Roadtrip in Northern Spain - Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country in a hire car

Spain is traditionally a prime holiday destination for European tourists heading massively to the resorts of Costa Brava, Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca, Costa Dorada or the Canary Islands.

However, there is a new emerging destination in Spain for travellers who look for something different than beach holiday.

Seat Leon - popular hire car in Spain
Spain car hire Golf class - the new Seat Leon (model 2012 onwards)

Road trips in Spain
The northern regions of Spain - Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country are gaining popularity as some of the best road trip locations in Europe. Why? Great roads for road trips set in interesting scenery, diversity of landscapes and good along-the-road infrastructure ally in Northern Spain with the rich historic heritage and unique culture. The climate remains mild throughout the year; the local folklor is unique and traditional food - exceptional. Last but not least, Spain is still rather inexpensive when compared to other European countries. 

With the vast selection of low-cost flights to many international airports in the area and very affordable Northern Spain car hire options, tourists from all over the world can plan now for a Spain road trip, without worrying about bringing their own car.

Fly low-cost to Northern Spain
The starting point of the Spanish road trip can be almost anywhere you choose, as there are six international airports in the northern region of Spain. All of them receive low-cost flights from the UK (with departures from London-Stansted, London-Heathrow or Manchester, amongst other cities), operated by EasyJet, Ryanair or the Spanish carrier Vueling.

You can also fly to the airports in the North of Spain from major Spanish cities, Madrid, Barcelona and sometimes Malaga, Seville, Valencia and Alicante.

Cheap car hire Spain
Car hire is widely available at any of the airports, as well as in major towns and cities in Spain.

The most popular companies supplying rental car at Spanish airports are Avis Rent-a-Car, Hertz, Europcar, Sixt and National-Atesa. Local Spanish rent-a-car brands with no representation at the airport, such as Autos Brea, Astur-Drive Car, or CasinCar, for example, will deliver rental vehicles to the airport locations.

Cheap car hire in Spain for up to 7 people - Seat Alhambra (the Spanish version of a VW Sharan)

The best offers on Spanish car hire are to be found by online search. Search engines of rental cars, as Cartrawler Spain, allow you to compare prices from many rent-a-car companies at the destination of your choice. A car hire booked through internet can be substantially cheaper than directly at the rental company, especially if the booking is done well ahead of your holiday.

Please note that the rates displayed are valid at the moment of the search and tend to change according to car hire supply and demand from the car hire companies in Spain  – one more reason to book a hire car for a road trip in Spain well in advance. Early bookings are aspecially recommended for non-standard vehicles, as for example a minivan or a minibus.

Minibus car hire Spain - Mercedes Viano
Mercedes Viano minibus (an equivalent of a Mercedes Vito with more advanced equipment). © Photo:

Galicia – Spain's hidden treasure
Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain, will not disappoint curious travellers looking for an unconventional holiday destination.

Unspoiled by the mass tourism industry, Galicia is mostly known as an important Catholic pilgrimage destination in Europe. St. James' Way, El Camino de Santiago, travelled on foot by the believers, since the medieval times, ends in St. James' Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the apostle are believed to be buried. 

Even if you are not taken by the spiritual dimension of St. James' legend you will hardly avoid the impression that there is something mysterious about Galicia, its rocky coastline, mountainous landscapes with lush vegetation, foggy climate and lost in time villages.

Apart from Santiago de Compostela and its UNESCO World Heritage listed Old Town quite many other places of interest await tourists in Galicia.

Vigo at the Portuguese border
If you would like to claim that you travelled the North of Spain from West to East, you will probably like to start your trip in Vigo, The city situated in the Vigo River estuary to the Atlantic is in a short distance from the border with Portugal.

Book a hire car at Vigo Airport

Nowadays Vigo is one of major industrial and economic centres in Spain. In the past it used to be an important settlement of the Roman Empire. The historic heritage in Vigo is rich: don’t miss out on the city's old quarter, Casco Viejo, with Colegiata de Santa-Maria Church and the city's forts, Castillo del Castro and Castillo de San Sebastian.

See the map of Vigo Downtown.

Many Spanish people travel to Vigo for summer holidays or just for relaxing weekends, escaping the merciless continental heat of central Spanish. Count on a well developed tourist infrastructure and plenty of restaurants with superb traditional cuisine in Vigo.

