Explore the Basque Country: 10 unforgettable experiences

The blind man in the night. Image source: Mira Timkin
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Travelers who have visited Spain often ask about the Basque Country, knowing about its long and eventful past. The Basque Country is different from the rest of Spain. With their own Basque language called Yuskara, Basque culture, Euskadi cuisine and proud history, you will feel this unique spirit and warm welcome wherever you go in the Basque Country.

World-class restaurants, medieval towns, picturesque fishing villages, festive ceremonies and unique cultural landscapes attract visitors from all over the world. Here are my recommendations on the best places to visit in this amazing destination.

Read more: Best countries to visit with children

Where is the Basque Region located and why do travelers find it a great place to visit?

The Basque Country lies along the northern coast of Spain on the borders of the Atlantic Ocean between the Pyrenees Mountains. This unique destination reflects the multicultural traditions of both Spain and France. Comprising seven different provinces, four in northern Spain and three in France, the Basque Country covers more than 8,000 miles along the coast of the Bay of Biscay. Also called Euskadi, the autonomous communities of the Basque Country weave a magical spell of fascinating history, culinary excellence, and outstanding viticulture for American travelers.

The autonomous communities of the Basque Country, Navarre and La Rioja in Spain, the Basque Bay and Bayonne in France, are home to the Basque people. The Basque Country in Spanish is called País Vasco which means “land of Basque speakers”.

The capital of the Basque Country is Vitoria-Gasteiz in the province of Álava. It features a medieval old town with plenty of green spaces, contemporary art and plenty of outdoor entertainment. The nearby Rioja Alavesa region offers many small wineries and antique landscapes.

Places to visit in the Basque Country, Spain - Bobby Papi in front of the Guggenheim Museum
“Poppy Puppy” in front of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Image source: Mira Timkin

1. Visit the largest city in the Basque Country, Bilbao

Bilbao is a great place to start your travels in the Basque Country. Once an industrial city on the Nervion River, Bilbao has become a global cultural hotspot due to the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997. Designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry, this modern architectural marvel is constructed of titanium and steel that reflects the ripples of water.

Standing outside the Guggenheim Museum is the famous “Poppy Puppy,” made up of thousands of colorful begonias that change seasonally. The second outdoor sculpture is “The Spider”, called Maman (Mother) in French because the spider keeps the “Mother’s Watch” over the people of Bilbao.

Inside the Guggenheim Museum there are three floors displaying works by Spanish, European and international artists. My favorite exhibit is Richard Serra’s “A Matter of Time,” which features a metal maze you can walk through, surrounded by a moving space.

Places to visit in the Basque Country, Spain - A Matter of Time at the Guggenheim Museum
Tour “A Matter of Time” at the Guggenheim Museum. Image source: Mira Timkin

Thanks to the opening of the Guggenheim, many other cultural institutions have sprung up in Bilbao, including the Euskal Museo Bilbao Basque Museum, the Bizkaia Museum of Archeology, and other museums displaying artifacts from the Basque Country.

Places to visit in the Basque Country, Spain - Gondola suspended from Vizcaya Bridge
Gondola suspended from the Vizcaya Bridge. Image source: Mira Timkin

2. Take the gondola on the Vizcaya Bridge

One of the fun and practical places that you should not miss is the Vizcaya Suspension Bridge, which crosses the Nervion River and connects the cities of Portojete with Las Arenas. They carry both passengers and cars. You have other options like climbing to the top, walking on the bridge, or riding a horse through the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Vizcaya Bridge is one of the few bridges still in use from the European Industrial Revolution before the 20th century.

Places to visit in the Basque Country, Spain - Traditional Pintxos
Traditional pintxos are made with meat, cheese, and vegetables. Image source: Mira Timkin

3. Dine divine in the Basque Country

The Basque region has earned a well-deserved reputation for its culinary excellence. Travelers come to explore the Basque Country for its wide range of fine restaurants, many of which have Michelin stars. More than 40 restaurants in the Basque region have been awarded a Michelin star, the largest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. It is no wonder that visitors come here just to enjoy their authentic Spanish cuisine as well as international cuisine.

What diners discover is a traditional blend of Basque recipes that have been passed down in families for generations, then blended with fresh local ingredients to create the chef’s signature dishes.

San Sebastian, also known as Donostia by locals, has 11 restaurants of this distinction. Among them is the restaurant Akelarre founded by Chef Pedro Sobejana, one of the founders of the New Basque cuisine movement with a menu that offers two different options for their tasting menu. Another winner is Azak, run by a four-generation family, which highlights over 1,500 spices that create a mouth-watering array of flavors and a 7-course tasting menu. Amelia offers an open kitchen concept using sustainable ingredients from artisan producers.

What are pintxos?

