Things to Do in Basque Country
Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry and opened in 1997, is hailed as one of the most important architectural works of its time. Within its undulating and reflecting walls on the banks of the Nervión River, you’ll find a rotating artistic wonderland of both modern and contemporary art.
San Sebastian’s medieval Old Town is a maze of bar-packed alleys serving the city’s world-famous pintxos and wine. The neighborhood is also home to the wonderfully chaotic Pescadería (fish market), the San Telmo Municipal Museum, Church of San Vicente, and the Basilica of Saint Mary of Coro.
Constitution Square (Plaza de la Constitución) sits in the heart of San Sebastián’s old quarter. Since its construction in the early 1800s, it has served as the city’s main square, but perhaps most interestingly as a bullring. You can still see remnants of this today: look above each of the balcony windows, where you’ll spy numbers denoting the former bullring boxes once rented by spectators.
Though the bullfights long ago moved to the city’s proper Plaza de Toros, Constitution Square still hosts some of San Sebastián’s biggest events. The most famous of these is no doubt the start and finish – marked by the flag raising and lowering -- of the parade- and drum-filled Tamborrada, which takes place yearly on January 20th.
Events aside, the main square, which is dominated by the municipal library, resides in a part of town blanketed by a web of narrow medieval streets, each dotted by Basque Country’s answer to the tapas bar: the pintxos bar. These drinking-and-eating establishments typically pile high their counters with gourmet-style tapas-topped slices of bread, and are usually enjoyed by visiting one bar after the next.
This fabulous seaside town of Biarritz has been the Pays Basque's hot spot for centuries, a status made official in the late 1800s when EmpressEugénie, wife of Napoleon III, declared "One must be able to dance well to be received here."
This decree was amended in the 1950s, when the rolling waves crashing into the Gran Plage, the wide beach lined with bars and clubs where wine flows freely from dusk until dawn, attracted another sort of attention. Today, Biarritz is one of Europe's top surf destinations, with an International Surf Festival bringing in waveriders from around the world every July.
The classic French-Basque setting, complete with elegant architecture, luxurious accommodation and other cultural treasures, makes a fine backdrop to the Basque's bestfête destination.
San Sebastian’s main crescent-shaped beach is of softest sand and punctuated at both ends by craggy hills: Monte Urgull to the east and Monte Igueldo to the west. Translating into English as ‘the shell’, La Concha was fundamental in the incarnation of San Sebastian as an elegant seaside resort favored by Spanish royalty back in the 19th century.
The beach fills to bursting in the summer, when the bumpy waters of the Bay of Biscay are calm and pleasantly warm to swim in. Lifeguards are always on duty and there are showers and other facilities on the beach, making it safe and easy for families to enjoy a day on the sand. Two floating pontoons out in the bay are just the spot for sunbathing; beyond them the small, rocky islet of Santa Clara has a tiny beach that is a prime picnic spot and can be reached by motorboat or hired canoe.
Now backed by formal gardens, a brightly painted carousel, and a row of charming hotels, seafood restaurants and bars, the Paseo Nuevo promenade that runs the length of La Concha comes alive during the nightly paseo, when San Sebastian residents and tourists alike dress up and go out on the town.
The neo-Gothic cathedral of Buen Pastor (the Good Shepherd) was completed in 1897 at a time when San Sebastian was flourishing as an aristocratic seaside resort; it was promoted to cathedral in 1953. Buen Pastor is the largest religious construction in the city, made of sandstone harvested from Monte Igueldo and with a tapering spire that serves as a local landmark.
The vast church was designed by Basque architect Manuel de Echave along elegant, slender Gothic lines; its needle-like spire is the tallest in the Basque country at 246 feet (75 meters). Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida created the ‘Cross of Peace’ that adorns the main façade.
Based on the Latin cross, the cathedral has three naves and the interior is awash with light flooding in through the stained-glass windows by Juan Bautista Lázaro; vast chandeliers hang down from the vaulted roof and rose windows illuminate both ends of the transept. The organ was installed in 1954 and has more than 9,000 pipes, making it one of the largest in Europe.
If you’ve heard the name Guernica (Gernika) before, it’s likely due to the fact that it was demolished by an air raid in the Spanish Civil War and immortalized by Picasso in his famous painting of the same title. Founded in 1366, the town of Guernica is alive and well once more, becoming a center for peace and having developed into a center for culture and art in the region.
