The Basque Country, or as it is called locally, Euskadi, remains very much unchartered territory for the average tourist. A gem of Spain that very few have even heard of, it offers those brave enough to step of the well trodden path with a myriad of surprises which are guaranteed to delight. From fairy tale villages to modern architectural landmarks to world class food and wine, there is one thing for certain, you will fall in love.
Unlike the rest of Spain, Euskadi has it’s own language, it’s own cultural and culinary traditions and a very distinctive geographic landscape. Whether you seek to drive through drastic mountain landscapes or laze by the sea, visit bustling cities or wander through sleepy fishing villages, immerse yourself in history or interpret modern art, lunch with the locals or try gourmet meals, there is definitely something for everyone.
7 Day Basque Country Itinerary
Day 1 – Sopelana and Barrika
Make sure to get a window seat on the plane and make sure you are awake for the last 20 minutes of the journey, specially if it is a clear day. The flight into the airport is one of the nicest ones I have experienced as you glide over the mountainous countryside. Do be prepared for a bumpy landing though, it is more often than not rather windy!
Once you arrive you have couple of choices here, one would be to get the train into Bilbao and either stay the night there or make your onwards journey, or alternatively hire a car and start exploring. I’d recommend the latter as it will enable you to really get off the beaten track to places even locals don’t know about!
My recommendation would be to stay in Plentzia, in particular it would be to stay at the Seascape Airbnb with Ingeborg so that you can benefit from views such as these!
I’ve known Inge since I was teenager, her daughter being one of my best friends whilst growing up. The Cloet family are one of the nicest you will ever come AND the views are amazing, the house has a pool and their cooking is divine!
If out of budget however there are a number of other options in the town, from local hotels to B&B’s to even a hostel if you wanted to meet others (but be prepared to brush up your Spanish as you won’t find any English around here!).
So why Plentzia? Well… look at the photos and you tell me!
Plentzia isn’t exactly a hidden gem, in fact it is the last stop on the train from Bilbao and a popular place for “local” tourists to visit. However, there is nothing touristy about it. No souvenir shops, no overpriced bars and restaurants and certainly nothing in English. It also happens to be the town I grew up in! Here you can enjoy nice walks along the promenade, an award winning white sand beach and freshly caught seafood from the neighbouring fishing villages.
My recommendation on your arrival day, specially if it is a nice day, would be to make your way to your accommodation via Sopelana. In particular, via El Peñon, a bar with a terrace that overlooks Sopelana beach. The surf is generally quite good here so you can enjoy not only a nice sun set but sexy surfers at the same time (male and female)!
Alternatively you can also stop off at Barrika beach to marble at the amazing geological formations. The staircase down to the beach has been eroded so you do need to make your way down a precarious path (please don’t twist an ankle!), the view however is worth it.
Day 2 – Bilbao
You can’t come to the Basque Country and not visit the Guggenheim. And you can’t visit the Guggenheim and not explore the tiny city of Bilbao. Getting to Bilbao from Plentzia could not be easier. All you need to do is jump on the “metro” (the underground train that spends more time above ground!) for 20-30 minutes at a total cost of €2 for the roundtrip and you are there.
Bilbao is an industrial port which up until about 20 years ago had little to offer other than great gastronomy and night life. However, realising the importance of tourism, and particularly after the construction of the Guggenheim in 1997, the city really started to bloom with staggering architecture and green spaces looming everywhere.
My advice would be to get off the Metro at Deusto. This will allow you to creep up on the staggering building that is the Guggenheim as you walk along the shores of the River Nervion. Whether you are into architecture or not it is impossible not be impressed with this amazing building which defies all architectural rules. In fact, growing up I was rather disappointed as I had thought they were building a rollercoaster!
One you’ve had enough of modern art, the big flower puppy, the scary spider and the man with his shadow head on down the river to the Zubizuri bridge. If it’s a clear day, cross over and head to the Funicular railway that will take you up the hill to Artxanda where you will be able to enjoy a birds-eye view of the city.
