Spain

Northern Coast of Spain – What Makes It So Special?

Last Updated on January 24th, 2020

For a long time, I wanted to visit the Northern Coast of Spain. Perhaps a few random pictures I saw a while ago inspired me to come and explore this land, not sure. But I kept going to Northern Spain in my dreams.

I know, a lot of people prefer the South of Spain with its Moorish sights, flamenco, stunning beaches, whitewashed villages, milder winters, and fiestas. But the only thought about how touristy and hot this part of the country can get holds me back. Plus, I feel like everyone goes to Southern Spain or Madrid, overlooking other regions. I would better go to those places that not many people know about or visit (which is kind of hard to do nowadays but still.)

Northern coast of Spain
North Coast of Spain

In fact, last year Mark and I spent a good chunk of time going on road trips from Barcelona to Valencia and exploring Costa Brava Region. (By the way, if you are planning to visit Barcelona, check my mega-post with all important travel tips for this city.)

There we wandered to small inland villages and walked the streets of busy cities. Somehow, it didn’t leave a feeling that we wanted to return, perhaps rent an apartment for a longer period of time and stay. Perhaps the reason was that the scenery and nature reminded us a lot about Southern California where our life was too stressful. So overall Southern Spain somehow didn’t click with us.

This year, we chose to visit Northern Spain. More than that, we decided not only to visit but come and live here a little bit. Being digital nomads and working online helps us be more flexible when it comes to a place where to be based. So we decided to give it a try and see if Northern Spain can impress us more than the South did last year.

And it does impress us every day. It’s been already one month since the moment we rented a home in Santander and tried to blend in with locals. The northern coast of Spain actually makes us change our perception of Spain completely. The more time we are spending here, the more we are liking it, and the more we are thinking about applying for a digital nomad or student visa to be able to stay here long-term.

Here are a few reasons why I believe the Northern coast of Spain is absolutely special. It is simply impossible not to fall in love with it. Also, I give a few ideas about the best places to visit in Northern Spain.

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Northern Spain is Greener and Cooler

Northern coast of Spain

I remember how dry and kind of dead the grass and plants in Southern Spain looked like at the end of November. And this is how they look like during most of the year. I know, every winter rain brings them back to life but late spring and summer heat and sun make them fade away again.

It is very common for Spain to be portrayed as a country with sun-scorched mountains and plains with endless olive plantations. I think it deserves its title when we look at the bigger part of Spain. But after a visit to Cantabria, Asturias, Galicia, and Basque counties, it comes as a pleasant surprise how green actually vegetation can get. And not only during the winter. Even in summer, it gets so green and so bright that you easily get stunned by the natural beauty around.

Surprisingly, because of the Gulf Stream, the climate in Northern Spain is much more temperate than many can expect from the land of this latitude. This part has a maritime climate, with cooler (but still pleasant) summers and mild winters. July and August are the driest months, although rains are not uncommon.

north coast of spain
This photo went through minimum editing. It just gets so bright and green in Northern Spain

In the summer, the thermometer, as a rule, shows + 25º-30ºС (77F-86F,) and in the winter + 15°С (60F.) In the mountainous region of Picos de Europa, which lies at an altitude of more than 2,500 meters, the alpine climate reigns throughout the year. There you can see how the mountain peaks are always covered with snow.

Northern Spain is a unique place. It has an incredibly beautiful coast, where cliffs alternate with long beaches with clean fine sand, and snow-capped mountain peaks rise above coniferous and eucalyptus forests. The local population is affable and I can not call their rhythm of life anything other than leisurely. All this may well be the reason for visiting, buying a home here or even moving to this region as a permanent resident.

By the way, are you curious to know what people wear in this part of the country? Take a look at my Spain packing list.

Northern Spain Beaches Are Simply Mind-Blowing And Warm To Swim

Northern coast of Spain

North Spain travel

To be honest, I underestimated the beauty of the North coast of Spain. I expected it to be dramatic and impressive but had no clue it would be that spellbinding. Every time Mark and I go to visit a new coastal city or town we follow the rule of stopping at the local beach, walking around it for a bit, taking a few pictures and looking at waves crashing on the shore.

