Prepare yourself for the road-trip of a lifetime. Over 11 packed days, you'll travel from Spain's capital of Madrid to the Galicia region followed by a coastal drive through incomparable Basque Country, all while leaving time for an excursion to the Cíes Islands. Little known may they be, these Galician gems are no doubt home to what might be the most beautiful beach in Europe: Praia de Roda.

Highlights

  • See the most famous sights of Madrid on a guided tour
  • Visit the Roman Walls in the historic city of León
  • Travel the pilgrimage route and stop at beautiful locales in Galicia
  • Drive along the stunning Cantabrian Coast
  • Tour the Guggenheim Museum, a masterpiece of architectural design

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Madrid - Evening Tapas Tour Madrid
Day 2 Private City Tour - Discover Madrid's Royal Legacy Madrid
Day 3 Drive From Madrid to León - City Tour León
Day 4 Drive From León to Ribeira Sacra - Stop in Astorga Monforte de Lemos area
Day 5 Boat Tour of Ribeira Sacra - Drive to Vigo Vigo
Day 6 Tour the Cíes Islands - Drive From Vigo to Santiago Santiago de Compostela
Day 7 Santiago de Compostela - Cooking Class & City Tour Santiago de Compostela
Day 8 Drive to Oviedo - Stop in Lugo Oviedo
Day 9 Drive From Oviedo to Bilbao Bilbao
Day 10 City Tour of Bilbao & Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Day 11 Depart Spain  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival 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. You'll definitely want to see some of the highlights like the Puerta del Sol, one of the most historic and expansive plazas in the city. There's also Madrid's famous Fountain of Cibeles. Located in the city center it features a sculpture completed in 1782 and depicting Cybele, the Greek goddess of fertility, riding in a chariot pulled by lions.

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

Day 2: Private City Tour - Discover Madrid's Royal Legacy

The Royal Palace, Madrid
The Royal Palace, Madrid

Enjoy a half-day tour of Madrid led an expert local guide today. Madrid has a long history, and today the city adorns itself with that history in its architecture, public spaces, and culture. An organized tour is ideal, and your guide will reveal insight into how different time periods influenced Madrid's neighborhoods and buildings, as well as point out the most interesting sights.

One area you'll visit that's awash in splendor is the Madrid de los Austrias. It was built in the 16th century during the reign of the Hapsburg Dynasty's first ruler, Charles I. Located in the city center, it's home to one of the grandest plazas in Spain, the Plaza Mayor, which was once the heart of Old Madrid.

Also here is the Royal Palace, which was the official home of the Spanish monarchs until 1931. You'll tour both the grounds and interior of this 3,418-room monument to opulence, entering the parade ground, the bedchambers of Charles III, several salons, the Royal Chapel, and the Hall of the Crown, which displays Charles I's crown, scepter, and throne.

Later you could visit El Retiro Park. This 308-acre expanse of verdure is the green lung of Madrid, abounding with sculptures, fountains, and a man-made lake perfect for taking a boat trip. 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 from May through June. 

Day 3: Drive From Madrid to León - City Tour

The Catedral de León
The Catedral de León

Today you'll drive north from Madrid about 3.5 hours to the city of León. What began as a Roman military camp on the Bernesga River in the 1st century BCE then thrived through the centuries, reaching its peak in the Middle Ages. The medieval and Roman heritage of León is well preserved and you can see it in the many historic landmarks. Upon arrival, you'll check into your hotel and settle in.

In the afternoon, you'll meet an expert guide and embark on a city tour. León's rich history means there is no shortage of can't-miss sights. These include the famed Roman Walls (remains of stone defensive walls from the 1st century), beautiful old manor houses, and a dizzying array of churches housing Romanesque and Gothic artworks.

You'll also visit the expansive Plaza Mayor, which is located in the city's Old Town and is rimmed with medieval buildings and long arcades. Plus there's a stop at Casa Botines, an incredible work of modernist architecture designed by the legendary Antoni Gaudí.

The highlight of the tour is undoubtedly the 13th-century Catedral de León (Cathedral of Santa María de Regla), a marvel of Gothic architecture and one of the most beautiful churches anywhere in Spain. It's an enormous place that takes up 1,800 square meters and features impressive stained glass mosaics dating from the 13th through 16th centuries. Interestingly, the cathedral was built over the ruins of Roman baths. 

Day 4: Drive From León to Ribeira Sacra - Stop in Astorga

Astorga, Spain
Astorga, Spain

Today you'll drive west from León into the Galicia region of Spain. Not only is Galicia regarded as one of the most beautiful parts of the country, but the city of León actually sits at the crossroads of one of the most famous walks in the world: the Camino de Santiago

This ancient network of pilgrimage routes begins as far away as France and leads to the cathedral in Galicia's capital of Santiago de Compostela, where the apostle Saint James the Great is supposedly buried. While many still make the pilgrimage for spiritual regions, it has become a popular route for hikers and cyclists from around the world because of the gorgeous scenery.

