The overwhelming majority of travellers heading to Spain make an instinctive beeline for the country’s southern towns and cities. Blessed with beautiful beaches and excellent weather for most of the year, it’s easy to understand the pull of Spain’s south. But at the same time, overlooking the true treasures of the north is something of a shame.
On the plus side, the fact that Spain’s north is far less travelled than its south helps it retain a gloriously undiscovered feel about it. And given the fact that Spain is now so incredibly easy to reach from the UK by ferry with Brittany Ferries, there’s really no better place to head for a fantastic holiday of adventure and discovery.
So if the undiscovered north of Spain has caught your attention, here’s a quick rundown of just a few unmissable highlights to check out over the summer:
Picos de Europa National Park
Founded in 1918, Picos de Europa National Park was the very first national park in Spain and was previously known as Montana de Covadonga National Park. A popular region among hikers and anyone with a taste for the great outdoors, the stunning vistas over the national park make it difficult to believe you are in fact still in Spain. The region is dotted with gorgeous traditional mountain villages and settlements, presenting Spain in a rustic, charming light most travellers never experience. There’s a fabulous cable car at Fuente Dé for those who prefer not to strap on their hiking boots and it’s possible to see snow-capped peaks at any time of the year.
Occupying a stunning plot on the Bay of Biscay, the port city of Santander is not to be missed while visiting Spain’s north. Santander is home to some of the most stunning beaches in Spain, which mercifully do not tend to get nearly as crowded as those to the south. The ancient city centre itself is also a truly captivating experience in its own right, with a sizeable arsenal of important museums, galleries and theatres to check out. Food is nothing short of a religion in Santander, making it the perfect place to sample all the regional delicacies you can lay your hands on.
Rioja Wine Region
Continuing with the theme of gastronomic delights, it would be a crime to visit this area of Spain without taking a trip through the home of the country’s world famous Rioja wine region. Home to 500+ wineries which in most instances continue to follow centuries-old crafting techniques, there’s no better way of taking it all in than embarking on a horseback ride through a working vineyard. Needless to say, sampling the very best of what’s on offer comes as standard and it’s impossible not to be blown away by the masterpieces these artisans come up with. But then again, they have been making wine here for over 1,000 years!
A trip to the Asturias province capital also comes very highly recommended. Famed for its important religious monuments and churches dating as far back at the 8th century, Oviedo is in many respects a living museum to Spain’s ancient past. And if you happen to find any of the sights you come across somewhat on the familiar side, it might be because a fair few scenes from Vicky Cristina Barcelona were shot here.
The cosmopolitan, cultural and wholly refined city of Bilbao today is a far cry from its origins as a highly industrialised port city. Bursting with incredibly beautiful buildings and more museums and galleries than a dozen lesser cities, Bilbao is the real deal for culture vultures. Of course, the highlight of the city is the spectacular Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, which is just as impressive from the outside as it in on the inside. The city’s setting among the surrounding Basque country hills is truly majestic.
Always an amusing challenge for newcomers to attempt to pronounce, Gaztelugatxe is located just off the shore at the Bay of Biscay and can be accessed by way of a pedestrian footbridge. There is a small chapel on the island at its very top, which can be reached by scaling the 230 or so rather steep steps. It’s not a climb for the faint-hearted, but there’s no disputing how the jaw-dropping views from the top make it an exertion that is more than worthwhile.
An often overlooked yet breathtakingly beautiful Spanish city, Burgo is home to some of the country’s most important religious architecture. Deeply historic and steeped in local legend, Burgos features the only cathedral in Spain that has individually been awarded UNESCO World Heritage designation. While visiting the Castile-León region, it is also more than worth taking the time to pay a visit to the towns of Santo Domingo de Silos, Covarrubias, Frías and Aranda de Duero. Outstanding gastronomy is no less than a religion throughout this beautiful region.
Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela is the Galician capital city and one of the most important religious sites in the whole of Spain. Pilgrimages from across the country and beyond continue with the main square as the primary arrival point. Occupying a stunning spot right at the centre of the city, the main square is a stunning landmark in its own right and home to Santiago Cathedral. It is believed that an Apostle of Jesus Christ – St. James – was laid to rest in Santiago de Compostela.
Santillana del Mar
You might want to consider packing a sturdy pair of shoes if you decide to visit Santillana del Mar – an absolutely beautiful medieval village where cars and vehicles in general are not permitted. It’s walking all the way in Santillana del Mar, which is often referred to as The Town of Three Lies - it is not a Saint (Santo), nor flat (llana), nor is it by the sea (Mar).
Last but not least, the stunning beach resort of San Sebastián is absolutely worth a visit during your stay, not to mention the outstanding restaurants, bars and nightlife of the nearby Old Town. There is an extensive calendar of cultural events to check out throughout the year – one of the most notable being the extraordinary jazz festival which takes place every July.
Photos by Jaime Gonzalez and Sandra Cohen-Rose & Colin Rose under Flickr Creative Commons