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Help with pre-planning for Central and/or Northern Spain

Hi Everyone!!

I would greatly appreciate your help in where to focus my research for a first trip to Spain. The trip is probably a few years out but I like to start planning well ahead of time and I’m not too familiar with Spain. We’d likely have around 16-18 nights, not including travel days. And will be traveling April or May. Aware of the en Abril aguas mil so hopefully more towards May.

We (myself, sister, and brother-in-law) would be flying nonstop from Chicago to and from Madrid and relying solely on public transportation. I’m thinking some sort of loop from Madrid or Toledo to Barcelona and then back to Madrid. From some older posts I was reading, it sounds like there is no fast way to get to and from Basque Country to either Madrid or Barcelona. Is this still the case? I’d like to see Barcelona, but am more comfortable in smaller cities. Is there a good option outside of Barcelona to stay and then day trip to Barcelona? Or maybe it makes sense to skip Barcelona this first trip and focus on Basque Country. Or perhaps stay more central?

We’re mid to late 40s. We haven’t been to Europe yet (will hopefully make it to Switzerland next year), so I’m guessing what we’d like. More walking around and looking at architecture, visiting churches and castles. Moderate walking versus strenuous hiking. Not a fan of museums.

Sorry for the general question. But I’m hoping with having to start and end in Madrid, some will have some suggestions and good options for train travel. My Spain guidebooks are huge, so I’m hoping to gain some knowledge from your experience.

Appreciate any help you can provide.



Posted by
1577 posts

From some older posts I was reading, it sounds like there is no fast
way to get to and from Basque Country to either Madrid or Barcelona.
Is this still the case?

There is a high speed rail line from Madrid to Bilbao and San Sebastian/Donostia under construction, known as the Basque Y. It is expected to open in 2023, so depending on what "a few years out" mean, the situation might be better when you visit.

Posted by
111 posts

There are very frequent flights from Bilbao (main airport in the Basque Country) to Madrid and Barcelona, it takes less than an hour to Madrid and a bit over an hour to Barcelona. Also, train and buses (bus takes 5 hours). It´s 250miles to Madrid and 375 to Barcelona. Take into account that Spain is very different from north to south, from west to east, in terms of climate, food, history, architecture...The Basque Country (my homeland) would deserve at least 5 days, with easy transport to either Madrid or Barcelona to continue or start your trip.

Posted by
105 posts

Badger, thanks for the info. on the high speed train. I will make a note of this as our trip most likely will be 2023 or later.

Mike, thanks for taking the time to respond. It never occurs to me to fly unless I absolutely have to. So, we would probably take the train and maybe stop somewhere along the way for a night or two. I was surprised in watching the RS videos just how different the regions of Spain are. Barcelona and Basque Country intrigued me the most which is why I’m thinking of northern Spain for a first trip.

Jean, thanks for the link to your trip report. It is very helpful! I’ve started reading older posts on Spain and had previously made a note to travel directly to Toledo after arriving in Madrid. I must have gotten that idea from you. 😊 Speaking of the trip reports, which I love to read, is there a way to search just in the trip reports? I wish these were organized by country, but maybe there’s a way to narrow the search so I’m not searching in all of the travel forum?

Posted by
111 posts

Thanks. It´s rather surprising to many visitors to find out about the regional differences in Spain (given the distorted "exported" idea of sun, beach, paella and bullfights). In fact, we have 4 official languages in Spain (Catalan in Catalonia, Galician in Galicia, Basque in the Spanish Basque Country and Spanish as the vehicular language, being Basque the oldest living language in Europe and totally unrelated to any other language in the world), a very wide variety of climates (rainy and green north, sunnier south, windy and wet Atlantic, but warmer Mediterranean), Spain is (after Switzerland) the most mountainous country in Europe (with plenty of snow in many areas in winter and plenty of skiing resorts) and there is a very, very wide variety of meals, depending on the region (for example, Donostia-San Sebastian is considered the world´s foodies mecca). It´s a rather heterogeneous country in looks, accents, customs, traditions, architecture...and that´s why it may be a good idea to concentrate in a few areas first, as every region is quite different on its own.

By the way, the public transportation system is excellent.

Posted by
2928 posts

I won’t touch the public transportation aspect of your question as I generally have a rental car. Every city has a church and many smaller ones outside of the large cities are worth stopping to visit. Some hermitages and chapels are in canyons, a few kilometers outside of town, or the middle of nowhere. The are also a large number of castles in the area you’d like to visit. Unfortunately, most are in very rural locations almost impossible to reach using public transportation. If there are some you’d like to see that are not in one of the larger cities, consider a rental car for a portion of your trip, keeping in mind that one isn’t needed in cities. Also, many castles are privately owned and not open to visitors, but are very interesting architecturally and worth walking around.

