A WEEKEND IN BASQUE COUNTRY
Our 48 Hour Guide to A European Getaway in Northern Spain
There seems to be a great sense of pride for all that is Basque, spanning back over the centuries - almost a collective belief that nothing short of perfection should represent their culture. It most certainly seeps through in a dedication to top-class food and wine, jaw-dropping architecture and an open love for public art. The Basque Country, locally referred to as Euskadi, boasts a stunning green landscape tucked between the Basque Mountains and the Atlantic Bay of Biscay. It offers plenty of opportunities for both city and nature lovers alike to have a fantastic weekend experience, and lucky for us, we were invited out by the Spanish Tourism board to sample the local flavours and experiences. We opted for a very packed schedule through Bilbao, Vitoria-Gasteiz and Donostia-San Sebastian in just over 48 hours with a major focus on food... Spoiler Alert: you may come back a few pounds heavier. While we're on food - make sure to check out our 48 Hour Guide to Some of the Best Food in Northern Spain.
How to spend a weekend in the Basque Country
Flying to Basque Country:
Your best bet is search for flights to Bilbao, which is home to Euskadi's international airport. Lucky for us Londoners, Bilbao is a short two hour trip from Stansted with EasyJet. We managed to catch a 7AM flight on Friday morning, and be back in time for supper by Sunday. (Sounds easy right? Well, yeah, but you try and wake Mandy up at 3AM and see what happens...) Once you catch a couple of z’s on the plane and land in Bilbao, there are plenty of bus options to get you into town, but you could also opt to catch a local cab for €20-30 either into town, or to our first stop, Mount Artxanda.
Day 1 - Bilbao
What was once an industrial steel and shipbuilding city has all but flourished since its heavy investment in culture during the 1990's. There's a beautiful sense of harmony between old and new reflected in the contrast of the weathered stone walls of Basque churches and cathedrals in the old town, and the polished steel and glass surfaces of the modern architecture key to Bilbao's skyline. We opted to spend the night in Hotel NH Villa de Bilbao, which had some pretty swanky rooms. Bilbao in general has great hotel options, but we recommend booking a room in Bilbao in advance.
What to do in Bilbao
Soak in the Spectacular Views from Mount Artxanda
Our first stop was Mount Artxanda where you can get a spectacular overlook of the city. It really gives you a sense of what Bilbao is about looking over it from the top. If you're coming from in town, you can walk up, but we recommend taking the Funicular to save some time. The station is about a ten minute walk from city hall and it's a quick tram ride to the top. Plus, when's the last time you got to tell your mates you rode the "funicular"? *Quick tip: if you purchase a 24 Hour Bizkaia card all local transport, including the funicular, is included in the 10€ price and well worth it.
Take a Guided Tour of Bilbao
By this point, every cell in my body was screaming for coffee. If you're anything like me, you'll probably want to make beeline for a café to get your fix before considering anything else. The cafés along the river are stunning, as are the ones you'll find throughout the old town, where you can sit and people-watch in one of the plazas. For us it involved witnessing a heated discussion between two older gentleman trading football cards...
We opted for a guided walking tour of Bilbao to take in as much as we could with the limited time we had. Whatever you decide to do, you won't want to miss the old town, Casco Viejo, before making your way back up towards the Guggenheim. We managed to get in a quick peak at the Azkuna Zentroa on the way in, which is also a worthwhile stop. Especially the part where you look up at the ceiling and realise you're staring at feet through the glass floor of a swimming pool…
Discover a Creative Basque Fusion Cuisine at Basuki
We loved Basuki, which delivers a creative and modern fusion menu based on fresh local produce and traditional Basque Cuisine. Make sure to try their cocktails and definitely don't miss out on their ridiculously good desserts (and I'm not even that big of a dessert guy...) While we found it wasn't too busy for Lunch on a Friday, we still suggest you book a table in advance, as it's a pretty popular joint. Be warned - the Basque people love their food, and everything that revolves around eating. Eating is no quick ordeal, and most sit in meals will last you between 2 and 3 hours.
