The Camino del Norte is a spectacular combination of beautiful coastline passing beaches and fishermen villages and green mountains, pasture fields, and lush forest. If you want to see both; the sea and the mountains the Northern Way is a great route to walk. This Camino is also known as one of the toughest routes of the Camino de Santiago due to its mountainous terrain with frequent climbs and drops. If you want to escape the crowds and go more off the beaten track, Camino del Norte is a good alternative to the more popular French route.
Camino del Norte facts
- Camino del Norte is one of the pilgrimage routes of the Camino de Santiago that goes through Northern Spain.
- The Camino starts in Irún, a town in the Basque Country on the border with France and finishes in Santiago de Compostela.
- Total distance (depending on the route you choose) between 825km and 865km.
- The route is marked with yellow arrows and shells.
- The Northern Way crosses four Spanish provinces; the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia.
For detailed day by day itinerary with stages, distances, places to stay go to Camino del Norte walking stages post.
Planning the Camino walk
Every pilgrim has to have a Credential. You can get it from a local Camino de Santiago office in your country or buy it on arrival; usually, albergues, pilgrim information offices or some cathedrals sell them. Every time you stay at albergue (public or private) you get a stamp. At the end of the Camino, you’ll need your Credential to get Compostela – a certificate with your name and the name of the Camino you completed. Don’t lose your Credential if you do it’s basically impossible to recover it.
The route is marked (like any other Camino Way) with yellow arrows and shells, no need to worry about finding the way – simply follow the arrows.
In Spain, most supermarkets and shops are closed on Sundays and public holidays, it’s better to do shopping on Saturday and carry food with than to hope to find something open on Sunday. Luckily restaurants are bars are opened on Sundays and public holidays.
We’d suggest buying a local SIM card you can phone to book a place or to find out if it’s opened and have Internet access (though many albergues and bars have wi-fi). You can buy a Vodafone SIM card in Spain with 2Gb data, 200 minutes local phone calls, and many SMS for 15 Euro. It worked good, we used it a lot for uploading photos and video, Whats-app calls, etc. and it was more than enough.
We drank tap water everywhere on the Camino del Norte (except Barcelona, we were told it is not good) and never had any issues but if you have a sensitive stomach bring a Lifestraw bottle just in case.
If after a day or two of walking you realize your backpack is too heavy or you don’t feel like walking fully loaded you can arrange a backpack delivery from albergue to albergue. There are several companies that do it including Spanish post office – Correos. It costs between 4 and 6 Euro per delivery, depending on the distance. Note! Public albergues normally don’t accept backpacks even if it’s delivered to the door it won’t guarantee you a spot in the albergue till your actual arrival. Delivery is usually arranged between private albergues, they can be booked in advance.
More information on other routes of the Camino de Santiago that we’ve completed by now you can find in these posts The Portuguese Camino Central Route, Coastal Route of Camino Portugues, Camino Portugues from Lisbon through Fatima, Camino Primitivo, Camino Finisterre-Muxía, Camino Inglés and Via de la Plata.
Credential – a small printed book with pilgrim’s info (name, age, country, etc.) and empty spaces for stamps it confirms that you’re a pilgrim. At every albergue you stay no matter public or private you get a stamp, some bars and restaurants have stamps as well. You’ll have to show your Credential at the end of the Camino to get the Compostela.
Compostela – a certificate that every pilgrim can get after completing at least 100km on foot or 200km cycling on any Camino de Santiago route. In order to get the Compostela you go to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago with your Credential, probably stay in a queue, show your stamped Credential and get the certificate. Note! According to the new regulations it’s required to stamp your Credential twice a day at least on the last 100km (you can stamp it in bars or restaurants). We didn’t do it and nobody asked for extra stamps (our Credentials were full of stamps anyway as we walked four Caminos this year), none of the people who walked with us had any issues but some people that walked the French Way were asked at the Office about two stamps for every day.
There are two certificates that you can get; one is the Compostela, it is free, it has your name and date on it. The second one is called Certificate of Distance, you pay 3 Euro for it, it has your name, the name of the Camino you’ve completed, total distance covered, starting points, starting and finishing dates and the date it was issued. You can buy a Tubo (cardboard tube) for 2 Euro to put your Compostela in for extra protection.
Albergue – hostels for pilgrims with dormitories and shared facilities. You can find more information on the albergues in paragraph Albergues on the Camino del Norte.
Menú del Día – a set meal that usually consists of an entree (soup or salad), a main (meat, fish, vegetables with garnish), bread, wine or beer or cool drink, coffee or dessert (sometimes both).
Desayuno – breakfast. A traditional Spanish breakfast is a toast, butter, jam, and coffee. If you want something more solid look for Desayuno Inglés (English breakfast).
Pintxo (pincho) in the Basque Country or tapa in the rest of Spain – a small portion of whatever (paella, salad, seafood, sandwich, etc.) that usually goes with a drink. In the Basque Country, you always pay for pintxos, in other regions (Asturias, Galicia, Cantabria) many bars offer tapas as a free addition to your drink.
Bocadillo – a sandwich, usually a French baguette cut half and stuffed with jamón or cheese or chorizo, etc. no tomatoes or lettuce (you can always ask for it).
Tortilla Española (has nothing to do with Mexican tortilla) – a traditional Spanish potato omelet with a little bit of onion, sometimes cheese and jamón. It wasn’t that big in the Basque Country but in Cantabria and Asturias, every single bar had tortillas.
Caña – a small glass of beer, the most popular size in Spain. Note! In the Basque country caña is not that small, a small beer there is “zurito”. If you say “cerveza” which means “beer” they will understand you but you’ll have to identify the size; small, medium or big.
