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Northern Spain - Need help with Itinerary!

Hello, Fellow Travelers -

We are lucky to be spending 3 weeks in Northern Spain this July. There is too much to see, so I'd love some help narrowing it down. Note that we are family of 4, including two teenage kids. I'm the one who wants to dash about and see everything; other family members are more interested in taking it slowly (hence the 4-day start in San Sebastian).

We all agree that having time to wander, get a little lost, and then regroup over a tea/pastry/chocolate/ice cream is one of the best parts of traveling. Collectively, we love beautiful landscapes, historic town centers, and cute villages. Personally, I have medieval castles and moorish/Mudéjar architecture on my list. (I realized too late that the Mudéjar architecture wasn't all in the south, but it doesn't work for us to go south to Toledo or east to time!)

So, with that intro, here's our plan, complete with questions about what to do or cut:

San Sebastian (4 days/5 nights)
- Possible side trip up to Elizondo/Zagarramurdi???
- Half day in Hondarribia?
- Where else should we go, or should we just stay in San Sebastian and take it slow?
Santillana del Mar/Picos de Europa (2-3 days)
Oviedo (1 day/1 night)
Leon (2 nights)
- One day Leon proper; one day side trip, but where to? Astorga? Zamora? Sahagun?
Burgos (2 nights)
- One day Burgos proper
- One day driving trip to Orbaneja de Castillo/Frias+
Transfer to Olite (arrive in the evening)
- We can see something on the way. What should it be? Options:
1) Covarrubias/Sto Domingo de Silas
2) Tarazona for Mudéjar architecture? (Worth the detour? Tudela better? Trasmoz???)
3) Longrono (remember - two teenage kids)
Olite (2 nights)
- On the full day, we will see Palace + Ujue
- On the next day (sleeping back in Irun), we are planning to see SOS del Re Catolico - but I'm not sure it's enough time?

Any help you can share would be great.

Muchas gracias a todos!

Posted by
3598 posts

We liked just walking around San Sebastian--up to the amusement park, then all the way at the other end of town, you can access a coastal hiking path that goes to Pasaia (bus back). An even more impressive hike is from Zumaia to Deba, where you pass some interesting geological formations (train there and back).

Getaria is known for the designer Balenciaga and for fish. Tolosa looked intersting to me, but I did not make it there either. Bilbao is not on your list. I did not personally love it, but many say they liked it even better than SS.
There are plenty of other day trips if you get antsy, but I think that SS is a great place to start off a trip.
I have not been to the west.

Posted by
5623 posts

My comments in order:

  • Hondarribia is worth it. Not been to Elizondo or Zugarramundi.

  • If you drive to Hondarribia, you can drive up to Jaizkibel (views) and check out Pasaia Donibane (cute fishing village, but really just one street) on the way back to San Sebastián

  • I second the recommendation for Getaria as a half-day trip from S Sebastián

  • Santillana del Mar felt over-touristed in a 2007 visit. I'm sure it's worse nowadays. I would focus on Picos de Europa

  • León does not have obvious day trips. There isn't much of note in Astorga, besides the fact that my grandfather was born there. Zamora has a ton of Romanesque churches, which the teens might find repetitive. All in all, it might be better to spend 2 nights in Oviedo (to have time for Monte Naranco !) and 1 in Leon.

  • I have never been to Sahagún, but I guess it can be seen on the way from León to Burgos.

East of Burgos is terra incognita for me (besides a brief stay in Tudela / Bardenas Reales, which I don't think is relevant to you), so my comments stop there.

EDIT: it's getting late and I hadn't noticed you were skipping Bilbao. Definitely make time for it - even as an overnight if possible.

Posted by
24019 posts

I wouldn't skip Bilbao. It has a much larger and far less touristy historic center than San Sebastian. I think Hondarribia makes a nice side-trip. I also liked Vitoria-Gasteiz, but you have enough places of size on your list already.

I liked all of: Burgos, Leon, Olite (very back-of-beyond) and Tarazona. I haven't been to Tudela or Transmoz, so I can't make a comparison for you.

I will caution you that at some point as you move away from the coast you may find yourself in a completely different climatic zone. Zaragoza (not on your itinerary) is blisteringly hot in the summer. I'm not sure which, if any, of the places you are planning to visit could be equally uncomfortable. I think Tarazona is problematic.

You can check actual, historical, day-by-day weather stats on the website The data goes back about 10 years. It would be good to check several years for the places you're most concerned about that are well away from the coast.

Here's Tarazona for July 2021:

I don't see any data for Olite.

Posted by
9629 posts

We spent a lot of time in Northern Spain including a week in Hondarribia. A half day isn’t enough! There are two distinct sections of the town to see, lower area with old fishermen’s home and the medieval quarter up the hill. Give it a day. Excellent pinxtos there too.
Our other favorites were Santiago de Compostela, Leon, Oviedo, Ribadisella, Comillas, Bilbao, San Sebastián. The one place we did not like at all was Santillana de Mar, over touristed, a very unpleasant experience and we could not wait to leave in the morning.

Posted by
2479 posts

I agree with Balso about Santillana de Mar. Along with being touristy, it's teeny tiny. I was really sorry I took the time to stop there. Picos de Europa is great if you enjoy mountain scenery and hiking.

Posted by
6 posts

Thank you all so much for the feedback. This is great!

