Home Europe Northern Spain Road Trip: All The Must See Towns From Bilbao to San Sebastian

Northern Spain Road Trip: All The Must See Towns From Bilbao to San Sebastian

written by ParoChak August 24, 2018

The Basque region of Spain is not only incredibly beautiful, but has also one of the most underrated scenic drives along the Atlantic coast. Most people opt for a drive across Andalusia, but a northern Spain road trip is equally breathtaking with several Basque fishing villages and towns dotting the coastline that will charm you with their understated beauty and quiet, simple lifestyle. I was lucky enough to go on this drive and much like my previous guide on the best Provencal towns and villages in southern France, here is my guide to all the must see stops from Bilbao to San Sebastian, that should be on your northern Spain itinerary. Bilbao and San Sebastian are about an hour and a half away from each other as the crow flies, but you should devote at least 1.5 days (with an overnight-er in between) if you want to take your time and savor the journey. Besides this road trip in northern Spain, I have also included a bonus destination that can easily be a day trip from San Sebastian, so continue reading this post to find out more!

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Pasajes de San Juan is a tiny basque fishing village and makes an excellent day trip from San Sebastian. include this in your Northern Spain itinerary or Spain road trip

The Basque coast in the village of Zumaia. This is a must visit stop from Bilbao to San Sebastian on your northern Spain road trip

Another stop is Barmeo from Bilbao to San Sebastian on your northern Spain road trip. This is the most important fishing port in the Basque region of Spain

 

Northern Spain road trip stop #1. Guernica (Gernika)

If you are driving east from Bilbao to San Sebastian along the coast, definitely make Guernica (north of Bilbao) your first stop. This Basque town was bombed in April 1937 during the Spanish civil war and this tragic event inspired its namesake anti-war painting “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso, which is one of the most famous pieces of art in the world and a painful reminder of this travesty against humanity. Although the original Guernica lies in Madrid’s Reina Sofia, this town has a replica of the same, depicting the horrors of bombing on humans and animals.  Besides this moving piece of art, Guernica is also known for it’s old oak tree, which serves as a symbol of Basque freedom  and which miraculously survived the bombing. The stump of that tree is what remains as of today with a new tree planted next to it in 2015, that symbolizes the revival of Basque nation’s hope and aspirations. Remember to stop by the colorful facade of the Astra factory, which served as a bomb raid shelter during those perilous times.

Basque town of Guernica with Picasso's Guernica painting. This is a must visit stop in the Basque region from Bilbao to San Sebastian and must be on your Spain road trip.

Guernica is a Basque town which you should visit on your northern Spain road trip from Bilbao to San Sebastian

Glimpses from Guernica, including the Astra factory. Guernica is a Basque town which you should visit on your northern Spain road trip from Bilbao to San Sebastian

Guernica sculpture garden in the Basque region of Spain. Guernica is a Basque town which you should visit on your northern Spain road trip from Bilbao to San Sebastian

 

Bilbao to San Sebastian stop #2. Bermeo

What can I say about Bermeo, the pretty fishing town (also the primary fishing port in Basque region) where I left a piece of my heart in this road trip in Northern Spain? This town overlooking the Bay of Biscay has a charming port which is great for exploring and is also home to Artza, a local restaurant (recommended by Lonely Planet) where you get to sample some hearty, no frills Basque cuisine. Close by is the islet of Gaztelugatxe which is connected to the mainland by a bridge. The island is home to the monastery Gaztelugatxeko Doniene built in the 10th century AD and is dedicated to John the Baptist. There is a viewing area for the hermitage at Mirador de San Juan which also serves as the trail head to get to the islet. The hike is about 1.9 km (1.2 miles) along the paved road that starts beyond the parking lot. With the sun beating down on us on a hot afternoon in May, we left Bermeo with just a glimpse of the monastery and did not hike down all the way.

The fishing port of Barmeo should be on your Northern spain itinerary. A must visit stop on your Spain road trip from Bilbao to San Sebastian.

The fishing port of Barmeo should be on your Northern spain itinerary. A must visit stop on your Spain road trip from Bilbao to San Sebastian.

islet of Gaztelugatxe, Bilbao to san Sebastian, Spain road trip, Northern Spain itinerary, Basque region of Spain, Atlantic coast

 

Northern Spain itinerary stop #3. Mundaca (Mundaka)

Mundaca is that pint sized Basque town which boasts of the beautiful Santa Catalina hermitage (Ermita de Santa Catalina), a 19th century church perched atop the peninsula from where you get sweeping views of the Atlantic and the jagged northern Spain coast. The path to the Basilica is pretty straight forward and starts from near the coast side, across from the old town. It definitely does get windy up there, so please bring a jacket along! Mundaca is a surfing hot spot and is thronged by surfers from all over the world in Fall and winter. Here is an excellent guide to 10 things to enjoy in Mundaca if you ever stop by for a longer time.

