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While most holidaymakers head to sunny southern Spain, Northern Spain is very much the country’s best-hidden gem (although it won’t stay hidden for long). North Spain is home to a rugged coastline, incredible seafood, unique cultures and languages, and fiercely independent populations. From Bilbao to San Sebastian, we’ll take you on an amazing Spanish road trip through sleepy fishing villages through to epic lookout points.
Time in Bilbao: Two days
The capital of the Basque country, Bilbao is a buzzing city that’s home to the ancient, winding streets, pintxos bars, and the world-famous Guggenheim Museum. Stroll down the narrow streets of the Casco Viejo historic center, soaking in the city’s unique Basque architecture. Dip into one of the many tiny pintxos bars when you’re feeling hungry, or dine at world-famous seafood restaurants. Pintxos are the Basque country’s answer to Spanish tapas — small pieces of bread topped with a variety of different ingredients, ranging from hams to cheeses to slices of tortilla or seafood.
When in Bilbao, you absolutely have to visit the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which features a unique, expressionistic architectural design and an excellent display of contemporary art. You can also explore the Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao, which showcases everything from Medieval to modern art.
Whether you want to go from Bilbao to San Sebastian, or San Sebastian to Bilbao, the road trip can be done either way. Many prefer to fly into Bilbao’s international airport for convenience.
Time in Zumaia: Half a day
Now it’s time to get the road trip officially started and hop in your rental car. Drive to the nearby sleepy beach town of Zumaia, which is home to two small, rugged beaches, a quaint old town, and dramatic cliffs. It’s worth spending a few hours splashing around in the sea and soaking in the sleepy, relaxing town atmosphere.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
Time in San Juan de Gaztelugatxe: Half a day
Drive for another hour to the incredible coastal islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, which has epic scenery that many visitors liken to scenes from the hit series Game of Thrones. The San Juan de Gaztelugatxe islet is connected to mainland Spain by a human-made footbridge. The walk across the bridge offers incredible views of the rocky surrounding coastline. You can climb up to the center of the San Juan de Gaztelugatxe mountain and be rewarded with stunning views.
Time in Guernica: One day
After soaking in the fresh sea air, head inland to visit the town of Guernica. The small Basque town was immortalized by Pablo Picasso’s famous painting ‘Guernica’, which reflected the total destruction of the town during the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, the peaceful town of Guernica was completely destroyed by bombs that were dropped by Nazi planes. It was the first aerial bombardment of a civilian population in history, and today, the peaceful town is home to a somber atmosphere with many museums and monuments dedicated to the hundreds of innocent civilians that lost their lives during the incident.
Elsewhere, be sure to pay a visit to the sacred Guernica tree, which is a powerful symbol of Basque culture and freedom. During the Medieval era, Basque community leaders met under the tree to establish their own laws, leading to today’s version of autonomy in the Basque country. You can also learn about the Basques at the Euskal Herria Museum, or visit the Peace Museum to find out more about the town’s destruction with audiovisual presentations and photographs.
Time in Zarautz: One day
Now, back to the car and to the coast by the highway closest to the sea for spectacular views of the northern Spanish coastline. Drive to Zarautz and spend the day on the town’s beautiful, sandy beach, which is one of the most popular beaches in Spain. Zarautz is a quaint sleepy beach town, and an excellent spot to order a plate of seafood, or bacalao pil-pil, which is cod fried with garlic, olive oil, and chili.
Time in San Sebastian: Two days
San Sebastián is arguably one of the best destinations in Spain. With red-tiled roofs, a mixture of stylish new builds and historic Spanish streets, and the incredible view of the Bay of Biscay, it’s hard to beat.
To get a better glimpse of the city, take the old funicular railway up Monte Igueldo for an incredible panoramic view of San Sebastian. Meanwhile, if you want more beach time before the end of your vacation, head to one of the city’s urban beaches such as Playa de la Concha or Playa de Ondarreta. Keen surfers should check out Playa de Gros.
As for food, San Sebastian is one of the country’s best food destinations, with an incredible selection of seafood and flavors on offer. Be sure to try a plate of anchovies or gilda pintxos (the nearby Cantabrian sea is said to produce the world’s best anchovies) or the area’s famous Idiazabal cheese, a sheep’s milk cheese known for its strong flavor.
If you want to explore more of northern Spain, check out the reason’s why you should visit Galicia, which lies to the northwest of Bilbao.