10 Tips to plan your perfect trip to Rioja wine region
Planning a trip has always its challenges. You need time, resources and specially first hand information. And planning a trip to Rioja is not an exception.
Touring Spain’s Rioja wine region is an unforgettable experience. Rioja is one of the most important wine regions in Spain, with top wines recognized all over the world. The food is also gorgeous. You can find amazing villages from Middle Ages or the most avant-garde buildings. People is very kind and helpful. It is in a short distance of many of the main cities you may be visting on your trip to Spain such as Bilbao, San Sebastian, Pamplona… even Madrid and Barcelona are not that far.
However, it can be a bit overhelming figuring out which wineries to visit, how to design your itinerary– there are more than 600 wineries in Rioja! -, how to organize transportation as public transport is not wide. Or where is the best place to stay in Rioja for touring the region.
So, if you’re thinking about heading to Rioja for the first time, here are some tips for planning your perfect wine trip to Rioja, based on our experience as locals and professional tour operators and travel planners in this beautiful region of Spain.
1 – How to get to Rioja
If you are coming by plane, the nearest and most convenient airport is Bilbao international airport. From there you have different options to come to Rioja:
- Rent a car at the airport and drive yourself to Rioja. It is about 1/1.5 hour drive depending on where you plan to stay
- Take a shuttle bus from the airport to Bilbao Bus station and from there take the public transport by bus to Rioja (Haro, Laguardia, Labastida, Logroño..)
- Have a private transfer. It is the most comfortable and quickest way, but obviously the most expensive
If you are coming to Rioja from other cities in Spain such as Madrid or Barcelona, you can take a train to Logroño. It will take you 3/4 hours.
2 – Where to stay in Rioja
There are many places and options to stay in Rioja and it will depend on what type of accommodation you prefer or what kind of town you are looking for. These are some good places to base yourself:
- Logroño is the capital of La Rioja. It is the main and biggest city in the area with a population of 150.000 people, so you will find a big selection of hotels, apartments or even hostels and campings. If you are looking for a relaxed and rural atmosphere, this is not the place for you. If you are into night life, then Logroño is the perfect place to stay.
- Haro – or the capital of Rioja wine, as their residents call it,- is a smaller town but with a big concentration of historical centenary wineries and a nice selection of bars and restaurants. It is not a big city but also not a small town.
- Laguardia, located in the Basque side of Rioja wine region, Rioja Alavesa. It is a beautiful small town from Middle Ages with lots of charm and a medieval wall from the Xth century. The selection of places to stay and also bars and restaurants is also very good despite being a small town.
- Labastida, Samaniego, Villabuena, Elciego, Lapuebla, Abalos … if you are looking for places off-the-beaten-track with less tourism, rual atmosphere but still good accommodation and some dining options. At these places, you can find from rural little bed and breakfasts to one 5 star hotel. Most of these little towns have amazing Old Quarters and top small wine producers at family-run wineries. The location is also perfect for touring the Rioja region as they are right in the middle of the region.
3 – How to get around in Rioja
You need transportation to get around in Rioja if you want to visit wineries and the beautiful towns of the region. Public transportation is not wide and does not run very often. Also some of the wineries are located out of towns. So you need a car.
You can rent a car (only in the big cities of the area such as Logroño, Vitoria or Bilbao) which will give you the freedom to go everywhere at you own pace. But if you want to visit the wineries and taste some of the fabulous Rioja wines you shouldn’t drive. To avoid driving and drinking, and if you want to experience a relaxing time while tasting wine, you can hire in advance chauffeur services or book a tour with driver and guide, who will pick you up from your hotel, show you around, take you to lunch and to some of the best wineries of the region. This option is not only good to avoid driving, it will give help you planning your visit in Rioja, give you a lot of insider tips and recommendations, explain you about tradition and history of the area and translate where needed.
You can also mix different options. Drive yourself one day and use a guided tour another day. This will give you the best of both options. In any case, think about logistics and explore all the options. And please, take care if you plan to drive and taste wine.
4 – Visiting wineries in Rioja
As we mentioned before, there are more than 600 wineries in Rioja. So it can be a difficult task to choose the specific winery that will fit your wishes, specially if you are looking for a non commercial and tourist winery.
Most of wineries, require a previous appointment, so even if you know which one you want to visit is always recommended to call or write them and make a reservation in advance. Some wineries, specially on high season, require booking well in advance as they can get fully booked soon.
Manage your time. Do not plan to visit more than 3 wineries a day. 2-3 wineries a day is the perfect choice. Some of the wineries in Rioja offer wine tastings only, so you can go there just to taste. But at the most places, you need to do a whole winery tour before proceeding to taste. The good thing about the tour is that you will get a lot of information about how wine is ellaborated in Rioja. The tour duration depends on the winery, but it usually takes 1 to 2 hours or even more. So do not fill your day with too many wineries.
Plan ahead and check their visit schedules, as most wineries have specific visiting times only, specially for tours in English. Also take in mind that the wineries are spread out all across the region and you need to drive from one winery to another, so plan accordingly the time you need to get around. And also to enjoy the experience. You may not want to rush all day, you are here on vacation!
All the wineries charge a fee for the winery tour. The price will depend on the tour experience and also on the type of wine tasting you choose.
Some wineries, especially the smaller and family-run ones, do not speak English and offer tours in Spanish only, so be prepared or have a guide with you to translate.
5 – Mix wineries
Even if you have a big knwoledge about wine and are looking for specific wineries, we highly recommend to mix wineries, specially if you are a first time visitor in Rioja.
Mixing big and small family-run wineries, and modern and traditional places will give you a good sense of the contrast and different sides of Rioja’s wine production.
And let yourself discover the small wineries and artisanal wine producers, even if you have other wineries or wine brands in mind. The best experience is not always in the famous places. You will experience a really intimate and personalized atmosphere and discover really top wines with small production you can hardly find at home.
You can learn more about Rioja wine at Rioja wine official website.
6 – Do not forget lunch
You will be tasting wines from morning until late afternoon so don’t forget to include time on your day to take lunch.
Gastronomy in Rioja is delicious and full of flavours and tradition. Rioja is part of a pilgrims way and located in the crossing of 3 lands: Basque Country, Navarra and Castilla so it has influences from the three and the thousands of pilgrims who crossed this region along the centuries. You can find many phantastic options in different places from the most traditional proposals to the most innovative modern cuisine.
If you go to a restaurant and have a typical lunch, plan around 1.5/2 hours for lunch. More if you decide to have a tasting menu. We take food matters very seriously here. Another great option is to have lunch at a winery with wine pairings.
If you are more into light lunch, then go for tapas or pinchos (local name for tapas). It is also a lot of fun and a perfect way to socialize with locals if you go from bar to bar. You will find wonderful tapas bars in Logroño, Laguardia or Haro for example.
7 – Take a tour
Even if you are an independent traveler and you have your own car during your time in Rioja , it deserves to take at least one day tour and rely in a local company. A local operator will provide you not only good insider tips and recommendations and help you to craft your itinerary choosing the best wineries to visit and the best dining options. Also, you will have a driver and a guide which will keep you stress-free. Drinking and driving is not a good idea, so having a driver is a must. You can have a private tour in Rioja, for a private experience, or a small group tour in Rioja if you prefer to share your time with other winelovers.
Having the expertise of a local who understands the scene, have all the contacts and can offer you customized recommendations can definitely change your experience in Rioja.
8 – Best season to visit Rioja and how long to stay
Late spring and early summer is the ideal time to enjoy the explosion of the vineyards brouts. Weather is good and sunny and days are long. Harvest time, in September and October, is also a wonderful time. You can experience the grapes harvesting and be amazed by the beauty of the vineyards changing colours. The best time to enjoy the vineyards colour kaleidoscope is in November, after harvest is finished.
The high season in Rioja goes from May to October. Being May, June, September and October the peakest months. So book well in advance if you plan to visit Rioja during these monts.
Winter is also perfect to visit Rioja if you do not need to have warm weather. Wine can also help you to warm up. Winter and early spring is quietest time of the year. Prices are cheaper and you will have most places for yourself as there are not so many visitors. Having a private tour at a winery just for you is much easier (and cheaper) in winter or early spring. And, believe us, a private and intimate tour at a winery is well worth it, and will give you a total different experience.
Rioja is beautiful all year round.
A good length of time to plan to be in Rioja is 2-3 days, depending on how many wineries you’d like to visit and if you plan to see more than wineries. Rioja is a fascinating region with centuries of history.
9 – More than wineries
History and cultural heritage in Rioja is amazing. The history of our region has very deep roots into the past going back centuries and centuries. From the prehistoric time to nowadays, different tribes and cultures have passed along the history of Rioja. From celtiberian to romans who were the ones to “blame” for the vineyards that made Rioja wine region so rich today. Rioja has been a melting pot of different cultures who left a rich heritage tha we can enjoy today. From dolmens (prehistoric funeral monuments), medieval churches, fortresses and monasteries to the avant-garde design wineries we can admire today, 21st century cathedrals.
It is well worth you plan a bit of time to visit some of the stunning places and towns full of history in Rioja. You may not find some of the most authentic and beautiful towns in a travel guide, so a local recommendation can be essential.
10 – Check out local festivities
We, people from Rioja, are friendly and cheerful so any excuse is good to celebrate. There are many festivals, local festivities or “Fiestas” everywhere and all along the year in Rioja but it is during the summer when there is the biggest concentration of these festivities. Some of the festivals are big, famous and crowded but there are also some local festivities where you can enjoy a lot and socialize with locals. Also during the summer, many of the small villages of Rioja cellebrate an open day to the wineries. You can buy a wine glass and some tokens and pop into all the wineries to taste their wines. It’s great fun!
Some local festivities can be crowded and accommodation can be fully booked months in advance, so try to book soon if you travel to Rioja during these periods. Also some of the wineries can be closed during local festivities.
Are you planning a trip to Rioja? We hope this information is useful for you. If you need some assistance in planning your perfect itinerary and wine vacation in Rioja, we would love to help you. Just check out our experiences or contact us with your ideas.
We are very much looking forward to welcoming you in our beautiful region!