Spain is one of the most popular international destinations for tourists. Still, the Basque Country in the nation’s north may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. It should be though. It is home to several dozen Michelin star restaurants and is Europe’s highest density of Michelin stars per inhabitant.
From San Sebastian close to the French border all the way to Bilbao farther west, “Pais Vasco” is one of the country’s 17 autonomous communities. It has its own language (Euskera), culture, cuisine and traditions. And, it’s on the cusp of hitting it big with tourists. According to local guide Aitor Delgado, who runs his own bespoke tour company, the Basque region surprises visitors for so many things to see all within 90 minutes of each other. His tours are designed around each guest’s interest. He notes that the region is especially well suited for older travelers looking for luxury, culture and unique experiences.
No matter what your age, energy level or prior travel experience, the northern part of Spain offers something for everyone from art and culture to excellent food and drink options. Your travel dollar stretches farther in Spain than other parts of Europe with luxury experiences available for a fraction of the cost of what you might find in, say, the south of France or Italy. And with the dollar at an all-time high, now is the time to book that next big European vacation.
Here are five reasons for how the Basque Country could be the perfect destination for travelers no matter what your age.
El Camino de Santiago
The famous “Camino,” a network of pilgrims’ pathways that lead to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, runs through the Basque Country. Modern-day travelers should know this is not just for young hikers. There are facilities for all ages including those with limited mobility. Many of those that reach the final stage in Galicia’s Santiago de Compostela are above 60 and proud of it. It is not like hiking a mountain. Instead, travelers can follow one of several marked paths that take visitors through various towns or along the northern coast.
If you want to explore the journey yourself, seek out the guidance of a tour operator that has experience with all ages. A good option is Fresco Tours, owned and operated by an American that moved to the north almost two decades ago.
No major Spanish city is closer to the French border than San Sebastian. The influence from the northeastern neighbor is immediately evident in the French-inspired architecture. One would not be mistaken to think they are in Paris on many city blocks. Perhaps most unique, however, is the River Urumea that flows beneath bridges and into the city with the ebbs and flows of the tide. Waves can be substantial in this part of the North Atlantic Ocean. And residents of San Sebastian know it. Don’t be surprised to see many of them donning full wet suits to take advantage of the surfing opportunities.
Strolling through the streets, this city has even more French accents in its architecture. The population, however, is proudly Basque with regional traditions in full force. In many parks, you will find locals playing Basque pelota, a popular local sport.
This hotel has been a part of the city’s past for nearly a century, but it has been modernized for the next-gen traveler. Securing one of the most famous riverfront rooms is a prize. The hotel is handicapped-accessible and offers a variety of special menus for those with dietary requirements. Top Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program members will do especially well here with breakfast included in the stay. A beautifully designed ballroom serves as the breakfast area where guests will experience one of the most refined morning meals in northern Spain.
There is a lot to see in Bilbao. If you choose to stay near the famous Guggenheim Museum, Gran Hotel Domine is the pick. With rooms overlooking the famous museum, now credited with revitalizing the city from its previously industrial days, it wins. Part of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, guests can earn and redeem I Prefer Hotel Rewards points during their stay. Choose one of the museum-facing rooms (most overlook the flower-lined dog that has become a symbol of the city).
Between here and the main city center is a busy shopping district with modern stores and cafes. The architecture alone makes it a neighborhood worth exploring on foot. Pay particular attention to the style of windows and balconies that fronts many of the buildings as these are traditional for the northern region of Spain. Another architectural marvel is the Bizkaia Transporter Bridge, now a heritage monument by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. It is used as a way to cross between two towns across the river, but has also become somewhat of a tourist attraction.
Closer to town is the new Radisson Collection Gran Via Bilbao with its rooftop “azotea” serving an impressive breakfast buffet and open to the public for evening cocktails. Not a far walk from here is Plaza Nueva where a number of local cafes prepare traditional and new-age tapas. Locals pay no notice as they sing, dance and play ball in the main square.
The Casco Viejo (or old town) is also within walking distance although it may not be wheelchair friendly with its cobblestone streets. Still, it’s a fun place to explore and wander the nooks and crannies of this UNESCO World Heritage Site for hours as the daylight shadows change the colors of the surrounding buildings hour by hour. The pintxos, souvenirs and memories you can discover with the locals that live here encourage lingering.
Getaria and in between
The drive between the two most populous cities in the Basque Region is not boring by any means. Along the way are plentiful seaside villages worth exploring. Perhaps the most intriguing for fashion seekers is Getaria where the Balenciaga Museum draws crowds aplenty. This fashion mecca has many of the young artisan’s masterpieces on display. The old town in the city is worth exploring to discover the many shops and cafes. You’ll notice that many have barbecue grills on the street, which is a local tradition.
Other places worth exploring are the town of Guernica. It has its own art museum and was the setting for Picasso’s famous painting. Santa Marta Cathedral in Vitoria-Gasteiz is another stunning highlight.
An ideal pairing with a visit to Basque Country’s northern cities (especially if flying into or out of Madrid), this area produces the country’s famous Rioja wines. The rolling hillsides and endless vineyards create a beautiful backdrop to the scenery. Be sure to stop in the charming town of Laguardia (no relation to the recently refurbished New York airport). The local chapel (worth a visit) and old town seems like stepping back in time.
If time is of the essence, the drive from the northern Basque Coast to this area is only a few hours. Make Marqués de Riscal, A Luxury Collection Hotel, an important stop on your travel route. You will not be disappointed. From afar, the Frank Gehry-designed hotel is visible amongst the vineyards. Guests can stroll through the vineyards or visit the local cathedral in the nearby town of Elciego. This country resort is the perfect grand finale to a Basque visit. Here, all the magical ingredients of the region (food, wine, art and culture) come together.
Ramsey Qubein is a freelance travel journalist covering hotels, cruises, airlines, and loyalty programs from around the globe.