Click to see the all year climate chart for Vigo.

European route E01 in Galicia, Spain
From Vigo you can easily travel up north by the Spanish section of the European route E01, continuing later on in Ireland.

The European Route  E01 in Spain is called Autopista del Atlántico or A-9.

The Galician stretch of E01 will give you plenty of opportunities to admire unique northern landscapes of Spain, especially in Rias Baxas in the Pontevedra province, north of Vigo.

Rias Baxas is a Spanish Denominacion de Origen (DO) wine region, famous for the delicate, white wines made of Albariño grape variety.

See the map of major wine regions in Spain.

Wine and traditional cuisine are a tourist attraction themselves in Galicia. It is not a coincidence that many Michelin starred restaurants are located in this corner of Spain.

Do take time to try the traditional Spanish tapas and enjoy the fresh fish and seafood of the region, with typical dishes of oysters, mussels and sardine pies.

Pontevedra area is very interesting as a sight-seeing spot with many historic monuments from the Roman times, when Pontevedra town was an important seaport.

Driving further up north, covering the distance of 54 miles from Vigo, by E-1 you will reach Santiago de Compostela and after another 46 miles north by the same road you will arrive to the city of La Coruna.

La Coruna - northern coast of Galicia
La Coruna (also called A Corunna, or A Coruña) is a costal city with a handful of tourist sites to visit, from Celtic, Roman and modern times. La Coruna's prime attraction and the symbol of the city is the Tower of Hercules – a still working lighthouse.

Enjoy the costal scenery around La Coruna and visit the traditional fisherman villages, for spectacular views, crafts and, again, superb local food.

Car hire at La Coruna Airport

From Galicia to Asturias – Autovía A-8 in the Green Spain
Autovía A-8, also known as Autovía del Cantábrico is a motorway connecting coastal cities and towns in Northern Spain.

From La Coruna you will reach the capital of the Asturias region, Gijón, after 177 mi heading east by the A-8.

Asturias is a part of the “Green Spain”, as the northern provinces are frequently called. Although driving the A-8, along the Cantabrian Sea coast, will allow you superb views, it is worthwhile to venture a bit inland in your rental car on some of the secondary roads. You will find a surprising diversity of landscapes in Asturias, with endless green forests, mountain rivers, meadows and genuine Spanish culture in the rural settings.

Asturias offers excellent conditions for practice of extreme sports, such as mountain canoeing, climbing, cycling and hiking. Rental vehicles with extra room for sports equipment should be booked well in advance in Northern Spain. The same applies to four wheel drive vehicles which are very popular as rental cars among travellers to mountainous Asturias.

Travelling in Asturias – Oviedo and Gijón
Main cities of Asturias are the province's capital Oviedo and the seaport and costal town of Gijon.

Oviedo is an industrial town developed mostly in the modern times. However, Oviedo's Old Quarter, is very well preserved and its San Salvador Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The city of Gijon was for a long time the capital of the Kingdom of Asturias, given its strategic location as a port in the Bay of Biscay. The old-times glory can still be seen in a handful of monuments in the old part of the city, such as Revillagigedo Palace, San Juan Batista Church or the Campo Valdés Roman baths.

The contemporary Gijon is very tourist-oriented, being Gijon listed as European Destination of Excellence (European Comission's EDEN Programme).

Apart from lovely town beaches, you will find in Gijon plenty of restaurants, cafés, shops and very well developed hotel infrastructure. Gijon marina and the aquarium are not to be missed.

See the tourist map of Gijon.

Driving in Cantabria in Northern Spain – the sea and the mountains
On your way from Asturias to Cantabria, some 13 miles south of the coastline you will find Picos de Europa National Park.

This mountain range, located partially in Asturias, Cantabria and Castile and León is well worth visiting. If you need a rest from driving, take a hiking trip to see the unique species of Cantabrian brown bears and wolves in their natural habitat in the breathtaking scenery of the Cantabrian Mountains.

The Cantabrian coast offers a variety of attractions to its visitors: pristine nature, over 60 unspoilt beaches, holiday resorts and traditional villages and superb cuisine (mostly sea food based, although the typical bean stew, "cocido montanes" is a real treat too).

One of the most popular tourist attractions of Cantabria is a visit to its many prehistoric caves. Another UNESCO World Heritage site in Northern Spain, the Altamira cave, has gained fame as a “Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art”.

