Often people think of Spain and what comes to mind is flamenco and guitars or the Alhambra in Granada, or the architecture of Barcelona. But in northern Spain, there is not only a unique and rich culture full of music and history, and a lush green landscape thanks to the plentiful rains, but also an abundance of activities to occupy every type of traveler. This allows them to experience the culture, traditions and beauty of the region in many different and diverse, fun ways. Whether you like to glide through mountains on a bike, or surf on easy, sandy beaches, hike an ancient pilgrimage route, or play a round of golf, there are endless activities on offer in northern Spain, adaptable to anyone’s level or desires.
Cycling in Northern Spain
Whether you are a passionate pro rider or an enthusiastic novice, the north of Spain has enough bike paths of every kind to keep you happy: sleek roads or gravel, packed dirt, cobblestones, or mud and rock. Taking you through the stunning Pyrenees scenery and vibrant cities, along sweeping coastlines and through enchanted forests, this area has everything to offer cyclists. The opportunity to stay in top-notch hotels and eat at the best restaurants, along with immersion in the traditional ways of life and cultures, allows cyclists to really enjoy and understand this part of the world. It is noted throughout Spain as the best area for cycling, and the drivers show respect for people traveling on two wheels. It is common on the weekends to see plenty of riders flying down smooth, hilly roads, or pumping up a steep mountain pass. For more relaxing rides, there are the Via Verdes, a series of routes made on old railroad tracks, which are generally flat and fun for families to cruise along. You can follow the coastline and enjoy the vistas and beautiful sandy beaches. The Tour de France often dips down into this area, and La Vuelta, Spain’s annual bike race always includes a portion in the Pyrenees. It is also possible to join the famous Camino de Santiago, and bike with other pilgrims on this historic path. There is no question that if you love cycling, you will be blown-away by the options for world class riding in northern Spain.
Hiking and Trekking in Northern Spain
There is no doubt that the Camino de Santiago is now one of the most famous hikes in the world. Winding down from France, through the Pyrenees or down along the Basque Coast, this route is actually a pilgrimage. Dating from the medieval era it was, even then, the third most trodden pilgrimage route only after the ones to Rome and Jerusalem. There is evidence that it was a route long before that, according to one legend, as a path following the Milky Way to the end of the Earth. In any case, it is an ancient road, and hiking along it with the other pilgrims through history is an incredible experience, even if just for a day or two.
But that is not even close to all of what northern Spain has to offer hikers. Extensive trekking and hiking can be done in the Pyrenees, allowing even the most intrepid to explore wild forests and the top of mountain peaks. Or, walk through the rolling vineyards of Rioja, passing through tiny medieval villages on your way to sampling delicious wines at 300 year old wineries. The coast of the Basque Country is another beautiful area to hike, with views of the Cantabrian Sea and the wide sandy beaches. Stopping for a fresh seafood lunch in a pretty fishing village is one of life’s great pleasures. Plentiful accommodation and high quality eateries make hiking in northern Spain accessible to everyone, including families with children and less avid hikers.
Ocean Adventure in Northern Spain
Basque Country sits facing the Atlantic Ocean, looking north and westwards, offering a long and beautiful coastline lined with sandy beaches, festive beach towns, and a surfing culture dating back to the 1960s when it trickled down from France’s Basque surf city, Biarritz. By the 70s several “tribes” of surfers had formed up and down the coast at beaches such as Gros, Zarautz, Bakio and Sopela. Zurriola Beach in San Sebastian attracts surfers from all over the world who can take surf lessons and then enjoy the fun nightlife. There are also opportunities to kite surf and windsurf all over that area with schools providing private or group lessons.
For the truly adventurous, there are numerous diving shops which take people out to scuba dive and visit rock caves or to look for blue sharks. Sailing is another popular and accessible activity with a fishing and mariner culture that is still thriving. Sailing along the coast into the harbor of San Sebastian at sunset while sipping sparkling wine and eating fresh sardines on bread is unbeatable. For more of a taste of Basque culture, the trainera is a type of traditional rowing boat originally used for fishing in rough seas, but now it has become a popular racing sport with annual competitions called estropadak in Basque (trainera regatta) where 13 oarsmen and women fight it out through waves and choppy seas to be number one. This competitive tradition can be traced back to the fact that the first fishermen arriving from a day at sea would usually get the best prices at the market for their catch. It was essential to be among the first vessels to arrive.
