Bilbao and the Basque Country Travel Guide
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Churches, Cheese, and Pintxos: 15 Ways to Experience the Oldest Culture in Europe

PHOTO: trabantos / Shutterstock

Welcome foodies, history buffs, and nature lovers: learn what makes Basque Country one of the most intriguing places in Europe.

Northern Spain’s Basque Country has proudly maintained its own identity for hundreds of years (Basque is Spain’s oldest living language) while also becoming a modern hub of art, industry, and culture. Bilbao, San Sebastian, and the scenic farmland, quaint villages, and seaside towns sprinkled in between offer everything from gastronomy (a favorite Basque pastime) to adventure sports.

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PHOTO: municipality of haro
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Sample World Famous Reds in Wine Caves

WHERE: Haro

If you’re traveling north to Basque Country by car or train from Madrid, be sure to stop off in Rioja, Spain’s world famous wine region. The town of Haro lies in northern Rioja and has plenty of Basque influence reflected in its cuisine and culture. There are countless wineries to tour and taste, and if you can time your visit to coincide with the La Batalla del Vino on June 29, even better: the streets run red as festival goers fling wine at each other. If the inexhaustible selection of Rioja wineries seems daunting, book an organized tour through ZaporeaZ (their name is a Basque word meaning full of flavor.)

INSIDER TIPSpain has an incredible train system and it is very possible to use it during your entire trip through Basque Country, but if you are short on time, we recommend renting a car. Some of the smaller towns and villages have limited train schedules and are more easily explored when you have your own set of wheels.

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PHOTO: La Salbaje Surf Eskola
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Surf the Basque Coast

The ruggedly beautiful Costa Vasca boasts some of the most sought out surf in Europe, as evidenced by the 50 surfing competitions held here each year. You don’t have to be an expert surfer taking on the epic left-hander at Mundaka to enjoy the Basque coast, as there are plenty of mellow beach breaks for all levels. Rent a car in Bilbao and drive north towards the French Basque surf mecca of Biarritz to paddle out in popular point breaks and score solo sessions from abandoned beaches along the way. If you’re a novice, head towards the friendly beach breaks of Sopelena, just 20 minutes from Bilbao, and rent a board or take a lesson from La Salbaje Surf Eskola.

INSIDER TIPTiming is key in planning your surf adventure: in the summer, warmer weather and smaller waves make beginners happy, whereas experienced surfers may want to chase big waves in the fall and winter.

 

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Dine at a Michelin-Starred Restaurant

WHERE: San Sebastian

Hey, backpackers and budget travelers: San Sebastian is where you treat yourself. Heralded as a “foodie city,” this picturesque seaside town boasts the second highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world, second only to Japan’s Kyoto. Gastronomy is a cornerstone of Basque culture, and meals here are meant to be shared with friends, paired with wine or cider, and lingered over. Reserve ahead at Arzak, a family-run establishment whose award-winning current head chef is part of the family’s fourth generation. Or try the rotating tasting menu at Amelia, a tiny restaurant tucked into a quiet street near Cathedral del Buen Pastor. Amelia’s focus on local ingredients found at San Sebastian’s markets makes it one of our top picks.

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PHOTO: KLV/ Shutterstock
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Step Back in Time in a Medieval Village

WHERE: Elorrio

The Basque coast is stunning and home to the area’s major cities, but interior Basque Country offers a completely different perspective of the traditional, pastoral way of life. A visit to Elorrio, a town designated as a medieval world heritage site, is perfect for history buffs who want to know more about this ancient culture. Spend an afternoon admiring 17th- and 18th-century homes, the 16th-century basilica, and the monastery of Santa Ana, which houses 16th-century crosses and a statue of Saint Valentine. Look for coats of arms on buildings around the city (they represent old Basque families, many of whom still live here) and finish your day with a short tour of the city’s baroque style Arezpakotxaga Palace.

