Spain’s Atlantic Coast Beaches

Playa de la Arnia, a busy Atlantic beach scene in Cantabria province.

Playa de la Arnia, a busy Atlantic beach scene in Cantabria province.

Atlantic Coast Beaches: Costa de Cantabria, Costa Vasca, Costa Verde and Galicia

In contrast to the hot, dry and overbuilt coastlines of Spain’s Mediterranean costas, the rugged green shores of the Atlantic coastline in the north and north-west present spectacular views of natural beaches framed by lush and dramatic landscapes yet to be overpowered by mass tourism, though in midsummer they are increasingly popular with inland Spanish refugees.

Good things about Spain’s Atlantic beaches

• summer air temperatures are warm (in the mid 20Cs) but not unpleasantly hot.

• the roads and autopistas are wide, good condition, fast and mostly uncrowded (cruise-control is unusually useful! )

• most people around you will be Spanish – both locals and tourists fleeing uncomfortable southern parts.

• prices are remarkably reasonable.

• the selection of beaches is massive, ranging from cute natural coves to 3km stretches of foot-friendly sand bordered by pleasant promenades.

• the sand is generally very light brown and soft. Pebbles are infrequent.

• when you need a break from sand the Picos de Europa mountains or interesting cities/towns are not far away. We loved Bilbao, San Sebastian, Santanilla de Mar, Comillas and Santiago de Compostela. Santander was also fine but not fantastic.

• Going topless is fine, legal and commonplace though full-on nudism is not.

There are well-established beach resorts with excellent facilities to be found on the Costa Vasca (the north east Basque Country – Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya provinces). Examples: Costa de Cantabria (central Atlantic coast), Costa Verde (Asturias, centre/east) coasts, with more less-spoilt beaches lurking further west in the Galicia regions of Rias Altas, Rias Baixas.  And don’t forget Costa da Morte (coast of death – something tells me it wasn’t a PR person who coined that name).

Not such good things

• sea water temperatures range from cool to very cold.

• locals also head for the beach during the summer months, including the more distant and remote ‘secret’ beaches, so don’t expect to be alone.

• in some places parking is difficult to find, while others make a modest charge for parking in a field (1-3 euros per day). The most difficult/expensive place to park we found was San Sebastian.


Naturally the weather in the northwest of Spain is cooler and less predictable than that of the Mediterranean coasts. Summers tend to be humid and pleasantly warm (mostly mid 20Cs; maximum 30C), with plentiful sunshine, occasional cloudy skies and rare rain, while the rest of the country is frequently unbearably hot.
Winters can be bitterly cold with significant amounts of rain (over 4 inches per month) October to April.

Costa Vasca (Basque Coast)

Concha Bay beaches, large Concha (left) and smaller Ondarreta, San Sebastian, Basque Country, Costa Vasca, Spain

Concha Bay beaches, larger Concha (left) and smaller Ondarreta, San Sebastian seen from Monte Iguelda (with a little help from the teleferico! ).

Playa de la Concha, San Sebastian

Former Queen Maria Cristina’s summer retreat in the late 19th century, the fine sandy beaches of La Concha are considered by many to be a couple of Europe’s most attractive urban beaches.

San Sebastian is in the Spain’s Basque Country (Euskadi in Basque, Pais Vasco in Spanish), just an hour’s drive from the other big Basque name of Bilbao. France’s Basque city of Biarritz is about 2 hours in the opposite direction.

La Concha refers to the bay’s scallop shell shape, which is bordered by a wide and delightful promenade and cycle lane.

The bay has a gorgeous panorama including the two hills at each end of the crescent beach and Santa Clara island in the middle of the bay – which is accessible by ferry in the summer.

The beach size depends greatly on the tide status. Low tide and the beaches are massive, high tide and they are about 70% smaller.

Facilities are surprisingly limited (as usual showers are everywhere but toilets are not so common), sand is soft and light brown unless damp, tho’ some parts of Playa Ondarreta are a bit stony at the water’s edge.

Concha beach, San Sebastian, Basque Country, Costa Vasca, Spain

Concha beach at low tide. You can clearly see the beach is much smaller at high tide.


