How to visit Spain in a sustainable way

Spain offers travellers some of Europe's most diverse landscapes, from rugged coastlines to soaring mountains to vast national parks. It’s no surprise that it’s one of the most popular holiday destinations in the world. 

But the popularity has led to Spain regularly beating its own records for tourism arrivals, which has a negative aspect on the country, its communities and its natural habitats. While it's tempting to hurry through the checklist of famous sights, Spain rewards those who slow down and dig deeper. By travelling sustainably, visitors can fully experience Spain's natural wonders while supporting local communities and conservation efforts.

This guide highlights some of the country's most captivating sustainable travel destinations and guided cultural tours that are perfect for exploring on foot and immersing yourself in the local culture for memories to treasure for a lifetime. 

Why we need to rethink sustainable travel

Sustainable tourism and travel goes beyond just appreciating nature and the outdoors. It's about immersing oneself in the entirety of a destination — its culture, food, history, and people — in a thoughtful and responsible way. When we travel sustainably, we seek out authentic local restaurants that source ingredients from the region, supporting local farms and businesses. It’s taking the time to learn about the heritage and customs that shaped a place over centuries; it’s staying in small, locally-owned accommodations and participating in activities that give back to the community. 

The goal is to tread lightly, spend money in a way that empowers residents, and gain a meaningful understanding of a destination. Sustainable travel requires being open-minded, patient, and willing to connect with local people. It may mean forgoing some conveniences or venturing off the beaten path. But in return, it provides rich experiences and relationships that would be difficult to find otherwise. When practised responsibly by many, sustainable travel can help preserve local economies, environments, and ways of life for generations to come.

Basque Country

The Basque Country offers travellers a perfect blend of natural beauty, cutting-edge sustainability and vibrant culture. One of the highlights of this area is the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve which protects the estuary of the Oka River and surrounding wetlands. Declared a UNESCO Biosphere in 1984, it is home to over 300 species of birds and a model for sustainable development. Deemed the perfect spot for sightseeing and taking shots of the spectacular views, visitors can explore the area by canoe or book a guided hike with an expert from Urdaibai Bird Centre.

verde montanas norte espana viaje sostenible lujo2The Basque Country is known for its incredible culinary traditions and fresh local ingredients. Foodies should indulge in a pintxos crawl through the bars of San Sebastian, sampling small plates like smoked anchovies, Idiazabal cheese and marinated octopus to experience the gastronomic culture here. Visitors can also enrol in a cookery class to learn how to craft pintxos and traditional stews, or join a gastronomic tour of a local market. 

The Basque Country also holds numerous prehistoric sites, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Altamira with its famous painted caves. Other intriguing destinations include the Iron Age settlement at Iruña-Veleia, the Neolithic campsite at Santimamiñe and dinosaur footprints along the Coastal Route. Several museums also showcase Basque heritage, like the schematic etchings at Ekainberri replica cave, history of marine navigation at Untzi Museoa and Basque ethnography at Guernica Peace Museum.

For a wealth of green spaces, cycle routes and medieval attractions, check out the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz. It’s a hidden gem of this area and is the perfect spot for immersing yourself in the culture of the Basque Country. Or head to Zumaia Beach, get up close to the breathtaking Flysch rock formations, created over 60 million years as the Earth’s tectonic plates collided. After a day of adventure, bed down at the Casa Vita Ea Astei, an eco-friendly hotel powered by geothermal and solar energy. 

Catalonia

From volcanic peaks to sweeping wetlands, Catalonia encapsulates the diversity of the Spanish landscape. The volcanic region of La Garrotxa holds over 40 volcanic cones and craters to explore by foot or bike, where you can hike along networks of designated routes through beech forests and meadows to reach spectacular vistas. The Can Xel Volcanic Cave makes for an especially memorable visit.

One of Catalonia’s must-see attractions is the Ebro Delta Natural Park, where the Ebro River meets the Mediterranean Sea — a birdwatcher's paradise and spectacular greenery that is home to more than 300 recorded species. Paddle along peaceful canals in a traditional Catalan rowboat or guided kayak tour with Delta Polet, stop to observe flamingos and other wading birds feeding along the marshy shores. Travellers to this region could also take part in a truly memorable experience by joining the conservation team from Project Sepia as they study and protect the delta's unique biodiversity by night and day.

There are many eco-tourism accommodations in Catalonia, such as rural cottages, farmhouses and small hotels. These accommodations are committed to sustainable practices but still offer luxury, such as using renewable energy, reducing water consumption and minimising waste. A top pick is Mas Can Batlle, an eco-friendly agritourism hotel housed in a traditional Catalan farmhouse. Powered by solar panels and a biomass heating system, the rooms offer a comfortable base for exploring the region.

Asturias

With its rugged green mountains and wild coastline, Asturias packs in highlights from Picos de Europa National Park to picturesque coastal villages that make it a great choice for an eco-friendly trip. The limestone massifs of the Picos de Europa extend across Asturias, Cantabria, and Castile and León. Hike through the dramatically sculpted Naranjo de Bulnes, trek to the iconic turquoise Covadonga Lakes or descend into the cave system of La Oxu.

Ilagos covadonga asturias viaje sostenible lujon the Redes Nature Reserve, wildlife enthusiasts can spot wild brown bears, wolves and the indigenous Asturian mountain cattle. Visitors can even take a fascinating bear tracking excursion with expert biologists from the local community. The Somiedo Nature Park, meanwhile, encompasses five glacier-carved valleys dotted with small villages and dotted with idyllic lakes. Explore on horseback for breathtaking vistas of the dramatic peaks.

For an immersive look into Asturias' history and culture, visitors can take part in a walking tour along a section of the original Roman road outside of Oviedo. Led by an expert guide, the tour winds through the forested landscape and over rolling hills while stopping at various points of interest along the 2,000-year-old paved route. Or in the town square, listen to local musicians put on a lively performance of traditional Asturian folk music — experiencing indigenous music and cuisine with the locals is the ideal way to feel enveloped by Asturias’ culture. 

For a hands-on cultural experience, book a workshop with the shepherds of Quei Vitorino Farmstead to make local artisanal cheeses with their organic cow, goat and sheep milk. Visitors can assist with the entire process from milking to moulding. After working up an appetite, refuel at Trabanco, a traditional cider house and restaurant. Sample Asturian cuisine paired with fresh-pressed cider poured directly from the cask.

Andalusia

From the snow-capped Sierra Nevada to the sun-soaked Costa del Sol, Andalusia showcases diverse natural landscapes alongside fascinating Moorish and Andalusian culture. The rich culture here and unique traditions make it a great place to connect with the locals and learn about the history of the area. There are also a number of sustainable tourism initiatives here, from eco transport options to environmentally friendly hotels, that make it easier for travellers to lighten the impact of their trip. 

ciudades cultura viajes sostenibles lujoSierra Nevada National Park features the highest peak in mainland Spain, the 3,479 metre Mulhacén. Hike through alpine scenery past glacial lakes and limestone cliffs, or you can ascend Veleta Peak by cable car for phenomenal panoramic views. The ancient oak forests and meadows of the Sierra de Aracena Natural Park are best explored on foot or horseback — follow hiking trails leading to charming white villages, traditional thatched stone cottages and 13th century castles. 

Andalusia overflows with cultural sights spanning eight centuries of Moorish rule. Marvel at the grand Alhambra palace in Granada, cathedrals and medieval architecture in Cordoba, and the Giralda bell tower in Seville. Visitors should try to experience flamenco music and dance in person at local peñas or tablaos, especially in Jerez de la Frontera, the "cradle of flamenco". The region also celebrates vibrant festivals honouring Catholic saints and Andalusian traditions — don't miss Seville's Feria de Abril and Semana Santa holy week.

If you’re on the lookout for coastal villages, the Axarquía region's vineyards and orchards end in coves dotted with traditional whitewashed houses. Book a cycling tour along the scenic coastal roads, then relax under the Mediterranean sun at one of the area's tucked-away beaches. After a day of adventure, unwind at Hotel Essentia, an eco-friendly aparthotel powered by solar panels, or immerse yourself in rural life by renting one of the charming cottages at La Algaba de Ronda.

Spain's incredible natural landscapes, rich culture and gastronomic highlights provide the perfect destinations for eco-conscious travellers, with numerous options for sustainable activities and memorable experiences. Sustainable and eco-luxurious accommodation can be found at solar-powered hotels Casa Vita Ea Astei and Hotel Essentia allow visitors to reduce their environmental impact, while unique outdoor excursions with expert local guides offer immersive experiences while supporting conservation initiatives and local traditions. 

Autoría: Dakota Murphey

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