How to spend four days in the Spanish Basque Country
Unbelievable scenery, friendly people, impeccable wine, and to-die-for food
There are only a few locations in the world where you can use all of these phrases to describe the place. Italy almost fits the bill, but misses on one note (I’ll let you make your own opinions onto which one 🙂 ). Croatia also almost matches these phrases, but the wine (in my humble opinion) misses. But, the Basque country in Northern Spain hits all of these notes and more. If you are ready to experience the wonder of this amazing, undiscovered region grab a cuppa and read on. You really can’t go wrong in this beautiful region of the world.
What’s in this post?
Need to Knows for a successful visit to the Basque region
Day 1: Arrive in Bilbao and drive to the Spanish wine country.
Day 2: Winery tour day
Day 3: Monastery, the interior of Spain, and San Sebastian!
Day 4: Coastal drive back to Bilbao
What you need to know
The Basque region in Spain is somewhat “untouched” and less explored by mass tourism. Below I’ve included some “need to knows” to make your trip as smooth as possible!
- Where to fly into: The best flights are likely in and out of Bilbao. We flew on a direct flight with Aer Lingus from Dublin.
- Renting a car: We rented a car from Alamo car rental and had a very easy time getting in and out of Bilbao. The roads in Spain are great, but do keep in mind that tolls are very expensive. We were really surprised with the cost of tolls so be aware of this and add it to your budget (expect in between 20-30 dollars a day depending on where you get on and off). Also don’t be surprised if your gas tank needs your car key to unlock. We have never seen this before and had a lot of trouble gassing up our car. Which brings us to…
- Language: All of our tour guides and winery tours had English speakers, but outside of San Sebastian very few people spoke English. At the gas station we couldn’t figure out how to gas up our car and the man in the gas station finally came out to help us after I ran in a few times trying to communicate with my hands what was going on. Try to learn a few basic words of Basque to make it easier on yourself. Hand Luggage Only has a good post on some key phrases to know for your visit.
- Lodging: Hotels aren’t super expensive in the Basque region, but they get snatched up fast particularly if you are visiting in high season. We visited at the end of May and were really surprised how quickly all of the hotels were gone. Plan ahead and book a few months in advance if you are picky about the place you want to stay and the budget. I’ve included where we stayed in this post and would highly recommend all three places for your visit.
- Budget: Not including flights and car costs, we spent about $175/day on hotel + food + entertainment (mainly alcohol) for two people. It wasn’t the cheapest vacation, but we stayed in really nice hotels and ate really good food for what I would consider a pretty reasonable price. You could go lower than this price if you’re more careful about food and alcohol of course.
Now onto the fun part! The four day itinerary!
Day 1: Arrive in Bilbao and drive to the Spanish wine country
1. Once you land in Bilbao pick up your car and set out for the tiny village of Elciego in the Rioja wine region. It took us about an hour and a half to arrive into sleepy Elciego and check into our room at Agroturismo Valdelana.
2. After settling in drive to Laguardia and stroll around the historic village. If you have the whole afternoon consider attending one of the winery tours (see Day 2’s itinerary below). If not, have a nice dinner at Restaurante en Laguardia Mayor de Migueloa topped up with a lovely bottle of local wine.
3. Afterwards head back to Elciego, pop a bottle of wine, and enjoy a nice night of relaxation.
Pro Tip: Save some room for dessert during all of your meals. The below pic is some type of fried milk and it was divine.
Day 2: Rioja wine region
1. Wake up bright and early for breakfast at Agroturismo Valdelana before you have your fill of wine today.
2. After breakfast it’s time to start your day tasting as many wines as possible! Check out our detailed guide for how to spend your day in the Rioja wine region.
3. After your wine settles and you are ready to drive again head into the interior of the Basque country to Hotel Torre Zumeltzegi in Oñati. This historic hotel (it was once the home of a Count!) is beautifully remodeled with amazing views over the Basque country. This was our favorite hotel of our stay in the Basque country and had a fluffy bed, fantastic shower, and the best A/C to keep you cool at night.
4. Enjoy dinner in the restaurant attached to the hotel or explore the tiny town of Oñati for a dinner option. I made the mistake of not eating before all of the restaurants closed after lunch and was dying by the time dinner was served. I happily finished all three courses of my meal and drank almost an entire bottle of wine. 🙂 When in Rome… I mean Spain! 😉
Pro tip: Most restaurants don’t open for dinner until 9 p.m. Be prepared to go hungry if trying to eat before then!
Day 3: Interior of Spain and San Sebastian
I didn’t think that any day could be better than the winery day, but our third day in the Basque region exploring the interior of northern Spain was right on par with the previous day.
1. Start your morning with breakfast and coffee downstairs overlooking the Basque countryside. Oñati is such a pretty little town and I savored every second of this breakfast with this beautiful backdrop. So much so I didn’t even take a picture. 🙂
2. After breakfast head over to Arrikrutz Caves for a tour of prehistoric caves. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take any pictures inside the caves, but someone on Instagram broke those rules so you can see why this is a must do. The tour is on a boardwalk that is carved into the cave and I felt so small walking through this massive cave thinking about what it must have been like to live here. We learned all about the prehistoric animals and people who called these caves home. Despite not being able to take any pictures I loved every second of this tour and would highly recommend it during your visit to the region.