Historically, the Tree of Gernika has played an important role as a community meeting point for Juntas Generales (general counsels) since the Middle Ages. Today, the site of the tree along with churches, palaces, homes, museums and parks — some of which did survive the bombings — make this a lively though peaceful Basque town to visit. The Gernika Peace Museum Foundation stands as representation of its current status, and because of the city’s history and deeply embedded symbolism, Guernica is an important piece of Basque culture and identity.
One of two headlands that guard the entrance of San Sebastian’s La Concha Bay, Monte Igueldo stands to the west of town and offers the ideal vantage point for views of the bay, La Concha Beach, Santa Clara Island, Monte Urgull, and the surrounding hills. With natural beauty and historical significance, Monte Igueldo is one of the city’s top attractions.
In 1491, on the once much humbler site of this enormous and ornate Mudejár-style shrine that is the Sanctuary of Loyola (Santuario de Loyola), a family of minor nobility welcomed its 13th child, who would one day change the world. San Ignatius Lopéz de Loyola, a soldier turned to the priesthood by his strange visions, founded the Brotherhood of Jesus, or Jesuit order, whose radical interpretation of Catholicism left its mark on both the New and Old World.
A place of pilgrimage and wonder for the devout and secular alike, San Ignatius' former home has been transformed with Chirriguerresque flair into a grand compound. In addition to the basilica and shrine, there is an art museum displaying a few of his belongings and writings, as well as religious objects collected over the centuries.Shrines to other Jesuit saints are also arranged around the grounds.
The gardens and surrounding mountains make a fine backdrop to the scene, and you're welcome to stay on at their inexpensive hostel.
Like a fantasy castle straight out of Middle-earth, the pride of the Vizcaya looms above the Butrón River, marking the spot of a key fortification that kept the Butrón clan in control. The original structure of Butrón Castle (Castillo de Butrón) probably dated to the 11th century, though the earliest verifiable records refer to a stone tower that existed by 1250 AD. The castle was expanded as regional wars raged, and the Basque's ruling families spilled much blood in its shadow.
As peace fell across the beautiful countryside, the great families allowed their fortress to fall into utter disrepair. Finally, in 1878, new owners hired architect Francisco de Cuba to rebuild the ruins but this time with a romanticized silhouette for relaxing, rather than fighting.
Today, the old Butrón Castle seems something from a fairy tale, with turreted towers and Bavarian style that will have you wondering when the next dragon will arrive. The gardens make a fine spot for a picnic, or wander around inside.
More Things to Do in Basque Country
Wandering the narrow medieval streets of Bilbao's Casco Viejo, you'll stumble upon the towering exterior walls of Santiago Cathedral. It is believed that the church, which serves as a stop for pilgrims trekking the northern Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), dates back over 600 years, when it was built on the site of two previous even older churches.
Today's cathedral – which shouldn't be confused with the much larger one of the same name located in Santiago de Compostela, at the end of the Camino de Santiago – has expanded over the course of time, growing to the cathedral that you see now. During a visit, you can peruse its many chapels, wander the peaceful 15th-century gothic-style cloister, or just take in the exterior with its 19th-century gothic-revival facade and spire.
Santiago Cathedral is located amidst the original seven streets of Bilbao's Casco Viejo (old quarter). While the interior is quite humble compared to many of its other European cathedral counterparts, it serves as a tranquil respite from the busy medieval barrio, and of course provides a unique look into Bilbao's past.
With formal gardens that tumble down to the beach edge at Ondarreta, the Miramar Palace (Palacio de Miramar) was once the retreat of Queen Marie Christine Habsburg, the wealthy widow of King Alphonse XII of the Spanish ruling royal family; she was responsible for putting San Sebastian on the map as a popular seaside vacation resort in the late 19th century.
The palace was the work of Basque architect José Goicoa, and was completed in 1893 in the English style. The influence of his design partner, English architect Seldon Wornum, can be seen in the mock-Tudor detailing in the patterned brickwork, gables, tall thin chimneys, and rounded towers.
The gardens of Marie Christine’s summer palace are so extensive that a road runs underneath them, connecting San Sebastian’s beaches with the elegant suburb of El Antiguo. After much to-ing and fro-ing between the Spanish royal family and local government officials, the gardens now form an elegant public park, stretching from the former palace to the seafront. It’s a well-loved spot for a picnic on summer days, overlooking the sandy strip of Ondarreta Beach.
The real appeal of the tiny town of Elorrio (population 7,000) is the opportunity to experience rural Basque culture, with a glass of red wine. Surrounded by cool mountains, most the village's classic stone architecture dated from the 16th and 17th centuries, though far older archways and buildings are interspersed with such appealing structures as Gothic Santa María de la Asunción. Outside town, the Necrópolis de Argiñeta Tombs date to at least 711 AD, perhaps even earlier.
