Playa de la Arnia, a busy Atlantic beach scene in Cantabria province.
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, 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 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.
Costa de Cantabria (Cantabria Province)
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.
Costa Verde (Asturias Province)
Playa Gulpiyuri, (Asturias)
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 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.
Playa de Las Catedrales (aka As Catedrais),Ribadeo region of Galicia
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.