Gijón is a working city right on the Atlantic coast in the northern Spanish region of Asturias.
Separated from the rest of Spain by high mountains, this part of the country has a flavour and climate very different to what you’ll find in Mediterranean areas.
Attractions in Gijón will inform you about the industrial age in Northern Spain and the city’s close relationship with the ocean.
There are also pieces of Roman history here, and if you journey outside the city the landscapes, both inland where there are lush meadows and deciduous woodland, and on the coast with its widescreen beaches and rocky headlands.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Gijón:
1. Laboral Ciudad de la Cultura
About three kilometres east of the city is a gargantuan Franco-era university campus that despite being built in the 50s was falling into disrepair by the 1990s.
There isn’t another 20th-century building like it in Asturias, so in an effort to preserve this place it’s become a multi-use cultural centre.
The structures are used by the University of Oviedo, and there’s an exhibition hall and a 1,500-seater theatre, as well as a cafe.
You can also wander through the gardens, and even play a round of golf The 117-metre tower is the tallest building in Asturias, modelled on Seville’s Giralda, with the best views of Gijón from the top.
2. Jardín Botánico Atlántico
Just to the south of the Laboral Ciudad de la Cultura is the only botanical garden in Asturias, opening in 2003. The park is in four different zones, each with a very different environment.
First you’ve got the Bay of Biscay and the hardwood trees that thrive in this temperate region, like beech, birch, cork and oak.
There’s an orchard area, for trees and herbs that are cultivated on an industrial scale in Spain, such as vines and olive trees.
The oldest part of the park goes back to the 19th century, when the industrialist who owned this land planted yews, camellias and banana trees.
Finally there’s an Atlantic route, a trail that walks you through the various habitats around this ocean, from Mediterranean to American boreal, with coniferous forest.
3. Gijón Aquarium
Back in the city, the aquarium is right on Poniente Beach.
It is the only aquarium in Spain that holds all five kinds of vertebrates: fish, birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians.
There are 4,000 animals in total here from 400 different species, and both maritime and freshwater environments.
The attraction has a strong educational bent, so as well as getting closer than ever to the likes of otters, clown fish, sea horses, octopuses and sharks, you’ll get in-depth info about their habitats, methods of survival and diet.
4. Roman Baths
The entrance to this archaeological site is at an impressive location, facing the ocean in the Cimavilla and next to the Church of San Pedro Apóstol.
Before you see the ruins you’ll get the full lowdown on the role that thermal baths played in Roman society and the difference between the various rooms, and how they were heated.
You’ll then be able to look down at the remains of the hypocaust, ovens and bathing areas and get 3D reconstructions of how they’d have looked 2,000 years ago.
Displayed in cabinets are the most intriguing artefacts unearthed at the site since it was discovered in 1903.
5. Museum of the Asturian People
This museum has both indoor and outdoor exhibitions that teach you about day-to-day life in Asturias down the ages.
In the outdoor village area you can see a working cider press – cider being the regional drink here.
Also very typical of the this part of northern Spain is the Hórreo, a granary lifted from the ground with stone pillars to keep it out of reach of rodents.
Part of the complex is a bagpipe museum, with a showcase of beautifully-patterned pipes and other folk instruments.
Inside the main museum building are collections of everyday tools, furniture, children’s toys and utensils, as well as implements for old trades like tanning, basket-weaving and carpentry.
6. Gijón Railway Museum
Also moments from Poniente Beach is Gijón’s Railway Museum, which opened in 1998 and is set in the city’s former Estación del Norte and its shunting yard.
Most of the machinery here is from the network of lines around Northwest Spain, including city trams.
Asturias is a region associated with coal mining, so you’ll get to see several engines involved in this industry.
There’s also a large set of vintage steam locomotives and historic rolling stock that you’re able to enter.
The displays in the old station hall show you how the railways went hand-in-hand with Asturias’ economic development in the 19th-century.
7. City Beaches
The ocean influences the climate in Gijón, bringing relatively cool summers.
But conditions are still consistently warm by most standards at this time of year, so you could always spend some time at the beach, even if the water might be a little on the brisk side.
The best reason to visit Playa de Poniente is for San Juan in June, when it feels like the whole city is out for the big bonfires and fireworks displays.
Playa de San Lorenzo is on the other side of the Cimavilla; it’s a long, sweeping beach with a promenade busy with walkers.
On the west side is La Ecalerona, a grand stairway leading down to beach, topped with an art deco thermometer and clock, installed in the early-30s.
8. Sporting de Gijón
The city’s football club isn’t a giant by any means, but they currently play in Spain’s top division and during the season will entertain the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
El Molinón is the oldest professional football ground in Spain that is still in use, having been built in 1908 and serving as one of the venues for the 1982 World Cup.
It has recently been revamped and now seats 30,000, even though full houses are unusual apart from for the biggest matches.
This means it should be easy enough to get a ticket between August and May, and you’ll get to see some of the world’s best players, even if they won’t be playing for Gijón!
On the east end of Poniente Beach, looking out over the marina, is Gijón’s thalassotherapy centre, which draws on the ocean’s water, mud, algae and seaweed for a wide variety of treatments.
You don’t need to be a member to make use of its facilities; you can purchase a three-hour pass and pamper yourself with seaweed baths, steams and beauty treatments.
If these aren’t for you then there’s a gym, physio centre, pool, sports facilities and cafe, so whatever your taste you’ll leave the TalasoPoniente feeling restored.
10. Santa Catalina Headland
Crowning Cimavilla is an area of exposed clifftop parkland that reaches out into the Atlantic.
Historically this part of the city was isolated at high tide, which made it a hard stronghold to crack and fragments of the fortifications are visible around the park.
When the port was built just to the west in the 1500s the fishermen moved into this neighbourhood.
In 1990 the monumental Elogio del Horizonte sculpture, designed by Eduardo Chillida, was installed at the top of the headland.
If you stand inside the sculpture you’ll hear the sound of the sea echoing from its concrete walls.
11. Casa Natal de Jovellanos
A few streets down from the headland is the birthplace of one of the giants of the Spanish Enlightenment.
Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos was a polymath, maybe best known for his discursive essays on political and legislative economy.
You can see where he was born in 1744, and even if you’re in the dark about Jovellanos there’s much to love about this palace from the late-middle ages.
There are two rooms dedicated to Jovellanos’ life and works, and these are joined by exhibitions of 19th and 20th-century Asturian art, as well as Dutch and Flemish painting from the 17th and 18th centuries.
12. Cabo de Peñas
Half an hour west of Gijón but worth every minute of the scenic drive is the northernmost cape in the Asturias region.
The lighthouse, the grass-capped cliffs 100 metres high and the rocky spurs battered by the ocean make this a very photogenic place.
There’s a boardwalk guiding you to the rim of the bluffs here with signs informing you of the human and natural history of this location.
The lighthouse was built in 1852 and has a scope of 41 miles in good weather, further than any other in the region.
Half an hour south of Gijón is the city of Oviedo, the capital of Asturias.
This is also an industrial centre, but there are also some wonderful fragments of history to be found.
And none are finer than Santa María del Naranco, a captivating pre-Romanesque church that was consecrated in 848. It’s a UNESCO site of course, and the belvedere on the facade, with three arches, is one of the features that makes it iconic.
The centre of Oviedo is also very engaging, and sprinkled with more than 100 sculptures, including one of the director Woody Allen.
14. Local walks
Gijón is an industrial zone, but bordering the city is the sumptuous Asturian countryside with its verdant hills and Atlantic woodland of oak, ash and beech.
A light rural walk for all ages is the Vía Verde de La Camocha, a 7.2-kilometre path along the course of a former mining railway.
As you go you’ll encounter pieces of mining heritage, as well as signs of the wealth generated by the industry like mansions and country estates.
The Camino de Santiago also passes by Gijón, so you could get out into the countryside by picking up this ancient pilgrimage trail west or east of the city; simply follow the scallop shells.
15. Gijón Cuisine
Next to the Cantabrian Sea the climate is a fair bit cooler than almost anywhere else in mainland Spain, so this calls for a filling, protein-heavy diet.
Just the ticket is fabada asturiana, a warming stew made with large white beans and a number of pork products including bacon, morcilla, chorizo and pork shoulder.
Cider is the ideal accompaniment: Here this drink is non-sparkling and very tart, and if you order it in a bar or restaurant the waiter will pour the cider into the glass from a crazy height to create air bubbles.
Cider is also used in a few recipes on the coast, creating a sauce for baked hake for instance.