. I must say I really enjoyed it. The historic centre is beautiful and I was immediately captured by the lively yet relaxing atmosphere. If one of the best things to do in Spain is enjoying its delicious food and drinks, Oviedo is definitely one of the places to visit in Spain. I had a fantastic dinner at Tierra Astur – a pub style restaurant where the waiters serve the famous sidra (cider) in a very choreographic way, slowly pouring it onto the glasses as they stretch their arm way up above the head.
Cudillero is a small picturesque fishing village that sits on the side of a mountain. The brightly colored houses literally hang from the cliffs and all overlook the small bay and the port. Here, life goes by slowly. Locals still walk everywhere (most houses don’t have access to a road where cars can drive). Cats hang out in the street. There’s various viewpoints from which to enjoy the view, which is simply stunning – making Cudillero one of the nicest places to visit in Spain.
Another coastal village that I truly enjoyed is Luarca, also along the route of the Camino del Norte. It is known as the white town, and here the buildings all preserve their original charme. The atmosphere is special: welcoming locals enjoy a late afternoon drink and enjoy talking to visitors. I recommend going to anybody who decides to visit Spain.
Amazing places to visit in Spain – Galicia
I love a good beach and Playa de las Catedrales, which is the first place I visited in Galicia, didn’t fail to amaze me. It is one of the most unique beaches I have ever seen (and you know, being from Sardinia I am not exactly a newbie when it comes to beautiful beaches). But I felt this was really special, and indeed one of the most incredible places to visit in Spain.
Read more about Sardinian beaches on my post “Best beaches in Sardinia: Costa Rei.”
Playa de las Catedrales uniqueness is due to the rock formations that have been carved by the wind and by the sea, forming curious shapes that can either be observed from the beach itself when the tide is low – one of the best things to do in Spain is walking on a beautiful beach – or from above, when the tide starts rising.
Since the Camino de Santiago is meant to be a pilgrimage, one of the places to visit in Spain when walking it is the Cistercian Monastery of Santa Maria de Sobrado dos Monxes. What makes this place special is that it is one of the last stops before actually reaching Santiago de Compostela.
Sobrado dos Monxes is a UNESCO Heritage Site, originally a Benedectines monastery dating back to the 10th century, then abandoned and eventually re-founded as a Cistercian monastery in the 12th century. It has a gorgeous Baroque façade which was built in 1708. However, the interior is completely empty – there’s no paintings, no furnishing, no statues. It is so unique, that I would say it is one of the best Spain tourist attractions.
Last but not least, one of the places to visit in Spain is Santiago de Compostela, which is the arrival point of the many pilgrim routes. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a beautiful city, whose Cathedral is a real work of art. Yet one of the things that makes Santiago de Compostela one of Spain tourist attractions is the atmosphere. A mixture of locals, tourists and pilgrims walk along the street and crowd the squares and the many bars and restaurants to exchange anecdotes about their Camino. Most of the pilgrims look exhausted. But all look content. It is evident that they enjoyed their Camino.
Sure enough, I would love to visit Spain again and to walk the Camino de Santiago one more time – perhaps following a different route this time. With so many places to visit in Spain, I doubt I will ever tire of it.
Have you ever been to the North of Spain? What did you like the most about it?
Legal Disclaimer: This article is written in partnership with the Tourism Board of Spain, and the local tourism boards of the The Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia and in cooperation with The Travel Mob as part of the #InGreenSpain and #VisitSpain campaigns. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.