I had the chance to visit the Basque Country (Euskadi in the Basque language, or Pais Vasco in Spanish) a year and a half ago, when I walked part of the Camino del Norte to Santiago de Compostela. I was so impressed with both its natural beauty and lively cities, that I vowed to visit again.
I suppose it is clear by now that I like to keep my promises, so I decided to visit the Basque Country again, this time in the fall (though the weather turned out to be incredibly pleasant and almost summery), and with a slightly different itinerary from last time.
That’s how I managed to visit Bilbao, and ended up admiring some of the most incredible contemporary art and architecture in the world, discovering the gorgeous Gaztelugatxe, tasting some delicious local wines and gorging on pinxtos in San Sebastian.
Here are a few reasons why I think everyone should visit the Basque Country, and a few tips on how to make the most of it.
Seven Great Reasons To Visit The Basque Country
The cities are beautiful
During my first time in the Basque Country, I hardly had the opportunity to visit Bilbao. This time, I didn’t want to miss on it and I made sure to make the most of my limited time there.
Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country, and it was hardly more than a big industrial city until the 1990s. Fast-forward 20 years and those who visit Bilbao find a lively city, with state of the art museums, a perfectly kept Casco Viejo (historic quarter), fine restaurants and coffee shops, a great market and lots of beautiful shops.
But there are more cities to visit in the area.
Vitoria is often overlooked by most people who visit the Basque Country. I only spent a few hours there, but found it incredibly pleasant and I would not recommend stopping by. It has a gorgeous 13th century cathedral, a beautifully kept historic center, and some fine art galleries.
The beautiful San Sebastian is one of the most popular cities in the Basque Country, and it is easy to see why. I had visited it in June 2016 on a beautiful, sunny day, when the beaches were crowded with people trying to escape the heat, and surfers were busy catching the great waves.
I found it incredibly pleasant even on a rainy, fall day: its Playa de la Concha beach is charming when empty (there is a gorgeous view of it from Mount Idalgo and Palacio Miramar). And the nightlife is thriving. Easy to see why those who visit the Basque Country fall in love with it.
Finally, I got my fix of small cities with Laguardia, a walled city founded in the 10th century. I had seen pictures of it taken by a friend, who went to visit the Basque Country just one week before I did (such are the coincidences in life) and it looked really quaint. So I decided to explore its narrow alleys and enjoyed its quiet, relaxed atmosphere.
There are some fine architecture and art pieces
Those who visit Bilbao are generally astonished by the incredible Guggenheim museum – and rightly so. Designed by Frank Gehry, this is one of the finest example of contemporary architecture. It is an incredible structure that at the same time resembles a ship, a tower, flying fins, cliffs.
The Guggenheim remains one of the best sights to those who visit the Basque Country not only because of the building, but also for the groundbreaking art exhibitions it hosts – either permanent or contemporary.
At the time of my visit of Bilbao, there was an incredible installation by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya, which I initially mistook for “just morning mist obstructing my view” (I swear that caused much laughter among my friends). Imagine my stupor when I learned it was an exhibit by which steam is sprayed in the outside area of the museum every hour.
But the Guggenheim isn’t the only architectural wonder that those who visit the Basque Country come across to. Gehry also planned the building of Hotel Marqués de Riscal, in Elciego. This is completely immersed in the vineyards, so the scenery is stunning. And the hotel simply fabulous, both inside and obviously outside.
The sanctuaries look fantastic – literally
I admit I have never seen an episode of Game of Thrones. Everyone keeps saying it is an incredible show, but I have little interest for it. But I like visiting its filming locations. And one of them is the stunning heritage of Gatzelugatxe, near Bermeo in the Bay of Biscay. Those who visit the Basque Country should not miss on it.
Gatzelugatxe can be easily reached by public transportation from Bilbao. The path to get down from the parking lot to the hermitage gets muddy and slippery, but it is short and doable and the views along the way are breathtaking. It is one of the coolest places to visit in the Basque Country, even for people who are not Game of Thrones fans!
