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Camino del Norte: The Ultimate Guide

Discover the Camino del Norte's rich history, diverse terrain, and highlights, including San Sebastián and Guggenheim, with practical tips for your pilgrimage.
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The Camino del Norte, part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, is a historic route that takes you through northern Spain's diverse and scenic landscapes. Starting in the Basque Country and stretching across Cantabria, Asturias, and finally into Galicia, the route culminates at Santiago de Compostela.

Chapel with cementery landmark in Luarca, Asturias, Spain.
Camino del Norte covers Spain's northern Adriatic coast

Camino del Norte in numbers

  • Length: Approximately 830 km
  • Starting point: San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain
  • Finishing point: Santiago de Compostela, Spain
  • How many days does it take: 32-40 days
  • Ideal for: Pilgrims seeking a more challenging route with scenic coastal views and less crowded paths

Camino del Norte map

Historical overview

Camino del Norte boasts a rich history that dates back to the early Middle Ages. It emerged as a prominent pilgrimage route in the 9th and 10th centuries, during a period when the Muslim conquest was advancing in the Iberian Peninsula.

At this time, the northern regions of Spain, particularly the Kingdom of Asturias, remained under Christian control, providing a safe passage for pilgrims.

The route gained popularity among pilgrims from the north of the Iberian Peninsula and from overseas, including places like Scandinavia, England, Flanders, and Germany.

On the Way of St. James a pilgrim contemplates the beauty of the church of Santiago in Baamonde, Spain. Built in the 9th century until the 15th century.
Camino del Norte is one of the most prominent Caminos

Many of these pilgrims would arrive by sea at the northern Spanish ports and then proceed on foot towards Santiago de Compostela, often passing through Oviedo to visit the relics of San Salvador.

However, after the Reconquest of Spain in the 11th century and the shift of the royal court to León, Camino Francés started to overshadow the Northern Way as the preferred pilgrimage route to Santiago.

Despite this shift, the Camino del Norte maintained a steady flow of pilgrims through the centuries, preserving its importance and legacy.

Highlights

Hermitage of Guadalupe

Located in Fuenterrabía, the Hermitage of Guadalupe is a significant starting point for many pilgrims on the Camino del Norte. With its origins dating back to at least the 16th century, as evidenced by a mention in a donation by Juan Sebastián Elcano, the hermitage was rebuilt in the 19th century. It features a single nave with a flat headwall and a single transept, with a notable stone capital from around 1860​​.

View of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Hondarribia, Euskadi, Spain
Hermitage of Guadalupe

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Although a modern addition, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is an iconic landmark on the Camino del Norte. Designed by Frank O. Gehry and inaugurated in 1997, this museum of contemporary art is celebrated for its unique architecture, characterized by twisted and curvy shapes covered in glass, limestone, and titanium. It has become a symbol of the cultural renaissance and modern spirit that pilgrims encounter along the route​​.

Spanien - Baskenland - Bilbao - Blick vom Mirador del Monte Artxanda
Bird-eye view of Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Basilica of Begoña

This basilica, with its construction spanning over a century from 1511 to 1621, represents the evolving architectural styles of its era, predominantly Gothic but with various influences added over time. The basilica houses the revered carving of the Virgin of Begoña, a notable polychrome woodwork from the 16th century. Its rich history and religious significance make it a vital stop for pilgrims seeking historical and spiritual insights​​.

Scenic panoramic view of Basilica of Begoña in Bilbao, beautiful destination in Basque county, North of Spain
Basilica of Begoña

Urdiales Castro Complex

In Cantabria, the Urdiales Castro Complex stands out as a testament to the region's medieval heritage. The complex includes the Santa María de la Asunción church, a significant Gothic-style edifice dating back to the 13th century, alongside the medieval Faro Castle and the Town Hall. These buildings collectively offer a glimpse into the ancient times and the defensive strategies of the region​​.

Castro Urdiales Town Hall, Spain
Castro Urdiales Town Hall

Magdalena Palace

The Royal Palace of La Magdalena in Cantabria, with its mix of French, English, and regional architectural influences, is a crown jewel of the Camino del Norte. The palace, surrounded by 28 hectares of gardens, showcases various architectural styles, reflecting the rich history and cultural diversity that pilgrims encounter on their journey. Its grandeur and historical significance make it a highlight for those exploring the historical facets of the route​​.

Magdalena palace in Santander, Cantabria, Spain
Magdalena Palace in Santander

Terrain and difficulty

The Camino del Norte traverses a variety of terrains, making it a moderately challenging route for pilgrims. The journey begins with coastal paths along the northern beaches of Spain, which are generally flat and easy to walk.

As the route progresses, it leads into more rugged and hilly areas, especially in the Basque Country and Cantabria, where pilgrims encounter steep ascents and descents.

At sunrise, departure from the historic city of Mondonedo (Mondoñedo) on the way of St. James, Galicia, Spain
Camino del Norte is slightly more challenging and wild than Camino Frances

Further along, the path goes through forested areas and meadows, particularly in Asturias and Galicia. These sections offer a mix of terrains, ranging from well-trodden paths to occasionally uneven and muddy trails, especially after rainfall.

