Best small cities in Northern Spain along the Camino Frances
The best small cities in Northern Spain are those that many people didn’t even know existed. They are tiny, full of history, and welcoming to every visitor. If you’ve completed a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, you will remember these amazing towns. However, these towns are worth a visit even if you aren’t walking the Way.
Who wouldn’t want to take a road trip across Spain? While these cities might be on the Way of St. Frances, you don’t have to be to enjoy them. Bring your camera. You want to capture these historic towns. Trust me they are Instagram worthy. You will only need a hour or two in most of these cozy little towns, but why not get swept away in their unique magic and stay the night?
Best small cities along the Camino de Santiago – By county
Best Small Cities – Navarre
- Borguete – You feel like you’ve been zapped back in time to medieval France when you walk through this tiny mountain town. It could be a set for Beauty and the Beast. Each stone building emits the fragrance of wood smoke. Wood is piled high in organized stacks behind every house. The crisp mountain air invites you to walk through the hills and watch the sheep graze. Burguete is a neat and tidy little town. There are quite a few hotels or pensions to stay in while you explore the beautiful landscape or take a little walk over to Roncesvalles to see the location that Charlemagne was defeated and Roland was killed.
Best Small Cities – La Rioja
- Estella -A gem of a city in the Rioja Region. With a population of about 14,000 people, Estella is a great city in which to spend a summer day. The old town hosts bull runs on festival days and has a great main street to wander through. The main square is home to many festivals throughout the year as well as a weekly market. A quick walk to the old church and you will marvel at the amazing carvings that decorate its exterior. Bonus: Pair Estella with a quick side trip to Villatuerta only 4 kilometers away. There you will gain new appreciation for the advantages of medieval towns building on hilltops.
- Viana – Only 10km away from Logroño, Viana is worth an afternoon visit for its historical past. Viana is the last stop in the county of Navarre to taste locally made Sidra,or hard cider. Spanish Sidra has a pleasingly different taste in comparison to the popular American or British ciders. It becomes less common as you move away from the extreme north of the country. Viana’s cathedral and the ruins of a previous church should be toured as well. The 4,000 people that live in Viana will tell you that the best view is behind the church ruins overlooking the valley.
- Navarrete – The town has a loveliness to it. Extremely small, the town won’t engage you for days, but you can enjoy great conversation with the pilgrims that walk through and stop by the cafe next to the church. With a population of roughly 2900, the cathedral (16th century) is remarkably large and ornate. From the vantage point of the town, look out into the vineyards. Those vineyards are part of what makes La Rioja such a popular wine region.
Best Small Cities – Castilla y Leon
- Ponferrada – Roughly 60,000 people call this Castilla y Leon town home. The Knights Templar castle is the must see item in Ponferrada. It was built in the late twelfth century when the town was given to the templars with the charge of caring for the pilgrims on the Way of St. James. Even though the knights only had control of the castle for 20 or so years, the spirit of their charge remains alive within the city. You can hardly go a block without some reference to the famous Templar cross. When you stop in take a stroll in old town and visit the two main squares, take a seat at one of the many cafes and feel the atmosphere roll over you. There is a trending food scene in Ponferrada. Stop into the La Obera for a late night dinner, snack, or drinks.
- Astorga – Ready for a little history? The top highlight in the city is a castle, the Palacio Episcopal. It was designed by Gaudi and can be toured for under four euros per adult. The castle was intended to be the home for the bishop, but it was never occupied. It is gorgeous. The main square is the perfect location to eat lunch while you reflect on the church ruins on display on the south side of the old town. There are just a little over 10,000 living in Astorga so it is small enough to get through town on foot. Fun Fact: Astorga is also the home of a native people known as the Maragato. Their legacy can be seen in the larger amounts of red headed locals in the area. You can also feast on a Cocido Maragato which is a gigantic plate of meat with a few token garbanzo beans thrown in for variety. The meal is also traditionally served backwards. Main dishes coming first with salads and soups at the end of the meal.
- Castrojeriz – Not many cities can say they have a fortress protecting them from the mountain top, but Castrojeriz can. Nestled on the curve of a mountain with a medieval castle overlooking it, Castrojeriz has multiple churches to visit and some winding streets to explore. Just outside of the city, allow your imagine to sweep you into the past. The impressive remains of a 12th century convent watch out over the road. Try to see how many royal symbols you can find.
Best Small Cities – Galicia
- Portomarín – Entering Galicia finally breaks the monotony of Castilla y Leon’s bread basket fields. Portomarín is a great spot. It sits on one of Spain’s largest (manmade) lakes. Soak in the view and some sun from one of the many restaurants overlooking the water. Take a walk down the steps to the water and dip your toes in the river Miño to cool off. An uphill walk into the main square will show off the town’s historic buildings. Many of these were reconstructed here after having been moved from their original position in the valley that is now under water.
Spending an afternoon in a small town somehow knits my relationship with a country more tightly than a big city. I think it’s because you see life as it happens naturally instead of the life shrouded in congested streets and busy schedules. They also leave your brain open to explore your own thoughts instead of just reacting to constant outside stimulation. I hope that you enjoy these cities as much as I have.
Want to learn more about the Camino de Santiago? Check out the 10 things no one tells you about it here.
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