The scenery is stunning
The Basque Country is among the rainiest parts of Spain, located as it is on the Atlantic coast. The combination of beautiful green hills, cliffs and beaches means that the scenery is always breathtaking, and that there are some great nature and wildlife reserves, as well as hiking trails. One more reason to visit the Basque Country.
There are some fantastic wineries
I had been warned that I could not visit the Basque Country without trying its wines. I had to oblige, after all I am a wine lover, coming from a wine producing region – Sardinia – and I have often gone out of my way to tour famous wine regions such as those of Mendoza, in Argentina.
I visited two different bodegas in the Basque Country. Talai Berri makes some excellent txakoli wine – an endemic grape of the Basque Country that makes a crisp, fruity wine. The winery is located in a gorgeous setting, with views of the vineyards.
Yet, one of the places that those who visit the Basque Country should never miss is the Bodega Marqués de Riscal in Elciego. Let alone that this is the home of the gorgeous hotel designed by Frank O. Gehry that I mentioned above, the winery is simply stunning – imagine old barrels, precious vintage bottles – and the wine delicious.
The food is always delicious
I am hardly a foodie, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize and enjoy good food. Every time I visit the Basque Country, I am impressed with its cuisine. Fish and seafood are always on offer, and the pinxtos – the equivalent of the southern tapas – have been taken on a higher level, becoming real works of art.
One of the coolest things to do, instead of sitting down for a traditional meal, is going from one pintxos place to the other, having various kinds and all the while enjoying a good glass of wine, just as the locals do.
Where to stay and eat in the Basque Country
Those who visit the Basque Country will find a great range of accommodation and eating options. San Sebastian is known as the gourmet capital of Spain, but good restaurants are easily found all over the region.
For those who visit Bilbao: stay at Melia Hotel, a fabulous modern building at walking distance from the main attractions, with spacious and cozy rooms. Eat at La Ribera, on the other side of Bilbao market, for a great choice of fish and meat dishes, as well as excellent vegetarian options.
In San Sebastian: stay at Hotel Barcelò Costa Vasca, which has an excellent wellness centre. Enjoy pinxtos at Nestor and Ganbara, in the historic quarter of the city. Always look at what the locals eat – they know what’s fresh!
In Vitoria: stay at the lovely and cozy Hotel Silken Ciudad De Vitoria, right off the city centre. Enjoy a great seafood dinner at El Portalon, right behind the main square, in the historic town.
In Laguardia: eat at the excellent Hospedería Los Parades (which also is a lovely hotel) and enjoy the fresh food and the great service.
Things to know about the Basque Country
There are various airports in the Basque Country, though the one with the most connections is that of Bilbao, which is also served by several budget airlines. It’s interesting to note that Bilbao airport was designed by famous Spanish architect Calatrava (the same who designed the Puente de la Mujer in Buenos Aires).
Though every time I visit the Basque Country I am so lucky to enjoy sunny days, one thing to keep in mind is that this is among the rainiest regions of Spain. No matter what time of the year one intends to visit, there will eventually be some rain – the thin, persistent rain that is so typical to have its own name: txirimiri. Packing an umbrella and wearing a rain proof jacket is a must.
Though everyone speaks Spanish in the Basque Country, and walking around Bilbao Spanish is the language usually heard, the Basque Country has its own language, Basque (Euskara). As a former human rights lawyer and academic who’s spent a whopping 15 years researching on issues related to minorities and cultural identities, I always appreciate the efforts of people to protect their culture, identity and language, much as it is being done in the Basque Country.
Have you ever been to the Basque Country? What did you like the most about it?
Legal disclaimer: This article is written in partnership with Spain Tourism Board and the local tourism board of The Basque Country, and in cooperation with The Travel Mob as part of the #InGreenSpain campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.