This was a rather last minute trip—booked 5 weeks in advance. I have an aunt and cousin that live in Valencia, Spain. I met them for the first time 5 years ago and had only seen them a few brief times during their visits to the States. Luckily, they were able to get the week off as well, so we made a little family retreat out of it.
We had never been to the northern region of Spain, so my aunt planned an itinerary consisting of countryside villages, authentic food and lots of red wine. Not only was I excited to discover the many merits and allures northern Spain had to offer, but I was also looking forward to spending some quality time with my Spanish relatives.
In Spain, it’s so easy to grab a car and hit the open road. As you head north towards the Bay of Biscay, the air becomes breezier and the scenery becomes greener. The dramatic landscapes and the pace of life here is unlike anywhere else. A road trip like this is the perfect way to clear up some headspace and detach from our daily humdrum lives.
We ventured off the beaten path and hit 12 different towns in 7 days. For anyone wanting to soak in the brilliance and beauty of northern Spain, this seven-day road trip itinerary is for you.
Tips Before you Go:
- If possible, book a rental car in advance! You will also need to purchase damage insurance coverage. Parking spaces tend to be on the smaller side and drivers in Spain like to play bumper cars.
- Get the GPS—you won’t regret it.
- You’ll hit some tolls on the roadways. But don’t worry; it’ll still be cheaper than a train ticket.
- Trip Advisor is a reliable resource to use when exploring Spain for hotel ideas, restaurant reviews and recommendations for things to see and do.
- Restaurants and businesses tend to take their afternoon siestas from 2-5 pm, so keep this in mind when setting up your own itinerary.
- Mentally prepare yourself for way too many Spanish roundabouts—an experience that is similar to being sucked into a whirlpool of doom. Unfortunately, these roundabouts are much more common than the 4-way intersections that we are used to. Rule of thumb: Always exit using the outer lane. Also, avoid driving from 5-6 pm and you’ll avoid the conundrum of navigating these during rush hour traffic.
- Last but not least, go with the flow! Don’t be constrained by the details.The best travel experiences stem from spontaneity and curiosity. The beauty of road trips is that you are guaranteed to come across some hiccups and surprises. Embrace them wholly and welcome the randomness.
Day 1: Valencia ⇒ Teruel ⇒ Zaragoza ⇒ Logroño
From Valencia, we drove 1.5 hours northwest through arid plains to a town called Teruel. It’s a small city perched on a hillside packed with narrow winding alleys and Mudéjar architecture. The buildings gilded in brick and ceramic are largely influenced by Gothic, Islamic and Spanish Moor styles. Thus, many of the buildings in Teruel have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.The main plaza—La Plaza del Torico— is where you will find people bustling and mingling around the city’s famous fountain featuring a statue of a little bull. Also, step inside La Catedral and admire the ceiling which features The Sistine Chapel of Mudéjar Art. Warriors, musicians, artists, priests, dragons, and religious figures are among the many symbols portrayed on the ceiling mural and represent 14th century civilization.
After Teruel, we headed 2 hours north to Zaragoza. Even though Zaragoza is a rather underrated city, it is the 5th largest city of Spain. Zaragoza became the biggest Muslin-run city in northern Spain. Here you will find an array of historical sights ranging from Roman theaters to baroque churches. Our main reason for stopping here was to see the majestic Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. Upon finding the city, we walk over to the cathedral located in the Plaza del Pilar—Spain’s largest pedestrian plaza. It was late afternoon and the sun’s warm glow against this mammoth-sized church was simply breathtaking. The design of this plaza is artfully done, with a large fountain built on different levels on one end of the square. Restaurants, bars and businesses line the other edge of the square facing the front of the iconic church. The plaza is happening with performers, crowds and festivities. We found a table in the plaza where we relished in the atmosphere— ice-cream cones in hand, of course.
After our quick break in Zaragoza, we drove 1.5 hours to Logroño, capital of La Rioja— Spain’s wine country. We arrived at around 9pm and checked-in to our hotel, quickly freshened up and headed out for some pintxos bar hopping. Pintxos (pronounced like “peen-chos”) are northern Spain’s heartier version of tapas, typically consisting of different foods served atop a small slice of baguette.
Here in Logroño—and the majority of northern Spain for that matter—bars feature a signature pintxo as well as a featured house wine at roughly 1-3 euros a pop. In my experience, the house pintxos are the best to get because they are fresh and made to order.
In Logroño, the bars are clustered along long narrow streets famous for its pintxos—Calle Laurel and Calle San Juan. The fun is in floating from bar to bar sampling pintxos and sipping on glasses of Rioja.
The first rule of pintxos: eat on your feet. The second rule of pintxos: eat only 1-2 pintxos per bar and then move on to the next. The third rule of pintxos: keep going until you’re all pintxo’d out.
