While Barcelona and Madrid are Spanish destinations famous for their hustle and bustle and beach life, if you head northeast, you'll experience a completely different vibe of Spain. Northern Spain consists of a number of towns which that are their own autonomous communities including Basque Country, Navarra, and La Rioja.
Whether you're seeking a quiet getaway, art and history, huge cultural celebrations and festivals, or fashionable and modern metropolitan areas, you'll find it in this region. Here, the terrain is varied with forests in Navarra, the Pyrenees Mountains, and the beaches and fantastic gastronomy of San Sebastian.
Visit the Basque region during May through July for the least rainfall, and if you prefer to avoid crowds, visit before July. Temperatures are highest from June to September, resting in the mid to high 70s. November is the rainiest month so pack accordingly or wait for winter to pass, as temperature drop to the low 50s.
The Basque people are unique in that many consider themselves their own people, rather than Spanish.
Within Basque Country, Bilbao, Vitoria, and the beautiful capital of San Sebastian
, are the major cosmopolitan cities, but each has something unique to contribute to Basque.
is now known as a bustling art center in the region, featuring the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao. Still, the Old Town preserves its classic architecture.
Vitoria is the capital city of Basque, where you can explore the houses of Parliament, and government headquarters, including the Prime Minister's residence. While you're in town, stop by a few of the many churches and cathedrals, including the 14th-century Gothic Cathedral of Santa Maria and spend some time in the many museums to explore culture and formal exhibitions of art.
If you're visiting in late June or mid to late July, you may be in time to catch one of the three summer musical festivals: the Vitoria-Gasteiz Jazz Festival, the International Music Festival, and the Azkena rock festival.
Meanwhile, the industrial town of Guernica holds significant Basque culture and history to the Basque people. Contributing to its fame is Pablo Picasso's mural, Guernica, depicting the bombing of Guernica by the Germans and Italians in 1937. You can also visit the Tree of Guernica, which used to be the place where village communities held assemblies and is now symbolic of rights of the Basque people.
The most-visited San Sebastian boasts beautiful coastline of Playa de La Concha with its lovely commercial-free promenade. Hotels, theaters and casinos are abundant, and the Old Town retains its neo-classical, Gothic, and baroque architectures.
Just south of the Pyrenees Mountains bordering Spain and France is the quaint and smallest provincial town of La Rioja. While many only know La Rioja as a part of the famous pilgrimage of the Road to Santiago, it'd be well worth it to spend a bit more time to go off the beaten track and explore the Spanish wine region.
La Rioja is famously known for its wine country and is home to more than 500 wineries. A number of these allow you to explore the vineyards on horseback or even on an off-road vehicle. Vivanco is an excellent wine museum located about 55 miles northwest in the town of Briones.
Smack dab in the center of the city is the Catedral de Santa Maria de la Redonda, which houses a beautiful altar and also a small painting by Michelangelo. Monasterio de Santa Maria La Real, which was originally a cave, still holds the statue and royal tombs of the Najera dynasty.
Legrono, the capital of La Rioja, was named gastronomic capital of the world in 2012 so even though there aren't many tourist attractions here, you'll be sure to dine well. Feast on local dishes, including white asparagus, patatas la Riojana, which are La Rioja's answer to the rest of Spain's patatas bravas, which are potatoes roasted with chorizo and paprika. Chuletas Riojana, or grilled lambchops, are another delicious regional specialty.
If you're looking for peace and quiet or simply a place to get away from the noise of the city, look no further than Navarra. Navarra is famous for its peaceful rolling countryside, especially because the land has been well-maintained in its forest and rivers, as well as its historical and cultural building of monasteries and castles including Plaza del Castillo, which was built in the 1400s.
is the capital of Navarra, where the famous running of the bulls takes place during the Sanfermines festival every year in July. Pamplona features religious architecture, including the churches of Saint Sernin and Saint Nicholas, and civil architecture, which can be seen in the town hall, music school and Episcopal palace, Saint John the Baptist seminary, among many others.
Along Avenida del Ejercito, escape to the Parque de la Ciudadela, or the citadel of of Pamplona. Here you can walk around the pavilions, moats, and forts built for the military base during the Spanish Renaissance. Today this ample green space is open to the public as a park for leisure, sports and culture.
Food and Dining
Basque cuisine features bacalao, which is salt cod made by soaking the fish in saltwater for 48 hours. Basque gastronomy is rich and various and some consider it to be the best in the country. Be sure to try a common dessert of walnuts, Basque sheeps cheese and apple jam. San Sebastian is famous for its Pintxo or tapas bars, where you can try a variety of local specialties, including spider crab, stewed beef cheeks, and white wine poured from high for aeration.
Stroll down Calle del Laurel in Basque Country when you're ready for a tapas crawl. Sample tapas bars and restaurants that line the narrow, but energetic pedestrian street on the daily for cheap and various foods. Don't forget to try the regional liquor, patxaran, which is made of sloe-flavored liquer, not to mention Rioja wine, which is the most reputable wine in the Spain. If you're in La Rioja in September, linger for the Rioja Grape Harvest Festival and enjoy seasonal pairings, cultural art and live music and dance performances to the backdrop of celebratory fireworks.
Popular culinary regional specialties of Navarra include cordero al chilindron, a lamb stew made with tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, duck with peaches, and artichokes with clams. Navarra is also known for roncal, a distinct hard yet creamy regional cheese made of unpasteurized sheep's milk which tastes sweet and herbaceous with a buttery flavor.
To reach Basque, you can arrive via plane, train, bus, or car. Bilbao is the biggest airport in Basque Country, with the most international and domestic flights in and out of large cities such as London
, Madrid, and Amsterdam
. Hondarribia airport in San Sebastian also has daily flights from Barcelona and Madrid and Biarritz international airport also offers daily flights from major metropolitan cities.
Trains run daily from major cities such as Paris
, Madrid, and Barcelona. Check Spain's government rail, renfe.com
and France's state-owned railway, SNCF, for timetables and tickets.
If you choose to drive yourself, or take a bus, roads run between all the main cities, Bilbo-Gasteiz, Bilbo-Donostia, Donostia-Iruna, Gasteiz-Iruna. Buses connect mostly to San Sebastian and Bilbao from Barcelona and Madrid. Check local listings for more information.
To get into La Rioja, you can take the high-speed RENFE train, take a bus, or drive yourself. La Rioja is close to the northern cities of Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Zaragoza, so you'll never be more than a 2-hour drive away, not to mention the beautiful and varied scenery you'll see on the way in. Check local bus listings for times and routes.
Get into Pamplona, Navarra by plane, train or bus. If you're on a budget, flying in may be a challenge, as Navarra does not have a large airport and can get expensive, especially during festival times. The railway is an efficient and quick way to get in, but note that the train station is located in the neighborhood of San Jorge and you'll need to take a bus or taxi from there to get to the city center.
The bus station is located right in the heart of the city center and is well connected on the daily to Pamplona, Bilbao, Barcelona, Madrid, San Sebastian, Vitoria, Zaragoza and Biarritz.
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