San Sebastian or Bilbao? Our Results...

May 12th, 2017, 10:58 AM
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Join Date: May 2005
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San Sebastian or Bilbao? Our Results...

I've just returned from a 6-day trip to San Sebastian and Bilbao. There was always a question in the back of my mind about which destination would I enjoy better. Doing the research, most people chose San Sebastian's beauty and food over busy Bilbao. Were they right? Read on...

Background: I organise a 6-day trip for 18 adults where we visit somewhere in Europe every year. I get to choose the destination. Last year it was St. Petersburg and this year it was the Basque area. I used Mikel (who frequents this forum) as our organiser. He was incredibly competent and very knowledgeable. I recommend his services highly!

Hotels: Four nights in Hotel Costa Vasca, San Sebastian and two nights in Hotel Barcelo Nervion, Bilbao

April 30: Arrival from Zürich via Bilbao to San Sebastian. Mikel organised a bus for us which was punctual and very efficient.

Hotel Costa Vasca is a beautiful quiet hotel that is spotless and has great breakfasts. The only downside was that it's a bit far from the old town. However, we all agreed we loved the hotel and would stay there again.

That night we took the funicular up to Monte Igeldo which offered some of the best views of the town and its gorgeous beach called Concha. It would have been a great start of our trip if it hadn't rained. Rain? No, it poured buckets while the wind pushed our umbrellas inside out. We decided to leave ASAP and walked to the old town.

The walk along Concha beach is something special. It's breathtakingly beautiful with its shapes, colours, surfers and waves. The beach is sandy and beckoning but we decided to enjoy it another day..

The old town is a real treat. It's not that large but offers interesting architecture and plenty of bars beckoning locals and tourists with their pinxtos (Basque tapas). All I can say is look up images of them and be assured that's exactly what they look like. We filled our stomachs on wine and pinxtos and then took the taxi (8 Euros) back to the hotel.

May 1, 2017
The skies were clear and the sun was shining today. The Spanish sun had brought summer back. Today we went on a three-hour walk on part of the El Camino Norte to Pasajes de Juan, ate in Pasajes and then took the bus back. We started at Avenue Navarre from Zurriola surfing beach and ended our hike by taking a boat from San Pedro to Pasajes (a few minutes). The hike took over 3.5 hours (don't let anyone tell you it's far less) and was parallel to the wild but beautiful coastline. We walked through lush vegetation with the sounds of surf and birds below us. We passed a few pilgrms but many locals too. It's a popular trail and the end destination is in Pasajes, a very quaint small village, which welcomed us with its open square and delicious fish offerings.

If you have time, definitely do this path. The views of San Sebastian are glorious (our best photos were taken on the way up) and the path is doable in tennis shoes.

May 2, 2017: More rain in San Sebastian. In fact, it was basically a daily trade-off of good weather and bad weather during our stay.

Due to the weather, we visited the historical museum in the morning, walked up to Urgull in the afternoon (whose views are far less spectacular than Igeldo's) and then went back to the hotel to meet our German-speaking guide (not Mikel). I won't say too much about the guide except that we had wished for more information.

After a brief pinxtos tour where our guide took us up a platform near the train station for another view of the city, we ended up back in the old town and had THE BEST pinxto patatas ever. Mouth-water, creamy and a taste of heaven. Just don't ask me where because I can't remember the name, but it was somewhere between the church and museum in a modern bar.
We ended the evening with a visit in the Whisky Museum, which is basically a bar that sports a vast selection of whiskies from all over the world. We stuck to the traditional Scottish single blend whiskies including Oban, Talisker, Glenlivit (sic) and a very peaty whisky from Islay.

May 3, 2017 Visiting the French Basque

Today we visited Bayonne, Biarritz and St. Jean de Luz. We loved all three although they were each very different from each other. The day was again sunny and warm and the quaint alleys of Bayonne took us back in history, the beauty of the Biarritz coastline left us in awe and a brief walk through St. Jean de Luz left us begging for more time there.

Dinner was at Petritigi Cider House. Apple cider in San Sebastian? It's a local tradition so we had to go. After a short taxi trip, we arrived at the cider house. This cider house is basically one very big room with a separate door leading to the cider barrels. Guests are asked to try the different ciders which we awaited in anticipation. Our first sip was quite a surprise. A rather bitter one, in fact. There's nothing sweet about Basque cider and I fear it's a taste on must become accustomed to. We weren't there long enough to develop a love for it but we were hungry and was wondering what was in store for us next. We all sat down at wooden tables as bottles of cider and water were placed in front of us. And then came baskets of bread and local sausage, also set in the middle of the table so it was basically self-serve, just like at home. Then came plates of cod-egg omelettes which were quite tasty. Then came cod fish. After that, plates of medium rare beef steaks were placed in front of us. Some more rare than others. It seems the Basques enjoy their meat tender and barely cooked so a few of us asked to have the meat cooked a bit more. We enjoyed the meat and all that came with it. Dessert consisted of cheese, nuts, biscuits and a quince gelee. Not your typical dessert but I enjoyed the explosion of flavour when making my cheese, biscuit and gelee sandwich. Yummy! As we looked around, the place was packed! Hundreds of locals and groups were also there enjoying basically the same menu as we had. If you're looking for a man, that's the place to be since the ratio seemed to be 4 men to 1 woman. Quite an interesting place.

