How to Plan the Perfect San Sebastian and Bilbao Trip

  • 01 of 08

    Spain's Basque Country has Fantastic Cuisine and Scenery to Die for!

    San Sebastian Pintxos and the Guggenheim in Bilbao
    ••• San Sebastian Pintxos and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Katina Rogers and Guillermo Viciano (Creative Commons)

    The Basque Country is one of the most exciting regions to visit in Spain. Not as touristy as Andalusia, Madrid or Barcelona, it still has a lot to offer visitors, particularly its wine and cuisine, the great surfing and the Guggenheim museum.

    See also:

    Things to Do in the Basque Country

    It's easy to spend a long weekend or a week in the Basque Country: see my suggestions below. Jump straight to the section you're most interested in or click 'next'. 

    • Sample the fantastic Basque Cuisine, particularly in San Sebastian.
    • Visit San Sebastian beach. For some, the holy grail of beaches is one that has all the amenities of a big city. San Sebastian's beach is just that. Fine sand, clear water and all the restaurants and cafes you could desire.
    • Go to Bilbao, home to the Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim symbolises Bilbao's transformation from an industrial backwater to a modern cosmopolitan city. It is...MORE one of Spain's greatest modern art museums (rivaled only by the Reina Sofia in Madrid. Even if you aren't a fan of modern art, the Frank Gehry-designed building is worth a look.
    • Visit the towns of Guernica and ​​Getaria
    • Get out to the Rioja wine region, a short day trip from the Basque Coutnry
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  • 02 of 08

    Eating and Drinking in the Basque Country

    Bar-top Pintxos in San Sebastian
    ••• Bar-top Pintxos in San Sebastian. (c) Damian Corrigan

    Spanish food is very much in vogue. And that is almost entirely thanks to the Basque Country, a region at the cutting edge of international cuisine.

    There are four main areas of Basque cuisine that every visitor to the region should check out if possible: the pintxos (tapas), fish, the Michelin star restaurants and the cider houses.

    Basque Pintxos 

    In the local Basque language, tapas are called pintxos, and so now everyone refers to Basque tapas like this.

    Basque tapas are traditionally laid out on the bar top, where you can either help yourself or point to what you want and have the bartender serve you. Nowadays it is common to have them warmed in a microwave, though in San Sebastian there is usually also a menu for freshly prepared tapas.

    Basque pintxos, particularly in San Sebastian, tend to be quite inventive in their presentation or use of ingredients, with unusual combinations of sweet and savoury or novel ways of eating your dish.  

    Where to Go for Basque Pintxos

    San Sebastian is...MORE undoubtedly the place to go for Basque pintxos, particularly around Calle 31 de Agosto.

    If you're in Bilbao, check out Calle Licenciado Poza in the new town for the best in local pintxos.

    Further afield, the city of Logroño in the Rioja wine region has excellent Basque-style pintxos to go with its world-renowned wine.

    Steak at a Basque Ciderhouse

    Spanish cider is relatively unknown outside of Spain. Most popular in Asturias and the Basque Country, it is on the acidic side and so is poured from a great height to aerate the drink and take the edge off the taste (that's the theory, anyway!).

    Basque Ciderhouses, or sagardotegi in Basque, are known for the very best steaks in the country - oh, and serving cider out of giant vats. The cider squirts out of a spigot - you catch the drink in your glass, nicely aerated and ready to drink. It's the only way to drink Basque cider.

    A Basque ciderhouse could be a little intimidating for those who don't speak Spanish: you have to stand in line to get the cider from a different room from where you eat: this is no normal sit-down meal. It is also a lot more fun in a larger group. For these reasons, I can highly recommend going on a tour: 

    Basque Seafood

    The cold Atlantic coast provides Spain with a different variety of fish from the warm waters of the Mediterranean to the south and east. Though seafood is abundant in the pintxos bars and Michelin-lauded restaurants, taking a day trip to Getaria or out on a fishing trip is a must for fish lovers.

    • Getaria Day Trip from San Sebastian

    Michelin-Star Restaurants in San Sebastian

    Michelin give out stars to thousands of restaurants, but only incredibly highly regarded restaurants get two stars and a tiny minority of the very best get three. And there are three such Restaurants with Three Michelin Stars in San Sebastian, giving San Sebastian the highest number of Michelin stars per capital in the world! 

    Wine Tours from the Basque Country

    The Basque Country is home to its own unique wine (a tart, usually white, wine called Txakoli) and is also very close to the Rioja wine region. You won't get a bad glass of wine in any good tapas bar in the Basque Country, but why not take a trip out to a winery to learn more about the processes involved in making these fine beverages?

    Cookery Courses in the Basque Country

    Learn to make Basque cuisine from the experts. 

    • Bilbao Cooking Class 
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  • 03 of 08

    San Sebastian

    San Sebastian
    ••• San Sebastian. Tomás Fano/Creative Commons

    San Sebastian is famous for its tapas scene (called pintxos in the local Basque Language) and its excellent city beach.