If it’s not a fine day then carry on along the river front enjoying the grand buildings dotting the sides of the river until you eventually reach Areatzako Zubia (and the Abando Train Station). At this point cross over and continue walking along the other side of the water until you finally reach Erribiera Merkatua. Back in the day this was the largest covered market in Europe. It’s now turned a little more touristy but it’s still worth a walk around to marvel at the local produce on offer. It is not unusual for locals to make a daily or weekly trip here to buy the freshest fish or meat available. The other bonus is that it has a bar section selling the most amazing pintxos.
Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas, but instead of being a small plate of deliciousness, its heaven on a piece of bread. What you have on this bread could vary from jamon, to calamari, to some of the most insane concoctions I have ever seen!
Trying to chose what to eat when you are at the market is more or less impossible as you could simply stay there and gorge yourself as everything looks amazing! However, this isn’t how it is done. Traditionally you would have one drink and pintxo and then move on to the next. What would I recommend therefore to have here? Well, I had the most amazing goat cheese and jam filled pastry. I can’t quite put into words just how nice it was. Doug went for a Jamon croquette served on a slice of Jamon with bread. Also incredible. However, you could go for a simple classic. Jamon Iberico on bread. You can’t go wrong with that either!
To drink you have a few options. If you like your wine then the local Basque Wine is Txakoli (white wine). Google tells me Txakoli is a very dry white wine with high acidity and low alcohol content. Apparently, it is very nice but as I find all wine repulsive I wouldn’t know. A quarter beer is also an option or for a non alcoholic option how about mosto, otherwise known as grape juice! The servings are tiny (quarter glasses) and cheap (less than €1 per drink).
It’s important you don’t fill yourself up because the plan is now to head out and explore the 7 streets of the Old Town with its cobbled narrow alleys that connect them all, and the best way to do this is by a self-guided food tour! Firstly, get lost. Explore all the narrow streets and keep an eye out on the building for the marks that show where the flood water rose to during the big flood of the 80’s.
Some of the suggestions below I haven’t tried but have been recommended. Others, I can 100% guarantee you will enjoy. One that you 100% have to go to is Sorginzulu. You will find this in Plaza Nueva, the square that sits in the centre of the Old Town. This again is very typical, even the smallest of towns have a square surrounded by bars and restaurants where everyone meets whilst children play in the centre, Plaza Nueva is no different only you can go very wrong here as it is very much a tourist and snob trap. Sorginzulu however is the exception. They boast about having the best calamari in Bilbao and I can assure you they are not wrong. Make sure you have some!
They have a lot of other nice pintxo’s too though so if you want to have something else in addition to the calamari I’d recommend:
- Black Squid Sandwich
- Chistorra – this is something you do have to have as part of your trip, whether here or somewhere else. Chistorra is Basque Chorizo, much thinner than normal and cured much faster. The ingredients I believe are also somewhat different. Try it, you won’t regret it! In this particular bar they served it wrapped in pastry with a quail egg on top.
- Kokotxa: this is the most famous pintxo from Bilbao and is essentially fish glands. It’s kind of one of those you have to try because it’s so traditional rather than because it is so delicious (it’s more about adventure than taste!).
- Carrillera (beef cheeks): Always delicious
Other places we have been recommended but that I haven’t visited:
- El Globo for some Spider Crab
- Promenade for some Gilda. Gilda is the first ever pintxo created and consists of a guindilla pepper, an anchovy fillet and a manzanilla olive. Quite frankly, I don’t like any of those ingredients, but you might!
- Lamb Skewers in Café Iruña
- Idaizabal Cheese in Gure Toki
- Crispy apple, duck and peanut sauce in Irrintzi
- Foie Gras and apple pintxo in Bar Santa Maria
- The best croquettes in the world in Txiriboga (this one was unfortunately closed when we were there which we were very upset about!)
- And if you still have room for dessert then why not stop at Arrese for some chocolate truffles.
- And finally, to wash it all down pay a visit to a local microbrewery to taste some local craft beer at Basquery
By this time I can only imagine you are waddling. Visiting all of these places will also mean you have wondered through the entire Old Town as well as headed into the city centre and up the Gran Via (main street). That is pretty much Bilbao done. The only thing left to do now is visit Centro Azkuna, which stands for freedom centre. I haven’t been there as it is relatively new, however it is incredibly highly rated and apparently the place to go to learn about Basque culture.
