Basque Country Rails – A Journey Through Northern Spain

Train travel is one of the most romantic experiences around. It allows you to connect with a region, share its landscapes, flavours, and monuments with others.

From San Sebastian’s Art Nouveau treasures to Bilbao’s modernist gems, this Northern Spain itinerary offers a full range of included touring and memorable moments on local Spanish trains.

San Sebastian

San Sebastian (Donostia) is the heart of Green Spain’s food culture, and a perfect base for exploring all of the region. In the city, savor gourmet pintxos and stroll along secluded beaches, surrounded by stunning landscapes. You can also explore the crowd-pleasing landmarks, including Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, Euksalduna Palace, and San Telmo Square.

You can take the train to San Sebastian from most of Spain’s major cities. It is a scenic journey, winding around coastal cliffs and through charming little fishing villages that encapsulate the spirit of Spanish Basque Country. During your trip, be sure to stop for lunch in one of these villages and enjoy an unforgettable plate of fresh seafood.

The line between Vitoria-Gasteiz and Bilbao is operated by Euskotren, while the section to the west, in Cantabria and Asturias, is run by FEVE (“Ferrocarriles de Via Estrecha”). All of these trains use narrow tracks: the gauge is exactly one meter less than the standard track across the rest of Spain. This was a practical decision: the rugged terrain of Northern Spain, criss-crossed by valleys and mountains, simply did not allow for anything other than light railways.

Fortunately, this narrow gauge system allows us to travel comfortably and far from the crowds. While everyone on the train is welcome to find a seat, most people prefer to sit near a window, taking in the views of the green forests and verdant hills that roll by. Among the passengers, you might encounter chattering women on their way to the market, teenage sisters heading to visit their grandmothers, or a friar in street clothes with his robe in his athletic bag.

While it is possible to hop between the different regions of Northern Spain by train, you will need at least two weeks if you want to see everything that this amazing region has to offer. This will give you enough time to explore the incredible cuisine of San Sebastian, the buzzing capital of Bilbao, and the mountainous region of Cantabria. You can also explore the cities of Oviedo and Gijon, as well as the charming towns in Galicia.


In the heart of Spain’s Basque Country, dramatic rocky coasts meet inviting sandy beaches and hidden coves, while richly green mountains rise up from lush valleys. Contrasting vistas and vibrant cities form an intriguing mix, exemplified in Bilbao, the unofficial capital of the region. Known for its modern art collection housed in the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry and the atmospheric Casco Viejo (Old Town) lined with pintxo bars, restaurants and independent shops, Bilbao has undergone something of a renaissance over the past 20 years.

The city’s architecture reflects this evolution, with an eclectic range of styles and influences influenced by both traditional Basque culture and contemporary thinking. An excellent example is the Zorrozaurre masterplan, which was conceived by Zaha Hadid Architects and set out to transform what was once Bilbo’s industrial center into a sustainable new district of the city.

One of the best ways to discover Bilbao is on foot, exploring both the Old Town and surrounding neighborhoods. Many of the most interesting buildings are located in this area, such as the UNESCO World Heritage–listed Santiago Cathedral or the neoclassical Fine Arts Museum, which is home to an impressive collection of Spanish paintings and sculptures.

In recent years, Bilbao has also become a hub for innovative and sustainable design, as reflected in the many projects by local and international architects. These include the soaring white telecommunications tower that dominates the skyline, a revitalized shipyard with waterfront apartments and offices, and a series of ‘green’ residential developments built into the hilly terrain.

Outside of the city, the Ribera Market is a hive of activity where you can sample some of the regional cuisine and pick up fresh produce, meats, fish and cheeses. This is the place to try a typical Pintxo, a type of tapas-style appetizer that originated in Bilbao and is now popular across Spain.

Although it may seem strange to take a train trip through Northern Spain in this age of highways and budget flights, the views along these narrow-gauge lines are spectacular. And the chance to explore some of the tiny villages along the way and enjoy the hospitality of rural guesthouses is a real treat.


What do you get when you cross a Basque city with a Galician town, and then add the charm of a coastal port? This is how Santander fits into the puzzle that is Northern Spain.

While it is easy to reach San Sebastian from Paris, or even Madrid, getting around the northern regions of Spain requires a little more effort. There are highways connecting the cities, but flying is more expensive and buses can take longer to arrive.

Trains, however, are a great option for traveling from one region to the next. For those who are willing to invest a bit more time in their journey, you can experience a small part of Spain that is often missed by travelers: its hinterlands. And the best way to do it is with the El Transcantabrico tourist train, a luxury train that rolls on narrow-gauge tracks through the coastal regions of Galicia, Asturias, and Cantabria. The train, operated by FEVE, offers seven different routes that allow you to see Green Spain through the lens of luxury travel.

The train starts in Bilbao and ends in Santiago de Compostela. During your trip, you’ll be able to stop at a selection of the most beautiful towns and villages along the way. And you’ll have the opportunity to taste some of the local food and wine, as well as to visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The first leg of the journey takes you from Bilbao to San Sebastian via the railway line that was built in 1965. This line is hidden from the map of most trains, and it runs on narrow-gauge rails that are only 1000 mm wide. Nevertheless, it connects the cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian with the northern coast of Spain.

From the moment you step aboard, you’ll realize that this is no ordinary train ride. Every passenger has a comfortable seat near a picture window. And the people you share the ride with are not stressed out tourists, but chattering women on their way to a market, teenage sisters going to visit their grandmother, or a friar in street clothes taking his muzzled dog to the vet in Santander.

La Rioja

Getting to La Rioja is not easy, but its hidden landscapes are worth the effort. The region is a place where you can sit by a river with the wind blowing your hair in your face and watch the sheep and tough little ponies grazing on the hilltops. The magic of this part of Northern Spain can only be discovered in tiny villages where locals invite you to join them in their taverns and take you for a day on their boats.

Like the intriguing stranger at a party, La Rioja is the one you want to get to know – and this itinerary will let you do just that. Its coastal cities, mountain views and foodie destinations are all on offer. And, of course, its railways are a major part of the experience.

Historically, the railroads were the primary mode of transportation in La Rioja, connecting the area to the rest of Spain and abroad. As the economy reshaped following the 1970s crisis, railway modernization was an important project for the state and a way to promote economic growth in the Basque Country. In addition to that, it also provided the opportunity for the State to promote its political and cultural aspirations for a unified national space and a more competitive Spanish model of regional development.

In addition to passenger service, the region also uses its rail infrastructure for freight transport. The agri-food sector is an important economic player, with a large production of cereals (especially wheat and barley), vegetables and grapes. Other key industries include animal husbandry (especially sheep), wood processing and furniture manufacturing.

The region is also a leading producer of wines and its vineyards are set among some of the prettiest pastoral landscapes in all of Spain – a gentle patchwork of olive groves, sunflower meadows and vine fields that seem to be awash in vibrant blue skies. Discover the history of winemaking as you hop between pretty villages and renowned wineries, meeting proud local producers.

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