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PHOTO: Visionsi / Shutterstock
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Pintxos Bar Hop

WHERE: Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Hondarribia

Repeat after me what is sure to become your favorite Basque word: pintxos, pintxos, pintxos! Literally, it translates to “skewer,” and refers to small-plate dishes similar to tapas found throughout Spain, but with Basque flair. You’ll find pintxos, which often feature seafood near the coast while heartier ingredients like veal cheek star inland, in every town in Basque Country. The experience is unlike traditional dining: you sidle up to an often busy bar, select one or two plates, pair them with a glass of wine or cider, and pay at the end before moving on the next bar. The best way to enjoy this tradition is to pick a street (we like Parte Vieja in San Sebastian or Calle Ledesma in Bilbao) and simply hop from bar to bar, trying a bit of everything. If you would rather have some guidance and explore a smaller town, try a pintxos tour of the coastal town of Hondarribia with Ikusnahi Tours.

INSIDER TIPPintxos bars usually open around 11 am, close around 2 or 3 pm, reopen around 6 pm and stay open late. Embrace the siesta!

 

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PHOTO: Christopher J. Major / Shutterstock
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Drink Traditional Cider Straight From the Barrel

WHERE: Astigarraga, Irun

Wine and beer lovers might be able to agree on one thing when in Basque Country: the apple cider is seriously, ridiculously delicious. This drink has been popular in Basque Country since the 16th century when sailors and whale hunters would drink fermented apple juice in an effort to fight off scurvy. These days, the crisp, dry, and slightly tart (don’t expect sweet cider) drink finds its place at the table alongside pintxos. You can order local cider at most restaurants and bars, but to get the full experience, tour a Sagardotegia, or traditional cider house. The sleepy town of Astigarraga is a must stop on the cider trail; it boasts a grand total of 19 cider houses. We also love the Ola cider house in Irun, where you can partake in the txotx ritual, or barrel tasting, and listen to traditional live music.

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PHOTO: Pere Rubi / Shutterstock
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Watch a Basque Festival in the Mountains

WHERE: Beasain

The mountain hamlet of Beasain is an easy 45-minute train ride from San Sebastian, and it’s full of warm and welcoming people, delicious restaurants, and a lively, historic town square. The natural surroundings, though, will make you want to stay awhile–-Beasain is located on the Oria river and surrounded by mountains. If you time your visit during May, you’ll be treated to the town’s festival season, wrought with centuries-old traditions that celebrate the coming of spring in a chilly mountain village. These festivals unfold on the town square and main streets and showcase Basque traditional dress, which is starkly different from the rest of Spain, as well tamborrada drumming, dance, and rural sports.

INSIDER TIPBeasain is famous for black pudding, so be sure to try some if you’re feeling adventurous.

 

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PHOTO: pyreneanexperience.com
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Shear a Sheep

WHERE: Pyrenees

The baserria, or farmstead, embodies the spirit of Basque culture and pride. Why not skip the hotel for a night and stay at an actual working farm, where you can learn to shear a sheep in the shadow of the Basque Pyrenees Mountains? Pyrenean Experience is a traditional farmhouse with shared living spaces and Spanish language classes, walking tours, and cultural tours where you’ll meet Basque historians, musicians, shepherds, and more. Or if you have less time, take a day trip to Urkiola and learn to be a shepherd for a day: you’ll try your hand at milking and shearing sheep and even make your own soap.

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PHOTO: Tolín
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Chill out in a Sleepy Beach Town

WHERE: Zarautz

There are countless coastal villages along the Costa Vasca, but Zarautz is definitely special. The town just has a cool vibe, owing in part to the skate park that looks out at the ocean, the surfers paddling out for sunset sessions, tiny beachside cafes and ice cream shops, and an active, outdoor-loving population. Locals will tell you: the thing to do in Zarautz is to go to the beach. Luckily, there are many ways to enjoy it! If you want to surf, rent a board or take a lesson from Puka’s, which is right on the beach and has showers and lockers. Or enjoy the well-maintained scenic walkways, which lead from town across the beachside estuary and up along the Basque coast, affording stunning views of sea cliffs and turquoise waters.

