The Basque region prides itself on its identity. Their unique identity is one of the reasons that the region has been fighting for its independence, and a visit to the region is required to understand what makes the Basque country so distinctive and special. The Basque region is overlooked compared to many other popular regions in Spain, yet still on the radar of many travellers.
Exploring the Basque country is a special experience. Picture yourself appreciating mountainous backgrounds, rolling hills surrounded by the lushest of vineyards, crashing waves on the dramatic coastlines filled with surfers riding to shore, and charming cities and towns that incorporate both modern and traditional architectural elements. The Basque country is a treat for anyone interested in embracing local traditions and the special culture, and of course, for foodies. Ready to uncover the gems of the North of Spain? Here are 6 reasons why you must visit the Basque region on your next adventure
1. A mouthwatering culinary scene
The Basque country is known for its delicious food, so much so that it might actually be the region’s most famous characteristic. In terms of Michelin-star restaurants, the region is in the top five in the world, with an impressive 33 stars across 23 different restaurants, and for its size, this number is insanely impressive! It's no surprise that foodies from all over the world come to try the delicious, innovative Basque cuisine that has earned its reputation.
Besides the modern take on gastronomy in the Basque region, the traditional cuisine is very distinctive from the rest of Spain. In the Basque country, instead of tapas, they have pintxos, which is similar to tapas in the sense that they’re small platters served at a bar, but quite different in what they may consist of. It is typical in cities like Bilbao and San Sebastian to enjoy a few pintxos at one bar before moving to the next, and the next, and the next… basically bouncing between different bars until you can’t manage to stuff a single more bite in!
Besides pintxos, there are some other must-try dishes when visiting the Basque region, like Marmitako, a fragrant tuna and potato stew, loaded up with flavours and vegetables. Bacalao al pil pil is a salt-encrusted cod dish prepared simply with garlic, olive oil, and chilli. While there are only four ingredients, it is a complicated process to get the perfect flavourful fish. Txiperones en su tinta are baby squids from the Basque region served drenched in their own squid ink. Its location on the bay makes it a perfect destination for seafood lovers, and some other seafood dishes include Bacalao con gulas, tigres, merluz a la vasca, and angulas, all something to keep an eye out for on menus! If you’re not a fan of seafood, don’t worry at all!
There are plenty of other scrumptious dishes, such as pipperada, a tasty dish that uses regional peppers, and txuletón, the Basque take on a rib-eye steak. While there is definitely a focus around seafood in the traditional basque dishes, you’ll have no trouble finding delicious options if you don’t like or can’t have seafood, including meat and vegan/vegetarian options.
One of the best ways to truly immerse yourself in the pintxos dining experience is to bar hop with a local, and the city of San Sebastián is one of the best places to do so. On this 3 hour tour including pintxos and wine, you’ll get to try at least 12 pintxos and 6 different local alcoholic beverages. This tour prides itself on the tradition of pintxos, and sharing this local tradition with visitors to the region, and of course, locals know the best spots for the best bites, so you’ll for sure leave feeling satisfied and full!
2. Vibrant cities ready to explore
There are three major big cities in the Basque country: Bilbao, Donostia-San Sebastian, and Vitoria-Gasteiz, each with something different to offer its visitors. It wouldn’t be a trip to the Basque region without a visit to Bilbao. Situated on the Nervión River, this large city is a representation of the new and old. The city is quite industrial, and there are more modern buildings than you’ll find in a lot of other parts of Spain, but of course, it still has a traditional old town, or as the neighbourhood is called by locals, casco viejo. This district is a must-visit, and is one of the liveliest areas of the city.
Of course, you have to go to the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao’s claim to fame. This is one of the most famous museums in the world because of its intricate architecture that is so distinctive and different and its impressive exhibits. Skip the line with this guided tour and discover what the museum has to offer from an expert’s perspective.
Any football fans out there? If you happen to be in Bilbao while Athletic Bilbao is playing, a trip to the San Mamés Stadium is a must-do when in Bilbao. The team itself is incredibly interesting. It is one of three teams to never have been relegated from La Liga, and they don’t buy any international or Spanish players. Every single player who has played for the team was born in the Basque region, is Basque, and it is one of the most unique rules for signing players in all of football. It really shows how proud the Basque region is of their identity, and this interesting rule invests in the region's own talent, and has been successful for over a hundred years.
