Bilbao and the Basque Country


Situated in the crook of the Iberian Peninsula between Spain and France on the Bay of Biscay, the Spanish Basque Country (known as “Euskadi” in Basque) stretches from the rock-bound foothills of the Pyrenees to the scrubby wine country of Rioja to the misty fishing villages of the Cantabrian Sea coast. Its urban hubs are Bilbao and San Sebastián, the former a rough-and-ready industrial city home to the Guggenheim Museum—a must-see for art lovers—and the latter a stately seaside resort widely regarded as one of the world’s great food meccas.

In many ways, the Basques are a people apart. Their ancient, pagan-influenced traditions; distinctive cuisine and folk music; and enigmatic non-Indo-European language—say eskerrik asko (“thank you” in Basque) five times fast—can make the regionRead More
seem like a country within a country, a reality not lost on the many Basques who favor independence from Spain. (Decades ago, terrorism in the name of Basque separatism roiled the region; today you can breathe easy as there’s no such threat.)

Understandably, most chatter about the Basque Country revolves around its food. The region gave rise to legendary chefs including Juan Mari Arzak, Martín Berasategui, and Pedro Subijana (of Akelare fame), whose nueva cocina revolution laid the groundwork for San Sebastián to become a culinary hotspot with more Michelin stars per capita than nearly any place on earth (barring Kyoto). But you don’t have to fork over hundreds of euros to eat well in the Basque Country: Some of the region’s most memorable morsels are unfussy, unadulterated fare like thick-cut steaks a la brasa, runny salt cod omelets, and grilled dayboat fish. Even bar food is better here with artfully prepared pintxos, the Basques’ answer to Spanish tapas, on display at virtually every neighborhood restaurant.

And locals know how to wash things down, since one-third of the Rioja D.O.C. (Denomination of Origin)—arguably the most prestigious winemaking region in Spain—lies in the Basque Country. The lusty reds (mostly tempranillo blends) taste sublime in situ, especially when the winery happens to be an architectural masterpiece like Marqués de Riscal or Bodegas Ysios, designed by Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava, respectively.

Between meals, there’s no shortage of breathtaking scenery to soak in. Along the craggy coast, peek into San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th-century hermitage built on an islet connected to the mainland by a stone bridge, or walk along the Flysch, a stunning sedimentary rock formation washed by the sea that depicts some 50 million years of geological history. Sleepy fishing villages like Lekeitio, Bakio, and Getaria, with their picturesque harbors and bustling central plazas, are idyllic places to unplug for a few days.

Inland, jagged mountains blanketed in lush vegetation make for scenic hikes; consider spending an afternoon winding through the sprawling oak forests of the Izki Nature Reserve in Álava.

Though public transportation is surprisingly efficient and affordable, it’s worth renting a car, especially if you enjoy vineyard-hopping, discovering off-the-beaten-path villages, and lounging on secluded beaches.

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