Café – coffee. Café solo – espresso; café cortado – espresso with a little bit of milk; americano – a shot of espresso with a shot of hot water; café con leche – coffee with milk, in many places they don’t have cappuccino but coffee with milk is basically the same, it has some sort of foam. A nice thing about walking through Spain – you can get good coffee at any bar or restaurant even in a tiny town.
Churros con chocolate – a crispy deep-fried dough sticks that are served with hot chocolate (you dip churros in chocolate), it’s typically to eat it for breakfast.
3 don’ts of the Camino
Don’t chase guidebooks, other pilgrims or somebody’s itinerary (even if it’s our itinerary, it’s just a suggestion), follow your pace, take as much time as you need (or have) to complete the Camino. The walk is long with some tough stages to arrive in Santiago healthy and on your feet is more important than to arrive there earlier than…
If you stay in albergues for donation, eat their food, drink their wine etc. please, don’t be disrespectful and leave donation accordingly to what you got. It’s not cool to stay in a place, use the facilities, eat and drink and then leave 1 Euro and be super excited about your cheap stay. Nowadays many pilgrims see donation places as a cheap accommodation option that you don’t have to pay for or leave almost nothing. It’s a shame that pilgrims don’t respect people that offer them their hospitality. If you get a bed, hot shower, wi-fi, food, and wine consider contributing an appropriate amount, one day there might be no albergues for donation on the Camino at all. To calculate how much; add up prices that you usually pay for albergues, dinner, breakfast etc. and you’ll get an estimated amount.
Don’t leave valuables (money, phone, GoPro, etc.) unattended on your bed, in a backpack, laying around we were warned in Irún about some cases of theft on the Camino. It can happen on any route not only on the Northern Way. We personally never had a bad experience but we always take our stuff with or lock it in lockers (if they are available). It’s very handy to have a pouch or a small foldable backpack to take valuables with.
Travel insurance for the Northern Way
Walking like any other outdoor activity involves a risk of getting an injury or losing some of the gear. It’s always recommended to have travel insurance when you go away. The Camino del Norte is not an exclusion though it’s not a high altitude wild hike through remote areas it’s still a physically challenging experience with many ascends and descends on the way and injuries are quite frequent. Make sure you will be able to get medical assistance any time you need. Travel insurance is quite handy in case of a gear loss or device break down. It makes the walk less stressful when you know you’re covered in case of any unpredictable emergencies. Enjoy the Camino and let your insurance company worry about you and your staff.
Best months for walking
In our experience (we’ve walked several Caminos in different seasons) the best time is just before or just after the peak season; May – June, and September – October. First of all, it’s not too hot but still nice and warm but your chances to get rain are higher. Second, it’s not too busy, there are significantly fewer people compared to July and August. To walk the Northern Way completely off-season (November – February) is quite tricky; it rains a lot, it gets quite cold and windy, plus many albergues are closed for the off-season – finding accommodation might become a problem. As for walking in the peak season we are not big fans of overcrowded Camino, plus heat makes you more tired and exhausted but if it’s the only time you have – it’s absolutely doable.
Camino del Norte cost
The Basque country – one of the most expensive Spanish provinces, especially the most touristy coastal part. Usually to be a pilgrim is cheaper than to be an ordinary tourist at least accommodation costs you less but in many places in the Basque Country public albergues (5 Euro or donation) are opened only during the high season; July and August. Out of these two months, pilgrims have no other options as staying in hostels or private albergues, the price for those is between 15 and 20 Euro pp. which is 3 to 4 times more than you usually pay for albergues. Some albergues in the Basque Country are opened longer season between April and September/October.
Hotels and pensions can be a good alternative to stay off-season (prices will be lower), the price for a double room with a private bathroom between 40 and 50 Euro. In summer this type of accommodation will be more expensive (50-70 Euro depending where) and must be booked in advanced especially in places like San Sebastián or other smaller beach towns.
Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia are at the same price level. The public albergues here are opened longer, some of them stay open all year, it significantly reduces the cost if you walk offseason. Public albergues are 5-6 Euro, private between 10 and 12 Euro, there are quite a few private albergues for donations. For a private double room (with bathroom) in these provinces, you’ll pay an average of 30 Euro, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the location and facilities of the place. The cheapest double we got was in Asturias for 25 Euro with private bathroom, the most expensive in Gijón for 40 Euro but it was a great place. In high season (July-August) in the beach, towns prepare to pay more for hotels.
Food in the Basque country is delicious all these pintxos with seafood, fish, herbs, vegetable – the region is known as one of the best world destinations for gourmets. I know at the beginning of the trip you don’t feel like you start spending more money but pintxos and seafood dishes in the Basque Country is a must-try. Don’t get me wrong other three provinces have delicious food as well with a great variety of fish, seafood, meat, and vegetables just the Basque Country is famous for its cuisine.
To eat out costs more or less the same everywhere; Menu del Día (set lunch) between 10 and 15 Euro, depending on a restaurant, area and food quality. A cup of black coffee – 1-1,20 Euro, coffee with milk – 1,50 Euro. Breakfast (toast with jam and butter and coffee) – 3 Euro, English breakfast – 5 Euro. Dinner at a restaurant between 20 and 25 Euro pp.
Food prices in different provinces are more or less the same, the main difference is between buying food in a big supermarket or in a small grocery shop, the second one is usually more expensive. Average shopping will cost you between 6 and 9 Euro per person for 2 meals (dinner and breakfast).
Set up your budget
Accommodation – between 5-6 Euro pp. for municipal albergues; between 10-12 Euro (sometimes 15 Euro) pp. for private albergues and hostels. Hotels (double room) from 25 Euro (the cheapest), 30-35 Euro average, in some places 50+ Euro.
Eating out – average 10 Euro for Menu del Día; 1-1,5 Euro for a cup of coffee; 3-5 Euro breakfast with coffee; 2 Euro for a pintxo; 20-25 Euro for a restaurant dinner, 10 Euro for a dinner at the albergue (many private albergues serve food as well, it’s more like Menú del Día).
Shopping – between 6 and 10 Euro pp. per day.
Laundry – most places charge 2-3 Euro for washing and the same for drying.
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How much we spent in 30 days per person
- Accommodation – 300 Euro or 10 Euro per person per day. If you walk in the high season (July, August) when all the public albergues are opened you can lower the cost down to 200 Euro pp. (about 7 Euro per night average).
- Shopping – 180 Euro or 6 Euro pp. per day. We tried to cook our own food every time we had a kitchen or bought ready-made salads or microwave meals.
- Eating out (coffee, pintxos, menus) – 220 Euro or 7,3 Euro pp. per day.
- Other (mainly laundry, occasional medicine) – 20 Euro per person.
In total, we spent 720 Euro per person in 30 days or 24 Euro per person per day. We didn’t try to budget too much and stayed a couple of times in private hotels, went out for drinks and ate Menu del Dia (not often). As I already mentioned we walked offseason and many public albergues were closed it made our budget a bit higher. If you really try to budget, stay only in public or donation albergues, don’t eat out, buy food in supermarkets – the Camino will work out as cheap as 15 Euro pp. per day. For a comfortable walk (still staying in albergues, not hotels), eating Menu del Dia, stopping for coffee, going out sometimes – set up your budget for 25-30 Euro per person per day.
Packing tips for the Camino
We’ve walked the Caminos (4 of the routes by now) different seasons in all kind of weather, you can find the detailed packing list for men and women for different seasons with recommendations and tips in this post ↓↓↓
Social life on the Camino
Like on any other Camino on the Northern Way there are many people walking solo. It’s not a problem to find a company or people to chat with while walking or staying in albergues. You always will find someone to go out for dinner or a drink. If you walk between April and October there will be more than enough people, off-season it can be a bit lonely. On our Camino there was a group of 8 people, they all started separate and on the way formed a group, they walked most of the Camino together and after finishing in Santiago continued together to Finisterre. We saw the same on the other Caminos e.g. on the Primitivo some people that walked alone formed a group and walked together till the end. It means no need to worry if you can’t find a walking buddy beforehand it might be even better to start alone and on the way find people that walk the same pace and distances and that you feel comfortable with.
It’s important to take good care of your body from the very first day. Don’t start with walking long distances even if you’re relatively fit person, walking with a heavy backpack for many days is quite different from going for an hour run every evening. Let your body adjust to the new rhythm, start with 20-25km days and after a week or so if you feel good you can increase your daily distance to 30km. For some people, it’s better to start even slower 15-20km a day.
Make sure to have the right shoes and socks and take care of your feet, the main problem on the Camino is blisters, that many pilgrims (especially inexperienced) suffer from.
To prevent blisters;
- pack 2 or 3 pairs of merino wool socks, they are the best for hiking.
- during the walk every time your feet get wet from sweating take off a wet pair and put on dry socks. You can hang wet socks from your backpack to let them dry meanwhile.
- you know your feet and where you usually get blisters, plaster these areas before you get one.
Albergues on the Northern Way
Albergues are hostels for pilgrims, they can be public (municipal) and private. Both have one or several rooms with bunk beds (some nicer private albergues have normal beds) – looks like a typical dormitory in a hostel.
Public albergues are run by the municipality with the help of volunteers, they
- cost 5-6 Euro per person
- can’t be booked in advance; first come first serve system
- exclusively for pilgrims (only people that walk or cycle the Camino) as a prove you must show your Credential. We heard often the pilgrims that arrive on foot have priority over the cyclists but we personally never witnessed that.
- accept only cash
- have disposable bedding (included or for 1 Euro extra).
Private albergues are run by a person or association, they
- Cost between 10 and 12 Euro (sometimes 15 Euro)
- Most of them can be booked in advance
- Disposable bedding included
- It’s not compulsory to be a pilgrim to be able to stay there, they act more like hostels (except for some that are for donation).
- Usually but not always private albergues have better facilities like wi-fi, fully equipped kitchen though some newer municipal albergues are quite geared as well.
Many municipal and private albergues on the Camino del Norte are closed for the offseason if you walk the route between November and February it’s better to check beforehand if the albergue you’re planning to stay is opened or not.
Camino del Norte highlights
Out of four regions we walked through on the Northern Way the scenery of the Basque Country for us was the best; beautiful beaches, mountains, cliffs, lookouts add to all these delicious food and great wine and you’ll get an idea about the region. In my opinion, if you have some extra time and money to spend do it in the Basque Country. Don’t get it wrong Cantabria and Asturias have some breathtaking scenery as well – mountains, sea, beaches and cozy towns. In Galicia, you turn away from the coast but the forest there is spectacular. The great thing about walking through four different regions is that you actually get to see the difference between them; scenery, architecture, food and even language.
Best cities on the Northern Way
San Sebastián/Donostia, the Basque Country
Donostia how it’s called in euskera (the language of the Basque country) is one of the highlights of the Camino del Norte and definitely the best and the most beautiful city on the route. The only big city where walking in and out was not through industrial areas and along busy roads but on the beautiful coastal trail with fantastic views over the sea. I know you don’t want to spend your extra days right at the beginning of the walk and rather keep them for later but if you have time I’d definitely recommend to stay in San Sebastián for 2 days. The day you arrive you won’t have much time to explore the city if you come from Irún – it’s a long walking day.
Not to miss in San Sebastián
Pintxos – a small snack that usually goes with a drink, can be anything from a small jamón sandwich to a mini portion of the tortilla. In San Sebastian pintxos are more sophisticated e.g. grilled prawns in sweet-spicy sauce, croquette with jamón Serrano and cheese inside, mushroom risotto, pate in apple cider etc.
Beaches – one of the main reasons thousands of people come here every summer; Playa de la Concha (shell beach) and Playa Ondarreta are two beaches not to miss (you walk past both of them on the way).
The Old Town of San Sebastián – narrow cobblestone streets, old massive houses, churches, monuments. Must see; Buen Pastor Cathedral, Plaza de la Constitución, Gothic church of San Vicente, Basilica of Saint Mary, Museum of San Telmo.
Mount Urgull – a green hill squeezed between the sea and the city, it offers amazing views over San Sebastian and its beaches.
Mount Igeldo – the opposite to Mount Urgull hill, you can take a funicular car to get to the top of it. The best panoramic view of San Sebastián at night you can get from the lookout point at the top.
As you can see to visit only the main sights in the city you´ll need at least two days. If you decide to spend two days in San Sebastian a city cycling tour might be a great alternative to walking around the city on your own.
Accommodation in San Sebastian
Bilbao, the Basque Country
The city used to be an “ugly duckling” of the Basque Country completely overshadowed by San Sebastian and other smaller beach towns but everything changed when in 1997 the Guggenheim museum was inaugurated. It’s incredible how the construction of one building even if it’s a famous modern art museum can change the city. Since then the whole new modern neighborhood was built in the place of old decrepit port area with many abandoned buildings. Today’s Bilbao can be divided into two main touristy parts; Casco Viejo (the Old Town) and the New Town.
Not to miss in Bilbao
The Old Town and its Siete Calles (seven streets) that were established in the 14th century and officially are the oldest part of the city. Strolling through these streets you can combine the degustation of pintxos and pastry at local bars and bakeries with visiting fish markets and shops. Don’t forget to look around there are some quite remarkable buildings e.g. Atxuri Railway station, Bilbao Cathedral, the Cradle House, buildings around Plaza Nueva. Though we were quite tired after a 35km walk to Bilbao we went for a walk through the Old Town and enjoyed it quite a lot. It was nice for a change, to walk around like a normal tourist, taking photos and being able to go any way you want and not to follow the arrows. It was difficult not to stop at every second bakery or bar – make sure to come here hungry!
Puente de la Rivera – a bridge over the river with nice views over the city center.
Guggenheim museum – the iconic building and the main city attraction that helped to rediscover Bilbao to the world. Even if you don’t have time to visit the museum to have a look at it from the outside is well worth of time. Note! You can walk out of the city following the river route than the museum will be on the way.
On the way to the museum don’t miss two bridges; Zubizuri Footbridge also known as The Calatrava bridge and Puente de la Salve just before the Guggenheim.
If you have time and decide to stay in Bilbao an extra day (and are not too tired from walking) you can arrange a customized city tour with a guide and experience Bilbao like a local.
Accommodation in Bilbao
A nice city with great beaches, a beautiful historical center and waterfront, many good pintxo bars and seafood restaurants. We were very unlucky with the weather it was super windy, rainy and cold so we couldn’t appreciate the natural beauty of Santander but we did go out and visited a couple of bars and ate one of the best ever churros with chocolate for breakfast. We have friends that live here it was easy for us to find good places, interesting sights and get some insider information about the city. The easiest way of getting to know the city and enjoying sightseeing without walking too much is to take a hop-on-hop-off bus that will take you through the main Santander attractions.
Not to miss
Beaches – there are several in and around the city if you’re lucky to be here in summer you might want to stay longer. Sardinero beach – the most popular beach with hundreds of beach chairs and many people in the water in the season but it’s still a nice beach. We were there off-season (October) and it was pretty empty. One of the most beautiful buildings of Santander the Gran Casino is located next to Sardinero beach. If you prefer smallish beaches go to Playa de Molinucos.
The Old Town of Santander besides its highlights like the cathedral and Plaza del Ayuntamiento, it’s the best area in the city to go out for drinks and tapas, especially on Friday and Saturday night. If you don’t have much time and can visit only one place in the city I’d recommend the Cathedral Basilica of Santander. The complex was built between the 12th and 14th century in the Gothic style, the interior of the cathedral is quite impressive.
For good tapas we can recommend Taberna Al Punto (can find it on Google maps), they have a long tapa menu (all sort of tapas; fish, seafood, meat, chicken, vegetarian), wine and beer, we ate quite a few of them with wine and our bill was about 12 Euro. It’s a great place “para picar” how they say it in Spain which means something between to snack and to have lunch/dinner. If you want to try good churros with chocolate (usually for breakfast) go to Chocolateria Aliva (find on Google maps) it’s a very simple old-style place with tasty crispy churros and good not too sweet real hot chocolate. Both places are near the ferry station even if you don’t stay in Santander you can visit them on the way.
Peninsula de la Magdalena – a green hill located between the Old Town and Sardinero beach. The palace on the top of the hill is very impressive though not that old, it was built at the beginning of the 20th century. It is surrounded by a lovely park that borders the sea and the beaches. At the extreme point of the peninsula, you can find a lighthouse – Faro de la Cerda.
Modern Santander. The Centro Botín – a modern spaceship-looking building that hosts permanent collection and exhibitions of contemporary art. The Maritime Museum of Cantabria – for those who like marine life and everything related to it e.g. geology, shipbuilding, etc.
