16-18 nights in Northern Spain (Jul/Aug)

Old Jul 6th, 2021, 09:46 AM
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16-18 nights in Northern Spain (Jul/Aug)

We are a family of 5 (3 kids under 10). I needed some suggestions for possible itineraries for our trip. We arrive and depart from Madrid.

My key focus of this trip are:
- San Sebastian
- Picos de Europa
- Santiago de Compostela
- Porto (portugal)
- Going Pintxos/Tapas hopping
- Road tripping through rugged northern spain coastline
- Hiking in lush green northern spain
- Visiting charming historical towns (during road trips or as a day trip)
- Staying in 1 or 2 Paradores along the way
- Possibly watching a flamenco show (bars, plaza, private, etc)
- Possibly watching a bull fight
- Possibly watching a La Liga game (Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athelico Madrid)
- Possibly spending enough time (hiking/exploring cute towns) in Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Basque region (both spanish and french parts)
- Possibly staying nights at cute towns with vibrant pinxtos/tapas culture
- Would like to stay a couple nights in Madrid

Firstly I am unclear if I should do Madrid - Porto - Santiago de Compostella - Picos de Europa - San Sebastian - Madrid or go counter clockwise Madrid - San Sebastian - Picos de Europa - Santiago de Compostella - Porto - Madrid.

I also want to see if I can fit in below highlights during my trip:
Basque Region: Pasajes, Hondarribia, Saint Jean de Luz, Biarritz, Bayonne, Espelette, Saint Jean de Port
Big towns in Northern Spain - Santander, Bilbao (stay there to visit Gaztelugatxe and explore tapas/etc or stay in Castro Urdiales?)
Picos de Europa - What are cute villages to stay to do day hikes? Potes? Santillana del Mar? Comillas? What are the main hikes good for families?
Asturias - which towns and hikes do you recommend? Gijon? Oviedo? Covadonga? Lastres?
Galicia - La Coruna, Rias Baixas, Isla de la Toja, Santiago de Compostela, Vigo, which hikes through forests/streams/rivers/coastal areas do you recommend?
Portugal - what are some towns on the way to Porto that we can stop at: Braga/Almeida/Pinhao/Guimaraes/Viana de Castelo - ideally want to stop as a day trip from/to Porto and spend most of our time in Porto.
Historical cities/towns near Madrid - Zarazoza, Toledo, Salamanca, Segovia (perhaps i can visit a couple of them as a day trip or as a stop during our itinerary - which ones of these would you recommend for a night stay possibly to explore the tapas/pinxtos culture?)
Towns on Santiago de Camino route - Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon, Astorga, O Cebreiro, Lugo - any of these worth a day trip or night stay or Tapas culture?

The region is vast and things to do/see are numerous and I do not want to miss out (i know there is always a next time but there are so many other gorgeous places on our to-visits that I do not know when we will be back), but at the same am cognizant of having down days (especially cause we are travelling with kids) to really enjoy the places we are visiting.

Any tips and suggestions (must do hikes/points of interests/tapas bars/festivals during those times/) will be most appreciated.
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Old Jul 6th, 2021, 01:34 PM
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We just touched down in SFO after a 12 day trip mostly centered around Saint Sebastián. I don’t want to be mean but my first response in reading your list of things to do in Spain and Portugal in 16-18 days was to question your sanity. Does your time include flying in and out of Madrid? Planning on driving? I’m too tired to do the math now but I don't think you can do 25% of what you propose.
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Old Jul 6th, 2021, 05:58 PM
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A few years ago (2016) my husband and I spent 3 weeks traveling by car from Madrid >> Burgos (2 nights)>> Picos de Europa (3 nights) >>?? (1 night) >> Santander (1 night) >> Santillana del Mar (quick stop) >> San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (2 nights in the area) >> San Sebastian (5 nights) >> Hondaribia (nixed due to rain and moved to Bordeaux, 3 nights) >> Rioja (Logrono (1 night) & Laguardia (1 night) >> Segovia & Toledo (1 night each >> Madrid (2 nights). (Don't count up the days, I might be a bit off...)

Nonetheless, with only three weeks, we ended up cutting out most of Asturias and Galicia and saving the regions for a future trip. Depending on how you travel, you might come to a similar conclusion. You might be thinking that you could cut out a few days from SS, but if your kids are beach lovers, you won't find a better beach for kids! When the tide is in, it's like swimming in a calm pool.

