Highlights in Spain's North: The Basque Country

Many people are drawn to the sunny south coast of Spain on vacation, but the north of the country is much more diverse. The Basque Country - located in the very northeast - presents itself scenically rough and varied and offers numerous spectacular highlights.

Instead of getting lost on the Mediterranean beaches or on the tourist island of Mallorca, the Basque Country is still considered an insider tip among the vacation regions in Spain. In addition to the province's two economic and cultural metropolises, San Sebastián and Bilbao, there are impressive beaches to be seen along the coastline on the Bay of Biscay. The hinterland, with its unspoiled nature, invites visitors to go on extensive discovery tours.


Facts and figures about the Basque Country

The Autonomous Community of the Basque Country has three provinces: Álava in the southwestern part, Bizkaia on the western part of the coast and Gipuzkoa in the east.

Area: 7.234 km²
Inhabitants: 2,198,657 (January 2018)
Besides Spanish, Basque is also considered an official language
Population density: about 303 inhabitants per km²
Capital: Vitoria-Gasteiz in the province of Álava
Bilbao International Airport (BIO), San Sebastián Airport (EAS), Vitoria International Airport (VIT)
Official tourism site: https://tourismus.euskadi.eus/de/

The three largest and most important cities are also the respective provincial capitals:

  • Bilbao: (345,110 inhabitants) - Province of Bizkaia
  • Vitoria-Gasteiz: (246.976 inhabitants) - Province of Álava
  • San Sebastián: (186,370 inhabitants) - Province of Gipuzkoa

The Basque Country has had its autonomous status since 1997 and is economically one of the strongest regions in Spain. It has succeeded in developing the regional economy away from the formerly important heavy industry and strengthening other sectors. Above all, financial, technology and service companies have settled here. Due to its increasing attractiveness, the region has now also become even more interesting for vacationers.

Highlights of the Basque Coast

Several filming locations of the successful series Game of Thrones are located in the Basque Country in northern Spain - © jon_chica / stock.adobe.com
© jon_chica / stock.adobe.com

The coast in the north of Spain is very different from that in the south. Numerous sections here are very rocky, wild and pristine. The rugged beauty was also recognized by the film industry: several film locations of the successful series Game of Thrones are located in the Basque Country:

  • Barrika: Playa de Muriola / Playa de la Cantera - a particularly secluded bay surrounded by a rugged rocky landscape. The highlight here is a geological peculiarity, the so-called flysch. Various layers of sand and limestone rise from the water in strips and also extend up the rocky coastline.
  • Zumaya: Playa de Itzurun / Playa de Zumaya - a rocky, wild sandy beach, in the series the beach of Dragonstone.
  • San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Island: A small monastery is located on the rocky peninsula, which is connected to the mainland by a spectacular rock bridge. This spot is also part of the Dragonstone setting in the film.

Despite the predominantly rocky coastline, there are occasional sandy stretches where water sports can be enjoyed.

Port town Getaria

Also worth a visit is the picturesque coastal town of Getaria, about 25 kilometers west of San Sebastián. The town is surrounded by a wall, behind which stretches the local mountain San Antón. The small harbor is located on a headland with a small hill at its tip. To the right and left of the headland, the two sandy beaches Gaztetape and Malkorbe invite you to swim.

There is also a museum dedicated to a famous son of the town, designer Cristóbal Balenciaga. A former palace was converted into exhibition rooms and the most beautiful creations of the fashion designer are presented there.


Discover the Basque Country culinary

In addition to the cultural and scenic features, the Basque Country is also known for its culinary specialties. In the rugged landscape on the rocky slopes of the Cantabrian mountain massif in the hinterland, wine has been grown for centuries. The unique sites have a long tradition, which winemakers are focusing on again today. The landscape characteristics of the region are at the same time its greatest strength and contribute to being able to produce wines with their own character.

