The Northern Way is the second longest route of the Camino de Santiago (824 km), behind the Vía de la Plata and also one of the most popular along with the French and Primitive Ways. Although the original route of this route starts in Bayonne, the most popular starting point of the Northern Way is the Basque city of Irún, located on the border with France. In 2015, the Northern Way was recognised by UNESCO, along with the Primitive Way, as a World Heritage Site, which is the highest recognition that a cultural asset can receive.
If you decide to walk the Northern Way you will cross the autonomous communities of the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, until you enter Galicia through the beautiful Ría de Ribadeo, to continue walking the 189 km that separate this town from Santiago de Compostela.
One of the attractions of this route is its scenic beauty and its proximity to the spectacular northern coast of Spain. The route alternates sections that follow the Cantabrian coastline with mountain and inland stretches. You can enjoy its imposing cliffs, endless beaches and the blue immensity of the Cantabrian Sea, as well as green forests and rural villages with centuries of history, where you can visit churches, cathedrals, monasteries and other important places that are part of the Jacobean tradition.
This Jacobean route has become one of the alternatives to the French Way, for those pilgrims who want to escape the crowds or who are looking for a quieter and spiritual experience in contact with nature.
Northern Way is a medium-high difficulty route that is characterised by terrain with varying gradients. Although it can be a little more difficult than other routes, the Northern Way offers spectacular scenery, beaches, picturesque fishing villages and a unique experience that attracts many pilgrims.
Please note that the level of difficulty of this route can vary depending on the starting point, the physical condition of the pilgrim and the weather conditions at the time of the journey.
The entire Northern Way from Irún has an approximate length of about 820 km. Although less kilometres can also be done if you decide to start at another starting point closer to Santiago de Compostela such as Gijón or Vilalba. The distance covered each day can affect the feeling of difficulty, so it is important to plan stages that are suitable for your level of fitness.
The route crosses different types of terrain, such as dirt tracks, paved sections or mountainous terrain. Although this may sound challenging, doing the Northern Way is possible for all types of physical conditions if properly planned.
This route combines sections of low, medium and high difficulty. The stages leading into Galicia are the ones with the greatest gradient. Ascending from 200 to almost 600m altitude in 20km. The section between Baamonde and Sobrado dos Monxes is the hardest.
The most common way is to complete the route in 36 stages on foot. Depending on the time available to each person, it is also possible to do this itinerary in more days and take the opportunity to visit places of interest. Or alternatively, you can walk fewer kilometres in fewer days if you don’t have so much time.
There are several starting points for the Northern Way. The most popular are:
If one of your objectives is to obtain the Compostela, you must bear in mind that you must have covered a minimum of 100 kilometres on foot or 200 kilometres by bicycle, so your route will have to start very close to Vilalba or the Asturian town of Luarca, respectively.
Even so, don’t forget that our itineraries are completely flexible, if you have a different idea in mind (you want to add or remove nights, services, etc.), don’t hesitate to let us know.
The best time to do the Nothern Way depends on the personal preferences of each pilgrim and their travel conditions. Each season has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Although it is a route not as crowded as the French or Portuguese Way, our recommendation is to do the Northern Way in spring and autumn as they present the most favourable weather conditions for walking. In addition, finding accommodation will not be a problem. Keep in mind that during the summer months many people choose to spend their holidays in the coastal regions, which can lead to a lack of available accommodation.
The regions of the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia are influenced by the oceanic climate. Temperatures are mild in the coastal areas and more extreme inland. Both in the summer and winter months. Some days during the months of January and February temperatures can drop to 0ºC . On the other hand, rainfall is light and intermittent in autumn and spring and heavy in winter.
The Northern Way is one of the oldest and most historic jacobean routes of the Way of Saint James, along with the French Way and the Primitive Way. Its origin dates back to the discovery of the remains of the Apostle St. James in the 9th century, as is the case with the other routes of the Way. When King Alfonso II of Asturias travelled the 320 km that separated his Court from Santiago de Compostela to verify for himself the discovery of the remains of the Apostle. This route is what we know today as the Primitive Way and was the first known route of the Way of St. James. Subjects from all over Europe began to imitate the monarch, thus giving rise to the appearance of all the routes of the Way of St. James that we know today.
