San Sebastián and Bilbao – Discover the Heartbeat of the Basque Country – Spain

categories: europe travel

As many times as I have been to Spain, I was recently in the Basque Country in Northern Spain for the first time. This very green and wet part of Spain lies along the Bay of Biscay. The region boasts a unique blend of natural beauty, rich history, and vibrant culture. San Sebastián and Bilbao are wonderful starting points for exploring the region and the Basque culture.

Donostia-San Sebastián

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San Sebastián / Donostia: A Culinary and Coastal Paradise

San Sebastián is an easy city to love. It deserves a mention in the list of prettiest cities in Europe with its sheltered bay, broad beaches, and lively old town. The surrounding hills are a lush green, but remember that comes from 180 to 220 rainy days a year. Bring your beach gear but also bring an umbrella especially if you’re traveling to San Sebastian from October to January. London gets 23 inches of rain in a year and San Sebastian gets 59 to put it in perspective.

As with the rest of the region, the Basque language is used in San Sebastián in addition to Spanish. This language is one of the oldest in Europe and is not related to Spanish or any other Latin-based or even any other Indo-European language. In the Basque language, the name of the city is Donostia.

La Concha Beach

La Concha Beach

San Sebastián has 3 beaches, La Concha, Ondarreta and La Zurriola. La Concha Beach is the largest of the beaches (almost a mile long) in San Sebastián and covers most of the shore of Concha Bay. It is a broad beach with a crescent shape and golden sands. This urban beach is not just a place to sunbathe; it’s an icon of the city. Take a leisurely stroll along the promenade, rent a bike, or swim in the protected waters.

La Zurriola Beach

Ondarreta is a smaller beach west of Miramar Jauregia. La Zurriola is a smaller beach east of the Urumea River that divides the town (right in front of the modern convention center).

 

Old Town

Old Town (Parte Vieja)

San Sebastián’s Old Town is a grid of narrow pedestrian streets brimming with history and charm. Here, you’ll find some of the best pintxos bars in the world. Pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, are a local specialty you must try. Wander from bar to bar, sampling bite-sized masterpieces like grilled prawns, seared foie gras, and salt cod.

Bar Martinez

Bar Martinez

Where can you find the best pintxos in San Sebastián? That question is likely to start a heated discussion, but I visited Bar Martinez (Calle 31 de Agosto, 13) which has been serving pintxos made by the same family since 1942. A typical pintxos bar is not all that large and fills up quickly before overflowing into the street. Get there on the earlier side if you want a table and chair.

Mercado de la Bretxa

Mercado de la Bretxa

Mercado de la Bretxa in San Sebastián is a historic market offering a vibrant mix of traditional Basque produce, fresh seafood, and modern shopping options. The market dates back to the 19th century and has undergone several renovations to preserve its historic charm while adapting to modern needs.

Plaza de la Constitución

Plaza de la Constitución

If there is some cultural event happening in the Old Town during your visit it is likely happening at the Plaza de la Constitución. Much of the old town burned down in 1813 during the Siege of San Sebastián at the tail end of the Napoleonic Wars. The square dates back to 1817 when the city was still being rebuilt. It was originally designed by the architect Pedro de Ugartemendía.

Plaza de la Constitución

Plaza de la Constitución was once used for bullfighting events. The numbers above the balconies, which were originally used as seating boxes for these events, remain a unique architectural feature. If you can’t imagine bulls being let loose in this small square remember that in nearby Pamplona they let the bulls run through the streets.

Museums

The Naval Museum in San Sebastián, located near the city’s picturesque harbor, is dedicated to the maritime history and heritage of the Basque Country. Housed in a historic building that once served as a customs office, the museum offers a comprehensive look at the region’s seafaring past, from ancient times to the present day. The museum’s exhibits cover a wide range of topics, including traditional fishing practices, shipbuilding techniques, and the history of Basque whaling and naval expeditions.

The San Telmo Museum, located at the foot of Monte Urgull in San Sebastián’s Old Town, is the city’s oldest museum. The museum is housed in a former 16th-century Dominican convent. San Telmo Museum’s extensive collections cover a wide array of disciplines, including archaeology, ethnography, fine arts, and history. The museum’s exhibits are organized thematically, providing insights into Basque culture, history, and identity.