Elorrio is also a popular base for hikers and walkers, with acc ess to such sites as the Ermita de Santa Catalina, the Sanctuary of Arantzazu, and nearbyParque de Urkiola.
Get to know Bilbao beyond just its artsy image by taking a trip to the city's Casco Viejo. Dating back to Medieval times, this – the Old Quarter – and its original seven streets still retain an almost untouched charm, free of the touristy trappings you might find in other big cities.
This once walled-in neighborhood originally consisted of exactly seven streets and, for that reason, is sometimes still called Los Siete Calles (“seven streets” in Spanish). Each of these original avenues still exist, with names such as Tendería Kalea (Shoekeeper's Street) and Carnicería Vieja Kalea (Old Butchery Street). Since Medieval times, the barrio has expanded to include still more streets beyond those seven originals, and also squares like Plaza Berria and Plaze Nueva.
The Casco Viejo draws a crowd for more than just its historical appeal, too. Head to the old-world district to fulfill your culinary cravings by popping from one bar to the next for pintxos (essentially Basque tapas with a gourmet twist) and glasses of txakoli, a local dry white wine. While there, visit the nearby Mercado de la Ribera, the largest food retail market in Europe; the city's over 600-year-old church, Santiago Cathedral; or stick around on Sundays for retail therapy at the market in Plaza Nueva.
Wandering Bilbao's streets, you'll inevitably end up crossing Moyua Square (Plaza Moyua). Also known as Plaza Elíptica, due to its oblong shape, this main “square” is more than just a central crossroads, but a garden- and fountain-filled roundabout worth checking out and even stopping in (especially given its central area accessible to pedestrians).
Originally designed back in 1873, Plaza Moyúa sits in one of Bilbao's most exclusive neighborhoods, where it bisects the bustling shopping street Gran Vía. The plaza itself is dotted by various noteworthy buildings, such as the 20th-century Flemish-style Palacio Chávarri, the headquarters of the Civil Government since 1943, and the Hotel Carlton, the city's most famous hotel, which stands alone on its own spoke-like corner of the square.
The plaza is also a convenient location to catch the city's Metro – the third-busiest in Spain -- which rises out of Moyúa with its glass-domed entrance. Traveling underground, you can easily reach other parts of the city via two different lines.
This Franciscan sanctuary set against the Aizkorri mountain range carries both spiritual and historical significance for many pilgrims to the site. Tradition states that Virgin appeared in a hawthorn bush, prompting witnesses to ask "Arantzan zu?" (Is it you in the hawthorn?), giving the place its name and bringing thousands of years of pilgrims and art devoted to it.
The area has suffered multiple fires and seen many restorations since then, most recently in the 1950s with a beautiful monastery that stands picturesquely on the edge of the mountain. It sits at the base of the road leading to the highest mountain in the Basque Country, surrounded by the valley’s trees and ravines, and has since become a symbol for avant-garde architecture. Sculptor Jorge Oteiza created the 14 apostles on the façade, while the iron gates were designed by Eduardo Chillida and paintings by Nestor Basterretxea and Lucio Muñoz.
At the entrance to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a colorful floral puppy sits in perennial bloom. Designed by American artist Jeff Koons, this 43-foot-high (13-meter-high) sculpture—known simply asPuppy—features more than 70,000 live flowers. View it for free before heading inside to explore the permanent collection.
Bilbao’s growth and its maritime history go hand in hand given the city’s 20th-century growth as one of Europe’s prominent port cities. The River Maritime Museum dives into this history, going deeper than just Bilbao’s seafaring past to also reveal the background of the port, the people that lived along the estuary, and how it all impacted the city’s evolution.
The museum is appropriately located along the dry docks of the old Euskalduna shipyard (built in 1900 and closed in 1984), a kid-friendly space that features both indoor and outdoor exhibitions. Inside, visitors can watch an intriguing video on Bilbao’s history, and spy model ships and boats, along with life-sized ones too, including a reproduction of the fancy wooden Consulate’s felucca. Then, outside, you can explore the dry docks, other exhibits, and walk along the estuary.
If your visit to Bilbao has gotten you into an artistic mood, then embrace that notion with a little theater at the city's Teatro Arriaga. The 19th-century Neo-baroque theater goes easy on the traveler's eyes with an elaborate facade that overlooks the east bank of the Nervión River, and a fancy interior of plush red chairs, golden balconies and ornate crown molding.