Mundaka, Basque town, Basque region of Spain, Spain road trip, Northern Spain itinerary

 

Spain road trip stop #4. Lequeitio (Lekeitio)

As I mentioned before, you should spend at least one night in one of the Basque towns on your drive from Bilbao to San Sebastian. And, this town should undoubtedly be Lequeitio, a must visit stop in the Basque region of Spain. We stayed at the centrally located Hotel Palacio Oxangoiti which greeted us with a spacious suite like room consisting of a bedroom, two separate balconies, a side room and a bathroom all for a mere 88 Euros/night excluding breakfast which is 6 Euros/person. Our balcony opened up to the central plaza with the visitor center on one side and the Basilica Asuncion de Nuestra Senora on the other. We gorged on some hearty seafood at Erretegi Prim along the harbor front and had pastries for breakfast the next day at pasteleria Gozo Bazter. The other attraction here is the Faro de Santa Catalina which can be accessed via the coastal road (we drove there) but we found the lighthouse closed even at 10 AM.

Lekeitio in Basque region of Spain. Another must visit place on your way from Bilbao to San Sebastian during your northern Spain road trip.

Lekeitio in Basque region of Spain. Another must visit place on your way from Bilbao to San Sebastian during your northern Spain road trip. This is a beach at Lekeitio.

Lekeitio harbor side. Lekeitio is in Basque region of Spain. Another must visit place on your way from Bilbao to San Sebastian during your northern Spain road trip.

Lekeitio in Basque region of Spain. Another must visit place on your way from Bilbao to San Sebastian during your northern Spain road trip.

Day trip from Bilbao stop #5. Zumaya (Zumaia)

The next stop in this Bilbao to San Sebastian drive is the Basque town of Zumaya, which is located at the confluence of the Urola and Narrondo rivers. Zumaya is home to two geologically unique beaches Itzurun and Santiago which are located amidst the longest set of continuous rock strata in the world, locally known as “flysch”. We explored the old town as well as a nearby castle and met with disappointment upon trekking to Atalaia de Zumaia, another lighthouse which was yet again, closed.

Zumaia is another must Basque town where you must stop during your Spain road trip from Bilbao to San Sebastian

 

Bilbao to San Sebastian road trip stop #6. Guetaria (Getaria)

Our last stop on our northern Spain road trip before hitting San Sebastian was the fishing town of Guetaria. Much like other Basque towns, this too has a bustling harbor front, an old town with meandering cobbled streets and a church (church of San Salvador). We had a memorable lunch at Kaia (Michelin star restaurant) where I highly recommend going for the whole turbot fish for two (their speciality and yes, they do debone and separate the fish for you). Cooking meat and fish over coal is a distinctive trait of Basque cuisine and the seafood here is a fantastic example of the simplicity, yet bursting at the seams deliciousness of food in the Basque region of Spain. A hike will serve you well after lunch and where better to go exploring than the nearby island of St. Anton. This is an uphill, albeit meandering hike of about 15 minutes and you will be greeted with sweeping views both during your ascent and descent. At the very top is another lighthouse, but as luck would have had it, we found it closed as well.

Getaria harbor, Basque town, Basque region of Spain, Spain road trip, Northern Spain itinerary, stops to see from Bilbao to San Sebastian

Getaria harbor, Basque town, Basque region of Spain, Spain road trip, Northern Spain itinerary, stops to see from Bilbao to San Sebastian

Getaria harbor, Basque town, Basque region of Spain, Spain road trip, Northern Spain itinerary, stops to see from Bilbao to San Sebastian, Getaria Lighthouse at St. Anton island

 

Day trip from San Sebastian #7: Pasajes de San Juan (Pasai Donibane)

San Sebastian is filled with beautiful things to do and delicious grub to it (psst…it is the foodie capital of Europe) but if you have a car at your disposal, I highly recommend making at least one day trip from old town. The beautiful Basque fishing village of Pasajes de San Juan is a mere 20 drive from old town, beyond the surfing neighborhood of Gros and is the perfect place spend an afternoon in the laps of some much needed scenic beauty. Pasajes de San Juan is actually part of three fishing villages, the other two being Pasajes Ancho and Pasajes de San Pedro, the latter being on the other side and accessible by a ferry. You can actually also walk to this village but we simply took the easier route of driving there.

