Explore Basque Country: 10 Unforgettable Experiences

Mira Temkin Avatar

Places to Visit in Basque Country, Spain - El Ciego at night

Travelers who have been to Spain often ask about Basque Country, knowing its long and storied past. Basque Country is unlike the rest of Spain. With their own Basque language called Euskara, Basque culture, Euskadi cuisine and a proud history, you’ll feel this unique spirit and a warm welcome wherever you go in Basque Country.  

World-class dining, medieval towns, picturesque fishing villages, festive celebrations and a unique cultural landscape draw visitors in from around the world. Here are my recommendations on the best places to visit in this amazing destination.

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Where is Basque Country and why do travelers find it such a fascinating place to visit?

Basque Country is situated along the northern coast of Spain on the border of the Atlantic Ocean between the Pyrenees Mountains. This unique destination reflects the multi-cultural traditions of both Spain and France. Encompassing seven different provinces, four in Northern Spain and three in France, Basque Country covers over 8,000 miles along the coast of the Bay of Biscay. Also called Euskadi, the Autonomous Communities of Basque Country weave a magical spell of fascinating history, culinary excellence and outstanding viticulture for American travelers.  

The Autonomous Communities of Basque Country, Navarre, La Rioja in Spain and Pays Basque and Bayonne, France, are considered the home of the Basque people. Basque Country in Spanish is called País Vasco which means the “land of Basque speakers.”  

The capital of Basque Country is Vitoria-Gasteiz in the Alava province, boasting a medieval old town with lots of green space, contemporary art and plenty of outdoor recreation.  Nearby Rioja Alavesa offers many small-batch wineries and vintage landscapes.

Read More: Hotel Gran Bilbao Review: A Spanish Luxury Hotel for the Active Modernist

Places to Visit in Basque Country, Spain - Poppy Puppy in front of the Guggenheim Museum
“Poppy Puppy” in front of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

1. Visit the Largest City in Basque Country, Bilbao

Bilbao is a great place to start your travels in Basque Country. Once a manufacturing town on the Nervión River, Bilbao has become a world class cultural magnet due to the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997. Designed by the internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry, this modern architectural wonder is constructed of titanium and steel that reflects the ripples of the water.

Standing outside the Guggenheim museum is the famous “Poppy Puppy” made up of colorful begonias by the thousands and it changes seasonally. A second outdoor sculpture is the “The Spider,” named Maman (mother) in French because the spider keeps a “mother’s watch” over the residents of Bilbao.

Inside the Guggenheim are three floors showcasing Spanish, European and international artists. My favorite exhibit is “The Matter of Time” by Richard Serra which features a metal maze that you walk through, surrounded by space in motion.

Places to Visit in Basque Country, Spain - The Matter of Time at the Guggenheim
Walk through “The Matter of Time” at the Guggenheim. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

Thanks to the opening of the Guggenheim, many other cultural enterprises have sprung up on Bilbao, including the Euskal Museoa Bilbao Basque Museum, the Bizkaia Museum of Archaeology, and other museums exhibiting artifacts from Basque Country.

Places to Visit in Basque Country, Spain - Gondola hangs suspended from the Vizcaya Bridge
Gondola hangs suspended from the Vizcaya Bridge. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

2. Take the Suspended Gondola on the Vizcaya Bridge

A don’t-miss venue that’s fun as well as practical is the hanging Vizcaya Bridge that crosses the Nervión River and links the towns of Portugalete with Las Arenas. It carries both passengers and cars. You have other options like climbing to the top, walking the bridge or riding across this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Vizcaya Bridge is considered one of the few bridges still in use from the European Industrial Revolution before the 20th century.

Places to Visit in Basque Country, Spain - Traditional Pintxos
Traditional Pintxos are made of meat, cheese and vegetables. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

3. Dine Divine in Basque Country

Basque Country has earned a well-deserved reputation for culinary excellence. Travelers come to explore Basque Country for its vast variety of gourmet restaurants, many with Michelin stars. More than 40 restaurants in the Basque region have received Michelin star recognition, the largest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. It’s no wonder visitors come here just to indulge in their authentic Spanish cuisine as well as international fare.  

What diners discover is a traditional blend of Basque region recipes that have been handed down from families for generations, then blended with fresh, local ingredients to create signature chef dishes.

