I have lived in Spain since I was 10, but moved to the UK when I was 18 to study my bachelor’s degree here. One of my dreams has always been to explore more of Spain than I had been able to so far. I have been lucky enough to spend some of my summers here and to plan some trips around the country. And, whilst I have already explored quite a bit more than when I took off to the UK, there are still so many destinations in Spain on my list! This post is all about my trip to the north of Spain – Cantabria and the Basque Country – in the summer of 2019. I decided to travel my own for the first time and get better at surfing by going to a surf camp here for a week.
About the Basque Country
Spain is such a large country and it has so much to offer in terms of landscapes, history and culture. If you compare my experience in the south (my trip through Andalucía) to the experience I had in the north, it seems like a completely different country. This is one of the things that I love most about Spain, you can literally travel to each corner of the country and find completely different people, different customs, different food and different cultures.
The north of Spain is beautifully green, with long white sandy beaches, cliff sides, mountainous areas and beautiful caves. The Basque Country is an autonomous community in northern Spain. It has strong cultural traditions, a famous distinct cuisine and a language so different from Spanish it is unrecognisable.
The most worthwhile places to visit
Bilbao, the de facto capital of the Basque Country, is an industrial port where a lot of trade takes place. You can find some of the most modern and impressive architecture here in the downtown area, such as the Guggenheim Museum, as well as some of the most historic buildings from over 700 years ago.
- Accommodation: if you’re on a tight budget or backpacking like me, I would recommend staying at Bilbao Metropolitan Hostel by Bossh Hotels, a great value for money hostel with welcoming staff. Whilst the location isn’t ideal – it is slightly removed from the city centre – the amount you pay for it is really budget-friendly and it is not located in a worse-off neighbourhood (in comparison to some of the other hostels). It only takes about 10 minutes to walk to the historic centre of town. Other options if you have a more lenient budget include:
- Basque Boutique: a small boutique hotel located in the historic centre of Bilbao – one of the best locations to stay at.
- Meliá Bilbao: the Meliá is a well-known chain across all of Spain, known for its high-quality hotels. It is a frequent destination for business people but it also comes with it perks: two restaurants, a bar, a spa, a river view pool, a gym, and good service, as well as generously spacious rooms for the price you pay.
- Hotel Carlton: a great, chic 5-star hotel right in the centre of town. It is both traditional and elegant and often has great deals for its rooms. Go here if you are looking for a full and luxurious experience.
- Gran Hotel Domine: a 5-star hotel situated just opposite the Guggenheim Museum. It is a smart contemporary and luxurious hotel, ideal for those with an eye for design, as this hotel has art and architecture of its own to admire. Perfect for those who want beautiful views of the Guggenheim, want to stay in one of the best areas of Bilbao and who are prepared to pay the little extra for all this luxury.
- What to see and do: Among the most prominent are the Guggenheim Museum, Plaza Arriaga, Parque el Arenal, Iglesia de San Nicolas, La Plaza Nueva, las Siete Calles, Iglesia de Los Santos Juanes, el Mercado de la Ribera, and the historic city centre and its Cathedral. You can also go to the Gran Via for some shopping, go for a stroll in the Parque de los Patos, visit the Fine Arts Museum and go to the Artxanda viewpoint to view the city from above. Taking a free tour is a great way to see it all – Free Tours Bilbao have some of the best.
- Where to eat: Café Iruña – for the absolute best pintxos, the tapas bars at La Plaza Nueva are also great – especially at night, El Puertito is the best for oysters, Restaurante Agape both has weekday lunch menus of excellent quality – 3 courses with bread and wine included for only €13,90, El Perro Chico is also a great trendy restaurant, Pastelería Don Manuel and Arrese are some of the best places to get some of the typical sweet pastries and cakes from the region, and Charamel Gozotegia is my absolute favourite place for breakfast with delicious coffees, cakes and pastries.
