Planning a trip to Northern Spain? save this URL in your favorite list for future reference!
This Basque country road trip in Spain takes you through the North of Spain (Bilbao, San Sebastian, Pamplona, and Rioja) and the French Basque country. It is a fantastic opportunity to get to know the real and authentic culture, gastronomy, and wine of these regions. In this part of Spain you will be able to enjoy Michelin star restaurants or popular taverns, stay at superb hotels or family hotels, enjoy fantastic small villages and the wine culture in Rioja. There is so much to discover in this unforgettable gastronomic road trip itinerary through the North of Spain.
5-7 nights to get the most out of it (minimum recommended is 3 nights / 4 days with nights in such case in San Sebastian (2 nights), 1 of them after having spent a day in Bilbao, and 1 night in Rioja
Best months to visit? September and first part of October are fantastic months to enjoy wine country. End of March, April, May, June and first 2 weeks of July.
Top stops to enjoy in this roadtrip
- If you arrive driving from France it makes more sense to start the itinerary in Hondarribia or in San Sebastian. Otherwise,
Bilbao has excellent connections by plane (Madrid and Barcelona have daily flights) ,ferry with the United Kingdom and is a good point of departure for our road trip into Northern Spain.
- Bilbao has undergone a radical transformation in recent years and has gone from being an industrial port city to become one of the cities with the most vibrant culture and varied gastronomy in Spain.
Top attracions in Bilbao
The famous Guggenheim Museum is Bilbao´s main highlight. You will find the tourism office where you can ask about the local events/activities taking place on this day. We recommend making your way to the Casco Viejo (old quarters) by taking a lovely walk along the river.
In front of the Museum, you will find Puppy (Jeff Koons), or Mother (a huge spider sculpture); both are children´s favorites.
Teatro Arriaga. Oldest theatre in town, still operating. Interesting neo-baroque style.
Ensanche . An old town called Abando, it became part of Bilbao in 1870. The Ensanche is the Business center and dynamic area of Bilbao. Its main boulevard is Gran Via.
Market La Ribera . An exciting and massive local market. Art deco style
Museo de Bellas Artes ; essential collection from artists like Goya, El Greco, Francis Bacon, Gaugin, Chillida…
Funicular to Mount Artxanda. The funicular from 1912 is not only a fantastic architectural example but also allows you to enjoy incredible views of Bilbao.
You can find more information on this post wit the best things to do in Bilbao in 1 day
Best things to do near Bilbao and top excursions
Getxo. An upmarket destination, Getxo is famous for its architecture (with a clear British influence) and summer houses. Its famous bridge over the Nervion River connects with Portugalete, a working-class town that grew to provide services to the harbor.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Just a 40-minute drive from Bilbao, you will find San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. A fantastic church on top of a small island with breathtaking views. Bear in mind that you will need approx. 3 hours to walk to the church and return to the parking lot. Another option is to enjoy one of the boat excursions that depart from Bermeo
FREE WALKING TOUR
BILBAO - GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM top tour
San Mames Stadium tickets
GAME OF THRONES - San Juan de Gaztelugatxe excursion
Casual and fine dining options
- Rio-Oja Restaurant (Located on Txacur Kalea. You can enjoy a sit-down meal while enjoying authentic local food. They specialize in “cazuelas”.)
- Gure Toki (One of our favorite bars in Plaza Nueva.)
- Taberna Basaras (Located on Calle Pelota. A classic in Bilbao.)
Bar Santa María (Located on Calle Santa María.)
- Best ice cream in town. If you enjoy ice cream and would like to end your tapas night with the one we strongly recommend a visit to Heladería Adelia Ivañez (Posta Kalea). You will be able to taste Spanish turron (the typical dessert at Christmas time). This is in our view Bilbao´s best ice cream maker.
- Asador Ibañez A family-owned restaurant, Ibañez is a great option if you want to enjoy high-quality gastronomy based on the excellent quality of its meats, fish… SPECIAL OFFER
- Sidreria La Gabarra: Sidrerias are very popular in the Basque country. Simple menus, very friendly atmosphere. Our favorite one is this one located on the other side of the river and 15 minutes walk from the Guggenheim. This is a very popular restaurant among locals. We recommend trying «Menu sidreria» SPECIAL OFFER If you prefer to stay in the «Casco viejo» and try a Sidreria, Arriaga is could be an option for you.
