Tucked along the westernmost expanse of the Pyrenees and kissing the shores of the Cantabrian Sea, Basque Country sits among the more familiar regions of northern Spain and southwestern France. But its close proximity to these well-charted neighboring countries along the Bay of Biscay belies the magic of this petite and lesser-known territory. Occupying just shy of 2,800 square miles (just a touch smaller than the state of Delaware), Basque Country is a diverse and multi-experiential destination that delights in its contrasts. It combines ancient history and rich cultural traditions with exquisite scenery and modern conveniences, bringing it all together in a relatively small and accessible land area.
Geographically, Basque Country—known in Basque as Euskadi—packs a punch. Bucolic rural landscapes lined with rustic vineyards frame the region’s granite mountain foothills, while its dazzling coastline seems awash with diamonds, with glittering waves quietly lapping at uncrowded shores. And with a handful of medium-sized cities punctuating the tiny territory, Basque Country has culture and infrastructure to boot—a delightful juxtaposition of centuries-old traditions, art and architecture, with mouthwatering wines and spirited culinary fusion. Ready to start exploring Basque Country for yourself? Here’s where to start.
Basque Regions and Cities
To maximize one's time in Basque Country, travelers will want to get their bearings. There are three primary provinces here—each home to a charming capital city of its own—in such close proximity to one another that even first-time visitors can realistically plan to visit all three in sequence in just a 90-minute car trip, end-to-end. But where’s the fun in driving straight through?
Vitoria-Gasteiz (Araba-Álava Province)
The first of these provinces is Araba-Álava—home to the province’s capital city, Vitoria-Gasteiz. Situated in the south of Basque Country, this province is home to extraordinary mountains and lush valleys, both of which lend the area to a myriad of outdoor adventures, particularly hiking. And with such active pursuits, travelers will want a place to cool off and refuel afterward—so it’s fortunate that Araba-Álava is also home to Rioja Alavesa in its southernmost tip, a region known for its wine and gently rolling hills. You'll be impressed with the way the region combines tradition with modernity. Spend a lazy afternoon strolling through its postcard-worthy vineyards and soak up the peace and quiet of this tranquil region of Basque Country.
It isn’t all solitude and respite here, though, as Araba-Álava is also home to the region’s capital city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, admired as much for its Gothic cathedral of Santa María de Vitoria as for its thriving gastronomic scene. Often referred to as the “Green Capital” as a nod, in part, to the bike- and pedestrian-friendly green perimeter that rings the city center, Vitoria-Gasteiz has also been certified as a sustainable tourism destination, thanks to its commitment to preserving the natural land throughout its city center. Art and architecture enthusiasts will also delight in the city’s many meticulously man-made attractions, including more modern 20th-century counterpart to the Cathedral Santa María, the María Inmaculada Cathedral, and a variety of museums including the Artium Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.
San Sebastian (Gipuzkoa Province)
To the northeast of Vitoria-Gasteiz lies Gipuzkoa, the region of Basque Country bordering France. Here, visitors are spoiled for choice with some of the most spectacular mountains, coastlines and modern cities in the region—and capital city San Sebastian is no exception. Widely regarded by travelers-in-the-know as one of the most romantic cities in the world, San Sebastian is a stunner thanks to its spectacular views, like its picture-perfect golden-sand cove that’s home to some of the region’s best surfing and sunbathing spots.
San Sebastian isn’t simply for beach dwellers, though, as another of its appeals is its dynamic cultural and culinary scenes. Known in cinephile circles as “Film City”—thanks to the San Sebastian International Film Festival that leaves its mark here each September—this capital city is rich in cinema, jazz, classical music, and the performing arts in general. And come mealtime, this city and its surrounding pintxos bars—small plates of food akin to tapas, but with a distinctly Basque approach.
Visitors to San Sebastian can explore the city’s Old Town to experience a trove of delicious fare in local bars and restaurants that stand cheek to jowl here, then visit some of the city’s many cultural and architectural attractions: a dreamy walk along the Paseo de La Concha promenade, a trip to Peine del Viento (an open-air museum that translates to “The Comb of the Wind”), and a visit to the bustling, open-air La Bretxa Market, among others. And beyond San Sebastian, the interior of Gipuzkoa is rife with natural treasures to explore. Don’t miss the stunning Basque Coast in this province, dotted with historic fishing villages, stunning geological formations, and charming coastal towns in spectacular sequence.
