Combine Bilbao and San Sebastian in 5 days
Bilbao and San Sebastian are just an hour apart but in huge contrast to one another. Bilbao is industrial, sprawling, edgy and known for its sharp architectural lines. San Sebastian sits on the beach is known for its sunshine, surfers and beaches as well as a magical, quaint old town. You should plan for 5 days to visit both cities.
Start your trip with 2 days in Bilbao
While you can start in either city this itinerary starts you in Bilbao. A city which owes its life to the river that runs through it. Known for its pintxo (tapa) culture and modern architecture Bilbao very much holds its own. It has an easily distinguishable culture and the people have a style and air unlike another.
Where to stay in Bilbao
You have two choices for neighborhoods in Bilbao. The center of the city, with Plaza Federico Moyúa as its heart, is the more modern area. While, Casco Viejo, old town, has, quite obviously, more of an old town vibe. Either area will give you easy, walkable access to everything you’d want to see including attractions, bars and restaurants.
Option 1 - City Center
Where to sleep - With five stars, Melia Bilbao offers a rooftop terrace and an indoor pool. Its proximity to the Guggenheim makes it a great choice for art lovers. Another five-star choice in the area is Hotel Domine Bilbao, this one offering the perk of valet parking.
Where to eat - Zortziko boasts a Michelin star and an ever-changing menu. Chef, Daniel Garcia, puts a modern spin on both Basque and International classics. Reservations are recommended here, if you can, grab a seat in the basement. A peg down from a Michelin star, though still not a bit shabby is ad hoc Cascanueces. A small but varied menu includes multiple fish and meat options.
Option 2 - Old Town:
Where to sleep - 7 Kale bed and breakfast as well Basque boutique both offer excellent locations right in the center of old town. However, proximity to this part of town may mean a less deep sleep due to the continuing party outside. Keep that in mind when making your choice.
Where to eat - Restaurante Mandoya is a favorite among the locals and has a history 50 plus years long. Not only the fish but also the meat and vegetables are all from the region, as nearby as possible. Arandia de Julen, on the outskirts of old town serves very basic, but delicious, traditional Basque meals.
What to see in Bilbao
The Guggenheim Museum: Sitting on the west bank of the river in the city center this museum is one of the largest in Spain. The building itself is the true story, considered to be an architectural wonder it’s also meant to be one of the few times so many people, architects, critics and the public, came together in agreement. Once you’ve finished contemplating the exterior check the exhibits, both temporary and permanent for modern and contemporary art. If nothing less, include this building in a riverside walk along the Nervion.
Bilbao Fine Arts: Going a bit further back into history than the Guggenhiem, into the middle ages, the fine arts museum houses a comprehensive collection of Spanish, Basque and European art. Depending on your art interests you may choose this one over the Guggenheim, especially when it is free from 6-8 PM. Otherwise entrance is just €9. On your way out appreciate its location, completely surrounded by Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park, a 100 year old public park.
Plaza Nueva: Built in the 1800’s Plaza Nueva was created in a neoclassical style. Today it is a lively square surrounded by tapas bars, while perhaps not the prettiest place it is overflowing with character, it’s boisterous at the quietest of times and the atmosphere is intoxicating, though that may also have something to do with the wine.
Then head to San Sebastian for 3 days
Stop number two is barely still in Spain! San Sebastian is a smaller, more compact city than its westerly neighbor Bilbao. Its beaches have made it a huge draw and it is now one of the most expensive cities in Spain. Don’t let that stop you, the beautiful beaches, mountain top view points, and gin and tonics will reward you for every moment spent in this city.
Where to stay in San Sebastian
Cross the bridge from old town into the neighborhood of Gros. Your dollar will go farther here but you’ll still have very easy access into old town as well as the beaches. If you’re an active type you’ll be right at home here with surf and bike shops aplenty. The neighborhood still retains its popularity amongst the locals with draws being the pintxo bars, normal bars, beaches, shops and art galleries.
Where to sleep: Try Hotel Villa Soro, a four-star hotel with friendly staff, beautiful views and easy beach and old town access. Breakfast is included and is o.k. but otherwise head elsewhere to eat. A more affordable option is Welcom Gros, which offers rooms and apartments a bit closer to the beach but without all the extra fluff. The being said they are still clean and comfortable, so if you simply need a place to sleep this is a good choice for you.
Where to eat: The majority of your eating should be done in Old Town where you’ll be overwhelmed for choice of exceptional tapa bars. But there are some outliers, including Zelai Txiki, a fine dining experience situated in a converted farmhouse up on a hill. It’s probably best to book ahead of time here, and if arriving during warm weather, aim to get a seat outdoors.
What to see in San Sebastian
Beach of La Concha: The name refers to the look of this beach, the shell, in English, the beach wraps its way around the bay in a sort of shell shape. Thanks to the bay, the water here is relatively calm and easy to swim in. With nearly a kilometer and a half of beach that runs about 40 meters in width it’s been awarded various top urban beach awards and you will undoubtedly see why.
Mount Urgull: Anybody in relatively o.k. shape can make the 30 or 40-minute trek up to the top of this small mountain. It’s only 123 meters above sea level so your journey shouldn’t be too strenuous. At the peak you’ll be rewarded not only with unreal views across the city and its beaches but also with a bit of history regarding San Sebastian brief military past. You’ll see the castle as well as its canons that were used to defend the city.
San Telmo Museum: A great way to round out your understanding of the region beyond its food. Take a break from the sunshine and pintxos and head for Zuloaga plaza in old town. There you’ll find this museum which does an excellent job portraying basque culture, old and new in the context of European, and world history. €6 entry, closed on Mondays.
Suggestions for a Bilbao & San Sebastian trip
1. When to go
The north of Spain has a fairly chilly winter which means that if you’re looking for nice weather and beaches you should aim for summer, once the weather has really truly warmed up. However, this is when everyone else goes, so expect crowds. Early in June or early in September are when you will find the best of both worlds, the warmer still holds its warmth and the crowds are just on the brink of showing up.
2. Take a Day trip to Rioja
Bilbao and San Sebastian sit not far from the very famous Spanish wine region of Rioja. La Guardia is the main (and stunning) town of the region though the point here is to get around to the wineries. Try Bodegas Baigorri or Bodega El Fabulista. This could be a great stop in between the two cities on the day you’re in the car anyways, but that means committing to a designated driver, and if no one in your party wants to do that (and why should they?) then it’s easy enough to find a guided day trip departing from either of the two cities.
3. Relish the Basque country cuisine
It might be impossible to be in the region without having your fill of pintxos. With a focus on the sea, due to its proximity, aim for anything fishy, shellfish included. The people of these parts have been working with the products for centuries so it’s some of the best you’ll get. Don't forget the cider houses.
4. If you have more than 5 days
And don't forget to spend a few hours shopping around for unique Basque souvenirs.
How many days is enough for both Bilbao and San Sebastian?
Ideally, you’d give yourself a minimum of five days; two in Bilbao and three in San Sebastian, but more or less would also do the trick.
How to get around Bilbao - San Sebastian?
Amazingly, you can pass between these two Basque worlds with astonishing ease. In a car your drive time will be just over an hour. There are also ALSA buses and RENFE trains which connect the cities on a regular basis.
A car is certainly a great option to travel between the two cities but once you arrive, park and leave it. Don’t bother driving from place to place. Both Bilbao and San Sebastian are easily walkable cities, if that’s not an option for you take the city buses.