When you think about Spain, what are the first places that come to mind? Let me guess—I bet you thought of Madrid, Barcelona, and maybe even Valencia or Seville. Well, that’s hardly surprising. Those are indeed the largest cities in Spain, after all. Let’s move away from these major cities in Spain and go north, into Basque Country (known as Pais Vasco in Spanish).
How to Get to the Basque Country:
There are three major airports in this part of Spain:
- Bilbao Airport: An airport 9km north of Bilbao city.
- San Sebastián Airport: An airport near located in the municipality of Hondarribia, near the Spanish-French border. Is approximately 30 minutes away from San Sebastián, with regular buses going into the city.
- Vitoria Airport: An airport near Vitoria-Gasteiz, in the center of the Basque Country.
The first two airports serve the most international destinations.
Trains & Buses:
- RENFE (the Spanish train service) and SCNF (the French train service) have connections running to Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris daily.
- Bus services such as PESA, ALSA, VIBASA, EKIALDEBUS, and TERMIBUS run daily to major cities such as Madrid, and closer cities, such as Pamplona. Many people choose to do Bilbao and San Sebastian over a weekend; this route is particularly well served by train and bus transport.
- Blablacar is a company that allows travellers to offer rideshares to one another. There is typically at least one vehicle running from Madrid to Bilbao or San Sebastian per weekday, and more on weekends.
- Hitchhiking is quite popular as long as you’re headed to or from a major destination (e.g., Madrid).
Why Visit the Basque Country?
The Basque Country is markedly different to most of Spain, and San Sebastian is one of the best places to experience all of its unique aspects. If you’ve been to the south of the country, the first thing you’ll notice is a distinct lack of the palm trees that typically surround the beaches and parks. Beech and oak trees are the predominant type of trees here, instead. Different trees tend to mean a different climate, which is certainly the case for all of the Basque Country. Snow, hail, and rain are all possible—though even in winter the temperature is unlikely to reach freezing . Last but not least, the language in the Basque Country is different too! This region has an official second language, Euskara. While everyone will speak Castellano (Castilian Spanish), the official language across Spain, over 25% of the population in this region are fluent in Euskara, too. As such, you’ll see many bilingual notices and signs, and will almost certainly hear people chatting as they walk down the street. This language is one of the most unique parts of this region as Euskara is a language isolate—meaning that it has no relationship to other languages, like Latin or Greek.
San Sebastian is able to offer you a culturally diverse experience with all of these aspects. Not only that, but it’s particularly well renown for two more things: its food and its landscapes.
The Basque Country is a lovely section of north-eastern Spain bordering France and facing the Bay of Biscay. The city centre of San Sebastian is barely 30 minutes away from France facing out onto this bay, meaning that you’ll get a refreshing sea breeze just about anytime you take a walk.
Some of the best beaches around San Sebastian include:
- La Concha
- Santa Clara Island is a small island just off the coast that you can reach from San Sebastian quite easily. However, the ferry only runs during Easter and from June 1 to September 30th.
Alternatively, if you prefer hikes that result in panoramic views of the bay and city, try the hikes around Monte Urgull and Monte Igueldo.
If you choose to go further inland, you’ll find endless rolling hills of green. Some of these hills surround several Rioja wineries. Indeed, Rioja wine doesn’t only come from the Spanish community of La Rioja, but from the Basque Country as well.
If you’re driving south of San Sebastian on a clear day, you may even be able to catch a glimpse of snow-capped mountain ranges in the distance.
The food in the Basque Country is phenomenal and world renown. There are two 3 Michelin starred restaurants—Akelarre and Arzak—and three 1 Michelin starred ones– Kokotxa, Mirador de Ulia, and Miramon Arbelaitz—in San Sebastian alone. If you’re interested in exploring San Sebastian’s fine dining scene, you can find details about all Michelin starred restaurants and Bib Gourmand restaurants on the Michelin guide website.
However, most people don’t go to San Sebastian for the Michelin starred food—they go for the pintxos.
What are pintxos?
Well, perhaps you’ve heard of them by the name pinchos, or tapas. While pintxos, pinchos, and tapas are all different in name, they’re arguably similar in concept: they’re all tiny portions of delicious food. The Basque Country is renown for their pintxos, which can be anything from a squid croquette to a mushroom risotto. In San Sebastian, pintxos are always paid for. This is not the case in other parts of Spain. For instance, Salamanca offers free pinchos that tend to be varied meats on bread. On the other hand, Madrid typically offers tapas that can range from padron peppers to Spanish omelette and can be free or paid.
It seems a bit obvious to remark about food being paid for, but it’s important to remember when in the Basque Country! Why, you ask? Well, in many bars, you’re actually given a plate and allowed to take whatever you’d like. It’s almost like a buffet— you eat as much as you like, and then pay for what you’ve eaten at the end. There are exceptions, of course—if you’re not offered a plate, you may have to point to things and have them served to you. Alternatively, there may be a list of items on a board that might be freshly prepared to you and served.
Another aspect most travellers might find peculiar is the tradition to throw trash—napkins, toothpicks, even leftover tidbits of pintxos—and toss them to the floor. While this may seem bizarre or unhygienic to foreigners, it’s actually preferred by bar staff. They regularly go around sweeping up trash and collecting used plates.