And every beach we visited so far (and I have to tell we’ve already been to a few dozen of them) looked so different from a previous and next one. Some beaches are wide with calm and sheltered waters perfect for swimming while others are narrow nestled between rocky coastal formations. There are beaches with white or bright yellow sand and those with shells and pebbles. It doesn’t matter what type of beach along the North coast we go to. Every single one of them captivates us so much that we are ready to run in the water despite the fact that it is early spring.

Northern coast of Spain
After the rain on one day in February

You know what’s interesting though. The ocean water along the Northern coast of Spain is not that cold that you may think.

If you’ve been to any beach in Northern Europe or Northern U.S., you have definitely noticed how cold the water was. There, even if it feels warm on the beach, the water stays quite cold far into the summer. I thought the same would apply to Northern Spain. But the ocean gets much warmer here in the summer creating perfect conditions for swimming. Even in February water did not feel that cold at all. A lot of people were sunbathing and enjoying beach activities. We personally didn’t feel comfortable because of frigid wind.

Northern Coast of Spain Has Some of the Finest Cheeses and Cider

For Cheeses…

Did you know that Spain is actually a producer of some of the finest cheeses in Europe? I always thought it was France which remains famous worldwide until this day.  When we visited a Cabrales Cheese Cave in Las Arenas we learned that Spain produces more types of cheeses than France. However, since their production is directed mainly on a local market than international, Spanish cheese is not as well-known and popular around the world as their neighbor’s.

Each region in Northern Spain makes some type of cheese. Asturias is famous for Cabrales cheese – a blue cheese made with a mixture of sheep, goat and cow’s milk. Cantabria produces a creamy cheese with a bitter flavor called Nata de Cantabria. Galicia makes a few types of cheeses. One is Tetilla cheese – a creamy one with a salty flavor using cow’s milk only. Another one is Arzula Illoa – a handmade soft mild cheese made with a cow’s milk also but has a bit oily taste. Basque county is home to Idiazabal cheese – raw sheep’s milk cheese with a hard and smooth crust with an intense aroma and high calcium content. It comes with smoke and creamy flavors.

A visit to a cheese farm is an interesting experience which you can get in any part of Northern Spain. And you don’t need to plan it as a separate trip. It is very easy to stop by one of the farms (or stores where they can tell you a bit about the production too) on the way to a hike, beach, national park or when visiting villages or smaller towns. There are quite a few of them scattered along the coast. Just don’t forget about the siesta time when most businesses close for a few hours.

northern coast of spain
Learning about the process of making blue cheese
northern coast of spain
With a cider, you always get some snacks

For a Cider…

Cider is a drink that takes a special place in the lives of local people from Galicia to the Basque county. It is an absolute must-try, especially when in Asturia. This region, being home to cider, is full of cider farms (called Sidras.) Some are bigger, some are smaller but all of them tell about the process of making cider and the most interesting part of how to drink and pour it. When being on a road trip anywhere between Unquera and Cudillero, put in Google maps the word “Sidra” and you’ll see lots of options where to stop for such a unique experience. By the way, a Cabrales Cheese Cave mentioned above includes a cider tasting after the cheese tour.

For a more authentic and entertaining experience, I recommend visiting one of Taverns or Bars (they can also be called Sidrerias.) There, you’ll get a taste of cider beverage and witness the process of pouring and drinking it.

If you happen to drive in the evening from Santander to Gijon or back, stop in a tiny town Villaviciosa. It has a lovely cafe de Vicente Pasteleria with very friendly barmen and homey feel. The town itself is pretty unremarkable but its location right near the highway makes it easy to detour. And drinking cider there is an absolutely delightful experience. One big bottle is only 3.50 euros. That’s more than enough for two people.

Sometimes It Feels Like Ireland, Switzerland or Alps

Northern spain travel

Northern coast of Spain

Neither of us has been to Ireland (yet) but we definitely have seen many pictures of Ireland coast and fields. On many occasions, when traveling along the Northern coast of Spain we get the impression that the scenery is very similar to that one on Ireland postcards. And then recently, after posting some photos on Instagram, a few friends of mine got back to me saying the same – they recognize how similar the landscapes are.

Have you been to Ireland? When you look at the pictures what do you think?

A drive away from the coast towards the mountains changes the scenery in many ways. Irish motifs slowly turn into Swiss. Lots of twisty roads lead to spectacular vistas, gorgeous lakes and bring you close to snowy peaks. The coast is only one hour away but it doesn’t feel like it. The greatness of the mountains and surrounding nature make you feel like you are in the deep wilderness.

