Things to Do in Basque Country
Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry and opened in 1997, is hailed as one of the most important architectural works of its time. Within its undulating and reflecting walls on the banks of the Nervión River, you’ll find a rotating artistic wonderland of both modern and contemporary art.
San Sebastian’s medieval Old Town is a maze of bar-packed alleys serving the city’s world-famous pintxos and wine. The neighborhood is also home to the wonderfully chaotic Pescadería (fish market), the San Telmo Municipal Museum, Church of San Vicente, and the Basilica of Saint Mary of Coro.
Like a fantasy castle straight out of Middle-earth, the pride of the Vizcaya looms above the Butrón River, marking the spot of a key fortification that kept the Butrón clan in control. The original structure of Butrón Castle (Castillo de Butrón) probably dated to the 11th century, though the earliest verifiable records refer to a stone tower that existed by 1250 AD. The castle was expanded as regional wars raged, and the Basque's ruling families spilled much blood in its shadow.
As peace fell across the beautiful countryside, the great families allowed their fortress to fall into utter disrepair. Finally, in 1878, new owners hired architect Francisco de Cuba to rebuild the ruins but this time with a romanticized silhouette for relaxing, rather than fighting.
Today, the old Butrón Castle seems something from a fairy tale, with turreted towers and Bavarian style that will have you wondering when the next dragon will arrive. The gardens make a fine spot for a picnic, or wander around inside.
San Sebastian’s main crescent-shaped beach is of softest sand and punctuated at both ends by craggy hills: Monte Urgull to the east and Monte Igueldo to the west. Translating into English as ‘the shell’, La Concha was fundamental in the incarnation of San Sebastian as an elegant seaside resort favored by Spanish royalty back in the 19th century.
The beach fills to bursting in the summer, when the bumpy waters of the Bay of Biscay are calm and pleasantly warm to swim in. Lifeguards are always on duty and there are showers and other facilities on the beach, making it safe and easy for families to enjoy a day on the sand. Two floating pontoons out in the bay are just the spot for sunbathing; beyond them the small, rocky islet of Santa Clara has a tiny beach that is a prime picnic spot and can be reached by motorboat or hired canoe.
Now backed by formal gardens, a brightly painted carousel, and a row of charming hotels, seafood restaurants and bars, the Paseo Nuevo promenade that runs the length of La Concha comes alive during the nightly paseo, when San Sebastian residents and tourists alike dress up and go out on the town.
The pulsating heart of San Sebastián’s old quarter, Constitution Square is the ideal meeting point for relaxing with an assortment of pintxos and drinks while soaking up the city’s festive atmosphere and before entering into the historic barrio’s maze of narrow medieval streets. Stay and people watch from a café terrace or seek shelter from the rains under the porticos.
This fabulous seaside town of Biarritz has been the Pays Basque's hot spot for centuries, a status made official in the late 1800s when EmpressEugénie, wife of Napoleon III, declared "One must be able to dance well to be received here."
This decree was amended in the 1950s, when the rolling waves crashing into the Gran Plage, the wide beach lined with bars and clubs where wine flows freely from dusk until dawn, attracted another sort of attention. Today, Biarritz is one of Europe's top surf destinations, with an International Surf Festival bringing in waveriders from around the world every July.
The classic French-Basque setting, complete with elegant architecture, luxurious accommodation and other cultural treasures, makes a fine backdrop to the Basque's bestfête destination.
Sheltered by Monte Urgull and looking out to La Concha Bay, the Aquarium San Sebastián has over 30 tanks, each one a unique habitat suited to myriad and amazing sea creatures. Work your way through to the hypnotic 360-degree clear tunnel where some 40 species of fish, bull sharks, turtles, stingrays, giant eels, and jellyfish swim through.
At the entrance to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a colorful floral puppy sits in perennial bloom. Designed by American artist Jeff Koons, this 43-foot-high (13-meter-high) sculpture—known simply asPuppy—features more than 70,000 live flowers. View it for free before heading inside to explore the permanent collection.
The neo-Gothic cathedral of Buen Pastor (the Good Shepherd) was completed in 1897 at a time when San Sebastián was a flourishing, aristocratic seaside resort. Made of sandstone and slate harvested from Monte Igueldo west of town, the church with its towering needle-like spire (the tallest in Basque Country) is one of the icons of the city.
One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the medieval Bilbao Old Quarter (Casco Viejo) is best known for its 15th-century Siete Calles (Seven Streets), now lined with pintxo bars and cafés. Here, visit the Santiago Cathedral, stop by one of the largest covered markets in Europe, and catch a show at the lavish Arriaga Theater.
More Things to Do in Basque Country
One of two headlands that guard the entrance of San Sebastian’s La Concha Bay, Monte Igueldo stands to the west of town and offers the ideal vantage point for views of the bay, La Concha Beach, Santa Clara Island, Monte Urgull, and the surrounding hills. With natural beauty and historical significance, Monte Igueldo is one of the city’s top attractions.
Culture and leisure combine at the multipurpose Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao’s former wine warehouse-turned-cultural center. Behind its 20th-century facade you’ll now find a glut of artistic, literary, and educational offerings including an arthouse cinema, on-site restaurant, library, fitness center, and more. Meanwhile, the 43 pillars, each one with a different design, are notable highlights of the Philippe Starck–designed interior.