In fact, most view the final section between León and Santiago as having the most incredible scenery of all. This has much to do with the region's beautiful green mountains and rich Roman and Celtic history, which can be seen in the Roman-era walls and bronze-age stone ruins.

You'll witness Galicia's beauty first hand as you drive west from Léon into the Ribeira Sacra region. The rivers Sil and Miño wind through the green mountains of this unspoiled area, which is dotted with monasteries and hermitage sites that date back to when the first Christians arrived in the 12th century. The name Ribeira Sacra actually translates to "Sacred Riverbank."

First things first, though. You'll stop en route to Ribeira Sacra just a few miles outside of Léon in the village of Astorga. This is the capital of Maragatería County in the province of León. For many hikers and cyclists, it's also the starting point of the Camino, as Astoria is where the two main routes into Santiago—Vía de la Plata and the French Way, meet.

The town is also a throwback to earlier ages. Stone walls dating to Roman times encircle Astorga, and within them, you'll find many medieval churches, convents, and hospitals. On a tour of its cobbled streets and town square (the Plaza Mayor de Astruga), you'll see these landmarks plus the most famous of all: the Episcopal Palace. This late-19th-century modernist masterpiece by Antoní Gaudí is one of only three buildings designed by the legendary architect that exists outside his home region of Catalonia

After walking around Astorga for a while you can stop at a restaurant for a traditional lunch. Be sure to try a Galician specialty like roast suckling pig or polbo á feira (boiled octopus with paprika and olive oil). Other regional favorites include caldo gallega (a hearty broth of potatoes, beans, greens, and pork), fried padrón peppers, and queso de tetilla, a soft, cone-shaped white cheese known for its buttery taste. 

After lunch, you can work off the meal with some countryside hiking on the section of the Camino route between Astorga and the city of Ponferrada. Afterward, you'll press on by car to the Ribeira Sacra region and your hotel, located near the town of Monforte de Lemos.

Day 5: Boat Tour of Ribeira Sacra - Drive to Vigo

Ribeira Sacra
Ribeira Sacra

You'll have the day to enjoy the Ribeira Sacra, a mountainous river canyon of unparalleled beauty. Remote and lesser-developed than many parts of Spain, since the 12th century, this area was primarily home to monks and hermits who came to live ascetic lives near the confluence of the rivers Sil and Miño.

The River Sil winds between green mountains and through canyons, affording some uniquely incredible views. You'll witness them on a 1.5-hour riverboat tour of Ribeira Sacra, where you can bask amid gorgeous scenery that includes sloping hills and high plateaus. Also here, flourishing amid the cypress and chestnut trees, is another bit of vegetation famous throughout the region: grapevines.

Yes, Ribeira Sacra is a fertile grape-growing region that enjoys Designation of Origin (D.O.) status for its wine production. It's uniquely referred to as "heroic viticulture" because, due to the steepness of the mountains and hills, most vineyards here are terraced. With so many vines hanging off the sides of hills and canyons, the simple act of grape-harvesting in Ribeira Sacra requires much deftness and agility. 

After the boat tour, you'll head to a local guesthouse where the friendly hosts will prepare a homemade meal for you to enjoy. Then you'll hop back in the car and drive a couple of hours west to the coastal city of Vigo, where you'll overnight.

Day 6: Tour the Cíes Islands - Drive From Vigo to Santiago

Rodas Beach, Cíes Islands
Rodas Beach, Cíes Islands

About 10 miles (16 km) west of Vigo, off the coast of Spain, lie the Cíes Islands. This archipelago is a national marine park comprised of three islands so beautiful that the ancient Romans called them the "islands of the gods." Two of them, Monte Agudo and O Faro, are linked by a crescent strip of fine white sand called Rodas Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. You'll get to discover this paradise on a private, day-long boat tour accompanied by an expert guide. 

In the morning, you'll embark from the port at Vigo and first head to a group of nearby Spanish fjords known as Rias Bajas. These beautiful inlets serve a functional purpose in that it's here where Galicians harvest much of their famously delicious shellfish. The microclimate in the waters of these fjords makes an ideal breeding ground for scallops as well as perfect spots to cultivate mussels and oysters.  

After stopping on the islands for some beach time and light hiking, you'll enjoy lunch onboard the ship. This will be a delicious gourmet meal featuring locally sourced products, including some of that world-class shellfish.

Back on land, you'll return to your car and drive a little over an hour north to Santiago de Compostela. This historic city is both the capital of Galicia and the culmination point of the Camino de Santiago. Upon arrival, you'll check into your hotel.