Bilbao (Biscay Province)
Finally, occupying the northwesternmost reaches of Basque Country, Biscay is the most densely populated province, and offers what is arguably the most dynamic blend of cities and rural areas here. Smaller towns along the province’s interior, such as Durango, Elorrio, Otxandio, Orduña, and Balmaseda, offer full-flavored Basque experience, and their close proximity mean that travelers can visit them all in sequence without missing a beat.
The northern edge of the province contains a staggering 93 miles of coastline—an immense geographic treasure given the petite nature of Basque Country overall. The gilded-sand beaches and glittering seas in this region fringe steep, rocky cliffs, and its many protected coves afford safe harbor to a smattering of fishing villages that line the shoreline. With unfettered coastal access like this, it’s easy to imagine that the local gastronomy is strongly influenced by the proximity to the sea, with menus featuring an array of fresh-catch pintxos and entrées.
The capital city of Bilbao is known for being on the cutting edge of European coastal culture, and even beyond, challenging innovations from around the world. Internationally recognized for its modern architecture and plethora of avant-garde buildings that stand aside the city’s more richly historic blocks, Bilbao is home to strong and still-evolving traditions. Here, visitors can experience centuries-old customs and centers of activity, with contemporary influences that exist entirely in the present. For can’t-miss cultural stops here, head to the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, where you can spot Pop Artist Jeff Koons’ iconic, 40-foot-tall flower-covered topiary, “Puppy”; then meander through Bilbao Old Town, and spend the day exploring the moody and atmospheric Las Siete Calles (the Seven Streets) along with the Basque-designed Bizkaia Bridge, dating to 1893.
It’s safe to say, travelers won’t go hungry in Basque Country, where dining and drinking are all about pleasure. The region has blended cultures and techniques to create a flavor all its own, and its 34 Michelin Stars (and counting) only begin to scratch the surface of the culinary scene here. Within just a 62-mile radius, 24 restaurants can claim those Michelin honors, while high-quality farm- and catch-to-table meals are standard fare from border to border, thanks to Basque Country’s venerable breadbasket of fresh fish and seasonal produce.
Visitors shouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit a traditional market, big or small, during their stay. These perennial food stalls and fairs thrive on personal contact between the buyers and producers of all manner of foods, affording year-round access to seasonally sensational ingredients for every meal. While small markets abound throughout Basque Country, you can easily find them in each capital as well as in towns including Ordizia, Tolosa, Gernika-Lumo, Orozko and more.
Eating here truly is a joy, and for those who prefer to savor their meals with a heaping serving of authentic ingredients and breathtaking scenery, Basque Country may be unmatched the world over. Here, we’ll just say it: you’re likely to have an emotional response to your meals, particularly when you begin to explore the endless avenues of flavor afforded by seemingly simple pintxos. This form of “miniature cuisine” tends to use a slice of bread, piled high with ingredients ranging from a simple garnish to full haute cuisine creations.
Of course, any region that shares geographical borders and conditions with the likes of France and Spain is sure to have world-class vineyards, so there’s something special for the oenophiles here, too. Over centuries, the region has learned how to fuse generations of winemaking tradition with modern harvesting and cask aging techniques, and the resulting wine is perhaps best experienced in wineries designed by Gehry, Calatrava, and Mazieres—though you’ll find incredible and affordable wines all throughout Basque Country, as well.
Rioja Alavesa is home to a handful of small family wineries, along with numerous vineyards and charming villages, like Laguardia, that are begging for visitors to stop and explore. Best of all for food lovers in Basque Country is the tradition of “txikiteo”—meaning to go from bar to bar, enjoying small glasses of wine while sampling an array of pintxos pairings. While on such a culinary pilgrimage, no two experiences are quite alike, but a few typical dishes you might enjoy include Gilda—a dish composed of chilis, anchovy filets and olives—as well as Txistorra—a pintxos creation relying on a flavor meld of sausage and peppers.
And for lovers of white wines, Txakoli is renowned the world over—a slightly sparkling, very dry white wine with high acidity that just may be the perfect accompaniment to dining al fresco on the region’s finest produce and catch of the day. When served, this particular wine is normally poured into a tall glass from some height to unlock the mysteries within its composition. And there are three certified varieties to sample: Getaria, Bizkaia, and Alava.
