22 August 2018.
Spain, it seems, is a country I will never tire of coming back to.
After furiously searching Skyscanner for flights to Italy, Portugal and even Morrocco for a spring adventure with my sister, it was somehow once again Spain that snuck into the lead and a road trip through Asturias in the country’s north that would claim my sixth visit to this magnetic part of Europe.
But unlike previous ventures which have focussed on the whimsical architecture and pulsing energy of Barcelona, the intricate designs of the Moorish palaces of Andalusia, and lazy beach days in Basque country, this trip to Asturias would highlight something I had long overlooked on my time in Spain – its incredible natural beauty.
Wedged between the formidable mountains of the Picos de Europa and the heaving Bay of Biscay, Asturias is a region of enchanting seaside towns, spectacular coastal drives, enough hiking trails to tire out even the most diehard adventurer and, as we discovered, the perfect place for a laidback road trip that offers up something entirely different from the heavily touristed routes of Spain’s south.
It’s also a place with deep-rooted fishing traditions and a healthy obsession for local cider, a preoccupation that we were only too happy to get on board with.
Looking for the best things to do in Asturias and some incredible places to visit along the way? These were our favourite stops on our 10-day road trip through northern Spain!
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Backed by the snaggle-toothed wall of the Cordillera, the spectacular coastal roads of Asturias meander between quaint seaside towns, lush meadows, remarkably pretty beaches and rugged cliff lines that are battered by the wild Atlantic.
As we visited in April when the chilly bite of a lingering winter still hung in the air and the sun shone a little less than we would have liked, lazy beach days were not quite on the cards, but the myriad of beautiful beaches that crossed our path sure had us wishing for a spell of warmer weather.
You’ll find the best beaches and prettiest coastal drive extending west from Llanes.
The headland between Playas Torimbia and Toranda is an exceptional vantage point for sunset with sweeping views across the rocky cliff line and wineglass bay. Playa de Cuevas is a beautiful secluded beach with a natural rock arch formed on the sand, while Playa Silencio is one we unfortunately didn’t get to but is widely mentioned as one of the Asturias’ best. There’s also the blonde bay of Playa de Poo which is almost worth visiting for the chuckles alone (yes, we are still five years old).
It’s also important to note that tides very much craft the beaches in the region and in many instances, high tides can render the beaches completely submerged, or in the case of Playa Gulpiyuri which is filled by water gushing through the cliff, is only visible on the high tide.
Where To Stay | After a day of zipping between pretty villages and epic coastal views on repeat, we ended the day in a sleepy seaside village outside of Colunga, settling at Hotel La Isla. Set just a 5-minute walk from the beach and a short drive from both Lastres and Ribadesella, this hotel offers spacious, comfortable rooms in a laidback setting.
Rolling into town, still reeling from the beauty of the Asturian coast, the colossal blue facade of the first Casa de Indiano looms into view above a manicured green lawn.
These mansions, wildly out of place between the quaint whitewashed houses that speckle the rest of the countryside, were built following the mass migration and subsequent return of Asturians from Latin America as symbols of their newfound wealth in their temporary homelands.
A dozen or so Casas de Indianos remain in Colombres, some with sweeping driveways lined by towering palms, others painted in demure pastels. They make an intriguing feature of the town and a unique part of the region’s history.
A map in the main square points out the location of each casa and it’s worthwhile setting off to see them on foot.
Once you’ve got an eye for the architectural style, you’ll begin to notice many more casas along your route through Asturias, though most are in a serious state of disrepair unlike the beautifully maintained ones in Colombres.
The blue monstrosity that welcomes you to town now remains as the Foundation of Indiano Archives and the Emigration Museum and is open to visitors for a fee of €2.50.
There’s a lot to love about Oviedo.
Colourful buildings crowd sandstone streets, tiny alleyways reveal hidden plazas and buzzing cafes and bars spill across the pavements. It’s the kind of place best experienced by getting well and truly lost.
Be sure to visit Mercado El Fontan, relax in the oasis of Parque San Francisco, satisfy your sweet tooth at a beautiful old-fashioned dessert house and stop by one of the many sidrerias congregated around Calle Gascona.
Where To Stay In Oviedo | As the heart of Asturias, you’ll find the best range of accommodation in Oviedo to suit any budget, including the Hotel de la Reconquista, the lavish 18th-century national monument that featured in Vicky Christina Barcelona. Out of season, it’s possible to book a last minute stay here for an absolute bargain.