Day trips from San Sebastian, Pasajes de San Juan, Basque fishing village, Spain road trip, Northern Spain itinerary

Day trips from San Sebastian, Pasajes de San Juan, Basque fishing village, Spain road trip, Northern Spain itinerary

We visited Pasajes de San Juan during the maritime festival (yay for this stroke of good luck!) and saw balconies of homes adorned with fishing nets. We explored the main Santiago Plaza, spent some time at the dock, wandered through the cobbled streets and also discovered a tiny Victor Hugo (the famous French poet, novelist and dramatist of the romantic movement and author of Les Miserables) museum (actually it is his residence turned museum), dedicated to the author when he spent some time here in 1843. This village takes pride in its Basque roots and apart from the ubiquitous Basque symbol of “Lauburu” (translates to “four heads” in Euskera) we did see quite a few murals and political graffiti on the Basque liberation movement. Besides catching a motorboat to the other side (which we saw several people hopping on to), you can walk all the way from the dock to a lighthouse along a nice paved path, but we did not go all the way since we had to return to San Sebastian within a given time to drop off the rental car.

Day trips from San Sebastian, Pasajes de San Juan, Basque fishing village, Spain road trip, Northern Spain itinerary, Basque country

Day trips from San Sebastian, Pasajes de San Juan, Basque fishing village, Spain road trip, Northern Spain itinerary

Pasaia is a day trip from San Sebastian and is a tiny Basque fishing village. This is a must visit on your Northern Spain itinerary in the Basque region of Spain

 

Finally, here is a handy Google Map for your northern Spain itinerary showing all the important Spain road trip stops mentioned here from Bilbao to San Sebastian. We rented a “smart car” (a tiny one) from Sixt which was a blessing for its easy maneuvering and parking in the tiny Basque towns were space was tight. I hope you enjoyed this road trip itinerary in northern Spain and I would love to hear from you if you’ve already been there!

Like this post? Hover over the images below to pin

A Spain road trip along the northern Atlantic coast from Bilbao to San Sebastian is not only crazy scenic but also the most underrated drive in Europe. Read all about the 7 must visit Basque towns to include in your Northern Spain itinerary on this epic Europe road trip and pin it to your Europe or Spain board! #spain #basquecountry #europe #roadtrip #bilbao #sansebastian

A Spain road trip along the northern Atlantic coast from Bilbao to San Sebastian is not only crazy scenic but also the most underrated drive in Europe. Read all about the 7 must visit Basque towns to include in your Northern Spain itinerary on this epic Europe road trip and pin it to your Europe or Spain board! #spain #basquecountry #europe #roadtrip #bilbao #sansebastian

 

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8 comments

Sojourner August 25, 2018 at 12:56 am

I lived in La Rioja and loooved the beauty of northern Spain! Thank you for sharing your tips.

Reply
madhu August 25, 2018 at 5:20 am

wow all the pics looks so amazing..i luv road trips. hope to visit some of these places soon

Reply
Alice | Girl with a saddle bag August 25, 2018 at 6:12 am

This looks like a fantastic itinerary – thank you for sharing. Having just spent a few days exploring in Galicia for the first time I’m love with, and fascinated by the north of Spain. As a Brit I’m thinking this would be a great option taking the boat to Bilbao and then adventing in this part of the world in our own car. Thank you for the inspiration.

Reply
Natasha August 25, 2018 at 6:40 am

Really great pictures and a nice commentary to follow along on your journey. I really like the old mural you photographed, Euskal Herria Independencia. I delivered a speech about the preservation of the Basque language to a class of linguistic students about two years ago, and I believe I shared a very similar image in my presentation as you shared here. Where was that photo taken?

Reply
ParoChak August 25, 2018 at 6:49 am

Hi Natasha, the photo was taken at Pasaia (Pasajes de San Juan), a tiny fishing village next to San Sebastian.

Reply
Karen August 25, 2018 at 7:04 am

Great post and so helpful as this is a possible route for us in December or March depending on the weather.

Reply
Sue August 25, 2018 at 3:03 pm

nice post and a great road trip. Definitely doing this someday.

Reply
Rob August 25, 2018 at 3:13 pm

Wow! What a cool road trip plan. This would be unforgettable, especially with kids.

Reply

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