All that is left now is to meander back to a metro station and head back to Plentzia for an evening of rest.
Day 3 – Plentzia and Gorliz
After all that food yesterday it’s time to burn some calories today and what better way to do that by taking a scenic walk along the cliffs from Gorliz (neighbouring town to Plentzia) all the way to Armintza (about 7 km).
The Plentzia and Gorliz beaches merge into one long beach. If you follow this to the end you will come to a forested path that starts weaving it’s way up to the cliffs. You will eventually come to the open cliffs. You can’t really go wrong, just keep following the path whilst marvelling at the beauty of the rugged coastline whilst listening to the relaxing sound of waves.
Along the way you will come across a number of old lookouts, now in ruins or otherwise graffiti(d) to death. I don’t know much about the history of these or what era they belong to. You will also come across the Gorliz lighthouse but more importantly you need to keep your eyes out for Potoka ponies. These are native ponies to the Basque region. You will finally descend through Eucalyptus forests into the harbour of Armintza.
Armintza is a small fishing town with a picturesque harbour surrounded by local bars serving whatever the fishermen brought in that morning. Time it so that you arrive in time for lunch, that way you can enjoy the charcoal-grilled fish of the day.
If you don’t fancy the trek back then you can always get the bus back to Plentzia. It passes by hourly and the fair is no more than €1.
The afternoon is yours to enjoy. Hire a stand up paddle board and head up the estuary; try your hand at surfing or rent some kayaks to go exploring.
For dinner I highly recommend you go to a Cerveceria. Cerveceria translates to beer house and honestly, I don’t know why they are called that! They do serve beer but it has nothing to do with beer, it is instead all about the chicken!! Cerveceras are very much a Vizacaya thing as you don’t find them in many other areas of the Basque Country either so you have to make sure you visit before you go. What is so special about them? The best rotisserie chicken. This is as close to fast food as we had growing up. Cervecerias are only open in the summer months and are a place where friends will gather in mass with their children and stay for a couple of hours enjoying the sun with good food and beer (maybe that is the beer connection?!).
As well as chicken they do lots of other things however my recommendation would be to ask for: chorizo, a chicken, a salad and some chips. They will give you bread, cutlery and a table cloth. You find where you want to sit, set out your table and wait for your number to be called. I kid you not, you won’t have tasted chicken as good as it and meal for two with drinks will come in at under €20 so a cheap night out also!
Day 4 – The Basque Coast
Today it is time to say goodbye to Vizcaya and make the trip to San Sebastian. Fear not though, the journey alone to get there is as stunning as they get. Set off along the coastal road heading west and your first stop will be in under 20 min: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, now also famous for featuring in Game of Thrones. I’ve never watched GOT but I am told there are dragons here?! Dragons or not, it is worth a visit. It is a small hermitage sitting on top of a tiny islet off the cost of Bakio, connected by a stone bridge. You used to be able to drive to the bottom and then simply climb the 241 to get to the hermitage to ring the bell, however, due to erosion you now have to walk down from the main road. You are guaranteed to get a sweat on but it is worth it. I’d recommend parking at the Eneperi Restaurant and following the path down from there. That way on your return a couple of hours later you can enjoy a nice cold drink (maybe a pintxo or two) whilst looking over the amazing view.
Once you are ready, jump in the car and continue driving west along the coast. The next stop is Bermeo, a colourful coastal village and one of the most important fishing ports in the Basque Country. In times gone past the Bermeo people were famous whalers. Although whale hunting is now illegal fishing is still the main industry in the area and as such you can guarantee great fresh fish in any of the many restaurants! It is worth going for a stroll through the marina (where there is always a pirate ship moored!!), as well as a stroll through old town.
Time to jump in the car again, this time heading to Mundaka, only a few kilometres away. Mundaka sits on the edge of the Urdaibai estuary and is home to one of the best left-hand barrel waves in the world. In fact, many surfing world championships have been held here. If the surf is good it is worth a stop, if not then I’d keep going (even thought it is a very charming little fishing village).
