Northern Spain road trip itinerary: Santander to San Sebastian

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We’re back with another road trip itinerary, this time – for Northern Spain. We drove from Santander to Sebastian and visited Santillana del Mar and Bilbao on our way. This is a long weekend road trip to Northern Spain that we completed in less than 3 days, however, you can make it longer to fit your style of travelling! Let’s get started with the Northern Spain road trip itinerary: from Santander to San Sebastian and back!

Logistics of the road trip in Northern Spain & quick links

We flew from London to Santander (we found some really cheap tickets on Ryanair), however, you can also fly to Bilbao or Biarritz (it’s in France, but it’s really close to the border with Spain – but in this case, you need to tweak this itinerary a little bit). We rented a car in the airport through Rentalcars as we like their full insurance option (it’s usually up to 2-3 times cheaper than buying it directly from a car provider).

We made sure to check that the properties (hotel and apartments) we booked have included parking or parking nearby!

Where to stay in Santander – Urban Suites Santander

Where to stay in San Sebastián – Zenit San Sebastian

Santander tour – 1 hour city cruise – book here

San Sebastián tour – Gourmet pintxos (tapas) and wine tour – book here

The itinerary of our Northern Spain road trip:

Santander -> Santillana del Mar -> San Sebastian -> Bilbao -> Santander

Day 1 of the road trip in Northern Spain: Santander

We flew to Santander (as I already mentioned) and stayed in the city for 2 nights (and fewer days, as we arrived at night and left in the morning on Saturday). We chose Santander because of very affordable tickets (about £30 return from London – check the availability now) and because of its convenient location – literally in the middle of Northern Spain.

Santander is a lovely city that doesn’t have that many landmarks, but it has a great atmosphere and amazing beaches. If you’re planning your road trip around Northern Spain in summer, you will surely be able to swim. However, we went to Northern Spain in October and it was too cold to swim. It was nice to walk around the promenade of Santander in the evening. The best place to stay in Santander for one night is Urban Suites Santander – due to great location and amazing interior.

Northern Spain road trip itinerary: Santander to San Sebastian

Top things to do in Santander in autumn:

  1. Visit one of the traditional wine restaurants e.g. Bodega del Riojano – I really liked the food there and the prices there are just slightly above average.
  2. Take a hop-on-hop-off tour in Santander in case you don’t feel like walking around
  3. Stroll on the promenade of Santander and explore a couple of great beaches
  4. Take a 1-hour city cruise – check availability and price here
road trip around Northern Spain Santander

Day 2. Santillana del Mar & San Sebastian

On the second day of our road trip in the North of Spain off season (& early in the morning), we headed to the gorgeous village of 3 lies how it’s often described – Santillana del Mar. Why 3 lies? Well, first of all, it’s not on the sea – it’s actually quite far from the sea. Secondly, it has nothing to do with the Saint (Santi in the name of Santillana comes from Saint) and it’s not flat (llana means flat in Spanish). 

Northern Spain road trip itinerary: Santander to San Sebastian

Getting from Santander to Santillana del Mar is very easy. You do need a car (unless you’re fine to take a tour like THIS ONE, for example). 
There is not that much to do in Santillana del Mar, so it’s fine to come here for an hour or two to walk around and go shopping for some local chocolate or souvenirs! There is a lot of history associated with Santillana, you can read more about the history of the village here

Northern Spain road trip itinerary: Santander to San Sebastian. Santillana del Mar

Getting to San Sebastian from Santander

Right after visiting Santillana del Mar, we headed to San Sebastian. The ride took around 2.5 hours and cost us 11 euros (some of the roads in Spain have tolls and this road is one of them, so keep in mind these fees). San Sebastian was probably one of the most important places of our Northern Spain itinerary, as we heard a lot about the city, especially about the culinary side.
In San Sebastian, we stayed in an Airbnb similar to Zenit San Sebastián.

However, if you’re planning to stay in San Sebastian for a couple of days, I recommend staying within the city and these hotels could be a great option:

Northern Spain road trip itinerary: Santander to San Sebastian

What to see in San Sebastian in 2 days:

We had less than 2 days in San Sebastian, so we started exploring San Sebastian from the Monte Igueldo – the mountain located in San Sebastian, from where you could see the entire city. The view was really gorgeous, such a pity, it wasn’t sunny and warm on that day. You can either go by car, bus, funicular, bike or walk to the top of the Monte Igueldo, but in any case, you need to pay a bit more than 2€ per person to enter the top of the mountain. 