- Despensa de Etxanobe. This is the bistro style concept, yet with prices close to 100€, of Michelin starred Etxanobe. Excellent quality and for many a better option than more expensive Michelin star alternative. BOOK A TABLE
- Mina. Next to the Guggenheim museum and a very convenient option if you plan to visit the museum, Mina takes pride in its commitment with sustainability and the use of local seasonal products. Only tasting menus are served. BOOK A TABLE
San Sebastian (Donostia in Basque language) began its tourism in the 19th century when Queen Isabella II. She chose the city as a holiday resort making it fashionable for other aristocrats in the same way as other important cities in France like Biarritz.
San Sebastian is one of the most elegant and beautiful cities of Spain. La Playa de la Concha(la Concha beach) is the heart of this city and the gastronomic capital of Spain. The Old Town (Parte Vieja) is well known for having the highest concentration of bars in the world. These bars offer a great variety of local pintxos (Basque tapas)
Top attracions in San Sebastian
- La Concha La Concha is the central axis of San Sebastian and the reason why the city exists. Every tourist or resident walks it each day from one side of the city to the other. It has been considered by several publications as the most beautiful urban beach in Europe.
- Casco Viejo. This is the heart of the city and heaven in you search pintxo and tapas bars.
- Basilica of Santa María del Coro: its location in the old part of San Sebastian and with mount Urgull behind it make of this baroque-style church a top highlight in San Sebastian.
- Mercado de la Brecha San Sebastian is an important gastronomy tourism destination and a visit to its oldest market is a must to get a good glimpse at top local quality products: local cheeses, sausages, and meats … time for pintxos after this!
- Igueldo. This mountain offers the best views of San Sebastian. You can drive to Igueldo, but also enjoy the beautiful cog railway. There is a mid-size funfair at the top of the hill.
- Peines del Viento. This is the most famous sculpture in the city and a Master piece from Eduardo Chillida.
- Aquarium. Not the best aquarium in Spain, but local authorities have put in lots of effort and it is highly recommended if you visit with children on a rainy day.
- Plaza de la Constitucion This square used to be a bullfighting ring and it is used still today for many local festivals.
You can find more interesting things to do in this post with ideas and the best things to do in San Sebastian in 1 or 2 days
- Top excursions
- Getaria (25km east of San Sebastian) is a beautiful village in the spanish Basque Country. It is famous for the quality of its gastronomy, which uses the grill for both meat and fish. More information on Getaria on this post with the best things to do in Getaria in 1 day
- Zumaia (7 kms east of Getaria) Zumaia offers one of the most interesting landscapes in the Basque country: ths Flisch . A 15 minutes walk with spectacular cliffs and shapes. IN Zumaia itself the Parroquia de San Pedro, a gothic, fortress type of church is very interesting.
FREE WALKING TOUR OF SAN SEBASTIAN
SAN SEBASTIAN - PINTXO TOUR
SANTA CLARA ISLAND BOAT TOUR
Recommened tapas bars and fine dining options in San Sebastian
You will find hundreds of options to enjoy pintxos in San Sebastian. Many of them are crowded, and despite it may not be very convenient it indicates you will find something tasty inside…
La Mejillonera – a Very typical bar that serves, as its name indicates, mussels. They are prepared in many different ways.
A Fuego Negro –more avant-garde than traditional pintxos
Néstor – Its specialty pintxo is the tortilla. You should arrive before lunch or dinner to try it or otherwise, it will be gone
La Cuchara de San Telmo – One of our favorites, great pintxos
Gambara – If you enjoy mushrooms this is your place. Great selection of wines too.
La Viña – Their cheesecake is their main highlight. It is very tasty but too many people have found out…
San Sebastian holds more Michelin starred restaurants than any other city in the world. Expensive tasting menus… but sometimes a life time experience.
Nineu. Located at the beautiful Kursal building, Nineu is not a Michelin starred restaurant and your wallet will not get empty here. You can, however, enjoy high-quality gastronomy in a chic atmosphere.
Restaurante Kokotxa – Fantastic tasting menus and top quality since it got its 1st star in 2007.
Mirador de Ulía –innovative cuisine with a nod to its Basque roots. Its terrace offers a great atmosphere, especially during summer.
Arzak – A legend and the name behind a real revolution in Basque gastronomy
Akelarre –3 stars like Arzak. Located just 10 minutes from the center and with amazing views
“Hondarribia” in the Basque language, known as “Fuenterrabía” in Castilian Spanish, is divided into 2 neighborhoods. The Casco Viejo and Barrio de la Marina are both of great interest and with totally different characters
A border village with France, its history is strongly tied to this fact and its fishing nature.