Other thoughts: Some say that Santillana del Mar is too touristy, but I thought it was really cute. If I were to do again, I would stay nearby within walking distance of old town. The kids might like it. And I'm not sure how young your youngest kids are, but San Juan de Gaztelugatxe was a real bucket-list item! We stayed at the Parador de Fuente De and took the gondola to the top (highly recommended!).

Yikes. Editing to say that I just noticed your most recent comment. Well, I hope this is constructive.

Last edited by bibliotecaria71; Jul 6th, 2021 at 06:01 PM.
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Old Jul 6th, 2021, 06:23 PM
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bibliotecaria71. Thank you for sharing your itinerary and tip. Very helpful and constructive.

Yes, I agree and know that I have to cut down a big part of my wish list. But having put out the whole cookie jar i know which cookies i really want on this tour.

I had a few Qs:
1. did you book hotels/b&bs/parodors in advance? With kids i might be better off booking in advance. But is it at all feasible (or would it be insane) to leave hotel location till last day depending on where we want to go (outside of our main stays). We used to do that when we were single and walk to town squares in europe in afternoon and try to find a decent spot to sleep, else drive to next town.
2. how late can you drive in northern spain safely? is it safe to drive after a night out doing tapas crawl. (one of us will be sober to drive). This way instead of having to stay in a place we visited for day visit/tapas we can drive back to our main stay locations.
3. can you share which hikes you did in picos? where did you stay for the picos.
4. similarly of burgos/santander/segovia/toledo/logrono which might you suggest are your top 2-3 in terms on things to see/tapas?
5. did you not consider zaragoza/pamplona at all? would you do those 2 instead of a couple in point 4.
6. can you share what all you did in SS (any nice tapas spots?)

Again, thanks much for your time and suggestions.
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Old Jul 6th, 2021, 09:52 PM
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With kids that young, I would focus on staying in one place for a few days. Too much movement takes away from the experience and the kids may only remember the car trips, the hotels, being tired of constantly being on the go and some food. You're not the only one on this trip so you need to keep their needs in mind too.

With kids in tow (and without too), less is more.
By the way: being rude to people who are trying to give you appropriate advice will not help you get your questions answered.
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Old Jul 7th, 2021, 12:18 AM
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A piece of adviCe.

Thank you for joining the internet and asking for advice.

You are taking on too much but due to your manners I will take my advice elsewhere.
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Old Jul 7th, 2021, 03:32 AM
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Originally Posted by SAZZman View Post
bibliotecaria71. Thank you for sharing your itinerary and tip. Very helpful and constructive.

Yes, I agree and know that I have to cut down a big part of my wish list. But having put out the whole cookie jar i know which cookies i really want on this tour.

I had a few Qs:
1. did you book hotels/b&bs/parodors in advance? With kids i might be better off booking in advance. But is it at all feasible (or would it be insane) to leave hotel location till last day depending on where we want to go (outside of our main stays). We used to do that when we were single and walk to town squares in europe in afternoon and try to find a decent spot to sleep, else drive to next town.
2. how late can you drive in northern spain safely? is it safe to drive after a night out doing tapas crawl. (one of us will be sober to drive). This way instead of having to stay in a place we visited for day visit/tapas we can drive back to our main stay locations.
3. can you share which hikes you did in picos? where did you stay for the picos.
4. similarly of burgos/santander/segovia/toledo/logrono which might you suggest are your top 2-3 in terms on things to see/tapas?
5. did you not consider zaragoza/pamplona at all? would you do those 2 instead of a couple in point 4.
6. can you share what all you did in SS (any nice tapas spots?)
To answer your questions:

1) Yes, we booked everything in advance. We don't leave any of our hotel choices to chance, as the amenities/location/parking are a big part of our enjoyment of the trip.

2) We did not drive at night. Instead, we chose hotels that were within walking distance of the bars.

3) We did not hike. We attempted to do a popular hike in Asturias (I forget which place), but they turned us away from a filled parking lot. If there is a special and popular hike, do your research. Instead, we stayed at Fuente De and took the gondola to the top and walked around. (That was stunning and enough for us.)