Additionally, the route includes walking through urban areas with cobbled streets and pavements, requiring attention to traffic and navigation in towns and cities.

Overall, the Camino del Norte is considered more challenging than some other Camino routes, like the Camino Francés. This is due to its varied topography, including longer stretches of hilly terrain and steep climbs, coupled with the variable weather conditions of northern Spain.

girl with backpack travels along sea coast along Camino de Santiago
The views on Camino del Norte are unforgettable

The route, however, is well-marked, and with appropriate preparation, it is feasible for individuals with a good level of fitness. It is important for pilgrims to prepare adequately, taking into account both the physical demands of the terrain and the potential weather conditions they may encounter.

If you’re searching for information on preparation for Camino del Norte and access to a packing list, visit our comprehensive Camino de Santiago guide.

Infrastructure

The Camino del Norte is well-supported by a range of infrastructure. Accommodation is varied, with public and private albergues, hostels, and hotels available along the route.

While larger towns and cities offer a wider selection and higher quality of lodging, it's essential for pilgrims to plan ahead, especially in more rural areas where options may be limited.

Fishing village of Asturias,Spain.Harbour with boats and houses in Ribadesella
Coastal towns and villages is something pilgrims see every day on Camino del Norte

As for sustenance, the Camino del Norte passes through numerous towns and villages where restaurants, cafes, and stores are accessible for food and water.

If you wish to read about accommodations and food on Camino de Santiago in more detail, you can visit our comprehensive Camino de Santiago guide.

Larger settlements provide more frequent services, but in remote stretches, these amenities can be sparse. Carrying extra food and water is advisable in these sections to ensure continuous hydration and energy.

Healthcare needs are also catered for, with medical facilities available in the larger urban areas. Pilgrims should carry a basic first aid kit for minor ailments and be aware of the locations of hospitals and clinics for more serious concerns.

Banking services, including ATMs, are mostly found in major towns and cities. It's recommended to have sufficient cash on hand, particularly when traversing through smaller, less populated villages where banking facilities might not be present.

Typical granary and the chapel of La Regalina in Cadavedo, Asturias, Spain
Pilgrims also pass across rural zones

Regarding connectivity, Wi-Fi is generally available in most accommodations and public areas in towns. However, internet access may be limited in rural zones, so having offline resources or maps is beneficial.

Lastly, the route is well-marked with the iconic yellow arrows and shells, guiding pilgrims across the varied landscapes. Although navigation is made simpler by these markers, carrying a map or guidebook or using GPS navigation is a prudent measure for additional reference.

Overall, the Camino del Norte's infrastructure effectively supports the pilgrims' needs, from accommodations and food to health services and connectivity, contributing to a more comfortable and secure pilgrimage experience. However, careful planning remains essential, particularly for stages passing through less populated areas.

How to get to the starting point?

San Sebastián, also known as Donostia, is the starting point for many pilgrims on the Camino del Norte. Located in the Basque Country of northern Spain, San Sebastián is well-connected and accessible by various means of transportation.

By Air

The nearest airport to San Sebastián is the San Sebastián Airport (EAS), located about 20 km from the city center. This airport offers flights to and from major Spanish cities and some European destinations. Another option is the Bilbao Airport (BIO), approximately 100 km away, with a larger selection of international and domestic flights. From these airports, you can take public transportation, a taxi, or rent a car to reach San Sebastián.

By Train

San Sebastián has a central train station, Estación de San Sebastián-Donostia, with regular services to and from major Spanish cities such as Madrid and Barcelona, as well as direct connections to French cities like Paris. The train offers a comfortable and scenic way to reach San Sebastián.

By Bus

Buses are a convenient and cost-effective way to travel to San Sebastián. The city is served by a comprehensive bus network, connecting it with various parts of Spain and neighboring France. The main bus station in San Sebastián is well-located, making it easy for pilgrims to begin their journey upon arrival.

By Car

If you prefer to drive, San Sebastián is accessible via major highways. Keep in mind the availability of long-term parking in the city if you plan to leave your car for the duration of your Camino journey.

From France

For pilgrims coming from France, San Sebastián is easily accessible. The city is close to the French border, with towns like Hendaye and Bayonne offering convenient train or bus connections to San Sebastián.

San Sebastian - Donostia city, Basque country, Spain
San Sebastian is the starting point of Camino del Norte

In conclusion, San Sebastián, as the starting point of the Camino del Norte, is accessible by air, train, bus, or car. Plan the trip based on personal preference, budget, and the availability of transportation options.

Now you know how to go, but do you also want to know when? We’ve explored the best time to visit the Camino de Santiago in more detail in our comprehensive Camino de Santiago guide.

Our Camino del Norte tours 

For those seeking a more structured and hassle-free Camino del Norte experience, traveling with a hiking agency can be an excellent option. Agencies offer a range of services, including pre-arranged accommodations, luggage transfers, and detailed route guides.

You can explore our Camino del Norte tours to find a package that suits your needs. Our services are designed to enhance your pilgrimage, ensuring a memorable and fulfilling journey on the Camino del Norte.

Explore the historic Camino de Santiago on our walking tours, ensuring a personal journey through Spain's rich landscapes and centuries-old pilgrim paths.
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