In the heart of Green Spain, on the rugged Cantabrian coastline lies the historically industrial city of Gijón, a city not known for it’s looks, but rather it’s industry. However, times are changing, and this place is shaking its image and serves as an attraction and must-visit spot if you happened to plan a visit Asturias. I went there three times during my Erasmus days in León, and it was so different to what I had known and thought of when I thought Spain, and I liked being proved wrong.
Gijón is the largest city in Asturias, though it isn’t the capital, and is located on the north coast, about 25km from Oviedo, the actual capital. The city is connected via bus to other cities along the coast, including Bilbao, A Coruña, Santander and Asturias airport in Avilés. León, Valladolid, and Madrid are also easily accessible this way, and If you were to fly to Madrid, the bus time would be a minimum of 6 hours. Asturias airport on the other hand has a connection time of about 40 minutes.
Locally, the city is extremely well-connected to the rest of Asturias via Cercanías rail lines, though rail services are limited elsewhere, with the AVE project not yet finished as of 2021. Alvia services can connect Gijón as far east as Barcelona, and as far south as Cadiz and Alicante, so you’re actually quite well connected. If you happen to be any further south and east than Madrid, then Flying to Asturias airport should definitely be an option, especially if you are travelling from Barcelona area. I lived in León at the time, so I took the bus.
The climate of Gijón is extremely agreeable to those who don’t like hot summers, as they are of a similar caliber of London, being in the low to mid 20’s and not often above 30. Winters however, are warmer than England rarely dropping below freezing at night and are in the low to mid teens during the day, so there isn’t a huge temperature swing. Many of the cities on the Cantabrian coastline are similar this way. While Gijón is drier than parts of the Galician coast, it can rain there quite a lot, or have overcast days. Of the three times I visited, it was clear skies just the once, though the odds are little more in your favour in the summer months.
With the summer being more comfortable than the sweltering south, it’s not surprising to know that Gijón is ideally visited during these months, and there are two major beaches that are iconic to say the least, the Playa de Poniente, and the Playa de San Lorenzo. These are the key driving force behind most people’s visit, and San Lorenzo especially, has some of the most iconic views of the city. Should you want to find some quieter beaches, Rinconín and Peñarrubia are about 15 and 30 minutes away by walking, but they might not be the easiest beaches to access especially if you don’t like walking. Playa de Arbeyal is on the other end of town, in Gijón-Oeste, but is right next to the port, and is far from decent places for a drink, or to eat, you might not feel comfortable being surrounded by tonnes of industry either.
Gijón is more than just some pretty beaches, and there enough monuments and historic buildings around town that will complement your trip. One interesting fact to point out, is that the city doesn’t have a cathedral, though there are two churches that could be mistaken as such, the Iglesia de San José, around the corner from the bus station, and the Iglesia de San Pedro, on the sea front around the corner from the Plaza Mayor and Ayuntamiento in Cimavilla. If you were just arriving by bus or train, your first port of call would be the Iglesia de San José, followed by a short walk up to the Marina, where you would see the notable difference between old and new.
From the iconic Letronas on the Marina, to the Palacio de Revillagigedo, The Cimavilla starts here, and you have the choice to go right through the archway to the Plaza Mayor, or stay long the marina and head to the Cerro de Santa Catalina for amazing views of the sea and most of the city. Calle Artillería, followed by the Subida al Cerro will take you to this place where there is evidence of the old fortress dotted everywhere in this park. The sculpture of the Elogio del Horizonte is a popular viewpoint where the views are worth the trek. The main path does a full circle to the Iglesia de San Pedro on the other side of the old part of town.
Don’t ignore the interior by any means, and the multicoloured buildings and old stone houses make the Cimavilla quite an attractive labyrinth of streets and small plazas. South of the Plaza Mayor and the Ayuntamiento, you are still charmed by historic buildings as you reach the commercial centre of the city, where you will encounter more 19th and 20th century architecture with an Asturian flare to it. some squares, like the Plaza Campino de Begoña, where the Iglesia de San Lorenzo is located, are also worth checking out especially if you fancy doing some shopping of some kind. Gijón is not littered with Museums, though the most popular ones may be the Casa Natal de Jovellanos, Museo Barjola, an art gallery, and the Museo de Ferrocarril de Asturias. The Acuario de Gijón is also well worth checking out as it is one of very few aquariums on the Cantabrian coast.
One thing that is notable when passing through the oldest part of Gijón is the notable presence of places to eat and drink, and the Cimavilla comes to life in the evening/ night with a load of bars to keep you entertained. a touch further south, and you will find quite a few restaurants around the plaza mayor and on both beaches of which can be a bit of a minefield. Casa Carmen on San Lorenzo beach is one particular place out of the way I would recommend. I also had an amazing tuna omelette (tortilla de bonito) in Topolino on the sea front. It must be noted that here in Gijón, there is a notable difference in prices that are practically next door to each other, and it’s not due to location either, rather dining experience. You’d be very unlucky to find any sort of tourist trap, as prices in the city centre are not marked up much at all compared to a local.
The local food in Gijón is very typical as that of Asturias in general, but with variants of the same dish. Fish is a regular presence, with local dishes such as chopa a la sidra, or besugo, both local white fish. Meat has a lot of prevalence too, where beef is popular in various forms, more so than the Mediterranean areas, but the two stand out things that seem to be everywhere, are Fabada, and sidra to wash it down. Fabada is a very rich bean stew with chorizo, morcilla and pancetta, and is everywhere in Asturias, but in Gijón, some additional ingredients may be added, though the traditional one is king. The cakes may even be the bigger highlight of your trip, with a local tarta Gijón, arroz con leche (rice pudding) and bombones de sidra (chocolate with sidra liqueur).
Sidra is by far the biggest novelty attraction for tourists, and many bars especially in Cimavilla allow you to attempt to do what’s called escanciar, pour it from a certain height to make bubbles in the glass. Waiters in many other places will often do it for you or leave you a special drain to do it. It would be foolish not to try it at least once, as the taste is different to the English kind we’re used to. It’s so popular that there is even a festival here dedicated to it in August. San Pedro in June is also a big deal that’s worth staying for. The cultural scene of Gijón surprised me a little, as there are so many festivals and local events that take place annually, and the best way to find out more is via the Ayuntamiento, or tourist office in the city centre.
Though I never actually spent a night in Gijón, I understood it to be reasonably priced and on par with Oviedo despite its location on the coast. One thing you must consider, is that there are very few hostels where you would share a room with several people, you are almost certainly going to find single or double bedrooms and you can get a good room for 30€ a night, or for 40€ you could even get a 3* hotel. So while you are paying more if you are backpacking across this area, those looking for some home comforts are getting a good deal. One thing that is important to note is the Camino de Santiago (Camino Norte) runs through here, so some pilgrims hostels may be available for somebody on a really tight budget.
The people here in the hospitality sector can be very inquisitive when visitors come to this part of the country and love pushing you towards the local things to enjoy it in the same vein as themselves. They love showing people how to pour a cider, and can be very warm to you providing you show that you want to give things a go their way. Asturianu or Bable is a local language which you may see in various parts of town, including road signs, but it’s extremely unlikely you will be put into a scenario where you would have to decipher it. Given that it’s not an official language of Spain, and that very few people speak it, a survival level of Spanish will do, and many people don’t know English there, so you will have to make an effort to survive.
So there you have it, Gijón, a city that will definitely immerse you into Spanish and Asturian culture but in a way people south of the country themselves might not understand. What’s more, it’s different to any other city you would visit that is blessed to be by the rugged Cantabrian sea. Why not spend a day or two, or even extend your trip altogether to include Oviedo? I wouldn’t travel to Asturias exclusively to Gijón if its far away, make it part of an extended plan to make it worth the money.