Monte Urgull

Monte Urgull

For a panoramic view of the city and the bay, hike up to Mount Urgull. This hill starts just at the north end of the old town and is topped with Castillo de la Mota, a fortress with roots in the 12th century. The hill offers a panoramic view of the city, the old town, and the beaches. The hill is 403 feet in height (123 meters). It is a great activity on a day when the skies are too grey for the beach but not pouring rain.

(watch to the 54-second mark for the views)

Monte Igueldo

Monte Igueldo offers a funicular ride to an old-fashioned amusement park and another stunning viewpoint of San Sebastián. Monte Igueldo was on my short list of things to do, but until the middle of June the park is only open on the weekends and I did not discover that until Monday morning. Double-check the hours of the funicular and the amusement park before you visit.

Casa Consistorial (City Hall)

Casa Consistorial (City Hall)

San Sebastián’s city hall was originally a casino known as the Gran Casino. It was built in 1887. This neoclassical building, designed by the architects Luis Aladrén Mendivil and Adolfo Morales de los Ríos, was a hub of social life and entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, attracting the European aristocracy and bourgeoisie. It changed from baccarat to bureaucrats in 1945.

The San Sebastián International Film Festival

If your visit coincides with late September, the San Sebastián International Film Festival is a must-see. This event attracts filmmakers and cinephiles from around the globe. Even if you’re not a film buff, the city buzzes with excitement, offering a chance to spot celebrities and watch screenings in iconic venues like the Kursaal Congress Centre.

Buen Pastor Cathedral

Buen Pastor Cathedral

The cathedral in San Sebastián is Buen Pastor or Christ the Good Shepard (Basque: Artzain Onaren). Buen Pastor is a neo-Gothic cathedral located south of the Old Town in the area where the city expanded from its medieval walls. Inaugurated in 1897, it was designed by architect Manuel de Echave and inspired by the Cologne Cathedral. The structure is notable for its impressive spire, which stands 75 meters tall and can be seen from various points throughout the city.

Getaria

Day Trip from San Sebastián – Getaria

Getaria

A great day trip from San Sebastián is Getaria. Getaria is a beautiful coastal town surrounded by wineries west of San Sebastian. I visited the town as a guest of the Basque Country Tourism Board as a pre-trip for the TBEX Europe conference (travel bloggers). The town has a harbor and a great way to get there from San Sebastián is on a boat tour. The old town is very tiny and features a church with an oddly sloping floor (uphill from the front to the back).

Fashionistas may want to visit the Cristóbal Balenciaga Museum which is a tribute to the well-known fashion designer who was born in Getaria in 1895. Opened in 2011, the museum aims to preserve and promote Balenciaga’s legacy, showcasing his innovative designs and contributions to the fashion industry.

Juan Sebastián Elcano

History buffs should look for the statue of Juan Sebastián Elcano. You may have learned in school that Magellan was the first person to circumnavigate the globe, but he never did. Magellan died partway through the voyage in the Philippines. When the one surviving ship from his voyage returned to Spain (with only 18 of the 270 crew members who set out) it was captained by Elcano… who was from Gitaria.

Txakoli Ameztoi

While you are in the area you should get out to a winery that produces the Basque wine Txakoli (“chah-kuh-lee”). Txakoli is a slightly sparkling, dry white wine produced in the wet coastal hills of the area. I visited the Txakoli Ameztoi winery which had a tour and an enjoyable tasting menu. Even those who don’t like wine will appreciate its beautiful location in the vine-covered hills with a view of the coast.

Bilbao

Bilbao from Mount Artxanda

Bilbao: From Industrial Hub to Cultural Hub

In recent years, Bilbao, a city in northern Spain, has undergone a significant transformation, evolving from an industrial hub into a vibrant cultural and economic center. This revitalization began in the late 20th century, primarily driven by the opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. The city also moved its port closer to the ocean, closed most of its steel mills, cleaned up its river, and repurposed or replaced its old factories.

I had the opportunity to travel to Bilbao as a guest of the Basque Country Tourism board who paid for my trip.

Bilbao Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum

Bilbao’s transformation from an industrial hub to a cultural hub was accelerated by the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997. Designed by Frank Gehry, this titanium-clad marvel is a beautiful work of art architecturally. Inside, you’ll find modern art from world-renowned contemporary artists. The exhibition features a smaller number of works of art than you might expect, many of which are quite large in scale.

