From its beautiful beaches to its impressive architecture, Spain’s Basque Country offers something for everyone. Read on to explore this beautiful region.
A dramatic photo captured my attention in the 1990s as I whipped through a pile of press releases clogging my desk. Its memory stayed with me for decades, long after I cleared the clutter. I vowed to see it in person. The subject? The Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, an ultra-contemporary, titanium-tiled confection under construction in northern Spain’s beautiful Basque Country, a place I knew little about. I soon learned that it’s an autonomous region known as Euskadi, with its own distinct language, culinary traditions, and folkways. Located on the Bay of Biscay coast, it straddles the Spanish-French border in the western Pyrenees Mountains and adjoins three Basque provinces in southwest France.
The Basques, a proud and hardy people, are considered the earliest ethnic group in Europe. Their ancient, x-heavy language, Euskara, is Europe’s oldest living language, unrelated to any other. Its origins remain a mystery but may date back to the New Stone Age.
Intrigued by Bilbao’s eye-catching museum and the unfamiliar Basque Country locale, I kept tabs on the construction project for years. The Guggenheim’s striking futuristic design—a kaleidoscope of undulating, color-shifting titanium, limestone, and glass—kept it high on my travel bucket list.
Visiting Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
It took a quarter-century, but I finally visited the flowing, curvilinear Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in late 2022 during its 25th anniversary. It was spectacular—even better than I expected. From the stunning, unconventional architecture to Puppy, Jeff Koons’ 40-foot-tall living floral sculpture out front; Louise Bourgeois’ giant bronze spider sculpture, Maman, on the Nervion River out back; and the contemporary and avant-garde art collection inside, the Guggenheim more than lived up to its promise.
As my Metro Detroit friend, Linda Tuthill, who visited Bilbao a few years before me, said, “It’s mind-blowing—I’ve never seen anything like it!”
Tour de France Launches from Bilbao
The Guggenheim Bilbao will shine—and the world will take notice—in early July when Spanish Basque Country takes a star turn as the 110th Tour de France launchpad. From July 1-3, the 22 teams competing in the world’s most challenging bicycle race will start the multi-week event in the hilly terrain around Bilbao and neighboring Vitoria-Gasteiz, San Sebastian, and the flatter Amorebieta-Etxano before crossing into France on July 3. Airing on both NBC and Peacock, the famed men’s cycling race is typically watched by millions worldwide as one of the supreme tests of athletic endurance. It takes place in 21 stages over 23 days, mainly in France.
Excitement is mounting throughout Spanish Basque Country as the prestigious event nears, according to Aitor Delgado, who leads private tours of the region where cycling is a favorite activity much of the year. He says yellow shirts, the Tour de France symbol, are popping up everywhere, including a giant yellow t-shirt displayed high above Bilbao’s Nervion River. And yellow handkerchiefs are popular giveaways.
“All the cities—Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Vitoria—are getting excited, with more and more people biking around the towns,” Delgado says, adding that celebrations have been underway for weeks and 100-day countdown clocks are ticking off the days to the Tour’s start. “In some places, they have already marked the bike areas. There are posters with yellow t-shirts in all the cities and bikes parked in many squares and iconic buildings.”
According to Delgado, some 3,000 journalists are covering the event from 190 countries. “They’re expecting around 25,000 hotel-nights related to this event by the staff alone: bikers, teams, journalists, public relations,” he says. “Only the soccer World Cup and the Olympics have more public viewers on TV than the Tour de France.”
Exploring Inside the Guggenheim
In a bit of serendipity during my five-day fall visit, the Hotel Gran Domine Bilbao, where we stayed a few nights, sits directly across the street from the Guggenheim. That made for delightful gourmet breakfasts in the rooftop terrace café. We watched the colors change as morning sunlight and clouds scudded across the building’s shimmering titanium surface.
Beyond the impressive architecture, I enjoyed the museum, especially strolling through “The Matter of Time,” Richard Serra’s series of massive weathered steel sculptures.
I joined others posing for photos by “Tulips,” Koons’ colorful, giant balloon-like bouquet.
Since its opening a quarter-century ago, the iconic museum has proved a real boon for Spanish Basque Country, transforming the once-gritty industrial port city of Bilbao into the keystone of a vibrant cosmopolitan destination, complemented by an array of international “starchitect” projects that include designs by Santiago Calatrava, Arata Isozaki, Cesar Pelli, Norman Foster, Phillipe Starck, and others. Economists even coined a term to describe the Guggenheim’s economic and social impact. They call it “The Bilbao Effect.”
The Culinary Scene in Spain’s Basque Country
Adding to the region’s appeal is a rich culinary scene in Bilbao and the coastal city of San Sebastian, 62 miles away, known locally by its Basque name, Donostia. Both are home to numerous Michelin-star restaurants. San Sebastian boasts the second highest concentration of Michelin-star restaurants per capita, behind only Kyoto. It also has bars and restaurants showcasing pintxos (PEEN-chos), the Basque version of small-plate Spanish tapas.
