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The 4 Best Cities in Northern Spain

the 4 best cities in northern spain

Lying in Navarra and the Basque Country, and out to the west in Galicia – the 4 best city destiantions in northern Spain are not to be missed. With beautiful architecture, award-winning gastronomy and wine, a buzzing nightlife, phenomenal art and steeped in history, these cities are simply astounding. Whether sitting on a gorgeous coastline, or in the foothills of the Pyrenees, these four cities are surrounded by stunning natural beauty as well. Yet each one, due to its unique regional culture and surrounding landscape, is quite different from the others and provides an insight into the traditions and history of its area. Each of these destinations has its own soul and personality and its own compelling reasons for drawing people there. 

1 – Bilbao the City of Architectural Wonders

Bilbao is the de-facto capital of the Basque Country and encompasses the old and the new with stunning modern architecture such as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum and the Zubizuri Bridge, alongside the beautiful medieval buildings in the Casco Viejo at the heart of the city. As an industrial port, it is a cultural crossroads and has a thriving art and music scene. It is essential to visit the Guggenheim Museum, designed by the famous contemporary architect, Frank Gehry and opened to the public in 1997. Originally commissioned to spruce up a declining industrial port area, it is now one of the most admired and visited architectural wonders in the world and indeed one of the 4 best cities to visit in Northern Spain. 

On the other side of time, the Casco Viejo, or Old Town, in the center of Bilbao is a gorgeous series of tiny streets filled to the brim with lively cafés, bars and restaurants. The Siete Calles (Seven Streets) area is comprised of, well, seven streets that used to be the commercial center and a river port but are now a place to spend hours grazing on pintxos, shopping in boutiques and admiring the beauty of the old buildings.

BILBAO one of the best cities in northern spain

Worldwide Known Museums

Apart from Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, there are many more museums to visit, such as the Archeology Museum, the Bellas Artes museum, and the unmissable Euskal Museum devoted to Basque Culture. There is also the Cathedral de Santiago, and the Gothic Basilica de Begoña as well as the Zubizuri Bridge. 

Just outside Bilbao, the stunning coastline has plenty more to offer, with nearby surfing beaches, plunging cliffs and the now famous Game of Thrones site, the hermitage San Juan de Gaztelugate. Bilbao is the perfect jumping off point to explore the enigmatic Basque Country and get a real taste of its heart and soul.

2 – San Sebastian the Seaside Gastronomy Star

Another thriving Basque town, San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque) has become many a visitor’s new “favorite city”. Well-placed on the coast just across the French border, and just about an hour from Bilbao, San Sebastian has been lauded across time by authors such as Victor Hugo and Ernest Hemingway for its elegance, its relaxing beauty, and its excellent gastronomy. 

Sitting on La Concha (the Seashell) Bay, encircled by green hills and a sparkling blue sea, San Sebastian evokes old-time glamour. With wide promenades along sandy beaches, pretty architecture and a quaint old port, guests often feel they have stepped back in time. But don’t let that fool you. 

If you are thinking about visiting San Sebastian, do not miss this culinary tour to the hidden gems of the north

San Sebastian hosts numerous festivals, including an important jazz festival and a star-studded film festival. As one of the rising stars of haute-cuisine, San Sebastian and the surrounding area boasts the greatest concentration of Michelin recommended and starred restaurants in the world. The lively nightlife and hundreds of pintxo bars give this area an incredible atmosphere. The beaches are covered during the day as people sunbathe and swim out to floats with waterslides or take up surfing in the generally forgiving waves. Sailboats and fishing vessels line the ports, and waves crash, sometimes rather spectacularly, on the rocks lining the coastal front of the city. One might wonder if they have, in fact, landed in a paradise.

 

San Sebastian

San Sebastian hosts numerous festivals, including an important jazz festival and a star-studded film festival. As one of the rising stars of haute-cuisine, San Sebastian and the surrounding area boasts the greatest concentration of Michelin recommended and starred restaurants in the world. The lively nightlife and hundreds of pintxo bars give this area an incredible atmosphere. The beaches are covered during the day as people sunbathe and swim out to floats with waterslides or take up surfing in the generally forgiving waves. Sailboats and fishing vessels line the ports, and waves crash, sometimes rather spectacularly, on the rocks lining the coastal front of the city. One might wonder if they have, in fact, landed in a paradise. 

