Photographing Northern Spain
Northern Spain has grown to become one of my favorite locations for landscape photography. Since living there for one year as an exchange student during my last year of university, I’ve been back several times to explore more of its unique and dramatic nature.
In this photography guide to Northern Spain, I’ll share some of my favorite locations in the regions of Asturias, Cantabria and Bizkaia (as well as a couple others).
Why Northern Spain?
During the last year of university, I grabbed the opportunity to do one semester abroad. There were many countries and cities to choose between and, quite honestly, I was extremely unsure where I wanted to go. After some thinking and researching, I decided I wanted to move to Spain but I was stuck between two options; Santander and Barcelona. I knew that Barcelona would be the better option if I mainly cared about weather, festivals and student life but I was afraid that I wouldn’t get to use my camera as much as I wanted. Therefore, I ultimately decided to head to the lesser known Santander where I’d have endless photographic opportunities within a short distance.
I remember moving day; It would be my first real adventure and I was both excited and nervous to head out on this journey by myself. After all, I had never heard about the city before and I knew very little about that region of Spain. I can say now that it was amongst the best decisions of my life.
Enough nostalgia, the real question is why should you visit and photograph Northern Spain?
Most importantly, it’s a paradise for landscape photography! Within a reasonable driving time, you’re able to visit rugged mountains, ancient villages, picturesque cathedrals, dramatic seascapes and unique badlands.
Since this region is still relatively unexplored, you won’t have to worry about standing next to hundreds of other photographers, nearly fighting to reach the good compositions. In fact, it’s rare that I’ve been at a sunrise or sunset spot with anyone else present (though there are more tourists during mid-summer). That being said, more photographers are becoming aware of it so it might not be long until it gets crowded there as well (maybe I shouldn’t post this article after all…)!
What Time of the Year is Best
This is a question I get asked regularly. What time of the year is best to visit Northern Spain? To be honest, all seasons have their charm and opportunities to capture good images. However, if you want to increase your chances to get the most interesting and photogenic weather; May is best.
During summer it’s rarely clouded and all days are warm and sunny, which is rarely the best combination for photography. During winter, you don’t often see the sun and the majority of the days are gray and rainy, which isn’t the best combination either.
The weather starts transitioning in May and it’s during this period that you normally get the most interesting conditions. Don’t be surprised if you have an entire week of rain or only sun, though, as the weather in this region is often unpredictable.
The Regions of Northern Spain
Cantabria, Asturias, Bizkaia and Navarra are the regions I’ll introduce to you in this guide. Galicia is also a beautiful region but I haven’t gotten to explore much of it yet, so I’ll only mention a few spots from there (Galicia is still rather unknown to photographers and despite having less obvious photography locations, it doesn’t lack any).
Driving from Ribadeo, the border town of Galicia, and all the way to San Sebastian in the Basque Country takes no more than 5 hours. Between these cities, you cross both Asturias and Cantabria (plus Galicia where you start and Bizkaia where you end) and it’s on this stretch that you’ll find dozens of picture-perfect places to visit.
If you want to drive via the mountains and certain areas along the coast, the trip will be much longer than 5 hours. However, a one-week photography trip along this road will give you a lot of time to see all the highlights and a little more.
Best Photography Spots in Cantabria
Since Santander is the town I used to live in, this is the perfect place to begin this photography guide of Northern Spain. Santander is the capital city of Cantabria and has a population of 175,000. Most landscape photographers, myself included, tend to stay away from the larger cities but Santander is a place with many gems within a short distance.
Faro de Cabo Mayor, Santander
Santander’s beautiful lighthouse, Faro de Cabo Mayor, is one of my favorite places to spend a sunrise in the town. Being only a 5-minute drive from downtown and even less from the popular Sardinero Beach, this is an easy-to-reach location. There’s also a cafeteria right next to the lighthouse where you can enjoy a tortilla and something to drink (although it’s most likely closed if you’re shooting sunrise).
Playa de Sardinero, Santander
Santander is known for its beautiful Sardinero Beach. Even though it’s not a well-known tourist destination for foreigners, it’s a popular destination amongst the Spanish. There are large daytime crowds in summertime so I strongly recommend a sunrise or sunset visit if you want to photograph the beach at that time of year.