The rise of this route took place during the Middle Ages. Faced with the advance of the Moorish armies towards the north, the Northern Way emerged as a safer route than the French Way and more passable than the Primitive Way. Moreover, the pilgrim community recognised that following the coast to Oviedo was easier than crossing the Cantabrian Mountains – hence this route is also known as the “Coastal Route”. It was so popular at the time that this route was used by pilgrims and a large part of the nobility and royalty of Europe to reach Santiago. Either from Irún or from one of the Cantabrian seaports.
One of the outstanding figures who travelled this route in the 13th century was Saint Francis of Assisi, who set out for San Salvador de Oviedo and Compostela, leaving his legacy in his wake with the construction of several Franciscan temples.
With the advance of the Reconquest and the return of the peninsula to Christian hands, the traditional routes became less hostile and the jacobean route from the north gradually lost all its prominence. Moreover, its decline was compounded by the monarchy’s definitive commitment to the French route in the 12th century.
From the 17th century onwards, the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago in general went into decline with the arrival of events such as Luther’s Protestant Reformation, which caused a crisis of faith in Europe, or the liberal confiscations of the 19th century, which brought famine, plagues and political unrest, the pilgrimage and the resources allocated to it became secondary.
The last decades of the 20th century have been fundamental for the revival and strengthening of the Northern Way. This route has recovered all its vitality – thanks in part to the work of public entities – positioning itself as one of the preferred alternatives for pilgrims due to its beauty and location between the sea and the mountains.
This route runs through the autonomous regions of the Basque Country, La Rioja, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia until it reaches Santiago de Compostela, in the province of A Coruña. If you follow this route you will be able to see the Cantabrian coast and visit some of the most important towns and cities in Spain, such as Irún, Donosti, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón, Ribadeo and Arzúa.
Irun is the second most important city in Gipuzkoa, after San Sebastian. Its location on the border between France and Spain makes it an important commercial, railway, road and logistics centre.
The origins of Irun go back to pre-Roman times, as some Roman historians already referred to Oiasso, one of the cities of the Basques. For centuries, the city was the scene of epic battles that destroyed much of its heritage, but its more than 2,000 years of history have left an architectural legacy that is well worth visiting.
San Sebastián, also known as Donostia in Basque, is a coastal city located in the province of Gipuzkoa, in the Basque Country, northern Spain. Its tourist attractions include the Contxa beach, the Old Quarter, the Buen Pastor Cathedral and the promenade around the mouth of the Urumea River.
The rise of the Camino de Santiago, its landscape and its modern architectural development, which began in the second half of the 19th century, would shape it as a gentrified French city, stimulating the development of tourist activity on a European scale. This fact led it to be chosen as European Capital of Culture in 2016.
Bilbao is a city located in the province of Vizcaya, in the Basque Country. Bilbao has known how to renew itself, becoming synonymous with art, culture and gastronomy thanks to important monuments such as the Guggenheim Museum, the Arriaga Theatre, the Euskalduna Palace and the Foral Palace.
In the Middle Ages, Bilbao became the main commercial centre of the Cantabrian Sea as it was a busy area for pilgrims and merchants. In the following centuries, Bilbao would live through dark times with the Carlist wars of the 19th century, the bombing of Gernika in the Spanish Civil War of the early 19th century and the emergence of the terrorist group ETA.
Santander is the capital of the autonomous community of Cantabria and its origins date back to 26 BC. Today the city is one of the main leisure centres on the Cantabrian coast and is undergoing a period of change and evolution thanks to projects such as the Botín Centre and the Cultural Ring. Some of the monuments you can visit in this city are Santander Cathedral, the Cabo Mayor lighthouse and the Pereda Gardens.
This city has been linked to the Pilgrims’ Route to Santiago de Compostela since the Middle Ages. Pilgrims from northern Europe came to the city both by land and by sea to rest and continue their journey to Santiago. A good example of these is the hospital of Sancti Spiritus or the hospital of Santa María de la Calzada.
Gijón, capital of the “Costa Verde”, is located on the coast of the Principality of Asturias. A dynamic city that combines historical heritage, industry, tourism and a dynamic cultural life. The Iglesia Mayor de San Pedro, the Cimadevilla neighbourhood, the Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Church and the International Centre of Contemporary Art are some of the spots not to be missed if you do the Camino de Norte and pass through Gijón.
Arzúa is a small rural village located in the province of A Coruña, in Galicia, Spain. With the rise of pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, pilgrim hospitals were built in this village, such as the hospital of Ribadiso da Ponte or the convent of Magdalena, which provided assistance to pilgrims. Since the 20th century, this village owes its economic development to the expansion of the dairy industry and the production of cheese and cheese products. It is also one of the best known points on the Northern Way, due to its proximity to Santiago de Compostela.