Some notable pieces include:

"Puppy" by Jeff Koons... on the right

“Puppy” by Jeff Koons: A massive, floral sculpture of a West Highland Terrier, located at the museum’s entrance.

"Maman" by Louise Bourgeois

“Maman” by Louise Bourgeois: A giant spider sculpture that stands outside the museum, symbolizing strength and fragility.

"The Matter of Time" by Richard Serra

“The Matter of Time” by Richard Serra: A series of monumental steel sculptures that create a labyrinthine experience within the museum’s largest gallery.

"Tulips" by Jeff Koons

“Tulips” by Jeff Koons: A vibrant, oversized bouquet of stainless steel tulips, known for its reflective surfaces and playful aesthetic.

“Nine Discourses on Commodus” by Cy Twombly: A series of paintings that I am told reflect on the chaotic reign of the Roman Emperor Commodus through expressive and abstract brushwork. Honestly, I prefer the family art project that my kids created.

The Museum also features temporary exhibits like “The Infinity Room” by Yayoi Kusama which is like a fun-house hall of mirrors meets modern art.

The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

Art enthusiasts should not miss the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, home to an impressive collection spanning from the 12th century to contemporary works. This museum provides a more classical counterpoint to the modern Guggenheim, featuring works by El Greco, Goya, and Picasso. 

Bilbao

Bilbao

Urban Renewal

Bilbao is still a city under construction. The city is trying to preserve its industrial age roots while modernizing. A walk around town will show new buildings being built alongside the old, or sometimes behind the original facade of an old warehouse or factory.

Azkuna Zentroa

Azkuna Zentroa

One great example of urban renewal is Azkuna Zentroa where an aging wine warehouse was left standing but was turned into an indoor city square. The original building was designed by architect Ricardo Bastida and completed in 1909. In the early 2000s, the building underwent a significant renovation led by French designer Philippe Starck, blending historic architecture with modern design elements. The building now houses a modern library, exhibition halls, a movie theatre, a public gym and swimming pool, restaurants, and cafes.

Casco Viejo (Old Town)

Visit Bilbao’s Old Town or Casco Viejo. Stroll through the Seven Streets (Las Siete Calles), where medieval architecture meets bustling markets and cozy cafés. Don’t miss the Ribera Market, Europe’s largest covered market, where you can indulge in local delicacies. From Basque sweets to fresh produce, this market is a sensory feast.

Los FuerosLos Fueros

We tried a wonderful tasting menu at Los Fueros, renowned for its traditional Basque, in the Old Town and I would highly recommend it to foodies. Located in the heart of the city at Calle Los Fueros, 6, the restaurant offers a variety of full menus that celebrate classic local dishes “updated to adapt to today’s tastes”. It has the sort of “what if an amazing chef got ahold of grandma’s recipes” vibe.

The Nervión River and Zubizuri Bridge

The Nervión River and Zubizuri Bridge

A stroll along the Nervión River is a serene way to appreciate Bilbao’s architectural evolution. The Zubizuri Bridge, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is a striking modern footbridge that offers splendid views of the city. 

Bilbao from Mount Artxanda

Mount Artxanda

For some of the best views of Bilbao, head up the hill to Mount Artxanda. You can drive to the top or take a funicular. This spot is nearly mandatory for Instagrammers because of its colorful Bilbao signs.

Day Trip from Bilbao – Torre Loizaga and La Encartada Beret Factory Museum

We had a chance to explore the area west of Bilbao during my visit including two interesting sites with a connection to Bilbao’s past.

Torre Loizaga

Torre Loizaga

Located in the scenic town of Galdames, just 30 kilometers west of Bilbao, Torre Loizaga is home to one of the most remarkable automobile collections in Europe, particularly known for its extensive Rolls-Royce collection. This museum, housed within a beautifully restored medieval tower is a must for car buffs (or people looking for an amazing wedding venue).

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Torre Loizaga

Torre Loizaga boasts the most complete Rolls-Royce collection in Europe, showcasing models spanning from 1910 to 1990. This collection includes 45 Rolls-Royce vehicles, featuring iconic models like the Silver Ghost, Phantom I, II, and III, and the luxurious Silver Wraith and Silver Cloud series. Each car is meticulously maintained and displayed.