Explore the Guggenheim
The Guggenheim is said to have sparked the cultural renaissance of Bilbao when it was opened in 1997. It’s a stunning work of polished titanium and glass by Frank Gehry, attracting patrons of the arts and architecture from all over the world. It’s also a permanent home to Richard Serra’s iconic steel walk-through sculptures (Mandy recognised them as "the Bunker" from the latest season of American Horror Story) and the famous (and slightly creepy) Maman Spider by Louise Bourgeois. Now, if only we could find a way to sneak one of them badboys under Mandy’s pillow… We were gutted not to have more time at the Guggenheim, because there was so much to see inside. Seriously consider leaving yourself extra time for this. There are also private tour options available if you want to make the most of your learning experience. Should you get stuck with a rainy day, the Guggenheim might just be the perfect place to spend it. All of it...
Cruise Down the Nervión on a Private Boat Tour
We were blessed with an unusually warm autumn day, and opted to take a private boat tour along the Nervión to soak in more of the city's gorgeous skyline from the water (Mandy thinks it was for me to secretly live out my swashbuckling fantasies, but what does she know…). If you’re pressed for time, this may be the activity to skip or it might be a good option to prioritise over a walking tour if you’re traveling with children or somebody less able to walk. Just remember - SWASHBUCKLING... ya can't really do that simply walking about town...unless you have a parrot… then just… get in touch and we can be friends.
Experience Dinner at a Michelin Restaurant, Mina
Offering fixed taster menus with fresh ingredients locally sourced from the market behind it, Mina provides a tantalising culinary experience. The menu plays on traditional Basque dishes with a modern creative flair. Be prepared for a longer sit-down meal, and consider asking for a spot at the "barra" for a view of the kitchen bustle when making your booking. If you travel with a picky eater (I'm not pointing any fingers *cough* Mandy *cough*), maybe consider something a little less adventurous (unless you’re being strategic because you want to eat two plates of each course)...
Day 2 - Vitoria-Gasteiz
At the centre of Vitoria-Gasteiz you'll find an incredibly preserved medieval town-centre with cobbled streets and beautiful buildings dating back to the 15th century and earlier. It's the capital city of the Basque Country autonomous region, and was also named the green capital of Europe by the European commission in 2012. Bonus: there are less tourists than in Bilbao and San Sebastian, but it's equally deserving of a visit. You may even find yourself cheekily ogling and flirting with the idea of more delicious pintxos... Vitoria is easy enough to reach - a bus costs €4-8 and takes about an hour. We opted to spend the night in The Silken Ciudad de Vitoria, which to my delight and most importantly, had a pretty wondrous breakfast and was located centrally. Check here for more hotels in Vitoria.
What to do in Vitoria-Gasteiz
Put on your Hard Hat and Explore the Excavation Site under Santa Maria Cathedral
Ok, another cathedral? Really? I was equally unenthused when we added it to our already packed itinerary. Don't get me wrong, I find them incredibly interesting, but there are only so many you can visit before you become a bit fatigued. Trust me on this one though - Santa Maria is well worth a visit. In fact, If you do nothing else in Vitoria, I highly recommend you book in a guided tour of Santa Maria. Our experience there was unforgettable. Personally, I've never seen a medieval cathedral from such stunning perspectives and was blown away by the experience. If that hasn't sold you, maybe this will: You even get to throw on hard-hats to explore the underlying foundations and some of the tight walkways leading over the main crossing and transepts. My personal highlight was getting to see Mandy in a hardhat clinging for dear life to the railings high up above the crowds...
Why the hard hats? This 11th century Cathedral was on the brink of collapse before restoration works began in 2002. In the process of digging out the foundations, around 20,000 skeletons were found, as were artefacts dating back to the 8th century. The guided tour takes you through the underbelly of the cathedral, allowing you to see the marvel of modern engineering that is holding together what a structure built over 1000 years ago. Also, for those of you who enjoyed Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, it's worth noting that this Cathedral inspired his sequel - World Without End.
Take a City Tour
There's a wide variety of great Vitoria city tours available, and if you're not one to go exploring on your own, it's always worth getting a knowledgable local to show you around the city. We loved how pedestrian friendly Vitoria is, with many parts completely car free. For me, it was an excuse to sample more local coffee followed by more local beer.
Make sure to swing by Florida Park - For those of you into music (especially Jazz), there's a little statue of Wynton Marsalis near a park bench engraved with the names of all the musicians who've played at the International Jazz Festival in Vitoria. We spent a good few minutes spotting some of our favourites. Then we spent another good few minutes spotting and petting puppies, our favourite past-time. Fine, it was more than a few minutes...
