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.
The pulsating heart of San Sebastián’s old quarter, Constitution Square is the ideal meeting point for relaxing with an assortment of pintxos and drinks while soaking up the city’s festive atmosphere and before entering into the historic barrio’s maze of narrow medieval streets. Stay and people watch from a café terrace or seek shelter from the rains under the porticos.
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 Sebastián was a flourishing, aristocratic seaside resort. Made of sandstone and slate harvested from Monte Igueldo west of town, the church with its towering needle-like spire (the tallest in Basque Country) is one of the icons of the city.
Built atop a shrine in the 14th-century, Bilbao's Santiago Cathedral now towers over the original Seven Streets of the city’s Old Quarter. Follow in the footsteps of Camino de Santiago pilgrims and admire the Gothic Revival facade; elaborate portal—known as the Angel Door—on Correo Street; and the 15th-century Gothic cloister.
One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the medieval Bilbao Old Quarter (Casco Viejo) is best known for its 15th-century Siete Calles (Seven Streets), now lined with pintxo bars and cafés. Here, visit the Santiago Cathedral, stop by one of the largest covered markets in Europe, and catch a show at the lavish Arriaga Theater.
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.
Once the summer retreat of Spanish royal family, the 19th-century Miramar Palace in San Sebastián’s old town has extensive English gardens and grassy lawns that tumble down to Ondarreta Beach. The palace buildings now host a music conservatory and an annex of the University of Basque Country, while the gardens form a public park where locals come to picnic.
A bustling Bilbao transport hub, Moyua Square (Plaza Moyúa) combines manicured flowerbeds with ample seating to turn a simple roundabout into a much-loved meeting point. Admire the surrounding buildings, such as the 20th-century Palacio Chávarri and Hotel Carlton, or use the square as a jumping-off point for further exploration of the city and beyond.
More Things to Do in Basque Country
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.
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.
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.
Culture and leisure combine at the multipurpose Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao’s former wine warehouse-turned-cultural center. Behind its 20th-century facade you’ll now find a glut of artistic, literary, and educational offerings including an arthouse cinema, on-site restaurant, library, fitness center, and more. Meanwhile, the 43 pillars, each one with a different design, are notable highlights of the Philippe Starck–designed interior.
Inspired by the Paris Opera House and named after the "Mozart of Spain"—Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga—the 19th-century Arriaga Theater (Teatro Arriaga) is a lavish neo-baroque building. Here, catch a play, opera, or dance recital in the 1,200-seat theater, which is dominated by plush red velvet seating, elaborate crown molding, and gold detailing.
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.
For over a century, the tranquil Doña Casilda Park has been among Bilbao’s most important green spaces and its Romantic- and French-style gardens remain a focal point of the Indautxu neighborhood. Stroll the palm-lined pathways, enjoy views over the Nervión River, or stop by the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum which calls Doña Casilda Park home.
Straddling the Nervión River and connecting two of the city’s most popular attractions—the Guggenheim and Artxanda Funicular—the futuristic, steel cable–suspended Zubizuri Bridge is an architecturally notable landmark. Visit after dark to see the Santiago Calatrava–designed footbridge light up.
Sheltered by Monte Urgull and looking out to La Concha Bay, the Aquarium San Sebastián has over 30 tanks, each one a unique habitat suited to myriad and amazing sea creatures. Work your way through to the hypnotic 360-degree clear tunnel where some 40 species of fish, bull sharks, turtles, stingrays, giant eels, and jellyfish swim through.
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.
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.
At the base of Mount Urgull, San Sebastián’s must-see San Telmo Museum dives into the heritage of the Basque people, from Neolithic times to the present. Housed in a 16th-century Renaissance monastery, collection highlights include archaeological artifacts, 11 murals by José María Sert, oil paintings by El Greco and Joaquín Sorolla, and rare photographs.
Clinging onto a cliff within the Aizkorri mountains, this modern architectural marvel holds an important place in the region’s religious tradition and artistic legacy. Melding Franciscan spirituality with avant-garde Basque art, the Sanctuary’s story started when the Virgin Mary appeared in a hawthorn bush, prompting a shepherd to ask, “Arantzan zu?” (“Is it you in the hawthorn?”).
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- Things to do in San Sebastian
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