Tour of Northern Spain: Bilboa, Pamplona, León, Gijón

STE’s Holiday Editor, Tony Taylor, and his wife report on their driving tour around Northern Spain.

Northern Spain: By the River Nervión in Bilbao
By the River Nervión in Bilbao

In our younger days, we both worked full-time and, with two boys in tow, Southern Spain or Majorca were our usual holiday destinations. We would choose a one-centre package holiday on the coast, as the boys were happy with a heated swimming pool, beach, sea and sunny weather.

Now we are retired we know that there is a lot more that Spain can offer and we can be more adventurous! As an early summer holiday, we decided on a three week leisurely driving tour of Northern Spain.

Having flown in to Bilbao, we travelled on to Pamplona, León, Gijón, Llanes and the Picos de Europe mountain range, before returning to Bilbao. We prefer to stay at least two or three nights in each place we visit so we have time to explore the local area.



On arrival at Bilbao airport we collected our hire car (booked through Holiday Autos) and checked in for three nights at the Holiday Inn Express, just five minutes from the airport. We used the free Holiday Inn shuttle bus to get to the airport and then the airport bus to Plaza Moyua in the centre of Bilbao (€3 and 20 minutes each way).

Bilbao Old Town near the Catedral de Santiago
Bilbao Old Town near the Catedral de Santiago

We found Bilbao to be a sophisticated, modern city, buzzing with activity. Most of the interesting sites in Bilbao are within half an hour’s walking distance from Plaza Moyua. The wide, tree-lined main street, the Gran Via Don Diego, leads west to Plaza Sangrado Corazón. From there we walked through a spacious interesting park area northwards towards the River Nervión and the Guggenheim Museum – Bilbao’s most well-known attraction. We went inside but did not tour the modern art collection – something for a rainy day!

The riverbank also provides a pleasant stroll. Crossing over the Zubizan Bridge leads to the Funicular de Artxanda which rises 750 ft providing excellent views over Bilbao and the surrounding countryside (€3.70 return).

The entrance to the Old Town (Casco Viejo) is 15 minutes level walking away from Plaza Moyua. The Catedral de Santiago (€4 entrance for seniors) and the large market (Mercado de la Ribero) were a further 10 minutes’ walk. The latter has a large food area, selling an excellent range of tapas.


We drove to Pamplona using the non-motorway San Sebastian road. This was a slow drive through forested regions, with a lack of coastline views. Exceptions were Berneo, with a lovely small seafront, a harbour and free parking, Lekeitio (very busy did not find parking) and Ondarroa, free parking, but rather run down around the harbour.

Seafront at Berneo
Seafront at Berneo

We were going to stop at San Sebastian, but failed to find the seafront and after the long drive decided to continue to Pamplona on the Autovia motorway. We had problems finding the Holiday Inn Express as it was not in Pamplona but Mutilva, three miles south – I did not set the sat-nav correctly!

The only eating places within walking distance from the hotel were in the Centro Commercial shopping centre. There was a wide range of eating places. We ate there each evening so that I could enjoy a wine or beer without having to drive back to the hotel, but it seemed more of a British/American shopping mall eating area rather than Spanish!

From the hotel we took the bus into Pamplona (€1.35 each way), alighting in about 20 minutes at Cortes de Nevarra in Casco Antigua (the old town).

Pamplona city walls
Pamplona city walls

Most of the tourist sites (Catedral de Santa Maria, city walls, Museum de Nevarra, Town Hall, market, old buildings and churches) are within 20 minutes walk. The cathedral (4 € entrance for pensioners) is large and quite magnificent.

The following day we had a leisurely drive through the Roncesvalles Pass in the Nevarran Pyrenees to St Jean-Pied-de-Port in France. It was a most pleasant scenic 45 mile drive, but very winding and hilly. According to the sat-nav it should only take one hour 20 minutes but we took four hours, including numerous stops for views and coffees. St Jean was an interesting pretty town where we spent an hour for lunch and wondering around. The return journey with just one long stop took two hours.


The drive from Pamplona to León was too long for our liking. We drove via Logrono (50 miles) to Burgos (a further 140 miles) to León (a further 130 miles).

Casa Botines in León

We had intended to stop at both Logrono and Burgos and spend an hour or so looking around. However, our suitcases did not fit into the back of the hire car and I was reluctant to leave the car with a suitcase on show on the back seat.

We stayed for three nights in a Casa Rural at Benllera, about 15 miles from Leon. The first day we drove around the mountains and the reservoir. This was a pleasant drive with lovely scenery but lacking in place to stop for refreshments.

The second day we drove the 40 minutes into Leon and parked at the Aparcamiento Plaza Mayor close to the Catedral de ó. We arrived at 1 o-clock – not a good time as the cathedral and most attractions close down from 1.30 to 4.00! The cathedral is large with beautiful stained-glass windows. Nearby is an impressive Gaudí designed building, the Casa Botines.


Laboral University in Gijón

The Autovia to Gijón took one and half hours through the mountains and cost €8.30.  We stayed at the Hotel Rural de Cefontes, a very pleasant hotel, ten minutes’ drive to the old town at Gijón. Fortunately there is a restaurant a ten minute walk away so I could enjoy a meal with wine.

In Gijón, we parked at the north end of the lovely Playa de San Lorenzo at Plaza Mayor. The old town is compact with a museum of Roman baths and the fine church of San Piedro. The Cimavilla Park with its excellent views over the beach and port is a steady climb up from the car park. There is a red tourist bus to help explore the city at €11, but only €5.50 for seniors. At the far end of this tour is the Laboral University (now designated a City of Culture) and the large Botanical Gardens – the latter is well worth a visit at just €1.80 for seniors.

Llanes and Picos de Europa

The author at Peña Tú
The author at Peña Tú

Our final stay was at a timeshare apartment near Llanes for a week. From here we took a number of short drives to explore the surrounding area, including:

Llanes – An attractive town with some impressive buildings, an old town centre, a new town and three beaches. There is free parking at the east beach, Playa de Toro, and the west beach, Playa Sablon.  The latter large car park is also very good for the town centre after a lovely clifftop walk from the west of the beach.

Comillas – A small seaside town with some fascinating architecture. Within ten minutes walk from the centre is a colourful chalet designed by Gaudí and nearby the neo-Gothic style Sobrellano Palace.

Vidiago – An imposing Bronze Age monolith, the Peña Tú, is just west of Vidiago. It was a steep walk of nearly a mile from an unmarked car park to see the monolith, but the views of the coast and mountains were well worth the climb.

Driving through the Picos de Europa
Driving through the Picos de Europa

Picos de Europa – We drove fifteen miles inland to the town of Panes which is surrounded by the Picos de Europa mountains range, which rises to over 8,000 ft. Seven miles further on through a deep gorge we reached Hermida, a small village surrounded by high mountains.

We returned through Panes and then along the edge of the Picos de Europa to Los Arenas and back to Llanes. All very striking delightful scenery.


See also:
Valencia to Bilbao via Zaragoza – Cathedrals, Castles and Modern Architecture
A Leisurely Tour of NE Spain: Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia