The Northern Way of St.James is a spectacular combination of beautiful coastline passing beaches and fishermen’s 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, the Northern Way is a great alternative to the popular French Camino de Santiago.
The Northern Way of St.James route overview
- The Northern Camino is one of the pilgrimage routes of the Camino de Santiago.
- Total distance – 835 km.
- Starting point – Irún, a town in the Basque Country on the border with France.
- Finishing point – Santiago de Compostela.
- Accommodation – public & private albergues, hostels, hotels.
- Average cost – 30 Euro per person per day.
- The route is marked with yellow arrows and shells.
- The Camino can be walked, cycled, or done on a horse.
- The Northern Way crosses four Spanish regions: the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia.
For a detailed day-by-day itinerary that includes walking stages, distances, places to stay, highlights, and challenges of the Camino check out our Camino del Norte walking stages post.
You can download our free PDF files with walking stages and places to stay on the Northern Way of St.James.
Practical info for planning the Camino
Before flying to Spain make sure you know the current COVID travel rules and requirements. You can find them online on the official website. I recommend a couple of days before your flight confirming the rules with your airline to make sure you’re compliant to enter Spain.
Every pilgrim needs a Credential. You can walk the Camino without it but you won’t be able to stay in public albergues and won’t get a Compostela certificate at the end of your walk. You can get it from a Camino de Santiago office in your country or buy it on arrival. Usually, albergues, information offices, and some churches along the route sell them.
Every time you stay at an albergue or a hotel you get a stamp. Keep in mind that in order to get your Compostela for the last 100 km to Santiago you need two stamps per day. One stamp you can get at a place you stay and one at a bar or a restaurant along the route. Don’t lose your Credential if you do it’s basically impossible to recover it.
At the end of the Camino at the Pilgrim’s Reception Office in Santiago, you can get the Compostela. It’s a free certificate with your name and the name of the Camino you’ve completed.
There is another certificate that you can get for finishing the Camino – the Certificate of Distance. It costs 3 Euro. This Certificate contains more details: your name, the name of the Camino you’ve completed, the total distance, the starting point, starting, and finishing dates, etc. At the Pilgrim’s Office, you can buy a Tubo (cardboard tube) for 2 Euro to put your Compostela and Certificate in for extra protection.
The Northern Camino route is marked 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. Many are closed at lunchtime for a couple of hours as well. It’s not a problem in big cities there is always something open but in small towns, you might have to wait for an hour or so. Luckily restaurants and bars are open 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 open 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 of local phone calls, and many SMS for 15 Euro. It worked well, we used it a lot for uploading photos and videos, Whatsapp, etc. and it was more than enough.
We drank tap water everywhere on the Northern Camino (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 you have time I’d suggest resting for a couple of days after completing the Northern Camino there are many great things to do in Santiago de Compostela.
Luggage transfer service on the Northern Camino
If you don’t want to walk with a heavy backpack you can use a luggage transfer service. In this case, you don’t have to worry about packing your backpack light you can bring pretty much anything you want. The Spanish post office Correos offers luggage transfer service on the Northern Way of St.James.
It costs between 6 and 7 Euro per backpack per stage, depending on the distance. It works very easily, you leave your backpack in the morning at the reception. The company picks it up and delivers it to your next accommodation place. By the time you arrive your backpack will be there. You can arrange the delivery in advance or make up your mind once you start walking.
If you decide to use the service it’s important to remember that public albergues don’t usually allow the delivery, they don’t accept backpacks. The main reason is that you can’t book a bed in a public albergue it works on a first-come, first-served basis. Even if your backpack is delivered to its door it won’t guarantee you a spot in the albergue until you arrive there. Delivery is usually arranged between private albergues and hotels, these can be booked in advance.
Where to start walking the Northern Way of St.James?
Many people would like to walk the Northern Camino but they don’t have a 30-35-day holiday to complete the entire route. Irún is the official starting point of the Northern Camino but you can start walking pretty much anywhere along the trail. To walk at least the last 100 km to Santiago is the required minimum for getting a Compostela certificate. Other than that there are no rules or requirements. You can start walking somewhere closer to Santiago or start in Irún and skip some parts by taking a bus.
The most popular starting points of the Northern Camino
|Name of the place||Distance to Santiago|
|San Sebastian||808 km|
If you’d like to walk the entire route but don’t have enough time to do it at once you can break it down into several parts and walk it over a couple of years, every time you have a chance. Many Spanish people walk it this way.
How to combine the Northern Way with another Camino Route?
It’s possible to combine the Northern Way with the Camino Primitivo (the Original Way), the Camino Finisterre, and the French Way. The first two combinations are quite popular, the last one with the Camino Frances is rarely done.
Northern Camino + Camino Primitivo
- Total distance – 824 km
- The time required – 30-34 days
It’s possible to switch halfway from the Northern Way to the Camino Primitivo and continue to Santiago de Compostela following the Original Way. The route split is about 26 km before Gijón, at Villaviciosa. The right route continues along the coast to Gijón, the left route turns inland towards Oviedo where it joins with the Primitivo. It is 43 km between Villaviciosa and Oviedo, 2 walking days. From Oviedo, it’s another 321 km to Santiago.
Northern Camino + Camino Finisterre
- Total distance – 924 km
- The time required – 34-38 days
It’s possible to combine the Northern Camino with the Camino Finisterre-Muxia, after arriving in Santiago you can continue walking to Cape Finisterre, it’s another 89 km, 3-4 walking days. From Finisterre, you can walk to Muxia, which is 29 km away. Many pilgrims after finishing one of the longer Camino routes continue walking to Finisterre.
Northern Way + Camino Frances
- Total distance – 944 km
- The time required – 35-40 days
The first part is the same as for the Camino Primitivo from Villaviciosa walk to Oviedo. From Oviedo continue walking to Leon following the Camino de Salvador, a 120-kilometer Camino route that connects the Camino Frances with the Primitivo. From León continue on the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela, 319 km.
Travel insurance for the Camino. Walking like any other activity involves risks of getting an injury or losing valuables. It’s always recommended to have Camino travel insurance when you travel abroad. The Northern Camino is not a high altitude hike through remote areas it’s still a physically challenging experience and light injuries like blisters or shin splints are quite common. Always make sure you will be able to get medical assistance any time you need it. It makes the Camino less stressful if you know that you’re covered in case of any unpredictable emergencies. Enjoy the walk and let your insurance company worry about you.
The 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.
The cost of walking the Northern Camino de Santiago
The Basque country is one of the most expensive Spanish provinces, especially the touristy coastal part. Usually being a pilgrim is cheaper than being an ordinary tourist at least accommodation costs you less because you can stay in albergues. In many places on the Northern Way in the Basque Country public albergues are open only during the high season; July and August. Out of these two months, pilgrims have no other options than staying in hostels or private albergues, the price for those is between 15 and 20 Euro pp. Some albergues in the Basque Country are open longer season between April and September/October.
As of April 2022, many public albergues on the Norther Way are closed. Some due to the COVID, some for renovations.
Hotels and pensions can be a good alternative to stay off-season when prices are lower. The price for a double room with a private bathroom is between 40 and 50 Euro. In the summer months, this type of accommodation will be more expensive, between 50-70 Euro, and must be booked in advance, especially in places like San Sebastián and other beach towns.
Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia are at the same price level. The public albergues here are open longer, and some of them stay open all year. It significantly reduces the cost if you walk offseason. Public albergues are 6-8 Euro, private cost between 12 and 14 Euro, there are some private albergues for donations.
For a private double room (with bathroom) in these three 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 room we got was in Asturias for 25 Euro with a private bathroom. The most expensive in Gijón for 40 Euro but it was a great place. In the high season (July-August) prepare to pay more for hotels.
Food in the Basque country is delicious; pintxos with seafood, fish, and vegetables. The region is known as one of the world’s best destinations for food lovers. At the beginning of the trip, you don’t feel like spending a lot of money on food but pintxos and seafood dishes in the Basque Country are a must-try. The other three provinces have delicious food as well with a great variety of fish, seafood, meat, and vegetables.
To eat out costs more or less the same everywhere on the Northern Camino. Menu del Día (set lunch) is between 10 and 15 Euro, depending on the 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 – 7 Euro. Dinner at a restaurant is 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 6-8 Euro pp. for municipal albergues; between 12-14 Euro (sometimes 20 Euro) pp. for private albergues and hostels. Hotels (a double room) from 25 Euro (the cheapest), 30-35 Euro average, in some places 50+ Euro.
- Eating out – average 12 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 communal dinner).
- Shopping – between 6 and 10 Euro pp. per day.
- Laundry – most places charge 2-3 Euro for washing and the same for drying.
- Luggage transfer – 6-7 Euro per backpack per stage.
Our budget breakdown for the Northern Way
For 2 people, 30 days
- Accommodation – 300 Euro or 10 Euro per person per day. If you walk in the peak season (July, August) when all the public albergues are open you can lower the cost down to 200 Euro pp. (about 7 Euro per night on 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 sometimes ate Menu del Dia. As I already mentioned we walked offseason and many public albergues were closed which 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 about 20 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.
More details on the cost of the Camino can be found in our The cost of walking the Camino de Santiago – a detailed breakdown post.
What to pack for the pilgrimage
We’ve walked seven different Camino de Santiago routes in different seasons and in all kinds of weather. Here are some items we always pack on the Camino regardless of what route we walk and what month.
- Merino Wool Darn Tough Hiker Socks – Merino Wool socks are not a gimmick, my days of walking with cheap socks are over, fewer blisters and smell x100 better, buy proper merino wool socks.
- 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!
- Headlamp – you’ll need one to use in a dorm if you want to read or need to find something in your backpack when the light is off.
- 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
- GoPro Hero8 is a great thing to have if you want to make a video about your Camino. It’s very small and light, waterproof, easy to use, and the quality of the footage is amazing.
We have a detailed Camino de Santiago packing post where you can find the complete list of items recommended to take on the Camino for men and women for different seasons.
Books & guidebooks for the Northern Way
- Camino del Norte and Camino Primitivo: To Santiago De Compostela and Finisterre from Irun or Oviedo (Cicerone Guides). Kindle & paperback, 2019
- Camino del Norte: Irún to Santiago along Spain’s Northern Coast (Village to Village Map Guide). Kindle & paperback, 2019
- Camino de Santiago: To Walk Far, Carry Less by Jean-Christie Ashmore. 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 by Beth Jusino. Kindle and Paperback.
Useful Camino apps
- 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. It 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.
Accommodation on the Camino
The Camino has a wide network of albergues – special hostels for pilgrims. Albergues can be public, run by a local municipality, and private, run by a person or a company. Public (municipal) albergues are exclusively for pilgrims with the Credential walking the Camino. Public albergues are the cheapest accommodation option on the Northern Way. They cost between 6 and 8 Euros per person.
Private albergues usually allow tourists but most of the time people staying there are pilgrims. A bed in a private albergues costs 12-14 Euro. Both public and private albergues have dormitory rooms with several beds and shared facilities. Private albergues usually have better facilities than public ones.
|Features||Public albergues||Private albergues|
|Can be booked||no||yes|
|Only for pilgrims||yes||no|
|Need a Credential to stay||yes||no|
|Allow luggage delivery||no||yes|
|Price||6-8 Euro||12-14 Euro|
Many municipal and private albergues on the Northern Way 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 in is open or not.
Most places along the Camino have hotels or guesthouses. These are more expensive but much more comfortable. If you can afford it I’d recommend from time to time staying in a private room. It’s nice to have some privacy and be able to rest well without being disturbed. We usually stay one or two nights a week in a private room.
We haven’t seen many campsites on the Northern Camino there are some but most of them are off the route. We met a couple of people carrying a tent on the route but they ended up staying in public albergues instead of wild camping.
Social life on the Northern 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 with for dinner or drinks. 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 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. 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 at a pace that is comfortable for you.
Health tips for long-distance walking
If you’re not used to walking and don’t exercise on a regular basis it’s recommended to train for the Camino de Santiago in order to get into better walking shape. Once you start walking it’s important to take good care of your body from the very first day. Don’t start the Norther Way of St.James by walking long distances even if you’re a relatively fit person. Walking with a heavy backpack for many days is quite different from going for an hour’s run every evening. Let your body adjust to the new rhythm, start with 20-25 km days, and after a week or so if you feel good you can increase your daily distance to 30 km. For some people, it’s better to start even slower 15-20 km a day.
Make sure to have the right shoes and socks and take care of your feet, the main problem on the Northern Camino is blisters, which 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.
The highlights of the Northern Camino
Out of four regions we walked through on the Northern Way the Basque Country and Cantabria were our favorites. There is so much to admire here: beautiful beaches, mountain ranges, dramatic cliffs, stunning lookouts, delicious food, and great wine. If you have some extra time and money I’d recommend staying longer in Basque Country. Other regions are great and beautiful as well. The amazing 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 & town
San Sebastián/Donostia, the Basque Country
Donostia as it’s called in Euskera (the language of the Basque country) is one of the highlights of the Northern Camino and definitely the best and the most beautiful city on the route. San Sebastian was the only big city on the Northern Way 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 understand that 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 staying 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.
- Beaches are 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 (the Camino goes along both beaches).
- The Old Town of San Sebastián – narrow cobblestone streets, old massive houses, churches, monuments.
- Mount Urgull is a green hill squeezed between the sea and the city. It offers amazing views over San Sebastian and its beaches.
- Mount Igeldo – the opposite of 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. There are many great tours and activities in San Sebastian:
- San Sebastian: Boat Tour with Stop at Santa Clara
- San Sebastian: Hondarribia, San Pedro, and San Juan Tour
- San Sebastian: Gourmet Pintxo Tour
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.
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. The small town of Guernica became a prime target of Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War because it was considered to be one of the centers of the Republican resistance and an important place for the Basque culture.
On Monday afternoon of 26th April 1937 German and Italian aviation repeatedly bombed the town, and in a couple of hours, it was turned into ruins. Famous Spanish artist Picasso painted one of his best and most emotional paintings 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.
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 a whole new modern neighborhood was built in the place of the 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) 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 at local bars with sightseeing.
- 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. 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 explore the city. There are many interesting tours:
- Bilbao: Portugalete, Getxo, & Santurtzi Panoramic Boat Tour
- Bilbao: 3-Hour Guided Bike Tour
- From Bilbao: Half or Full-Day Game of Thrones Guided Tour
- Bilbao: Guggenheim Guided Tour with Skip-the-Line
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’s 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.
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 open all year, the price is 5 Euro pp.
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.
A nice city with great beaches, a beautiful historical center and waterfront, and 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.
Not to miss in Santander
- Beaches – there are several in and around the city if you’re lucky to be here in summer you might want to stay longer.
- 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 nights.
- 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.
- Modern Santander. The Centro Botín, a museum of contemporary art, and the Maritime Museum of Cantabria are some of the best modern buildings in the city.
Tours and activities in Santander
- Santander: 1-Hour City Cruise Around the Bay
- Santander: Picos, Santo Toribio Monastery and Potes Day Tour
- From Santander: 4.5-Hour Cabarceno Natural Park Tour
For good tapas, we can recommend Taberna Al Punto, they have a long tapa menu (all sorts of tapas; fish, seafood, meat, chicken, vegetarian), wine, and beer.
If you want to try good churros with chocolate (usually for breakfast) go to Chocolateria Aliva. It’s a very simple old-style place with tasty crispy churros and good not too sweet real hot chocolate.
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, and 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 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 here that is open all year round.
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.
The highlights of Comillas
- the Pontifical University of Comillas is an impressive building on the top of the mountain, you won’t miss it, it looks stunning at the sunset.
- El Capricho is an eclectic palace built by famous Catalán architect Antoni Gaudi.
- Sobrellano palace, a building next to El Capricho, only guided visits allowed.
- Puerta de los Pájaros or the Birds’ Gate
- Fuente de Tres Caños (fountain)
- Comillas Beach and the harbor
- Angel Exterminador is one of the symbols of the town.
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
- Puerto Chico beach – a tiny beach at the entrance to the town
- Playa del Sablón
- Paseo de San Pedro offers beautiful views over the beach and the Old Town.
- “The most beautiful bench in the world”, a bench with a great view of the ocean. The best time to go there is just before the sunset
- El Fuerte de Llanes (fort)
- Ermita Virgen de la Guía (church)
- the Lighthouse
- the Cubos de la Memoria (grey cement blocks at the harbor that were painted by a Spanish artist).
The center of Gijón is nice with a typical Old Town, Promenade, the Cathedral, many restaurants, and several beaches. The Camino goes through the city almost all the way along the coast, through the historical center even if you don’t stay here for an extra day you’ll 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.
- 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 Old Town of Gijón is located between two beaches; San Lorenzo and Poniente. The highlights are the Old Roman Baths – Termas Romanas de Campo Valdés; the Plaza Mayor – a beautiful square similar to the Plaza Mayor in Madrid just smaller.
Best albergues on the Northern Camino de Santiago
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.
Monasterio de Zenarruza, the Basque Country
The location of the monastery is fantastic – at the top of the hill with 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.
Albergue La Cabaña del Abuelo Peuto (private), Güemes, Cantabria
This albergue is a special experience and a must-stop on the Northern Way, 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, a 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 is 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.
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 atmospherea. 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 and cook together. The albergue has good facilities; the kitchen with all you need for cooking, wi-fi, hot water, heating, washing machine, blankets, etc.
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 Northern Camino.
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.
Our favorite walking 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 the Northern Way. 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 is 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’s side as well.
Mondoñedo to Gontán (Galicia) – unlike most of the previous walking stages on the Norther Way this one has nothing to do with the sea, only mountains, and forest. It is beautiful and remote, there is quite an uphill walk on the route try still to enjoy the scenery.
Worst walking day on the Northern Way
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 these dull industrial areas with grey fences and chimneys – it’s the worst combination.
Northern Camino FAQ
Is there a lot of road walking on the Northern Way of St.James?
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 asphalt or cobblestones than on the Portuguese Way but more than on the Primitivo. For the first couple of days, the route goes most of the time on the path or beach, with not many 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.
Would you recommend walking the Northern Way for the first Camino de Santiago?
Yes. For many people, we met walking the Northern Camino was their first Camino ever, they all were fine and finished it at 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 the Via de la Plata as the first Camino because it’s longer, over 1000 km, with less infrastructure and longer stages but del Norte is absolutely fine.
Was the Northern Camino your favorite route?
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, see the differences between the regions, and admire how the 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. On the French Camino, you don’t see the sea the route goes inland all the way from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela. The Northern Way follows the coast, it doesn’t mean you see the sea every day for weeks but you do walk quite a lot next to the ocean, past unspoiled beaches, and breathtaking look-outs.
On the other hand, the French Way has more infrastructure and many more public albergues than the Northern Way which makes the walk cheaper. In general, the Northern coast of Spain is more touristy and as a result more expensive than the inland regions. After walking both routes I can say that the Northern Way definitely is more expensive than the Camino Frances but the scenery is more impressive on this route.
You can find more answers to your questions in our Camino de Santiago FAQ post.
The Northern Way of St.James planning resources
- Get useful tips for planning the pilgrimage | The best Camino de Santiago tips |
- Continue your journey on the Camino to “the end of the world” | Camino Finisterre-Muxía guide |
- Find out which churches along the Northern Camino offer Masses | Mass on the Way of St.James |
- Learn about the history of the Way of St.James | History of the Camino de Santiago |
- Must-try food in the Basque Country | Basque Country Cuisine |
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