When people are thinking of Spanish cities to visit, the first places that generally come to mind are Barcelona and Madrid. But there are so many others that are worth checking out. In the northern part of Spain, there are four cities in particular that I enjoyed. Read on to find out which ones!
Bonus: All of these cities can be found along the Camino Frances, so if you are walking to Santiago de Compostela, do ensure you include exploring time in your schedule!
Smaller than Burgos and Leon, Astorga is a town I recommend visiting while in northern Spain. The area dates to the Bronze Age and the town of Astorga was founded in 14BC by the Romans. In Astorga, you can admire Roman mosaics, Roman city walls, medieval structures, and a chocolate museum. That is right – Astorga is famous for its chocolate! So, go stuff your face!
Astorga is also known for two architectural sites. One is the Cathedral of Astorga; construction started in 1471 and continued into the 18th-century. While the inside is pretty, for me, it is the outside that is beautiful. Aim to visit during a sunny day – the pale red stones positively glow in the light. The other site you must visit is the Episcopal Palace of Astorga. It dates to the 19th-century and was designed by Antoni Gaudí. The inside with all its glorious stained glass is just stunning. Well worth your time!
The capital of the old kingdom of Castilla-Leon was Burgos. It is a marvelous city with fantastic architecture dating back to the Middle Ages. The highlight of Burgos by far is the Cathedral, built in 1221 in the Gothic style. Exploring it will take you at least a couple hours as you discover things like the tomb of the famous El Cid! It is no wonder this cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Other things to explore in Burgos are the historic centre, pretty river banks, museums, chapels and monasteries, and the fortified Castle Hill with its phenomenal views on the city. Everywhere you turn in Burgos, you will see signs of how throughout history, Burgos had been a very rich city, culturally and financially. Near Burgos is Atapuerca, a prehistoric site also designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Another of my favourite cities in northern Spain is Leon. I found that the historic centre had a very chill vibe that was appealing. And, of course, the historic centre had a lot of history to explore. Like Burgos, Leon was once the capital of a kingdom (by the same name). When exploring, keep your eye out for the many plazas, Baroque buildings, balconies from which the nobles once observed city life, various churches and palaces, ancient Roman city walls, and the Casa de los Botines built by Antoni Gaudí.
In terms of history and architecture, Leon’s crowning glory is the Santa Maria de Leon Cathedral. It was built between 1205 and 1301 on top of Roman baths that dated to the 2nd century. The cathedral is lovely to explore with its huge rose window, towers, chapels, tombs, a cloister, and an amazing number of stained-glass windows. Another hugely important site to visit in Leon is the Basilica de San Isidoro – there you’ll find a Spanish “Sistine Chapel” of Biblical frescoes dating from the 12th-century.
Tip: If you’re willing to splurge, I highly recommend the Hostal de San Marcos. It is a beautiful hotel that dates to the 16th-century. I recommend exploring it – look out for the cloisters and library! This hotel once housed a pilgrims’ hospital and shelter – and in that tradition, pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago get a very decent discount. Their restaurant is also recommended.
I’m sure you’ve heard of this city and its popular Running of the Bulls. But Pamplona is more than people running away from angry horned animals. I got the impression that Pamplona is a city populated by young people which was pretty neat contrasting with all the medieval architecture. Pamplona was founded by the Romans in 75 BC and eventually became the capital of the Kingdom of Pamplona (aka Navarre). The city has your usual plazas, medieval buildings, a medley of churches and chapels, and museums. While there wasn’t anything in particular that stood out for me, I gave Pamplona mucho points for just being a lovely city in which to meander.
Santiago de Compostela
This city is famous for being the last stop along the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route that started in the 9th-century. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Galicia, it was the first kingdom to officially adopt Catholicism. In order to stir up patriotism and nationalism against the perceived invasion of “The Moors”, authorities of the time decided to discover the tomb of Saint James the Great in year 814 and eventually brought “his” remains to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (completed in 1211). In terms of historic value, the cathedral is a joy to explore. Don’t forget to sign up for a tour of the cathedral’s roof!
It should come as no surprise that Santiago de Compostela is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city has many green spaces, plazas, historic buildings, and tons of dazed or jubilant pilgrims meandering around. And speaking of pilgrims, if you’re curious about what it is like to walk 800km (500 miles), check out this journal!