Spain is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world however the north coast is painfully overlooked. This area is such a delight with its unspoilt sandy beaches, colourful seaside villages and interesting ancient old cities. Although other cities like Madrid and Barcelona are more well known, some of the best cities in the country are located in northern Spain.
The north of Spain is known as ‘Green Spain’, this green area spans across the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia. This region takes pride in having tremendous greenery and lush flora. This northerly location means this area has the best climate for vegetation to thrive. ‘Green Spain’ is essentially a long strip along the north coast of Spain which has a maritime climate. You’ll find the most amazing dramatic landscapes here with healthy greenery everywhere.
As well as vegetation, the maritime climate in northern Spain lends itself very well to tourism. Northern Spain is pretty mild all year round. The summers don’t get too hot and the winters don’t get too cold. This comfortable weather means you can enjoy all the sights in the cities without worrying about getting sweaty or lethargic. Compared to the south of Spain, northern cities don’t get as overcrowded. It is nice to be able to enjoy the best cities in northern Spain without getting overwhelmed by the number of holidaymakers.
Below is a list of the best cities in northern Spain. We have visited each city at least once and would definitely return to discover even more about each one.
San Sebastian, also known as Donostia, is a fantastic city located in the Basque Country region. This gorgeous city is home to one of our favourite beaches in the country. If you love food, San Sebastian is the place to go with its world renowned pintxos and plethora of michelin starred restaurants. In fact it has the most Michelin stars per square metre in Europe.
Meander your way through the old towns alleyways and admire the architecture. There are some incredible buildings such as the magnificent church of Santa Maria. The old town can get quite busy but it really captures the essence of San Sebastian.
To get the best views in the city, take the funicular up to the top of Mount Igueldo. If you want panoramic stunning views and the perfect place to watch the sunset, this is the place for you.
If you plan on visiting San Sebastian, check out our post below detailing everything you simply must see in this amazing city.
Do not miss out on visiting the interesting city of Bilbao in the Basque Country. It feels very up and coming, not yet spoiled by too much tourism. This city is very artistic with its unique structures, buildings and sculptures.
Although Bilbao has a super attractive old town with a dazzling cathedral, it is the new part of the city which draws your attention. When thinking of Bilbao, the Guggenheim museum building does all the talking. The unique shape and texture makes it a real showstopper. The best place to admire the building itself is by walking along the riverfront promenade.
Another incredibly interesting thing to see in Bilbao is the Hanging Vizcaya Bridge. Below the large red structure of the bridge, a hanging gondola transports you from one side of the river to the other using a conveyor system. It is insane to see it in action.
There is so much more to Bilbao than its buildings. It is one of those places where you could wander around endlessly and continually discover new things. The post below outlines all the best things to see and do in the city.
Santander is one of the most interesting cities in the north of Spain. As well as having a compelling history, this city is also home to some beautiful beaches and makes for a perfect holiday destination. Santander is the capital of the Cantabria region on the north coast of Spain.
The charm of Santander comes from its intricate, grand buildings which are ever so elegant. It is so easy to fall in love with this city, especially when visiting its perfect urban beaches. A walk along the soft fine sand of Sardinero beach will sell you on the area. You can truly understand why this is a popular destination for Spanish holiday makers in the summer.
If you’re not sold on the area, google ‘Bay Of Santander’ and you’ll understand why the picture-perfect area deserves your attention.
Ribadesella is a quaint town in the autonomous region of Asturias on the north coast of Spain. This charming seaside town has a fantastic beach as well as a colourful old town. It is like a perfect little town which has not been spoiled by too much tourism. The backdrop of this sweet town is the imposing limestone peaks of the UNESCO national park, Picos De Europa, which is a great place for some of the best hikes in the country.
The town is most famous for its canoeing, particularly the Descent of the Stella or ‘Les Piragües’. Once a year, this competition/festival brings people from all over the world together. Thousands of participants turn the town into a big party with carnival parades. If you happen to be in the area on the first Saturday in August be sure to check it out – it is meant to be quite the spectacle.
One of the main tourist attractions in the area is the caves. Titos caves in Ribadesella have wall paintings which vary in age from 22000 – 10000 BC which is absolutely crazy to think about! There is also another cave tunnel nearby which you can even drive through. This astonishing cave is a joy to explore.
For more information on all the best things to see in this delightful town check out the post below.
Gijón is the largest city in the autonomous region of Asturia. This coastal city is so beautiful with so much to do and see. Gijón has a very industrious background, known for producing iron and steel but there is a lot more to the city than this.
It is safe to say that Gijón is pretty obsessed with its traditional Asturian cider, so much so that they have a cider festival each year. Immerse yourself in the cider culture in the siderias (cider houses) dotted all over the city. Check out the cider tree sculpture (Árbol de la Sidra). This installation is located at Gijón Marina and is made up of 3200 green glass cider bottles. It is pretty amazing to look at especially at night when it is illuminated.
Gijon has a very unique historical old town area called Cimadevilla. This little area juts out into the sea on its own little peninsula. Navigate the ancient stone buildings, sculptures and alleyways. You’ll find that there are lots of cafes and restaurants to choose from in this area – many of which have a very authentic Asturian feel.
There is so much to Gijon, it is a great place for a family to visit. From botanical gardens to aquariums to the biggest building in Spain; there is a lot to discover here. Check out our post below to find out more.
Oviedo is a seriously underrated city. As the capital of the region of Asturias, you could say it is pretty important, but truthfully the city is worth visiting for its sights alone. Oviedo is located 17 miles inland from Gijon meaning you could pack in both cities on one trip. Although this town does not have a beach, it has bags of charm and character. Oviedo was one of our favourite cities on the north coast for its unmatched, lively atmosphere.
The historic centre of Oviedo comes alive at the weekends. In Plaza del Fontan (one of the main squares) you can find a market which runs from Friday to Sunday. There are a huge number of stalls selling everything you could possibly imagine. You can find fine art, clothing and just about everything else. The streets around the market are truly buzzing.
Another weekend treat from Oviedo is the bagpipes being played in front of the cathedral on Saturdays. Believe it or not but bagpipes are actually quite popular in the Asturias region.
If you plan on visiting the charming city of Oviedo, check out our post below so you don’t miss out on any of the best bits.
Santiago De Compostela
If you are planning a trip to the North of spain be sure to put Santiago De Compostela pretty near the top of you list of places to see. This gorgeous city is the capital of the region of Galicia and is arguably one of the most important historical cities in Spain.
Located in the far west, this city is the end destination of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Many people hike hundreds of miles to reach the burial site of the Biblical apostle St. James in the iconic cathedral. Whilst exploring this city you will notice lots of walkers with their large backpacks with a look of glee in their faces to have completed the pilgrimage.
Although many people choose to visit this city for religious reasons, we loved it for its stunning architecture and atmosphere. The cathedral is without a doubt one of the most impressive buildings ever – the sheer size of it is astounding.
Northern Spain is a positively beautiful area which is seriously underrated. The 7 best cities in northern Spain discussed in this post are all definitely worth a visit, even if just for a day. Each of the 4 regions in ‘green spain’ all have their own unique traditions and culture. Being able to immerse yourself in their way of life and try their local delicacies is so special and we couldn’t recommend it enough!
If you are planning a road trip around northern Spain, check out our itineraries below. We hope they can inspire you and point you in the right direction of the best routes to see all the amazing sights.
For more information about attractions in Spain, check out the countries official tourism website here. If you have any questions about the best cities in northern Spain, don’t hesitate to ask!