A tiny, attractive seaside town 30 kms north-east of Bilbao city, Mundaka is dead in winter but turns into a vibrant surf shangri-la in summertime, as its beach is home to Europe’s longest and most awesome left-hander waves, a result of sizeable river-meets-Atlantic Ocean creating perfect surf-trigger sandbanks.
October sees the world championship Billabong Pro surf competition here.

Zarautz, (Guipúzcoa)

Zarautz beach east view, Basque Country, Spain

Zarautz promenade and beach looking east, Guipúzcoa.

The 2. 5km long Zarautz is Spanish Basque Country’s longest beach. It’s easily accessible (with a large underground car park under the west end of the promenade), fairly wide (depending on the tide) with promenade, a lovely, relaxed atmosphere, decent bars and good value restaurants.

Popular with watersports aficionados, especially board surfers, but naturalists also like to hang out on the distant section of Playa Zarautz under the rocky headland.

The Palace of Narros, adjacent to the beach, is where Queen Isabella II spent her summer holidays.
Zarautz is connected to the European road network and to the rest of Spain by the A8 motorway, while trains connect it with San Sebastian and Bilbao.

Zarautz beach surfers, Basque Country, Spain

And some of Zarautz wave action in early September. . .

Funny old place, Zarautz, with hundreds of out-of-shape oldies trundling along the beach for walkies while the young fry strap into wetsuits and disappear into the waves. Less visible is the 30s – 60s age group, though young kids enjoy the damp sand as brilliant for castle construction.

Costa de Cantabria (Cantabria Province)

Playa Meron, one of the superb beaches in San Vicente de Barquera on Spain

Playa Meron, one of the superb beaches in or near San Vicente de Barquera on Spain’s Costa de Cantabria, with the Picos de Europa peeking over the horizon.

San Vicente

San Vicente would make a terrific base for a summer holiday wandering between beaches (several great ones nearby) and mountains (Picos de Europa, just 20 minutes away). However, it is small, with commensurately small number of places to stay and dine in. For something much more extensive Santander is the obvious alternative.


Playa Camello, Santander, Spain

One of Santander’s half dozen fine, full-facility beaches, this is Playa Camello.

The capital of the Spanish region of Cantabria makes a good base to explore the best of the northern Spain, from beaches to mountains. It’s a very pleasant port city with good access from the UK or an easy drive via France, with some decent old architecture and a relaxed atmosphere though few classic tourist attractions.

Playa Segunda, one of four beaches on the shore of Santander. This bench would be pole-position for summer fireworks as they usually blast off from the far end of this beach.

Playa Segunda, one of four beaches on the El Sardinero shore of Santander. This bench would be pole-position for summer fireworks as they usually blast off from the far end of this beach.

Santander is situated on the Atlantic coast between Asturias and the Basque country on the Costa de Cantabria and has half a dozen fine city beaches to choose from on two coasts, with regular bus services and free parking if you get there early enough (by 10am? ) Nearby, within 15 minutes, are plenty more lovely beaches.

In addition, thanks to the brilliant Autopista A8/S-10/A67 it takes between 15 minutes and 90 minutes to reach just about all the best sights in Cantabria from the Picos de Europa mountains to various awesome Costa de Cantabria beaches.

Costa Verde (Asturias Province)

Playa Gulpiyuri, (Asturias)

Gulpiyuri beach, Asturias, a Spanish Natural Monument, Astuias, Costa Verde, Spain

Gulpiyuri beach, Asturias, a Spanish Natural Monument. Photo by Franciaio

This is one of the world’s oddest beaches as it looks, feels and behaves like a regular tidal beach but is in fact 100 m (300ft) from the shore and the seawater therein travels via a huge, natural, underwater tunnel. In fact, geologically speaking it’s a sinkhole.
However, Gulpiyuri is very difficult to find as it is not signposted at all. It is also very popular, with extremely limited parking, legal and illegal. When we went there the local policia were in attendance and not happy as there were serious blockages caused by thoughtless parking.
To get there from the A8 take exit 306, park near the exit bridge and walk! Alternatively walk there from Playa de San Antolin. Gulpiyuri beach is north of Naves town.