Its monuments include the chapel of Magdalena, the church of Santiago de Arzúa and the Centro de Divulgación do Queixo e do Mel (Queixo and Mel Dissemination Centre).
Other important towns through which the Northern Way passes are: Zarautz, Gernika, Lezama, Portugalete, Castro Urdiales, Gueme, Santillana del Mar, Ribadesella, Villaviciosa, Avilés, Navia, Vilalba, Baamonde and Sobrado dos Monxes.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is an architectural and cultural landmark. Since its inauguration it has become a symbol of Bilbao’s urban and cultural transformation. In the 1990s Frank Gehry, a Canadian architect, was selected to design the museum and in 1997 the building opened its doors to the public. Its bold, avant-garde design, characterised by curvilinear forms and titanium cladding, made it a global architectural icon.
The history of Castro Urdiales dates back to Roman times, when it was known as Flaviobriga, an important settlement and trading port. During the Middle Ages, the town developed around the castle, built in the 13th century to defend the coast from attacks by pirates and enemies. Today this small village is a popular tourist destination both for those seeking to immerse themselves in history and for those wishing to enjoy the beauty of the Cantabrian coast.
The Palacio de la Magdalena was built in 1912 as the royal summer residence of the Spanish Royal Family. It was also used as a hospital during the Spanish Civil War and as a summer residence for the dictator Francisco Franco. Its design is eclectic in style, combining English and French architectural elements. Located in the city of Santander, it is currently used for official events, exhibitions and cultural activities.
Mondoñedo Cathedral is located in the municipality of Mondoñedo, in the province of Lugo. Its construction dates back to between the 13th and 14th centuries in several phases, hence its mixture of architectural styles, including Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque elements. As early as the 19th century, the cathedral suffered a fire that seriously affected its structure, but it was restored to its original Gothic style in the decades that followed.
This monastery located in the province of A Coruña currently functions as a hostel for pilgrims and is an important stop for those pilgrims who walk the Camino del Norte. It was founded in 952 as a Benedictine monastery, becoming an important religious and cultural centre in the region during the Middle Ages for its library and artistic heritage.
At the end of the 19th century the monastery was acquired by the Cistercian Order, who restored it and resumed monastic life.
Other monuments you can visit along the way are: the hermitage of Guadalupe, the Portico of San Nicolás de Bari, the carving of the Sanctuary of Itziar, the tree of Gernika, the Hanging Bridge of Portugalete and the Selgás de Pito Palace.
If you are one of those people who like to discover charming places and you have time to do so while you are walking the Northern Way, here are some interesting places you could visit on the Northern Way.
The Cabárceno Nature Park is a zoological park with animals in semi-freedom located in the region of Cantabria. Its most outstanding activities include environmental education and research into the conservation of endangered species. We recommend you visit it on your way through Arce, as this park is just 16 minutes by car from this municipality.
The cave of Altamira, also known as the Sistine Chapel of prehistory, is also in Cantabria. It is a natural cavity in the rock where one of the most important pictorial and artistic cycles of prehistory is preserved. It forms part of the Altamira cave complex, which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
To get to this cave from Santillana del Mar on foot takes 30 minutes or 7 minutes by car. If you are interested in visiting it, bear in mind that it has a controlled visiting regime that uses a system of access by appointment through a waiting list.
Santa María del Naranco is an ancient leisure palace located in the region of Asturias, specifically in the city of Oviedo. This architectural jewel dates from the year 842 and has a pre-Romanesque style, specifically known as Asturian or “Ramirense” art. It was declared a National Monument in 1885 and a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985. The nearest city to this church is Gijón, which is a 30-minute drive away.
This area is located in the village of Mondoñedo, in the province of Lugo. It is located on the banks of the river Tronceda and has two natural pools formed by the course of a river channel. Also of note in this area are the series of waterfalls next to the pools and the hiking route that surrounds them. You can visit it on your way through Mondoñedo, as it is less than 10 minutes by car from the centre of the municipality.
The Northern Way is one of the best routes for discovering the cultural, scenic and gastronomic wealth of northern Spain. Although this route is a manageable experience for everyone if it is properly planned, there are several things you should bear in mind before embarking on this adventure:
If you need more detailed information, you can access it here. Remember that each pilgrimage is unique and personal, take your time to enjoy this experience.