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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Northern Spain road trip stop #1. Guernica (Gernika)
If you are driving east from Bilbao to San Sebastian along the Northern Spain 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 its 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.
Northern Spain itinerary 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 Gaztelugatxe 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 trailhead 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.
Road trip in Northern Spain 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 straightforward 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.
Basque villages along Spain’s Northern coast 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 Asunción 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.
Northern Spain road trip stop#5. Zumaya (Zumaia)
The next stop in this Northern Spain itinerary 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.
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.
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.
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.
A road trip from Bilbao to San Sebastian is not feasible without a car, but if you are not into driving or not planning to rent a car, you can still see of these beautiful Basque villages via guided tours from Bilbao. Here are some popular options:
Finally, here is a handy Google Map for your northern Spain itinerary showing all the important Northern 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 along Spain’s northern coast and I would love to hear from you if you’ve already been there!
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