Eight days are enough to road trip through northern Spain. On this itinerary, you'll drive from Madrid north through the stunning La Rioja wine country, of course stopping for a tasting or two. The experience culminates on the coast of Basque Country with city tours of Bilbao and San Sebastián, both home to a rich culture and incredible food.


  • Discover Madrid's rich history on a private walk through the city
  • Visit the La Rioja region and sample delicious wines
  • Drive along the stunning Cantabrian coast
  • Enjoy city excursions in the Spanish Basque Country

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Madrid, Evening Tapas Tour Madrid
Day 2 Private City Walk, Discover Madrid's Royal Legacy Madrid
Day 3 Pick up Rental Car, Drive to Laguardia, Wine Excursion La Rioja
Day 4 Drive to San Sebastián, Foodie Experience San Sebastián
Day 5 Guided Walk through San Sebastián San Sebastián
Day 6 Drive to Bilbao, Optional Stop in Guernica Bilbao
Day 7 City Walk in Bilbao & Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Day 8 Depart Spain  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Madrid, Evening Tapas Tour

The Fountain of Cibeles, in Madrid
The Fountain of Cibeles, in Madrid

Welcome to Spain! Upon arrival at the nation's capital, you'll enjoy a private transfer to your hotel in the city center. Take some time to settle in before heading out to explore some highlights, like the Puerta del Sol, one of the city's most historic and expansive plazas. There's also Madrid's famous Fountain of Cibeles, which features a sculpture completed in 1782 and depicts Cybele, the Greek goddess of fertility, riding in a chariot pulled by lions.

In the evening, dig into Madrid's culture on a food excursion featuring traditional tapas. A local expert guide will lead you on a two-hour walk through Barrio Las Letras, known as the "literary quarter." This historic neighborhood in the city center was once home to Spanish literature legends like Cervantes and Quevedo. Besides visiting some historical sights around here, you'll also stop at Calle Huertas for a bite at one of the many tapas bars that line the street.

Day 2: Private City Walk, Discover Madrid's Royal Legacy

The Royal Palace, Madrid
The Royal Palace, Madrid

Start your day with a walk through Madrid led by an expert local guide. The city has a long history, which you'll experience with its architecture, public spaces, and culture. Your guide will reveal how different periods influenced Madrid's neighborhoods and buildings. One area you'll visit is the Madrid de los Austrias, built in the 16th century and home to one of the grandest plazas in Spain, the Plaza Mayor, which was once the heart of Old Madrid.

You'll also stop to admire the Royal Palace, the official home of the Spanish monarchs until 1931. You'll visit both the grounds and interior of this 3,418-room monument, exploring the parade ground, the chambers of Charles III, several salons, the Royal Chapel, and the Hall of the Crown, which displays Charles I's crown, scepter, and throne.

As a private excursion, the day can cater to your interests. One idea is to visit El Retiro Park, a 308-acre expanse of verdure and the green lung of Madrid, abounding with sculptures, fountains, and an artificial lake. There are also must-visit gardens here, including the Jardín de Vivaces (Garden of Vivacious Plants), Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez (inspired by the Andalusia region), and a garden home to over 4,000 roses. The best time to see these blooms is from May through June. 

Day 3: Pick up Rental Car, Drive to Laguardia, Wine Excursion

La Rioja wine country
La Rioja wine country

In the morning, you'll pick up your rental car and begin your epic road trip. The first stop is the La Rioja wine region, located in the Basque Country, about 3.5 hours north of Madrid. La Rioja is a postcard of a province with rolling green hills, alpine mountains, limestone peaks, medieval villages, and endless vineyards.

Your hotel is located in the village of Laguardia, a romantic town founded in the 10th century as a defensive outpost of the Kingdom of Navarre. Upon arrival, you'll check into your hotel and unwind before meeting a private guide for a combined town stroll and wine tasting. You'll stroll Laguardia's narrow, winding streets and visit historic landmarks like Santa María de Los Reyes, a Romanesque church that dates to the 14th century.

Then you'll visit a local winery to sample two wines as your guide explains their origins and production processes. Lunch will be in a restaurant in Laguardia's historic center, including four different wines paired with traditional tapas. Afterward, you can return to your hotel and have the remainder of the day free. 

Plan your trip to Spain
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.

