Asturias and Cantabria in northern Spain are two of the country’s least-visited areas, which proved a massive draw when Rough Guides author and photographer Marta Bescos was planning her summer holiday in the time of Covid-19. The regions are blessed with some truly spectacular scenery – gorgeous national parks and soaring mountain peaks, sweeping coastal views and charming settlements – making them real unsung gems. Marta spent a full week exploring the region; below, she describes her day-by-day itinerary, so you can follow the same route – when it is safe to do so of course. Note that the UK government is currently advising against all non-essential travel to Spain; Marta lives in Spain and travelled to the region several weeks ago.
I count myself lucky to live in Spain. It’s one of the most desirable countries in the world for a holiday, but this summer I found myself wondering: where would be safe for a trip during Covid-19? In the end, my partner and I settled on a wonderful road trip in Cantabria and Asturias, Northern Spain. Aside from their staggering natural beauty, these two regions had a couple of extra draws: mild temperatures and fewer Covid cases than the rest of Spain. Stretching along the Atlantic coast, both regions possess more than just rugged coastlines and beautiful sandy beaches. There’s lush green countryside and glorious mountainous peaks, too, as well as beautiful towns and charming villages.
Landscape of Covadonga Lakes (Lagos de Covadonga) in Asturias, Spain © Fominayaphoto/Shutterstock
We arrived at the picturesque small village of Vada. Street cats and dogs welcomed us to our Airbnb, just 10km (15min drive) away from Potes. Potes is a magical medieval town: the capital of the Comarca of Liébana, it is nestled between the high mountains of the famous Picos de Europa. If a hotel is more your bag, book a room with a view at La Casa de las Arcas – a restored 17th-century inn.
In Potes, we had a stroll around the old quarter, with its characteristic stone bridges – including San Cayetano Bridge – and its historic monuments such as the Torre del Infantado, both built the 15th century. The Barrio de la Solana is one of the most iconic neighbourhoods in Potes, as well as being my favourite. We had couple of beers at La Reunión and a delicious dinner at La Soldrería.
Llanes marina © Marta Bescos
We woke up early on Day 2 to visit Fuente Dé. The misty morning conditions forced us to abandon the idea of taking the Fuente Dé cable car – which has stunning views (be sure to check the cable car webcam for conditions before you travel to avoid disappointment). Instead, we took the path through the lush forests of beech and oaks that carpet the southern slope of Pico de Valdecoro, walked along the Route Ports of Áliva, and then whiled away our time taking pictures of Fuente Dé. It took us around 4 hours to reach the cable-car station up in the mountains. After stopping at Hotel de Oso for a superb traditional cocido lebaniego (a local stew) we discovered Mogrovejo – a hidden gem in the mountains. Mogrovejo is protected by the impressive Andara mountain range and the foothills of the Picos de Europa. This beautiful village of around forty inhabitants has the unusual claim to fame of being used as a film location for a Heidi movie. It is also a recognizable Instagram spot both for its beauty and its artistic and cultural heritage.
On our way back to the Airbnb we made our last stop for the day at Tudes. We walked along one of the stages of the “Camino Lebaniego” – a pilgrim way akin to the Camino de Santiago (our route being less famous, though it’s very well known in Cantabria). The Camino Lebaniego starts at San Vicente de la Barquera.
While en-route, be sure to stop at Taberna del Inglés for a snack. From outside the tavern – pick a seat on the terrace – you can enjoy the gorgeous panoramas, especially on clear summer days. To complete your experience in Cantabria, specifically in Tudes, plump to spend the night at La Casa de las Chimeneas, a set of cosy, independent accommodations with superlative views.
Fuente Dé cable car © somkhana/Shutterstock
Venturing beyond the popular package-holiday resorts, we arrived at the small beach of Playa de Andrín. After being up in the mountains, we were craving the seaside, and were looking forward to enjoying the beautiful coastline and pretty towns of Asturias.
Playa de Andrín is just a 15-minute drive from Llanes. The latter is a picturesque town with an active harbour, where art lovers should check out the breakwater. Initially a simple design to protect the harbour, the breakwater was transformed into a colourful piece of art in 2001. Designed and painted by famous Basque artist Augustin Ibarrola, Los Cubos de Memoria is now a showstopping series of brightly painted cubes.
Walk along Paseo de San Pedro to enjoy the coastal scenery and spectacular views, before pausing for lunch at El Cuera restaurant, located at Plaza Parres Sobrino in the heart of Llanes. The beach here is super clean and perfect for lounging around and soaking up some rays.
After spending a few hours relaxing at Playa del Sablon, we headed to Nieda. Surrounded by magical scenery, we’d reached our bed for the night. We checked in at Apartamentos el Llanin, a romantic hideaway for couples with – you guessed it – superb views, and just 3km from Cangas de Onís.
Asturias is truly the place to be for cheese lovers. Just five minutes’ walk from the apartment is the Quesería de la Solana, where you can buy artisanal Gamonéu cheese. Book in advance for a private visit.
