OK, so you’ve decided to let the car ferry do the driving on your next trip from the UK to the Costa Blanca.
Brittany Ferries will take you to either Bilbao or Santander. From there, it’s a good 8 hour drive (non-stop) to, say, Alicante.
But rather than hit the autopista as soon as the ferry ramp comes down, why not stop off and see a few places en route? You get to break your journey, you arrive relaxed (hopefully) and see some cool parts of Spain into the bargain.
Here are my top ten choices for stopovers. Tap each location to jump straight to it. I’ve gone for two main routes – one to the south via Segovia and the other to the south-east via Zaragoza. Maps at the end of this post; tap here to jump straight to the southern route or here to the southeastern.
How about starting with Bilbao and/or Santander themselves? Both are so much more than just ferry ports.
Bilbao was formerly a grimy old industrial city which has transformed itself into a cultural and gastro centre, its renaissance bump-started by the remarkable Guggenheim Museum.
The Guggenheim is simply astonishing, a work of art in itself. It’s one of those statement buildings – Sydney Opera House is maybe another – where the startlingly original exterior draws more visitors than any exhibition inside the building.
Louis Bourgeois’ fantastical “Maman”, a 9-metre-high giant spider, looms over the riverfront of the Guggenheim, while Jeff Koon’s “Puppy”, a 13-metre-high Highland terrier studded with thousands of flowers, looks rather perky on the city side.
Go for a stroll along the Rio Nervión, which snakes through the centre of Bilbao, under the bright red arch of the La Salve bridge. Cross the river on the Calatrava-designed Zubizuri pedestrian bridge and take in the Cathedral.
A few minutes walk brings you to another highlight, the Mercado de la Ribera, a great place to check out the food, always a highlight in Bilbao.
Try pintxos – the distinctive Basque tapas on a stick – washed down with a glass or two of txakoli, the local dry white wine. There are plenty more places to try in and around the Plaza Nueva in the traffic-free old town. Take the funicular up Mount Artxanda for a panoramic view of the city.
Santander is the other ferry destination and it couldn’t be more different to the industrial port of Bilbao.
Instead, your ferry glides into the wide, blue Miera estuary, flanked by beaches and sandbars, and you tie up right next to Centro Botīn gallery, Santander’s answer to the Guggenheim. Spoiler – it doesn’t pack the same visual punch as the Guggenheim, but it’s still pretty cool. It was designed by Renzo Piano, the Italian architect who did the Shard in London.
Santander’s heyday was back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it was the fashionable holiday destination for wealthy Spaniards. The royal family had their own summer place there too, the Palacio de la Magdalena. It’s a rather bizarre-looking building on a beautiful peninsula with wonderful views across the estuary. Well worth a tour.
Playa del Sardinero is surely one of the most beautiful urban beaches in Spain, lined with elegant white-fronted buildings clustered around the Casino on the Plaza Italia (no, it’s not a Vegas-style gambling den – the Casino is where the upper crust of society gathered back in the day).
Distance: a couple of hours drive south from either Bilbao or Santander.
The city is the birthplace of Spain’s national hero El Cid. He’s a hard guy to miss in Burgos! An outsize statue of him in full battle gear dominates the square outside the Teatro Principal.
El Cid Campeador won his legendary reputation as the Christian warrior who helped liberate Spain from the Muslim invaders back in the 11th century (remember Charlton Heston in the 1961 Hollywood blockbuster?).
The truth however, is more complicated. For a start, Spain didn’t exist as a country when El Cid was on the warpath. And he wasn’t always on the Christian side either. El Cid was actually a bit of a sword for hire and chose his battles to suit his own interests. He even fought more than once on the Muslim side, which is kind of difficult to square with the Christian hero legend.
The must-see in Burgos is the stunning Gothic cathedral, which lies right on the pilgrim route, the Camino de Santiago. Building work took more than 300 years to complete and yes, El Cid is buried there.
You get a great view over the cathedral and the old town by heading uphill to the ruined castle behind. It was destroyed during the Napoleonic wars by a massive explosion which had the unfortunate side-effect of blowing out all the medieval stained-glass windows in the Cathedral.
Stroll through the Arco de Santa Maria, one of the medieval city gates of Burgos, and then along the Paseo del Espolón by the river, down to the statue of El Cid in full cry. Try a walking tour.
Where to eat: plenty of places in the old town, along Calle Paloma, the Plaza Mayor, or around Calle San Lorenzo. Try a tapas crawl – have a couple of pinchos (tapas) and a glass of red in one bar and then move on to the next place. Don’t forget to try morcilla, (Spanish black pudding). Burgos claims the best in Spain.
