Bilbao is a popular destination in northern Spain, with good connections to Madrid. From here, many visitors to Spain want to head into neighboring France. But it's not that easy to do so. As you'll see below, you'll almost certainly want to go via San Sebastian.
Bilbao to France by Train (via San Sebastian and Hendaye)
There are no trains from the Basque Country into France anymore. The old routes through here required a laborious gauge change at the border. Now the best way into France by train is from Barcelona. There is a high-speed train connecting Barcelona to Paris with a purpose-built track that doesn't require a gauge change.
As a result, connections by train are poor, particularly from Bilbao. There are trains from San Sebastian to the border town of Irun. You can then walk across the border to Hendaye (Hendaya in Spanish and Hendaia in Basque) and then take a train from there.
So, your itinerary from Bilbao to France by train looks like this:
1. Bilbao to San Sebastian
You have the following options for travel between Bilbao and San Sebastian:
- By bus - one hour
- By Euskotren - two-and-a-half hours on the local commuter train service
It may seem like a no-brainer to take the bus in this case, but it might not be your best option. Bilbao's bus station is outside the city center, while the Euskotren station is right in the old town. Plus, the slow commuter train goes through some very beautiful towns and villages. It is also easier to carry big suitcases onto the train than to check it into the bus luggage compartment.
Note that San Sebastian in Basque is 'Donostia.' You may see both written, or just one.
2. San Sebastian to Irun/Hendaye
- By Euskotren Around 40 minutes
- By train Around 20 minutes
Again, the Euskotren is slower, but the journey is more scenic.
Spanish web developers find it impossible to put sites in three languages. Which means that because of the regional nationalism of the Basques, so the website has to be in Basque and Spanish, not in English, but timetables are fairly self-explanatory. Check out the Euskotren timetables. The route from San Sebastian to Irun/Hendaye is hidden in the Hendaia-Lasarte route.
3. Direct Train Routes From Hendaye to France
These are your most likely train destinations in France from Hendaye and how long they'll take:
- Hendaye to Biarritz 30 mins
- Hendaye to Bordeaux 2h30m
- Hendaye to Bayonne 40 mins
- Hendaye to Paris 6 hours
Bilbao to France by Bus and Plane
If this rather convoluted way of traveling by train puts you off, you also have some direct buses and flights.
Direct Buses from Bilbao to France
- Bilbao to Bayonne: Two to three hours (the three-hour journey is much cheaper than the quicker one). There are also buses to the TGV station.
- Bilbao to Biarritz: Not many connections. You're better off going via Bayonne. (There are regular trains from Bayonne to Biarritz).
- Bilbao to Bordeaux: There is a direct bus service from both Biarritz to Bilbao with PESA. The journey takes two hours and costs about 20€. Note that there aren't many buses running and the times can be a bit awkward.
- Bilbao to Paris: The bus from Paris to Bilbao, takes about 12 hours and costs under 70 euros.
Direct Flights from Bilbao to France
Unfortunately, the only flights from Bilbao to France are to Paris.
Are There Border Controls Between Spain and France?
Both Spain and France are in the Schengen zone, the border-free area within the EU. This means that there are usually no border checks. However, there is the paradoxical situation that, though your free movement is guaranteed, in theory, you may need to show your passport to prove it! In practice, this means that you can almost always cross the border without being stopped, but police or customs may sometimes board your train or ask at the border. The Schengen agreement may also be temporarily suspended at any time (such as happened in central Europe during the immigration passport).
If you are from outside the European Union, note that your right to enter Spain or France applies to the whole Schengen zone. This means that if you are approaching the end of your legal stay, crossing the border won't reset your stay.