The rough Atlantic coast is also known as "the wild sister" of the Mediterranean.
Travelling through northern Spain and Portugal in a motorhome, with the sea always in view, is a real adventure. The contrast between north Spain and the rest of the country is like night and day. They both have their charm – but the north is perfect for anyone who wants to experience the country from its untamed and less touristy side. The Portuguese Atlantic coast is just as fascinating with its colourful houses, pretty towns and breathtaking landscapes.
Spring and autumn are the perfect time to get to know the Atlantic coast: the climate is pleasantly mild, and the summer heat and tourist hustle and bustle are either weeks away or a distant memory. We encounter the many faces of the Atlantic coast on our multifaceted journey.
The places we travel to have one thing in common: the Spanish and Portuguese are warm hosts and very fond of children. Nobody complains when the little ones are a little loud or cry. On the contrary – in no time at all, the kids will be holding lollipops or small gifts in their hands, which most restaurants have at the ready for their young guests.
As you can see, ideal conditions for a fun family holiday. In case you and your children are or want to become avid surfers, you'll find an abundance of great spots and surf schools along the Atlantic coast.
The Basque Country – sharks, vibrant forests and picture-perfect beaches
Welcome to this northwestern corner of Spain, known for its diverse cuisine, imposing rocky landscapes, rich traditions and advanced industry.
San Sebastián, its "shell beach" and "pintxos"
We start our trip in San Sebastián, a charming coastal town near the French border. “La Concha”, its wide city beach, was voted the most beautiful beach in Europe for the second time in 2018 by the users of the travel portal “TripAdvisor”.
Spanning 54,000 m², the crescent-shaped sandy beach stretches in front of the Basque city. The bay was given the name “La Concha” (“the shell”) because of its round shape.
Enjoy an amazing view of the city and the beach from San Sebastián's local mountain, the "Monte Igueldo". The cosy cogwheel railway ("Igueldo Funicular") takes visitors up to the top in a short space of time. Once there, you can have fun on merry-go-rounds and rides at the small "Parque de Atracciones" amusement park.
Another must-see for children is the San Sebastián Aquarium near the city's harbour. It is one of the most impressive oceanographic museums in Europe. It not only vividly illustrates the seafaring history of San Sebastián and displays many marine animals from the Atlantic Sea – visitors will also be more than impressed by the huge whale skeleton and the “shark tunnel” where you can observe the fascinating animals up close.
Then in the evening, make sure you don't miss out on tasting some of the famous cuisine of the Basque Country while strolling through the old town. San Sebastián is a “pintxos” stronghold – miniature gourmet dishes artfully skewered on slices of bread.
The "Oma Forest" and cave paintings
With delicious pintxos in our stomachs and the sun on our skin, we drive further west along the coast. It's worth taking a detour inland to “Kortezubi” as people of all ages can enjoy two attractions here: the “Cueva de Santimamiñe” cave with prehistoric cave paintings and the “Oma Forest”.
This “enchanted forest” was created by the Spanish sculptor and painter Agustín Ibarrola who used nature as a canvas and painted vibrant patterns on the huge pine trees.
You can find more family activities in the Basque Country, e.g. “Valle Salado" ("Salt Valley"), here.
Mystical rock landscape near Barrika – "Game of Thrones" film location
The setting around the coastal town of Barrika is breathtaking. The rugged rock landscape consisting of layers of sand and limestone rises in strips from the sea and stretches up to the cliff.
Given this magical sight, it is not surprising that this extraordinary coastal landscape was one of the filming locations of the fantasy saga "Game of Thrones".
Asturias – dinosaurs and cider on the "Costa Verde"
We continue travelling along the coast to Asturias, also known as "Costa Verde" ("green coast") because of its lush landscape. The region is abundant with national parks and picture-perfect rocky bays.
Fishing village of Llanes
This picturesque coastal village is one of the most beautiful places on the "Costa Verde". Since everything can be done easily on foot – window shopping, strolling along the promenade, eating in good restaurants – Llanes is perfect for a relaxed family stay.
It is also surrounded by beautiful beaches, e.g. “Playa de Poo”, a white sandy bay nestled between green cliffs, therefore sheltered from the sea, with crystal clear water as smooth as glass.
Bees, national parks and wine bars
If you want to explore the rural life of Asturias, we recommend visiting the "Aula de la Miel de los Picos de Europa" honey farm in the traditional village of Alles. You can try different types of honey on the estate and learn about the amazing world of bees.
Nearby is the "Picos de Europa" National Park, which is partly located in the beautiful region of Cantabria. Enjoy the fascinating natural landscapes on a hiking tour.
The whole of northern Spain is known for its delicious apple wine, known locally as "Sidra". The city of Oviedo and its surroundings have become a Mecca for this iconic golden yellow drink, but you will also find rustic wine bars all along the coast where you can try this sweet/dry drink.
The dinosaur coast and the Jurassic Museum of Asturias in Colunga
Hardly anything fascinates children more than dinosaurs. These prehistoric giants left their traces in the truest sense of the word in Asturias – the stretch of coast between Gijón and Ribadesella is also known as the “dinosaur coast” as a wealth of reptile bones have been found here. Huge, amazingly well-preserved dinosaur footprints can still be seen along the coast to this day and are among the most important archaeological finds in Spain.