There is a beach in Hondarribia though most locals prefer to go «to the other side» as they call neighboring Hendaye in France which is hone to an impressive beach, a delight for local surfers.
Top attracions in Hondarribia
- Casco Viejo. With its cobbled streets, town squares, and corners, the Casco Viejo neighborhood offers great architectural interest. This old part of town (hence its name) is reached through gates of the old medieval wall, the only wall of this type in the province of Guipuzcoa).
- Calle Mayor. Located in the Casco Viejo. You will find the Town Hall (“Ayuntamiento”) and the Palacio Zuloaga.
Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción y el Manzano. 15th and 16th Century Gothic-style church. Impressive and beautiful church organ.
- Plaza de Armas. Located in front of the Parador hotel. Colorful and with views of France.
- El Parador de turismo. Old castle of Charles the fifth. We suggest visiting the Parador for a cup of coffee to enjoy this fantastic building. On its façade, you can see the marks from a cannon left during a battle against the French in the 18th century.
- Barrio de la Marina This neighborhood welcomes us with a great path of trees and colorful Basque houses.
Best excursions from Hondarribia
- Saint Jean de Luz – France. From Hondarribia, you should head towards Irun, then Hendaye (already France) and take the beautiful road of «La Corniche» (through Hendaye and its beach, the castle of Abaddie, the road «La Corniche» and its cliffs and the Fortress at Socoa). We have included a map with a short itinerary in Saint Jean de Luz
We recommend a short stop at the food market. Most restaurants concentrate in Rue de la Republique and Rue Tourrase. Le Kaiku, Zoko-Moko, Broullairta and L´Ocean (Grand Thalasso Spa hotel) are the best options for fine dining. You may want also to consider the restaurants near the fortress in Socoa (3 minutes drive from Saint_jean de luz) which specialize in fish and offer good value for money
You can return to Hondarribia by motorway (A63) on your way back to Hondarribia or head towards Biarritz.
- Biarritz – France
A very elegant and popular destination in France and now a top surfers haven. It offers some jewels like the Rocher de la Vierge, its lighthouse, or its architecture, where the Hotel du Palais and the orthodox church stand out. Its good conditions for surfers have brought a new flair and life to Biarritz. Also worth visiting is the aquarium.
- Aihnoa and Espellete ´The interior of the french basque country offer beautiful villages. Aihnoa and Espellete are the closest ones to the highway and worth a detour if time permits.
Recommended tapas bars and fine dining options in Hondarribia
El Barrio de la Marina is the place for pintxos in Hondarribia. This area is the busiest part of the city and reminds us of the seaport of Fuenterrabia. You will find many bars with terraces and a great local atmosphere. They can get very crowded though.
We recommend Ardoka (with a wider selection of wines) , Gran Sol or Sardara.
If you are looking for a fine dining option instead of tapas, Alameda is a Michelin starred restaurant with different tasting menu options. Much better value for money than in San Sebastian though their prices are going up in recent years. You may want to consider booking a table on the terrace. A great option if the weather is good.
Best way to get to Saint Jean de Luz from Hondarribia
From Hondarribia, you should head towards Irun, then Hendaye and take the beautiful road of «La Corniche» (through Hendaye and its beach, the castle of Abaddie, the road «La Corniche» and its cliffs and the Fortress at Socoa)
Saint Jean de Luz is located on the Atlantic coast of France, Saint-Jean-de-Luz (or San Juan de Luz in Spanish) is an old pirate town and a fishing port today. We recommend the following itinerary for your free time in San Juan de Luz.
Top attractions in Saint jean de Luz
Louis XIV Plaza. Sale of paintings on the street. The occasional live playing of Basque music.
Rue Gambetta. Perfect for shopping. Our favorite shops: Euskal Linge and the famous pastry shop, Maison Adam, for its Gateau Basques and chocolates of different flavors.
Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church on Rue Gambetta. Interesting interior with wooden galleries and hanging ships.
The beach. (La grande plage) Protected by three dams to prevent flooding. The greatest attraction of San Juan de Luz.
Biarritz is a brand by itself. A vacation destination of the rich in the past, it has evolved today and its beautiful beaches, besides being full of fascinating XIX century summer houses, also host surfers in search for a perfect wave.
Top attractions in Biarritz
The old town is easy to walk and 1/2 should be enough to enjoy Biarritz unless you want to explore deeper. These are the top things to do:
- Côte de Basques Walk down the stairs to the park Saint Jean Lasalle. You will admire the bay and also many surfers if the tide is right. At its tip you will find the most famous vlla in Biarrtiz; Villa Belza, just next to the Rocher de la Vierge.
