Taking a road trip is one of my favorite ways to travel. It easily lends itself to unique experiences you couldn’t get traveling by bus or plane. There’s nothing like kicking your feet up on the dash, chucking on your favorite road trip tunes and grabbing some munchies for the road.
And Europe is the perfect place to do it. Although many travelers opt for the trusty train pass, renting a car in Europe gives you an infinite amount of flexibility on where to go and what to see.
As soon as we started thinking about our European road trip with Auto Europe, we knew exactly which country we wanted to cruise through: Spain. Having studied abroad in southern Spain back in 2008, I was already smitten with the culture, but knew I’d have to come back someday to explore the North. Since Jules had never been to Europe before (!!) this would be an entirely new experience for him as well. We started devising our Spain road trip itinerary to explore the land of paella and flamenco and here’s what we got to see over 17 days!
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Starting the Road Trip in Madrid
Spain’s capital city. Granted we didn’t spend much time in Madrid, which is unfortunate because the city has some really cool things going on. We were originally thinking of starting our trip further south, because we heard there were some awesome things to do in Granada, but there’s only so much you can see! Instead we decided to book a flight from Portugal at the ungodly hour of 6:30AM (meaning the alarm clock was set for 4AM! #neveragain).
So when we arrived in Madrid delirious from lack of sleep, we parked ourselves on the sunny lawns of the El Retiro Park and waited for our hostel room to be ready. We spent the afternoon eating 1 Euro tacos and napping, which is really just our idea of a dream afternoon. When we finally regained consciousness, we explored the streets and had dinner at one of the famous tapa houses, Sidreria El Tigre.
The next day we picked up the car from the inner city Avis. Holy cow! Navigating the streets of Madrid was no easy feat. Within a ten minute period we almost hit a motorcyclist, Jules almost ran me over and we went the wrong way down a one-way street. We had to get the heck out of the city. Madrid is fantastic, and there is plenty to see (including the Prado National Museum and the Reina Sofia), but we recommend exploring by foot before picking up your vehicle.
Typical Plaza Mayor in Salamanca
Avila: Classic Castles and Cobblestone Streets
Madrid to Avila – 110km (70mi) – 1 ½ hours of straight highway
Our first stop on our road trip through Spain was through Avila, a small town just a couple hours outside of Madrid. If you’re heading north of Madrid on your road trip, definitely check this place out. Although a bit on the touristy side, it’s an idyllic small town that will be a breathe of fresh air after leaving the capital.
The old town is surrounded by a castle wall and the interior is a maze of cobblestone streets. Does it get any more Spanish than that? There’s also a lot of homage to medieval times, so if you’re a history geek like Jules you can pick up some wooden swords and knight’s armor. Don’t miss picking up the famous local dessert, Yemas de Santa Theresa. These sugary little balls made of egg yolk are a perfect pick-me-ups for the rest of your day’s driving.
You could spend the night in Avila, but it’s probably better to just visit for the day or afternoon for lunch on your way to Salamanca.
Aerial view of Avila
Salamanca: Oldest University in Spain
Avila to Salamanca – 110km (70mi) – open highway just over an hour
Just a few hours north of Avila is the city of Salamanca. It may be the bustling capital of the Leon and Castiles region, but the city’s old town will make you feel like you just stumbled on a medieval civilization. The cobblestone streets are beautiful, but the real sights are above your eye-line, as the incredible architecture of the city’s churches and buildings tower above into the skyline. Salamanca is also famous for having the oldest university in Spain and one of the oldest functioning universities in the world.
Old town gets popping on weekend nights when patrons crowd the cafes that line the streets. If you’re looking for budget accommodation head outside of old town where you can find much cheaper rooms (we got a private for 3 people for 45 Euro). Spend one/two nights to get a feel for the town and explore the streets.
Salamanca’s old buildings
Leon: Best Tapas Bars
Salamanca to Leon – 200km (125mi) – open highway for 2 hours
One word of advice: come to Leon hungry. While the old town of Leon has just as much old world charm as the previous cities on our list, what really sets it apart is the culinary scene. The narrow winding streets of old town are packed with tapas bars. From the upscale sit-down restaurants to the stand-up and eat your tapa over a bar kind of place, there’s something for every eating style. Just like in the town of Granada (Southern Spain), most places in Leon serve free tapas with your drink. Chin chin!
Like Leon, a night or two in Salamanca means you have time to enjoy the nightlife, sleep off the Sangria hangover and still get time to check out the town.
View point between Leon and northern coast of Spain
Picos de Europa: Amazing Hiking and Nature
Leon to Picos de Europa area – 250km (155mi) – 3 hours via a little bit of northern Spain coast. Gets windy towards Picos.