The road will now take you along the estuary all the way to Gernika, famous for being bombed by Franco during the Spanish Civil War. One of Picasso’s very famous paintings depicts the bombing and sits as a mosaic in the town. Also famous is the Gernika Tree which is one of the most famous Basque symbols. If I remember right it stands for freedom and peace. Apart from that Gernika is quite an ugly town so I’d probably read up on the history but keep on driving past!
Gernika is the point at which you can cross the estuary allowing you to make your way back to the sea. The views from this side are phenomenal. Before you get back to the crashing waves however I recommend you stop of at the Santimamiñe caves. These are one of the most important archaeological sites in the Basque Country with paintings taking you from the Middle Palaeolithic right through to the Iron Age. In order to visit the caves you need to book in advance so don’t forget to do that! Also, here you will find the Bosque de Oma (Oma Forest) where some crazy artist has painted the trees. It’s pretty awesome but equally pretty eerie, particularly if you visit when it is misty.
Another possible stop if you are into bird watching is the UNESCO Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. They have laid out a number of walkways and lookouts over the marshy land that enable you to immerse yourself in nature and watch the many different bird breeds go about their day.
There is so much to do along the coast that it could take you a week to make it to San Sebastian, however, as time isn’t finite I’m going to suggest you bypass the next section and make your way over to the county of Gipuzcua. Your fist stop here is Zumaia and the Basque Coast UNESCO Geopark. The Geopark tells a story of Earth’s history in the same way a tree trunk does. The 13km of coast line within the Geopark is made up of the most amazing rock formations, which incidentally also play a part in Game of Thrones. You can walk the entire coast and get the train back to Zumaia, however for the purpose of the itinerary I haven’t included this.
One last push now to get you to San Sebastian, the second city in the world with the most amount of Michellin Star restaurants per capita. World renowned for it’s food you can expect to eat well here, but that aside, it is also beautiful! A stroll along La Concha beach before settling down in any Tripadvisor reviewed restaurants will finish off your day nicely.
Day 5 – San Sebastian
San Sebastian is famous for pintxo’s and therefore I am suggesting yet another Pintxo tour! To help you build up an appetite though I suggest you trek up Urgull mendia (mendia is mountain is Basque). Don’t panic, not an actual mountain, just a hill at the western end of La Concha which will afford you fantastic views of the bay.
Another option (particularly if the weather is bad) would be to visit the Aquarium, which is known for being one of the best in Europe.
The main event today however is the food tour. I hope you are hungry!
Stop 1: La Mejillorosa. A tiny little establishment that we walked past 4 times before finding! They only have 2 things on the menu: mussels and patatas bravas. The mussels are good, but the patatas bravas are the best I have ever had! Get stuck in, they are delicious! Don’t be put off by all the crap on the floor. It’s tradition to chuck everything on the floor in Spain, whether that be bones, serviettes, pips, crumbs…. In fact I was always told to judge a bar by it’s floor, if it’s filthy it means it’s good!
Stop 2: Sirimiri Gastroleku. A much “posher” establishment with a counter full of mouth watering pintxos. The temptation is going to be to eat them all. Please don’t or you will regret missing out on the rest! Here I recommend the black squid croquettes (my favourite of the whole tour!) and an organic rice risotto dish made with shiitakes and macademia nuts. Both delicious.
Stop 3: Zeruko, an avant guard pintxo venue. Again, another counter of delicious looking pintxos but this time you are unlikely to know what a single one of them is! Here you have to ask for “La Hoguera” which literally translates to bonfire. I won’t ruin the surprise as to what it is (not marshmellows!). You also need to order a Cod Pintxo in Cava sauce and a grilled oyster. Be prepared for an explosion of flavours!
Stop 4: Borda Berdi. A very traditional bar (no English spoken here!). Here you have to order an Idiazabal Cheese Risotto (yummy) and a pork ear pintxo. A bit like the fish glands in Bilbao, it’s more about embracing tradition than anything else and in the Basque don’t let anything edible go to waste! Not even ears! Funny texture but great flavour!