San Sebastian on the other hand is much more of a resort town, well-known for its beautiful beaches like the Playa de la Concha, its excellent cuisine and upscale shops. This part of the Basque Country attracts a lot of tourists coming to spend the summer, as well as those who come to seek its renowned cuisine, being the home of as many as eighteen Michelin star restaurants.
- Accommodation: Two options in the old part of town include: Hotel Sansebay, which offers excellent value for money with stunning views of the beach and contemporary rooms and Artea Narrika, a clean and modern guesthouse with a minimalistic decor. In the city centre, there are plenty of extremely luxurious options like the Maria Cristina Luxury Collection Hotel, but also other more budget-friendly locations such as Pensión Garibai. If you want to stay next to La Concha beach, Hotel TRYP San Sebastian Orly offers good value, another iconic hotel that stands out above the rest is Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra, for those on a budget or seeking something a little more casual A Room in the City is a great option.
- What to see and do: visit Monte Igueldo and the Peine Del Viento on the far west side of La Concha, walk along the boulevard of La Concha beach where you will also find Miramar Palace – a former home of the queen, on the other side you can hike up Mount Urgull for breath-taking views of the beachfront and to visit the Mota Castle, and make sure you don’t miss out on the old part of town where you can find the City Hall, the Basílica de Santa María del Coro, the San Telmo Museum, La Plaza de la Constitución, the famous Calle 31 de Agosto, Saint Vincent’s Church, the Alderdi Eder Park and the Good Shepherd of San Sebastián Cathedral. The best way to see all of it and learn about the stories and history behind the city is by taking this free tour.
- Where to eat: for pintxos go to Borda Berri, Txepetxa, Bar Sport, La Cuchara de San Telmo, A Fuego Negro, or La Viña (best cheesecake!); for a fancier meal go to Casa Urola, Bodegón Alejandro, Kokotxa or Restaurante Mina (Michelin star); and for typical pastries and sweet items from the region go to Oiartzun, one of the best bakeries in San Sebastian.
Other worthwhile places to visit in the Basque Country
If you have more time some other places that are really worth a visit in the Basque Country, and are still on my list are:
- Hondarribia: this medieval village, located just next to the French border, is known as the most beautiful in the Basque Country. It is also home to some of the best restaurants in the region. The gastronomy here is so good even, that it is attracting many famous Spanish chefs from around the country. This little village will be sure to give you some great experiences.
- Vitoria-Gasteiz: the official capital of the Basque Country is also worth a visit. It’s a very vibrant city, with lots of pintxo bars and a colourful city centre. Don’t miss out on this one when you are in the area. For more information click here.
- Irun: Irun is one of the most historic towns in the Basque Country. It has over 2000 years worth of history that has left it with a unique architectural landscape due to all the battles it went through. It is surrounded by mountain peaks, giving some amazing views, and great hiking options.
- Lekeitio: it is a small Basque fishing village located on the Bay of Biscay. It is very small but one of the most charming villages in the area and the favourite place of many people who have visited the Basque Country.
- The txakoli wine region: the region is filled with vineyard terraces that cover the hills surrounding Getaria and Zarautz. It is here that the famous Basque Country txakoli wine is made, which is personally one of my favourite white wines. It is a dry white wine that has a slight sparkle and a subtle acidic note to it. The Basques drink it day and night and I don’t blame them! If you’re in the area it is really worth going to the region and tasting a few glasses straight from the vineyards. One winery that is recommended is Bodega de Txakoli Talai Berri.
- San Juan de Gaztelugatxe: not too far from Bilbao lies one of the most beautiful spots in the region, a little islet called Gaztelugatxe (Castle Rock). This destination has become especially popular after Game of Thrones as Dragonstone from season 7 was filmed here, and it does look like it has come straight out of a fantasy in real life too!
I hope that you enjoyed the guide and that it will give you some inspiration for your trip! If you are in the north fo Spain for longer, make sure to check out my guide to Cantabria, which also includes Santander. You might think that the areas in the north are all green and the same, but this couldn’t be further from the truth! Having visited multiple autonomous regions in the region I can say that everything changes from one autonomous region to the other; from the food that is eaten, the traditions, the history and the culture.