Travel Spain by Train: The North of Spain
To really experience Spain, you must travel by train.
Spain has long been a magnet for sun seeking tourists and party revellers, and there are no surprises why. The country’s coastlines have an abundant supply of beaches, rocky coves and inlets. Add to this the many indulgent resorts from which to enjoy them, and there is seemingly little reason to consider other travel plans for visiting Spain.
But, if you really want to experience what this historic country has to offer, you must hit the rails. The sprawling Spanish rail network, which includes Europe’s largest high-speed rail network (the AVE) cracks open the country’s many delights. So much in fact, that a contemporary Henry Higgins would likely ask an Eliza Doolittle to annunciate: “the plains of Spain are best seen by train” …
Travel Spain by Train: Start at Barcelona
The ideal point of departure for any Spanish rail adventure is Barcelona. The vibrant Catalan capital, which caresses the Mediterranean coast, is among the world’s most visited cities (by international traveller numbers). Its elegant boulevards and parks combine with an enchanting gothic quarter and a splendorous beach to offer a true gem of a city.
Being Spain’s second city and its most popular tourist destination, Barcelona is an incredibly well-connected transport hub, and so the ideal springboard for onward rail journeys. To get here, you can fly into Barcelona’s El Prat airport from across the globe or hop on a train direct from Paris.
Discover Green Spain
You can travel across Spain’s northern fringe from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic on a direct line running between Barcelona and A Coruña. Immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Pyrenees and the foothills of the Cantabrian range and rub shoulders with pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago along the way.
The Alvia train serves the line from point to point with a total journey time of 13 hours. Taken as one trip, a ‘Turista’ (standard) ticket would set you back just €41,90 – although with the layovers included in this itinerary, the cost will be higher. See prices here.
Sitting on the AVE line between Barcelona and Madrid, Zaragoza has become an important train destination. As the capital of Aragon, Zaragoza, which hosted the 2008 Expo, is a bustling city with a great many things to see and do.
La Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar and the enormous square that shares its name is without doubt the city’s epicenter. The river Ebro and the impressive bridges that cross it lie on the other side of the Basilica, the Puente de Piedra is a particular treat – on a summer’s evening you can witness the spectacular dance of bats zig zagging across the river. Don’t miss the chance to marvel at this city’s ancient past with the Caesaraugusta Theatre archaeological site and the Moorish Aljafería Palace.
From Zaragoza you can also catch a regional train to Canfranc in the Spanish-French border. The incredibly scenic journey will take you between some of the Pyrenees’s peaks. At Canfranc you can also see the palatial old train station. The regional train departs twice a day from either end and takes just over three and a half hours and costs just €16,90 a ticket.
Pamplona offers a captivating glimpse into the old Kingdom of Navarre (now an Autonomous Community). The city is famed for the annual ‘running of the bulls’, which takes place during the San Fermín festivities on the second week of July. But Pamplona is much more than its festival and can be enjoyed throughout the year – with no crowds to boot.
The city’s heart is its Plaza del Castillo, where any and every event is marked. The square houses about a dozen cafes and eateries from which to gaze at the routinary hustle and bustle. The University of Navarra museum, with its Picassos and Kandinskys, is also a must-visit. The Ciudadela, Pamplona Cathedral and the Taconera gardens are Pamplona’s other top attractions.
Why not stay at the historic Palacio Guendualin which is but a stone’s throw from la Plaza del Castillo?
Less renown than the Basque Country’s coastal city of San Sebastian and the larger Bilbao, Vitoria-Gasteiz is a hidden gem, and ideally located on the line between Barcelona and A Coruña. The city’s Casco Viejo (old town) entrances all who visit with its winding streets and traditional Basque eateries. Winner of the European Green Capital 2012 and UN’s Global Green City Award in 2019, the city boasts a bucolic charm, where an open green space is just 300m from any point.
The Plaza de la Virgen Blanca and the adjacent Plaza España are the city’s focal point, and it is here where you can enjoy the city’s festivities in the first week of August. Vitoria-Gasteiz is replete with churches and cathedrals, with the Catedral de María Inmaculada, Catedral de Santa Maria, and the Iglesia de San Miguel being the absolute must-visits. Finally, Vitoria’s gardens and parks are perfectly curated and offer ideal places to unwind and relax.
The NH Canciller Ayala Vitoria hotel is perfectly located with all of Vitoria’s main attractions and sites being no more than 1km away.
The city carries a long and important place in Spain’s history, including the accolade of Europe’s first Parliament. As such, León, now a provincial capital within the autonomous region of Castilla y León, hosts a great variety of historic and cultural sights.
The Convento de San Marcos is one of Spain’s the iconic Renaissance buildings, as is the Panteon de los Reyes at the Real Basílica de San Isidoro. However, it’s not all ancient, León is home to one of Gaudi’s architectural works: Casa de los Botines (in case you didn’t get enough of Gaudi in Barcelona).
Plaza mayor – which the NH Collection León Plaza Mayor hotel , along with bars and restaurants, forms the perimeter – is an idyllic spot for indulging in the regions best dishes and enjoying a night out. Although the more ancient Plaza Del Grano offers a calmer setting, both at day and night.
Santiago de Compostela
The Pearl of the Camino de Santiago, Compostela, cannot be missed on any rail pilgrimage of Spain’s north. The city carries all the hallmarks of pilgrimage, with churches a plenty as well as droves of self-contented pilgrims.
The enormous Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the city’s epicentre. Dating from the 14th century, the ornate cathedral is one of only three in the world to purportedly sit above the burial site of one of Jesus’ disciples. It is here that you can witness the famed ‘Botafumeiro’ which is operated during the Catholic Solemnities – check out the dates and times here.
The Eurostars Araguaney hotel, is ideally located between the train station and the Cathedral.
Finally, take the hour-long journey from Santiago de Compostela to the line’s terminus, A Coruña; where the strong Atlantic breeze will leave you in little doubt that you have arrived. The city sits on a small peninsula flanked by the Ría da Coruña and the Atlantic coast, on which sits the Tower of Hercules – which is said to be the oldest Roman lighthouse still in use anywhere in the world.
There is a promenade that stretches some nine kilometres and runs around the city’s headland with the famed Tower and the parks that surround it. Orzan and Riazor beaches are the city’s summer dwelling, and a surfers paradise throughout the year. Plaza de Maria Pita, whose name comes from the city’s heroine, María Pita, is the best place to savour the A Coruña’s fresh fish and seafood delicacies.
A great place to stay is the Zenit Coruña hotel just metres from Orzán beach.
Words: Jeremy Sacramento