3. At this point you are very close to the Sancutary of Arantzazu. Before turning around and heading towards San Sebastian it’s worth a few moments to wander around the beautiful grounds surrounding this monastery. When we visited the monastery was closed for a special event, but seeing the outside and the surrounding mountains was good enough for us.
Pro tip: If you like hiking you should look up hikes starting from the monastery. The hikes from here look amazing.
4. After exploring around for a bit, head up to Tolosa. Patricia from Eusko Guide recommended this beautiful town to us and I am so thankful we listened to her advice! Park your car and head to the city center. We happened to be here during some type of festival and there was confetti all over the cobblestone, bands going up and down the streets, and people celebrating everywhere. In short, it was an amazing experience. Be sure to check out the bridge overlooking the water (see the Instagram picture at the top of this section) and enjoy exploring a quaint Spanish town. We didn’t eat here since we were saving ourselves for pintxos in San Sebastian, but if we did our vacation all over again we might have chosen to stay in Tolosa. It’s lively, local, a bit bigger than Oñati giving more options for things to do, and nestled perfectly in the mountains.
5. Head to San Sebastian and check into your hotel. We stayed at Hotel Donosti which has a great vibe and is more budget-friendly than many of the options we found in San Sebastian. It’s not as luxurious as the previous two hotels, but it worked perfectly for us. As soon as we checked in we headed into town to start our pintxos adventure.
6. Start eating! No seriously, I hope you saved some room. The food here is unreal. But… be prepared for a ton of people. We followed Lauren on Location’s amazingly detailed post on the pintxos in San Sebastian and ended up at every pintxos bar on her list. Unfortunately, we were a bit overwhelmed by the number of people at most of the locations. Our favorite bar ended up being Borda Berri for it’s succulent meat. The pan-seared tuna here is insanely good and the hubby had the juiciest pork belly I’ve ever seen. We also loved the dessert at Aatari Gastroteka. All in all visiting San Sebastian is a must-do for foodies despite the crazy number of people in and out of the pintxos bars.
7. In between all of your pintxos and Txakoli (the local wine of the region) be sure to walk over by the Aquarium and along the bay for sunset. The surrounding mountains, beach, and Isla de Santa Clara are worth tearing yourself away from the food. It might be the wine talking (I was quite tipsy by this point in our trip), but this was one of my favorite moments of our entire trip. After watching the sunset continue your pintxos adventure until you’re full and ready to sleep it all off.
Funny story about this shot — we had been pintxos hopping in San Sebastián and wanted to see the sunset. So we slowly walked over to the park and about half way into the journey over I realized I had to go to the toilet. Once we got to this vantage point we were still about 20-30 min away from the sunset (as you can tell by the lighting) but there was no way I could wait that long so the hubby snapped this photo and I literally darted to the toilet. 😂😂 in retrospect I should have just waited a bit to let the lighting calm down a bit but alas. Do you have any silly "emergency" stories from your travels? #sansebastiantourism #visitsansebastian
Day 4: Coastal drive back to Bilbao
I’m a sucker for good views and this drive absolutely did not disappoint. It’s one of the prettiest drives I’ve ever been on. Be sure to hug the coast (or as close to the coast as you can get) for the entire day to have continuous jaw-dropping views.
1. Start your day with breakfast at your hotel before heading out.
2. Head over to Getaria (make sure to give yourself enough time and stop for picture taking along the way!) and find a nice parking spot to explore this quaint little town. We spent about an hour here and fell in love with this adorable village. Patricia from EuskoGuide recommended this gem of a town to us and we couldn’t be more thankful for her advice. Complete with a gorgeous bay overlooking a hill you can climb up (see picture at the top of this post), a beach, a main street that is absolutely picture perfect, and the best chocolate croissant I had during my time of Spain — Getaria stole my heart. Getaria and Tolosa are by-far my favorite Spanish towns of the Basque region for their quaintness, local charm, and overall vibe.
3. After strolling around Getaria hop back in the car for your last stop — San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. We ended up taking the coastal route all the way, but the best part for us was between Mundaka and San Juan de Gaztelugatxe so I would suggest this route to cut down on some time. Give yourself at least two hours to fully explore San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.
For your visit be sure to bring some good shoes (tennis shoes or light hiking shoes) and if you have bad knees I wouldn’t recommend the hike unless you have a ton of time. We had the wrong impression that we’d park, hop out to see the site, and then get back in the car. We were very very wrong and after an hour of hiking in sandals (not ideal) we opted out of climbing up to the sanctuary. Overall though this is a gorgeous place and I would highly suggest budgeting time to visit. Not only is the monastery on top of the island gorgeous, but the surrounding views are also breathtaking. For us this would be rated as a “can’t-miss” on any Basque itinerary.
4. It’s unfortunately time to head back to the airport, but hopefully you had a great Basque country visit! The Basque country ended up being our favorite vacation during our entire time in Europe and we will 100% be back for more in the future.
Have you ever been to the Spanish Basque country? What’s on your must-do list of this beautiful region?
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