May 4, 2017 Today we checked out of our hotel and headed out to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, the charming fishing town of Mundaka as well as the entrance to the Urdaibai estuary (Reserve of the Biosphere) and Gernika, the sacred town of Basques and where visited one of the oldest Parliaments in the world (11th century) and the Tree of Gernika, the symbol for all Basques. (Not in this order)

Gernika was special because of its history and the church of San Juan was spectacular. Unfortunatey, we didn't have time to visit it which many of us would have liked to. It's a 1.5 hour hike back and forth which involves lots of steps. Oh well, next time!

We drove into Bilbao and checked in at the very busy Hotel Barcelo Nervion in Bilbao. It's located in the city center and there were lots of groups young and old there. The walls in the rooms were rathers thin and the guests can be very noisy at night but the location is unbeatable. It was clean, modern and the breakfast was plentiful. It was much noisier than our previous hotel but everything in Bilbao is much livelier as we soon found out.

May 5, 2017
Today we visited two family wineries in the Basque Rioja, one near Laguardia and the other within its walls. We really enjoyed the winery Ostatu, where we were given a special tour and had the opportunity to try several wines. We were told 60% of the vines were damaged due to an unseasonal frost the previous week and so many wineries may be suffering financially this year.

In the evening, we met Mikel and he gave us a special tour of Bilbao. Bilbao's architecture and old town is amazing. Bustling with young and old, there's life and energy down every alley. Locals were pouring out of the bars and the pinxtos were extremely tasty here too. The magic of Bilbao was starting to take hold...

After the tour, we headed towards funicular de Artxanda, located near our hotel. The funicular ends on top of a hill with a quiet park and a view of the whole area. It's the perfect place to get your settings of Bilbao and to understand how its nestled along a river.

We ended the evening with a nice and inexpensive three course dinner somewhere in the old town. We all had fresh fish again... dorada, hake, turbot, cod, anchovies... the list goes on and on.

May 6:

What to do on a warm day in Bilbao? Head to the Guggenheim Museum to soak up the sun and enjoy a thick cup of hot chocolate with a dreamy serving of cheesecake. The area is fantastic to just sit and enjoy the surroundings while your mind entertains itself with the works of architectural art surrounding you. A few of us then did some shopping and ended up in the San Francisco area, where small streets were packed wall to wall with Spain's youth. I had never seen such a laid-back crowd of young people standing around, enjoying their drinks and just glad to be part of the scene. We took some pictures and made our way to the old town as we felt too old to be part of the crowd.

Back in the old town on a Saturday afternoon, the gorgeous alleys were bustling again with locals enjoying the sun and chatting with their friends while watching the odd stag party begin its long evening of jeering on the rather embarrassed bridegroom, who was often dressed in bridal dresses or some other female apparel. There was a buzz in the air that electrified all those involved in it. It was like our batteries were being recharged with local Spanish energy and we felt welcomed wherever we went.

Alas, it was soon time to say goodbye to our dear Bilbao, a city that is alive with locals and tourists that melt into one stream of laid-back excitement.

Having read all of that, can you now guess which town I preferred?
kleeblatt is offline  
May 12th, 2017, 12:17 PM
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Interesting! But >with local Spanish energy< in Bilbao?
Robert2016 is offline  
May 12th, 2017, 12:23 PM
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Should I have used "Basque" instead?
kleeblatt is offline  
May 12th, 2017, 03:10 PM
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Kaixo! Yes! Of course, it's the Basque Country (País Vasco & Pays Basque), Euskal Herria.
Robert2016 is offline  
May 12th, 2017, 03:22 PM
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Thanks for your kind word, kleeblatt, it sure was a pleasure to meet you and your (very nice) group. And so glad that you liked Bilbao so much, a city that is often shadowed by San Sebastian for no real reason at all...I feel it as more "authentic", but of course, I may be biased as it´s my hometown...
mikelg is offline  
May 12th, 2017, 05:44 PM
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I confess I was underwhelmed by San Sebastian. Admittedly, I had bad weather, big crowds, and a problem with my accommodation, but for a seaside destination I preferred Biarritz.
thursdaysd is offline  
May 12th, 2017, 06:20 PM
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Thanks for the report! I love all the details and hope to go someday!
Iwan2go is offline  
May 12th, 2017, 09:27 PM
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We had splendid weather for our three days (mid May) in SS.
Spending afternoons at the terrace of La Perla restaurant (with a view of the beach)
was great .
One day in Bilbao was nice too.
danon is online now  
May 12th, 2017, 11:26 PM
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It's always difficult choosing between Donostia and Bilbao, but with friends in both, we try to decide our time as best we can.
Robert2016 is offline  
May 13th, 2017, 12:25 AM
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No question about San Sebastian's beauty. It's definitely worth spending a few days there. We, too, spent a lovely hour on the terrace of La Perla. It had been raining but the sun finally came out and was drying everything up. The terrace had only a few guests so we could enjoy a pleasant time soaking up the beauty in a lovely atmosphere.