4) In Burgos, we like the Landa hotel outside of town. It's close enough for a reasonable taxi ride into town (see the cathedral, interesting houses, eat some tapas, notice the sea shells). It also has a great pool and very nice restaurant. Segovia: The parador is outside of town, but has a big outdoor pool. We parked outside of town to view the aqueduct and walk around. Toledo itself is the site. We really liked Logrono for tapas. I couldn't tell you where we went, but we loved the patatas bravas and beef cheek at a couple of places. Laguardia was cute but pretty quiet. It might be a nice short stay with kids. I didn't love Santander. We went for the beach and tapas and couldn't help but compare it to SS. The northern coast was stunning though. But be prepared for challenging parking in some small towns. I guess I was thinking it would be less crowded. I was surprised to see the line of parked cars precariously pulled off the the side of the road for a half-mile outside of each small town with a beach. It was nice to be able to park the car at a hotel within walking distance of the beach and/or bars and not think about driving for a day or two.

5) No. There is only so much we could fit in.

6) In SS you'll be hard pressed to find bad food -- unless the bar is completely empty.

While the area appears remote and empty on Google Maps, expect the popular spots to be very busy. I highly recommend reservations and careful planning to see what you hope to see. We drove wistfully past a few ridiculously beautiful beaches where we just couldn't find reasonable (not scary with a rental car) parking.
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Old Jul 7th, 2021, 03:38 AM
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kleeblatt. Thanks for the first piece of advice. I have been doing such 2-3 week trips across continents for past 5-6 years (kids in tow). Give someone some benefit of being a responsible parent of taking that into consideration. Given COVID and everything that has happened in the past year, I will be happy with 10% of what i threw against the wall. But can one not dream of more without being accused and patronized.
Come on people grow up and give more constructive suggestions (regarding the trip at hand).
PS. so far seems other that biblio...i have been the one offering life advices to you kids.(and parents are never rude to kids but firm).
Peace out.
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Old Jul 7th, 2021, 11:18 AM
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1) You can do a wonderful stretch of the camino in San Sebastian... it starts east of the city so you're walking in the opposite direction but it's a fabulous trail and you can take a bus back.
2) Bilboa is a fantastic city which I liked as much as San Sebastian... if not more. Take the kids for a walk past the art museum for some unusual outdoor art.
3) After exploring the cities up north, I really don't see the value of adding Madrid for more than a day.

4) Your replies to posters wanting to help and warning you of overdoing it is more patronising than any of the advice given. The advice here is free and given out of an interest in sharing and giving back. You'll get more helpful replies if you lose the attitude.

Last edited by kleeblatt; Jul 7th, 2021 at 11:22 AM.
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Old Jul 7th, 2021, 12:57 PM
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Thanks bibliotecaria71 and kleeblatt. Appreciate the feedback.

btw i plan to do 2-3 hikes in picos de europa - gorge route (not sure about this one with young kids), cavadonga lake trail, orordiales scenic balcony trail (any other suggestions?).
Where would you suggest to stay the nights at?
Potes, Llanes,
Santinella del Mar, Ribadesella, Castro Urdiales? Oviedo?
Regardless as a stop for day hikes, would you suggest I stay a night in any of these places or just a day trip to some of them would do?
Which of these places have good tapas scenes? Dont want too dead of towns for a night stay.

Btw have any hike recommendations in Galicia (along coastal route)?
I read that there are some charming cliff side walking trails around Llanes?

So far the updated 18 Night itinerary looks like...
1 Night - Zaragoza (including drive from Madrid to Zaragoza - flight lands in the am) - still thinking if i should skip it and go straight to basque region
3 Nights - San Sebastian (hotel recommendations?)
1 Night - Bilbao/Orio/Zarautz/Zumaira (any recommendations of these to stay the night?)
1 Night - Hondarribia
1or2 Nights? (Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Biarritz, Bayonne - which one of these would you recommend to stay at during a day trip to french basque)
3 Nights - Picos de Europe/Asturias (2-3 hikes plus explore these cities - Potes, Llanes, Santinella del Mar, Ribadesella, Castro Urdiales, Oviedo - any other?)
3 Nights - Galicia (La Coruna, Santiago de Compostela, Ferrol or Rebiera Sacra) - hikes (Ribeira Sacra, Canon do sil), places to stay recommendation?
2 Nights - Porto (should i stop in braga/Guimaraes/Pinhao on the way?)
2 Nights - Madrid (stop in salamanca on the way from Porto to Madrid)


Any must stay paradors or country houses through this itinerary?