Food in Northern Spain is Something To Travel For

food in northern Spain

A culinary richness of the North coast of Spain is represented by a variety of seafood dishes, meat, fresh vegetables and fruits, excellent cheeses and wines. A choice of seafood is so wide that it’s easy to get lost when in the store or restaurant.

You can also be sure that foods here are always fresh and organic. There are no chemical additives, artificial coloring or preservatives to make it last longer and taste better. The entire Northern coast of Spain has a clean environment and high-quality natural foods.

Cocido montañes, a thick soup made from white beans, meat (pork, ham), cabbage and blood sausage, is a traditional dish of the region, especially in mountain areas. Paella is very popular too. But here it comes mainly with seafood.

It Is One of The Least Populated and Touristy Regions

Northern coast of Spain

Northern Spain is perfect for those who appreciate quietness, serenity and slower pace of life. In general, the region is not heavily populated, so it never feels too busy. Even in larger cities you rarely get disturbed by a hectic lifestyle. During the high tourist season (which is usually summer) you won’t find nearly as many tourists as in Southern Spain.

A small population and the absence of a large number of visitors and tourists, a competent policy of local authorities in respect of nature and the environment have allowed this region to remain almost in its original state.

Majority of visitors to Northern Spain are people who have traveled quite a lot around Spain and Europe. They can compare and understand the advantages of different regions. These people appreciate organic foods, high-quality beverages, can distinguish between natural and manmade beaches and love nature in its original state. You won’t find crazy wild nightlife here as in the southern regions of Spain. Tourists do not come to party here at night and bake under the sun during the day.

Best Places to Visit in Northern Spain

Oh my gosh, when it comes to Northern Spain travel, there are so many places to visit here. It gets challenging to describe them all in just one post. I will be writing more articles on this topic, so if you want to make sure you’ll get them, subscribe to our email.

To give you an idea of where to go in Northern Spain, here is a quick summary:

Picos de Europa

North Spain itinerary

My number one pick for nature addicts.

The Picos de Europa National Park was founded in 1918. And it is one of the first national parks in Spain. Extremely high mountains along with deep gorges make this place special.

Tourists who visit this park should apply extra caution in foggy weather and when it snows. There are multiple hiking trails throughout the park. But if you are not a big fan of trekking adventure, hop on one of a few cable cars. They rise more than 1,800 meters above sea level and allow everyone to enjoy stunning views in full.

Santander

Northern coast of Spain

Oh Santander, my love. I may be in love with this city because it became a temporary home. Or perchance it is really worth the hype.

Santander is a port city with incredibly beautiful beaches that became a real attraction here. The wide-spread golden sandy beach of El Sardinero is one of the most beautiful beaches in Northern Spain. The nearby Piquio gardens complement the fabulous view of this area.

Here you’ll find ancient architecture, interesting museums, amazing views of the city from above and some of the best ice cream.

Bilbao

cities in Northern spain

Bilbao got famous for its port industry and fishing. However, over time, it became a center of modern art and architecture. Green hills surround the city and a river beautifully divides it into two parts.

Bilbao is definitely for art lovers. Famous Guggenheim Museum, which presents contemporary art to the audience, elements of historical architecture tell an interesting story.

Pamplona

Pamplona is a city with a rich history, which was once the capital of the Kingdom of Navarre.

Today, a lot of people know it for the festival of San Fermin when fearless souls tend to get ahead of the herd of bulls running through the city streets (crazy!) If you are looking to see this type of a show with your own eyes then come to visit in July. The festival lasts for 6 days. Just make sure to rent an accommodation in advance and check it face the street where bulls run. Another popular activity that attracts tourists here is bullfighting.

Also, Pamplona is the first city on the Spanish Pilgrim Road. Here you can see many parks, historical monuments, and other fascinating sights.

Gaztelugatxe

Northern coast of Spain

Gaztelugatxe is a small peninsula in the Bay of Biscay, which resembles a castle. Its name literally translates as Castle in the Rock. If you are watching Game of Thrones show, you may recognize this landmark. The location appears in the scenes of this show.

There is a pedestrian bridge that goes through the peninsula all the way to the top of the rock where a small but very beautiful chapel is.

