On this 16-day road trip, you'll see some beautiful regions of Spain, many of which are off the tourist trail. The adventure begins in Madrid, from where you'll hop in a rental car and proceed to the Ribera del Duero wine country and into the river canyons of the Ribeira Sacra. You'll continue to Galicia, a region famous for delicious food and natural beauty, before ending up on the stunning coast of the Spanish Basque Country.


  • See the most famous sights of Madrid on a guided walk
  • Visit the Ribera del Duero wine region for a tasting
  • Travel the pilgrimage route and stop at beautiful locales in Galicia
  • Drive along the stunning Cantabrian Coast
  • Enjoy both city and countryside tours in the Spanish Basque Country

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Madrid, Evening Tapas Experience Madrid
Day 2 Private City Walk, Discover Madrid's Royal Legacy Madrid
Day 3 Drive to Ribera del Duero Peñafiel
Day 4 Free Day in Ribera del Duero Peñafiel
Day 5 Drive to León, City Walk León
Day 6 Drive to Ribeira Sacra via Astorga Monforte de Lemos area
Day 7 Boat Ride in Ribeira Sacra, Drive to Vigo Vigo
Day 8 Explore the Cíes Islands, Drive to Santiago de Compostela Santiago de Compostela
Day 9 Santiago de Compostela Cooking Class & City Walk Santiago de Compostela
Day 10 Drive to Lugo, City Walk & Gourmet Lunch Lugo
Day 11 Drive to Oviedo, Enjoy the City Oviedo
Day 12 Drive to Bilbao, Explore the City Bilbao
Day 13 Coastal Drive From Bilbao to San Sebastián San Sebastián
Day 14 Half-Day Excursion in San Sebastián San Sebastián
Day 15 Day Trip to the Basque Countryside San Sebastián
Day 16 Depart Spain  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Madrid, Evening Tapas Experience

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 an 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 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 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 Walk, Discover Madrid's Royal Legacy

The Royal Palace, Madrid
The Royal Palace, Madrid

Enjoy a half-day outing in Madrid led by 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. One area you'll visit 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, 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 tour both the grounds and interior of this 3,418-room monument to opulence, 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. This 308-acre expanse of verdure is 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 Ribera del Duero

Onward to Ribera del Duero wine country
Peñafiel Castle in Ribera del Duero

In the morning, you'll pick up your rental car and drive north from Madrid, about two hours toward Valladolid, a medieval city known for its Gothic churches. This route heads deep into Spain's Old Castile region, which is famous for its high plateaus and mountain scenery. It was once the heart of the Kingdom of Castile, which thrived in the 11th century, and its old castles stand to this day. You'll see one fortress, Peñafiel Castle, when you arrive in the town of the same name. Nearby is where your hotel is located.

The town of Peñafiel sits in the Ribera del Duero wine region. This fertile grape-growing area enjoys Designation of Origin (DO) status, a certification reserved only for the top wine-producing spots in the country. It has earned this appellation, too, as the wines from Ribera del Duero rival those produced in Spain's most popular viticulture region, La Rioja.

Upon arrival in Peñafiel, you'll check into a hotel located right on the vineyards. You'll have the rest of the day to enjoy the hotel's amenities or head out for some fresh air and a walk amid the grapevines. You could also venture into Peñafiel for a self-guided walk. From the expansive Plaza del Coso, you can see the famous castle overlooking the town.

Day 4: Free Day in Ribera del Duero

Peñafiel Castle
Peñafiel Castle

You can spend the day enjoying Ribera del Duero however you like. This can include a horseback ride around the vineyards, cycling in the countryside, or hiking around the hills. Of course, this region is most famous for its wine, so a wine tour/tasting is in order. You can opt for a day visiting a couple of different wineries in the region, including a driver.

Another option is to head back to the village of Peñafiel and its iconic 10th-century fortress. Declared a National Monument in 1917, Peñafiel Castle not only features impressive views of the town from its battlements but also houses the Provincial Wine Museum, a fixture of Spain's wine-tourism trail. Visiting the museum, you'll receive an introduction to the history of wine cultivation in the area, which dates back to Roman times, as well as the production process.

The museum also features a tasting room where you can sample some incredible Denomination of Origin (DO) wines from the region. The Ribera del Duero is most famous for its Tempranillo, also called Tinto del País, a wine known for its contrasting flavors of leather and tobacco combined with fruits like cherries, plums, and figs. Other popular wines in Ribera del Duero include the Spanish favorite of Garnacha, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot,  Malbec, and Albillo, a white grape.

Day 5: Drive to León, City Walk

The Catedral de León
The Catedral de León

Today you'll drive north to the coast, stopping in 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 historical landmarks. In the afternoon, you'll meet an expert guide and embark on a city walk.