Last edited by Moderator3; Jul 7th, 2021 at 03:05 PM. Reason: Remove unnecessary, rude remark
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Old Jul 8th, 2021, 06:34 AM
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We stayed in the very historic Parador in Santiago de Compostela , right on the Plaza in front of the Cathedral. We booked a year ahead to get a room.
We also stayed in the Parador del Santillana del Mar which we didn’t care for. There are two Paradors so stay in the Gil Blas Parador there.
We have loved all the other Paradors we have stayed in throughout Spain.
For the Pays Basque, I recommend staying in St-Jean de Luz. Visit the Basque villages nearby in the foothills of the Pyrenees such as Ascson, Saré, Ainhoa and Espelette.
You mention wanting to see both flamenco and a bull fight which are mainly found in southern Spain, Andalusia.

Last edited by HappyTrvlr; Jul 8th, 2021 at 06:37 AM.
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Old Jul 8th, 2021, 06:51 AM
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HappyTrvlr. Love your tips. Thanks.
quick follow ups:
1. How many nights do you recommend in Santiago de Compostela? Is 1 whole day of exploring rtown and food enough or do you recommend 2 nights?
2. Do you recommend staying overnight in Santillana del Mar? Are there good food options in the town in the night? Or we could do the town as part of a day trip and instead stay in Potes or Llanes (this town might have a busier night life which we are looking for after a day of hiking)
3. If I plan to spend 6-7 days in Basque region how would you divide it between Spanish Basque Country and Pays Basque? Would 2 nights be ideal in Pays Basque? Also notice you didnt mention Biarritz and Bayonne. any reason why? Where is the best place to get food in Pays Basque? Maybe that can be our night stay option.
4. Yea we dropped watching bull fight. (my wife wasnt keen anyways). Might see a flamenco in a bar in Madrid if time allows.
Thanks again. very helpful response.
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Old Jul 8th, 2021, 08:27 AM
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As a Bilbao local, my recommendations:

1 Night - Zaragoza (including drive from Madrid to Zaragoza - flight lands in the am) - still thinking if i should skip it and go straight to basque region


Nothing much on the way there, nothing much in Zaragoza apart from the Basílica del Pilar.

3 Nights - San Sebastian (hotel recommendations?) Hotels in Donostia-San Sebastian are quite expensive, so if looking for something affordable, I´d look in Igeldo or outskirts of the city.

1 Night - Bilbao/Orio/Zarautz/Zumaira (any recommendations of these to stay the night?)

On the way from SS to Bilbao, you may want to stop in Getaria and Zumaia to see the flysch, Zarautz is not worth the stop and Orio is a very short visit. Drive on the national road, not on the highway, for the best sights. Bilbao deserves more than one night.

1 Night - Hondarribia

This is not right. From Zaragoza you should get to Bilbao first, then to SS and then to Hondarribia, from west to east, not SS, then west, then east again. But if you´re staying in SS, why stay in Hondarribia as well? It´s just a 20min drive...

1or2 Nights? (Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Biarritz, Bayonne - which one of these would you recommend to stay at during a day trip to french basque)

Biarritz does not have much to offer apart from the beach (and this is a very rainy area...beach weather is not always an option) and expensive shops. Bayonne and St Jean de Luz are worth the visit, I´d stay in Bayonne as a base. Get inland to the zip train of Larrun (La Rhune in French), great experience, and then Ainhöa and Espelette.


3 Nights - Picos de Europe/Asturias (2-3 hikes plus explore these cities - Potes, Llanes, Santinella del Mar, Ribadesella, Castro Urdiales, Oviedo - any other?)

Not much in Castro Urdiales, massively constructed in the recent years, but distances are big among all these...quite optimistic route.

Hope it helps!
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Old Jul 8th, 2021, 08:29 AM
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More...

2. Do you recommend staying overnight in Santillana del Mar? Are there good food options in the town in the night? Or we could do the town as part of a day trip and instead stay in Potes or Llanes (this town might have a busier night life which we are looking for after a day of hiking)

Beautiful, but very touristy town. Yes, plenty of restaurants offering similar food. I´d do it as a day trip. Llanes is a great place, gets busy in summer.


3. If I plan to spend 6-7 days in Basque region how would you divide it between Spanish Basque Country and Pays Basque? Would 2 nights be ideal in Pays Basque? Also notice you didnt mention Biarritz and Bayonne. any reason why? Where is the best place to get food in Pays Basque? Maybe that can be our night stay option.

Biarritz: it´s one of those places that everyone talks about and then you visit and there´s nothing worth the visit, or almost. Bayonne is a definite yes.
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Old Jul 30th, 2021, 04:52 AM
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Interesting list of places to visit. I've lived in Northern Spain for a short while, and more recently visited with my family (husband and teen). So I can answer a couple of your points from my own perspective and experience.