The often toothpick-skewered snacks are typically displayed on trays or under glass domes along bar counters. Diners point to which ones they want or order hot versions from chalkboards, starting with croquetas de jamon (ham croquettes) and Spanish tortillas (egg and potato omelets).
Dinner at Michelin-starred Restaurant Zortziko
One night in Bilbao, we dined at the Michelin-starred Restaurant Zortziko by Daniel Garcia, where we enjoyed regional specialties, including traditional bacalao (salt cod), with two sauces: the famous Basque Pil-Pil sauce, a combination of garlic-infused olive oil, guindilla chili peppers, and herbs; and the classic roasted red pepper sauce called Vizcaina.
For fun and camaraderie, you can’t beat pintxos crawls through the atmospheric old towns of both cities, whether for lunch, late-afternoon snacks, or dinner. We hopped from bar to bar, sampling a fantastic array of pintxos, including the Gilda, a skewered Spanish anchovy, green Manzanilla olive and pickled guindilla pepper combo that, according to our guide, Delgado, is the original Basque pintxo, invented in San Sebastian. He says it is inspired by Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale character in the 1946 film Gilda—it is slightly hot, spicy, and memorable.
Sampling Wines and Cider in Spain’s Basque Country
Accompanying the pintxos, we indulged in our share of Spanish red and white wines, including the Basque coastal specialty, Txakoli (chacko-LEE), a crisp, dry, slightly fizzy white wine. The spelling of its name is an example of what I call ‘the x factor,’ a hallmark of the tongue-testing Basque language, Euskara, along with loads of other hard consonants such as k and z.
In Astigarraga, a small village five miles outside San Sebastian, we sampled another Basque specialty, hard cider, or Sagardoa, at the charming Sagardoetxea Basque Cider Museum. There, we learned about the various apples that go into making the uncarbonated natural, acidic, bone-dry, and funky beverage with an alcohol content of 4 to 6%.
We stopped for lunch at nearby Alorrenea, a traditional cider house, or sagardotegi, and tasted hard cider direct from the barrel. Standing barrel-side with a glass in hand, we joined locals exclaiming, “txotx!”—pronounced “choch!”—as we swooped in to catch cider flowing downward from an open spigot. Talk about fun!
Exploring San Sebastian in Spain’s Basque Country
We stayed in the elegant Hotel Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection Hotel in San Sebastian. The hotel is an updated 1912 classic in the Belle Epoque style. A centerpiece in the city’s cultural life, the historic hotel is a favorite retreat for celebrities attending the annual San Sebastian International Film Festival. This major European film fest was the site of the 1977 European premiere of Star Wars. The annual San Sebastian Film Festival takes place each fall in late September.
Since 1966, San Sebastian has also hosted a top annual international jazz festival, Jazzaldia, each summer.
Hotel Maria Cristina, part of the Marriott Bonvoy Luxury Collection, has welcomed stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Brad Pitt, Susan Sarandon, Johnny Depp, and Penelope Cruz. A favorite spot is the photo-adorned Bette Davis Suite, where the actress stayed when she was honored at the 1989 film festival, one of her last public appearances.
Beaches of San Sebastian
From the suite’s terrace, we spotted surfers near the mouth of the Urumea River and the Bay of Biscay.
Like much of the region, San Sebastian is fringed with wave-slapped golden beaches that make it ruggedly beautiful against the mountainous backdrop and earn it a spot among Europe’s top surfing destinations—exciting for spectators and surfers. We paused to watch surfers in several San Sebastian locations—Zurriola, Ondaretta, and La Concha beaches—and throughout coastal Spanish Basque Country.
San Sebastian’s Igueldo Mountain, reachable by car or a funicular that connects to the vintage 1912 amusement park at the summit, is a great spot to take in the panoramic view of shell-shaped La Concha, one of Europe’s top beaches, and the surrounding bay.
Cooking School in San Sebastian
One evening, in a building adjoining the Maria Cristina, we enjoyed a traditional Basque cooking demonstration by two chefs at Mimo Bite the Experience.
Explaining that Basque cooking emphasizes fresh ingredients with minimal manipulation, Eneko Irizar and Mikel Martija turned out flavorful dishes, including anchovies three ways; roasted red piquillo peppers stuffed with a longfin tuna mixture; cheese-filled fritters topped with a local sturgeon caviar-studded dollop of cheese; and skin-on hake in green sauce.
Dessert was Basque Burnt Cheesecake, a traditional favorite, with a caramelized top, from a local café, La Vina.
Discovering Life in San Sebastian
The following day, we checked out the fresh fish, cheese, flowers, and produce at San Sebastian’s La Bretxa Market, which dates back to 1870. We loaded up on tins of Spanish anchovies, sardines, and other gourmet items to take home as souvenirs. We also toured the nearby San Telmo Museum, housed in a 16th-century Dominican convent, and learned more about Basque life in the region, then and now.