It is a real pity that from Santander the Camino goes out of the city through residential areas and turns inland instead of following the coast. There is a beautiful walking trail that runs from Santander past several beaches and bays, Ruta Costera de Santander from the lighthouse of Cabo Mayor. Next time when we come here we’ll definitely do that walk.
Accommodation in Santander
It was probably our least favorite city (actually it was Avilés) due to the quite unpleasant way to walk out of it – along the busy road for about 2km, past a weighbridge. It wasn’t as bad as walking into Avilés though. The center of Gijón was nice with a typical Old Town, Waterfront, cathedral and many restaurants. The Camino goes through the city almost all the way along the sea and through the main square so even if you don’t stay here you get a chance to see quite a lot on the way.
Not to miss in Gijón
Playa de San Lorenzo – the main city beach, you won’t miss it if you follow the Camino route. When we walked by it was very high tide most of the beach was underwater, we saw some people surfing and supping. Playa Poniente – another city beach you walk past.
Cerro de Santa Catalina – a hill with a fortress and Elogio del Horizonte monument on the top. On a windy day if you stand inside the monument you can hear “the echo of the sea”. The hill offers some nice views over the city and its beaches.
The Old Town of Gijón located between two beaches; San Lorenzo and Poniente. The highlights; the Old Roman Baths – Termas Romanas de Campo Valdés; the Plaza Mayor – a beautiful square similar to the Plaza Mayor in Madrid just smaller; San Lorenzo chapel; Palacio de Revillagigedo.
Universidad Laboral de Gijón – about 2km before the city, you won’t miss it, from far it looks like a huge cathedral or monastery, beautiful building. Unfortunately, it’s not on the way, you’ll have to take a detour to get there. Though it looks like an old building from a distance the whole complex was built in the middle of the 20th century. Note! The University can be visited only with a guided tour, price 5 Euro, check for the timetable HERE.
Accommodation in Gijón
Best towns on the Camino
Getaria, the Basque Country
A cozy little town with a beautiful beach and a small but charming center. Approaching the town you can enjoy the beautiful scenery; the last 4km from Zarautz to Getaria is on the Paseo Marítimo (promenade). The whole town is basically located at the cape, squeezed between two beaches; Geztetape and Malkorbe beach.
Not to miss in Getaria; Nagusia Kalea – a pedestrian street with many inviting bars and restaurants that ends with the church of San Salvador – a Gothic 15th-century church. Mount San Anton (past the port) – it’s quite a walk to the top and maybe you don’t feel like walking anymore but the view over the town and the area is well worth the effort. San Anton used to be an island until the 15th century when it was connected with the mainland. Nowadays it’s a beautiful park with several walking paths, on the way to the top you go past a lighthouse. Getaria is located in the txakoli wine region; grilled fish with local txakoli white wine is highly recommended. You can find it in one of the restaurants on the main street. There is no public albergue here but there are two or three private albergues and a couple of hotels.
Accommodation options in Getaria
Guernica, the Basque Country
A town that was completely destroyed in one day and became an anti-war symbol and a reminder of the tragedies that the war brings. A small town of Guernica became a prime target of Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War because it considered being one of the centers of the Republicans resistance and an important place for the Basque culture. On Monday afternoon of 26th April 1937 German and Italian aviation repeatedly bombed the town, in a couple of hours it was turned into the ruins. Famous Spanish artist Picasso painted one of his best and most emotional canvas Guernica inspired by the tragedy. Nowadays you can see the painting in the Museum of Reina Sofia in Madrid, the full-sized copy of it decorates the main entrance of the Security Council room of the United Nations office in New York.
Not to miss in Guernica; Guernica Tree and Biscayan Assembly (two important symbols of the Basque Country), Monday market (yes, the same Monday market that took place on the bombing day), the Peace Museum, Santa María church, Park of the People of Europe (little a bit outside the city). There is a public albergue in the town but it’s opened only in August, the rest of the year you can stay in one of the private albergues or hostels.
Accommodation options in Guernica
Portugalete, the Basque Country
The best view of the town and its colorful neighborhoods you get from Getxo, on the opposite side of the river. The main attraction of Portugalete is the famous Vizcaya bridge, the world oldest transporter bridge, it was built in 1893. The ride on the bridge gondola is quite exciting with great views over the river and the town. Price – 0,40 Euro pp. The town has a great system of street escalators that helps pedestrians to go up steep streets, luckily the Camino route follows them. More highlights; Torre de Salasar (tower), Basilica Santa María del Mar, Plaza del Solar. There is a municipal albergue for donation in the town, opened from 1st June to 30th September.
La Arena/Pobeña, the Basque Country
These two villages are 1km apart, the public albergue is in Pobeña but shops and ATM in La Arena. It’s not that much about the towns more about a nice beach and beautiful coastal scenery surrounding them. It was great to take off the boots and walk barefoot on the beach. The water there is a bit chilly like all along the Cantabrian coast but on a warm day, it’s nice to go for a refreshing swim. The beach is quite a popular surfing spot. The public albergue in Pobeña is for donation, it’s opened from 24th March to 15th October.
Castro Urdiales, Cantabria
It’s quite a bit bigger than most of the towns on the way with good infrastructure; ATMs, supermarkets, hotels, etc. The town is located at the sea, there are a couple of nice beaches and a picturesque harbor with many small colorful boats anchored there. The best view over the harbor and the castle is from the Paseo marítimo, there are several street cafes where you can have lunch or coffee with a great view. Things not to miss here; Santa Ana castle, the church of Santa Maria Assunta, Ermita de Santa Ana, the Medieval bridge – all these sights are located in the same area – at the Paseo Maritimo. Don’t forget about local beaches; Playa de Brazomar, Playa Ostende. There is a public albergue here, it’s opened all year, price 5 Euro pp.
