Take in the very best of northern Spain on this no-fly holiday, which combines overnight ferry crossings from the UK to Bilbao with a road trip to remember. It all begins with the modernist delights of the world-famous Guggenheim Museum, before you strike out into the countryside to track down fine wines in Rioja and dine in atmospheric pintxo bars known only by the locals. You’ll also pause to visit grand Gothic cathedrals and soak up the sunshine on the beaches of sophisticated San Sebastián. To make your holiday that bit more special, our destination specialists have picked out their favourite Parador accommodation, ranging from 18th-century palaces to converted castles.
As this is one of our recommended no-fly itineraries, you’ll start with a trip down to Portsmouth on England's south coast to board the overnight ferry to Bilbao.
Arrive in the capital of the Basque Country feeling relaxed and refreshed after your overnight sailing. Then, having collected your hire car, it’s time to make the short drive to your city-centre hotel, conveniently located just across the road from the city’s most famous attraction ¬– the world-famous Guggenheim Museum. This Frank Gehry-designed masterpiece is home to upwards of 300 pieces of contemporary art, from early 20th-century Cubism, right through to the abstract and avant-garde. Perhaps take in its highlights before enjoying one of the city’s other staples – its food scene. Expect everything from Michelin-starred fine dining to locals-favourite pintxo bars.
Stay: Grand Hotel Domine
Take the chance to explore Bilbao some more, perhaps swapping its contemporary treats for the winding alleys of its old quarter. And, aside from the Guggenheim, the city is also host to some superb museums, including the excellent Arkeologi Museo, with its Basque carvings and Middle-Age treasures. Then, in the afternoon, it’s time to hit the road, making the scenic drive south to Santo Domingo in the northern Rioja region. Here, you’ll check into your historic parador hotel, before spending a delightful afternoon either wandering the city’s medieval centre or heading out to explore the surrounding vineyards.
Stay: Parador de Santa Domingo de la Calzada
Today’s journey sees you into the wine-soaked heart of the Rioja region and the charming town of Calahorra. With so many of Spain’s finest estates right on your doorstep, you’d be forgiven for spending the whole day tasting your way through the various varietals. But, if you’ve time, the town itself is equally enchanting, with its mix of Roman ruins and 15th-century Gothic cathedral. Your accommodation for the night is the town’s historic parador, ideally situated right in the centre of town.
Stay: Parador de Calahorra
After a leisurely breakfast, drive the hour-long scenic route to Olite, where you’ll check into a grand Gothic castle complete with colourful stained-glass windows. It’s the perfect base from which to explore Olite's Romanesque churches, the Square of Carlos III and the sumptuously carved Palace of the Kings of Navarre. Also, don’t miss the excellent Navarre Museum of Wine and Vineyards for an insight into Rioja's wine-making traditions.
Stay: Parador de Olite
Drive north to Pamplona, the capital of the Navarra province. Perhaps best known for its infamous Running of the Bulls festival, it’s a town whose quiet charms belie the reputation of one of Spain’s most riotous events. Of course, if you’d like to time your visit with the festival, our specialists can help with the arrangements. You will, however, need to book well in advance. Be sure to pause for lunch at one of the tapas bars dotted among the city's shady plazas, before taking a walk to the grand cathedral or one of its many verdant parks. Tonight, you’ll stay in a converted 18th-century palace overlooking Consejo Square.
Stay: Hotel Palacio Guendulain
Perhaps take a final wander through Pamplona’s old town before taking to the road once more for the drive to San Sebastián on the Bay of Biscay. Its golden beaches and cobblestone streets make for a truly delightful ending to your adventure. Having checked into your contemporary hotel, take the chance to explore the city’s acclaimed culinary scene. Indeed, San Saebastián is host to no fewer than three of Spain's three-star Michelin restaurants. Then, there’s the ever-so-colourful old town, where you’ll find avenues lined with architectural gems from the Belle Époque. Round off your day, and indeed your holiday, with a trip to the beach for sunset and a final glass or two of fine, Spanish wine.
Stay: NH Collection San Sebastián Aránzuzu
Your final drive sees you back to Bilbao via the town of Gernika, whose tragic Civil War past inspired one of Picasso's most famous paintings. Alternatively, pause for lunch at one of the region’s many idyllic seaside towns – Leikeito is firm favourite for its gorgeous beach and welcoming cafés. On your return to Bilbao, drop off your car and board the overnight ferry to the UK, arriving home on day nine.
"While so many Brits flock to Spain's islands and sun-kissed south coast, I've always been drawn to the unique Basque culture, fine wines and superb food of the country's north. This no-fly holiday visits some of my favourite locations, including Bilbao, San Sebastián and the wonderfully scenic Rioja wine region. Be sure to visit the excellent López de Heredia Viña Tondonia estate, which scored a top-three spot in 2019's Top 50 World's Best Vineyards."
Low Season from: £1,675 pp
High Season from: £1,870 pp