If wine is your thing, then Logroño is your town. About 90 minutes’ drive from Bilbao, it’s the capital of La Rioja, the best-known wine region in Spain. There are more wineries hereabouts than you can shake a stick at and most of them do tours and tastings.
For my money, the most spectacular is the Bodega Marques de Riscal, another astonishing creation from Frank Gehry, the guy who gave us the Bilbao Guggenheim. The bodega lies about half an hour from Logroño in Elciego – and it’s a bit of a show stopper.
Some of Rioja’s other big names have built themselves spectacular wineries too. If you like cutting edge architecture with your wine, try the Calatrava-designed Bodega Ysios and Bodega Campo Viejo.
Logroño is a good base for touring La Rioja. The challenge is to stay sober enough to drive between bodegas after some full-bodied wine tastings. Try this link for more ideas.
Eat here: try a tapas crawl along the Calle del Laurel, trying a pincho or two in each one. Check out this link for ideas (it’s in Spanish, but hit Google Translate).
Distance from Bilbao 3 hours, Santander 4 hours, from Logroño 1 hour 45.
Zaragoza is a proper city, the capital of Aragon, but for some reason, it seems to have fallen off the tourist trail (or never been on it much in the first place). But once you get into the city centre, there’s a lot to see.
The big one is the spectacular Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar on the banks of the Ebro. Head up one of the towers for a pigeon’s-eye view over the city, then walk across the Puente de Piedra for a view from the opposite bank.
Zaragoza manages to squeeze in a second Cathedral (La Seo), just a couple of hundred metres away from the Basilica. There’s also a statue to the painter Goya in the square – he grew up in the city.
The Romans were here in force – the city’s name comes from Caesarea Augusta, which evolved into Zaragoza after a millennium or two of mispronunciation! Take a look at the ruins of the Roman theatre, one of the biggest in Spain and only discovered in 1972.
Swing by the Plaza San Felipe for one of those quirky stories I love to stumble across on a city walk. You’ll see a bronze statue of a young boy (el niño sentado) gazing seemingly into empty space. But he’s actually looking up at where the famous leaning tower of Zaragoza, the Torre Nueva, once stood.
La Torre Nueva was built in the 1500s, but it developed a bit of an angle in the centuries that followed, rather like the more famous leaning tower of Pisa. So much so that the city decided rather arbitrarily to demolish it in the 1890s. It wasn’t a popular decision – opponents called it ‘the greatest artistic crime committed in Spain’.
The statue of the boy was put there a century later. If you stand behind him, you can see a mural of the Torre Nueva painted on a building opposite. Great story!
Half an hour’s walk from the centre lies the Aljafería, an 11th century Moorish mixture of castle and palace. Full disclosure – we didn’t get time to see it (one for the way home!). These days, it’s the home of the regional parliament of Aragon.
Where to eat: check out the El Tubo area in the old town – you’ll find around 60 tapas bars serving local specialities. Wash them down with a caña or two of Ambar beer (it’s brewed in Zaragoza). For eating ideas, see the links here and here
If you fancy seeing more of Spain’s green north – the beautiful Aragon Pyrenees – take a look at my post here
Distance – 3.5 hours from Zaragoza, just under 6 hours from Bilbao (via Logroño).
The medieval walled city of Cuenca is slightly off the direct route to the Costa Blanca, but seriously worth the detour. Cuenca is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the hanging houses (casas colgadas) are an iconic image of the city.
The old city is compact and easily walkable. Highlights include the Plaza Mayor, the Torre de Mangana and the astonishing views across the river Júcar.
They’ve been a bit careless with some of their architecture in Cuenca over the centuries. In 1902, one of the towers of the cathedral collapsed, so the whole facade was completely rebuilt, in a different style.
The rather elegant Puente de San Pablo stone bridge over the River Huécar collapsed in 1895 and was replaced with a deeply boring but functional metal girder span. It’s the best place to view the casas colgadas though.
Even the famous hanging houses themselves didn’t escape unscathed. There used to be eight of them, but five were demolished in the early 20th century because they’d apparently fallen into disrepair. In the three that survive, there’s a restaurant and a museum of abstract art.
Where to stay: we pushed the boat out and stayed in the historic Parador de Cuenca, a converted convent opposite the casas colgadas. We ate there too, so I don’t have any recommendations in the town itself.
But Cuenca was voted Spanish Capital of Gastronomy in 2023, so they’re clearly not short of a good place to eat. Try this link for some top-end places.
