The Basque Country is a far cry from what you may think of when you picture Spain. You won't find much flamenco dancing or paella here (and if you do, run — you've likely stumbled upon a tourist trap), but rather a rich and proud culture. The Basque people take great pride in their heritage and identity, and visiting the little region they call home is a fantastic opportunity to immerse yourself in their culture and way of life.
This gorgeous gem of a region along Spain's northern coast offers a whole wealth of natural beauty, sophisticated cities, and charming small towns you'll fall in love with immediately. If you're not sure where to start, try narrowing it down from this list of our top Basque Country destinations — there's sure to be one you'll adore.
Here, we'll be focusing on destinations within the Spanish Basque Country. The region also extends part of the way up into southwestern France. Don't miss our guide to the French Basque Country if that neck of the woods is on your itinerary.
With picturesque Belle Epoque architecture, an unbeatable food scene, and gleaming coastlines surrounding some of Europe's best urban beaches, San Sebastián's appeal is undeniable. While most visitors flock to this stunning coastal city in the summer months, its packed cultural calendar and lively lifestyle make it worth a visit at any time of the year.
If you're only going to do one thing in San Sebastián, eat. From the city's classic pintxos bars like La Cuchara de San Telmo to Michelin-starred wonders such as Arzak, it's easy to see why the city is considered Europe's best city for foodies.
Head just a little ways out of San Sebastián to the west and soon you'll find yourself in one of the Basque Country's most charming coastal destinations. A humble fishing village teeming with authentic, local charm, Getaria is a haven of gorgeous landscapes and quaint traditional architecture, which combine beautifully to provide postcard-perfect views.
Getaria is home to the Basque Country's signature drink, txakoli, a refreshing semi-sparkling white wine. Pop into a local bar or take a vineyard tour to try some straight from the source.
The town was also the birthplace of fashion icon Cristóbal Balenciaga, and today is home to a fascinating museum documenting his life and work.
No list of Basque Country destinations is complete without Bilbao. As one of the region's largest urban areas, this awe-inspiring city provides an experience unlike any other, where modern architectural wonder stand side-by-side with iconic historic buildings.
You may recognize Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum from its Frank Gehry-designed futuristic exterior. However, the inside is absolutely worth a visit as well, hosting one of the best modern art collections in Spain as well as regular cultural events.
Most people know Guernica as the title of the stunning Picasso masterpiece that takes up an entire wall in Madrid's Reina Sofia Museum. The painting depicts the most grim day in the small town's history: the bombing of the city during the Spanish Civil War. However, Guernica (the town) has risen from the ashes to become one of the Basque Country's most charming small-town destinations.
You can't visit Guernica without acknowledging its past. A respectful way to do so would be by visiting the Peace Museum, which hosts many fascinating permanent and temporary exhibitions explaining the historical context of the bombing and promoting peace.
As the capital of the Basque Autonomous Community in Spain, Vitoria-Gasteiz provides a metropolitan, cosmopolitan feel blended seamlessly with local tradition. With gorgeous architecture and a down-to-earth feel that will make everyone feel at home, this is a spot that should definitely not be overlooked.
Vitoria-Gasteiz's beautifully preserved medieval city center takes you on a breathtaking journey back in time. Seek out architectural wonders such as Bendaña Palace and the old city walls (dating from the 11th century), or simply let yourself to get lost in the charming cobblestone streets and see where you end up.
If there's one thing the Basque Country has in spades (other than tasty pintxos), it's stunning beaches. Hondarribia (also known by its Spanish name, Fuenterrabía) has made its way onto travelers' radar in recent years as one of the best day trips from San Sebastián, thanks in part to its beautiful coastline. However, despite its growing popularity, it manages to retain its traditional small-town charm and authenticity.
Make your way through the Old Town and marvel at the traditional Basque homes lining the streets in bursts of color. Another must-visit area is the Marina neighborhood, a lovely pedestrianized barrio with no shortage of excellent dining options.
When you come across a bottle of rioja, Spain's most ubiquitous red wine, you might assume that it was produced in the northern region of La Rioja. Most of the time, you'd be right. However, part of the denominación de origen calificada Rioja wine region extends up into the Basque Country, stretching into the province of Álava. Wines produced here still earn the prestigious D.O.C. Rioja label, but with the addition of one important word: Alavesa.
As the capital of the Rioja Alavesa region, the town of Laguardia is a must for curious travelers seeking gorgeous views and excellent lesser-known wines. Visit a nearby winery, such as Bodega Casa Primicia, for a tour and tasting.
With a long maritime history stretching back centuries, Bermeo proudly holds a status as one of the most important fishing towns on the Basque Coast. Its charm is undeniable, with a colorful, quaint marina (surrounded by great pintxos bars) and a privileged location in the heart of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. The rugged natural beauty is truly breathtaking and provides for once-in-a-lifetime views.
Head out to the nearby San Juan de Gaztelugatxe hermitage for a lovely seaside walk leading up to the small chapel on a hill. If the weather permits, you might not be able to resist the temptation to go for a relaxing swim in one of the small beaches at the bottom of the steps.
At one point, Zarautz was the preferred vacation spot for Spain's royal family, handpicked by Queen Isabella II herself in the 19th century. Hundreds of aristocrats soon followed suit, and the small coastal town earned its status as a can't-miss summer hotspot. Today, Zarautz offers a sophisticated yet unpretentious vibe perfect for travelers looking for something a bit more laid back than San Sebastián but with all of the charm.
Stretching a mile and a half along the coast, Zarautz's beach is the longest in the Spanish Basque Country. The waves here are unbeatable, making it a prime spot for surfing. Grab a board and hit the waves with the locals.
With a perfect location right between Bilbao and San Sebastián, Lekeitio makes an ideal spot for a day trip from either city. However, despite its small size, the beautiful landscapes and undeniable charm of the town itself will make you wish you could stay longer.
It's not every town where you can literally walk to an island. But in Lekeitio, you can. At low tide, you can make your way across the sandbar to San Nicolas Island, which offers unbeatable views of the town from its peak. (Just be sure to head back before the tide rises again.)
In the town itself, the Basilica of the Asunción de Santa María serves as a stunning example of Gothic architecture both inside and out.