    For a more in-depth guide to visiting San Sebastian, check out this page on How to Spend Three Days in San Sebastian.

    Things to Do in San Sebastian

    • Eat! San Sebastian is better than Bilbao for cuisine: it has better pintxos, restaurants with three Michelin stars and the Basque steakhouses 
    • Explore San Sebastian old town. Check out this or a San Sebastian Running Tour
    • Learn to
    • Take a day trip.

    Day Trips from San Sebastian

    • Bilbao The biggest city in the Basque Country (and Spain's fifth biggest) is home to the Guggenheim museum.
    • Getaria Famous fishing village. Getaria Day Trip from San Sebastian
    • Hondarribia A small, picturesque border town that is worth a short visit. See also: Hondarribia Evening Tour from San Sebastian
    • La Rioja Spain's most famous wine region. Wine Tour of Laguardia in La Rioja from San Sebastian
    • The French Basque Country The Basque Country is...MORE actually split between France and Spain. Check out the French side to get the full picture of the region. 

    Arrival in San Sebastian

    The local train (Euskotren) station and bus station are side by side just to the south of the city, while the main train station is a little further out of the city, to the east. From all three, it's a 10 to 20 minute walk to the old town center. 

    San Sebastian's airport has very few flights and they tend to be expensive. If you're flying into the Basque Country, you're more likely to come via Bilbao. You can take a bus straight from Bilbao Airport to San Sebastian.

      Where to Stay in San Sebastian

      Though Bilbao is the bigger city in the Basque Country, San Sebastian is the nicer for the tourist, especially for foodies. 

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    • 04 of 08

      Bilbao

      The Guggenheim in Bilbao
      ••• The Guggenheim in Bilbao. Andrea Ciambra/Creative Commons

      Bilbao is famous for the Guggenheim museum, but there is more to this city than a museum. The Siete Calles (Seven Streets) area of the old town is especially worth checking out.

      Things to Do in Bilbao

      • The Guggenheim Museum, of course.  Private Guggenheim Tour
      • The Museo de Bellas Artes Fine Arts Museum that's a stone's throw from the Guggenheim.
      • Explore the Old Town, taking in the cathedral and the Plaza Nueva and sampling some pinchos along the way. Bilbao Old Town Walking Tour
      • Walk Along the Riverside or better still, take the tram. This area has seen most of the attention (and money) since they started improving Bilbao.
      • The Parque Doña Casilda de Iturrizar, complete with a charming fountain that dances to the music!
      • Take a Bilbao Scenic Flight or Bilbao Sailing Trip.

      Day Trips from Bilbao 

      • San Sebastian The biggest draw in the Basque Country has the best food in the country. Check out this tour of 
      • Guernica The city Hitler bombed during the Spanish Civil War, at the request of Franco....MORE Picasso's most famous work is based on this bombardment.
      • La Rioja One of the most famous wine regions in the world is a short drive from Bilbao.  
      • Añana Salt Valleys Añana has been producing salt for 6,500 years. Añana and Vitoria Tour
      • The Basque Coastline Look out across the Bay of Biscay by visiting some of the beautiful villages along the north Spanish coast. On this Explore the Basque Coast tour, you will visit the Puente Viskaya (the only UNESCO World Heritage site in the Basque Country), before visiting Neguri, Bakio, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Bermeo, Mundaka and Guernica.
      • Pozalagua Caves Visit the most beautiful caves in Europe and the oldest village in the Basque Country with this 

      Arriving in Bilbao

      The advantage that Bilbao has over San Sebastian is that Bilbao has the airport. There are buses directly from Bilbao airport to San Sebastian.

      If coming by bus into the city, including from the airport, you will arrive in the west of the city. There is a tram (Line A) that takes you from the bus station, past the Guggenheim, to the city center. 

      Where to Stay 

      What you would call 'Central' Bilbao, at least on a map, is actually the new town, a spacious and pleasant place to shop and eat, with the Guggenheim a little to the north and the old town to the east. There is less accommodation in the old town, so consider staying halfway between there and the Guggenheim (for example, at Hotel Abando).

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    • 05 of 08

      Guernica

      The Guernica painting as a mural in the town of the same name
      ••• The Guernica painting as a mural in the town of the same name. (c) Damian Corrigan

      To many, Guernica is a painting by Picasso. Picasso painted his most famous work shortly after the bombing of the town by the Nazis during the Spanish Civil War. The original is housed in Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

      The vast majority of Guernica was destroyed in the 1937 bombing. Franco ordered the bombing, which was carried out by the Germans, as a way of disheartening the Basque people, who were on the side of the Republicans. Though there was a munitions factory in Guernica, the attack was strictly a civilian target (the munitions factory was undamaged at the request of Franco, who wanted to use it for his own forces).

      The attack is said to have been the biggest ever attack on civilians at the time and the first experiment in 'total war'.