Torre Loizaga

In addition to Rolls-Royce, the museum also features a variety of prestigious European and American automobiles. I will be honest, Rolls Royces from the 70s and 80s don’t mean a thing to me so it is the classic car collection here that I really loved.

Torre Loizaga is open to the public on Sundays from 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM, or by appointment for groups and special visits.

  • Admission Adults: 8 €
  • Pensioners and under 14: 4 €
  • Free under 6

For those traveling by car, the museum is a 45-minute drive from Bilbao. Follow the A-8 motorway to the exit for Abanto y Ciérvana-Abanto Zierbena, then head south on the N-634 towards Las Carreras and Somorrostro. From there, take the BI-2701 south towards Sopuerta and follow the signs to Galdames and Torre Loizaga​.

The uncle of the family that currently owns the collection renovated the ruins of Torre Loizaga to make it a beautiful event space.

La Encartada Beret Factory Museum

Near the picturesque town of Balmaseda, west of Bilbao, the La Encartada Beret Factory Museum offers a glimpse of the industrial heritage of the Basque Country. Founded in 1892 by Marcos Arena Bermejillo, this historic factory specialized in producing wool knitwear, particularly berets, known locally as “txapelas”​. I know it makes me a nerd but I love a good industrial-age factory tour.

La Encartada preserves its 19th-century machinery which is still intact and operational. The factory ceased production in 1992, but it remains a well-preserved example of industrial architecture from the era. Visitors can explore the entire beret-making process, from the initial stages of wool processing to the final product. The museum showcases restored machinery powered by water turbines, providing a dynamic and educational experience. Guided tours are available, offering insights into the historical and technical aspects of the factory’s operations.

In addition to the factory, the museum complex includes workers’ quarters, the overseer’s house, and a small shrine, all reflecting the lifestyle of the factory community during its operational years.

La EncartadaBeret Factory Museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM, and 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM. Note that it is closed in the afternoons from November to April and remains closed on Mondays​.

  • General Admision: 5.50 €
  • Reduced: 3.50 € (retired card, students, unemployed, groups of more than 10 people)
  • Free entry: every Friday (Museum Day), press
  • Schoolchildren: 1 €

Balmaseda

Balmaseda

While in Balmaseda, you can also explore its medieval architecture, including beautiful churches, convents, and the renowned medieval bridge.

restaurant Teike

On our visit, we tried the amazing tasting menu at the restaurant Teike. I can easily recommend this as a stop to foodies… if you have a couple of hours for a leisurely lunch. Teike is a modern restaurant known for its creative fusion cuisine that combines international flavors with traditional Basque elements. Originally started as a small takeaway project called Teikegüei in May 2020, it evolved into its current form in January 2022.

The restaurant prides itself on using high-quality, locally sourced ingredients and offers a variety of dishes, including gourmet burgers, pintxos, and the local “putxera” stew, which is a bean dish in a metal pot that was served traditionally on the railroad journeys to the town.

Where to Stay in San Sebastián and Bilbao

I stayed in two very different hotels during my San Sebastián stay. The first was Hotel La Galería was located in a quiet neighborhood near Ondarreta Beach. The hotel was about a 20-minute walk from downtown San Sebastián or a quick bus ride. The hotel was affordable and comfortable. La Galería is situated in a lovely building from the late 19th century, designed in the French architectural style.

Hotel Catalonia Donosti

The conference Hotel for the TBEX conference I was attending was the more upscale Hotel Catalonia Donosti which is located on the top of a hill a few blocks from the Cathedral. If you can afford it, this is an amazing hotel with a delicious breakfast buffet, a well-equipped fitness center, and a rooftop pool. This is the kind of place that can support me in the style… to which I would love to become accustomed.

Catalonia Gran Vía Bilbao

As a guest of the tourism board, we stayed in another lovely hotel by the same brand in Bilbao, the Catalonia Gran Vía Bilbao. In other words, when the tourism board wants to impress someone, this is one of the places that they take you.

San Sebastián and Bilbao are perfect starting points for exploring the Basque region of Spain's unique blend of natural beauty, rich history, and vibrant culture. #spain #bilbao #sansebastian #basque #travel #vacation #trip #holiday 

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

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