Catalonia and Basque country totally blew me away. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I had heard great things from trusted travel friends who raved about it. I knew I would be eating and drinking well, but other than that, I was open to the surprise. Whatever expectations I did have, northern Spain absolutely exceeded them. The cityscapes and beautiful architecture alone are worth a visit, but when you combine that with delectable Basque cuisine and crazy good wine, northern Spain is an unbeatable, and frankly underrated, destination for a getaway.
I am sharing all the insights I gained on the road so that you can plan the perfect road trip in northern Spain. This epic journey will take you through a diverse range of destinations, from the vibrant streets of Barcelona to the breathtaking coastal beauty of San Sebastian and the cultural gems of Bilbao. Along the way, you'll also have the opportunity to explore the renowned wine region of Rioja and dive into delectable dining experiences.
With this blog post, I’ll explore the highlights of each destination, provide insider tips, and share practical information to help you plan the perfect week-long road trip through the enchanting landscapes of Northern Spain. Embark on an unforgettable road trip with this ultimate 1-week itinerary from Barcelona to Bilbao. Get ready for an incredible adventure filled with stunning scenery, mouthwatering cuisine, and unique experiences.
The Ultimate 1 Week Road Trip in Northern Spain
Overview of this Itinerary
I planned this itinerary as a road trip because I think a car is the most convenient way to get between these locations, especially the small towns and wineries. There are train and bus connections between the major cities, so you could theoretically do this itinerary without a rental car, although you may need to adjust the Rioja days.
This itinerary can be done in reverse, starting in Bilbao and ending in Barcelona. You could also do this itinerary as a round trip from the same city (ex: start & end in Barcelona), although that will increase the driving time significantly. Currently, the total drive time is around 9 hours, with the longest drive being from Barcelona to Rioja on day 2.
1 Week Itinerary for Northern Spain Road Trip
Day 1: Barcelona
With a large airport and excellent flight connections around the world, Barcelona is a logical place to start your road trip of northern Spain. Rental cars are available in the city or at the airport. Barcelona is certainly a destination in its own right. You could easily spend a few extra days at the beginning of your trip exploring. If you want to spend more time in Barcelona, I’ve got lots more suggestions on what to see and do during a long weekend visit.
But for my American friends who have limited vacation time, I see you. If you only have one day in Barcelona, maximize your 24 hours by exploring the city's iconic attractions. Start with a visit to the breathtaking Sagrada Familia. You’ll want to book tickets in advance to guarantee availability. Then stroll through the Gothic Quarter's narrow streets and the enchanting Barcelona Cathedral. Enjoy a leisurely lunch in the trendy El Born neighborhood, followed by a visit to Park Güell for panoramic views. End your day with a relaxing walk along Barceloneta Beach and savor delicious tapas at a local restaurant.
Day 2 & 3: Rioja Wine Valley
Exploring the Rioja wine valley is a must-do activity on a road trip in northern Spain. Rioja is the beating heart of Spain’s wine industry with a number of world-renowned wineries. Additionally, this region offers breathtaking landscapes and a rich cultural heritage. Two days won’t feel like enough in the Rioja and you’ll be dying to come back!
I would recommend choosing a town as a jumping off point in the Rioja. The medieval village of Laguardia is a great option. It is nestled amidst vineyards and olive groves. Plus, the well-preserved architecture is picturesque for a nighttime stroll. I can also recommend Logroño, the capital of the Rioja region. Its lively streets are lined with charming shops, cafes, and bars. You can also visit the Mercado de San Blas there, a vibrant market where you can sample local produce and cheeses.
You can also stay at a winery, finca or bodega for a really immersive experience in the Rioja! Set among vineyards and olive groves, I am obsessed with Hotel Bodega Finca de los Arandinos'. We stayed at this boutique hotel and I was so impressed with the personalized attention, stellar modern facilities, and luxury experience. Hotel Bodega Finca de los Arandinos is the first wine tourism project in La Rioja that integrates a winery, hotel, restaurant and spa, fusing some of my favorite things in life – design, gastronomy, wine tourism and nature. Plus, the sunsets here are amazing!
Now that we've covered where you'll be staying in the Rioja, let's talk about what you'll be doing there. I would recommend spending your two days exploring wineries, bodegas and small towns. This is a great place to slow down a bit, relax in the scenery and sip some of the best wine Spain has to offer. Choose a few wineries that sound good to you, and then plan your days accordingly based on the tour time slots.
Don’t worry if you aren’t a wine expert – I wasn’t either! The Rioja is a great destination to learn about wine production and viticulture through fun and educational tours. You can also head to the acclaimed Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture. This museum offers a comprehensive journey through the world of wine, from the history of winemaking to the art and science behind it.
In general, it's a good idea to make reservations for winery tours and tastings in advance, especially during the peak summer and harvest seasons. It is reasonable to visit 2 wineries per day, or 3 if you are really ambitious. I highlight my favorite wineries for first timers in a separate blog post.
