Basque holds so many secrets.
There’s the language, Euskera, unconnected to any other. Their culture, so shrouded in mystery. The best cuisine in Spain.
Remember our Andalusia travel guide from last month? Flamenco, bullfighting, tapas and the Moors? You won’t find any of that here. The Basque Country feels like its own nation, from charming countryside to Middle Ages cities and the food. Oh the food!
In Basque they didn’t build hideous 1970s high-rise hotels on the beach. That’s how un-Spanish it is. We’re still amazed at how little Basque is celebrated as a destination.
The best finger food you’ve ever had. That’s pintxos. A dozen flavours balanced in a single bite, a hundred to try on a single street. Informal, social, creative: pintxos are at the heart of Basque food culture. Take one with a drink. Spend an evening eating one or two at many different bars.
You won’t be able to help yourself. You’ll want to eat every pintxo in every bar.
But hold back. There are new specialties on the next stop of your pintxo bar crawl. San Sebastian’s old town and the Hondarribia marina area are the very best pintxo crawling destinations.
Grand and glamorous, San Sebastian has been attracting Europe’s aristocracy since the time of Napoleon. Two centuries on and the ambience doesn’t seem to have changed. Elegant cafes are perched above expansive beaches, rows of decadent townhouses are flanked by sculpted figurines and flowers, and a compact old town shimmers golden in the evening light.
San Sebastian is the absolute opposite of the famous high-rise Spanish beach town. It’s authentic and pretty, without a tacky English bar in sight. And the food!
San Sebastian has the second highest concentration of Michelin stars in the world – outdone only by Kyoto in Japan.
Where else in Spain would the Guggenheim be located? Frank Gehry’s titanium-built Guggenheim gallery is an elaboration of Basque originality and from the outside it appears both majestic and puzzling (yes, the same Frank Gehry who designed Prague’s Dancing House). You feel constricted and confused as the space narrows. Gehry wants you confused. We are not used to buildings that seem to move. And then everything opens magnificently, giant canvases and sculptures with so much space to breathe. Even if you don’t like art, Bilbao’s Guggenheim is still a very interesting place. Oh, its restaurant has a Michelin star and has appeared in the World’s 50 Best list.
Bilbao itself spans three eras and it’s like three destinations in one. Explore the lanes of a labyrinthine old town, cafes spilling onto cobbled streets and small plazas (squares) cosier than anywhere else in Spain. Cross the old bridge to explore Basque chic from the late-19th and early-20th century. Barcelona has Antoni Guadi’s Modernism. Bilbao’s Modernist architecture isn’t quite as impressive, but you don’t have to queue two hours to visit one building.
Bilbao is not touristic and by following the river you’ll find Basque of the future, centered on the Guggenheim. And the food? Well, when the world’s top restaurant critics and chefs gather for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, they gather in Bilbao.
An elegant seaside town with amazing food and great beaches. No, not San Sebastian again. We’re across the border in France now. The Basque Country straddles two nations and Biarritz is a great stop for the curious traveller. Part ritzy old-world coastal resort, part summer surf hang-out, part belle époque and art deco but also part 20th-century concrete, Biarritz is a place so original it could only be in the Basque. And the food? Let’s stop this, we’re getting too hungry now.
La Rioja (nearby, not in Basque)
So let’s discuss wine instead. Rioja wine is made in the small Spanish region of La Rioja, only one hour by road from Bilbao.
Everything revolves around wine here. The walled city of Laguardia is practically a giant underground cellar where we can arrange access for tastings and a tour.
La Rioja’s capital Logrono is ugly from the outside but has a wonderful old town packed with Rioja wine bars. And for the best wine experience visit a traditional bodega and taste wine with the maker (world-famous vineyards like Campo Viejo can also be visited but it’s not a personal experience and the wine is poor in comparison).
Towns and villages along the Basque Coast all have their own style. From tiny colourful fishing villages to towns perched on the cliffs, this is a coastline for the explorer. You’ll find remote beaches, walking trails, then compare molecular cuisine with fresh salted cod at a fishing shack. San Sebastian to Biarritz along the Basque Coast is always a great travel day.
Travelling to Basque
Did you know we’re running a private jet weekend trip to Basque. So you can experience many of the highlights without any wasted travel time. Only eight seats are available for this once-in-a-year trip.