So, we will definitely do a full day in Hondarribia (sleeping in San Seb, so we should be able to be very leisurely about the time in Hondarribia). Thank you also for all of the suggestions about activates around San Seb. I love the idea of hiking from one town to another!! Bilbao can be a day trip, too, or we can do it en route from San Seb--although I am planning to see San Vicente de Barquero and maybe Comillas on the day we drive from San Seb to Santillana del Mar.


1) Right now I have us sleeping one night in Santillana del Mar and 2 nights in Camaleño (close to Potes but more rural). Would you advise cancelling the night in Santillana altogether? As it stands now, if we see little villages en route to Santillana, we might just see the Santillana sights at night, or just in the morning, then up to Picos.

2) Once we get up to the Picos, we want to see Potes, Fuente De, and a little more. I read that the Camino Lebaniego goes through there (cool churches??). If anyone has suggestions about what this is, that would be great!

Thank you!

Posted by
6 posts

Oh, and one more question for Balso, regarding the end of our trip. Balso, you mention Tudela. I was considering a side trip to either Tudela or Tarazona from our base in Olite, because I really wanted to dip into just a bit of that Mudejar architecture. What did you think of Tudela? And what about the Bardenas Reales?

To another commenter, thanks for the note about temps in Tarazona. We definitely want to avoid the crazy heat! 100* is a bit too much for us. (Which is why we are saving Toledo, Andalucia, etc. all for another trip, another season!)


Posted by
6 posts

Also, if anyone can comment on the second half of trip--from Oviedo --> Olite. Anything in there that is a MUST SEE or a "good to skip"?


Posted by
453 posts

As I´m Basque, here are my comments on this part of your trip:

San Sebastian (4 days/5 nights)
- Possible side trip up to Elizondo/Zagarramurdi??? Probably too far away, they are in Navarre and although beautiful, there are better places near Donostia-San Sebastian: Getaria, Zumaia, Tolosa, Hondarribia (half day would be fine), Pasai Donibane is also a must.
- Half day in Hondarribia? it depends, but 4h would be more than enough, unless you may want to do the coastal hike to the fortress and light house.
- Where else should we go, or should we just stay in San Sebastian and take it slow? Bilbao should be on your list, as well as Lekeitio Mundaka and Gernika (if you like history) and its Casa de Juntas, so important and symbolic for us Basques. Ea, the beaten path and quaint coastal towns.

And take into account this is a rainy area with very unpredictable weather, even in summer.

Posted by
5623 posts

Tudela can get really hot. I remember an attractive main square and cathedral, but not much else, it is quite a hazy memory for me. I mostly remember the B&B owner leaving us a note in the morning, apologizing for not being able to provide breakfast because he had become a father during the night 😁.
As for Bardenas Reales: vaguely reminiscent of some landscapes of the Western USA, but only vaguely. If you've been to SW USA national parks or the Dakota badlands, you will be seriously underwhelmed.

Posted by
5186 posts

We drove up from Zaragoza today and stopped in Trasmoz, Tarazona, and drove through Tudela.
Nice to know information: only residents can drive in Trasmoz. When entering the village there is a free municipal parking lot. From it you walk up to the castle that, according to one of the three people we saw, is only open on Saturday’s. There’s really nothing in the village. If you read some of the plaques on the houses you can find out which was voted witch of the year. We were there maybe an hour.

Tarazona is larger, but not sure of any “must see” sights. Like most of Aragón, the bell towers have a mudejar look. The bell tower of the Iglesia de Santa María Magdalena was a former minaret until the reconquest when the church was built. Coming into town there is a large free parking lot. Park there and walk up to the old part of town.

If you’re religious or just catholic, is you go to Tarazona or Trasmoz, considering stopping by the Convento de las Concepcionistas Franciscanas / Sor María Jesús de Ágreda to see the resting place of Mary of Ágreda. Many want her to become a saint due to her supposed bi-location (being in two places at the same time) ability.

Tudela is larger than Tarazona and may have more to do, but we just passed through en route to the castle in Sábada, that was closed when we got there. We then continued on to SOS Del Rey Católico. It too is a very small village. Not much to do for more than an hour, but nice to use as a base to visit other sights.

Santillana de Mar is very touristy, but nice when the day trippers leave. We stayed at a Parador there in 2017. Since the town is a no driving zone during the day, unless you’re staying at one of the two Paradors, you’ll need to park on the outskirts.

I’ve found that the driving times provided by Google maps are fairly accurate. What I will say is your day trip to Trasmoz, Tarazona, or Tudela from Olite will be a full day.

This isn’t July, but it’s been in the mid-90s the past couple days, but is supposed to cool down on Sunday.

Posted by
3466 posts

Astorga has a chocolate museum, with, as I recall, free samples. It also has a church which is an very early work by Gaudi.

Posted by
333 posts

The Camino de Lebaniego terminates at Santo Toribio monastery a few miles outside of Potes. It's a worthy stop... very atmospheric....For what it's worth they feature a reliquary of the Lignum Crucis....the "true cross". There are other little chapels on the road to Potes but you've got to hunt for them... More info on Google.

Posted by
261 posts

Re: Astorga.
Gaudi designed the Episcopal Palace not the church. It is one of the few buildings designed by Gaudi outside of Catalonia. Due to complicated scheduling, etc. I could only visit the exterior in 2015 and I'm definitely planning on returning for a full tour.