With a population of about 2.1 million, Spanish Basque Country is about half the size of Connecticut. Among Basques who have made it on the world stage are golfer Jon Rahm, who recently won the prestigious Masters Tournament, and Ignatius of Loyola, a nobleman who became a Catholic priest and founded the Jesuit order, the Society of Jesus in 1534. Other well-known Basques include fashion designers Paco Rabanne and Cristobal Balenciaga.
The Story of Designer Cristobal Balenciaga
Balenciaga, who dressed Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Jackie Kennedy, stands to become even more famous following the anticipated 2024 release of a six-episode Spanish biopic series on Disney+. It traces his rise from humble beginnings—the son of a sailor and a seamstress—to the creator of one of the world’s most iconic fashion brands.
That story is told in-depth, along with displays of vintage and historical fashions and photos, in the Balenciaga Museum on a hilltop in the pretty fishing port of Getaria, 30 minutes from San Sebastian.
Getting there from Bilbao, our small tour bus wound through the beautiful, hilly countryside with terraced vineyards stretching toward the sea.
Exploring Small Towns in Spain’s Basque Country
After touring the museum, we stopped for lunch in a Getaria waterfront restaurant, Kaia-Kaipe, specializing in fresh grilled seafood, plus the best appetizer bite of tuna I have ever tasted. Also in Getaria, we sampled the winning sorbet, Mango Ezpeleta—Mango Basque pepper—in the 2021 Gelato Festival World Masters. Created at the Dona Doni ice cream parlor in Getaria’s charming Old Town, it was named champion among 1,500 entries in the Bologna, Italy, competition.
We visited several other attractions in Spain’s Basque Country, including the famous Vizcaya Bridge that links Portugalete and Las Arenas in the port city of Getxo (Get-CHO), eight miles north of Bilbao. Known as the “Puente Colgante,” hanging bridge, it’s an impressive iron structure—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—designed in 1893 by Alberto de Palacio, a student of Gustave Eiffel.
While some in my small tour group took an elevator up to the 50-meter high pedestrian walkway and strolled across the Nervion River on what ranks as the world’s oldest hanging transporter bridge, I opted for the quick, suspended gondola ride that shuttles pedestrians and a few cars across the river and back. I think it was a wise choice, especially on a windy day. The affluent area’s maritime heritage, architecture, beaches, and surf schools made for an interesting afternoon tour.
The Art of Eduardo Chillida
Before I visited Spain’s Basque Country, I was unfamiliar with the late artist Eduardo Chillida. After strolling the expansive grounds of the art park, Chillida Leku, and admiring his monumental iron sculptures, I won’t soon forget this talented Basque artist. Visitors to the park in Hernani, near San Sebastian, may learn about his life in the museum, a traditional 16th-century Basque country house painstakingly restored by Chillida (pronounced Chai-Eda) and his wife, Pilar. Inside and out, QR codes on some works help explain his artistic vision.
Exploring Spain’s Rioja Wine Region
Our time in Rioja Alavesa, in northern Spain’s famous Rioja wine region, was short but memorable for its beautiful autumn scenery—fall colors in the vineyards glowed against the Cantabrian Mountains—and tastings of fine, primarily red tempranillo wines.
The Town of LaGuardia in Rioja at the North of Spain’s Basque Region
Stopping in the medieval town of LaGuardia for lunch at Los Parajes, we indulged in Basque specialties, including pochas—a hearty white bean soup—and goxua (go-shoo-ah)—a sweet, creamy Basque dessert that combines whipped cream, sponge cake, and caramelized custard. The centerpiece on our table was a fishbowl with real fish.
Afterward, we visited Santa Maria de los Reyes Church, dating to the 12th century, with a fantastic 14th-century polychrome portico. Considered a masterpiece of Spanish Gothic carving, it features larger-than-life statues of the Apostles standing on intricately decorated pedestals.
Outside, next to the church, is an original bronze sculpture that I found appealing. Dedicated to frequent travelers, it consists of two tables, one filled with bronzed shoes and the other with bronzed handbags.
A Final Stop on My Tour Exploring Spain’s Basque Country
Fittingly, given what prompted my initial interest in Spanish Basque Country, our last stop was in the medieval town of Elciego.
We stayed at the Hotel Marqués de Riscal, a Luxury Collection Hotel, an architectural marvel designed by Frank Gehry, like the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. In keeping with its wine country setting, this avante garde building showcases a purple titanium ribbon amid a rooftop bouquet of reflective undulating metal.
Conceived as a “City of Wine,” it’s a five-star destination hotel complete with a Michelin-star restaurant, a spa, a winery, and vineyards that date back 165 years.
It was the perfect place to kick back and relax after an energetic romp through Spain’s Basque Country.
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When You Visit Spain’s Basque Country
From its beautiful beaches to its impressive architecture, Spain’s Basque Country offers something for everyone. Against a backdrop of the Pyrenees Mountains, you can wander through quaint villages, dine on local fare or opt for Michelin-star experiences, and stay in hotels that have housed queens, kings, and celebrities. For more information on Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Spanish Basque Country, visit tourism.euskadi.eus and spain.info. We hope you check out Wander With Wonder for more of our favorite things to do in Spain and the adjoining country of France.