Day 4: Pamplona
I added Pamplona to my northern Spain road trip itinerary spontaneously at the last minute, and I am so glad that I did – it turned out to be one of the cutest cities I visited! Pamplona is the capital of the Navarre Basque region of Northern Spain. It is actually the region’s third largest city. With a rich history and culture, Pamplona is a great destination for those looking to experience an off-the-beaten path city in Spain.
Although Pamplona is practically synonymous with its annual Running of the Bulls festival, the charming city has a lot more to offer. Start your day in the iconic Plaza del Castillo, the city's main square, surrounded by picturesque buildings and lively cafés. You’ll also want to see the City Walls and Citadel which surround old town Pamplona. And finally, learn about the history of the famous San Fermín festival. For more details about how to structure your 24 hours in Pamplona, I actually wrote a separate blog post that breaks down everything that you need to see, eat and do in Pamplona in just one day.
Day 5 & 6: San Sebastian
I had heard wonderful things about San Sebastian from a number of trusted travel buddies, so my expectations were high. Most of my days in San Sebastian were food-focused because it is the foodiest of foodie cities! More on what to eat in a minute.
Basically, my suggestion is to punctuate your foodie stops with some walks and cultural attractions. Start your first day in San Sebastian by exploring the picturesque old town. Go inside the impressive San Sebastian Cathedral and climb up to the rooftop for stunning views of the city. Visit the San Telmo Museum to learn about the history and culture of the Basque Country. Wander through its narrow streets filled with charming shops and crowded bars, popping in for a pintxo or two.
Pintxos, or Basque-style tapas, are the name of the game when it comes to experiencing San Sebastian’s food scene like a local. There are a ton to choose from in the old town. Have pintxo, walk to a church. Have a pintxo, wander the museum. You get the idea. I went on a pintxos food tour with Mimo that I absolutely loved, because it took me to unique taverns and cafes that I might have normally overlooked. I summarized all my favorite San Sebastian pintxos in a separate blog post so that you can have the perfect afternoon sampling the best food in the city.
On your second day, head to La Concha Beach, one of the most beautiful urban beaches in Europe. Take a leisurely stroll along the promenade or relax on the golden sand. If you're feeling adventurous, hike to the top of Monte Urgull for panoramic views of the city. Not looking for a steep uphill climb but still want a view? Monte Igueldo is perfect for you! There is a charming (albiet rickety) funicular ride to the top where you can wander through a vintage theme park with a backdrop of Bay of La Concha.
Another thing that is well-worth splurging on in San Sebastian is a Michelin star meal. The city boasts more Michelin stars per capita than any other place in the world! I was traveling in Spain with some friends who had never experienced a Michelin-star meal before, so I was really excited to go with them as first-timers. While it can feel like an intimidating experience, it is easy to prepare for your first Michelin dining experience with a few simple pointers and suggestions. We booked a table at Arzak, a female-run 3 star restaurant on the outskirts of San Sebastian. It was incredible!
Day 7: Bilbao
The final stop on your one week road trip to northern Spain is Bilbao. Nestled in the heart of the Basque Country, Bilbao is a gritty yet special city that seamlessly blends its rich history with modern architectural wonders. With a captivating mix of culture, art, and gastronomy, Bilbao is one of the most overlooked but worthwhile destinations for travelers seeking an authentic Spanish experience.
Bilbao's history can be traced back to the 14th century; however, it was the transformation of the city in recent decades that truly put Bilbao on the map. The iconic Guggenheim Museum Bilbao stands as a symbol of the city's reinvention and artistic prowess. Stay at the Gran Hotel Domine, a modern five-star hotel right across the street from the Guggenheim, to enjoy breakfast on the roof top terrace with views of the museum.
Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry (who also has buildings in my neighboring city of Düsseldorf), one of the best things to do in Bilbao is to explore the Guggenheim Museum itself. Its striking architecture is of course impressive, as are the modern and contemporary art collections inside. The permanent collection includes paintings by Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Mark Rothko, and Gerhard Richter.
The museum is just the tip of the cultural iceberg in Bilbao. Take a stroll through the Old Town (Casco Viejo) and immerse yourself in its charming medieval streets, filled with pintxos bars, traditional shops, and the stunning Santiago Cathedral. Much like San Sebastian, Bilbao is a foodie city with lots of exceptional gastronomy. Be sure to try local specialties like bacalao al pil-pil (codfish in garlic and olive oil sauce) and txangurro (stuffed crab).
Road Trip Suggestions in Spain
Overall, the roads in northern Spain are in great condition. We didn’t have any issues on the highway, and navigation was pretty straightforward. There are a number of service stations and gas stations along the highway, so you can easily fill up on gas whenever you need.
I was quite surprised by the cost of tolls on this journey. There were a number of toll stops, especially outside of Barcelona. They were more a lot expensive than I expected – we spent around 100 euros in total on tolls... Most accepted card, but not all. Have spare cash on hand in the car.
When to Go to Northern Spain?
The best time to visit northern Spain is during the grape harvest season from September to October. There will be a lot of things happening, and the weather is still warm and sunny. With that said, the region is manageable all year round. It will be most crowded in July and August, and it is likely to be quite rainy in the winter from January - March.
Have questions or comments about a road trip in Northern Spain? Tell me below!
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