Accommodation options in Castro Urdiales
Another beach town that we couldn’t miss on the way. We happened to be here on a public holiday and it looked so inviting with all the bustling street cafes and restaurants that we decided to stay here. The beach of Laredo is considered to be one of the nicest beaches in this part of Spain and it’s really a great beach. By the way, if you decide to continue from Laredo on the coastal route through Santoña you’ll get a chance to walk in the morning along that beach enjoying the beautiful sunrise.
Highlights of Laredo; the church of Santa Maria de la Asuncion, Puebla Vieja de Laredo – the Old Town with many interesting houses and cobblestone streets, Parque de los Pescadores – a small park by the sea. There is no public albergue in the town but there are a couple of private albergues including Albergue Casa de la Trinidad inside the monastery, 10 Euro pp.
Accommodation options in Laredo
Santillana del Mar, Cantabria
It was one of the most picturesque towns on the route but don’t let the name full you “del Mar” (by the sea) doesn’t mean the town is located next to the sea, the sea is about 7km away. We didn’t have any expectations, we didn’t even know about the place till we literally walked into the town.
Santillana is a small town with one or two-story houses, narrow cobblestone streets – everything is very beautiful and cozy, you just want to wander around it all day. The town became a popular tourist destination after 1879 when Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola discovered the Altamira Cave, which is only 2km away. The access to the real Altamira Cave is restricted to 37 minutes, once a week on Friday at 10.40am and limited to 5 people. It says they randomly select 5 people out of the visitors (over 16 y.o.) that come that day to the museum between 9.30 and 10.30am. You can see the exact replica of the Cave in the museum.
The village of Santillana del Mar grew around the Colegiata – Saint Juliana’s collegiate church that was built here in the 12th century. Most of the houses in the village are built between the 14th and 18th centuries – it’s a real open-air museum. We’d recommend planning your itinerary the way you get to stay in Santillana; there is a public albergue (6 Euro) here that opened all year round.
Accommodation options in Santillana del Mar
Another charming little town in Cantabria. The distance between it and Santillana makes a perfect walking stage – 22km. Unlike Santillana, Comillas is a beach town but the center is a bit far from the sea, about 1km. There are some highlights here that you just can’t miss; the Pontifical University of Comillas – an impressive building on the top of the mountain, you won’t miss it, it looks stunning at the sunset. El Capricho – an eclectic palace built by famous Catalán architect Antoni Gaudi, to see it from close and to visit the park you have to pay an entrance fee – 5 Euro. Sobrellano palace – next to the Gaudi’s building, only guided visits allowed. More sights; Puerta de los Pájaros or Birds’ Gate, Fuente de Tres Caños (fountain), the harbor and the viewpoint, Angel Exterminador (a sculpture, one of the symbols of the town), Comillas beach. There is a public albergue here, price 5 Euro. Opened 1st April – 31st October, great location and good facilities.
Accommodation options in Comillas
One more town by the sea with a cozy center, a harbor with many small colorful boats, cobblestone streets, outside cafes, and restaurants. We were overwhelmed by the number of bakeries and pastries in the town; cakes, chocolates, desserts, etc. are just everywhere. Not to miss in Llanes (all the mentioned attractions are located by the sea); Puerto Chico beach – a tiny beach at the entrance to the town; Playa del Sablón; Paseo de San Pedro (park along the coast) – offers beautiful views over the beach and the Old Town. Don’t miss “the most beautiful bench in the world” a bench with a sea view, best time to go there just before the sunset; El Fuerte de Llanes (fort); Ermita Virgen de la Guía (church); the lighthouse and Cubos de la Memoria (grey cement blocks at the harbor that were painted by a Spanish artist). Quite a lot to see for a small town. The walk here along the coast has some spectacular views. There is no municipal albergue in Llanes but there are several private albergues for 10-14 Euro pp. Albergues La Senda del Peregrinos and La Portilla, the first albergues at the entrance to the town, are quite far from the beach and the center if you’re planning to go out or do sightseeing rather stay in the center.
Accommodation options in Llanes
Tapia de Casariego, Asturias (coastal route)
The last beach town on the Camino del Norte, you hit it only if you follow the coastal route from La Caridad. Beaches and the sea are the main attractions here through the center of Tapia is nice with a couple of squares, a church, several bars, and restaurants. Not to miss; Playa A Ribeira, Playa das Furadas, Playa del Murallón, saltwater swimming pool (by the sea), Os Cañois view-point. On the way out of the town, you’ll see more beaches.
Accommodation options in Tapia
Sobrado dos Monxes, Galicia
A small town built around the abbey. You can see the complex approaching the town, it dominates the area and looks very impressive. The monastery is the main highlight of the town. The abbey was founded in 952, it was at its glory during the 15th and 16th centuries. Besides the monastery, there is a central square Praza Portal with a couple of bars and restaurants. We went for tapas to Paporrubio Bar, after 7 pm you get free tapas with your drink, the tapas menu is quite diverse, we had two drinks and two tapas each and were quite full, paid about 7 Euro. There is a municipal albergue right in the monastery, opened all year, price 6 Euro.
Best albergues (public and private) on the Camino del Norte
We couldn’t stay at every single albergue on the way but we did some research before or asked other pilgrims our list is based only on our personal experience.
Albergue de peregrinos de Irún (public), the Basque Country
It was a good start of the Camino, the albergue is one of the best public albergues in sense of facilities, cleanness, and hospitality. It is big, spacious and has all you need. There are some maps and information booklets about the Camino at the reception as well as a couple of guidebooks. Price – donation, opened 1st March to 31st October.