Playa del Silencio, (Asturias)

Playa Silencio, Asturias, Spain

Playa Silencio on a grey day in August, with few beach users but still quite a few sightseers and walkers as there are pretty tracks around. The route down is quite steep, with steps towards the bottom.

Spain’s rugged Asturian coastline has over 200 beaches and coves, especially around the resort town of Llanes, such as Blue Flag Barro Beach and the surfing beach of Salinas. The best-known Asturias beach is unspoilt Playa del Silencio/Gavieiro Beach, famed for its dramatically enclosed bay, though it offers coarse gravel rather than sand;
Take the A8 (E-70), turn off at exit 441, head for Santa Marina but after 2 kms the road goes through the tiny village of Castañeras, turn off there where it is signposted to Playa Silencio. The road near the beach is one way, one lane with very limited parking though 4WD will have more options than regular cars. There is a field at the top of the cliff that offers a fair amount of pay parking in the summertime.

San Lorenzo Beach, Gijón (Asturias)

Gijón’s 1. 5 km long town beach, Playa San Lorenzo, is a well-known surfing spot, as the wide, exposed beach has regular surf. Autumn and winter are the best time for waves.


Playa de Las Catedrales (aka As Catedrais),Ribadeo region of Galicia

A bride on As Catedrais beach, Galicia, Spain

As Catedrais beach at low tide, on Galicia’s north Atlantic coast.

Officially called ‘Praia de Augas Santas’ but also As Catedrais or Playa/Praia de Las Catedrales, this 880m long beach is famous for its exceptional rock formations sculpted by the wind and waves.
Visit either at high tide when the beach disappears so the rocks look like a vast, bombed-out cathedral standing on water, or at low tide when hundreds – if not thousands on peak summer days – of sightseers like to walk the bizarre beach. Sunbathing is possible though the sand is quite damp and firm and won’t be around for very long as tides come and go quickly as the sand gradient is minimal. Swimming is permitted and monitored on one section only.
However, just 10 minutes walk along the gorgeous coast path are a cluster of almost unused beaches that are lovely and offer space, parking and some facilities.

Playa de Estorde, La Coruña

Situated 80 km south west of La Coruña in Galicia, the crescent shape of Estorde beach is about a half km long with fine white sand and calm waters. Usually a peaceful hideaway, it becomes a playground for locals on Sundays.

Playa de Rodas (Praia das Rodas), Las Islas Cies

The wild and spectacular Galicia region north of Portugal, has more striking beaches with fewer people on them than just about anywhere in Spain.
The best one could be the remote Playa de Rodas on Las Islas Cies (Island of Gods), nicknamed ‘Caribbean Beach’ by locals.
The Cies islands are uninhabited and part of a national park open to the public during summer only. To get to the islands requires a 40-minute boat ride from Baiona. The 1. 5 km long, crescent Rodas beach is draped in soft, pale sand and backed by pine woods and dunes, a calm lagoon of crystal-clear water visited frequently by sea lions.

Praia (Playa) de Area Longa, Rias Baixas

Looking over Castro de Baroña to Praia de Area Longa beach, Rias Baixas, Galicia, Spain

Looking over from Castro de Baroña to Praia de Area Longa beach. Another larger beach is next to that, Playa do Dique.

This is something of a long shot but worth exploring. If you’re visiting Santiago de Compostela and want to take a day driving along the Rias Baixas coast, this area is stunning.
We didn’t get to the Area Longa beach as we had such a fantastic time exploring this ancient fortified Celtic village but the beach looked the business from here (white sands, blue waters, food/drink supplies) and there are plenty of diversions for kids (the rock pools) and adults (the Castro of course).
Many beach visitors (we assumed as they weren’t in the Castro! ) were parked on the roads around the large hotel/bar/restaurant beside the Castro Baroña information pod that’s on the beautiful AC-550 road not far from Porto de Son. From there it’s a beautiful short walk down through the forest to reach the beach or Castro or both. Buena Suerte!