1. Driving in nothern spain and southern France is quite easy in the physical sense, but can be time consuming. You'll need a good 20-30 minutes to drive from San Sebastian to Hondarribia, for example, and if you decide to drive from Hondarribia to Hendaye, it'll be a good half hour's drive to do that. Hondarribia to Hendaye can be done on the small boat that operates between the two, but be mindful of crossing times. There's also a train, but again, be mindful of crossing times. Remember also that French lunch is 12 noon until 2pm, and the Spanish start eating their lunch about 2.30pm.

2. In my experience, there's nothing inherently dangerous about driving late at night in either country. Families tend to be out with their small children (often eating) until times that would be considered very late by some. Dinner isn't until 8-9pm, sometimes later. We've been out walking late at night in low season, and there were young families out with their children at 10 or 11pm.
2a. One thing you will need to pay heed to is that a chunk of your holiday is planned in The Basque country. The road signs may well only give place names in Basque, instead of French or Spanish. For example, driving out of Donostia (San Sebastian), the exit for France is labelled "Donibane".... the Basque name for St Jean de Luz. Work out which places you plan to visit have Basque names, and make yourself familiar with them. Stick a post-it note to the vehicle dashboard if needs be, because not being able to work out where you're supposed to go on a busy road or roundabout would not be fun.

3. Biarritz is lovely. On a sunny day, anyway. We enjoyed walking along the promenade (Bvd du Prince de Galles to Miramar, crossing the little bridges and visiting la Vierge (again, would recommend this on a fine and sunny day.) We loved it, but would agree with Mikelg (Kaixo, Mikel) about the expensive shops. Interesting for window shopping, but ouch on the wallet).

4. bayonne is great. We enjoyed a lovely lunch there, and would happily visit again.

5. Donostia/San Sebastian is beautiful. Try the tourist bus, or the train, to get your bearings and enjoy places you might not otherwise see. The stop for the bus is on Republika Argentina Kalea, opposite the victoria cafe (and the gardens). If it's running, there's a red kiosk to buy your tickets. I'd recommend strolling through the old quarter, and making your way to the promenade, and walking the length of that, but that would take a few hours, and you have limited time. We enjoyed spending time at the funfair on top of Igueldo, but again, your time is limited, so that might not be an option for you.

5. Biggest tip: remember you're visiting a region where three different languages may be spoken as standard. French, Spanish and Basque. This is especially so when you visit border towns like Hendaye, where all three languages may be jumbled into the same sentence. It's more likely that you'll overhear that than that someone will try and address you using that combination. Try to have at least a few basic words in each. "hello, please and thank you" will go a long way. Remember that all social encounters should start with, "hello", be peppered with "please" and "thankyou" and you'll have a much better experience than the tourists who insist that everyone speaks English, so they won't even try even a few basic words.

Everyone else has your itinerary covered. I'd be interested to read how much of that you actually end up doing.

3. best place for food in the Basque country? You serious? It's the Basque Country. Most of the best food in the world is at your fingertips. There are fast food places, but they're easily avoided. Even the tourist trap pintxo bars offer food that would be considered fine dining elsewhere in the world. Donostia/San Sebastian: Just enjoy wandering the streets for a short while, and then pick a place you like the look of. Some will have closed since we visited, but if you really want some recommendations, have a look at James Blick's channel. He and his lovely wife specialise in trying and recommending places.
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Old Jul 30th, 2021, 01:16 PM
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Paradors, book in advance! We booked the one in Santiago de Compostela a year ahead. The one in Baiona is waterfront, very nice.
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Old Jul 31st, 2021, 06:04 AM
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Hondarribia has a beautiful parador. Right in the middle of the old town, with the most marvellous views. Lots of eating options nearby, too, as well as a few small souvenir shops, if you want them. The old town is a very, very beautiful place to stroll around and explore, with spectacular views over the coast and the pyrenees, depending on where you find yourself in the town.
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Old Jul 31st, 2021, 07:34 AM
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The French cute Basque towns are very touristy, so reservatins would be needed. They look more like what we would think of rural villages than the Spanish towns across the border, many of which have surprising substantial buildings.

Here's a French town:


Here's a Spanish townj:



Although they are not all like that:


The difference may be a function of history. Many from the northern coast of Spain (Basque country, Asturias, etc.) migraed to the New World , made their fortune and returned home displaying their success with big houses. I think that migration from the French side was less important.
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