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Stop Overlooking La Rioja, Spain!

visit la rioja spain

My oh my, it’s been a while since I’ve written about my favorite region in Spain: La Rioja!

Never heard of it? It’s ok, most people haven’t. By chance you have, it’s most likely from the red wine the region is world famous for or the the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage that cuts across Spain from France. Tucked away in the north of Spain, La Rioja is a little region that packs a big punch. I decided to move here on a whim the fall of 2011, after I fell in love with the countryside on a train trip through the north four years earlier.

As much as I loved living in Córdoba, Andalucía in the south, I wanted to see a different side of Spain. So I packed my bags and said adiós to the beautiful olive groves and whitewashed villages I had grown to love and traded them in for the vineyards and sandstone towns in the mountains.

La Rioja stole my heart.

map of spain

visit la rioja spain

Festival bandanas in Logroño for San Mateo

I wasn’t expecting it, 2011 to 2012 was without a doubt the best 12 months of my life. It was incredible, and so much of it had to do with La Rioja. La Rioja charmed me; it helped me heal a broken heart, and in La Rioja was where I realized my love for writing and blogging. I was absolutely gutted to leave my life in Logroño, but I know it will lead to better things.

La Rioja is a place I miss each and every day. 

Underrated and overlooked by many people traveling to Spain, I want to show you all the reasons why it merits a visit all on it’s own and deserves to be visited. So let me take a moment to share with you all my favorite reasons for visiting the region of La Rioja, Spain in the hopes that it might inspire you to travel there one day yourself.

visit la rioja spain

1. La Rioja is still undiscovered!

Nobody knows where La Rioja is! Not even Spaniards (ok, I’m exaggerating) but let me ask you, how many of you have heard of La Rioja? And not from me either! I am all about off-the-beaten-track travel, and La Rioja certainly has that covered. I lived there for a year, and the amount of tourists that passed though was nothing compared to the rest of Spain.

It’s the kind of place that locals will talk to you in the bars because they’re curious and invite you for a drink. It’s the kind of place that surprises you. Beautifully preserved medieval villages come to life at the foothills of the mountains that back up to the Basque Country surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye can see.

visit la rioja spain

At the castle of Clavijo

La Rioja has a lot of layers. On the outside, it’s not as ostentatious or as glittery as other cities like Barcelona or Granada, but once you begin to look deeper and peel back the layers, you begin to realize just how unique and special this little overlooked region really is.

visit la rioja spain

Hiking in the Sierra de la Cebollera mountains

visit la rioja spain

2. La Rioja has the best food in Spain

I am mentally preparing myself for the wrath I’m going to get for that statement, but I am going to go ahead and stick my neck out there and say La Rioja has the BEST food in Spain. Boom.

Hear me out! Named the 2012 Gastronomic Capital of Spain, there is no shortage of amazing eats to be found here. Now don’t get me wrong, there is amazing food around all of Spain, each region having it’s own specialities, making Spanish cuisine very diverse and unique. The culinary delights to be found in famous foodie regions like the Basque Country and Cataluña can’t be ignored, but for me, La Rioja tops them all!

visit la rioja spain

visit la rioja spain

Why? Two reasons. The first being the diversity of food within La Rioja; you can find anything! From kangaroo bruschetta to slow-roasted baby pig, they have it all. Swank gastrobars rub shoulders with decades-old family establishments serving the same stew recipe for a hundred years. And the best part?

It’s super cheap! Some of the cheapest food I have ever had in Spain was in La Rioja. The old quarter of Logroño, and most of the villages in La Rioja really, are jam packed with pincho bars, pinchos being northern Spain’s version of the tapa. Each bar is usually famous for one or two pinchos, a small portion of food usually served skewered on a slice of baguette. For dinner, you go out with friends and hop from pincho bar to pincho bar, sampling as many treats as you can, paired with a nice glass of Rioja red of course.

