Nestled on the lush ‘Green Coast’ of northern Spain, Gijón has become a favourite beach escape for both local Asturians, and Spaniards from further afield. Lured in by the curved bay, golden sands, and gently lapping sapphire waves, it’s a refreshing escape when the mercury start’s going above 40-degrees in the country’s south.
Gijón’s beaches aren’t the only pull, though, as the city provides all the seafood restaurants, nightlife, and Art Nouveau architecture that you’ll need for entertainment away from the waters. As the largest city in the autonomous community, with around 270,000 residents, it’s a proper city-cum-beach-break, albeit with a far different vibe than you’ll find in the likes of Benidorm or Mallorca.
If you’re seeking small fishing villages, or remote golden sands, you’ll need to head slightly further down the coast. Cudillero, a cluster of colourful houses around a terraced bay for the former, or the often footprint-free Playas de Ballota for the latter.
For a mix of mornings exploring roman baths, afternoons lounging along the shore, and lively evenings sipping sidra (cider) as a seafood accompaniment, though, Gijón is an ideal Asturian coastal base.
Gijón is situated on the northwestern coast of Spain, looking out over the Bay of Biscay, in an area often called the ‘Green Coast’. It’s the largest city in the autonomous community of Asturias, but not the regional capital – that title goes to Oviedo.
The city’s local name is actually Xixón, pronounced hee-hon, which comes from the Asturian language. Sadly, this is a minority language in Spain, so if you want to learn some keywords to get by with, you’d be better to focus on learning some Spanish online before your visit.
Summer is of course the most popular time to visit Gijón, as Asturians and travellers from afar descend on the city’s beach. The average daily temperatures of 23°C in summer are particularly inviting for those who want to avoid the frankly unbearable heat in the south of Spain – trust me, I’ve spent the summer living in Andalucia before!
As a city break, it works well year-round, with daytime temperatures usually not falling below 13°C, though there are plenty more rainy days in the winter, which helps keep the region of Asturias so verdant.
Off-season travel to me is always the best time to visit Spain’s most popular destinations, so I’d personally suggest plumping for late spring or early autumn if you can to avoid the crowds and get better deals on accommodation.
Given Gijón is the largest city in the region, there are plenty of ways to keep yourself entertained both in the city, and closeby.
Top attractions in Gijón, Spain, include the Museo Ferrocarril (Asturias Railway Museum0, the aquarium, and Jovellanos’ Birthplace Museum (a famed historic figure of the city). Eschewing these, I focused most of my visit around Cimavilla – the historic upper quarter of the city – covering what is listed below.
Unsurprisingly, for many visitors, the main thing to do in Gijón is lay out their towel on Playa de San Lorenzo. Like a first-quarter moon, the city’s largest beach curves along the promenade, and the welcoming warm sands lead you to the refreshing waters.
While it’s a good spot for a paddle or dip, in autumn and winter you’ll see a fair few surfers out on the waters, thanks to the beach break.
The Roman Baths of Gijón sit at the western end of San Lorenzo Beach, and allow for an underground peek at some of the city’s history.
With platforms crossing over the archaeological site and artefacts, which were constructed between the 1st and 4th centuries, you can get a good look at what remains. While on first glimpse the site might not seem so impressive, if you look closely, you’ll see some well preserved details, as they weren’t re-discovered until the start of the 20th century.
Behind the Roman Baths, the Santa Catalina Headland provides a verdant-stroll with vistas back across the beach.
While you’ll spot some weathered 18th-century fortifications behind graffiti, the strangest concrete sighting is the Elogio del Horizonte sculpture, constructed in 1990.
While this has become something of a symbol of the city, I’d be lying if I said I found it particularly impressive, but it’s there for you to make your own judgement of this sea-praising artwork.
The Baroque Revillagigedo Palace (not mediaeval, although it appears so) is the backdrop to Marquis Square, a great spot to settle in for some people watching.