For a side-trip with a difference, head for the Ciudad Encantada (Enchanted City) for some truly startling rock formations eroded out of the limestone rock over millions of years. It’s about half an hour up the road from Cuenca.
Distance: just under 2 hours drive from Cuenca.
Often voted one of Spain’s most beautiful pueblos, Albarracín was originally a Moorish stronghold, built in the curve of the little rio Guadalviar.
A warren of narrow twisting streets rises up from the river to the castle at the top of the hill. The houses are so close together, the roofs almost meet over your head.
It takes just a few hours to take in all the sights. Take in the Cathedral, the castle, the Plaza Mayor and walk up to the Torre del Andador for a bird’s eye view over the town. For more, check my post on Albarracín here.
We stayed here:Hotel Doña Blanca, which has parking (there’s not much of that in the crowded old town).
From Albarracín, it’s about a four-hour run to Alicante, mostly on motorway or good dual carriageway. Valencia is an obvious stop-off point to break up this part of the journey, but it deserves a blog post all to itself and we don’t have room for that here!
Segovia & the southern route
Instead of heading east from Burgos via Logroño and Zaragoza, try heading south towards one of our favourite cities, Segovia, and then on to Toledo, the ancient capital of Spain.
Segovia is dominated by the multi-tiered Roman aqueduct which marches uncompromisingly right through the old city. It’s an astonishing piece of engineering, built in the 1st century AD to bring water from the nearby mountains. It was still in use right up until 1973.
The aqueduct is gobsmacking enough on its own to justify a visit – but there’s plenty more. Head up into the old town to the Plaza Mayor, the Cathedral and then the spectacular Alcázar, the fortress of Segovia.
The Alcázar is a picture-perfect ideal of what a romantic castle should look like and the views over the surrounding countryside are a bit special too.
If you have time for a cool side-trip, try heading to the spectacular walled city of Ávila, about 50 minutes drive west of Segovia. For more, check my post on Ávila here.
Less than an hour south of Segovia lies the vast palace of El Escorial, the personal vanity project of King Philip ll. He was the most powerful man in the world in the 16th century and his austere creation was designed to leave onlookers in no doubt about who was top dog.
The place is simply huge, a mixture of royal palace, pantheon (most Spanish kings ever since have been buried here) and monastery, all set against a backdrop of the Guadarrama mountains.
My recommendation – stay in Segovia and drive to El Escorial from there.
Distance: 5-6 hours from Santander via Segovia, with breaks. About 90 minutes from Segovia.
Toledo is a former capital of Spain (until Madrid took over) shoehorned into a bend of the River Tagus and it’s played a key role in Spanish history pretty much since the Romans.
It was ruled in turn by the Visigoths (who replaced the Romans), and then the Moors until the Christians retook the city in 1085. For a few centuries, it had a vibrant Jewish community too, until they were expelled by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492. So Toledo has had a fair old range of influences over the centuries.
Most of the key sights are within easy walking distance. The Alcázar (fortress) dominates the city, which I guess is what it was designed to do.
It played a key role in the early months of the Spanish Civil War. The garrison commander, José Moscardó, joined Franco’s rebellion and resisted a two-month siege by Republican forces. Franco’s army eventually came to the rescue, celebrating Moscardó and his defenders as heroes in a major progaganda victory (Moscardó in particular for refusing to surrender the Alcázar to save his own son).
Toledo’s magnificent 13th century Gothic cathedral is a must-see. The interior is fabulously ornate.
Toledo is synonymous with the artist El Greco and also, rather bizarrely, swords (the city made the finest steel in Europe in medieval times). See El Greco’s work in a museum dedicated to him in the Jewish Quarter. And there are knives and swords on sale in lots of souvenir shops; probably best to avoid buying unless you want trouble with customs on the way home!
Eat here: try the Azotea rooftop terrace at the Hotel Carlos V for drinks, tapas and great views across the city skyline.
Aranjuez & Chinchón
There are two cool side trips from Toledo – 45 minutes to the east lies Aranjuez and its spectacular Royal Palace. Half an hour further on, you find the pretty little town of Chinchón, famous across Spain for its highly alcoholic aniseed liqueur (think Pernod with a proper kick to it).
From Toledo, it’s a straight four hour run to Alicante, the capital of the Costa Blanca.
Pause en route to take in the Molinos de Consuegra, about 40 minutes to the south. They’re a highly photogenic string of a dozen Don Quixote-style windmills on the ridge of the Cerro Calderico, a short drive off the main road.
That’s it – hope you’ve enjoyed my top ten stopovers in Spain! Buen viaje!