Northern Spain Roadtrip – Barcelona to Madrid via the Pyrenees.

Driving directly, Barcelona to Madrid will only take you around 6 hours. But where is the fun in driving down major highways and missing out on everything Spain has to offer. If you have a week and a half to get from Barcelona to Madrid (or vice versa) and enjoy leisurely road trips – then this is a road trip for you.

My friends were converging in Spain for a holiday. Knowing my passion for Spain from our 2014 trip, they asked for a few suggestions to help plan their time in Spain. The only catch – they were travelling in July and were not interested in being in extremely hot temperatures.

This was a small challenge, as my normal Spanish itinerary suggestions would always consist of Barcelona and the stunning southern region of Andalucía (Ronda, Granada, Seville etc).  Unfortunately, at that time of the year, Andalucía is absolutely stinking hot, with daytime temperatures in for example, Seville, often reaching the mid-30s (Celsius) and the nights unlikely to drop below 20.

Instead, I suggested after starting their trip in Barcelona, they make their way across the Pyrenees through the Basque regions over to Bilbao/San Sebastian and if they wished, further on. Luckily, it’s a few degrees cooler up in the mountains and on the Atlantic coast so they could benefit from the sea breezes.

As they had to start in Barcelona and end twelve days later in Madrid, I suggested a leisurely road trip through Barcelona, Andorra, the Pyrenees, Pamplona, San Sebastian/Bilbao, the Vitoria-Gasteiz region and finishing up in Madrid. Another benefit of this trip is the diverse cultural experiences of Catalonia, Basque country, city and rural Spain as well as the capital.

As there is endless activity to do in Barcelona, I suggested four days, taking into account that they wouldn’t achieve too much on day one, and using day four to hire the car and get on the road.

In Barcelona, I knew they booked into to see a football game so on top of that I suggested doing:

  • a Gaudi architecture tour;
  • spending time at the beach (including walking along the promenade);
  • visiting the old town and Las Ramblas;
  • for more see our Barcelona blog (coming).

Then, I suggested getting a car (we used Sixt when in Spain) and driving to Andorra. Andorra is a tiny little country nestled in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. At only 2.5hrs away from Barcelona its an easy day trip or a good stop on a Pyrenees road trip. We visited Andorra in 2014 and enjoyed the tiny little roads, glorious towns and scenery and tax-haven duty free shopping. As we were driving from Perpignan we found ourselves winding between Spain and France depending on which part of the road we were on.

Next, I suggested stopping in Pamplona, a city famous for the running of the bulls but a beautiful place to visit outside of the festival and the setting of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises”.  You can’t be too ambitious driving through the Pyrenees, as you will find endless beautiful places to stop and enjoy the view. Andorra to Pamplona is about a five hour drive on the scenic route so either make this a “driving” day or break it up by stopping at any of the beautiful towns or lookouts (miradors in Spanish) you will pass on the way. Alternative stopping points: Huesca or Barbastro (see the Santuario de Torreciudad).

Next, San Sebastian or Bilbao (or both!). Unique and interesting in their own right – the former is the beachy, glitzy Spanish answer to Biarritz and the latter is an edgy ode to Basque culture. Both have excellent food scenes. Bilbao is also home to the incredible Guggenheim by Frank Gehry which is worth a visit just to enjoy the architecture – and perhaps some of the interesting contemporary art.

After San Sebastian/Bilbao head into Rioja country and find a sweet place to stay. My pick is the Marqués de Riscal, another Frank Gehry design but this time in a winery! Rumour has it the best rooms are 101–104, 112, 114, and 115 – 118. If you can’t stretch your budget to this glorious – just visit for a look around then stay nearby. If you happen to be travelling during the end of June, the town of Haro has grape throwing festival known as the Batalla de Vino – the battle of wine (similar to the famous tomato throwing festival) held on the 29th of June each year.

Next, the final stretch to Madrid, return the hire car and explore the big, grand capitol.  

Here is my 12-day itinerary for Northern Spain

DayAreaActivity
1Barcelona Arrive
Visit the old town and Las Ramblas
2Barcelona Gaudi architecture tour
Visit Sagrada Familia
Parc Guell
3Barcelona Beach
Montjuïc
Dinner at Tickets restaurant
4Barcelona Brunch
Hire car and start driving towards Pyrenees
(option to go via Girona and Figueres for the Dali museum)
5AndorraHalf day hike, dinner and shopping in Andorra la Vella
6HuescaExplore the town and drive slowly to Pamplona
7PamplonaOld City/Running with the Bulls/Hemingway connections
8San SebastianEnjoy the beach and fine dining
9BilbaoVisit the Guggenheim and enjoy the quirky town
10RiojaStay somewhere in-between Bilbao and Madrid (lots of great wineries in this region)
My pick is the Marqués de Riscal
11MadridDrive towards Madrid and spend afternoon and evening eexploring Madrid  
12MadridFly out
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