A simple WhatsApp message, that’s everything it took. A friend of a friend’s knew that I love travelling and, since she was planning a trip, decided to invite me. Her plan was to go on a road trip around the Basque Country for a week. No need to clarify my answer was a big YES.
Where is the Basque Country?
For those of you who might not know it, the Basque Country is in northern Spain. Don’t get confused by its name, it is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities. However, part of its population would like to be fully independent (like Catalonia now). This caused a lot of troubles in the past as well as many deaths, but it’s a very safe place to visit now (search for “ETA” if you want to know more about it). Anyway, I’m not here to talk about politics! The Basque Country is also well known for its very unique language (euskera), its beautiful landscapes and, last but not least, its deliiiicious pintxos (Basque tapas, so to speak).
I had never been to the Basque Country before so I was really excited about this unexpected road trip. We changed our route a few times as we were finding out new places to visit, but also because of the G7 meeting taking place in Biarritz, just after the border with France. Our itinerary looked like this in the end (the place where we slept each night):
- First night: Bilbao
- Second night: Mundaka (Camping & Bungalows Portuondo)
- Third night: Zarautz (Gran Camping)
- Fourth night: San Sebastián
- Fifth night: Zeberio (Albergue Mandoia Aterpetxea)
- Sixth night: Bilbao
As you can see, most of the places are coastal. There are other parts of the Basque Country worth visiting for sure, but its coast is something not to be missed!
We flew to Bilbao Airport (BIO) so we spent our first night there. A few days before arriving, my friends and I found out that the city would be celebrating its local festivities that week. We were received with fireworks, live music and a fun fair on our first day. Not bad!
We went for a walk around the city to check what was going on and get a first impression of it. On our way back to our hostel, up on a hill (amazing views from there I must say), we got a bit lost and ended up walking for much longer than expected. Bilbao streets are like a hard-difficulty maze with hills included. Several of them are cul-de-sacs, but the city centre is fine so don’t worry too much about this. A little workout never killed nobody!
The following morning we drove to our chosen campsite. We had to check if they had availability, since they didn’t accept online bookings. We waited for almost an hour until everyone had checked out to see if they had room for our tent and our car. Lucky day: we got the last spot. Note for the future: get there as early as possible around check-out time for higher chances.
Bermeo, a very important fishing port
Once everything was set up, we head to Bermeo, a cute and very colourful fishing town 34km northeast from Bilbao. After walking around and taking some pics, we head to the Old Port (Puerto Viejo) to find a pintxos bar (the first of many!). We ended up in “Kafe Loidxie”, a bar with a little terrace facing the old port. The pintxos were quite good and cheaper than we expected, maybe because Bermeo isn’t a big city. Try pintxos with “bonito” (longfin tuna), I loved them.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, AKA Dragonstone
Next on our route was San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, also known as Dragonstone from Game of Thrones. The hermitage standing on top of the islet is dedicated to John the Baptist and dates back to the 10th century. After its appearance in the HBO series, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe became so popular that they had to implement a system to control the flow of tourists. Visiting it is for free, but you need to book a time slot and get tickets online.
It’s also possible to visit it without a ticket on certain dates of the year. However, I’d still recommend getting one just in case (I mean, it’s free!). There are car parks just before the entrance but they tend to be pretty full. You’ll probably have to walk for a tiny bit depending on the season and time of the day.
There are two ways to get to the bottom of the islet from the entrance, one easier (and longer) than the other one. We decided to take the shorter one since we were up for an adventure, but I must admit it was quite steep! Just take your time, have lil breaks and take pictures in the meantime.
Once on the bottom, 241 steps await to be climbed. The views from the top, but also along the way up, are breathtaking, so take as much time as needed. Your reward: you’ll be able to ring the hermitage bell. Remember: three times for good luck, many times to warn your allies about the coming enemy.
On our way back to the campsite, we stopped in the town it’s in (Mundaka). We bought some food for breakfast and had dinner after quite a tiring (but well worth) day.
Zarautz: a surfer’s paradise
The following day we head to Zarautz to try to get a place in a very surfer-friendly campsite. The previous one was more for families I’d say, while this one was full of young surfers taking advantage of the amazing Zarautz beach. Again, we had to wait for a bit, but we did get a place for our tent and our car. The views from this campsite were really beautiful! It’s on a hill from where you can see the long beach, and there’s a vineyard behind it.