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PHOTO: QUINTAS FOTOGRAFOS
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Explore the Underrated Capital of Basque Country

The Basque capital is both incredible and incredibly under-visited. If you really want to round out your trip to Northern Spain, though, this city’s medieval district, churches, and museums are a must. Basque culture has always emphasized innovation, so it’s no wonder that the capital blends pastoral culture with industrial prowess. Visit the farmer’s market and craftsmen’s shops, or take a tour of the Santa Maria cathedral, which is said to have inspired countless Spanish writers and artists.

If you happen to visit in August, experience the city’s most intriguing festival, which celebrates traditional Basque sports including pelota, stone lifting, and log cutting.

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Stroll the Casco Viejo

WHERE: Bilbao

Bilbao is known for modern wonders like the Guggenheim, but this industrial city’s heart and soul lies in its medieval quarter.  Narrow alleyways and open plazas beg to be explored, so set forth on foot. Shop for produce at the Mercado de la Ribera, Europe’s largest covered food market, or treasure hunt at an expansive Sunday morning flea market. Spend the rest of the afternoon marveling at the Casco Viejo’s many stunning churches, some of which date back to the 14th century: don’t miss the Santiago cathedral, Iglesia de los Santos Juanes, and Iglesia de San Antón. End your trip with a visit to the Euskal Museoa, a Baroque-style museum devoted to Basque culture.

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Sip Traditional Txakoli

WHERE: San Sebastian

Txakoli is a unique wine particular to Northern Spain, and it’s no accident that it pairs perfectly with pintxos. The bubbly beverage is gaining traction in the world of wine trends, so get ahead of the game and try this slightly effervescent white wine right at its source. Its name refers to the style of wine rather than a specific grape varietal, and it has been produced in Basque country for centuries. Try it in the small town of Ordizia, which has held a farmer’s market every Wednesday since 1512! After sampling local produce at the market, duck into a tavern and wash it all down with a glass of txakoli.

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PHOTO: Noradoa / Shutterstock
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Get Lost in Oma Enchanted Forest

WHERE: Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve

Oma Enchanted Forest is a mystical blend of art and nature located in the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. Just 45 minutes from Bilbao, it makes the perfect whimsical day trip. Ancient Paleolithic etchings are found carved into towering pine trees and stones, which inspired artist and sculptor Agustin Ibarrola to continue on with tradition. He brought this fairytale forest to life with bright, bold, and at times eerie paintings on the thick trees, which change depending on your vantage point: when you look at the painted trees from certain angles, complete images form.

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Learn Cheesemakers’ Secrets

WHERE: Idiazabal

Northern Spain’s cheesemaking tradition is alive in the charming village of Idiazabal, which specializes in cheese made from the milk of the longhaired Latxa sheep. Depending on the cheesemaker, the entire process is done by hand, and the sheep’s milk cheese is served either hard or soft, aged or new. The best way to learn what you like is to sample them all: visit restaurants and cheese shops, explore the cheese-making museum, or if you’re lucky, attend a local festival, where Basque cheese makers set up sample booths and prizes are awarded to the crowd’s favorite.

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Walk in the Path of Pilgrims

WHERE: Bilbao, Guernica

The Camino de Santiago, the walk through Spain that connects various pilgrimage sites, is extremely popular and can even be crowded in the summer months. Instead of taking a modern route, why not hike one of the ancient, forgotten paths? Take in the rolling green hills, vast oak tree forests, and tiny villages along the old road from Bilbao to Guernica, which also happens to bypass historic sites like the Arikondo Bridge. For those with less than stellar navigation skills, a tour company like Camino Ways can help guide you. Guernica is the perfect place to end your hike–the city has become a symbol of peace and is a deeply impactful Basque cultural center.