The Basque Coast
Few remaining cultures today have a relationship with the sea that is quite as enduring as the Basques. The sea features prominently along its relatively petite land mass, and here, you’re never far from the coastline. As a result, seafaring has been a way of life here for centuries, influencing everything from the region’s rich culinary traditions, to its areas of recreation and relaxation. And for lovers of sandy beaches and sunny skies, the sublime coastline of Basque Country affords a range of nautical attractions, from surfing and windsurfing, to kayaking, sailing, or simply sunbathing the afternoon away. For can’t-miss coastal experiences here, head to Plentzia Bay and Gorliz, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Santa Catalina Lighthouse, Pasaia, and the Alboala Sea Factory.
Of course, the region’s naturally mountainous interior (thanks to its location along the Pyrenees) means there’s more to nature here than simply the beach. For travelers looking to reconnect with nature away from the shoreline, Basque Country is an ideal destination. Home to ancient beech and oak trees, a tangle of lagoons and marshes, over nine distinct nature parks, and a dizzying array of biosphere reserves and green spaces, there’s nothing one can’t find in Basque Country.
The Basque Mountains and Valleys
Ecotourism is a particular draw here, thanks to the region’s naturally lush topography and a relatively untouched tourism footprint. Among the many ways to experience it for oneself, Basque Country offers a range of nature photography opportunities, from bird watching and marine life spotting (including whales, depending on their seasonal migration patterns), to simply exploring a web of geological trails.
The Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve offers a natural setting of outstanding beauty and ecological diversity, and was first designated as an official Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1984. Nearby, Aiako Harria Natural Park is a lush reserve tucked along the Pyrenean foothills, with a variety of mountain trails for hikers of all skill levels. The park contains views of Txingudi Bay, the towns of Hondarribia, Irun and Hendaye, Mount Jaizkibel, and the Oiartzun valley, along with Aiztondo, a ravine that’s home to nearly 330-foot waterfalls. And Armañón Natural Park offers a rural mountainous area that includes the region’s four primary mountains, Armañón, Ranero, Surbias, and Los Jorrios—and here, visit Pozalagua Cave, with its impressive rock formations and jaw-dropping stalactites.
Lovers of long-distance hiking will be hard pressed to find a more stunning and culturally significant route than the Camino de Santiago. Also known as The Way of St. James, this long-distance trek is actually composed of nine inland and coastal routes, and was once used for religious pilgrimage. Today, many hikers continue to explore historic routes like the Camino for a deeper spiritual connection with nature. Accomplished hikers can tackle the entirety of the route in roughly 30 days at a relatively ambitious pace. But for a shorter experience, it’s also possible to explore the Camino del Norte, or northern route, spanning San Sebastian through coastal Basque Country and inland toward Santiago de Compostela—a journey of roughly 246 miles that should take you about 23 days at a moderate pace.
Another draw for hikers here is the Camino Ignaciano, or the Ignatian Way—a route that recreates the journey of Spanish Catholic priest Ignacio de Loiola in the year 1522, beginning at his birthplace and winding through Basque Country to the town of Manresa, home of the so-called Saint Ignatius Cave, a natural grotto. The full route is 419 miles long, ideal for long-distance hikers who have ample time on their hands to truly enjoy the journey. Or for a smaller taste, the Wine and Fish Route—otherwise known as the Ruta del Vino y del Pescado, so named for its history as a trade route for salted fish and wine—offers a shorter 103-mile taste of the trail that traverses through the vineyards of Oyón to the port of Bermeo.
And for those who are truly committed to exploring the expansive Basque Countryside, cycle touring is an unmatched way to experience the many hundreds of miles of meandering trails at a faster pace than hiking. Bike around the provincial capital cities of Basque Country, as cycling affords unfettered access to bustling Vitoria-Gasteiz, Bilbao and San Sebastian, along with ease of parking as you explore. Then take to the open “greenway” routes that connect various cities and towns throughout Basque Country, such as Vasco Navarro Railway Greenway, Bidasoa Greenway, and Itsaslur Greenway—among the best ways to navigate all that spectacular Basque Country has to offer in every direction. The only real question that remains is, how soon can you pack?