Even casual dining takes on a whole new level with delicious pintxos, called tapas in the rest of the country. Pintxos give you the authentic taste of the Basque Country. You can expect to find unique combinations of meats, vegetables, cheeses and toppings, served on a baguette or skewer and held together with a toothpick. In fact, the word “pintxos” means high in Spanish. Pair your favorite pintxos with a refreshing glass of Txakoli, a sparkling white wine.

The best way to taste your way through the Basque region is to do like the locals and go to “Pintxos Bar Hopping.” Sample a few at one bar and then move on to another bar for a few pintxos.

Places to visit in Basque Country, Spain - La Concha shell-shaped beach
La Concha shell-shaped beach. Image source: Spanish Tourism Office

4. Walk on La Concha Beach in San Sebastian – the best beach in Spain

La Concha Beach, located in San Sebastian, is the focal point of the city and is considered by locals to be the best beach in Spain. Some even say it’s the best beach in Europe. La Concha is shaped like a shell, which gives the beach its descriptive name. Check out the impressive Wind Comb Sculptures, a group of three massive, curved sculptures by local artist Eduardo Chilleda. You can walk, sail or surf on these blue-green waters along the Basque Coast.

5. Discover the French side of the Basque Country

Visitors to Biarritz will find chic beach resorts and luxurious spas along this Basque Country coastal destination. Located on the Bay of Biscay along the Atlantic coast and bordering the Pyrenees, Biarritz is famous for its waterfront casinos and its status as a surfing spot. The city is easily accessible from Bilbao and San Sebastian. What was once a high-society destination has become a popular tourist area with a lively nightlife. See the Rocher of the Verge, also known as Napoleon’s “Virgin of the Rock,” and walk across the footbridge to see the white statue of the Virgin Mary.

Bayonne, France is the urban center and capital of the French Basque Country, which blends both cultures. It is famous for its many festivals, including the 5-day Bayon Festival, and everyone wears white with a red sash to celebrate. French chocolate also originated in Bayonne and hosts an annual Chocolate Festival. Last year, they reproduced Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica made entirely of chocolate.

Sully, France is the smallest department, but the most rocky. It inhabits the western part of the Pyrenees, where D’Orhy is the highest peak in the Basque Country. Soule is famous for manufacturing espadrilles, which are still very popular all over the world. Tour one of their workshops to see how they are made and be sure to bring home a traditional pair or two. Experience the famous Basque-language folk theater, which is performed almost every Sunday.

6. See Pamplona – setting of Ernest Hemingway’s novel

Pamplona is the capital of Navarra, famous as the location of Hemingway’s novel “The Sun Also Rises.” Hemingway was fascinated by the “Run of the Bulls” held each July at the annual San Fermin Festival, and he returned to this beautiful seaside city several times. Obsessed with bullfighters, Hemingway incorporated themes of courage and death into his novel. Today, Pamplona draws visitors to nearby wineries such as the Rioja Wine Tour where they can enjoy the green vineyards. And sites like Pamplona Cathedral, the first Christian church built. Try one of the local specialties, white asparagus, which grows on the banks of the Ebro River and actually originated in Navarre.

Places to visit in the Basque Country, Spain - Medieval fishing port of Getaria
Medieval fishing port of Getaria. Image source: Spanish Tourism Office

7. Discover Getaria – a small fishing port

Discover this small medieval fishing port filled with charming shops and fascinating history. You’ll find chefs cooking their catch on the grill right outside their restaurants, beckoning you to pop in. Getaria is also the birthplace of fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga who ruled the fashion world for generations. Plan a visit to the Cristobal Balenciaga Museum and see its high-end designs worn by the rich and famous. Try their special cider made in the Gipuzkoa region called Apple Wine.

Places to visit in the Basque Country, Spain - Cook the catch of the day in front of the restaurant
Cook the catch of the day in front of the restaurant. Image source: Mira Temkin

8. The medieval city of Hondarribia will captivate you

What was once a strategic location along the Spanish-French border is now a quiet village full of charm. You can walk along the waterfront, enjoy fresh seafood at the marina, and explore the history of the old neighborhood. A fortified wall surrounds the city and protects Hondarribia’s well-maintained cobblestone streets and wooded houses.

9. Enjoy the wave in Mundaka

Hang ten in this beach town where you’ll find plenty of bars, restaurants and Basque-style houses surrounding the harbour. Thanks to the unique ocean conditions, Mundaka is known as a “surfers paradise” where surfers can ride the longest left-handed wave in the world. Even if you don’t surf, plan a visit to Mundaka.

Places to visit in the Basque Country, Spain - Marqués de Riscal Hotel
Marques de Riscal Hotel in El Ciego. Image source: Spanish Tourist Office

10. Sleeping in a vineyard in El Ciego

At the Frank Gehry-designed hotel, the luxurious Marqués de Riscal, you can sleep among the vines as you indulge in wine tasting, exquisite cuisine and oenotherapy (spa treatments with wine).

The region’s tourist website contains comprehensive information about visiting the Basque Country.

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