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 soft sand, crescent-shaped La Concha Beach (Playa de la Concha sits tucked between the hills of Monte Urgull to the east and Monte Igueldo to the west. The beach ranks among the most lovely city beaches in all of Europe and is a big reason why San Sebastian became a seaside resort favored by Spanish royalty in the nineteenth century.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Part cosmopolitan seaside resort, part laid-back surf town, Biarritz has been one of Europe’s top summertime destinations for centuries. With pristine sandy beaches, luxurious villas, a trendy French-Basque food scene, and some of the best surf in Europe, Biarritz is a true gem on the Atlantic Coast.
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.
More Things to Do in Basque Country
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With circular turrets, towering spires, and an imposing Gothic-style facade, the Castle of Butrón looks like something out of a fairytale. Built in the 11th century, the castle was fought over by warring local noble families for hundreds of years. Though the castle fell into disrepair, new owners renovated it in the late 1800s.
With over 10,000 works of Spanish, European, and Basque art spanning from the Middle Ages to present day, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao) is one of the most-visited museums in the Basque Country. Highlights include masterpieces from El Greco, Francisco de Goya, and Mary Cassatt, plus regular temporary exhibits.
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.
Located in the Urola River Valley in Spain’s northern Basque Country, the Sanctuary of Loyola is a basilica and shrine dedicated to the life of beloved Spanish Basque Catholic priest, St. Ignatius of Loyola. The sanctuary’s impressive architecture and idyllic surroundings draw religious pilgrims and secular visitors from around the world.