Explore Asturias, the rugged coastline of northwest Spain, dotted with world-class surfing beaches near Gijón, quaint medieval towns such as Oviedo, and the beautiful Covadonga Lakes in the Picos de Europa National Park.
Forget flamenco, pueblos blancos and arid, dusty landscapes of orange and brown – they all belong to Andalucia. Asturias, on the other hand, couldn’t be more different from the south of Spain: wedged in between Galicia and Cantabria on the country’s northwestern coast, it’s a land of glacial mountains, sea-beaten cliffs and lush countryside. Here is our pick of the best attractions in this often-overlooked region.
Carved out by the sea and wind over millennia, the blowholes of Pria are chimneys connecting the ocean with the cliffs above. On windy days, the force of the waves hitting the coast forces the expulsion of water and air from these vertical chambers, resulting in columns of up to 10m (33ft) in height. To see them in action, head to the small town of Llames, from where a clifftop hiking route of about four hours begins and ends.
For some of the most unforgettable views in Asturias, head to the Mirador del Fitu, a scenic balcony situated a 45-minute drive east of Gijón. As if the hill itself weren’t high enough, a concrete platform built in 1927 provides a few extra metres of elevation, enabling you to survey what seems like half of Spain. Weather permitting, you’ll be able to see the mountains of the Picos de Europa National Park, the rocky coastline of Asturias, and towns such as Ribadesella, Colunga and Villaviciosa.
El Fartuqin is one of the best restaurants in Oviedo. Sample three of the region’s most emblematic dishes in one meal by starting with a fabada, an all-in-one stew of white beans, chorizo, morcilla (the Spanish version of black pudding) and pork shoulder; follow this with a cachopo, a dense parcel of ham and cheese wrapped in beef or veal fillets, then breaded and fried; and finish off with a frixuelo, which is the area’s answer to the crepe.
Calle de Gascona in Oviedo is the focal point of the cider culture in Asturias. It’s lined with over a dozen sidrerías, the name given to taverns and bars that specialise in the signature tipple of the region. Staff at these establishments pour the dry, flat sidra in a way that generates maximum bubbles and flavour – by pouring it from above head height into a glass held almost at their knees, somehow without spilling a drop. Among the best are La Pumarada and Tierra Astur.
The Bear’s Trail follows the course of a mining railway constructed in the late 19th century. Beginning in the village of Tuñon (a 25-minute drive south of Oviedo), it forks into two routes, one ending in Cueva Huerta, the other in Ricabo: both are 30km (19mi) long and require around seven hours to complete. Key sights include Proaza’s wildlife reserve, where you can see the rare Cantabrian brown bear in its natural environment, and the dizzying Valdecerezales Gorge.
Looking to entertain the kids on a rainy day? The Gijón Aquarium is one of the best attractions in the region, home to 4,000 marine creatures across 400 different species. You’ll be able to spot everything from bull sharks and loggerhead turtles to red piranhas (just watch those little fingers). The aquarium also supports more than 20 conservation projects around the world, including an initiative to repopulate local river salmon.
The Atlantic Botanic Garden is located just southeast of Gijón. It is home to a whopping 2,000 varieties of plants, many of which are native to northern Spain and the Atlantic coastal regions. Make sure to visit the Garden of the Island, a historical garden dating back more than 150 years, and the Natural Monument of La Carbayeda of El Tragamón, a natural forest with 400-year-old trees.
The Asturias coastline is home to some of the finest surf spots in Spain. San Lorenzo, the long crescent-shaped strip of sand in Gijón town centre, is a great place to learn how to ride waves. A number of surf schools dot the shoreline, offering lessons to help you master the basics. Once your arms feel like churros, head to a pintxos bar to refuel. More experienced surfers should head to Xagó for a larger, more consistent swell.
The gothic cathedral of San Salvador, or Oviedo Cathedral, lies along the Camino del Norte; it is a major stop for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. It was built in the late 13th century and is one of the most impressive in Asturias. Walk around the cloisters and chapter house, then visit the Holy House, a pre-Romanesque building dating to the ninth century and now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The Asturias Museum of Fine Arts houses one of the finest public collections in Spain in a four-building complex near Oviedo Cathedral. The permanent exhibits consist of 15,000 items and span the 14th century to the present day, showcasing works by Spanish artists such as El Greco, Goya, Picasso, Dalí and Miró. There are also pieces by European Renaissance masters including Titian and Reubens, as well as extensive collections of sculpture, drawing, photography and cinema posters.
Not many people know it, but northern Spain was a prime dinosaur location during the Jurassic and Mesozoic eras. Hundreds of dinosaur bones and fossils have been discovered in the regions of La Rioja and Asturias, so it’s a great place for any dino-crazed little ones, or those who simply want to discover more. Keep your eyes peeled for the giant diplodocus in the garden outside.
Travel back in time to 10,000 BCE, when early humans painted rock art on the walls of the Tito Bustillo caves, just outside Ribadesella. You’ll be able to make out details of horses, reindeer, as well as (unusually in ancient rock art) whales and dolphins. There are also many pictures of the female form. The guided tours are well worth listening to, but are only conducted in Spanish.
Playa de Silencio means the Beach of Silence and it’s located just outside the village of Castañeras. It’s one of the most beautiful beaches in the area: a stunning crescent of white and grey sand, surrounded by towering green cliffs and lapped by turquoise waves. Although don’t expect a host of facilities here – this undisturbed spot has no lifeguards or places to eat. Despite this, it is popular in summer and can often get quite busy. Part of the beach is also used by naturists.
Ever visited a chapel tucked away inside a cave? Stroll around the basilica inside the Sanctuary of Covadonga – or even attend Sunday service. It sits in the Picos de Europa National Park, surrounded by misty peaks and verdant valleys. Not only is there a church, but also a grand 19th-century basilica which houses the tombs of Asturian royalty. You’ll enjoy the stroll up along lush trails to the chapel itself.
Explore one of the largest national parks in Spain. Covering an area of 64,660ha (159,778 acres), it has glacial lakes, limestone peaks and incredible hiking trails. It’s no wonder this park has been designated a Unesco Biosphere Reserve. Highlights include the beautiful Lakes of Covadonga. Read our guide to the best hiking trails in the Picos de Europa to find out more.
Mark Nayler contributed additional reporting to this article.
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