Pinchos usually cost from one to three euros each. I usually spend around 10 euros a night for a four pincho dinner with wine at every bar. Can you top that?

visit la rioja spain

visit la rioja spain

3. La Rioja has the best wine in Spain

Ok, it’s harder to argue with this one. La Rioja is world famous for its red wine and for good reason. It rocks.

There has been a tradition of wine harvesting in this region of Spain since the Phoenicians, which means, they’ve learned a thing or two since then about bottling a good grape. Literally the entire region is covered with vineyards and you can visit them all if you wish. From tiny family owned and operated bodegas to massive industrial producers, they have it all.

visit la rioja spain

A great selection at LAN Winery

visit la rioja spain

Bodegas Ysios, a very modern winery near Laguardia

My favorite time to visit is in the fall when all the leaves start to change on the vines, turning the landscape gold, red and orange. It’s just spectacular.

And the best part? Considering most of the wine is produced right there in La Rioja, it makes it exceptionally cheap. I almost never spent more than 2 euros on a glass of red in a bar in Logroño. Try finding decent wine for that price in the US.

visit la rioja spain

Vineyards in the fall near Laguardia

visit la rioja spain

The mother of all wineries in La Rioja, Marqués de Riscal

4. La Rioja has insane festivals

Where else in the world can you have a wine battle?

Essentially a giant food fight with red wine, every June, faithful riojanos make their way out to Haro in the west to participate in the batalla del vino. Clad in white with water guns, buckets and wineskins brimming with cheap red wine, the party starts at sunrise.

Actually it starts the night before and ends around lunchtime the next time.

visit la rioja spain

Hiking out to the mountains singing and dancing with marching bands, everyone drinks and makes merry in honor of a local saint. After mass, the battle begins and it’s every man for himself. Very few foreigners know about this festival which means you will be getting drunk and tossing wine with mostly locals.

Every village and city in La Rioja has its own festival throughout the year, so there is no shortage of fun to be had. Apart from the wine battle in Haro, Logroño has two great festivals every year. San Mateo in September to celebrate the wine harvest and where you can even stomp the grapes yourself and the street parties rage on 24 hours a day for a week. In the early summer the patron saint San Bernabé has his day with another long festival in town.

visit la rioja spain

Paella at the Valencia booth during San Mateo

5. La Rioja in an awesome location

Snugly situated between cities like Burgos, Bilbao, San Sebastián, Pamplona and Zaragoza, you are never far from the great northern cities. That being said, those are the main cities that you will have to go through to get to La Rioja. It’s great because over the years Logroño has been a bit isolated from the rest of Spain, but at the same time it can be a pain navigating and getting there from the rest of the world.

Driving for an hour you hit amazing mountains and coastline along the north of Spain, and just a bit further you can head into France for the day. Oh la la. Really you can get anywhere in northern Spain quite easily from La Rioja.

map of spain

6. La Rioja has a whole lot of history

Did you know that the first words ever written down in Spanish AND Basque were in La Rioja? A great half-day trip from Logroño is to the Suso and Yuso monasteries, some of the oldest in Spain. Beautiful and well preserved, they are worth visiting if you are ever in the area, especially with the beautiful surrounding fields and mountains. Further afield you can reach the ruins of the village of Mansilla. Abandoned, flooded and turned into a reservoir a century ago, in the hot summer months, the water level occasionally drops so low you can go and walk around the ruined village. How cool is that?

The famous medieval pilgrimage Camino de Santiago also passes through La Rioja, and it’s not unusual to see hikers and walkers strapped up with big backpacks and ridiculous tan lines wandering about the city or along the roads. It gives La Rioja another layer of depth an culture that you don’t always find in other cities.

visit la rioja spain

Monasterio de Yuso

visit la rioja spain

Monasterio de Valvanera in the mountains

visit la rioja spain

The ruined village of Mansilla in September

7. La Rioja has some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met

I don’t know if it’s the small town vibe combined with the complete dearth of tourists, but for me La Rioja still has some of the most genuine and kind people I’ve ever met, especially in Spain. People are outgoing and welcoming; they will help you if you have a problem and are proud to show off their region. It’s really refreshing and honest, and one of the reasons I love La Rioja so much.