In 1937, at the behest of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, German Nazi and Italian Fascist air forces bombed the Basque town and its inhabitants. Years later, Pablo Picassoxa0 immortalized the suffering in his masterpiece of the same name, and now, with an excellent Peace Museum, the revitalized town is a symbol for global peace.
Straddling the Nervión River and connecting two of the city’s most popular attractions—the Guggenheim and Artxanda Funicular—the futuristic, steel cable–suspended Zubizuri Bridge is an architecturally notable landmark. Visit after dark to see the Santiago Calatrava–designed footbridge light up.
Gaztelugatxe is a small islet connected to the Basque coast by only a narrow stone bridge and a winding staircase. Dating back to the 10th century, the island was crowned in the name of John the Baptist and remains a small hermitage with a modest monastery. Two-hundred steps zig and zag up to the top of the mountain where the chapel sits, carving a scenic path visible from the top. The rocky island looks like a castle rising from the sea, which is where the island Gaztelu-aitz or ‘castle rock’ gets its name.
The rough waters of this coastline have carved several arches and caves dotting the edges of the peninsula and giving the island its unique, rugged look. This majestic spot is believed to be a former convent of the Knights Templar, as well as a former conquest of Sir Francis Drake. Climb to the top for the best views of the surrounding area.
In 1491, on the once much humbler site of this enormous and ornate Mudejár-style shrine that is the Sanctuary of Loyola (Santuario de Loyola), a family of minor nobility welcomed its 13th child, who would one day change the world. San Ignatius Lopéz de Loyola, a soldier turned to the priesthood by his strange visions, founded the Brotherhood of Jesus, or Jesuit order, whose radical interpretation of Catholicism left its mark on both the New and Old World.
A place of pilgrimage and wonder for the devout and secular alike, San Ignatius' former home has been transformed with Chirriguerresque flair into a grand compound. In addition to the basilica and shrine, there is an art museum displaying a few of his belongings and writings, as well as religious objects collected over the centuries.Shrines to other Jesuit saints are also arranged around the grounds.
The gardens and surrounding mountains make a fine backdrop to the scene, and you're welcome to stay on at their inexpensive hostel.
At the base of Mount Urgull, San Sebastián’s must-see San Telmo Museum dives into the heritage of the Basque people, from Neolithic times to the present. Housed in a 16th-century Renaissance monastery, collection highlights include archaeological artifacts, 11 murals by José María Sert, oil paintings by El Greco and Joaquín Sorolla, and rare photographs.
Once the summer retreat of Spanish royal family, the 19th-century Miramar Palace in San Sebastián’s old town has extensive English gardens and grassy lawns that tumble down to Ondarreta Beach. The palace buildings now host a music conservatory and an annex of the University of Basque Country, while the gardens form a public park where locals come to picnic.
Built atop a shrine in the 14th-century, Bilbao's Santiago Cathedral now towers over the original Seven Streets of the city’s Old Quarter. Follow in the footsteps of Camino de Santiago pilgrims and admire the Gothic Revival facade; elaborate portal—known as the Angel Door—on Correo Street; and the 15th-century Gothic cloister.
Off the coast ofxa0San Sebastián’s La Concha Beach, Santa Clara Island is a lovely spot to take a break from the crowded beaches of the city. About 435 yards (400 meters) in length, the quiet island has paths that lead to the uninhabited lighthouse near the peak, offering wonderful views of Old Town.
On the banks of the Bidasoa river, sheltered by Mount Rhune’s austere peak, Hondarribia is one of the most picturesque towns on the Basque coast. Close to the French border, just east of San Sebastián, this lovely walled fishing village is enjoying a gastronomical moment, with an explosion of noteworthy restaurants.
A bustling Bilbao transport hub, Moyua Square (Plaza Moyúa) combines manicured flowerbeds with ample seating to turn a simple roundabout into a much-loved meeting point. Admire the surrounding buildings, such as the 20th-century Palacio Chávarri and Hotel Carlton, or use the square as a jumping-off point for further exploration of the city and beyond.
Until the 1980s, when the Basque Country earned autonomous status from the Spanish government, Vitoria-Gasteiz was just another quaint provincial capital, notable for its two outstanding cathedrals, Gothic 14th-century Santa María and 1907 María Inmaculada, surrounded by scores of monumental buildings, some housing museums focusing on art, history, and in the 1525 Palacio de Bendana’s Museo Fournier, playing cards.
The hilltop old town was founded in the 6th century, though the oldest surviving structures are part of the well-preserved Medieval stronghold. This is surrounded by newer (14th to 18th-century) plazas and shady pedestrian promenades lined with shops and cafes.
The more affluent and energetic modern center of the young capital, however, showcases today’s talented architects, heralding the bright future of the Basque region.
The Sopelana Beach (Playa de Sopelana) area is known for its rising cliffs, fine golden sands, and surf—just a quick 20 minutes from urban Bilbao. Also known as Arrietera-Atxaribil Beach and at 800 meters in length, it’s one of the longest beaches on the Bizkaia coast.
Though the waters are usually calm and great for swimmers, winds often pick up in this area. Waves sweep both left and right, making this a popular surf spot. Availability of rock climbing, hang-gliding, and surfing also make this an ideal place for those seeking adventure in the Basque Country. If you’re not up for surfing, rent a hammock or an umbrella and relax on the beach, or take a stroll along the sand. There are several terraces and bars on the beachfront area to stop for drinks or tapas along the way.
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