In San Sebastian, also known as Donostia by the locals, there are 11 restaurants with this distinction. Among them are Akelarre anchored by Chef Pedro Subijana, 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, highlighting more than 1500 spices which create a mouthwatering 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 an authentic taste of 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. Actually, the word “pintxos” means spike 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 “Pintxos Bar Hopping.” Taste a few at one bar and then move to another one for a few more pintxos.

Places to Visit in Basque Country, Spain - La Concha Beach shaped like a shell
La Concha Beach is shaped like a shell. Photo credit: Spanish Office of Tourism

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 considered by the locals as 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 fabulous sculptures of Comb of the Wind, a collection of three massive curved sculptures by local artist Eduardo Chillida. Take a walk, sail or surf on these blue-green waters along the Basque Coast.

5. Discover the French Side of Basque Country

In Biarritz, visitors will find chic beach resorts and luxury spas along this coastal destination in Basque Country. Located on the Bay of Biscay along the Atlantic Coast and bordering the Pyrenees Mountains, Biarritz is known for its seaside casinos and status as a surfing mecca. The city is easy to get to from both Bilbao and San Sebastian. What was once a destination for high society, has become a popular tourist spot with a lively nightlife. See the Rocher of the Vierge, also known as “Virgin of the Rock” created by Napoleon 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. Known for its many festivals, including the 5-day Fest de Bayonne, everyone wears white with a red scarf to celebrate. French chocolate also originated in Bayonne and hosts a yearly Chocolate Festival. Last year, they reproduced the famous Guernica work by Pablo Picasso entirely made of chocolate.  

Soule, France is the smallest province, but the rockiest. It inhabits the western part of the Pyrenees Mountains where the D’Orhy is the highest peak in Basque Country. Soule is known for its manufacture of espadrilles, which continue to be popular throughout the world. Tour one of their workshops to see how they’re made and be sure to bring home a traditional pair or two. Experience their famous Basque language folk theater, performed almost every Sunday.

6. See Pamplona – Ernest Hemingway’s Novel Setting

Pamplona is the capital city of Navarre known for the setting of Hemingway’s novel, “The Sun Also Rises.” Hemingway was captivated by the “Running of the Bulls” which took place every July at the annual San Fermin festival and he returned to this lovely city by the sea many times. Obsessed with matadors and bullfighters, Hemingway incorporated the themes of bravery and death in his novel. Today, Pamplona attracts visitors to nearby wineries such as the Rioja Wine Tour where they can enjoy the lush vineyards. and sites like the Pamplona Cathedral, the first Christian church built. Do try a local specialty, the white asparagus, grown on the banks of the Ebro River, which actually originated in Navarre.

Places to Visit in Basque Country, Spain - Medieval fishing port of Getaria
Medieval fishing port of Getaria. Photo credit: Spanish Office of Tourism

7. Explore 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 barbecue right outside their restaurants, enticing you to come in. Getaria is also the birthplace of fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga who ruled the fashion world for generations. Plan to visit the Cristobal Balenciaga Museum and see his couture designs worn by the rich and famous. Try their special cider made in the region of Gipuzkoa called Apple Wine.  

Places to Visit in Basque Country, Spain - Cooking today’s catch in front of the restaurant
Cooking today’s catch in front of the restaurant. Photo credit: Mira Temkin

8.Be captivated by the medieval town of Hondarribia

What was once a strategic location along the Spanish-French border is now a quiet village full of charm. Walk along the seafront, enjoy fresh seafood at the marina and explore the history of the Old Quarter.  The fortified wall surrounds the city and protects the cobbled streets and well-maintained wooded homes in Hondarribia.

9. Catch a Wave in Mundaka

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

Places to Visit in Basque Country, Spain - Hotel Marqués de Riscal
The Hotel Marqués de Riscal in El Ciego. Photo credit: Spanish Office of Tourism

10. Sleep in a Vineyard in El Ciego

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

The region’s tourism site has extensive information about visiting Basque Country.  

Mira Temkin Avatar
With more than 20 years of travel writing under her bling-y belt, Mira Temkin understands the expectations of the leisure traveler and writes to those expectations. From destinations to tours to cruises and luxury resorts, her articles cover the world: across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Central America, South America and Europe. She is a proud member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and past member of the International Food Wine Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA). Mira always has her bags packed and is ready to go! You can read her other travel stories at miratemkintravel.com.
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