The country with a fiery temper which doesn’t concede even to Italy, passionate Spain is a true gem of the Mediterranean you’ll desire to immerse in. The legendary motherland of famed artists and excellent soccer players simply can’t leave anyone indifferent, keeping an enormous number of outstanding phenomena to surprise you. In fact, Spain is so rich in cultural heritage that it is impossible to cover even a half of it within one post, that’s why we’ve decided to pay equally special attention to both the northern and southern parts of the country. In this piece, we introduce you to the top attractions of the gorgeous Spanish north to provide you with some ideas for your northern Spain travel.
When it comes to the question of which part of the country boasts the best Spain destinations, we can’t give a definite answer as both northern and southern Spain are equally attractive from the touristic point of view. Though there’s no strict division of the north and south, Spain’s culture and traditions vary greatly from one region to another, making it a nice ground for saturated exploration and multiple comparisons.
Generally speaking, northern Spain is less popular among tourists (except Madrid and Barcelona, of course) which is quite a shame as the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula has a lot of “wow” in store, so, let’s have a closer look at the highlights worth becoming a part of your Spain itinerary.
Artistic Catalonia: The Most Visited Destination in Spain
It would be strange not to start our overview from such a mighty and willful Spain region as Catalonia. Whoever you are going to talk to while visiting Catalonia, every patriotic local will call this region the heart and the industrial power of the whole country and not without a reason. Catalonia is, indeed, one of the most well-developed and culturally rich districts of the peninsula.
The main city of the region, unsurpassed Barcelona, has been rightfully included in the top five most visited European cities and can even compete with Madrid for the title of the most popular city in Spain.
The vibrant capital of Catalonia is beautiful from any angle, at any time of the day and year. Boasting a countless number of old quarters, parks, and cozy streets, Barcelona mesmerizes by its a bit surrealistic appearance and the atmosphere of a never-ending fiesta.
You may start your acquaintance with one of the most popular cities in northern Spain from the Square of Catalonia, the epicenter of the city, the famous meeting point and the gateway to the famous pedestrian street La Rambla, boasting amazing historic buildings, various shops, and cafes. Swerving out of La Rambla, you find yourself in the medieval Gothic Quarter where you’ll be able to catch the vibe of good old Barcelona of centuries ago.
During your Barcelona walking tour, it’s impossible to overlook the masterpieces of the brilliant architect Antoni Gaudi, scattered here and there around the city. Of course, the most iconic Gaudi creation is the world-renowned Sagrada Familia, the church which is still under construction and is scheduled to be finished by 2026, the centennial of the death of its creator.
Another Gaudi masterpiece is Park Guell, a place that stuns imagination with its mosaic-covered structures, bizarre forms, and amazing views over Barcelona. By the way, for more scenic panoramas, you can head even higher up to Tibidabo, a mountain overlooking the city and featuring a nice amusement park.
Art lovers can seek some inspiration in numerous Barcelona museums, including the Picasso Museum, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (set gracefully atop the Montjuic Hill), the Joan Miró Foundation, and a lot more.
In case your hunger for art is still strong, take a day trip to Figueres, the hometown of the most provocative surrealist of all time, Salvador Dali, to visit the Dali Theatre and Museum, where the genius himself was buried.
Located not far away high up in the mountains, the historical Montserrat Monastery is one more Catalan location making for an outstanding day trip from Barcelona.
What is more, traveling to the north of the region, you can also explore the tiny yet beautiful country Andorra, nestled in a mountain valley.
It is the only country where Catalan is considered as an official language, this may be not that surprising on the area of only 466 sq km (180 sq m), but still, why not add one more destination to your travel piggy bank?
The Mysterious Basque Country of Spain
Having its own peculiar language and traditions, the historic region of País Vasco (or the Basque Country) seems to be the most “unSpanish” territory of the country, living as a separate state within Spain. Sounds pretty intriguing, right? And we want to assure you that this hospitable but unjustly neglected region will help you to see Spain from a completely different angle.
The large-scale Basque love for freedom and restless will to everything new is embodied in futuristic and cosmopolitan Bilbao. Standing among the largest cultural and touristic centers of the country, Bilbao surely can enhance the list of best things to see in Spain.
The city is divided by the River Nervión into two wholly different parts: the left bank is dominated by huge skyscrapers and urban infrastructure while the right side is adorned by medieval quarters and amazing churches.
Moreover, Bilbao is a real catch for fans of contemporary art as the hub swarms with a nice number of art spaces.
The most prominent Bilbao museum is the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum which houses impressive installations of notable modern artists.