Picos de Europa was not on our radar until our Spanish friend suggested we had add it to our northern Spain road trip. And boy are we grateful! Driving into Picos, Jules and I could not stop gasping at how gorgeous the mountain ranges looked. We were surrounded on all sides by cliffs towering right overhead.
You can stop at any of the small towns within the area and sleep at one of the many inns. Our room was next to a field with grazing sheep and a spectacular view of the Picos right from our window. Does it get any more peaceful than that? Besides just enjoying the serenity of the area, there are plenty of great hikes up into the mountains.
If you have the time spend at least two nights around the area and take on some hikes. Go deeper into the mountains if you really want to find some secluded spots.
Poncebos at Picos de Europa
Bilbao: Heart of the Basque Country
Picos de Europa to Bilbao – 200km (125mi) – Half windy half highway for 2 ½ hours
After cruising through Northern Spain we finally made it to the coast! The most important thing to note when entering Bilbao is that you’re officially in Basque Country. The Basque locals are a fiercely proud people and many of them don’t identify with being Spanish. In fact in the city of Zarautz not far from Bilbao, there is a big sign hanging in one of the main plazas in town reading “Tourists: You’re not in Spain, you’re in Basque Country!”
As you drive into the city you’ll start to notice a few apparent differences. Road signs will be written in Basque (as well as Spanish) and you’ll see Basque names for shops and restaurants. The Basque version of tapas is called Pinxtos and while you have to pay for them, they are generally much better size and quality than the free versions in other parts of Spain.
Bilbao itself is a wonderful city. We were lucky enough to experience it from a local’s perspective when we visited our friends from the area. You can easily walk the whole city center, taking a stroll down the riverside to check out the Guggenheim Museum and the Zubizuri Bridge, then looping back up to the shopping district if you’d like to do a little window shopping. We recommend a picnic lunch in Doña Casilda Iturrizar park, a sort of Basque version of Manhattan’s Central Park. One full day and night is enough to see the main things, but more time always helps you appreciate an area better.
San Sebastian, Basque Country
San Sebastian: More Than Just a Pretty Beach
Bilbao to San Sebastian – 100km (60mi) – one hour of highway
If you’ve come up to northern Spain to catch a glimpse of the famous coastline, San Sebastian is the spot to do it. San Sebastian may seem like a big city upon entering, but once you explore the center you can get a good idea how to navigate the city. The commonly photographed beach Playa de la Concha, is one of the city’s iconic attractions, but there’s so much more to explore than just the shell-shaped beach. You can walk on the promenade along the water from the aquarium back to the city center. The city hall, the San Sebastian Cathedral and the Miramar Palace are all beautiful sites for architecture lovers. Foodies will find no shortage of delicious places to grab Pinxtos! Pro tip: wash your meal down with a bottle of Txakoli, a refreshing dry white wine local to the area! One night in San Sebastian, but stay in Zarautz (see below) if you want a chiller and more local experience.
Cathedral in Leon
Zarautz: Hidden Gem on Spanish Northern Coast
Just a quick 15 minute drive outside of San Sebastian (towards Bilbao) is the small beach town of Zarautz. Popular with local holiday goers and packed during the summer, Zarautz has a beautiful strip of beach that rivals San Sebastian. There’s not a ton to do in town, but it’s perfect for lazy summer days eating delicious fresh seafood and polishing off an afternoon at the beach with ice cream cones.
If you have time we highly recommend the walk to Guetaria, you can either walk up through the wineries giving you a spectacular view of the coast, or walk along the main street by the water (just watch out for rogue waves that may come up and splash you!). If you can spare it this is where you want to spend a few nights. You can do day trips to San Sebastian, go for a surf, hike the mountains or head to an authentic Basque cider house in Orio that you’ll never forget!
Bonus Extra Locations: Spain to France Road Trip
Technically, this is a northern Spain road trip guide, but if you have a couple of days to kill (and are headed down to Barcelona), we definitely recommend checking out a bit of southern France and Andorra. Hitting up the towns of Pau and Foix in France and then crossing through Andorra really only adds a couple hours of driving time to your trip. For us it was definitely worth it to get a taste of French culture and enjoy the beautiful countryside and Pyrenees Mountain range.
Roquefixade Castle, 30mins outside of Foix, France
Pau: Classic Southern French City
San Sebastian to Pau – 180km (110mi) – 2 ½ hours via Ainhoa and gorgeous French countryside
After saying goodbye to our friends in Zarautz we continued our cruise to the border and crossed into France at Saint Jean de Luz, through the gorgeous Ainhoa and onto Pau.