This may sound like theater-viewing perfection, but Teatro Arraiga's past hasn't been quite as flawless. Designed by Joaquín Rucoba, the theater was opened in 1890, and dedicated to Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, considered the Mozart of Spain. Flash forward to 1914, when a fire essentially demolished it, followed by other setbacks, such as its closing for a time during the Civil War. Then came threatening floods in 1983, which inundated the structure to the second floor, closing it once more.
The curtain of course rose again, though, and the intimately sized theater – seating some 1,500 people – has welcomed audiences ever since.
Until the 1980s, when the Basque Country earned autonomous status from the Spanish government, Vitoria-Gasteiz was just another quaint provincial capital, notable for its two outstanding cathedrals, Gothic 14th-century Santa María and 1907 María Inmaculada, surrounded by scores of monumental buildings, some housing museums focusing on art, history, and in the 1525 Palacio de Bendana’s Museo Fournier, playing cards.
The hilltop old town was founded in the 6th century, though the oldest surviving structures are part of the well-preserved Medieval stronghold. This is surrounded by newer (14th to 18th-century) plazas and shady pedestrian promenades lined with shops and cafes.
The more affluent and energetic modern center of the young capital, however, showcases today’s talented architects, heralding the bright future of the Basque region.
Just south of the Guggenheim Museum resides Bilbao's Zubizuri Bridge, yet another inventive structure in this city so known for pushing the artistic envelope. Also called Campo Volantin Bridge or Calatrava Bridge, the unmistakable Bilbao silhouette is more often referred to as Zubizuri Bridge, which means “white bridge” in Basque.
The Zubizuri Bridge was designed by Santiago Calatrava, who also claims the Bilbao airport as another of his works. The tied arch footbridge is made of an intriguing curved walkway suspended by steel cables. Since its opening in 1997, it has become a beloved part of the Bilbao skyline, for the most part anyway: its deck, which is made of translucent glass bricks, turns into a slippery hazard on the city's often rainy days. As such, for safety reasons the bridge walkway has now been covered in black mats (much to the dismay of the original artist).
The Zubizuri spans the Nervión River, linking the northeast area of the city with the Guggenheim Museum. Conversely, for those visiting the museum, it serves as an easy shortcut to the Artxanda Funicular entrance, located just a few blocks away from the bridge and toward the hills (in Funicular Plaza).
Just a few blocks off Bilbao’s main Plaza Moyúa is one of the city’s most unique and surprising structures: the Azkuna Zentroa (formerly known as the Alhóndiga Bilbao). The multi-purpose venue marries culture and leisure, the past and the present, and is a free-to-enter stop you should definitely add to your list of things to do during your visit.
Indeed, the Azkuna Zentroa didn’t start out as such an innovative concept, but instead as a wine warehouse. Inaugurated in 1909, it was designed by Ricardo Bastida, and, come the 1970s, had an uncertain future, with proposals to turn it into public housing, a museum of modern art, and even to simply demolish it. But the structure had a more promising future in store: the Basque Government decided to declare it a “Public Property of Cultural Interest,” and henceforth it has become the center that you find today.
In its 43,000-square-foot interior designed by world-renowned French designer Philippe Starck, you’ll discover a host of different things to do, from a cinema to a gym, library and shops. To get a taste for local cuisine, even stop by the restaurant, Yandiola, where you can dine a la carte or sample via a preset menu. Wander the space’s column-filled ground floor (each column with its own design), and don’t forget to look up and admire the transparent rooftop pool, which can be seen from below.
Of the two headlands that bookend San Sebastian’s La Concha Bay, Monte Urgull to the east was an especially important defensive site, starting in the 12th century. Today, Monte Urgull draws visitors for its views of the city and bay, La Concha and Ondarreta beaches, Santa Clara Island, and Monte Igueldo, the western headland.
The Guggenheim isn’t the only waterside architectural wonder in Bilbao; just up the river sits another impressive construction, the Euskalduna Palace. The building, which was inaugurated in 1999, features mosaic-style windows, and massive exterior walls of rusty looking corten steel. The inspiration behind the look: to stand symbolically as the last vessel built in the dry dock of the former Euskalduna Shipyard, which played an important role in the city’s growth and history.
The architecturally acclaimed Euskalduna Palace houses over 50,000 square meters of space, and boasts both the largest and second largest stages in Spain. The multipurpose venue serves as an opera house, concert hall and conference center, and therefore hosts a range of events from cultural to corporate. Temporary exhibitions are held here as well.
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