- Rocher de Vierge The steel bridge was designed by Eiffel and it is by itself a perfect platform to enjoy views of the bay.
- Small beach of Port Vieux This small beach is wave-free and it is a perfect spot to enjoy a coffee.
- The light house and the Grande plage From the Rocher de Vierge you will enjoy views, at the other extreme of the Grande plate, of the light-house. We recommend a stroll along the beach and, on your way back from the light-house, we suggest walking through Avenue de L Imperatrice to enjoy some of the XIX century villas made of Biarrtiz a famous luxury resort.
Biarritz on Segway
Biarritz walking tour
Recommened things to do near Biarritz and Saint Jean de Luz
Depending on how much time you have available you may decide to spend 2-3 days in the French Basque country (or to enjoy daily visits from San Sebastian or Hondarribia on the Spanish side)
There are many things to enjoy in the French Basque country. This is our top list of recommendations:
Bayonne Located 8 kilometers north of Biarritz, Bayonne is a medium-sized town. Its cathedra (Saint Marie)l is worth visiting and there are beautiful buildings in the Grande Bayonne quarter (the city hall and the old castle (Chateaux Vieux) . Worth visiting is also the food market (The Halles). Bayonne is a perfect place to enjoy lunch or to shop and, why not, enjoy a second gateau basque after having enjoyed the first bite in Saint Jean de Luz.
Villages of the French Basque country If you want to enjoy the most traditional part of the french basque country you will enjoy a detour to the beautiful villages of Espelette (home of the famous pepper of Espelette which hangs to dry in the white walls of many houses), Aihnoa and Sare.
Saint James Way at Saint Jean Pied de Port This medieval town is an important stop of El Camino. Many pilgrims decide to rest here before they start the difficult stage to Roncesvalles. Saint Jean Pied de Port has a great atmosphere and many small restaurants and shops worth visiting
Things to enjoy on your way to Pamplona
You may decide to use the A15 highway which is shorter (1 hour and 15 minutes). Another option is the N121 (minimum 3 hours drive if you decide to stop at some of these locations) with interesting stops that include: Lesaca, the Zugarramurdi caves, and also the natural park of Bertizko.
Pamplona is called Iruña in Basque and it is shown as such in many signs
Pamplona is known today mainly due to the running of the bulls that takes place every year in July. The city has had enormous importance in Spanish history and the Kingdom of Navarre used to be a superpower centuries ago. Today Pamplona is an easy-going mid-sized city, with beautiful architecture, a charming old district, and where traditions are kept alive.
Top attractions in Pamplona
- Calle Estafeta – This is Pamplona’s most famous street due to San Fermin.
- Plaza del Castillo – This square is the heart of social life in Pamplona.
- City Hall and its square – Probably Pamplona´s most beautiful building.
- Monumento al Encierro – Close to the bull-fighting ring, this statue represents the running of the bulls during the San Fermín festival.
- La Ciudadela – A fortress near the city center. Built during the XVI century, this fortress was designed at the time the kingdom of Navarra and Castilla merged. Partially built to defend the city against possible attacks from France, it was also meant to defend from possible insurrections.
The capital of Rioja is an important stop in El Camino. Logroño is famous for its wineries and for its tapas district. Calle Laurel and San Mateo offer one of the best tapas experiences in Spain.
Santa María La Redonda con-cathedral is the top monument in Logroño. We recommend a stroll along the river Ebro in the old town, including its squares, the food market and Calle Laurel and Calle San Juan.
Visit the Plaza Mayor or main square of Laguardia. Once every hour (minutes before the hour), you can see three Basque figurines dancing to a traditional song in the Pendulum Clock of one of the buildings. We recommend walking around the beautiful town of Laguardia. You can enjoy a walk in Paseo del Collado.
If you have time to spare during your time in Rioja, you can enjoy the best views of vineyards with stops in Elciego, San Vicente de la Sonsierra (spectacular views of Rioja from the castle), and Labastida.
Haro is usually referred to as the «wine capital» of Rioja due to the number of wineries it holds. Haro played a very important role in the evolution of wine in Rioja, Spain, and Europe. Haro was an important economic hub in Spain thanks to wine, and it held a bank of Spain office and was one of the first towns to enjoy electricity in its streets.
Barrio de la Estacion and its wineries. This is the area in Rioja with more wineries per square meter. You can enjoy wine tasting by the glass at Muga, Lopez Heredia or Roda winery.