The northern region of Spain is just as rich in culture and beauty as anywhere in Catalonia or Andalusia. You'll see this for yourself on a 12-day road trip that takes you from Madrid into the Galicia region, known for its delicious seafood, beautiful coast, and historical and religious pilgrimage sites. It all culminates with a gorgeous drive through Basque Country and a couple of days in the cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián. 


  • See the most famous sights of Madrid on a guided walk
  • 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 gorgeous seaside resort city of San Sebastián

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Madrid, Evening Tapas Walk Madrid
Day 2 Private City Excursion, Discover Madrid's Royal Legacy Madrid
Day 3 Drive to León & Explore the City León
Day 4 Drive to Ribeira Sacra via Astorga Monforte de Lemos
Day 5 Boat Ride in Ribeira Sacra, Drive to Vigo Vigo
Day 6 Explore the Cíes Islands, Drive to Santiago de Compostela Santiago de Compostela
Day 7 Santiago de Compostela Cooking Class & City Walk Santiago de Compostela
Day 8 Drive to Oviedo via Lugo Oviedo
Day 9 Drive to Bilbao, Discover the City Bilbao
Day 10 Coastal Drive to San Sebastián San Sebastián
Day 11 Half-Day Excursion in San Sebastián San Sebastián
Day 12 Depart San Sebastián  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Madrid, Evening Tapas Walk

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 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, with its 18th-century sculpture depicting Cybele, the Greek goddess of fertility, riding in a chariot pulled by lions.

In the evening, you'll dig into Madrid's culture on a two-hour walking excursion that stops at some great tapas bars. On this walk, you'll visit Barrio Las Letras, known as the "literary quarter." This historic neighborhood in the city center was once home to Spanish literary 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 Excursion, Discover Madrid's Royal Legacy

The Royal Palace, Madrid
The Royal Palace, Madrid

Enjoy a half-day excursion in Madrid led by an expert local guide. Madrid has a long history, and today the city adorns itself with that history in its architecture, public spaces, and culture. One area you'll visit is Madrid de los Austrias. It was built in the 16th century during the reign of the Hapsburg Dynasty's first ruler, Charles I, and is home to one of the grandest plazas in Spain, the Plaza Mayor, which was once the heart of Old Madrid.

You'll also visit the Royal Palace, the official home of the Spanish monarchs until 1931. You'll explore both the grounds and interior of this 3,418-room monument, entering 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.

Later you could visit El Retiro Park, the green lung of Madrid, abounding with sculptures, fountains, and an artificial 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 is from May through June. 

Day 3: Drive to León, Explore the City

The Catedral de León
The Catedral de León

Today you'll drive north from Madrid for about 3.5 hours to the city of León. What began as a Roman military camp on the Bernesga River in the first century BCE then thrived through the centuries, reaching its peak in the Middle Ages. In the afternoon, you'll meet an expert guide and embark on a city walk. Stroll along the famed Roman Walls (remains of stone defensive walls from the first century), beautiful old manor houses, and churches housing Romanesque and Gothic artworks.

You'll also visit the expansive Plaza Mayor, located in the city's Old Town and bordered by medieval buildings and long arcades. Stop at Casa Botines, an incredible work of modernist architecture designed by the legendary Antoni Gaudí, then visit 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 site with stained glass mosaics dating from the 13th through 16th centuries.

Day 4: Drive to Ribeira Sacra via 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.

You'll witness Galicia's beauty firsthand 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." Stop in the village of Astorga, the capital of Maragatería County.

Stone walls dating to Roman times encircle Astorga; 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, stop at a restaurant for a traditional lunch. Be sure to try a Galician specialty like a 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. Afterward, press on to the Ribeira Sacra region and your hotel, located near the town of Monforte de Lemos.

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

Day 5: Boat Ride in 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 of sloping hills, high plateaus, cypress and chestnut trees, and grapevines.

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

After the boat ride, 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 spend the night.

Day 6: Explore the Cíes Islands, Drive to Santiago de Compostela

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 excursion accompanied by an expert guide.

In the morning, you'll embark from the port at Vigo and 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, enjoy lunch onboard the ship, a delicious gourmet meal featuring locally sourced products, including some of that world-class shellfish. Back on land, return to your car, and drive a little over an hour north to Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia. 

Day 7: Santiago de Compostela Cooking Class & City Walk

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, embark on a guided walk, stopping at the main sites in Santiago. This includes Obradoiro Square and 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.

Day 8: Drive to Oviedo via 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. Along the way, stop in Lugo, a city most famous for its ancient Roman walls that encircle the historic center. Constructed in the third century, the walls have earned UNESCO World Heritage status for being one of the world's most well-preserved examples of ancient Roman architecture. You can ascend the walls via a staircase near the plaza fronting Lugo Cathedral, a grand 18th-century basilica.

Continue to Oviedo, famous for its medieval Old Town and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. After checking into your hotel, you can begin a self-guided walk 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 Camino de Santiago.

Day 9: Drive to Bilbao & Explore the City

The Guggenheim Museum is the star of Bilbao
The Guggenheim Museum is the star of 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 guided walk starting in the Old Town, home to the oldest landmarks as well as many bars, restaurants, and boutiques.

Major sites 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 stopping points include the 14th-century Cathedral of Santiago and the Mercado de la Ribera, the largest covered marketplace in Europe.

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 virtual defiance of physics. Inside, the museum is a treasure trove of works from great artists such as Andy Warhol, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois, and Eduardo Chillida.

Day 10: Coastal Drive to San Sebastián

The rugged cliffs of the Basque coast
The rugged cliffs of the Basque coast

The drive from Bilbao to the seaside holiday retreat of San Sebastián is a stunner. You'll pass through the Cantabrian Mountains before emerging along the wild Atlantic coast until you reach San Sebastián. Along the way, you'll wind around coastal cliffs and pass charming little fishing villages that perfectly encapsulate the soul of Spanish Basque Country. Feel free to stop for lunch in any one of them for an unforgettable plate of Basque 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 perfectly encapsulates 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. Upon arrival in San Sebastián, you will check into your hotel and can spend the remainder of the day relaxing.

Day 11: Half-Day Excursion in San Sebastián

San Sebastian, Spain
San Sebastián, Spain

In the morning, you'll meet a private guide and enjoy a half-day guided excursion in San Sebastián. Walking around will give you a sense of the layout of the city, which lies on the Bay of Biscay, nestled amid rolling green hills. The walk will take you around the famous Parte Vieja ("Old Quarter") to sites like the San Sebastián City Hall, once a Gran Casino during the Belle Époque period. The building still overlooks the bay, from where an elegant promenade runs along La Concha Beach.

For great views looking back at San Sebastián, take a ferry to the famous offshore island of Santa Clara, or ride a funicular up to Mont Igualdo, which offers even more 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 exploring the city, you can indulge in San Sebastián's celebrated food culture. The area specializes in a type of tapas called pintxos (pronounced "peenchos"). 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 indeed encouraged) to hop from pintxos bar to pintxos bar, grazing until your heart's content.

Day 12: Depart San Sebastián

Adios, Spain!
Adiós, Spain!

It's time to say farewell to Spain! Depending on your flight or train reservation, squeeze in one more morning of sightseeing, 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.

More Great Spain Itineraries

Looking for more inspiration for your trip to Spain? Check out these other road trips in Spain, explore different ways to spend 12 days on the road in Spain, or discover the best time to visit Spain.


Map of Ultimate Northern Spain Road Trip: Madrid, Galicia & Basque Country - 12 Days
Map of Ultimate Northern Spain Road Trip: Madrid, Galicia & Basque Country - 12 Days