The highest point is at an altitude of 231 meters above sea level. The views from anywhere near and top of the rock are breathtaking.

San Sebastian

Northern coast of Spain

Picturesque hills surround this popular seaside resort creating an incredible view.

The most famous landmark of San Sebastian La Concha is one of the best urban beaches in Spain. It is famous for a huge number of pubs and bars, each of which has its own unique vibe.

Most of the local buildings belong to the XIX century since in 1813 the city was completely destroyed by the British and Portuguese. It is very pleasant to go for a stroll and get lost on the streets of this city.

San Sebastian is also popular for its jazz festival, which takes place annually in July. A few other festivals take place here throughout the year too.

Santillana Del Mar

Northern coast of Spain

If you are going to visit Santillana del Mar, don’t forget to take comfortable shoes. This beautiful medieval village offers lots of walking.

It is conveniently located on the west coast of Spain, at only 30 km from Santander, near the Caves of Altamira. These caves are famous for their prehistoric paintings, and the name of the city comes from the name of Saint Julian.

Overall, various Renaissance palaces and churches make this cute little village an important historical area in Cantabria province.

La Rioja

Travelers who appreciate good wine and are on their way from Zaragoza to San Sebastian (or back) absolutely must visit the Rioja wine region and add it to their Northern Spain itinerary. It is home to more than 500 wineries.

The unique climate helps to make the wine very tasty and unique. Some wineries offer their visitors a trip around the vineyards in special carts and shuttles. While others run masterclasses that introduce visitors to the art of winemaking.

With so many vineyards that dot the hills of northern Spain, vintners improved the art of creating world-famous wines. The main wine areas to visit are Rio Badia, Rio Alta, and Rio Alavesa. Rioja is one of the best winemaking areas in the world. Definitely add it to your North Spain itinerary.

Oviedo

North coast of spain

Oviedo is the capital of the province of Asturias. People from all over Spain know this city well enough due to religious traditions and many religious monuments.

Pilgrim Road to Santiago goes through Oviedo. Here, truly ancient churches that date back to the eighth century still operate to this date, including the Cathedral of San Salvador and the well-preserved Basilica of San Julian de Los Prados.

Another attraction that you should definitely see is La Foncalada fountain of the 9th century. It represents the Romanesque style and has survived to our days.

Undoubtedly, Oviedo is one of the best cities to visit in Spain. It takes some time to walk through it and visit attractions (and eat local tapas of course,) so I advise to try to come for at least a day.


I hope you will enjoy the Northern coast of Spain even more than we did! If you have anything to add or ask, drop me a comment below!

And, if you find this information useful, do you mind sharing it on Pinterest?

northern coast of spain

Anya is Ukrainian-American who is absolutely obsessed with not only seeing the world as a traveler but living on each continent as an expat and digital nomad. She is the founder, editor and author or Road Is Calling. Her main goal is to share her knowledge of travel, hospitality business, online entrepreneurship and how to become an expat through finding jobs around the world. When she is not working on her blog, she is sauntering up mountains, wandering neighborhoods of a new city or simply mastering gluten-free cooking.

10 Comments

  • Gemma

    I loved hiking in the Spanish Pyrenees (a few years ago) but the culture, food and beauty of Spain is fantastic! I’d love to go back.

  • Kashlee Kucheran

    I love how you went from South to North and found the gems in going off the beaten path! After travelling in South East Asia for 2 years straight, COOLER weather sounds like heaven 🙂 Such great spots you found!

  • Alizon Robertson

    I live in Andalucia but I also love the North of Spain, both beautiful but different. I have only been to San Sebastian and Bilbao but would love to visit the other places you mention. The pictures are stunning!

    • Anya

      Alizon, we are actually wanting to visit Andalucia so badly! Have been planning a few times but it never worked out well, hopefully, it will later this year.

  • forleo

    Oh, how much I love Northern Spain! I enjoyed reading your post and seeing your perspective on this region and it makes me want to go back.

  • Raymond Anthony

    I have been toying with the idea of retiring in a small stone village in Northern Spain (though not too far from a biggish city). I visited a couple of years ago the cities of Santander and Oviedo and ‘was bowled-over by its beauty.

    • Anya

      Hey Raymond!
      Both of these cities are incredibly beautiful, we loved them so much! And I totally understand your desire to settle in a small village not far from the city, that’s a dream for us too!

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