Playa de Andrin © Marta Bescos
For a real natural highlight, visit the Covadonga lakes. These two glacial lakes, Lake Enol and Lake Ercina, formed the original central feature of the Picos de Europa National Park. Access to Covadonga is free all year round, and the lakes can be reached both by public transport and by private vehicle. During regulated holiday periods (including Easter, summer and bank holidays), buses shuttle visitors between Cangas de Onís, Covadonga and the lakes. Access by car is permitted until 8.30am during this period, so wake up early to avoid the crowds. A taxi service is available for those who would rather skip the long queue for the bus.
Don’t forget to visit the Covadonga Sanctuary. The Sanctuary has become a symbol of pilgrimage and is an area of great importance for Asturias – and Spain. The complex comprises the main basilica, a cave, excavated in rock above the waterfall, and different ecclesiastical buildings.
After visiting the famous, picturesque five-arched Roman Bridge, we took the 6.7km Historic Circular Route of Favila. It’s an easy walk, perfect for families, and affords a good opportunity to get to know the Cangas de Onís area a little better. On the banks of the River Sella and surrounded by the spectacular Picos de Europa you will find the Parador of Cangas de Onís, situated in the old Monastery of San Pedro de Villanueva. Before leaving Cangas, don’t forget to check out the amazing Indiano house-museum of Pedro Sarmiento, built in 1916 right next to the Roman bridge. The entire east of Asturias has a major Indiano influence – locals who emigrated to the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and returned home – and “Casa de Indianos” (built by them) are distinctive of this area.
In the afternoon we visited Ribadesella – which has one of the most beautiful beaches nudging the rugged coastline of northern Spain. Enjoy soaking up the sun, but watch out for the afternoon tide. Afterwards, take a stroll around the colourful town.
Basilica of Our Lady of Battles, Covadonga Sanctuary © Margues/Shutterstock
Spend Day 5 in Oviedo. Woody Allen once described the capital of Asturias as “…a delicious, exotic, beautiful, clean, pleasant, tranquil and pedestrianized city, like it didn’t belong to this world, like it didn’t exist…Oviedo is like a fairy tale”. Indeed, it’s a wonderful place to explore, with its many sculptures and statues, pretty buildings, cobble-stoned streets and beautiful little courtyards. A special mention has to be made of the city market, Mercado El Fontan, where charming stall owners display rows of delectable local produce.
If you still have time to spare in Oviedo, pay a visit the wonderful Parque Campo de San Francisco. Look for beautiful buildings such as the Campoamor Theatre – Oviedo’s opera house, founded in 1892, where the Princess of Asturias Awards take place. The Plaza de la Constitución and Oviedo’s cathedral are surefire hits, too. Have a cider at the charming Plaza del Fontán or in one of the traditional cider houses on Calle Gascona, known as “Cider Avenue”. For an evening drink don’t miss the bars around Calle Sol and Calle Oscura.
Our pick for where to stay in Oviedo is The Gran España Hotel, a four-star number that proved surprising affordable.
Oviedo town hall © Marta Bescos
Days 6 and 7
On Day 6 we arrived in Gijón, our final destination. Have a healthy breakfast at Catlove coffee, which does delicious coffee, homemade granola bowls, bagels, toast and juices. As it was not our first time to the city, and we felt adventurous, we decided to plump for an off-the-beaten-track experience, and made for the coastline beyond Gijón. To follow in our footsteps, check out the Mirador de la Providencia, La Cagonera, Estaño, La Ñora, Peñarrubia, and Serín beaches. Or, if you’d prefer a relaxing morning, go for a stroll around Gijón before making for the city beach, San Lorenzo.
Our second morning walk was again spent along the coastline, though this time we headed to the Parque del Cerro de Santa Catalina, closer to the city centre. To take in the prettiest part of the city, explore the beauty and spirit of the Old Town of Gijón, Cimadevilla’s picturesque streets and the Plaza Mayor or its surrounding streets – one of my favourites is Calle de la Merced. When we visited during Covid-19, it was mainly locals and Spanish tourists that filled the streets to shop or sit outside small bars and cafés. Combining old and new, this beautiful coastal town is a wonderful place to keep anyone entertained.
If you’re near Calle de la Merced and have a penchant for craft beers, stop at Casa Lúpulo Taproom. Another craft-beer place we loved was Señor Lúpulo in the nearby Calle San Antonio. Shopaholics, meanwhile, should head for the beautiful vintage store Merced 3, while bookworms are well catered for at the gorgeous independent bookshop Librería Paraíso.
Seafood lovers should lunch at El Planeta restaurant and cider house, just in front the harbour in Cimavilla, the old town of Gijon (advance booking recommended). Should book in advance. If vegan food is more up your street, don’t miss La Teya restaurant.
When it comes to accommodation, if you’re after a spot by the beach, look no further than Hotel San Miguel, where pets are welcome. The affordable rates include free use of their bicycles, skates and longboards. If you prefer camping by the sea, check out Campsite Gijón – Costa Surf.
The itinerary works best if you have your own transport or hire a car, like we did. Departing from Bilbao, in the Basque Country, we headed to Asturias via Cantabria.
This page contains affiliate links; all recommendations are editorially independent.
Gijon beach aerial view in the centre of Gijon city in Asturias, Spain © saiko3p/Shutterstock
Top image: Potes river Quiviesa Deva a Cantabria village of Spain © lunamarina/Shutterstock