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Help with planning our trip to Northern Spain

Hello all,

My husband and I are planning a three week trip to Northern Spain in September of this year. We are trying to decide whether to fly into Madrid or Barcelona. We would then head to our first destination, make a loop and fly back to the USA from the other city. We have been to both cities in the past, but will probably spend a couple of nights in one of them at the end of our trip.. Big question is- which city is most convenient to arrive in and then go to Northern Spain? Right now, fares are lower to go into Barcelona and out of Madrid. However, ( although I haven’t experienced anything in the past) I’ve heard some concerning things about Barcelona’s crime lately, so not sure if I would want to stay there a few days at beginning of our trip before heading to Northern Spain. Any suggestions?
In addition, we are trying to decide if it is best to rent a car rather than rely on public transportation to travel around Northern Spain. We would like the ability to see some of the smaller towns as well as the well known like Santiago de Compostela, Bilbao, and San Sebastián.
Thank you for any help you can render!

Posted by
676 posts

What we call "Northern Spain" is the area from Galicia to the Basque Country, and while Catalonia is also technically in the north, we tend to consider them Mediterranean Spain, very different in climate, food, language...The obvious airport to arrive to in northern Spain is Bilbao, from there you can easily reach Donostia-San Sebastian, Rioja wine region, Santander, Asturias...

Posted by
266 posts

We did a wonderful, two week, self-drive trip to the Basque country in September, 2019. A third week would be fabulous!

We flew into and out of Barcelona and traveled as follows:
- Drove to Zaragoza
- To Laguardia, then tour and lunch at Bodegas Baigorri, on to Vitoria-Gasteiz
- To Bilbao
- To Guernica, then to San Sebastion (via Chillida Leku)
- To Hondaribbia, daytrip to Sare, Ainhoa, Espellette France
- To St. Jean de Luz, then to Bayonne
- To Carcassone
- To Figueres, Dali Museum, then back to Barcelona

Driving was problem-free. We loved it all (except Carcassone) and would happily return to the Rioja and Basque country. Have a great trip!

Posted by
3953 posts

I would fly in to Barcelona, then immediately take the AVE high speed train to the city of Zaragoza, about 1:30 hr northwest. Zaragoza makes much more logistical sense as a starting point to a Northern Spain roadtrip than Madrid or Barcelona.

Zaragoza is worth a few days in its own right, with more than 2,000 years of history including Roman ruins of the city walls, forum, and amphitheater, as well as the Aljafería; an 11th-century Moorish palace. It's also the home of the famous Nuestra Señora del Pilar Basilica. From Zaragoza's Delicias Train Station, there are several car rental options.

I would rent car in Zaragoza then make your way westwards along Northern Spain stopping in places like Olite, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santillana del Mar, Comillas, Picos de Europe National Park, Covadonga, Oviedo, Cudillero, Lugo, La Coruña, Santiago de Compostela. Then I would drop off your rental car in Santiago de Compostela before taking the direct ALVIA high speed train to Madrid (3:30 hr), to fly out.

Posted by
51 posts

Thank very much for the suggestions Carlos and MML
I realize Bilbao would be a great starting point for Northern Spain, but flying takes more time and $$. Therefore, we made the decision to fly into a larger airport.. I like the idea heading to Zaragoza directly after arrival in Barcelona since we will get in early in the morning. Since we have been to Barcelona in the past, I like the idea of a couple days in Zaragoza- probably fewer crowds also.
From there we agree that driving to the places mentioned, ending up in Santiago de Compostela before heading to Madrid for return to USA sounds excellent.
If there are any accommodation, restaurants, and places of particular interest you would recommend along the way, those are always welcomed!

Posted by
3953 posts

Since we have been to Barcelona in the past, I like the idea of a couple days in Zaragoza- probably fewer crowds also.

Good thinking, Zaragoza is very off the radar but worth it imo, also far less tourists than what you would encounter in Barcelona. In fact, it reminds me a lot of Barcelona before international mass tourism really took off there.

Last time I was in Zaragoza, I stayed at Hotel NH Ciudad de Zaragoza, an incredible location for a very reasonable price, directly overlooking the Pilar Basilica and the old Roman walls, in the old town. Recently renovated and very tasteful.

The best place for the tapas scene in Zaragoza is an area called El Tubo ( Another great place to eat is at the gourmet food market off the Plaza de España, called Puerta Cinegia Mercado (

I also really liked hiking in the Picos de Europa National Park. There are two accommodations I'd recommend in the area:

Parador de Fuente Dé ( - a historic hotel that sits below a string imposing vertical mountains. From there you can take numerous nature hikes and even a cable car that takes you all the way to the top of the mountains.

Hotel del Oso ( - a rustic tavern/hotel in a picturesque forested valley deep in the Picos de Europe National Park. The hotel there is very charming, but is almost always fully booked. There is also an excellent restaurant on site that serves the hearty regional mountain cuisine of the area.

Posted by
266 posts

Favorites from our 2019 trip were:

Hotels -
Hotel Praktik Rambla, Barcelona
Legazpi Doce Rooms & Suites, San Sebastian
Sercotel Jauregui Hotel, Hondaribbia

Food -
Bar Gran Sol (best pinxtos, plus Txaloli!), Hondaribbia
Arraunlaria Berri Jatetxea, Hondaribbia
Gerald’s Bar, San Sebastion
Bodegas Baigorri (lunch with wine sampling), LaGuardia

Attractions -
Aljaferia Palace, Zaragoza
Chillida Leku, near San Sebastion
Peine del Viento, San Sebastion
Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau, Barcelona

Enjoy your trip!

Posted by
51 posts

Wow, MML!!! Thanks for all the suggestions! I’m going to take a look at all of them! This kind of information is extremely helpful when one is exploring a new place! 😉

Posted by
6706 posts

When we did our strictly northern Spain trip we flew in to and out of Madrid. We had a rental car. The basic itinerary (places where we spent nights) was Madrid, Zamora, León, Villafranca del Bierzo, Santiago de Compostela, Ribadeo, Santillana Del Mar, Hondarrbia, Bayonne, Pamplona, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Burgos, and back to Madrid. On another trip we stayed in Olite, SOS Del Rey Católico, and Zaragoza. With a rental car we were able to stop at interesting places en route to our next lodging stop. There are plenty of places stay and things to see to Spain.

Posted by
1194 posts

Hello from Wisconsin,
I think Carlos has a very good plan.

Remember jet lag and either allow time in BCN to get your legs under you or take the train and spend a few days in Zag. Pick up a car there, tour the Bay of Biscay coastal cities and you could end in Santiago de Compostela. Take a train from there to Madrid to fly out.

When I think of Spain, I think hot and dry, olive trees, pines. But the north of Spain facing the Bay of Biscay is Ireland on steroids. Green lush, wet. The Europa Mountains The valleys running up from the coast into the Europa Mts are spectacular.

wayne iNWI

Posted by
676 posts

In fact, Spain is a very heterogeneous country by all means. Plenty of mountains practically everywhere, a very wet and mountainous north, snow in winter in many areas, four official languages, very different cuisines, 73 wine regions, so different and varied climates...Olive trees? Practically just in the south and areas of Catalonia, some in Navarre and Rioja...and that´s it! But hey, we are the biggest olive oil producer in the world (much more than Italy), and few people know that fact.