The weather in Northern Spain


3 – Pamplona the Capital of Culture

Pamplona is synonymous in the mind of non-Spaniards with its world-famous San Fermin festival, also known as the Running of the Bulls. This fiesta with its explosive party, non-stop music, dancing, drinking and eating, is steeped in traditions going back centuries, of which the bull run, or encierro is only one. This festival is not to be missed, as it is truly the experience of a lifetime and leaves many people mind-blown in its wake.  

Pamplona’s other claim to fame is as a major stop on the Camino de Santiago, as it winds down from the border of France in the Pyrenees and starts its march across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims flow through the center of the Old Town, following the yellow or gold shell symbols you can find among the cobblestones. Their presence gives an authentic connection to living history. But Pamplona is a delightful city to visit all year round. With hundreds of bars and restaurants serving up world-class fare, and plentiful and delicious Navarran wines, the atmosphere in the streets is always sparkling and fun. You never know when a charanga band will go by belting out rousing traditional music, or when the main square will be covered in people dancing the traditional Navarran dances. 

Click here is you want to learn more ABOUT PAMPLONA.

Pamplona - Navarra - Spain. best city destinations in northern Spain

Ancient City Walls

Historically, Pamplona was the capital of the Kingdom of Navarra and played an extremely important role in the formation of modern Spain. Because of its strategic location on the way over the Pyrenees and into France, it has been the site of many fascinating sieges and military campaigns over the centuries. This is why visitors can still marvel at the imposing 16th century defensive walls encircling the Old Town. Pamplona also has a magnificent Gothic cathedral (with a Neoclassical façade) in the center of the Old Town with beautiful relics and art work within, including the sepulcher of Charles III and his wife Eleonor. Pamplona also has several museums, including the Museo de Navarra which covers Navarran history from prehistory on up through the modern era with plenty of interesting art and artifacts. Though bullfights are only held during San Fermin, visits can be made to the imposing bullring where a guided visit will take you backstage to see how everything works behind the scenes. As a perfect base for exploring the rest of Navarra, and at the foot of the Pyrenees, Pamplona is overall so much more than just its world-famous festival. 

4 – Santiago de Compostela Where the Pilgrims Go

Santiago de Compostela is the endpoint of an epic spiritual journey, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. All routes lead here; it’s the gathering point of pilgrims from all over Western Europe and even farther afield. Even without a spiritual dimension, it is a deeply moving moment when people arrive at the end of their quest, often after weeks of walking across the north of Spain. Blistered, bleary from sleeping in dormitories and aching all over, yet accompanied by their fellow pilgrims, lifted by the joy of accomplishment, and buzzing with excitement, the pilgrims walk into Santiago de Compostela, one of the holiest cities in Europe, and the air is filled with this energy. There is nothing quite like it anywhere else. 

As a visitor, there is plenty more to absorb here than as simply a holy destination. Alive with its legends and mystique, a beautiful city surrounded by green fields and hills, Santiago is a pleasure to visit even in a non-pilgrim capacity. As the capital of the autonomous region of Galicia, it has a different feel from the rest of Spain.  With its Celtic influence apparent in the music wafting across the squares and a local character defined by the weather and the sea – more akin to the shores of Ireland or Wales than to the southern provinces – Galicia is extolled as one of the finest, most unexplored areas of Spain to see, and Santiago makes the perfect starting point. 

The 4 best city destinations in northern Spain

The countless bars and restaurants specialize in delicious piles of fresh seafood and local wines, and as with most cities in Spain, there is a lively atmosphere at night, a beautiful center, and plenty of museums, such as the Cathedral Museum and the Pilgrim Museum, and the Museo do Pobo Galego – which gives a glimpse into the traditional Galician way of life with displays of architecture, fishing, agriculture, bagpipes, and traditional dress. Santiago de Compostela is another wonderful Spanish city among so many that the north of Spain has to offer. 

The Saint James Way

If you are considering coming to the north of Spain and you would like to walk the Camino de Santiago pathway, we suggest you join one of your TOP Camino tours either on foot or by bike with Northern Spain Travel. Indeed Santiago de Compostela is one of the 4 Best City Destinations in Northern Spain

Food and wine tours that will not leave you indifferent

For those who enjoy rich and varied gastronomy and culinary traditions and at the same time reveal the true character of northern Spain we recommend the Northern Spain Travel Luxury Experiences tours that take you into the heart of the region visiting secret culinary gems hidden deep in the North of Spain.

 

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