Stop 5: La Viña. Pudding time! This restaurant is famous for it’s cheese cake, in fact, they produce and sell so many that the entire wall is lined with them! Basque cheesecake however has nothing to do with what we call cheesecake. It’s more like a mix between custard and crème caramel and the consistency of flan. It’s delicious!
If you are not about to burst by now then I applaud you. We were dead by this point and incapable of doing anything other than collapse in the sun for a siesta.
Day 6 – Alava
Today it is time to explore the third county of the Basque Country – Alava. And although you will be visiting Vitoria, the capital of Euskadi, my main aim is actually to get you lost as you drive down country lanes and hair pin bends to hidden away little villages. Feel free to freestyle, turn your sat nav off and truly get lost. What gem’s can you find?
Before you do get properly lost though, head to Vitoria. Capital of the Basque Country this is where you will find parliament and the government headquarters. All that sound a bit boring? Don’t be put off, official buildings aside Vitoria is another charming city which is definitely worth a visit. I don’t know it as well as San Sebastian and Bilbao having only been the once, but it is definitely somewhere I plan on returning to.
Vitoria’s historic centrum is right at the top of the hill. They do have travellators to help you get up there, or why not walk up the moderately steep hill to open up an appetite. Yes, you guessed (!) lots of great places to eat here too! But I will let Tripadvisor advice you on where to go. It’s a charming medieval old town enclosed by the city walls, the perfect place to enjoy the chit chat of locals as they go about their daily business.
Once you are ready to move on you will be heading towards the Orduña mountain range. The Alava side enjoys it’s own micro climate which will make you think you are in a completely different country to those lush green fields you have become accustomed to on the trip so far. Craggy mountains interrupt the vast yellow crops which separate the tiny little villages with barely more than 10 inhabitants in each. The best advice I can give you is a pick a direction and get lost. Find a local restaurant where you can enjoy a “Menu del Dia”. It is customary throughout Spain to have lunch from a set menu which changes daily. For around €10 Euros you get to enjoy 3 courses. Think of it as two mains and a pudding! You also get, bread, a bottle of wine and water for that money too! One thing I will warn you off however, if you chose the right place, i.e. where the locals go, the menu will not be written down anywhere so be prepared to have it read out to you at full speed!
Once you have finished exploring, maybe even gone for a trek, find yourself an agroturismo to stay the night in ready for the final day of your holiday!
Day 7 – Off the beaten path
Today marks the end of the holiday ☹, hopefully though you have got afternoon flights so you can do the final bit of exploring! Set off in the morning for Orduña (20 min drive) and stretch the legs by taking a walk to “El Salto del Nervion”, the start of the Nervion River (which you saw in Bilbao). It’s a nice easy stroll along fire roads but do be aware of the wolfs! They helpfully put the warning sign once you are well and truly committed to the walk (and too late to run!). But don’t worry, there hasn’t been a wolf sighting here for a long time! The views you will get rewarded with at the end are worth it!
Once you have finished stretching your legs (hour walk) it’s time to head down the hair pin roads of Orduña and head over to “La Arboleda” an hour’s drive away. La Arboleda is an old mining town from which they extracted ore iron. To get the iron down from the mountain they used a funicular (taking it right down to the port). Can I recommend you go to Trapagaran and take this same funicular up! It will give you fantastic views. From the funicular it is a short 1km walk to the town centre. On route you will pass the old mining sight which has now been converted into artificial reservoirs. It is absolutely stunning with really bright emerald green colours surrounded by beautiful greenery. Definitely worth a walk around. The other thing La Arboleda is famous for is it’s bean stews. Alubias! In fact, it might be famous amongst locals but this is completely off the tourist trail so you really will be experiencing a hidden gem! I would recommend going to Restaurant Maitane and asking for an Alubiada. They will bring you a big pot of beans to share with all the extra’s on the side for you to add in (ribs, chorizo, black pudding, offal, lard…) and of course a good serving of bread for dipping. You can’t go wrong!!
Tummies full and a few extra pounds heavier it is time to make your way home. The airport is only 20 minutes away. Don’t get there too early, there is nothing to do!
I really hope this inspires you to visit one day and that when you do you love it as much as I do!