Except for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the north of Spain doesn’t register with most North Americans, who cannot conceive of a Spain without bullfights, flamenco, and parched plains. Walled off from the rest of Iberia by high mountains, the verdant northern rim is a fascinating region, where ancient Celtic and Basque Spain persists.
Day 1: Santiago de Compostela
Exhausted yet jubilant pilgrims give Santiago a kind of exuberant joy. To understand the pilgrimage phenomenon over the centuries, visit the Museo das Peregrinacións. Follow those pilgrims to the Catedral de Santiago, where you wisely reserved a guided tour spot via the website. Afterwards, have a drink in the bar at the Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos, founded in 1486 by those famous monarchs Fernando and Isabel.
Day 2: A Coruña
Take a morning train from Santiago, stash your luggage, and make a circuit of the waterfront of this peninsula city. Walk out to the Castillo de San Antón to see the Celtic jewelry at the Museo Arqueológico e Histórico. Take Bus 1 to the Acuarium Finisterrae. Don’t miss the oldest lighthouse in Europe, the Torre de Hércules. Spend your evening socializing at Praza de María Pita.
Day 3: Oviedo
Rent a car to drive to Oviedo (about 3.5 hrs.), enjoying some spectacular mountain scenery before you return to the coast. Arrive in time for lunch and then visit the Catedral de San Salvador. The two stunning pre-Romanesque churches of Santa María del Naranco and San Miguel de Lillo re-open for tours at 3:30pm, after which you can devote your late afternoon to shopping and your evening to dining and strolling.
Day 4: Cangas de Onís
The drive east to this outpost of the Picos de Europa takes just over an hour. You’ll have plenty of time to visit Cangas de Onís’s Capilla de Santa Cruz before heading out to the mountain shrine of Covadonga. Hike the trails around the ancient battle site and visit the tomb of Pelayo, high on a cliff behind the waterfall. Spend the night in Cangas listening to hikers’ tales.
Day 5: The Edges of the Picos de Europa
From Cangas, drive east to Las Arenas de Cabrales for a lunch of Cabrales cheese and local cider. Continue east on AS-114 about a half hour to N-621, and go south toward Potes, stopping at the Centro de Visitantes de Sotama for an orientation to the mountains. Follow signs to Fuente Dé for a cable car ride and a ridge hike. In late afternoon, return to Potes and follow N-621 to the coast, then the A-8 east to Santander (1.5 hr.), where you can drop off the car.
Day 6: Santander
Enjoy a leisurely day at this elegant beach resort. Spend a few hours on the beach at El Sardinero before visiting the Museo Maritimo del Cantábrico to learn about the Cantabrian coast’s fishing and mercantile history. If you have time, check out the Roman ruins beneath the lower-level chapel at the Catedral. Pick up your train tickets so you can catch tomorrow’s 8am (weekdays) FEVE train to Bilbao.
Days 7 & 8: Bilbao
Visit the Museo de Bellas Artes, focusing on Basque artists, and then stroll to the nearby Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Before entering, walk all around it and across the river to admire its iconic modern architecture. After viewing the Guggenheim’s galleries, follow the riverside promenade to the Casco Viejo, enjoying the pintxo bars around Plaza Nueva. On Day 8, take a round-trip bus visit to Gernika (Guernica), the melancholy center of Basque identity captured by Picasso’s great canvas. Be sure to visit the thought-provoking Peace Museum.
Days 9 & 10: San Sebastián
From Bilbao, it’s a 75-minute bus ride to this resort city. Start with the Playa de la Concha beach, where locals stroll morning, noon, and night. Over 2 days you’ll have time to catch some rays and still hit the sights: the San Telmo Museoa for the region’s best rundown on Basque culture and history, then the nearby Aquarium, with its own intriguing little museum. Get a fabulous overview of the city and bay by riding the century-old funicular to Monte Igeldo. The essence of a visit to San Sebastián, however, is an evening spent bar-hopping for pintxos in the Parte Vieja (Old Quarter) or going out for a leisurely dinner. When it’s time to go, take a bus direct to the Bilbao airport.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.