País Vasco (Spanish for ‘Basque Country’) is a stranger to mass tourism. This is despite architecture fans and lovers of gourmet cuisine getting their money’s worth in Spanish Basque Country. For them, here are my tips for a circle tour of the Basque Country — with a detour into the Rioja region.
Before Katja and I embark on our journey, people keep asking us “where exactly is Basque Country”?
The Basque Country is an autonomous region in the north of Spain. It borders on the Atlantic’s Bay of Biscay and shares a border with French Basque Country to the north in southwest France.
Following below is an overview and highlights of our circle trip by rental car through Spanish Basque Country, with a side excursion to La Rioja wine country that borders it on the south.
In spite of its well-known cities Bilbao and San Sebastián, Spanish Basque Country is not among the big magnets of international tourism.
Nevertheless, Basque Country has much to offer. Especially, for those of us interested in gourmet food, wine, and architecture.
Highlights of a Basque Country tour
- Bilbao – From ugly industrial duckling to designer swan
- San Sebastián – The pinnacle of pintxos
- Vitoria-Gasteiz – Basque Country’s capital city
- Chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
- Logroño in the world-famoud La Rioja wine region
- The picturesque little town of Laguardia
- Wineries in Basque Country and the Rioja region
- Hotel Marqués de Riscal in El Ciego
- Basque Country’s gourmet restaurants
1. Bilbao – from industrial ugly duckling to designer swan
Bilbaos transformation from industrial ugly duckling into a designer swan astounds: instead of rusty steel shipyards on the bank of the Nervión river, there now stand the Guggenheim Museum made of complex curved titanium steel sheets.
And the two river banks are connected by a Calatrava bridge. But the city has plenty more eye food to offer. I put together the city’s highlights in this separate article.
2. San Sebastián – the pinnacle of pintxos
San Sebastián (‘Donostia’ in Basque language) extends along a bay between two mountains Urgull and Igueldo and is nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
The Playa de la Concha is regarded as one of the the most beautiful urban beaches. In the middle of the bay sits a small island named Santa Clara.
The west end of the Playa de la Concha is formed by Monte Igueldo. The funicular near the beach is the favorite way to ride up to the top of San Sebastián’s backyard mountain.
‘Monte’ in Spanish means ‘mountain’. Ok, what we have here though is a barely 1,300 foot high hill that does, however, offer a beautiful view of the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastián and the interior.
The main attraction for us in San Sebastián, however, were the pintxo bars.
All you ever wanted to know about these Basque tapas you’ll find in Katja’s foodie review.
3. Vitoria-Gasteiz – the Basque Country capital
The Basque capital has managed to preserve its medieval city core to this day. Here you’ll come across innumerable plazas and buildings with traditional flair.
The city’s center is the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca with its memorial to the battle of Vitoria.
The medieval center city is also known as “the almond” because of its oval form. It is one of Basque Country’s most beautiful historical city centers.
Worth a look!
Vitoria-Gasteiz possesses two cathedrals: the modern cathedral of María Inmaculada and the old cathedral (Catedral Vieja) in the historic quarter.
In the Cuchillería Kalea (Calle de la Cuchillería) street leading to the Old Cathedral, cute bars and restaurants invite strolling and stopping in for a break.
4. Gaztelugatxe: where Game of Thrones was shot
A ca. 50-minute drive will take you from Bilbao to the Biscaya coast on the Cantabrian Sea.
Here, near Bakio on a small island stands the Chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Since the seventh season of Game of Thrones the location has also become an attractive travel destination for fans of the TV series.
Getting to the Chapel of San Juan takes crossing a daringly constructed stone arch bridge.
In summer heat, the climb is rather sweat-inducing! It pays to get up early, which also helps to avoid sooo many tourists queuing up.
In any event, be sure to book a visitor ticket ahead of time online at tiketa.eus
That’s because since June 2018 they control access to help manage the streams of tourists.