Day 2: Logroño ⇒ Ezcaray
In the morning, we started the day in the best of ways—with a winery tour. We visited Bodegas Franco-Españolas, which is located right across from Logroño’s old city center. Rumor has it that it used to be frequented by Hemingway. Unlike Napa Valley and Sonoma County, vineyards aren’t usually open to the public. Instead, some bodegas offer tours and tastings for reservations made in advance.
We then made our way to Ezcaray, located roughly 50 minutes from Logroño. This stop was mainly geared towards spending a night in the charming hotel Echaurren that houses La Rioja’s first Michelin-starred restaurant. However, we were also surprised with an enchanting mountain town, rich in old culinary and artisan traditions.
Day 3: Ezcaray ⇒ San Sebastián
We checked out of Hotel Echaurren in Ezcaray and continued north, trading the green mountains for the blue coastlines. Upon arriving to San Sebastián, we checked into the historic Hotel Maria Cristina, which splendidly sits across the bridge overlooking the Urumea river.
San Sebastián, also known as Donostia, is the glittery city of the Basque Country— rich in culture, gastronomy and fashion. In fact, it’s the 2016 European Capitol of Culture along with Wroclaw, Poland. San Sebastián is not only one of the best city beaches, but it’s also a foodie’s paradise—brimming with Michelin-starred restaurants and frequently topping lists of the best places to eat in the world. The pintxos bars are tucked away in Porte Vieja—the old town—and the best ones can easily be spotted by the crowded bar counters and mountains of napkins on the floor.
The city’s French-influenced architecture is elegant and the lingering scents of salt water, lush gardens and pintxos bars are heaven. Given that we only had one day in this city, I only got a small whiff of it. San Sebastián is a city that you should definitely make more time for.
Day 4: Day Trip to the Spanish/French Border
We took advantage of the fact that we were within minutes of the French border, so we took a day trip to the South of France. There are many villages along the coast, however, we chose 4 that had been recommended to us.
Stop 1: The Spanish fishing village of Hondarribia.Stop 2: The French Basque seaside town of St. Jean de Luz.Stop 3: The French Basque capital of Bayonne.Stop 4: The ritzy beach resort town of Biarritz.
Day 5: San Sebastián ⇒ Santander
We left San Sebastián bright and early in order to make the most of our day in Santander, the capital of Cantabria. Santander is known for its clean white sandy beaches, fresh seafood and for being home to the Royal family’s summer palace.
We arrived to Hotel Bahia, promptly checked into our rooms and immediately set off to explore the city. We started with the industrial city center, where we stumbled upon markets and the Plaza del Ayuntamiento—the city hall. We stopped for pintxos and cañas at Restaurant Cañadio, located in the Plaza de Cañadio. The city contains many museums and galleries; however, we spent the day strolling along the harbor promenade all the way up to the Palacio de la Magdelena—the old summer palace of Spain’s old Royal family—which is perched on top of a cliff. This walk rewards you with stunning seaside views overlooking the beach with mountain peaks in the background.
Day 6: Santander ⇒ Santillana del Mar ⇒ Valencia
While checking out of Santander, our bellhop suggested that we visit a small historic town located roughly 30 km from Santander. We obliged and made one last pit stop at Santillana del Mar.
Just a glimpse of this small medieval village and you instantly feel like you’ve transported back in time 500 years. It’s a coastal town, yet the sandstone buildings, cobblestoned streets and rolling hills filled with herds of sheep is reminiscent of a rural farm town. I will admit, I did find parts of the town to be a bit gimmicky and some of the shops and restaurants are borderline tourist traps. Regardless, we enjoyed the town in all its gimmicky glory—we indulged in a hearty meal of traditional fabada (Spanish beef stew), explored the souvenir shops and wandered the side streets. After 5 hours of exploring, we packed into the car and began our long 8-hour trek back to Valencia.
Day 7: Valencia
I studied abroad in Valencia 5 years ago and this was my first time back since. This Mediterranean city is the third largest in Spain and has so much life and culture. I have so much love for this place. Thus, Valencia deserves its own post. Stay tuned.
This was the first trip where I visited a bunch of places I didn’t know much about and it was oh so liberating. There’s nothing like traveling by car. Having a rental car at our disposal allowed us to explore beyond the beaten path and venture deep into the Spanish countryside.
We drove our little rental car through vineyards and farmlands, up mountains and hillsides, to places where we could feel the weight of Spain’s history and culture firsthand.
But it wasn’t just the places that stole my heart. By far, my favorite part of this trip were the memories made with the family I grew closer to.Between jamming in the car, having deep dinner conversations over glasses of Rioja wine, getting happily lost in the middle of nowhere and learning about my distant relatives and the dear country they call home—I was reminded of the importance of family, connection and what it means to live in the moment.
We may run, walk, stumble, drive, or fly, but let us never lose sight of the reason for the journey, or miss a chance to see a rainbow on the way. – Gloria Gaither