Our plan for this day was to cross the border and visit some French cities like Biarritz and San Juan de Luz. The G7 meeting was soon taking place in Biarritz though, so we were strongly advised not to. The city had tightened up the security and there were thousands of policemen controlling everything ran smoothly. We then decided to visit Fuenterrabía/Hondarribia, on the Spanish side of the border, once the local police told us it was safe.
Hondarribia, a historic charming town
Hondarribia is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever visited. It is located 20km east from San Sebastián and is separated from France by the Bidasoa river. If you’re into history, you’ll like to know that it’s the only remaining walled city in Gipuzkoa (one of the 3 provinces in the Basque Country). Its strategic location has been widely used along history, with remains dating back to the Paleolithic period.
If this town stands out for something else, that must be the colourful façades of its buildings. Walk along San Pedro street to see some beautiful ones, or enjoy the view while having some tasty pintxos in one of the many bars on this popular street. We tried a few places and liked them all, but my favourite one was Itsaspe, on one of the ends of the street.
Getaria, the hometown of the first circumnavigator
After leaving Hondarribia, we decided to visit another small coastal town: Getaria. With less than 3,000 inhabitants, Getaria is well-known for being the hometown of Juan Sebastián Elcano, the first person to circumnavigate the world. Its main street has some great pintxos bars, and the San Salvador Church was interesting to visit. If you’re into fashion, don’t forget to visit the Balenciaga Museum.
The day was coming to an end, so we headed back to our campsite and had a chilled night.
The following morning our plan was to visit the other big city in the Basque Country: San Sebastián. If I had to describe this city, I would say something like “a city with really beautiful buildings, an amazing bay beach and lots of bars and restaurants serving top-class pintxos”. The city is also famous for hosting the San Sebastián International Film Festival, founded in 1952.
A must-do in San Sebastián is a stroll along La Concha beach, all the way to the Palacio de Miramar. From there you’ll get an incredible view of the bay. You should also go for a walk around the old town and have some pintxos by the Nuestra Señora del Coro Basilica. Casa Alcalde and Ttun Ttun were our favourites! For the best view of the bay, head to Monte Igueldo either by car or by funicular. There’s an amusement park on it too! We also climbed Monte Urgull, where we were surprised by a live music concert with views over the bay too. What a spot!
Zumaia: flysch cliffs
Next destination: Zumaia. Zumaia is well-known for its astounding flysch cliffs, which made it into Game of Thrones too! If you’re into Spanish films, you might recognise the hermitage by the cliffs, as it appears in the “Ocho Apellidos Vascos” film. There’s a trail to walk along the cliffs – highly recommended! Nature is just impressive.
That night we weren’t staying in a popular city, on the contrary! We immersed ourselves in the countryside and stayed in a rural guest house on the mountains surrounded by nothing but plain nature. Such a cosy place to stay in! The icing on the cake: two lovely dogs to pet and play with. We’d have loved to stay here for a whole week but “sadly” we had to continue our road trip.
Time to discover Bilbao
After checking out, we set off for Bilbao, where we would spend our last night. Before checking in in our hostel, we decided to visit Getxo, 13km north from Bilbao. Getxo is the perfect place to enjoy some tasty, fresh fish with a view of the port. For those into engineering, Getxo is linked to Portugalete by the Bizkaia Bridge, the world’s oldest shuttle bridge and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Before leaving Getxo, don’t forget to walk along the “Grandes Villas”, a series of majestic houses by the beach that won’t leave you indifferent at all! Lucky (rich) owners…
With our stomachs full of yummy fish and homemade desserts, we headed to Bilbao, our final destination. There is a lot of sightseeing to be done in Bilbao, but I’d simply recommend wandering the old town and discover what the city has to offer.
If you’re feeling hungry, be sure you won’t run out of pintxos bars to try. If you’re into art, visit the Guggenheim Museum, or sit by the river and contemplate its incredible exterior walls, clad in glass, titanium and limestone. Don’t forget to say hi to its two pets, Puppy and Mamá! Unless you’re really scared of spiders, of course…
Another must-visit is Azkuna Zentroa, a society and contemporary culture centre. It features really interesting exhibitions and its interior is really interesting to see if you fancy architecture and interior design. It’s free to visit, so write it down on your list!
By the river you will find the Ribera market, a popular traditional market where you’ll be able to taste some local dishes and buy some delicious local products to take back home.
Unfortunately, our road trip was over and it was time to fly back home. It was not a goodbye though, I’m sure I’ll go back one day to keep trying pintxos!
So…have you started planning your trip to the Basque Country yet? 😉