      Guernica has symbolic importance in the Basque Country. It has been traditional since time immemorial for the Basque government to meet under the Gernikako Arbola, an old oak tree in Guernica. Though the capital of the Basque Country is now Vitoria-Ga...MOREsteiz, the President is still sworn in under the tree.

      Though the tree survived the bombing in 1937, it was declared dead in 2004. They now use a new tree, an offspring of this old one.

      In this square is the Museo de la Paz (Peace Museum). It has a number of permanent and temporary displays dedicated to peace. The main peace exhibition is little more than polemic and merely preaches tired mottos like "we must work together to achieve peace" but the exhibitions on the Guernica bombing and the look at the history of Basque terrorism are excellent.

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    • 06 of 08

      Getaria

      View of the coastline from just outside Getaria
      ••• View of the coastline from just outside Getaria. (c) Damian Corrigan

      Getaria is a small fishing village close to San Sebastian, on the way to Bilbao, in the wine region that produces Txakoli white wine.

      See also:

      Popular Things to Do in and Around Getaria

      • Cristobal Balenciaga Museum Commemorates the work of Spain's most famous fashion designer, a native of Getaria.
         
      • San Salvador Church An unusual iglesia, with a sloping floor and a model boat that superstitious fishermen use to predict the weather.
         
      • Eat pintxos and drink txakoli Eat Basque tapas, washed down with Txakoli wine. The Politena pintxos bar has some of the best bar-top pintxos I've seen. Outside in the streets of Getaria, Politena and other bars and restaurants cook freshly-caught fish on open grills. 
         
      • Visit the local fish-packing factory See how the fresh fish brought in from Basque waters are packed before they are sent off to the supermarkets. Only possible with the San Sebastian Food Getaria tour.
         
      • Visit the Elkano Txakoli vineyard Just outside the village is the Elkano vineyard....MORE Learn about their small-scale, high-quality txakoli and have lunch made by the owners. Though a few companies visit Elkano, only the tour run by San Sebastian Food includes the lunch.
         
      • Go surfing Getaria has some good waves for surfers and is less crowded than nearby Zarautz. However, if you don't have your own equipment, Zarautz has surfing rental companies and Getaria doesn't.
         
      • Visit the Pello Urdapilleta historic farm Sample pork products right where they were produced. 

      Next: How to Get to Getaria from San Sebastian

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    • 07 of 08

      Suggested Itineraries

      Tapas bar in Logroño
      ••• Tapas bar in Logroño. (c) Damian Corrigan

      These itineraries assume you're on a tight schedule, trying to fit everything in to the shortest period of time. But you're on vacation, so add a day or two to revisit your favourite tapas spots.

      Three-Day San Sebastian Suggested Itinerary

      • Day 1 Eat pintxos, explore the old town, visit a basque cider house 
      • Day 2 Visit Bilbao or La Rioja, go to a three-Michelin star restaurant
      • Day 3 Get active! Take a cookery course or learn how to surf
         
      • In more detail: How to Spend Three Days in San Sebastian 
      • See also:

      Three-Day Bilbao Suggested Itinerary

      • Day 1 Visit the Guggenheim, explore the old town, go out for pintxos
      • Day 2 Visit San Sebastian, dine at a fancy Bilbao restaurant
      • Day 3 Take a day trip to the Rioja wine region

      Five-Day Bilbao and San Sebastian Suggested Itinerary

      • Day 1 Arrive in Bilbao, visit the Guggenheim, explore the old town and go for pintxos
      • Day 2 If you have your own transport and a designated driver, check out of your hotel and visit the La Rioja wineries. End the night in San...MORE Sebastian. Otherwise do a tour of La Rioja.
      • Day 3 If you aren't already in San Sebastian, make the transfer. Go for pintxos, check out the old town, eat at a Basque cider house.
      • Day 4 Take a course: cooking or surfing are popular options. 
      • Day 5 Take another day trip. There are loads to choose from!
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    • 08 of 08

      When to Visit the Basque Country

      -Guggenheim-Bilbao.jpg
      ••• Image: Dani_vr/Creative Commons (Some rRights Reserved)

      What time of year you visit will have a big effect on the kind of time you have.

      Weather in the Basque Country

      The Basque Country, in the north of Spain, is a lot cooler and wetter than, say, Andalusia. Even though it is on the same lattitude as the Côte d'Azur in France, the cold Atlantic ocean does things to the climate that the lucky Mediterraneans can't imagine.

      But when to come to the Basque depends largely on what you want to do. San Sebastian's beach is very nice and I've seen sunbathers there on a (uncharacteristically warm) New Year's Eve, but you wouldn't want to depend on a suntan apart from during peak season (July and August). But if surfing is your thing, then you'll want to avoid the summer months, as the surfing season runs from Autumn until Spring.

      Luckily, there are plenty of things to do indoors - such as visit the Guggenheim or sample great tapas - for when it rains.   

      Events in the Basque Country

      In and close to the Basque Country you'll find the following annual...MORE events. The region is particularly known for its jazz and film festivals.