Monte Igueldo

Some of the obvious things to see in San Sebastian in 2 days include heading to some of the city’s best beaches like La Concha or Playa de la Zuriola.

You can also visit Urgull (the peak with the fortress) and the Miramar Palace.  In the evening, you should definitely head to some local restaurants to try the famous pintxos (pinchos) of the Basque Country – they are very similar to traditional Spanish tapas. Almost all the major restaurants, bars and taverns around the city centre are serving pintxos and that’s how the locals spend their evenings – tasting pintxos.

Pintxos in San Sebastian

Best pintxos in San Sebastian:

So, where to try the best pintxos in San Sebastian. We went to 3 places and we liked all of them a lot. The first one was Bar Zeruko – it applied a special twist on the traditional Basque pintxos. Every dish was like a piece of art and honestly, I was really impressed with this place. Also, keep in mind, that most of the pintxos restaurants in San Sebastian are standing – they will be packed with groups of people and you need to be prepared to spend like this the entire night. However, Bar Zeruko is one of the very few pintxos restaurants that has a lot of seating spaces and is predominantly for seating guests.

Bar Zeruko Best Pintxos San Sebastian

The next place we visited was Casa Urola. I was lucky enough to be introduced to the pintxos by the local – my colleague who happened to be home at the same time as our visit to San Sebastian for two days (how cool is that?). So, apparently, every place is famous for 1-2 pintxos and you come there with your group of friends and everybody pays for one round of pintxos. 

What is also worth trying in San Sebastian is the sidra – their local cider that tastes like very sour fresh vine. I honestly really like the taste – it was different from any other alcohol I’ve tried before. Finally, the third place we visited was Bar Bergara – a well-rated pintxos bar, where I tried 3 different pintxos and liked them all. Bar Bergara is a typical pintxos restaurant.

If you feel like you want to try more places or if you want to go with an expert, you can take a special guided tour of pintxos (check the availability here)

San Sebastian

Last day of our Spanish road trip: San Sebastian and Bilbao:

On our last day in Spain (the last day of our road trip in Northern Spain), we spent a couple of hours in San Sebastian, where we tried a traditional breakfast in the Cafe Irubi (it’s 2 toasts with a spread made of fresh tomatoes and olive oil). That plus a cappuccino only cost €3, so it was really a bargain. 

We also walked a lot in the city centre and explored the Old Town without groups of tourists – it looked so calm and quiet compared to the previous day aka Saturday night. However, it started raining again, so we decided to hit the road and head to Bilbao that was exactly half-way between San Sebastian and Santander airport. 

In Bilbao, our plan was to walk around and maybe explore the Guggenheim museum, but it started raining so much (the downsides of visiting the North of Spain in October – while in the South of Spain it’s still nice in warm, it’s already considered to be off-season in Cantabria and the Basque Country), so we headed straight to the Guggenheim museum. If you enjoy modern art, you will definitely like this museum. You can buy tickets online here.

Guggenheim Museum

Summary of the road trip around Northern Spain

To be honest with you, even though we were really unlucky with the weather, I really enjoyed our trip. I didn’t think that Spain can still surprise me, as I’ve been to quite a few places in Spain already (read my post about weekend in Seville or New Year in Madrid), but it did – I liked the food in San Sebastian, enjoyed walking around Santander and just overall, liked driving around the Basque Country – it looks a bit like Austria, to be honest.

I know you like our road trip content, otherwise, how can I explain that our road trips posts are the most popular ones on Tripsget? Read about our experience road tripping through Europe (from Italy to Germany), our road trip in Ireland and our day road trip to Highlands, Scotland. And of course we also drove through French Riviera!

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2 thoughts on “Northern Spain road trip itinerary: Santander to San Sebastian”

  1. We-two pensioners-are visiting Spain in May 2023 for two weeks, Plymouth to Santander with car. Do not really want to use car, but rail/walking/on-off buses. Love fishing ports, harbours, markets, and shopping. Any hotel ideas please(with free parking)or suitable Airbnb (have not done before) 3* + sea views

    • Hi,

      We are planning a trip to Northern Spain. We are starting in Bilbao, & staying for 3 nights & then moving on to San Sabastian for 4 nights We are flying home from Santander where we intend to stay for a few nights. we will be using public transport & if you could recommend an area between San Sabastian and Santander that would be great.


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