The second biggest city in the Basque region is Vitoria-Gasteiz, or often called by locals as Vitoria. This is actually the capital of the Basque region, yet is not on travellers’ radars as much as Bilbao and San Sebastian. However, the city itself is very charming, with a beautiful old town filled with squares and historical buildings, such as the Cathedral of Santa Maria and the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca. You can also climb the medieval walls, which are still intact, offering panoramic views over the city! For a fun way to get around the Basque region’s capital, try renting a bike and riding around the city. Vitoria is known as one of the most bike-friendly cities in Spain and makes for a quick and easy exploration.
Donostia-San Sebastian, or San Sebastian, is a beautiful coastal city known as the Foodie Capital of Spain! San Sebastian feels more like a small town than a city with groups of friends pintxo-hopping through the quaint and narrow Old Town, you feel like you’re visiting a community rather than your standard city. The main attraction of San Sebastian is probably its pintxo bars, but there are other great activities like La Concha Beach, a stunning crescent-shaped beach right near the city centre. For history buffs, San Telmo Museum boasts the history and culture of the Basque region. If you’re looking for a great hike, you can climb up to Monte Urgull. The hike is a bit strenuous and long, but it offers beautiful panoramic views over the city and the coastline. Again, San Sebastian is the Food capital of Spain, so we have to reiterate one thing: make sure you eat, eat, and then eat some more to fully appreciate what the city has to offer!
Where to stay in Bilbao
Shared rooms in a traditional Basque building, right in the heart of Bilbao.
Spacious, modern rooms in a vibrant, central neighbourhood filled with bars and shops.
This grand hotel is a landmark of Bilbao itself, as its elegant, luxurious architecture draws in visitors.
Where to stay in Vitoria-Gasteiz
These modern, private rooms are great value for money, right in the centre of the historical district.
Elegantly decorated rooms with a traditional Basque restaurant and a stylish lobby.
Charming gardens, modern rooms, and a magnificent lobby makes this hotel a treat to stay at.
Where to stay in Donostia-San Sebastian
This hostel features a chic lobby and rooms, along with a rooftop, bar, restaurant, and a communal lounge to meet other travellers.
This seafront hotel is located in a 19th-century French building decorated with antique furniture and art.
Spacious rooms, a huge pool, and a beautiful garden characterise this stunning hotel.
3. Adorable small towns
The Basque Country is dotted with charming small towns that are authentically Basque and offer insight into the traditional Basque lifestyles. Each town has its own unique characteristics that make them an attractive destination, like Espelette, The World Capital of Peppers! Espelette is in the French-Basque country, but it is only a 12 minute drive from the Spanish border and it is the perfect little town to visit during your trip through the region.
This culinary gem is world-renowned for its pimento pepper. Every single street corner of the village has these peppers hanging, and many houses even hang them outside of their homes! Coincidentally, a lot of the buildings in the village are painted red and white, so the peppers definitely match the vibe! Throughout the town, there are many artisan shops that sell products made from the peppers for you to bring home as a souvenir, so save some extra room in your luggage for these delicious delicacies!
Back across the border with Spain is where you’ll find the adorable town of Hondarribia. This coastal town is right near the border, and is known for its colourful half-timbered houses. Its proximity to the border makes for an incorporation of both Spanish and French elements. The old town is incredibly picturesque and charming to explore, not to mention, its proximity to the beach makes it a great summer getaway!
Another seaside town, Getaria is a fishing village located on the Bay of Biscay. The small town is known for having some of the best seafood restaurants in all of the Basque country, which says a lot about just how delicious they are, since the region has such incredible food throughout. Stop by to explore the winding streets of the old town and devour some seafood plates in this gorgeous town. Head to the port town of Lekeitio to explore the vibrant port. There has been evidence of tourism in the beautiful town since the 19th century, when Queen Isabel II took a vacation to the village!
One of the most impressive features of the town is its beach that changes depending on the tides. During a low tide, the beach looks significantly different, almost making a small sandy pathway to the little San Nicolás Island just off the shore.
4. Traditional, distinctive culture
The question of Basque identity has long been a complex and controversial issue in Spain. The majority of Basque people to this day still support the idea of Basque autonomy in some shape or form, and there have been protests of this since the 1960s, when the separatist group of the ETA waged violent attacks on the Spanish government, although there is no longer this violence in the region, as the separatist group declared a permanent ceasefire in 2011.