Peppered with towering limestone spires, chiselled gorges, glassy lakes and rustic terracotta-roofed villages, the Picos de Europa are a hiking paradise in northern Spain.
Following the road inwards from the coast, the stark snow-dusted pinnacle of Naranjo de Bulnes drifts in and out of view between soaring peaks, the turquoise thread of the Rio Cares guiding you deeper into the belly of the mountains.
Spread across parts of Cantabria, Castillo y Leon and Asturias, you could very well spend weeks exploring the multitude of uncrowded hiking trails available, but with just three days to spare, we focussed on the northern side using Poncebos as a base.
Don’t miss the scenic Cares Gorge hike which feeds between the dramatic gully walls on a vertigo-inducing trail, or if you’re short on time, the long circuit trip between Poncebos, Bulnes and Sotres makes an excellent introduction to the area.
Where To Stay In Poncebos | Hostal Poncebos is a cosy guesthouse with a beautiful setting right beside the Rio Cares between the soaring mountains. As virtually the only accommodation option in Poncebos, it’s a perfect place to use as a base for hiking in the region. The hearty menu del dia dinner option from the onsite restaurant is also excellent value, including copious amounts of food and wine, for a much-needed feast after a day in the mountains. In high season, prices are wildly inflated but rooms do book up quickly so be sure to reserve in advance.
Getting There | During the peak season, buses run relatively frequently from Cangas de Onis to Arenas de Cabrales and Poncebos for accessing this side of the Picos de Europa and both the hikes mentioned. Out of season, we’d definitely recommend renting a car.
In a region simply bursting with pretty coastal towns, it’s Cudillero that takes the cake as most enchanting.
Fringed in a dense ring of eucalypts, the colourful buildings of Cudillero tumble steeply to the water’s edge and wrap tightly around the lively harbour where the comings and goings of fishing boats are an attraction in itself.
Follow the cobbled path above the town to Mirador de la Atalaya and get lost in the tiny laneways carved between the white-washed houses.
In a village renowned for its deep-rooted fishing traditions, a trip to Cudillero wouldn’t be complete without indulging on its seafood which is delivered fresh from the harbour throughout the day.
We tried a number of restaurants in town but our favourite was undoubtedly Casa Julio which sits right on the main square and serves up all the region’s specialities in a friendly atmosphere and at reasonable prices.
Where To Stay | Cudillero is teeny tiny making accommodation directly in town rather limited. If you’re visiting in peak season and intend to stay the night, definitely book well ahead of time.
Hotel Sol de la Blanca is a great budget option with simple but comfortable rooms located right in the heart of the village.
Apartamentos La Casa del Pintor is one of Cudillero’s best-rated accommodations. Situated on the hillside above the marina, each room has beautiful views over town and self-catering facilities.
Getting Around | Cudillero is serviced by both buses and trains from Oviedo, Luarca and a few other surrounding towns. Some buses drive directly into Cudillero’s centre, while others will drop you at Las Dueñas, about 2 km out of town. The train station is 1 km uphill from the centre. Check rates and timetables here.
If you’re travelling by car, the narrow cobbled lanes of Cudillero are somewhat nightmarish to navigate. Instead, we’d recommend parking in the enormous parking lot beside the harbour which is accessible on the CU-3 from the main road rather than trying to squeeze your way through town.
At the end of the road tucked up beside the sea lies Lastres, a delightful jumble of labyrinthine cobbled lanes and amber rooftops with magical views overlooking the ocean.
As daylight fades and the village is wrapped in a thick blanket of white fog, a frequent occurrence on this stretch of the Atlantic coast, it’s also an unusually atmospheric place for an evening stroll.
If the weather is clear, however, take the steep walk up to the Mirador de San Roque for the best city views, wander down to the port to watch the fishermen at work or slip into a slower pace with a glass of wine overlooking the bay.
Cider drinking is an intrinsic part of life in Asturias, like an unhurried bottle of wine over lunch in the south of France, or a flavourful beer in a dimly-lit Belgian pub.
However, when done in the traditional manner, drinking Asturian cider is something of a spectacle.
Holding the bottle high above their head, the server tips about an inch of cider in a slow, gurgling stream into the glass waiting beside their hip which is promptly thrown back by the drinker in one swift gulp.
As you may expect, this rather entertaining process does leave plenty of cider splattered on the ground, but it’s not just for show. It helps to aerate the drink which is why it is customary to down it quickly, so as to not let those bubbles disappear.
The slightly less showy version involves a mechanical table contraption that makes far less mess and aerates the cider as you pour.