Find out more about the Altamira cave here.

Car hire Santander - Cantabria
If you are in a need of some urban environment, a city to visit in Cantabria is the capital of the region, Santander, also on the E-8 route. Santander's old town is rather small, but steeped in history. Visit the 12th century Santander Cathedral and the Royal Palace, Palacio Real de la Magdalena.

Take a stroll down Paseo Marítimo, the scenic promenade, sunbathe in the beautiful El Sardinero beach and end the day in Bairro Pesquero, the old docks, nowadays home to Santander's best seafood restaurants. Should you happen to visit Santander in July, do not miss out on the Virgen del Carmen patron saint's celebration, held in Bairro Pesquero every year on July 16th.

Search Santander Airport car hire

Driving holidays in the Basque Country
Only 63 miles of coastline scenery, by the A-8 motorway, separate Santander form Bilbao, in the Basque Country.

Although the official Basque Country's capital is Vitoria-Gasteiz, Bilbao is the largest city of this Spanish autonomous community and, by far, the most interesting one.

Bilbao's recent raise in popularity has a lot to do with a very carefully executed plan of urban renewal of this post-industrial city. Although sites of historic value can be seen in the Bilbao's Old Quarter, what attracts tourist from all over the world are the city's iconic architecture monuments and the most important of all, the Guggenheim Museum:

Driving in Bilbao might be somewhat chaotic, due to the city's layout on river banks, many bridges, one way streets and on-going construction works. Luckily, most of Bilbao's tourist attractions is situated in the strict city centre and can be visited on foot.

Read more about Bilbao.

The Basque Country has an exceptionally good network of motorways and main roads. Access to other cities of tourist interest in Spain, as Barcelona, Saragossa, Salamanca and Madrid from Bilbao is relatively easy as the quality of the road infrastructure makes up for the distances.

You can continue your trip eastbound from Bilbao either by the A-8 or by secondary roads along the ragged coastline of the Basque Country. The Biscaya Bay coast, from Bilbao towards France is particularly popular amongst surfers, both for its beauty and for the wind conditions.

The Basque Country, typically for Northern Spain, is known to be one of the world's top gourmet cuisine destinations.

Car hire at Bilbao Airport in the Basque Country

San Sebastián– the Michelin-starred city of Spain
Pintxos, or pinchos in Spanish, are typical Basque tapas: pieces of bread topped with all sorts of ingredients. Pintxos are not only a snack; had in a small local tavern and washed with the Basque flat cider, pintxos can curiously be the best introduction to the Basque culture and society…

Gourmet gastronomy is serious business in San Sebastian, 60 miles east of Bilbao. Almost half of the Michelin-starred restaurants in mainland Spain are located in and around this coastal town, including the 3-starred restaurants: Arzak, Akelarre and Martin Berasategui Restaurant.

Other than food, San Sebastian holds many surprises for its visitors. San Sebastian tourist attractions range from historic monuments of the Old Quarter, through ultra-modern architecture of Kuursal Conference Centre, to rollercoaster rides in the Monte Igeldo Amusement Park.

You have probably heard of San Sebastian Film Festival and will definitely hear more as San Sebastian has been chosen to be, together with Wroclaw in Poland, the European Capital of Culture in 2016.

Spain car hire - pick-up and drop-off of in different locations
Many low-cost airports and a wide availability of car hire leave you almost unlimited possibilities of planning your road trip in Northern Spain.

It is always a good idea to look at the flight prices and car hire rates at the same time, as they can vary from airport to airport and from city to city. You may be able to combine low-cost flights with cheap car hire at one destination, especially if you book well ahead of your trip.

Tourists familiar with Ryanair's offer, enquire frequently about Hertz/Ryanair combined car hire. Please, note that this is not always the cheapest way of renting a car in Northern Spain. Be informed; check rates of car hire from different providers.

Cartrawler search engine can be very helpful in planning your holiday, as it allows you to compare rates of car hire in different places and in different combination of pick-up, drop-off delivery locations.

Car rental deals with drop-off location other than the pick-up are usually more expensive, but might be still worthwhile. The difference in price of car hire for a one way road trip in Spain can be compensated by a cheaper flight home.

Roadtrip in Northern Spain - Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country in a hire car
Article: Roadtrip in Northern Spain - Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country in a hire car
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