Posted by
183 posts

If you are interested in Barcelona and the Basque region I think pairing them would be an incredible trip. Barcelona would give you the architecture and you should definitely consider an overnight in Montserrat (easy, short train from Barcelona). We stayed at the monastery, and the hiking can be as strenuous as you choose, but seeing the Black Madonna was incredible, as well as being there after the large tour groups had departed. In fact, if you didn't want the big hike (we did) going in the afternoon and a late morning departure would be enough time. We actually stayed on the train and went to the airport from Montserrat. I was intrigued with the politics and history as far as the connection of separatism between the Catalonia and Basque regions and personally preferred both over Madrid, where the draw for me was the Prado. My week in the Basque region some years before that was one of my favorite trips ever- although I was also interested in the French side so split my time between both. The language is fascinating, the food is incredible, the history eye-opening (the Basque contribution to European exploration, etc) and the museum in Bilbao a must even if you are not into museums. My trip was almost 10 years ago and I flew (one hour) from Madrid, but there were trains and buses once there. I did hire a private guide one day to see the coast and some of the smaller towns since I didn't have a car.

Posted by
1577 posts

Badger, thanks for the info. on the high speed train. I will make a
note of this as our trip most likely will be 2023 or later.

Just remember that "planned to open in 2023" is not the same as "will open in 2023". And there are normal trains as well that takes around 5 hours to Bilbao, so not that hard to get there.

Posted by
17881 posts

There are great destinations stretched all across northern Spain from Barcelona to Santiago de Compostela. I recommend a detailed guidebook covering such places as Olite, Oviedo, Burgos, Leon and Santiago de Compostela, plus natural areas like the Pyrenees and Picos de Europa.

With the time you have available, you'll have to be selective, and I'd caution you to do some research on actual, day-by-day, historical weather statistics ( for the last 3 to 5 years so you'll have an idea of what to expect. Aside from Barcelona and surroundings, northern Spain tends to be distinctly cool as well as wet. For me, it's a great area to visit in the summer when most of the rest of Spain is likely to be seriously hot. It's not somewhere I'd go in April, and I am doubtful about May, especially early May--though I haven't checked the weather data carefully.

Barcelona is one of my favorite cities. Like you, I really enjoy walking around and seeing the local architecture, and Barcelona has lots of modernista buildings to appreciate--not just the Gaudi sites everyone wants to go inside. Be sure you have a local map that marks them. As of my 2016 trip the one-euro map sold by the tourist office was very helpful in plotting walks to take me past many of the modernista landmarks. If you're serious about tracking down most of them, the Ruta del Modernisme website will be very helpful. That organization publishes an excellent guidebook, but (though paper-bound) it is very heavy. There's an accompanying coupon book that confers discounts; it will save you money at most of the less-trafficked modernista sites but probably will not be helpful at places like Casa Mila and Casa Battlo. To use a coupon you have to (or used to have to) buy your ticket at the site itself, whereas a sane visitor who doesn't want to spend hours in line should buy online tickets for the most popular Barcelona sites in advance.

I'd recommend staying in Barcelona rather than commuting in every day. You will find crowds near (and also inside) the Gaudi sites, but if you stay in an area like the Eixample and not right along the Passeig de Gracia, you'll find the sidewalks peopled mainly by locals rather than tourists. You'll know you're in a big city, but the feel will be neighborhood-y. The subway system is excellent for longer trips across the city, but I prefer to walk whenever possible, because the architecture is so nice.

The best way for those who dislike crowds to enjoy Barcelona is to include a lot of non-Gaudi sites in their sightseeing. I especially recommend the Sant Pau modernista site, which as of 2019 still had not been discovered by the tourist mobs. It's a lovely, multi-building complex not very far from La Sagrada Familia.

The historic city of Girona, north of Barcelona, has a huge medieval district. It's popular but not as over-visited as Barcelona.

In the Basque Country I prefer the less-touristy Bilbao to the stunningly-situated San Sebastian. The vast majority of the tourists in Bilbao don't seem to go far from the Guggenheim Museum. The Casco Viejo (historic center) is very atmospheric and seems to be visited primarily by locals. In San Sebastian the smaller historic center has been turned into one tapas bar after another.

I adore Toledo for its huge medieval district. Madrid, to me, is more about art museums than architecture, so you might trim your time there to allow for a good visit to Toledo. There are some buildings in Toledo with Mudejar (Moorish) interiors. Since your first trip will not include Andalucia, it would be great to see some Mudejar architecture in Toledo.

Between Madrid and Barcelona is the major city of Zaragoza, a stop on the AVE rail line. It has a magnificent Moorish palace and an attractive historic district.

Posted by
4451 posts

I checked for nonstops between Chicago and Barcelona for random May dates and found several. You might consider skipping Madrid and focusing your trip on Barcelona and the Basque region. On the other hand, if Toledo is important enough, you could use Madrid for your flight in or out, and Barcelona for the other flight. That would save you the time and cost of backtracking between Madrid and Barcelona. Visiting Toledo is best done from Madrid, either as a day or overnight trip, by train. Madrid has some good architecture but maybe not enough to justify much time there. The top sights there are mainly art museums.

Like acraven, I'd recommend against a stay outside Barcelona with day trips into the city. Such a plan would eat into your sightseeing time. The Eixemple district is mostly low-rise buildings with wide streets and sidewalks, a lot of architectural interest. Not a small-town feel, but not as dense or urban-feeling as some other areas. You might want to day-trip to Montserrat or Girona or Sitges or elsewhere though.

Can't help you with the Basque country, never been there (too bad).

Posted by
105 posts

Mike and Badger, thanks for the additional info. I will count on public transportation being excellent, but not on the Basque Y being completed on time.

Jaime, thanks for the response and the suggestion. I don’t see us renting a car. I don’t even like to drive in the U.S. For me, one of the big draws to Europe is being able to travel by train. I realize this may limit our ability to see certain things. And good to know many castles are not open to the public.

Karen, thanks for reinforcing my thinking on focusing on Barcelona and the Basque region. Montserrat is already on my list. It looks amazing!!! My interest in Madrid is based on that being the only city we can get a nonstop flight to. So, as of now, I’m thinking maybe just 2 nights there before we fly home. Although after seeing Dick’s response, we may have the option to fly in and out of Barcelona.

Acraven, I appreciate the detailed response. I am a big fan of guidebooks and already have a handful on Spain. I like to read as much as possible as my knowledge of Europe is very limited. I was a little disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be as many region specific guidebooks for Spain as I expected. I have DK for northern Spain and all the big general Spain guidebooks. If anyone knows of a good Basque book, please let me know. Great info. you provided on both Barcelona and Basque Country. I am making notes of your suggestions. As far as traveling in April, that is the time of year my brother-in-law is able to take a good amount of vacation time. Plus, my thinking is there will be less crowds. Of course, we’d prefer not to have rain every day. I had previously made note of Zaragoza as that was mentioned on a previous post.

Dick, thanks for checking on the flights. I was looking at the Ohare airport nonstop destination list and Barcelona is not on it. I will definitely check when it’s closer to the time to book. I like your idea of flying into Barcelona if possible. I think you and Acraven have almost convinced me to stay in Barcelona. I’m making a note of the Eixemple district.

Posted by
77 posts

Hello Carrie
Rail travel from Barcelona to Basque Spain is easy. Last spring we traveled from Barcelona to Pamplona by train in about 4 hours. There were regular departures and it was an interesting route. I am sure that connections from Madrid would be similar. I'll leave it to Mike to opine on the "Basqueness" of Pamplona.
If you want.."walking around and looking at architecture, visiting churches and castles" then Spain will most definitely do the trick. They've also got great food, wine, beautiful countryside, an amazing culture and history and friendly people. Also pretty easy on the wallet.

Posted by
17881 posts

In addition to the trains, Spain has quite a well-developed bus network. I've found the buses to be comfortable; some even have Wi-Fi. I think ALSA is the largest bus company, but it doesn't serve all routes. You'll probably want to take a bus between Bilbao and San Sebastian because the regional-train trip, while very scenic (worthwhile if you have time to spare), takes much longer.

Just scanning through the listings on, I see there's an Insight Guide for northern Spain. There's also a $5 Kindle book, Basque Diary, that might be helpful. The author apparently lives in Hondarribia, an attractive coastal town near the French border, fairly close to San Sebastian.

In the past Lonely Planet sold electronic versions of individual chapters of its guidebooks. I've never bought one, but you could check on that as well. LP guides aren't as in-depth as Rick's books, and I've found the occasional misinformation and missing information, but most towns of interest to tourists are at least mentioned.