I’m not sure if it’s the culture, the language or the landscape but crossing the border you can feel an immediate shift reminding you that you’ve just entered a new country. We cruised through Saint Jean de Luz, a beautiful town with a lovely pedestrian walking street that makes for a perfect place to stop for lunch. Then we made our way to Pau. Pau is a relatively small city tucked right next to the Pyrenees mountain range.
From the city, especially the Boulevard de Pyrenees, you can catch some beautiful views of the iconic mountains. The city has some interesting sights including the Pau Castle, as well as a few museums, but our favorite things to do was walk along the boulevards and take in the french lifestyle. Arrive at night, explore the next day, stay a second night and leave early the next morning for the Pyrenees.
Cute French country town on Ainhoa
Foix: More Castles and Incredible Views
Pau to Foix – 200km (125mi) – 2 hours through the start of the Pyrenees mountains
Driving further West to Foix is an experience in itself. The treelined streets are absolutely gorgeous. Our only gripe with Spain was that during much of our trip we were surrounded by flat, dry landscape. Southern France is the opposite with lush greenery all around. Foix itself is an adorable little town with friendly people that really break the “French snob” stereotype. The main attraction in town is the Chateau de Foix (Foix Castle). It’s definitely worth the entrance fee (only about 8 or 9 euros) to climb the towers and look out to the view of the Pyrenees. One night in town to explore the castle and then head to Andorra.
Main city castle in Foix
Andorra: Where’s That?
Foix to Andorra (via Roquefixade) – 125km (80mi) – slow windy roads for parts and an easy border crossing
I’ll be the first to admit that I had even heard of Andorra before planning this road trip (extra embarrassing considering I was a global studies major!) But when we finally figured out that Andorra is its own autonomous country (nestled right between Spain and France), we knew we had to check it out.
First off, Andorra is tiny. Only 468 sq km. That’s pretty damn small. Andorra is super popular in the winter with travelers coming from all over Europe to ski and snowboard down the luscious slopes. In summer the country is less crowded but still worth a visit to see the gorgeous mountains and hike some of the legendary trails. Try to spend a night or two in Andorra to do some hikes if its summer, as the view points are unbelievable.
On our way to Andorra
Barcelona: This Isn’t Spain Either!
Andorra to Barcelona (via Vic) – 215km (135mi) – 3 hours
What can we say about Barcelona that hasn’t already been said? It’s a wonder in itself, and just like Basque citizens, many Catalonians don’t identify as Spanish. I learned this the hard when we I was filming a Facebook Live video from the famous human castles in Vic and was called out by a Catalonian for mistakenly saying we were in Spain. My bad!
Barcelona is one of those cities that you could live in for a year and still not experience all it has to offer. We visited for Jules’ birthday and had an absolute blast (you can read more about celebrating a birthday in Barcelona here). From the iconic Gaudi architecture to some of the coolest bars and restaurants in the region, there is literally something for everyone in Barcelona.
Pro tip: If you want to see the famous buildings like Park Guell or the Sagrada Familia, make sure to book ahead online because tickets do sell out. We learned this the hard way when we tried to squeeze in a Park Guell visit on our last day in Barcelona and the park was full.
There are so many extra locations that we could have added to the best northern Spain road trip guide, but with 2-3 weeks these are the spots that shouldn’t be missed! But hey, you’re renting a car in Spain, you can always decide where you wanna go!
Super cute town of Castrillo de los Polvaraes near Leon
Finding Accommodation on Your Road Trip
If you’re looking to get the best deals on accommodation we strongly recommended planning out your road trip and then booking your accommodation in advance. There are plenty of great options depending on your budget.
AirBnB – is a great option along the way and we used it for a lot of spots. It gives you a chance to meet locals, but doesn’t have to be intrusive and gives you your own space. You can book a private room in a house, get your own apartment or even rent out a villa. If you’re new to AirBnB use this link to get a FREE $30 credit!
Hostels – The budget friendly and social aspect of enjoying your time in Spain. Share a dorm and make new friends, or take a private and interact in your own time. Check the best list of Spain hostels at Hostel World.
Hotels and Guesthouses – Want to splurge a little more, but still want to save? No worries, HotelsCombined always has the best deals, even some good last minute ones. Saved our butts in Picos de Europa when we left accommodation to the last minute!
Total Stats for the North Spain Road Trip
24 hours driving time (incl. 4hr for side trips)
200 Euro on gas (apx.)
14 bottles of Txakoli
Unknown pintxos consumed
Special thanks to AutoEurope for providing us with a car during our 3 week road trip! We should also note that a couple of links in the accommodation section will provide us with a small commission at absolutely no extra cost to you. So you get the best deals and also help us stay online to provide more great free content to would be travelers!