Of course there is one last “water sport” and everyone’s favorite: luxuriating on the beach in the sun all day and going for relaxing swims in the blue sea. La Concha beach in the heart of San Sebastian’s Old Town is the perfect spot for this, with a pontoon to swim out to that has water slides, and a great atmosphere. Or you can go further afield along the coast and find wide, empty beaches to have to yourself.
Adrenaline in Northern Spain
If you are looking for a good rush or two, the north of Spain will not disappoint. Equestrian activities are abundant, with horseback rides over longer distances, or dressage and jumping lessons. Amble through beautiful countryside and medieval towns, through woods and vineyards, past castles and Romanesque churches on well-trained and well-kept horses. Spanish culture is still deeply connected to horses and riders’ expertise and love of them is clear.
If speed is more up your alley, there is skiing and snowboarding in the Pyrenees mountains in the winter easily accessible from Pamplona. If you like to get airborne, there are many paragliding schools in the Pyrenees and the best in all of Spain where you can do a tandem jump with an experienced professional. Soaring high over the mountains and forests of the Pyrenees is simply magical. The Pyrenees also provide great rock climbing, both sport and trad with hundreds of accessible routes for all levels.
And of course, if you are very brave (or crazy enough) the north of Spain has numerous summer village and town festivals where you can try to run with the bulls. The most famous bull run is in Pamplona during the San Fermin festival, but plenty of smaller towns have their own encierro (bull run) which are always much less crowded and free of other tourists. This is a truly dangerous activity with no guarantee of safety but it is an incredibly moving and traditional local experience that will provide an adrenaline rush for hours following. Even the spectators get a thrill and a buzz from the event. Whatever your taste in intrepid activity is, northern Spain has some of the best.
Relaxing Activities in Northern Spain
There are plenty of options for those who prefer to have a relaxing time in northern Spain. There is a culture of hot baths going back to the last century when people came to unwind and relax or recover from health issues. The spas in the area carry on this tradition with plenty of luxury options attached to hotels in beautiful locations. San Sebastian has a famous therapeutic bath house on La Concha beach, where you can move from cold pools to hot pools or out onto the beach to go for a swim in the sea before returning to the baths again. The salt baths at ElGorriaga Hotel and Spa are also divine and will melt away all the stresses of life. Get in lots of massages and treatments so you return from your trip refreshed and glowing. Yoga is also on offer all over the north of Spain. Yoga can be therapeutic as well as great for fitness and flexibility in a gentle way. Breathe deeply, stretch and sweat out the troubles of life on the mat at numerous locations and retreats. And finally, there is golf in La Rioja wine region, on the Basque Coast and Navarra inland in Ulzama.
Northern Spain is the perfect place to do any of these activities. With less tourism than other parts of Spain, you can really get immersed in the culture, gastronomy and history, as well as have fun and relax. The area also boasts amazing coastal hikes and even the chance to hike on the Northern Route of the Camino de Santiago. The Basque Coast Hiking Tour gives you the chance to sail into San Sebastian in style on an antique sailboat, docking in the Concha harbor for swimming and sunbathing before a night of pintxos, wine and nightlife. For incredible scenery and luxury accommodation cycle along the Basque coast on the Navarra to the Basque Coast Tour. A Feast for the Senses, is a chance to learn from the best chefs at a private show cooking and dinner experience at a local gastronomic society, so you can take home some of the skills to create the food you enjoyed so much. Regardless of your style of travel, whether meandering and luxuriating or cycling and high activity, or a good mix of both, the one thing that will blow everyone away is the unending brilliance of the local cuisine couched in warm hospitality, in all its forms.
If you are looking for an adventure Northern Spain Travel will certainly create one that is just right for you.