La Rioja is calling. Will you answer?

visit la rioja spain

Have I convinced you to go to La Rioja yet?

Have you ever been to this little region in Spain? But more importantly, would you go after reading this?

visit la rioja spain

visit la rioja spain

The village of Briones in summer

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44 Responses to Stop Overlooking La Rioja, Spain!

  1. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas March 22, 2013 at 7:23 am #

    Logroña and La Rioja were the last autonomía for me to visit, but I saved one of the best for last! I may not agree that it’s the best wine (I prefer reds from Ribera and white, Albariño), but would absolutely gush over La Rioja for anyone who wantedto listen!

    • Liz March 22, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

      agree to disagree, no way Ribera del Duero>Rioja hehe

  2. Trevor Huxham March 22, 2013 at 7:51 am #

    Alright, alright, you’ve convinced me to go! I’m just afraid I might not make it since I’ll be allllll the way to the west in Galicia next year. Maybe on the way back home from visiting Cantabria? I hope I can make it; La Rioja seems like a really beautiful, chill, and tasty place to pass through :)

    P.S. are you still working on that post about Spanish wine 101? I always love a good Rioja when I drink one, but there’s so much more wine outside the region—like Ribera del Duero, etc.

    • Liz March 22, 2013 at 5:45 pm #

      Trevar Huxham, if you don’t visit La Rioja the two years you’re in Spain, I’m going to be so peeved at you! Go in October when the leaves change, it’s magical

      Yeah I’m working on the wine post haha. I’m a turtle

  3. Cassandra March 22, 2013 at 9:04 am #

    La Rioja is totally on my radar, thanks to you! When this crazy masters program slows down I will make a trip–er, pilgrimage–there.

    While in Madrid, I’m doing my best to indulge in fine Riojas!! Last night I went to a wine tasting put on by the bodega Ontañón, which is based in Logroño. They said they have a museum in the region–have you been or heard of it?

    • Liz March 22, 2013 at 5:46 pm #

      Hey I have heard of it! I see Ontañón around town a lot, though I’ve only been to the Dinastia Vivanco museum myself, pleas go girly!

  4. Alex @ ifs ands & butts March 22, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    You definitely have me sold!

  5. Mike March 22, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    Thanks for all the info on La Rioja! I’ve never been there and didn’t really know anything about it other than that it had wine. Next year I’m definitely going to try and make it there. It sounds like a great hidden gem to most that are traveling throughout Spain.

    • Liz March 22, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

      It’s a serious hidden gem and really worth visiting all on its own, I promise :)

  6. amelie88 March 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

    Actually I think la Rioja is famous around the world for its wine. Anybody who knows a thing or two about wine (and that’s more people than you’d think) knows that the best wine in Spain is from la Rioja.

    Or maybe that’s just my family… My father is a huge wine enthusiast, so much that he took a Certificate of Specialist of Wine exam last fall (and passed the exam on the first try, which is very very difficult) and he would totally go visit the vineyards over there in a heartbeat. It may not get many tourists, but I always see la Rioja wine here in the US on the menu when I go to restaurants (at least in the NY tri-state area, I can’t speak for the rest of the country).

    I would like to visit someday and road trip through the north of Spain. :)

    • Liz March 22, 2013 at 5:48 pm #

      yeah I always was biased since my family are huge wine people, but I think in general if you mention it, people have absolutely no idea where it is. Or they only think about the wine, and there’s so much more! I hope you go! Northern Spain rocks!

  7. Jess March 22, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    In my opinion one of the most overlooked regions in Spain is also Galicia. It is SO beautiful and boasts the best fiestas and amazing beaches. The food is amazing, and the people are the absolute best. They are the craziest in Spain, but a great time.

  8. Kaley [Y Mucho Más] March 22, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    Oooh I definitely have Rioja on my list, but if I didn’t this entry would have gone a long way toward convincing me.

    I love that the food is good and cheap! I find Basque-style pinchos to be overpriced. I went to this highly-recommended place here in Madrid, Juana la Loca, for tortilla and each piece of tortilla cost €4!! That plus a €3 glass of wine = €7 total. Too expensive for me. I love going around small towns (like Zamora or Salamanca) and getting a good dinner for €10-€12!

    Also, wine. Yum! I love all wines, mainly red, and so Rioja is a favorite, of course. I know the Toro region better, but since that’s not available in Madrid I’m getting to know Riojas and Riberas better. I find Riojas are very drinkable, if that makes sense. Toros and Riberas often are not for the red-wine beginner. :)

    • Liz March 22, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

      Please go, you’ll love it, it’s totally your style, most of my friends and I do a bote when we go for pinchos, putting 10 euros in each. That usually gets us 4 pinchos and 4 tintos a person, try finding that in Madrid!

  9. Mindi March 22, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    The hardest thing for me this summer when I move back to the states will be what I’ll have to pay for wine! I’m so spoiled living here! (not that I’m complaining…)

    • Liz March 22, 2013 at 5:50 pm #

      It’s been so hard dealing with wine here! I’m like, that would only be 4 euros a bottle in SPAIN!

  10. Katie March 22, 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    I loved La Rioja! My husband and I went a few year ago (for the wine) and stayed in Logrono and visited Laguardia. The wine was great, the food was fantastic – I recognize the shrimp and pineapple skewer in your photo; that was one of my favorites – and the whole area is just beautiful. We went in winter and on the day we visited Laguardia the town was just about empty and covered in a layer of fog. It was magical.

    • Liz March 22, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

      That makes so happy you’ve been to Laguardia and La Rioja! So few people have! That shrimp pincho is my absolute favorite in Logroño, I lived a few doors down from it last year and had it almost weekly. Definitely had to invest in a gym membership that year haha. How beautiful is Laguardia? When the clouds lift and you get the views of the surrounding mountains and vineyards, man, it’s breathtaking!

  11. Nicole March 22, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

    Ooh, I really want to go now!

    I’ve always wanted to see a lavender field,
    That architecture is insane….ly cool,
    and who doesn’t love a good meal (and glass of red or two ;) )
    Thanks for the introduction to what seems to be one cool place!

    • Liz March 28, 2013 at 12:52 am #

      Please go one day! You’ll love it!

  12. Jennifer March 23, 2013 at 2:47 am #

    I’ve definitely had better experiences with the smaller towns in Spain than the larger ones. I wasn’t really a fan if Girona after finding the people some of the most frustrating and unhelpful I’ve ever encountered on my travels. Maybe I should give La Rioja a try…

    • Liz March 28, 2013 at 1:02 am #

      definitely, I might get a lot of crap for saying this, but the very pro-independent regions and bigger cities don’t always get the friendly wrap. La Rioja is really nice, very local and authentic and the people are so welcoming!

  13. Aryn March 23, 2013 at 7:47 pm #

    Wow, I’ve literally never heard of this region in my life. It looks amazing!

    • Liz March 28, 2013 at 1:01 am #

      No one has, it’s magical!

  14. Katherina March 24, 2013 at 11:08 am #

    It’s embarrassing to admit that, as a spaniard, I haven’t been to La Rioja! Specially being the wine lover I am… Fortunately, a friend is looking for a job there so as soon as she’s settled there are no more excuses left :)

    • Liz March 28, 2013 at 1:00 am #

      omg you have to go! Such good pinchos and wine!

  15. Steph March 24, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    My favorite region as well… I don’t know how I’m going to cope when I leave in June :(

    • Liz March 28, 2013 at 1:00 am #

      :( I still haven’t recovered

  16. Tom Perry March 26, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

    Thanks for spreading the word! I’ve lived in Logroño for thirty years and don’t plan to move away!

    • Liz March 28, 2013 at 12:59 am #

      Wow I wish we had met while I was living there!

  17. Josh April 1, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

    Great post that needed doing, and one that has confirmed that I definitely have to go to La Rioja!

    I could have gone last week at a push but decided to keep things slow-moving in país vasco. I think I’d enjoy it better in the summer judging by your pictures anyway!

    The Marques de Riscal is very Guggenheim like. Who designed it?

    • Liz April 4, 2013 at 1:11 am #

      It was designed by Frank Gehry, the same man who did the Guggenheim which is why it looks like that. Definitely go back! It warrants a visit all on its own :)

  18. Angel Merediz July 29, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your experiences in La Rioja. My girlfriend and I are planning to go the 2nd week of September. Just doing research for now but thinking of staying for 1 week. It seems that you can stay in Logroño and take day trips from there. We’re driving from Asturias and also plan to stop in Vitoria before going to La Rioja.

  19. Morgan August 28, 2013 at 5:41 am #

    Thank you for your lovely article, I love the wine from the region and desperately want to go.
    Where would you recommend staying? I love undiscovered places, history, food, wine. In Italy I loathed Florence and loved Castellina-in-Chianti (as an example).

    Any advice?
    Thanks!

  20. Alex November 3, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    Hello, great article! My girlfriend and I are planning a trip to Rioja for June 2014 and have been looking for hotels/B&Bs, would you have any suggestions? We are mainly going there for the wine tours and beautiful views. Do you know if there are any vineyards that have a B&B on-site? Or maybe a webiste you would suggest for finding accommodations? Thanks again!

    • Liz November 3, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

      I would check booking but I am not sure, I do know some wineries have b and bs on site, and the famous marques de riscal has a fabulous hotel that’s very pricey.

  21. Bette Lakin February 18, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    Great read, Liz. The Rioja has certainly left a great impression on you. Planning on spending (just) 3 days in Laguardia in May. We will have a car but would like to do some cycling. Do you know how easy it is to hire bikes in Laguardia, or would we have to rent them in Logrono? Many thanks, Bette

  22. Josh February 25, 2014 at 5:00 am #

    The wine, the food, the scenery of Rioja are unbelievable! Great article. My wife and I went there last year and can’t wait to go back. Stayed at Marqués de Riscal and cycled around the vineyards.

  23. George April 13, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

    Hi there, great post. My son in law just told me about Rioja last night in a bar in Carronshore Scotland. Myself and another “auld” codjer are biking from Scotland to Spain in July this year. We are doing the French Gorges and were planning on just a morning and 90 miles in Spain from Bibao. Then on up to The ferry port in Holland to England and back to the low clouds in Scotland

  24. Cyrus May 10, 2014 at 7:42 am #

    After reading your glowing accounts of La Rioja, I put it down as a preference in my Auxiliares application, and I was just placed there! Pretty excited! :)

    • Liz May 12, 2014 at 12:07 pm #

      wahooooo!!!!

  25. Christina May 29, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    Hi! We have a trip planned in July to Bilbao and plan to spend a few days doing wine tours/ exploring La Rioja, probably Logrono and Haro. We are renting a car. My boyfriend’s family is from Bilbao and this is our second trip. When we looked online wine tours are pricey, do you have any recommendations for wineries we should tour? We are thinking if we set up tours on our own it may be more affordable. We also both speak spanish. We have a hotel in Bilbao but wonder if we should stay in Logrono a few nights? Any advice is appreciated! Your blog is great and has inspired me to explore every inch of Spain:-).

  26. Kasey June 11, 2014 at 2:46 am #

    Hi Liz!

    This place sounds amazing, as do the other gems on your “underrated cities list”! I’ll be living in Madrid for a month in July as an English assistant and will only have four weekends to travel. How do you think I will fair in off-the-beaten-path cities, if I have very little Spanish skills?

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