Posted by
1996 posts

Hi Carrie, this is certainly shaping up to be quite the trip! IMO the best way to explore northern Spain is by car, especially in the more rural areas like the Picos de Europa. If not you will have to rely on regional buses and be mostly limited to the larger towns. You still have a few years so you may change your mind about renting car, at least for part of this trip ;-)

With 18 nights available, and only using public transport, I would recommend first flying in to Barcelona, then hitting up Zaragoza, the Basque Country, and even Cantabria, before taking the 5 hr train from Santander to Madrid. So it would look something along these lines:

Fly in to Barcelona
Barcelona (5 nights) - day trip to Girona
AVE train to
Zaragoza (2 nights)
ALSA Bus to
San Sebastian (3 nights) - day trip of your choice
ALSA Bus to
Bilbao (2 nights)
Train to Santander then taxi to
Santillana del Mar (1 night)
Bus or taxi to
Potes or Fuente Dé (2 nights) - explore Picos de Europa National Park
Bus back to Santander then train to
Madrid (3 nights)
Fly out of Madrid

There is a Parador Hotel at Fuente Dé, makes for a great base in the Picos de Europa. I always enjoy the hiking in the area, but there is no need to use a car here, just take the adjacent funicular up to the top, and there are a number of alpine trails, though it may be partially snowed in still in April.

Here is also a photo album of mine of my travels of some these places you mention, including a few castles close to Zaragoza, Olite and Loarre, then Toledo, then Roman ruins in la Mancha, the cliffside medieval town of Cuenca, then back to Zaragoza for Christmas -

Hope this gives you a few ideas!

PS: You could alternately skip Zaragoza, and add those 2 nights to Toledo at the end.

Posted by
111 posts
  • I'll leave it to Mike to opine on the "Basqueness" of Pamplona.*

Well, the Basque Country is complicated to understand. We have a language that is very old and not related to any other, in any way. With seven! dialects. Our society is modern, very advanced, but there´s a very attractive mix of rural world with its customs and traditions and a modern and industrial atmosphere. It´s an affluent area, towns are clean and well kept, where every sign is written in Basque and Spanish, and where you may enjoy our markets, our dances and our particular sports. Basques are divided into 7 provinces, 3 in the French Basque Country (or Iparralde, "the north"), 3 in what we call the autonomous region of "Euskadi" (capital Vitoria-Gasteiz) and the other one is Navarra (Navarre), with Iruña-Pamplona as its capital. It has a very Basque feeling about it, no doubt, and a great atmosphere. You can see a motto in many shops in the French Basque Country, 4+3=1, that is, one country. We call it "Euskal Herria", that is, "the land of the Basques".

Food is fantastic, that is true. And it´s not tapas (that´s another thing), but "pintxos", miniature artful cuisine. Part of the Rioja wine region is Basque. And we produce fantastic wines, such as "txakoli", winner this year of the "best white in the world" in some contest.

I´d recommend "The Basque History of the World" by Mark Kurlansky, a US professor with a very good knowledge of the Basque Country, quite informative and very amusing.


Posted by
20909 posts

I was going to make a number of great suggestions but as I scrolled to the bottom, I realized the suggestions had already been made so I was reinforce some of the ideas since you are in the planning stage --

As Acraven stated, consider using the bus system when appropriate. The train system in Spain is not as extensive as in other parts of Europe so a very good, cheap, and fairly quick bus system has developed. When we are in Spain we use the buses at least half the time.

Second, Carlos laid out a decent schedule of into Barcelona and home from Madrid. This is referred to as "open jaw" ticketing or multi-city. It can be cheaper than round trip and is always cheaper when you factor in the time and expense of returning to your original entry point. Nearly all of our trips are open jaw. We just find it easier to plan straight line trips with more flexibility than circle trips. Our last trip was into Madrid and home from Malaga.

Posted by
105 posts

Brad, thanks for responding. I will definitely check out Pamplona. Since Switzerland will be our first trip to Europe, I’m thinking that most other trips will seem easier on the wallet.

Acraven, thanks for finding those books. I keep forgetting about buses. That is certainly something I will look into as well as the trains.

Carlos, I appreciate the response and the suggested itinerary. You’ve given me a great plan to focus on. Great pictures!!! Thanks for sharing. I did watch some videos on Toledo last night and will try to fit that in. I would bet money on me never renting a car in Europe, but like you said, you never know. 😊

Mike, thanks for the great info. on Basque Country and the book recommendation. I watched the Rick Steves video on the Basque region last night and he was saying tapas instead of pintxos. I said to myself, I don’t think that’s right. 😊 I’m a bit of a picky eater, but I know my sister and brother-in-law will appreciate all the great food. I do plan on trying the local dishes though.

Frank, I appreciate the response. Yes, I am lucky to have received such great responses. I now know where to focus my research on. I will definitely look into an open jaw option on the flight. Malaga looks like a great city!! I will keep that in mind for a future trip. I’m quickly learning that Spain is like Italy in that there are so many great places to see. Both countries will require many trips.