5. Logroño in the Rioja wine region
Logroño is situated a bit farther south in the La Rioja wine country where it borders on Basque Country. This modern town is the region’s capital city.
Logroño is very familiar to pilgrims. However, it’s less for the wine than for the Way of St. James, which runs through the town’s busy narrow streets to Santiago de Compostela.
The shell symbol of the Way of St. James is omnipresent on buildings and hostels in the town as well as on backpacks from all over the world.
Katja and I made the pilgrimage to Logroño mainly for the golf course — naturally on four wheels ;-)
The golf course lies just outside town, surrounded by the 1,100 acre La Grajera Nature Reserve.
I reported about my experiences on recommended Basque Country golf courses in this article.
6. Laguardia, a picturesque town
Laguardia is a small medieval town in the famous Rioja Alavesa wine region, in the southernmost part of Basque Country.
It perches on the left bank of the Ebro river, which forms the boundary with the neighboring La Rioja region.
Like in a picture book, the fortified town thrones on a hill. Encircling it is the city wall with its towers. In past ages, Laguardia was an important lookout point.
Walking through the city gate and what remains of the city wall is like walking back in time.
Strolling through the idyllic narrow streets of Laguardia is definitely recommended, not least because of the wine cellar bars and restaurants that line them.
Ease to a stop in one of them to imbibe a glass of wine or a zurrito – a small beer – while enjoying a pintxo along with them.
Touring a winery should be part of any program in this part of Basque Country, for Laguardia is its capital of wine.
Under most of the Old Town lie cellars in which wine is pressed, aged, and stored. Some of these are open to the public.
Beyond that, I recommend visiting one of the many state-of-the-art wineries in the countryside surrounding the town (see the next section).
7. Wineries in Basque Country and La Rioja
As noted, the Rioja Alavesa region stretches in southern Basque Country between the river Ebro and the Sierra de Cantabria mountains.
In the north, the vineyards are sheltered by the Sierra de Cantabria and Sierra de Toloño mountain chains.
In La Rioja wine country there are more than 300 wineries!
Some of them are done in modern form by celebrity architects. The Bodegas Ysioa winery, for example, was designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
The Rioja Alavesa wine road offers various wine-centered activities, ranging from winery tours to gastronomic guided tours to wine-based wellness therapies (there’s nothing they haven’t thought of!).
The most famous of all wineries, however, is probably the Marqués de Riscal: the attached hotel came from the drafting pencil of the American Frank Gehry.
7. Hotel Marqués de Riscal in Elciego
Far away the most spectacular winery in Rioja Alavesa is the Herederos de Marqués de Riscal. The hotel on its ground is also an eye-catcher without equal.
It almost seems a bit crazy what star architect Frank Gehry has wrought here in the deconstructive style:
The faintly pink-colored roof of stainless steel sheets is supposed to reflect the color of the vines growing all around it. We start to see it clearly after we had a couple of glasses of Rioja…
But the hotel does not only captivate with its architecture. It is also worth a visit for its restaurant El Gastronómico by starred chef Francis Paniego (one Michelin star). I wrote all about his menu in this gourmet review from Basque Country.
Speaking of architecture, another architecturally fascinating (and somewhat more reasonably-priced) hotel is found in the immediate vicinity: Hotel Viura in Villabuena de Álava. Hier is my review of its gourmet restaurant.
In Viura alone, for 300 inhabitants there are 43 wineries!
And why not!
9. Gourmet restaurants in Basque Country
Basque Country is a paradise for gourmands. In hardly any other region can you find so many stars as in Euskadi, as the Basques call their home country.
We let ourselves be entertained by several creative starred chefs during our road trip through Basque country. I devoted an entire foodie article to them.
So, to sum up: Basque Country has lots to offer!
The best way to get there from Zurich is by air via Swiss, which operates a direct flight to Bilbao.
A rental car is indispensable for making the recommended circle tour.
Incidentally, an equallymarvelous circle tour can be done in Andalusia in the south of Spain!