Sun, sand, and sangria. Bullfights, paella, and flamenco. These are, in the imaginations of many in the States, the very essence of Spain. But the open secret is that almost all of that is an invention. It’s a theme park for tourists from abroad. When Spaniards go on vacation, they go as far from that as they can. They go visit Asturias, Galicia, and Cantabria. Here’s why you should too, and why I am partial to Asturias over its neighbors.
Located on the northern coast of Spain, on the Bay of Biscay, Asturias is a pre-Roman kingdom with deep Celtic roots. It is also incredibly green and lush, which by itself marks it out as different from the Spain of the popular conception. Welcome to the only place in Spain where you can dance with castanets to bagpipe bands at a blue cheese festival!
Reason 1: The Geography
Asturias is roughly twice the size of Delaware or two thirds the size of Connecticut. In that ~10,000 km2, you can find a huge variety of landscapes. Every one except for the ones you find in the rest of Spain. I joke, but it really is a world away from the popular conception of Spain. Fully 80% of Asturias is mountains. They spill right down to the coast in many places. Densely forested, and boasting dramatic limestone peaks. In other places gently rolling hills are dotted with hardwood trees and herds of cattle. Below, fertile farmlands are bisected by wide salmon-filled rivers. Rocky headlands and blowhole studded seafront cliffs lead to wide sandy beaches with bars and surfing. Rocky coves with tiny secluded beaches hidden away. All of these are easily found in Asturias.
Asturias has two large cities, Gijón and Oviedo. Well, large is relative term here. These are the only places in Asturias with a population over 200,000. They are, respectively, the largest city and main port, and the capital and administrative center.
There are also two smaller cities with populations between 50 and 75,000: Avilés and Siero. Then there are three large towns with a population above 20,000: Langreo, Mieres, and Castrillón. All of these are located either at the ports or in the cuencas mineras – the mining valleys. Formed by the river Nalón, this central valley is the industrial powerhouse of Asturias. And though the coal mines are all shut, it is still the cultural and economic heart of the province.
Reason 2: La Costa Verde
The “Green Coast” of Asturias is straight out of a dream. Whether you are looking for great beaches or quaint fishing villages, there are plenty of options. Many times you can find both in the same place.
First, the villages. Asturian coastal villages are postcard worthy settings. Dramatic cliffs with houses spilling down right to the water. Fishing boats tied up in impossibly tiny ports. Lonely lighthouses stoically perched on windswept headlands. If you want to eat seafood and drink cider and relax, this is how you do it. You could easily spend a month just visiting Asturian coastal villages.
And the beaches. There are so many beaches in Asturias that the government has a website for you to use to find the perfect one for your mood today. Complete with tide information, how crowded they are, pictures, and sometimes webcams or real-time parking information, it’s a one-stop shop for planning a day at the beach.
Whether you want to learn to surf or sit on the sand, there is a beach for you. Prefer to have a drink and a snack? There are dozens of great chiringuitos to choose from. Want a beach steps from your hotel, or in the middle of the city? Easy. Want peace and quiet? There are dozens of beaches to choose from where almost no one goes. Try finding that in the South of Spain!
Reason 3: The Villages and Rural Tourism
Outside of the central valley which houses all of the larger towns and cities mentioned above, Asturias is much different. Every other place in Asturias is smaller than 20,000 people. Most are much, much smaller than that, and outside of this central valley, Asturias is profoundly rural.
Ask any Spaniard what their favorite vacation memories are, and there’s a good chance they will tell you about a week spent in a casa rural in a tiny village in Asturias. Found all over Asturias, these rental houses offer a unique base of operations for exploring Asturias, almost always in the center of a quiet village. Perfect for families and groups, it is also possible to find smaller casas rurales catering more to couples. Walk to the village bar. Get your bread from the bakery van every morning. Cook out on the grill (there is always a grill). This hospitality is a reason that literally the entirety of Spain loves to visit Asturias.
Reason 4: The Gastronomy
I have worked with and around food my whole life, so I like to think my opinion on food carries some sort of weight. The first time I visited Asturias, I fell in love with the food culture here. And I think you will also.
Once again, ask any Spaniard what they love most about Asturias, and they will almost certainly say la comida – the food. The food in Asturias is miles different from the food you find south of the mountains. There is a reason that its stews like Fabada are famous throughout Spain, and it’s cheeses like Cabrales famous the world over.
Asturias demand to eat well, and are not ones to suffer bad food or service lightly. The result is that you are completely safe walking to the lowliest restaurant or bar cafeteria in the scruffiest part of an Asturian industrial park. You’ll likely get a meal you’d write home about if it were 5 times the cost and on a white tablecloth in Madrid.
Ask those Spaniards to tell you another thing they love about Asturias, and they will say la sidra – the cider. Cider culture in Asturias is so unique and convivial. It’s almost impossible not to get caught up in the romance and the camaraderie of it.
Reasons Not To Visit Asturias
Taken by itself, the food alone would be reason enough to visit Asturias. Add to that the geography, the temperate climate, and the rural character of the place, I think Asturias is the best of what Spain has to offer.
However, Asturias is not the best at everything. There are a few things that you won’t find in Asturias, and you should know that too, before you decide if you should visit Asturias.
Asturias is not a nightlife hot spot. There are definitely bars and clubs open late into the night in Gijón, and a few in Oviedo, but this is not a party place. No nightclub boulevard beckons. Clubs here are smaller, less frequent, and the patrons somewhat better behaved than you might be familiar with in Madrid or Barcelona. If partying all night hopping from one club to another is your plan, Asturias might not be for you.
You also won’t find many American tourists. Or a lot of foreign tourists at all. While it is true that the Picos de Europa national park, with some of the best climbing in all of Spain, draws a fair few foreign tourists, they tend to be from Northern or Eastern Europe, and they don’t venture far from the park. If finding an expat community or “Irish Pub” kind of experience is what you are hunting, Asturias might not be for you.