Monasterio de Zenarruza, the Basque Country
The location of the monastery is fantastic – at the top of the hill with the stunning views over the area. The facilities here are quite basic but to stay in a monastery like old times pilgrims is an invaluable experience. The monks receive you very well, it’s one of the few monasteries or churches on the Camino that actually helps and takes care of pilgrims. Here you get a bed, dinner, and breakfast all for donation. Note! The monastery is quite far from the nearest town if you want some extra food, bring it with. There is a small monastery shop where you can buy home-made sweets and jam. Opened all year, price – donation.
Albergue La Cabaña del Abuelo Peuto (private), Güemes, Cantabria
This albergue is a special experience and a must-stop on the Camino del Norte, everybody we knew stopped here, probably 80% of all pilgrims that walk this Camino come to this place. The place is a big house where you feel like a part of a big family. The facilities here are great; dormitories with big bunk beds, hot showers, wi-fi, big yard, dining area, washing machines, etc. Everything you can find in a good private albergue.
This place is not only an albergue for pilgrims, but they also run several charity projects and pilgrims (their donations) help them to finance these projects. The owner is Padre Ernesto, a priest that traveled all over the world helping people in need. He’s now in his 80 but still very active, has an incredible memory and actively involved in all the projects. This albergue is the place where people (pilgrims) get to know each other, sit at one table for dinner and make acquaintances. Price – donation for accommodation, dinner, and breakfast. Opened all year. Note! There are no shops or bars nearby if you want to have extra food bring it with.
Albergue de peregrinos de San Martín de Laspra (private), Asturias
Another home-like albergue where you feel comfortable and very welcome. It’s a big two-story house with a great host, good facilities and a nice vibe. We were there off-season, only four people stayed that night but it must be a great place to stay in season. There is a kitchen with a big table in the middle – a good place to socialize, meet new people, cook together. The albergue has good facilities; kitchen with all you need for cooking, wi-fi, hot water, heating, washing machine, blankets etc. Note! There is nothing nearby bring food with you. Price – donation, opened all year.
Albergue de peregrinos de Tapia de Casariego (private), Asturias
It is probably the albergue with the most impressive location on the Camino; almost at the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea. On a good day, you can sit outside (there are tables and chairs) and enjoy the stunning sea view. It used to be a municipal albergue but in 2018 it became private. From the albergue, you can go downstairs to a rocky beach sit there watching the waves. Price 8 Euro pp. Opened all year.
Albergue O Xistral (private), Castromaior, Galicia
One of the prettiest albergues on the Camino with great facilities, very cozy and warm – a kind of place you want to stay longer without any reason, just because you feel comfortable. It’s a great place to chill and rest, especially if you, like us, arrive there all wet and cold, it was so nice to sit by the fire and enjoy being warm and dry. The albergue is an old house (16th century) that was upgraded and renovated from the inside though from the outside it still looks like a traditional Galician farmhouse. My favorite part of the albergue was the rain-shower with colorful lights, it was definitely the best shower on the Camino. The hosts are very nice and friendly, cook good food (extra cost), will do your laundry, etc. Price – 12 Euro pp. Opened all year but off-season (November – February) it’s better to book or confirm over the phone. Book here
Albergue de peregrinos de Sobrado dos Monxes, Galicia
Another “must-stay” albergue on the Northern Way. The monastery complex is massive and very impressive, you just can’t stop looking around, discovering new details. In a way I liked this monastery and its cathedral more than the cathedral of Santiago, it has this “noble patina” you can literally see how much time passed and how long it’s been here. Staying inside the monastery in one of the cells with its thick walls and incredible echo is something very special and different. At night when it gets quiet I’d recommend to get out to the yard and walk around a bit – it feels like you travel back in time to the Middle Ages. A good book or audiobook for reading here is The Name of Rose by Italian author Umberto Eco (or watch a movie with Sean Connery). Price 6 Euro pp., opened all year.
Best walking days (stages)
Irún to San Sebastián (the Basque Country) – sea scenery, cliffs, forest, beaches. Incredible views from the top before descending to Pasaia and stunning views on the way from Pasaia to San Sebastián.
San Sebastián to Getaria (the Basque Country) – beaches, green hills, the sea. Great views from the lookout before Zarautz and beautiful Paseo Maritimo (promenade) from Zarautz to Getaria.
Laredo to Noja (Cantabria) – a nice beach walk in Laredo to the ferry, beautiful sea scenery on the way from Santoña to Noja.
Güemes to Santander (Cantabria) – if you’re lucky with the weather it might be one of the most beautiful walking days on this Camino. Most of the time you walk on the edge of the cliffs, by the sea, past some beautiful hidden beaches. Walking barefoot on the sand on Playa Somo for a couple of kilometers are incredible.
Santillana del Mar to Comillas (Cantabria) – nice forest walk with a couple of small towns on the way, beautiful view of Comillas and the coast on the last 2km.
Comillas to San Vicente de la Barquera (Cantabria) – breathtaking scenery with cliffs, ocean, beaches, and green hills, I just wanted to live in one of the houses on the top of those green hills overlooking the sea.
Colombres to Llanes (Asturias) – if you take the coastal route Sendero de la Costa you’ll get some incredible views, plus you’ll walk past Bufones de Arenillas (seawater geysers).
Soto de Luiña to Cadavedo (Asturias) – if you walk along the coast you’ll get some spectacular views. 2km before Cadavedo do a detour and go to the beach first from there go up to Ermita de la Regalina (small chapel), you’ll get some stunning views from there.