However, I agree with Mikel that Bilbao felt more authentic and alive. Definitely see both: SS for its scenery and touch of yesteryear and Bilbao for its art, shopping and energy of today.

To be honest, it's a privilege to even be able to have been there and compare. There is nothing like the joys of traveling and being able to make up your own mind through experience.
kleeblatt is offline  
May 13th, 2017, 01:23 AM
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The modern and "taste of heaven" pintxos bar between the church and museum in San Sebastián might very well have been A Fuego Negro:

It's close to the Santa María del Coro church in the Calle 31 de Agosto, the only street in the Old town standing after the attack and fire on 31. August 1813 during the Napoleonic wars, and one of NYT's favourite streets in Europe (I like it much myself, but I have other favourites in San Sebastián ;-).
kimhe is offline  
May 13th, 2017, 01:30 AM
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Kimhe, yes! That's it. We were told to go to Casa Vergara for the best cheesecake in San Sebastian but we were served huge portion of it at A Fuego Negro as well.
kleeblatt is offline  
May 13th, 2017, 02:41 AM
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Thought so ;-) and until next time you can wet your appetite with this fun video about the Basque food culture and going for pintxos in the San Sebastián Old town with Michelin star chefs:
kimhe is offline  
May 13th, 2017, 01:53 PM
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<< If you're looking for a man, that's the place to be since the ratio seemed to be 4 men to 1 woman. >>

Bookmarking! LOL!!!
joannyc is online now  
May 14th, 2017, 10:25 AM
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The best cheesecake in SS (that is, in the world), is in La Viña at 31 de agosto street. Casa Bergara (in Gros), has great pintxos in a less touristy area.
mikelg is offline  
May 15th, 2017, 07:44 AM
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Try Bar Antonio in SS too and Bar Hidalgo across the river in Gros. Both fantastic for pintos and/or dinner
chelseaboy is offline  
May 15th, 2017, 07:50 AM
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Patricia Wells once told me "some things you have to keep to yourself". Toooo much information on Gros, and Bar Antonio!
Robert2016 is offline  
May 15th, 2017, 08:49 AM
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I hate the word authentic. To whom? When? Unless it is a Disneyland where the entire intention is to create an artificial world, what is authentic?

It is like saying I want to live like a local. Fine go buy some toilet paper at the market and then clean someone's house.

Are the streets of Paris inauthentic, because they were designed with symmetry to thwart a rebellion?

Years ago the joke in Spain was if you were going to give an enema to Spain, it would be Bilbao. Now it is so authentic because a modern museum by a brand name architect has been the main catalyst in resurrecting the city. I love museums but they are artifices as well, especially ones where the skin of the building is more impressive than the permanent collection.
IMDonehere is offline  
May 15th, 2017, 10:08 AM
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IMDonehere, I have to disagree. The museum in Bilbao is just a small part of the city and Bilbao would be a great city without it. In fact, most of my visitors see it in two hours and then enjoy the rest of the city. The resurrection of the city did NOT come from the museum, it was already resurrected (we invested millions in cleaning the river, restoring the Old Town, building an efficient, clean and safe metro system, making parks where there were previously factories and fumes...and so on. The Guggenheim was the last one to arrive (and I can tell you this because I lived 21 years in the old quarter and 10 in front of what was previously the Guggenheim). Bilbao is "authentic" in the sense that its life is not based on pleasing the tourist, but in pleasing the locals. And it´s a pleasant, walkable, clean, safe, great city to enjoy, without all the hassle of other "touristy" cities.
mikelg is offline  
May 15th, 2017, 10:48 AM
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I chose just one article to highlight what is called the "Bilbao Effect." This is when a city (or town) uses art for a total transformation.

The BBC piece also mentions that the truce with the ETA helped Bilbao (among other places) as well.

San Sebastian is as genuine as any other town. And because of the influx of madrileños during the summer and wealthy foreigner during their arts festivals, it might not seem that way.

I live in NYC and people think it isn't genuine for whatever stereotype they have. But few things are as genuine as being in a 120 degree subway station in August waiting for a train to go work.
IMDonehere is offline  

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