So why the fight for independence in the region? That is because Basque culture is extremely different from that of Spain, and its residents identify themselves with the region, but not with all of Spain. While there are many different languages spoken throughout Spain, none are as distinctive as the Basque language: Euskara. It is one of the oldest languages in all of Europe, and experts haven’t been able to trace its origins. While languages like Spanish, Galician, and Catalan are spoken throughout Spain and share a lot of similarities due to their status as Romance languages, Euskara has no known linguistic relatives, and is a highly complex language that is extremely difficult to learn, and will sound like nothing you’ve ever heard. If you’re interested in linguistics, exploring the region and its unique language is a treat!
As we’ve already mentioned, Basque cuisine is innovative and quite a different experience than typical Spanish cuisine. Besides just cuisine, the Basque regions have their own traditions and celebrations, like the aurresku folk dance and haunting, melodic music authentic to the region. There are even unique rural sports like herri kirolak which are sports competitions that include activities like lifting heavy rocks, wood-chopping, and drilling holes into rocks manually. This is extremely typical in the region and is an interesting tradition that formed.
Overall, for those interested in learning and exploring new cultures, a trip to the Basque region is a great way to learn about one of the smaller cultural groups in Spain, why they want their independence, and about their traditions. While there is a bit of a dark history behind the fight for independence, specifically with the violent acts carried out by the ETA, it is important to remember that this separatist group does not define the majority of those who identify themselves as Basque and want independence, and the region is extremely peaceful these days, and exploring the distinctive culture and traditions of the region is a great immersion into the Basque Country.
5. Stunning coastlines and beaches great for surfing
Due to its more cloudy and rainy weather, the Basque region isn’t the first that people think of in terms of a beach getaway in Spain, with the exception of Biarritz, which is a part of the French-Basque region and attracts surfers year round. Compared to famous coastlines like Costa Brava and Costa del Sol, the Basque coastline is relatively underexplored by travellers. The Basque region is an incredible place if you’re looking for good surfing in Spain.
There is a high probability of catching some great waves from the months of September to March, and once it hits around April, the waves mellow out a bit, but there’s still a chance that you can ride a few waves. If you’re planning on staying in San Sebastian and want to do some surfing there, you can head to Zurriola Beach, one of San Sebastian’s three beaches that is a haven for surfing near the city centre. Zarautz is another popular surfing destination in the region that is surrounded by lush, green hills that only add to the beauty of the beach.
There isn’t just surfing beaches in the Basque region, and there are numerous gorgeous beaches that are perfect places to relax on the beach. During the cooler months, grab a sweater and soak up the views. During summertime, there will be plenty of hot and sunny days, perfect for sunbathing and swimming!
Sopelana is a gorgeous beach characterised by its cliffy coastline and sandy shores. The UNESCO declared Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve is a 12-kilometre coast of sandy banks. This is less of a traditional beach and more of a natural wonder to explore, and there are hikes around it to get beautiful views of the beach.
6. Taste the unique wine country
The Basque region is home to some beautiful vineyards producing unique Basque wines that you’ll definitely have an opportunity to try inside of Basque restaurants and bars, but why not venture out and explore the outskirts of the region, visiting traditional vineyards and wine tastings?
Basque wine country is known as the Txakoli Region, which is actually the name of its most traditional wines that is served alongside pintxos. Txakoli is made from the grape hondarrabi zuri and the wine itself is quite young, served cold, with a slight fizz to it. Even within the region, there are smaller regions which produce this wine in their own unique way.
While staying in the Basque region, it is an easy opportunity to visit the La Rioja region, which is famous worldwide for its red wines, and is known as one of the best wines in the world. However, we definitely recommend stopping at a Txakoli vineyard, because the tradition of this wine has been present in the Basque country since before the 16th century and has become a customary drink in the region.
There are plenty of wineries that are well-known that you can stop by and explore such as Txakoli Basa Lore, Talai Berri Txakolina, Getariako Txakolina, and Torre de Murga. While it is easy to get to these wineries by car, we recommend taking a tour from San Sebastian to the Getaria, the village known for its production of this wine, because wine tasting and driving don’t exactly go well together.
This wine tour takes you to a wine cellar, includes a delicious wine tasting in one of the most traditional spots, and not to mention you get to see beautiful and authentic villages like Getaria and Zarautz. The rolling hills of the region are sure to leave a lasting impression about the undiscovered areas of the region.