If time allows, spend a couple hours walking along the beach and enjoying the scenery. There are plenty of cafeterias, restaurants and ice cream shops along the boardwalk and it’s well worth a visit.
Liencres is a small village less than 10 kilometers out of Santander. Despite being small, it’s packed with some of northern Spain’s most popular beaches: Playa del Portio, Playa de la Arnia and Playa de Valdearenas.
While all of them are photogenic in more or less any light, I prefer to shoot Playa del Portio for sunset and Playa de la Arnia for sunrise. Playa de Valdearenas works well in both cases but I enjoy visiting it during a foggy or moody day as it has a beautiful forest right next to it (be aware of the nudists, though!!)
The small village of Mioño is a place that’s less common for photographers to visit. Right outside the village, there’s an old bridge once used to load large boats that gathered materials from the mines. While the mines aren’t active anymore and the bridge is out of use, it’s a fascinating scene.
Where to Stay in Cantabria
Cantabria is a rather small region and traveling between locations doesn’t take a lot of time. Therefore, I highly recommend spending at least one night at a hotel in Santander. From there, it’s only a 15-minute drive to Liencres, 5 minutes to Faro de Cabo Mayor (depending on where in the town you’re staying) and about 40 minutes to Mioño.
Personally, I prefer staying in the Sardinero area (close to the beach). From there, you can walk along the boardwalk and discover some beautiful places for photography along the way.
If you’re also interested in seeing some cultural sights, make sure to visit the historic village Sanitllana del Mar just 20 minutes out of Santander. Since you don’t need a lot of time to explore it (unless you want to visit museums and cafeterias), you can plan a quick visit there before catching the sunset at Liencres.
Best Photography Spots in Asturias
Asturias is home to some of the most iconic locations in Northern Spain. While it’s almost double the size of Cantabria, it’s still relatively easy to travel within and you’re able to have one base to return to after a day of shooting (though I might recommend spending one night by the coast and one by the mountains; I’ll come back to this shortly).
The beach of Pendueles is one of those places you’ll normally have completely to yourself. What fascinates me with this place is just how much the beach changes between high tide and low tide. I haven’t quite figured out when I like it most but I’ve gotten the most interesting images when the tide is low but rising.
It can be tricky to find the beach as the GPS will take you through some extremely narrow roads in the village. You’ll also drive about 2-300 meters on an unpaved, bumpy road before you get there. When you reach the small parking a beautiful scene is revealed in front of you.
Playa de Silencio
Let’s head towards some beaches now that we’re back down from the mountains. Playa de Silencio is one of my favorite beaches in this region (it’s hard to choose, though, trust me!). It offers a great variety of views from both up on the narrow ridge and down by the ocean.
Be careful if you choose to walk along the narrow ridge. It seems that the mud is tumbling down from time to time and I’ve seen holes appear in the path since the first time I visited. It’s a very fragile landscape and a fall can be lethal.
Although the most well-known photography locations in Northern Spain are located along the coast, heading up to the mountains will add a great contrast to the scenery you explore. Covadonga is a tiny village at the foot of Picos de Europa, one of Europe’s most impressive mountain ranges. In this village, lies a beautiful Cathedral/Sanctuary. During a gray and foggy day, you can often see its towers break through the low clouds making it picture-perfect.
By following the road past the village and up to the mountains, you’ll eventually end up at Los Lagos. Be aware that you’re not able to drive up to the mountains during high-season (July-September); you’ll have to take a tourist bus up and down.
Playa de Campiecho
Of all the beaches in Asturias, Playa de Campiecho is the most unique. The beach itself is nothing spectacular (it’s pretty although it doesn’t stick out compared to the others) but during low tide, you’re able to walk around a cliff and enter a small cave. Inside, you’ve got a unique view of the iconic Campiecho rock.
I recommend that you pay attention to the tide as you don’t want to get stuck here when the waves start rushing in. I’ve been carried away photographing this place myself and suddenly realized that the tide had come so far in that I wasn’t able to get back to the beach without getting wet. Luckily, it was a calm day and I didn’t have any worse trouble.
