Spanish Basque Country: A Guide
When people think of Spain , they think of the endless beaches on the West Coast, the Catalan culture of Barcelona , or Arabic influences in Andalusia. You hear few people about the beautiful part of the north of Spain: the Spanish Basque Country.
I have been to the Spanish Basque Country twice, and I love this corner of the country. In this guide I’m going to break down what exactly the Basque Country is and where to go!
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The Spanish Basque Country
The Basque Country is a province in the northwest of Spain. The province starts in the northeast near the French border and continues until just past Bilbao in the west. In the north you will find the coast and the Bay of Biscay. There’s also apiece of the Basque Country in France, but that’s the French Basque Country, of course.
The capital of the Spanish Basque Country is Vitoria-Gasteiz, but the largest city is Bilbao. Another famous city is San Sebastian, which is close to the French border.
There is a bit of confusion about what exactly the Spanish Basque Country is. You have the province (or: autonomous region), but the geographical area of the Basque Country is much larger, and therefore includes the part of the French Basque Country and Navarra, another autonomous region in Spain.
In this post, I’m talking about the autonomous region of the Spanish Basque Country, the heart of the region.
What language do they speak in the Spanish Basque Country?
If you speak a good bit of Spanish, you might be shocked as soon as you get to the Basque Country. That’s because it is bilingual. Although everyone speaks Spanish, you will also hear a lot of the Basque language among themselves. Many street names and menus are also in Basque. It is a matter of being proud of your own culture (just like the Catalans). Not surprisingly, both the region and the Basque language are among the oldest in Europe.
A Brief History of the Spanish Basque Country
The Basques are a proud people and have often been autonomous over the centuries. They had little to do with the Spanish and French kings. Gradually the autonomy of the region became increasingly restricted, especially under Franco’s dictatorial rule.
As a result, the terrorist group ETA arose as a counter-reaction, which committed around 20 attacks between the 1960s and 2009 with the aim of creating an independent Basque country. Especially in the eighties and nineties there were regular attacks with fatalities. The ETA has been officially dissolved since 2018.
Most Beautiful Places to Visit in the Spanish Basque Country
You cannot write an article about the Basque Country without dwelling on the most important city, the heart of the Basque Country: Bilbao. Don’t expect a city like Barcelona, Valencia, or Seville if you go here. Bilbao is more subtle, cooler. You can eat fantastic food here and see some amazing architecture.
The most famous highlight of Bilbao is of course the Guggenheim Museum. The smooth lines of the building draw the skyline of the city. If you are less interested in art, simply enjoy the area. Stroll along the river that splits the city in two, discover the 700-year-old center, and dive into one of the many restaurants for pintxos.
Hotel Tip: Pension Casual Gurea is located in the heart of Bilbao. The rooms are very affordable and comfortable, and you are with a short walk to all the sights.
The other fantastic city that you should visit in the Basque Country is San Sebastian . If you are in the region and someone is talking about “Donostia”, don’t be surprised: that is the Basque name of the city. Located in a beautiful bay, La Concha has one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe. The center is full of beautiful sights that are bursting with history.
But that is not the only reason to visit San Sebastian. You can eat extremely well here. There are the most Michelin stars per square meter. I ate my belly with Pintxos, the Basque version of tapas. They are served in almost every cafe.
Hotel Tip: A big tip is a stay in Hotel Londres, where you can stay in the room where spy Mata Hari stayed in 1916. From the rooms you can watch the waves roll into the crescent-shaped bay.
Just to the east of Bilbao you will find the ecological reserve Urdaibai . If you like animals and unspoiled nature, this is the place to be. One of my favorite places in the nature reserve is Basondo, a wild animal shelter. They have pigs, ostriches, donkeys, deer, bison, and even lynx here!
It is also possible to spot followers in this area, at the Bird Spotting Center, a super modern center where you have a beautiful view and learn everything about bird migration in Europe.
Laga Beach in Ibarrangelu
I think this beach is technically located in the Urdaibai region, but I wanted to give it its own place on the list. This is such a lovely place, and definitely one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe. I had never heard of it! The view of Laga Beach reminded me a lot of Big Sur in the United States. This beach is located in a bay surrounded by beautiful nature.
The cute harbor village of Bermeo is also a must visit in the region, if only because of its harbor with colorful houses. But not only that, it is also one of the most interesting places, since this place is the perfect insight into the history of the Basque Country. The region received a large part of its income from fishing.
This village owns 75% of all tuna boats worldwide. WORLDWIDE. I believe that just about every man who lives in this village (and his father, grandfather, and great-grandfathers before that) is a fisherman. Very interesting is the Fishermans Museum, which tells more about this. You can eat well at the nearby Asador Cannon, which, because of its location on a hill, offers a wonderful view of the region.
Gernika (Guernica in Spanish) is one of the most important towns in the Spanish Basque Country, because the provincial assembly holds its meetings here. It is also a town with a loaded history.
The most important icon of the city is a tree, called the Oak of Gernika. Here the gentlemen took their oath. The original tree no longer exists, but there is a new tree in the same place. In the Gernika Assembly House you will also find a beautiful stained glass that depicts the tree. There is also a wonderfully beautiful library there, by the way.