Several tourist routes allow you to explore the various wineries with regional specialties - especially Rioja and Txakoli. Cider is also one of the Basque specialties and is cultivated mainly in the hinterland of San Sebastián.

In special bars, the cider can be enjoyed together with a fish menu or the typical pintxos. These are also a peculiarity of Basque cuisine: similar to tapas, they hide small snacks and delicacies that can be eaten as finger food. However, they are usually smaller than tapas. The special feature: the delicious ingredients are served skewered on a piece of bread. It is popular among the locals to move from bar to bar and enjoy a few pintxos each together with a glass of wine, called txikitos, or a small beer.

Other Basque specialties that are also suitable as souvenirs:

  • Idiazabal: A strong sheep cheese, available smoked or unsmoked.
  • Peppers: A special green variety from Gernika is particularly spicy and tender. Also green peppers come from Ibarra and are traditionally pickled in mild white wine vinegar.
  • Tuna: The "Bonito del Norte" and the "Cimarrón" are typical fish species of the region.

Pure nature: on the way in the hinterland

Those who long for peace and nature in Spain must go to the Basque hinterland in the north - © mimadeo / stock.adobe.com
© mimadeo / stock.adobe.com

Those who long for even more peace and nature must head for the Basque hinterland. The landscape, which in many cases is still untouched, is also an experience in various protected areas.

Gorbeia Nature Park

Here the diverse nature can be hiked on numerous stages. In the center is the peak of Gorbeia (1,481 meters) which offers several beautiful views of the surrounding valleys. In addition to sparse deciduous forests and rolling hills, there are also mountainous sections with rugged cliffs.

A special highlight of the Parque natural de Gorbea is certainly the Goiuri waterfall, which plunges over 100 meters down a steep rock face. The view from the opposite rock plateau is particularly spectacular. Furthermore, there are numerous caves to discover in the protected area. Two visitor centers provide detailed information about possible activities or about the biotope of Itxina, a rock massif with many caves and burrows.


The small village of Kortezubi has only a few hundred inhabitants and is located less than ten kilometers inland from the coast, 35 kilometers east of Bilbao. The picturesque village is surrounded by forests and houses, among other things, an open-air museum worth seeing. In addition to the Santimamiñe Caves, the surrounding forest was designed by an artist who left his mark on the trees there. A hike through the Bosque de Oma is a unique experience.


Art and culture: Bilbao and San Sebastián

In addition to various churches, monasteries and castles in the hinterland, those interested in culture should not miss the two largest cities on the coast. They offer exciting highlights that show the Basque Country in all its facets.


This city at the mouth of the Ría de Bilbao is one of the ten largest cities in Spain. Together with the surrounding area, more than 900,000 people live here. Structural change has been particularly successful here. A lot has been invested in recent years to make Bilbao attractive. Overall, an exciting mix of historic buildings from the old town and extravagant new buildings from the present day can be seen.

Among the most exciting sights are the Guggenheim Museum with its idiosyncratic architecture (Frank Gehry), which is one of the most spectacular museum buildings in the world. Also along the newly developed subway line, the individual stations were designed by a star architect - Norman Foster.

Other highlights include the oldest suspended ferry in the world, which crosses the river at the Hanging Bridge(Puente Colgante). Two museums, the Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao, and the Museo de la Industria tell of the city's historic maritime and industrial past.

San Sebastián

The port city also bears the name Donostia in Basque. The double designation Donostia-San Sebastián is also common. It nestles on a large bay that offers beautiful sandy beaches. The townscape along the long beach promenade has been preserved as best as possible and still shows the original stately buildings, which were already used as summer residences in the past.

Among the sights are the central Plaza de la Constitucion with the old city hall and the Kursaal(Palacio de Congresos y Auditoiro), which is located in the immediate vicinity of the sea. At night, the simple facade becomes a special eye-catcher due to the special lighting.

Strolling along the original beach mile, you can discover several sculptures (Peine del Viento). Through the preservation of old buildings, the city reflects in a special way the Basque way of life and culture.