How to visit 21 cities in 12 days in Northern Spain

There are two types of travel itineraries – one is super relaxing, usually you stay 3-4 days in one place and move on to another, or  even a week or two in just one location. The other type aims to maximize the visits in one trip. I have to admit in many cases, I am more of the latter, especially in Europe. But I also believe that the quality of the visits do not need to be compromised if you want to see more places. I’ve done it in many places, but I’ll cite one of my recent trips to Northern Spain as an example, how I visited 21 cities in 12 days! How do I balance quantity and quality? Here’s how:

1. Plan ahead and prioritize add-ons if you have spare time

I cannot stress this enough. Planning ahead maximizes your time, ensures you see the sights you really want, and get you the best deals in hotels and flights. I make sure I know the cities in each area, and understand which ones I want, and which ones I don’t, and if it’s realistic to do two cities in a day, or one a day. And setting cities in order of priority ensures you have something on hand if you finish early.

My initial plan:

August 9-10 – Santiago de Compostela, sleep in Santiago de Compostela. If I have time, other cities in terms of priority – A Coruna, Lugo

August 11 – Travel from Santiago to Leon (a full 6 hours!), sleep in Leon

August 12 – Travel to Oviedo, sleep in Oviedo

August 13 – Travel from Oviedo to Santander – see Santander, Sleep in Santander

August 14 – Santillana del Mar excursion – sleep in Santander – If I still feel like it, go to Altamira caves (first priority), Comillas and see more Dali! (second priority), Sleep in Santander

August 15 – Travel to Bilbao – walk around at night, Sleep in Bilbao

August 16 – Travel to San Sebastian, Sleep in San Sebastian

August 17 – San Sebastian, Sleep in San Sebastian

August 18 – travel from San Sebastian to Pamplona, sleep in Pamplona

August 19 – Travel from Pamplona to Barcelona

August 20 – Barcelona shopping day!

August 21- Adios, Espana!

2. Understand your biological clock and maximize your time

Are you a morning person or a night person. Do you like to take siesta on your holiday? Understanding your rhythm will make you maximize your energetic times and give you time to chill and relax during your lull times. I am a morning person. So I schedule all my transport early in the morning. 6am even. So I get to the place around 8-9am, just in time for going to the first museum without a queue. You’re a night owl? Not to fret – do your travels after dusk. Either way, you are stretching your waking time without being tired.

3. Sacrifice your lunch hour for days you decide to do more than 1 city

Yeah, I know this doesn’t sound ideal. It’s a personal preference to have good meals everytime, or just do good dinners. I usually do the latter. I usually pack a sandwich on the bus for my day trip in the afternoon. So I get to eat and rest on the bus – usually an hour to 2 hours, depending on the city. For example, Santiago to Leon is a good 4 hours, enough time to relax and enjoy a meal on the bus.

The famous Leon Cathedral

4. Beat the queue

Know which sights are popular, and be there before they open. For example, Sagrada Familia and Casa Batllo in Barcelona.

The ever-famous Sagrada Familia

The ever-famous Sagrada Familia

Casa Batllo

Casa Batllo

5. Leverage the tourist information services – maps and tips

That’s what I love about Europe. In every train station, and main tourist spot, there is a tourist info booth. Get a map, ask for directions, ask them which sight is better. It saves you time just figuring them out yourself. When I had more time on my hands when I was in San Sebastian, I asked the tourist information office which excursions I could take. Laredo was the answer. I was so grateful for that tip, because only locals know about it! While in Bayonne, the tourist information staff suggested I visit Saint Jean de Luz. It has a festive, fun atmosphere. I’m glad I asked!

That's on top of a mountain in Laredo

That’s on top of a mountain in Laredo

Fun beach scene in Saint Jean de Luz

Fun beach scene in Saint Jean de Luz

6. Book hotels wisely – good location, flexible conditions, quiet enough for sleep

Central hotels saves you the time in transit. Flexible conditions mean that you can change your plans at the last minute. For example, from my plan above, I was supposed to spend one night in Pamplona. However, when I arrived, I learned there’s not much to see. So I put my luggage in the storage in the train station, cancelled my Pamplona hotel, and booked one more night in Barcelona. I travelled late afternoon, saving me time to explore more of Barcelona the next day. A quiet room means you have more energy for the next day!

Pamplona - nice city, but nothing  much to see

Pamplona – nice city, but nothing much to see

7. Keep fit

Traveling at a fast pace takes a lot of energy. You need to lug your stuff from one point to another nearly daily. Being strong and fit means that you don’t tire out going up the stairs with luggage, walking around in the heat, climbing towers, and have remaining energy to enjoy dinner with a good glass of Cava! Women have way less upper body strength than men. Ever since I’ve done yoga, I can easily put my overstuffed cabin trolley up the compartment by myself, whereas before, I have to ask someone to help me. How’s that for girl power?

Enjoying my pintxos with cava! Now traditional tapas will never be good enough!

Pintxos overload!

Pintxos overload!

So pretty!

So pretty!

More, more, more!

More, more, more!

8. Ask friends who have been

I initially didn’t put Gijon at all in the list. When I spoke to someone who has been, he was surprised it’s not on my list, that it’s even better than Oviedo. So I made it a point to visit Gijon shortly after touring the main sights of Oviedo. He was right, Gijon is just beautiful!

Famous landmark with the beautiful coastal backdrop

Famous landmark with the beautiful coastal backdrop

One of my favorite Facebook cover photos. Taken on top of a hill in Gijon.

One of my favorite Facebook cover photos. Taken on top of a hill in Gijon.

9. Choose your sights wisely

You don’t have to go to every famous sight in every city. If you’re a museum person, go to the top 1-2 museums of your interest. If you’re more into architecture, prioritize churches and walking around, and only go to museums if there are really spectacular pieces. If you’re a foodie, make sure you have more eating time, and choose your cities based on the food. You will enjoy your trip more if you go to places you are genuinely interested in and not because it’s number 5 on the guidebook. For example, I chose to do a day trip to Montserrat, rather than visit museums in Barcelona.

Breathtaking Montserrat

Breathtaking Montserrat

10. Choose travel partners who can keep up with you

This is very, very important. I travel with family, friends, and solo, and the pacing of my travels varies. If it’s a fast paced trip, I only go with the selected few who can keep up with me. If they’re not available, I travel by myself. Traveling is only fun if everyone on the trip is having fun!

So what is my final itinerary?

Santiago de Compostela – A Coruna – Lugo – Leon – Oviedo – Gijon – Aviles – Santander – Santillana del Mar – Comillas – San Sebastian – Laredo – Hondarrabia – Bayonne (France) – Biarritz (France) – Saint Jean de Luz (France) – Bilbao – Pamplona – Montserrat – Figueres – Barcelona

And I’ll part with this photo. Santiago de Compostela is the reason why I traveled all the way to Northern Spain. I flipped through a travel magazine one day, and I told myself, I just had to be there someday. The cathedral’s amazing, the people are friendly, and it’s just a very holy, serene place to relax and meditate.

Majestic cathedral in Santiago de Compostela

Spain is one of the countries I love to visit again and again. I just know I’ll be back!

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2 Comments on “How to visit 21 cities in 12 days in Northern Spain”

  1. You’re so awesome! I don’t think I’ve truly read a single thing like that before. So nice to find somebody with original thoughts on this subject. Really.. thank you for starting this up. This site is one thing that is needed on the web, someone with some originality!

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