Day 4: Drive to San Sebastián, Foodie Experience

San Sebastian, Spain
San Sebastián, Spain

After breakfast, you'll drive about two hours north from La Rioja to the seaside resort city of San Sebastián. Sitting on the Bay of Biscay and nestled amid rolling green hills, this is one of the stars of the Basque Country. After checking into your hotel, you'll meet a local guide who will take you on a foodie walk of a city that's famous for delicious cuisine.

You'll start in the famous Parte Vieja (Old Quarter), situated in the east of the city between the ocean and the River Urumea. At the edge of Old Town is the iconic San Sebastián City Hall. Constructed in 1887, it used to be the Gran Casino during the Belle Époque period until it was closed in 1924. The building still overlooks the bay, from where an elegant promenade with railings and street lamps runs along the crescent-shaped La Concha Beach.

The Basque region is known for a type of tapas called pintxos. Most bars, cafés, and restaurants in the Parte Vieja serve some version of these bite-sized delicacies, and naturally, they're best paired with some delicious local wines. Here it's possible (and encouraged) to hop from pintxos bar to pintxos bar, grazing until your heart's content. Your guide will help you master this local tradition. Be sure to pair your bites with an equally delicious glass of txakoli, the local white wine.

Day 5: Guided Walk in San Sebastián

Tour the waterfront in San Seabstian
Tour the waterfront in San Sebastián

Today starts with a four-hour stroll through San Sebastián, beginning in the Old Town. Then, you and your guide can take a ferry to the iconic offshore island of Santa Clara or ride a funicular up to Mont Igualdo, which offers sweeping panoramas. You might also stroll the banks of the Urumea River, where you'll find the 19th-century Victoria Eugenia Theatre, the palatial Maria Cristina Hotel, and many aristocratic houses dating to the turn of the 20th century. You can get some good pictures walking across the Puente María Cristina, the bridge that crosses the river.

After the walk, you'll return to your hotel and spend the remainder of the day however you see fit. Once the sun goes down, you'll likely want to head back out and indulge in San Sebastián's famous dining scene.

Day 6: Drive to Bilbao, Optional Stop in Guernica

It doesn't get more beautiful than the Basque Coast
It doesn't get more beautiful than the Basque Coast

The drive from San Sebastián to the city of Bilbao is a stunner. In a little over an hour, you'll journey along the wild Atlantic coast and pass through the Cantabrian Mountains before emerging back on the coast in Bilbao. Along the way, you'll wind around coastal cliffs and charming little fishing villages that perfectly encapsulate the soul of Spanish Basque Country. Feel free to stop for lunch in any of them for an unforgettable plate of seafood.

History and art buffs might also want to stop along the way in the pastoral mountain town of Guernica. Once a Republican stronghold during the Spanish Civil War, it was nearly destroyed by a Nazi air raid in 1937. This event spurred Pablo Picasso to drop everything he was doing and paint his anti-war masterpiece, Guernica, which is a potent representation of the suffering caused by war.

Two important landmarks remain in the town despite the bombing: the Biscayan Assembly House and the Guernica Tree. The latter is an oak tree that has been one of the strongest symbols of Basque culture since the Middle Ages. Spend time admiring both, then continue to Bilbao. Upon arrival, check into your hotel and spend the remainder of the day relaxing.

Day 7: City Walk in Bilbao & Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum is the star of Bilbao
The Guggenheim Museum is the star of Bilbao

You'll have the entire day to discover Bilbao, starting with a guided walk. An expert local guide who will take you to the more colorful neighborhoods in the city, particularly along the waterfront. The guide can also tailor the experience according to your interests.

Of course, no visit to Bilbao is complete without stopping in at the Guggenheim Museum, a masterpiece of contemporary architecture by the legendary Frank Gehry. This glimmering titanium structure looks more like a sculpture than a building, with its sleek lines curving in seeming defiance of physics. Inside, the museum houses a treasure trove of works from great artists such as Andy Warhol, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois, and Eduardo Chillida.

Day 8: Depart Spain

Adios, Spain!
Adiós, Spain!

It's time to say farewell to Spain! Depending on your flight or train reservation time, squeeze in one more morning of sightseeing. At the designated time, you'll return your rental car to the airport or rail station and start your journey home.

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Map of Northern Spain Road Trip: Madrid to Basque Country - 8 Days
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