León's rich history means there are lots of sites to see, including the famed Roman Walls (remains of stone defensive walls from the 1st 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 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 walk 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 features impressive stained glass mosaics dating from the 13th through 16th centuries. Interestingly, the cathedral was built over the ruins of Roman baths. 

Day 6: 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, leading 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." You'll first stop in the village of Astorga, the capital of Maragatería County in the province of León.

The town is also a throwback to earlier ages. Stone walls dating to Roman times encircle Astorga; within them, you'll find many medieval churches, convents, and hospitals. On a walk along 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, you'll press on by car to the Ribeira Sacra region and your hotel near Monforte de Lemos.

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Day 7: 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 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 8: 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 ride 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 Galicia's capital and the culmination point of the Camino de Santiago. Upon arrival, you'll check into your hotel.

Day 9: 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, you'll embark on a guided walk through the main sites in Santiago, including 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, has 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 10: Drive to Lugo, City Walk & Gourmet Lunch

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

Today you'll drive about 51 miles (82 km) east to Lugo. This city is most famous for the ancient Roman walls encircling its historic center. Constructed in the 3rd century, the walls have earned UNESCO World Heritage status for being one of the world's most well-preserved examples of ancient Roman architecture. After checking into your hotel, you'll meet a local guide for a private walk of the city's historic center. One stopping point is the 12th-century Lugo Cathedral, a grand basilica.

Conveniently, you can ascend the Roman walls via a staircase near the cathedral's front plaza. Walking atop them affords great views of the city. Other points of interest include the expansive Praza Maior (central plaza) and the Town Hall, an impressive 18th-century Baroque building.

The walk ends with a traditional lunch at one of the best restaurants in the city. Be sure to try a regional specialty like the mariscada, an enormous plate piled high with lobster, scallops, mussels, shrimp, and more. Be sure to pair it with a good Galician wine like Ribeiro or Rias Baixas. Afterward, you'll return to your hotel and will have the rest of the day free to relax and enjoy Lugo.

Day 11: Drive to Oviedo, Enjoy the City

The colorful streets of Oviedo
The colorful streets of Oviedo

In the morning, you'll leave Lugo and Galicia for the Asturias region of Spain. Specifically, you'll be driving east for about 2.5 hours along the rugged and beautiful Cantabrian Coast to the village of Oviedo, which is nestled amid the green slopes of the Cantabrian Mountains. 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 walk through the town. A good place to begin is anywhere in or around San Francisco Park, a sprawling public space filled with pathways, gardens, fountains, and even peacocks. All around the park are historic plazas and buildings, including the beautiful Baroque Hotel de La Reconquista and the Catedral San Salvador, a 13th-century Gothic church.

Other options include visiting the Fine Arts Museum of Asturias, with its 15,000 artworks spanning the 14th through the 21st centuries; the Archeological Museum of Asturias located in the 16th-century Monastery of San Vicente; and the Palacio de Santa María del Naranco, a pre-Romanesque former palace turned church, dating back to the year 848. If you work up an appetite, grab a local snack like rosquilla (Spanish donut). 

Day 12: 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 stretch your legs on a guided walk of the city. You'll begin in the Old Town, home to the oldest landmarks as well as many bars, restaurants, and boutiques.

Major sites in Bilbao 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 places to visit 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 is a treasure trove of works from great artists such as Andy Warhol, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois, and Eduardo Chillida.

Day 13: Coastal Drive From Bilbao 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 in a little over an hour 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'll check into your hotel and spend the remainder of the day relaxing.

Day 14: 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 outing in San Sebastián. Walking around will give you a sense of the layout of the city, which lies on the Bay of Biscay and is nestled amid rolling green hills. The walk will take you around 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.

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.

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 15: Day Trip to the Basque Countryside

Enjoying Basque country
Enjoying Basque country

In the morning, you'll meet your guide and drive into the mountains outside of San Sebastián for an active four-hour countryside excursion. During this pleasant drive, you'll get an overview of rural Basque culture and gain insight into a region whose residents have traditionally lived in mountain farms called caserios. Even today, many locals live in small villages in the foothills, raising sheep and cows, making cheese, and generally living off the land.

The real cultural experience begins when you arrive at a local farm. The farm's owner will accompany you on a visit of the property, and you'll get a firsthand lesson in cheesemaking. This covers the whole process, from milking the cows to aging the cheese in traditional caves. You can visit the farm animals and watch how sheepdogs herd the flock. It culminates with a homecooked country lunch made from fresh local produce and, of course, accompanied by delicious Basque cheeses.

Day 16: 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, perhaps picking up some last-minute souvenirs. At the designated time, you'll be picked up at your hotel and transferred to the airport or rail station for your departure.

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Map of Ultimate Northern Spain Road Trip: Madrid, Galicia & Basque Country - 16 days
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