Where to Stay in Asturias
As I mentioned at the beginning of this section, Asturias is almost double the size of Cantabria. Playa de Silencio is roughly 2.5 hours from Santander, which is a bit too far to travel back and forth if you choose to visit for sunrise or sunset. Pendueles, on the other hand, is only 55 minutes from Santander and 1.5 hours away from Playa de Silencio.
When photographing Playa de Silencio, Playa de Campiecho and other places in that area, I normally stay in the small fishing village Cudillero. This has become one of my favorite small villages in northern Spain as it has a charm I haven’t seen many other places.
When visiting Covadonga and the Picos de Europa, Cudillero is a bit too far away (it’s just as easy to travel from Santander in that case). I’ve only spent a night at a hotel a few times when in the mountains. These times I normally search for something that’s within 20-30 minutes driving of Covadonga (though there are hotels closer as well).
If you’re not going further than Pendueles I simply recommend staying at your hotel in Santander.
Best Photography Spots in Bizkaia
Bizkaia (Basque Country) is the last region I’ll introduce you to in this guide. An important thing to know is that the language changes as you enter this region. While the locals still speak and understand Spanish, their main language is Basque. However, all signs are normally in both Spanish and Basque so it won’t be more challenging to travel in this region.
The coast of Bizkaia is less explored than those of Cantabria and Asturias but the main locations do get a little more crowded at times. Unlike some of the other spots in Northern Spain, the beaches here change drastically from high tide and low tide. In fact, it changes so much that at the wrong time of day (when depends on each individual beach), they’re not worth visiting.
Playa de Zumaia
Playa de Zumaia (also known as Itzurun) is one of those gems you accidentally stumble upon. While it is a well-known beach it was almost accidental that I found this place the first time. Located only a few minutes walk from the center of Zumaia, this beach easily steps up to be one of the most photogenic places in the Basque Country.
The beach is known for its incredible flysch formation (a sedimentary rock formed by the alternate deposition of thin layers of silt and sandstone, found near shorelines that were rapidly experiencing changes in sea level). The best images are taken as the tide comes in (you get more foreground action) but it’s also quite photogenic when the conditions are calmer.
Make sure that you arrive a little before sunset (or have some spare time after sunrise) to visit the church located on top of a cliff next to the beach. This is also a good spot to take some images!
Playa de Barrika
While it’s by far the most known and photographed beach in the Basque Country (if not all of Northern Spain), you have to consider the tide when visiting Playa de Barrika. The rock is famous for its dragon’s tail-like rock formations and the opportunities to find good compositions seem almost endless. However, during high tide, the rocks are completely covered by water and the beach transforms into a rather boring one.
It’s also worth mentioning that the beach is very popular and during high season it can get extremely crowded, so make sure you arrive early to find a good composition.
The most interesting compositions are during sunsets when the tide is medium/low but rising. This leads to water rushing through the rock formations, which gives a more dynamic image.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
It might not be the easiest location to pronounce but San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is by far my favorite location in this region. It’s unlike any other place I’ve seen and you’re guaranteed to get an interesting image regardless of the conditions.
You’re not able to drive all the way to the beach so you need to expect to spend about 20 minutes walking to reach the location (depending on your physical condition). Keep in mind that it’s only downhill to the beach, which means that it’s all uphill back to the parking lot.
During low tide, you’re also able to explore this unique location from a lower vantage point to find interesting and unique compositions.
Where to Stay in Bizkaia
Even though most of the spots in the Basque Country are within a couple of hours drive from Santander, I would consider spending a night in Bilbao anyway. This is a large town known for its great food and lively evenings. You might not need to spend the night here but I recommend it as you get to see another town and its culture.
I can’t end this guide without mentioning a few extra spots in Northern Spain. None of them are in Asturias, Bizkaia or Cantabria but they’re still within a reasonable amount of driving from any of these regions.
Bardenas Reales in Navarra is unlike any of the other places you’ll visit in northern Spain. The badlands are unique, fascinating and extremely picturesque.
Faro de Illa Pancha & Praia de Catedrais are two beautiful locations located at the border between Asturias and Galicia. Praia de Catedrais can get crowded during a warm summer day but it’s a beach well worth visiting and photographing.
Have you ever been to northern Spain? If so, share a picture of your favorite location in the comments below!