A visit to a proper cider farm is a great thing to do in Asturias, particularly around autumn when the harvest is in full swing.
Though we struggled to find many farms open to visitors out of season, we did manage to pop in at the charming Sidra Crespo which is conveniently located just 10-minutes from Lastres alongside its sprawling apple orchards and uses a very traditional approach to its farming and production. Free guided tours (in Spanish only during our visit) walk through the cider production process followed by a tasting. Call ahead to check their visiting hours and availability of tours in other languages.
Another option along the route is Sidra El Gaitero which combines traditional techniques with modern tastes to craft a wide range of ciders. Tours are available at set times each day except Sunday. Advanced reservations are essential.
Otherwise, stop in at one of the many sidrerias scattered around the region to get a taste of the delicious tipple – Calle Gascona in Oviedo, also known as Cider Street, is an excellent place to see the pouring artists at work.
Tucked away in the foothills of the Picos de Europa, the hair-raising drive up to Covadonga Lakes is nothing short of spectacular.
From a lush knot of trees in the valley, a narrow road cuts a serpentine path through the mountains emerging at the glistening pair of lakes backed by snowy peaks. A pretty 6km circuit walk wraps around both the lakes and passes the Minas de Bufferrera, a historic mine for iron and manganese.
Covadonga also marks an important point in Spanish history as the battle that raged here during the 6th century is recognised as the catalyst for the Spanish Reconquista. The dramatic Basilica de Santa Maria la Real de Covadonga which sits on a hilltop in the valley and is linked to the Santuario de Covadonga through a tunnel in the cave are also must-visits on a trip to Covadonga.
Where To Stay | The Covadonga Lakes are easily visited along the way if you’re heading deeper into the Picos de Europa, however, if you’re planning to spend more time in the area, Cangas de Onis makes the best base.
Getting There | In an effort to alleviate traffic congestion on the narrow mountain roads, vehicle access is heavily restricted during the busy summer months (mid-July to early September) and you’ll need to take a shuttle bus from Cangas de Onis or Covadonga to reach the top.
Even on a drizzly day in April, Luarca managed to maintain a certain appeal.
Follow the boardwalk along the marina between the elegant, if a little rundown, houses and colourful fishing boats bobbing to and fro. Hike up to the brilliantly white cemetery perched above town and look over the cliffs at Punta la Encoronada. Hop between the hermitas that speckle the hillside or step inside the leafy pocket of Jardines de la Fonta Baixa. Crisscross the town’s many beautiful bridges or simply lounge in the sunshine at one of Luarca’s city beaches.
An eclectic fusion of alternative, industrial, traditional and modern, Aviles and Gijon, both just 30 minutes by bus from Oviedo, make excellent day trip destinations in Asturias without the hassle of having to cart around your luggage.
Aviles’ old town is a pretty network of sandstone streets that rise into pastel facades, complete with a healthy dose of old-fashioned ice-cream stores and trendy bars hidden beneath the dimly-lit archways of the town’s historic buildings.
It’s also the home of Centro Niemeyer, a former industrial space converted into an art and culture centre that, if you’re passing on the highway, somewhat bizarrely resembles a fried egg. Reach the venue by crossing the rainbow-coloured Puente de San Sebastian and the floating La Grapa ramp which feeds directly into the old town.
Slightly more lively Gijon, the largest city in Asturias, is even more alluring.
Unfortunately, we arrived on a dreary Sunday afternoon when an icy wind whipped between the city streets and much of the city was closed, so our time in the city was not altogether pleasant, but we imagine on a sunny summer’s day, it would be a fun place to explore, zipping between cosy bars and pretty streets or simply whiling away an afternoon on one of the city’s beaches.
If the weather is on your side, follow the promenade that wraps around Playa de San Lorenzo toward Cimavilla, the compact old town of Gijon which congregates across the small peninsula and is a hive of funky bars and cafes which sprawl across pavements and colourful plazas. Beyond the orange rooftops, Cerro de Santa Catalina contains the remnants of wartime battlements and the curious Elogio del Horizonte, an art installation that echoes the sound of the sea crashing against the cliffs.
The city centre also contains plenty of pretty streets, leafy plazas and quirky stores to keep you entertained.
If you’re travelling by car, we’d also recommend a trip to see the rugged cliffs of Cabo Peñas which juts out between the two cities. Buses do run here but, as we discovered, they are rather infrequent and reliable timetables are not readily available.
Crammed between the foothills of the Cordillera and the Bay of Biscay, the patchwork of colour-washed walls and terracotta roofs that make up Llanes and Ribadesella act as perfect bookends to some of the region’s best beaches.