The other famous example of the city is the painting Guernica by Pablo Picasso (nowadays hanging in Madrid). The painting depicts the bombing of Guernica in 1937. The city was bombed by Germans and Italians during the Spanish Civil War. A huge shock because bombing cities with civilian deaths were completely new at the time.
The entire center was destroyed during a 2.5-hour bomb shower. Fleeing villagers were shot from the air. The number of deaths has always remained unclear, but researchers estimate that the number of deaths was between 300 and 800.
For something more cheerful: you can find delicious eats at Boliña el Viejo. It may not look very cozy, but it’s a really authentic restaurant, where the owner mentions the daily menu by heart and you, on good luck, order something, which turns out to be insanely tasty.
Hotel Tip: A cute, small b&b run by a lovely couple. Just outside Gernika, in the middle of the Urdaibai eco-reserve, is the traditional Aristieta Baserria. On land, fruit and vegetables are grown that the family sells at famers markets, and everything is done in the hotel as ecologically as possible. And yes: those beds are divine.
If you like a city like Seville, with lavishly decorated buildings and a mystical medieval atmosphere, then Oñati will delight you. This is by far one of the most beautiful villages in the Basque Country, located in a valley surrounded by green hills.
The most special highlight in this village is the age-old university. The Universidad Sancti Spiritus dates from the 16th century, and for some time this was the only university in the entire Basque country. Nowadays lessons are sometimes given, but in principle a (more modern) university located further down the road has now taken over the lessons.
The old center has a cozy square full of eateries, and a Gothic church, the San Miguel Arcángel. This is one of the few churches in Europe that are built on a river. The whole has a very dreamy appearance.
Hotel Tip: Hotel Torre Zumeltzegi. This old but completely restored building was a farmhouse for a long time, but before it was the home of the Count of Oñati. The building came into the family of the hotel owner a few generations ago. You can wake up in one of the delightful rooms with a view over the valley, and the restaurant is delicious.
One of the most surprising places during my visit to the Basque Country was the beautiful monastery of Arantzazu . This is not far outside of Oñati, at the top of the hills, at the end of a winding mountain road.
However, the Church of our Lady is anything but what you expect. Where you might imagine that it would be a beautiful old church, it is precisely a super modern sleek church that dates from the 1950s. I like it. It fits a bit in the Basque Country of Guggenheim and Picasso.
Just east of San Sebastian is the colorful coastal town of Pasaia, in the bay of the same name. Here you will find the main port of Gipuzkoa (the province in which San Sebastian is also located). I found this such a special place to wander through. The colorful wooden half-timbered houses look anything but Spanish.
In the town you will find sights such as the church of San Juan Bautista, the palace of Arizabalo (which is not nearly as impressive as it looks), the Basilica Santo Cristo de Bonanza, and on Donibane 63, you will find the address Victor Hugo used on his visit to the Spanish Basque Country.
Take the boat across the bay and be sure to visit the Albaola Itsas Kultur Faktoria, where the story of Basque whaling is told, and you will get a glimpse into rebuilding the legendary Spanish ship, San Juan.
You can eat at restaurant Ziaboga, where you can eat delicious fish and have a nice view of the bay.
Hondarribia is a real vacation spot . The resort is located on the Spanish-French border. The city has everything: a pleasant center, a nice beach and a green hilly hinterland with the best views.
In the old center you will find a castle of Charles V, which does not necessarily excel in terms of beauty, but does have a nice design. Now there is a hotel, but you can still visit some of the old decor inside. And it is certainly not a punishment to enjoy the inner garden, or the views that you have from the castle.
The old city center is still surrounded by a city wall, with drawbridge and everything. Towards the water you will find all sorts of colorful wooden houses with balconies. One of the highlights of the town is the church Santa María de la Asunción, a 15th century Gothic church where once a marriage took place that brought peace between Spain and France. Special, no?
Hotel Tip: Casa Rural Higeralde. Located in the hills around Hondarribia, this bed and breakfast offers views of both France and Spain. How nice is that?
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
One of the most impressive places in the Basque Country is San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (yes, try saying that…). This is a small island that is connected to the mainland by a bridge. The whole is somewhat reminiscent of the Carrick-a-rede bridge in Northern Ireland. On this Basque island is a recluse that dates back to the 9th or 10th century. Did you know this island model stood for Dragonstone in Game of Thrones?
The beautiful fishing village of Lekeitio is one of the best kept secrets of the Spanish Basque Country, and consists of a mountain, a beach, an island and a river. In a place of only 7,000 people! If it is low tide, you can walk to the island by the way. The Gothic basilica Asunción de Santa María is also worth a visit.
Txakoli wine tasting
We already talked about the delicious food in the Basque Country, but of course you can’t skip the wine either. You have to taste Txakoli while you are there. This is a sparkling dry white wine and is the perfect wine to order with a snack of pintxos. You can do wine tastings in different places in the Spanish Basque Country.
Those were my best tips for the Spanish Basque Country! I hope this has provided enough inspiration for planning a tour through this beautiful region.
What do you think is the most beautiful places in the Spanish Basque Country?
General Travel Tips
- For accommodation, I always check Airbnb or Booking.com for the best prices.
- If your insurance at home doesn’t cover travel, you may want to look into SafetyWing for an affordable option.
- I always recommend checking Get Your Guide for the best tours in Europe.