If you're more into art, consider visiting the Artium, which is home to works by Miro and Picasso amongst others. Vitoria has so many little gems, so we recommend taking the day and enjoying a bit of downtime roaming through the city. For us it continued after lunch and well into the evening.
Enjoy Lunch in a 15th Century Inn - El Portalon
You may have spotted this beautiful half-timber building right outside Santa Maria Cathedral. El Portalon is a restaurant situated in what used to be a 15th century inn and offers a traditional Basque menu. It's the perfect place to stop for lunch and a cheeky glass of wine. We loved this place because it gave us an insight into festivity and social aspect that is vital to the Basque dining experience.
Eat Dinner at a Modern Basque Restaurant - The Bost
After roaming around the active outdoors bar scene of Vitoria, we settled in for dinner at what may have been our favourite restaurant of the weekend: The Bost. Offering a modern spin on Basque cuisine, this friendly and unpretentious restaurant left us feeling full and happy before heading back to the hotel for a short, but well earned sleep. But not before pounding a shot of the local Patxaran - it would have been rude not to, after all.
Day 3 - San-Sebastian
Famed for its immaculate golden-sand, sweeping hillsides, and stunning natural beauty, San Sebastian greeted us with apocalyptic skies, lashing winds and torrential rain. Let's gloss over that to it's next claim to fame then. San Sebastian is also known as one of the hottest foodie destinations of Europe. Naturally for me, that latter part is enough to garner my attention. It also holds the most Michelin Stars per capita (who’s counting anyway?).
What to do in San-Sebastian
Take in the Panoramic Views from Igueldo Mountain
Despite the horrendous weather, we were able to get up to the top of Igueldo mountain before experiencing the full brunt of Poseidon’s wrath. Igueldo offers a stunning panoramic view of San Sebastian and her beaches (and coincidentally, also of incoming storm fronts...) The best part though, is that to get up there, you get to ride another funicular. I was hoping for an excuse to say that word again...
Lunch - Barhopping for Pintxos
San Sebastian is the birthplace of Pintxos, which are the Basque answer to Spanish Tapas. A Pintxo is a small meal or quick bite traditionally served on a wood skewer - though they now also come in little bowls or on a piece of bread. They are the perfect way to sample the many delicious flavours of Basque cuisine, without having to sit down for a long meal (which you may have learned by now will take up much of your time here). Hop from one bar to the next, while grazing on the best dishes and exploring the beauty that San Sebastian has to offer. Then make sure to wash it down with a txakoli (local white wine) or a cold beer. Perfection.
Explore the Rich Sea-Life in the San Sebastian Aquarium
Unable to eat another bite, we decided to duck out of the horrendous weather and find something to do indoors. We sought refuge in the San Sebastian aquarium and were pleasantly surprised with all it had to offer. I would have assumed it's more of a family attraction, but now I would almost say it's unmissable if you are in the city. Besides all the amazing sea-life on display in the 1.8 million litre pool, it also boasts two stories dedicated to the deep relationship between Basque culture and the sea, with lots of models and artefacts to learn from (and up your swashbuckling know-how, if you're so inclined).
Getting Back to Bilbao International Airport
All good things come to an end, and if you’re keen to be back in the office on Monday, it’s time to catch a flight. There is an airport bus that runs on the hour from 5:00AM - 9:00PM and takes about 75 minutes. Make sure you select Donostia-San Sebastian in the "Origin" and "AEROPUERTO Bilbao" in the destination (The airport part is important, unless you want to end up in central Bilbao). It's probably the most cost effective way of getting to the airport. If you want a more comfortable ride, you could opt for a driver at around €200 (up to 4 people). Have a safe flight, and enjoy dreaming about Pintxos, while you consume your sad Pret sandwich and burnt coffee over your desk on Monday.
If you're thinking of heading to the Basque Country, you're in for a treat (and we're jealous you're headed there). We hope you enjoyed our Weekend-Getaway guide to visiting the Basque Country and would love to hear about your trip in the comments below. Also, don't forget to check out our 48 Hour Guide to Some of the Best Food in Northern Spain.
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