Researchers found footprints measuring 1.20 m in diameter near the “Playa de la Griega” beach – the second largest dinosaur footprints in the world. The dinosaur tracks along the coast are marked on information boards and accessible to hikers. Children can also go on exciting fossil hunts.
The Jurassic Museum of Asturias in Colunga is the place to go if you are interested in dinosaurs – and in keeping with the theme, it has been built in the shape of a dinosaur footprint. More than 8000 prehistoric finds are on display here and gigantic dinosaur models as high as the ceiling tower over visitors.
Galicia – wild horses, lighthouses and “pulpo” at the end of the world
We continue on to Galicia, a fertile land known for its many lighthouses, boasting a landscape that is more reminiscent of Ireland than Spain. The Romans considered the rocky coast at "Cape Finisterre" in the most western point of the region as the end of the known world.
Galicia is also famous for its excellent fish. You should also try the legendary Galician “Pulpo” (squid), “Caldo” (soup made from white beans, potatoes and ham) and “Pimientos de Padrón” (peppers fried in olive oil, sometimes spicy).
In addition to its traditional towns and villages, Galicia is also a paradise for nature lovers. You can still catch sight of wild horses when hiking through nature reserves, such as the "Sierra de Capelada" in the north of the region. A fervid hunt, the "rapa de bestas", takes place between June and August when the horses are driven into the villages and sheared – needless to say, a long-standing tradition as well as a controversial custom.
The capital of the region, bearing the illustrious name of "Santiago de Compostela", is known beyond Spain's borders for being the final destination of the Way of St James. Its proud cathedral is said to be the burial place of the apostle Saint James the Great. The mediaeval old town is best explored on foot.
The 7 km long "Playa de Carnota" in the west of Galicia is stunning. This beautiful, white, horseshoe-shaped sandy bay boasts a sea that glitters in an almost Caribbean turquoise.
"Bom dia, Porto!" and what Harry Potter and semi-sweet wine have to do with it
We continue south and cross the border to wonderful Portugal. The enchanting city of Porto in the north of the country amazes visitors with its colourful houses, the wide "Rio Douro" and the many cosy port wine cellars (definitely do a tour!) where this semi-sweet wine is stored.
There are a wealth of things to see and do for families with children: feast your way through Portuguese cuisine, admire the city from the water on a boat trip on the Rio Douro, go on excursions to the bays around the city – the list is endless.
One small sensation that you shouldn't withhold from your kids (nor from yourself) is a very specific book store. But this isn't any ordinary book shop – it could just as easily be a Harry Potter film set, and that's no coincidence as J.K. Rowling visited the “Lello & Irmao” book store during her time as an English teacher in Porto. A large part of the first volume was even created in these imposing halls full of bookcases, elegant stairs and splendour.
After our short Harry Potter detour, we have to get back to food and Portuguese cuisine. Try “Pastel de Natas” (heavenly pudding tarts), “Pastéis de bacalhau” (croquettes made from cod, the favourite fish of the Portuguese) and “Francesinhas” (translates as “Frenchie”: a mighty ham and cheese sandwich filled with various sausages, swimming in a hearty meat and cheese sauce, definitely not for vegetarians).
Nazaré and Coimbra – giant waves and fantasy backdrops
We're slowly making our way to Lisbon – slowly because it's also worth stopping over in Nazaré and Coimbra. The former is a coastal town where extremely high waves break on the shore. Accordingly, surfing world records are set here regularly.
Coimbra should also be on the itinerary of every Harry Potter and fantasy fan. It is one of the oldest university towns in Europe and the students wear school uniforms that could also have come from J.K. Rowling's novels. The city also has a lively bar and restaurant scene. And thanks to the small size of the old town, Coimbra is perfect for exploring on foot.
Lisbon – colourful charm, crazy tram rides and high-level dining
Lisbon is undoubtedly one of those cities that you have to have visited at least once in your lifetime. This is the place to be if you're interested in food and culture. Moreover, the Portuguese capital is overflowing with charm thanks to its asphalted hills, typical trams and colourful, at times very old, houses.
You can't leave Lisbon without having ridden on the historic no. 28 tram, which will take you to and through the most interesting areas of the city. It gets pretty adventurous when it drives through incredibly narrow streets. Or if you want to explore the city in a fun way with fewer people, take a rickshaw.
Located at the mouth of the Tagus River, "Torre de Belém" (Belém Tower) is also worth a visit. It is one of the city's most important landmarks and one of the few buildings that survived the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755. There is a viewing platform on the upper floor of the 35 m high tower. From 1521 onwards, it served as an imposing lighthouse, welcoming explorers and merchant ships to the city.
The "Time Out Market" is a magical experience for the palate. This lively and ultra-modern market hall has numerous stalls, small restaurants and cafés where you can try the local cuisine.
Are you planning on going further south from Lisbon? Then read about our travel experiences in Andalusia.
There are numerous campsites scattered along the Atlantic coast thanks in part to the surfing culture.