With the tower to one side, pastel-hued buildings behind, and small yachts bobbing in the harbour in front, the al fresco terraces are ideal for an afternoon drink.
Here you’ll also find the sidra (cider) tree, a testament to the art of siping fermented apple juice, which is undoubtedly one of the things to do in Gijón.
While Gijón’s architecture isn’t as impressive as other Spanish cities such as León, it does have a speciality to offer in the newer part of the city; plenty of Art Nouveau buildings.
In the 19th-century, the El Musel Port was booming, and plenty of wealth was trickling into the city. This led to some rather fanciful houses being built, and the ornate details can be seen on windows, door frames, and crowning the top of multi-floored townhouses.
Some of the best examples of this can be found around the Jovellanos Theatre, and the magnificent Café Dindurra next door.
One of the top attractions in Gijón, Spain is actually a short trip outside the city. In around 15-minutes, a bus will deliver you to the mammoth building, which is shrouded in stories, history, and for many, has very negative connotations.
Covering some 270,000 square metres, the Laboral Ciudad de la Cultura is regarded as the largest building in Spain. It’s mammoth, imposing, and has something of a macabre feel about it – a feeling that makes sense when you know the building history.
Commissioned by Franco (Spain’s 20th-century dictator), and initially constructed as an orphanage for children of miners, this vast classically-designed space was meant to be something of a self-contained city. There are many stories and doubts about how true this purpose was, and I’ll admit, as you see the towering walls and stand in the central square, there is something of an hidden-away-from-everything feel to the place.
In 1957, however, construction stopped unexpectedly. By then it was already being used as a Jesuits-led university, and it continued doing so, teaching trades to students from all across the country. In 1996, with no students left and the continuing downfall of the premises, the last nuns left, leaving it empty until the local government acquired it in 2001.
Debates followed, especially around destroying the mammoth sites due to its Francoist past; even as far as blocking a UNESCO nomination for it.
In the end, it was decided to save the vast building and repurpose it – although scars of the past remain, such as the empty and weather swimming pools. Nowadays, it serves various purposes, from housing governmental buildings to hosting a cultural programme of events.
To climb the tour and enter inside any of the buildings, you’ll need to arrange a tour in advance.
Read more: 25 ‘off the beaten path’ destinations in Spain
Gijón’s Botanic Gardens are a stone’s throw away from the Laboral Ciudad de la Cultural, and a nice way to cheer yourself up and reconnect with nature after standing inside such an imposing building.
I like how the gardens here are separated by the four seasons, giving each quarter its own personality, and with entry only a couple of euros, it’s a worthwhile hour or two before heading back into the city itself.
At the Museum of the Asturian People you’ll be able to learn a little more about local life and the region’s history. It’s a little walk from the centre, but if you’re interested in learning about regional history, recipes, instruments and architecture, it’s a nice mid-afternoon break from the beach.
From Gijón, it’s only a 30-minute train journey to Oviedo, the capital of Asturias. I absolutely adore this city; it’s the perfect size, has great food, and is super clean and pretty. For me, Oviedo is one of the best city breaks in Spain, so it makes sense to visit while you’re in Gijón if time allows.
Alternatively, if you want to explore a few more spots on a day-trip, then there are some guide tour options available, ideal if you don’t have a car and want to maximise time. This trip to Luarca, Cudillero and Avilés for example will allow you to see a little more of Asturias in one day.
Read more: A guide to Oviedo, Spain
While there is a bounty of fresh seafood available in Gijón, be sure to try some of the other typical regional dishes too.
Asturias is the largest cheese producing region of Spain – and maybe even Europe – and artisanal queso is a big deal here. If you ask a local how many different cheeses Asturias’ produces, you’ll hear numbers ranging from 50 to 300.
While the maths might be debatable, the quality certainly isn’t, and some of the most famous cheeses to sample include the blue Cabrales, naturally aged in caves, and the unpasteurized cow-milk Casín.
Cider in Asturias isn’t just a drink, it’s a whole culture, and the pouring of sidra is an artform in itself.
It’s not sweet, and there is no yeast – this is naturally fermented apple juice. It’s not even sparkling, the bubbles come from the high-pouring, which is why only a little should be poured at a time and quickly drunk. If you’re used to sweet, commercial cider it might take some getting used to, but it’s worth a taste, even if it’s just to try and master the pour.
If you’re lucky enough to be here in August, you might catch the Festival of the Natural Cider of Gijón. Thousands of cider bottles are raised and poured simultaneously before the bottles are placed on the ‘tree’ you see for the rest of the year in Plaza del Marqués.
One of the most famed dishes in Asturian cuisine is a hearty, fried slab of veal, cheese and ham, coated in breadcrumbs. Healthy? Not really. Delicious? You bet!
While the typical regional stew might be a bit heavy on a hot summer’s day, you should sample Fabada Asturiana at least once during your visit to Gijón.
The base of the dish is a local white kidney bean (if it’s the premium Verdina bean, even better), which are cooked in a fragrant stew and then topped with chunks of meat, such as blood sausage, pancetta and pork shoulder. It can usually be ordered as a smaller starter, or a hearty main course.
Gijón has a varied choice of accommodation to suit all budgets, though in the summer months you’ll want to book ahead.
Budget – Boogalow Hostel The dorms here aren’t the cheapest in town, but they are spacious and just seconds from San Lorenzo Beach.
Mid-range – NH Gijón This modern looking glass cube holiday is where I stayed on my last visit. It’s a short walk from the historic centre, but seconds from the beach. Some rooms have sea and beach views, as does the rooftop bar,
Luxury – Hotel Hernán Cortés Heritage building in a great location with more upscale rooms.
Exploring the city centre is easily done on foot, with the beach and main attractions a short walk from each other. The city bus network is decent and reliable.
If you’re coming from elsewhere in Spain, then using the train service is likely the best connection, with buses being a decent alternative. From Madrid, the journey by train takes around 5 hours on Renfe’s Intercity service, while from nearby Oviedo, you can reach Gijón by train in just over 30 minutes.
Train tickets, especially for long distance journeys which should be booked in advance, can be made directly on the Renfe website (usually cheaper) or using popular apps like Omio.
BlaBlaCar, a car-share service (where you book a spare seat in the car of someone already making a journey) is also very popular in Spain, and worth checking out if you struggle to find a direct connection from your starting point. ALSA is the main bus company for intercity travel in Spain.
Read more: A guide to travelling in Spain by train
The nearest airport to Gijon is Asturias Airport, a 45 minute journey by bus from the city. Currently, there are limited flights from this airport, including from London, however the schedules have been growing rapidly each year.
If you want to visit Northern Spain from the UK without flying, you have two options.
The first is to take the Eurostar to London, and from there the train to Bayonne. To cross from France to Spain, you can opt for a two bus connection via Bilbao (likely slightly cheaper). You can expect this route to take around 16-hours if timed well.
By train the best option is go from Paris to Perpignan, Barcelona, Madrid and then finally Gijon – this will be longer and more expensive.
An alternative is to take the ferry from the UK, operated by Brittany Ferries, either departing Portsmouth or Plymouth (though some sailings are only in summer), and arriving in Santander or Bilbao. Both journeys involve two nights aboard the ship. From either arrival point, you can continue by car if driving, pick up a rental car, or take an approximately 5-hour bus or train journey to Gijón.
If returning the same way, you might want to consider spending a night in San Sebastian before sailing back, another enchanting coastal destination with one of the best culinary scenes in the county.
From Gijón, it’s easy to continue your journey by train to explore the beautiful city of Oviedo, or the architecture-heavy cities in the neighbouring Castile and León region. Beyond, plenty more of Spain’s hidden gems await.
Read more: Northern Spain itineraries by train
This article was written following my #SpainByTrain trip in autumn 2022 in partnership with Spain Tourism and Asturias Tourism.