Llanes, an enchanting medieval town carved in two by the bustling marina, is the prettier of the two and an excellent stop for lunch and a stroll as you meander along the spectacular Spanish north coast.
Stop in at one of the many restaurants concealed in the old town for a huge serving of traditional Asturian fare before making your way to the edge of the harbour – the lighthouse stands guard from the eastern tip while the break wall on the western edge has been transformed into art as Los Cubos de Memoria.
Along this particular stretch of coastline where spectacular views and gorgeous towns are in no short supply, Ribadesella perhaps lacks some of the charm and endearingly unkempt flair of its neighbours, but it’s a worthwhile stop nonetheless if you’re passing through.
Follow the walkway to the tip of Punta del Caballo, watch fisherman riding the waves toward the mouth of the Sella River and history lovers should be sure to visit the Cuevas de Tito Bustillo, a unique karst system in Asturias featuring rock art from prehistoric times. Entrance is €7 or free on Wednesdays
Where To Stay | As a favourite destination for beach-loving Spaniards, it’s not always easy to find budget accommodation available in Llanes and Ribadesella, particularly in summer.
Have more time to explore? Add these other beautiful spots to your itinerary!
Parque Natural Somiedo | A rugged jigsaw of deep forested valleys and glassy lakes amidst the Cordillera, this Unesco-listed biosphere where bears still roam is the region’s best hiking destination after the Picos de Europa. If you’re looking to get even more off the beaten path in nature in this corner of Spain, Somiedo is an excellent choice.
Santander | Not actually in Asturias – in fact, it’s the capital of neighbouring Cantabria – Santander is a major transport hub in northern Spain serviced by budget airlines and long-distance buses making it an excellent jumping off point for exploring the region. It’s also an outstanding city to gorge on Pintxos, one of our all-time favourite food experiences, explore the beautiful waterfront promenade that wraps around the peninsula or sprawl out on the golden sand at one of the Santander’s urban beaches. Read about all the best things to do in Santander here.
Santillana del Mar | Once again falling in Cantabria, Santillana del Mar is a beautifully restored medieval city tucked away in the lush Spanish countryside. Sure, it’s a little touristy and can get rather busy on a warm summer afternoon, but it’s also one of the most enchanting villages in the region and definitely worth an hour or two of time.
Its compact size, fantastic viewpoints and multitude of tiny towns make Asturias a perfect road trip destination, particularly if you’re visiting out of season, but it’s certainly not the only way to get around.
Car Rental | Particularly for stopping off at the many beaches, visiting viewpoints in the mountains and pausing at every cute countryside village you pass through, exploring by car is definitely the way to go. The region is also so wonderfully easy to cover that you can get from the airport to the beach and into the mountains in less than 2 hours.
We rented a car for the first half of our trip and as soon as we returned it and set off to explore the western part of the region by public transport, we kind of wished we hadn’t. You’ll find the best rates at Santander Airport, and to a lesser extent from Oviedo Airport.
Bus + Train | If you’ve got no time pressure for your trip, you can definitely explore much of the region by public transport, but if you’re hoping to squeeze in a lot over a short space of time, you’ll quickly find you’re heavily limited by the transport schedules, particularly if visiting out of season when services are even more limited.
Buses and trains between major towns and along the highways are relatively frequent all year round, it’s when you want to get down to the beaches or into the mountains that you’ll likely run into problems.
By Foot On The Camino del Norte | Long gone are the days when the Camino de Santiago was reserved just for pilgrims traversing Spain on a deeply spiritual journey to Santiago de Compostela.
Today, people from all walks of life set off to complete all or part of this epic hike across the country, guided by the trail of brass shells, and one such route is the Camino del Norte – the Northern Way – which begins in San Sebastian and follows the Bay of Biscay through Asturias toward Santiago.
Far less popular than the traditional pilgrim’s route, the Camino Frances, this is a beautiful way to really get under the skin of the region and discover it at an infinitely slower pace. For more information on hiking the route, check here.
Arrive By Plane | Unless you’re already in Spain or France, chances are you’ll be arriving by plane. There are a number of possible starting points, Oviedo and Santander being the most convenient. Vittoria is another excellent option – we scored flights here for just €8!!! – while Bilbao and Santiago de Compostela further afield receive flights from a wider pool of destinations.
Arrive By Boat | If you’re travelling from the UK, you could also arrive by ferry in from either Plymouth or Portsmouth to Santander and bring your car over with you.