One more gem of the Basque Country is San Sebastián (or Donostia in the Basque language). Considered as one of the gastronomical capitals of Spain and Europe, the resort town attracts travelers by outstanding Michelin-starred restaurants and pinchos-bars as well as excellent beaches, breathtaking ocean views, and nice surfing opportunities. Isn’t it tempting to breathe in the salty ocean air, resting on a local beach or sipping a glass of fine wine in a cozy bar, soaking in the relaxing atmosphere of this lovely Spanish town? We bet the answer is obvious.
Treasures of Navarra & Excellent Rioja Wines
If the region of Navarra is on your northern Spain travel agenda, you should definitely consider visiting Pamplona, an ancient Spanish city, preserving many remarkable attractions and monuments. The city’s architectural ensemble is composed of winding picturesque streets, medieval churches, and quaint houses, adding some unique charm to any stroll around the Old Town.
The most famed sight among the visitors of Pamplona is the huge Gothic cathedral, the construction of which began in 1390 and was completed by 1527. It has two 50-meter towers, one of which keeps the largest bell in Spain.
However, historic Pamplona is renowned worldwide for holding the annual celebration of San Fermin. The week-long festival takes place in July during which you have a chance to witness some traditional folkloric events as well as the spectacular heart-thumping bulls run across the streets of Pamplona.
In case you are interested in combining Pamplona travel with a Spain wine tour, you will find no better place than the neighboring region, La Rioja. Having been a famous winemaking region from the very Roman times, La Rioja still keeps its unique traditions which makes visiting some local wineries just a must. For sure, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by a great variety of fine wines and the locals’ hospitality.
The Charms of Remote Galicia
Leaving aside the Mediterranean allure with its booming energy and bizarre art, you can rediscover Spain by heading to the northwestern region of Galicia. Picturesque hilly landscapes, astonishingly fresh air, rich cultural heritage, and outstanding cuisine can all be found in the capital of Galicia and the true magnet of pilgrims from all over the world, Santiago de Compostela.
As the legend says, the city serves as the burial site of the relics of St. James, one of the twelve apostles of Christ. For this reason, Santiago de Compostela is among the main centers of Catholicism in Europe as well as the endpoint of the religious Way of Saint James, a pilgrimage path beginning in southern France and passing through the Spanish north.
So if you are keen on religious tourism or are just an ambitious explorer, you may challenge yourself to pass this UNESCO listed route from start to finish!
The historical center of Santiago de Compostela is a real treasure trove of religious architecture too, featuring the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the largest Roman church in Spain located on the Square of Obradoiro, as well as the Benedictine monastery of San Martiño Pinario, Palace de Raxoi, and Church of Santa María a Real do Sar.
The Heart and Soul of the Spanish Kingdom
Though the capital of Spain is located closer to the central part of the country, we’ve decided to terminate our northern Spain overview with glorious and lively Madrid. In fact, Madrid’s appearance and culture reflect its past as a royal city and the heart of a powerful empire pretty vividly. Spacious squares, monumental edifices, and palaces, built with an impressive magnitude impress and make you fall in love with the city at first sight.
A good starting point of your Madrid walking tour is the buzzing Puerta del Sol, housing the symbol of the city - the Statue of the Bear and the Strawberry Tree.
The square is located in the very heart of the metropolis and gives way to the city’s most beautiful streets and quarters. Discover the vibrant square, Plaza Mayor, framed by massive colonnades and housing the Philip III statue.
Then proceed to the majestic Baroque Royal Palace, the official residence of the Royal Family, containing lots of unique pieces of art and antiques. The Spanish capital is also a vast playground for museum enthusiasts.
We strongly recommend starting your Madrid museum exploration from the Golden Triangle of Art: the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofía Museum, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, all set on the Paseo del Prado.
If you get exhausted walking under the blazing sun, you can always hide from the heat of the stone jungle in one of Madrid parks. Have a peaceful stroll around the stunning Casa de Campo, the largest park in Madrid which is five times larger than the Central Park in New York!
You can also discover the beauty of Retiro Park or relax in the fabulous Campo del Moro just near the Royal Palace. All in all, Madrid is a fantastic city able to drive the whole palette of emotions except indifference!
To top your saturated sightseeing of Madrid, plan a day trip to Toledo, located just an hour away from the capital. A favorite destination of Cervantes, ancient Toledo is a true mix of cultures and traditions which left their mark on the city’s image. The heart of Spain is home to El Escorial too, this unique location offers the opportunity to see the centuries-old royal residence. In a word, both are absolute must-sees!
Summing up, it may seem that northern Spain contains the major part of famous Spanish destinations which are worth a ride, for starters, those of (and near) Madrid and Barcelona, but is it really all that Spain has to offer? Spoiler: there’s much more to see than you can imagine, so stay tuned for the second part of our travel guide, Northern Spain vs Southern Spain | Part 2, to see what the sun-kissed Spanish south has in store to delight your travel appetite.