Tapia de Casariego to Ribadeo (Asturias-Galicia) – the last bit of walking by the sea, after Ribadeo the route turns inland. The last 5km to Ribadeo was the most picturesque with great viewpoints. The bridge Puente dos Santos looks quite impressive from Figueras side as well.
Mondoñedo to Gontán (Galicia) – unlike most of the previous walking stages this one has nothing to do with the sea, it’s 100% Galician mountains and forest but it is beautiful and remote, there is quite an uphill walk on the route try still to enjoy the scenery.
Worst walking day
I couldn’t just skip it, there were a couple of times when walking out of the big cities you go past industrial areas and busy roads but that day was quite bad. The walk from Gijón to Avilés – basically for 25km (except 3km somewhere in the middle) is along the busy roads or through industrial areas, if you’re thinking of skipping a stage it’s the one to skip. I hate walking next to the highways all the noise gets on my nerves if you add to this dull industrial areas with grey fences and chimneys – it’s the worst combination possible.
Things we love to take on the Camino
- Merino Wool Darn Tough Hiker Socks – Merino Wool socks is not a gimmick, my days of walking with cheap socks are over, fewer blisters and smell x100 better, buy proper merino wool sock.
- Good Rain Poncho – Take a proper rain poncho and keep yourself and your bag sort of dry when walking in the rain for hours, makes a huge difference to how much you are enjoying the hike!
- PETZL – TACTIKKA Headlamp – scratching around in your backpack without waking up the whole dorm, good LED headlamp is essential.
- Kindle E-book – Carry whatever books you want, very light, built-in light, the battery lasts a week.
- Neck Pouch/Passport holder – keep cash and passports together
- Go Pro Hero 7 – Like taking videos? Buy the best little action camera on the market today, basically indestructible.
Is there a lot of road walking on the Camino del Norte?
There were some roads and sidewalks on the route like on any other Camino. If I must compare the Northern Way with other Caminos we’ve done – there was less walking on the asphalt or cobblestones than on the Portuguese Way but more than on the Primitivo. First days the route goes most of the time on the path or beach, not many tar roads. Most of the time you get asphalt or roads when you walk in or out of the big cities – usually the least pleasant part of the Camino e.g. walking out of Bilbao, walking from Gijón to Avilés, walking out of Santander. Unfortunately, we can’t compare it with the French Way because we haven’t walked it yet.
Would you recommend to walk the Northern Way for the first Camino de Santiago?
Yes. For many people, we met walking the Camino del Norte was their first Camino ever, they all were fine and finished it the same time as us. I don’t think you need any special Camino experience or you have to walk the French Way first – just follow the tips that experienced pilgrims give and take good care of your feet – you’ll be fine. I wouldn’t recommend walking Via de la Plata as the first Camino because it’s longer, over 1000km, with less infrastructure and longer stages but del Norte is absolutely fine.
Was the Camino del Norte your favorite Camino?
It’s always difficult to compare and to choose the best or the favorite one. We did enjoy this Camino a lot, it’s a great combination of beautiful nature; sea and mountain scenery and cultural experience. Another thing we liked about this Camino is that you walk through four different regions which gives you a great opportunity to compare them, to see the differences between the regions and to admire how scenery, food and even languages change as you go.
Which Camino to choose the French or the Northern Way?
It depends on what you want to see and experience. We haven’t walked the French route because in our opinion it’s too busy and commercial. we always try to go more off the beaten track but it’s us some people like the French Way because it’s very social and fun. On the French Camino, you don’t see the sea at all it goes inland all the way from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago. Camino del Norte follows the coast, it doesn’t mean you see the sea every day for weeks (like some websites say 90% of the time, it’s not true) but you do walk quite a lot along the coast, past unspoiled beaches and breathtaking look-outs all the way till Galicia where you turn away the sea. On the other hand, the French Way goes through more historical towns and cities than del Norte. If you want more social life on the Camino, more infrastructure and more cultural experience do the French route. If you want to go more off the grid, walk along the coast and don’t be overwhelmed by the number of restaurants and bars on the way – the Camino del Norte is a better option.
Recommended books and guidebooks
- Camino de Santiago Maps by John Brierley. Paperback & Kindle.
- The Northern Caminos (Camino del Norte, Camino Primitivo, Camino Ingles and Finisterre) by Dave Whitson. Paperback and Kindle.
- Spain and Portugal map by Michelin. Paperback.
- The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho. Paperback and Kindle.
- Ordinary Magic; Promises I Kept to My Mother Through Life, Illness, and a Very Long Walk on the Camino de Santiago by Cameron Powell. Paperback.
- Walking to the End of the World: A Thousand Miles on the Camino De Santiago. Kindle and Paperback.
- Camino de Santiago: To Walk Far, Carry Less. Paperback and Kindle.
Useful apps for the Northern Way
- Camino Assist Pilgrim Santiago. Free download, available for Android and Apple.
- Buen Camino de Santiago. Free download, available for Android and Apple.
- Wisely + Norte; a Wise Pilgrim guide. Cost US$6, available for Android and Apple. We haven’t used it but I saw many unhappy users complaining about the app, I’d recommend reading the reviews before buying it.
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- Camino de Santiago – all you need to know
- Different routes of the Camino de Santiago
- Complete packing list for the Camino de Santiago
- Camino Portuguese complete guide + Central Route
- Camino Portugues Coastal Route
- Camino Portuguese and Camino de Fatima from Lisbon
- Camino del Norte walking stages
- Camino Primitivo from Oviedo to Santiago
- Via de la Plata detailed guide & itinerary
- Camino Inglés detailed guide & stages
- Camino Finisterre-Muxia guide
- Extraordinary pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago