The Basque Country is a coastal region in Northern Spain made of up cities such as the triumphant Bilbao and elegant San Sebastian (plus dozens of small fishing villages) on the coast. Inland there are lots of treats also including the wonderfully un-touristy Vitoria – and the Rioja Alavesa wine region – which is an area that once visited, you’ll want to return to again and again.
A Trip to the Basque Country
We know this region like the back of our hand because Totally Spain started out in the Basque Country – we were one of the first tour operators arranging custom trips into the region after the Guggenheim opened in 1997. We know and have worked with all of the best hotels, restaurants and pintxos bars in the area and thought, we’d explain what visitors here can enjoy….
1 The Gastronomy of the Basque Country – the Best in the World
The Basque Country’s gastronomy needs no introduction – you’ll already know about San Sebastian is home to some of the World’s Best Restaurants including Mugaritz (#9 in 2018), Arzak (#31 in 2018), and Martin Berasategui (# 76 in 2018). Don’t forget that you also have Azurmendi (# 43 in 2018) and Asador Etxebarri (#10 in 2018) in the Basque Country. And San Sebastian and Bilbao are famed for the brilliant tapas bars which are groaning with some of the nicest and most handsomely presented pintxos you’ll ever see. And every village and town is the same – it’s nigh on impossible to eat anything other than a delicious meal wherever you go in the Basque Country!
2 The Wines and Wineries in the Basque Country
We are huge fans of the world-class wineries in La Rioja Alavesa – a wine region inside the Basque Country. Where better to base yourself than the medieval walled-town of Laguardia which we’ve written about it in detail in our guide here and recommend everybody visit at some time in their lives. We recommend staying in Laguardia itself or Elciego – nearby and home to the Marques de Riscal wine empire.
Top of the list of where to visit is the Frank Gehry designed Marques de Riscal winery, followed quickly by Calatrava’s Ysios winery and we also recommend a smaller family run winery or two. We can book your accommodation, wine tastings, food pairings, winery tours and everything else you need to enjoy some of the best wines and wineries in the world.
3 The Big Basque City – Bilbao
We love Bilbao’s eclectic mix of buildings and styles. Famed for the Guggenheim effect, the most famous structure in this city is the Guggenheim itself – a 1997 creation by North-American architect Frank O. Gehry, that is worth spending time in and walking around.
Architecture fans have a lot to admire elsewhere in Bilbao – we especially love the Fosteritos – the metro stations entrances. And the walk from the Guggenheim by the riverside into the old quarter is brilliant. Keep an eye out for the ironwork and beautiful stained glass at the Santander train station across the river and the Zubi Zuri Bridge by Calatrava. Continue on until the newly refurbished Mercado de la Ribera on the edge of the Old Quarter to see how the 1929 structure has been refurbished.
Tuck in to delicious Basque tapas and local Riojan wines in the city’s many idyllic cafes and bars in the charming Casco Viejo. And shop to your heart’s content at unique independent boutiques and big name stores. First-timers to the city can take part in a walking tour of the city of Bilbao with an expert guide whereas repeat-visitors might prefer a tapas tour, cookery class or wine-tasting in the city’s old quarter where you’ll learn about traditional dishes such as ‘bacalao al pil pil’.
If you want a VIP experience, we can order a table for you at Nerua inside the Guggenheim Museum – selected as the most incredible restaurant in Spain recently by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine. Check out our Insider Guide to Bilbao for more on the city where you’ll see where recommend crossing a hanging bridge and taking a funicular to get great views of the city.
4 Seductive San Sebastian
San Sebastian boasts a heady cocktail of elegant belle epoque architecture, beautiful beaches in the city, the star studded international film festival and of course, all those Michelin-stars and amazing bars and restaurants in the old quarter serving the world-famous Basque cuisine –in miniature pintxo form and in regular too.
Top of your to-see & do list will be a visit to the Chillida Windcomb sculpture on the beach and take a walk up to the Monte Igueldo to see why so many people fall for this city. And you have to experience the beach of La Concha – the most iconic piece of coastline in Northern Spain. When you’ve had a swim, you’ve plenty to see, do – and eat – this is the Basque Country after all!
San Sebastian or Donastia, as it is called locally, is home to more than its fair share of Michelin stars and tapas bars which are groaning with some of the nicest and most handsomely presented pintxos you’ll ever see. Be careful though, it’s a very romantic place. At Totally Spain we’ve known several couples who got engaged in San Sebastian and we’ve even organised several weddings here. That is why San Sebastian features in our Top Places to Propose in Spain.
For more insider tips, read our guide to San Sebastian city here which includes recommended events such as the tamborrada and the Bandera de la Concha where you get to experience Donastia, in full fiesta mode. We can arrange a walking tour, a tapas tour and/or a cookery class in the city.
5 Basque Culture, Traditions & Festivals
You probably know that there is a Basque language called Euskera. And you may have seen pictures the traditional ‘boina’ or beret. You’ll find there are fantastic festivals celebrated and traditions marked in this region. The Basques were a sea-faring nation and you’ll see this today – in the strong rowing traditions and in the cuisine. But inland, there is just as much to see and celebrate. Basque rural sports such as stone carrying and wood chopping and the tug-of-war always attract a crowd. In every village and town you’ll see regional sports such as the Basque pelota and you may come across ochotes – choirs of eight men – especially popular in Bilbao. We can arrange for you to experience the Basque culture – just let us know which element you’d like to see or do and we’ll make it happen.
6 Basque Country Side-Trips
Have a car and want to explore the region? Or maybe you’d like us to arrange a private driver and guide? Here are some wonderful locations outside the main attractions that we recommend:-
- See San Juan de Gaztelugatxeko and its 241 steps – made famous in the Game of Thrones. You need to register for a free ticket to gain access here as this is a protected site. With a religious presence here dating back to the 9th century, you’ll want to ring the bell as has been done here since time immemorial.
- Go surfing in Mundaka. Just 30-mins by car from Bilbao Airport and 30 mins from Gaztelugatxeko, we can arrange rental of boards and gear plus a surf class or a surf teacher to show you the best locations.
- Visit Bermeo, the colourful seafaring village that was once famous for its whaling industry. Enjoy pintxos at the marina known as Portu Zaharra and after a stroll through the old town, visit the Fishermen Museum
- Visit the Balenciaga museum dedicated to the fashion designer who grew up in Getaria. Afterwards, take in some pintxos on Nagusia Kalea or for Michelin-star dining, reserve a table in Elkano. To work up an appetite (or work off that tasting menu), walk to the lighthouse on Mount San Anton where the views of the sea are mesmerising.
- Walk, cycle or drive some of the Camino de Santiago – both the coastal and the “French route” pass through the Basque Country. Read more on Camino-themed driving tours here.
- Explore Hondarribia’s stunningly preserved architecture including pedestrianised streets and the old fortified city walls, with dozens of eateries in the streets around San Pedro and Santiago, and a beach.
- Drive over to the Torre Loizaga Museum in Galdames to see its private collection of 75 cars including 45 Rolls Royces on the grounds of a stunning tower, west of Bilbao. Often a stop-off on rallies and location for enthusiast club days out in the North of Spain. Open Sundays and public holidays only. Other days by prior arrangement. In Galdames just 30km from Bilbao. Read more in our guide to Car Museums in Spain – Vintage Classics.
- Visit Oñati which the painter Ignacio Zuloaga called the Basque Toledo and we agree. It’s home to a renaissance university, a gothic monastery and baroque council building so there’s something for every taste. The noble town is snugly nestled in between the mountains and on top of caverns and streams and is also close to the Aizkorri Natural Park and just 46km to Vitoria/Gasteiz and 74km to Bilbao.
7 Where to Stay?
We’ve written a touring guide to Northern Spain Paradors which includes overnights in Hondarribia and Argomaniz Paradores which we recommend. The Parador of Argomaniz is a stunning building and you’ll find many charming monasteries and chapels on its doorstop that are well-worth exploring. Read more here about Vitoria and its nearby villages. Hondarribia’s Parador is also charming – located in what was formerly Charles V Castle in the medieval town of Hondarribia on the Bidasoa estuary close to the French border, it was was a defensive fortress founded in the year 980 by the Navarrese King, Sancho Abarca.
We also work closely with 4 & 5-star hotels in Bilbao, San Sebastian and Laguardia – and whether you want achingly modern or charming traditional, we’ll get you the best rooms in the best hotels in the region.