Day 7: Santiago de Compostela - Cooking Class & City Tour

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral viewed from Obradoiro Square
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral viewed from Obradoiro Square

In the morning, you'll discover the secrets to Galician cuisine in a cooking class with a private chef. You'll prepare (and eat) some of the region's most popular dishes, like fried padrón peppers and savory empanadas stuffed with fish, shellfish, or meat. Be sure to try queimada, the famous "Galicia fire drink." Made with a liqueur called orujo (similar to grappa), it's mixed in a  clay bowl with sugar and lit on fire until the flame turns blue then served hot. 

In the afternoon, you'll embark on a guided tour of the main sites in Santiago. This includes Obradoiro Square, at the east end of which sits the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Construction on this Romanesque/Gothic/Baroque church began in the 11th century over the site of what is believed to be the burial place of the apostle Saint James the Great. It's been a religious pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages and marks the end of the famous Camino de Santiago walking route. 

Other stops include Colexio de San Xerome (San Jerónimo College), a learning institution dating to 1501; the 16th-century Hospital de los Reyes Católicos, a hospital built to treat weary pilgrims after their arduous journey; the Pazo de Raxoi (Raxoi Palace), an 18th-century neoclassical palace that's now Santiago's City Hall; and the 18th-century San Fructuoso Church. Here you can witness pilgrim rituals and see the Botafumeiro, which is the largest silver-plated censer in the world.

Day 8: Drive to Oviedo - Stop in Lugo

Take a stroll along the walls of Lugo
Take a stroll along the walls of Lugo

Today you'll drive about three hours east from Santiago to the historic village of Oviedo, located in the Cantabrian Mountains near the coast.

However, to break up the drive, you'll stop along the way in Lugo. This city is most famous for the ancient Roman walls that encircle its historic center. Constructed in the 3rd century, the walls have earned UNESCO World Heritage status for being one of the most well-preserved examples of ancient Roman architecture in the world. They measure an impressive 7,434 feet (2,266 meters) in length and feature 85 towers. 

You can ascend the walls via a staircase near the plaza fronting Lugo Cathedral, a grand basilica that dates to the 12th century but was given a neoclassical facelift in 1769.

After the stopping in Lugo, you'll eventually reach Oviedo. Famous for its medieval Old Town and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, this is the perfect spot to stroll historic streets and breathe some fresh country air. After checking into your hotel, you can begin a self-guided tour of the town. A good place to begin is anywhere in or around San Francisco Park, which is located right in the center. This sprawling public space is filled with pathways, gardens, fountains, and even peacocks roaming about.

All around the park are historic plazas and buildings dating to medieval times. Many, like the beautiful Baroque Hotel de La Reconquista, were featured in the 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Also worth visiting is the Catedral San Salvador, a 13th-century Gothic church that is not only one of the aforementioned World Heritage Sites but it's also a popular stop on the pilgrimage route Camino de Santiago.

Day 9: Drive From Oviedo to Bilbao

Welcome to Bilbao
Welcome to Bilbao

In the morning you'll make the drive from Oviedo to Bilbao. This is a pleasant and scenic three-hour drive that mostly follows the lovely Cantabrian Coast. Upon arrival in Bilbao, you'll check into your hotel and can then stretch your legs on a self-guided tour of a city that's both modern and historic.

You can start in Old Town. This is the beating heart of Bilbao, home to the oldest landmarks as well as many bars, restaurants, and boutiques. Major sights include the 18th-century Church of San Nicolás and the 16th-century Church of San Antón, which is dedicated to Anthony the Great, an Egyptian saint and the father of monasticism. Other notable sights include the 14th-century Cathedral of Santiago and the Mercado de la Ribera, which, at 107,639 square feet, is the largest covered marketplace in Europe. 

After touring the city, you can return to the hotel and spend the remainder of the day unwinding. In the evening, be sure to get out and indulge in the region's incredible food culture. All around Old Town you'll find bars and restaurants serving up delicious pintxos (pronounced "peenchos"), which is the Basque region's version of tapas. Be sure to pair your delectable tidbits with a glass of txakoli, the local white wine. 

Day 10: City Tour of 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. Better yet, you'll do so on a guided tour with an expert local guide who will take you to the more colorful neighborhoods in the city, particularly along the waterfront. The guide will even be able to tailor the tour 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 sensually curving in seeming defiance of physics. Inside, the museum's 24,000 square-meter space houses a treasure trove of works from great artists such as Andy Warhol, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois, and Eduardo Chillida.

Day 11: Depart Spain

Adios, Spain!
Adios, Spain!

It's time to say farewell to Spain! Depending on the time of your flight or train reservation, squeeze in one more morning of sight-seeing, perhaps picking up some last-minute souvenirs. At the designated time you will be picked up at your hotel and transferred to the airport or rail station for your departure onwards.

Map

Map of Ultimate Northern Spain Road Trip: Madrid, Galicia, & The Basque Country - 11 days
Map of Ultimate Northern Spain Road Trip: Madrid, Galicia, & The Basque Country - 11 days