Bilbao or San Sebastian: What’s the best basque country destination?

Bilbao or San Sebastian? You are planning a trip to the Basque country and don’t know if you should go to San Sebastian or Bilbao… or maybe both? The Basque country is one of the best travel destinations in Spain, with a strong culture, very scenic landscapes and some of the best foods in the world.

Despite being both basque cities, and very close to each other, they are fundamentally different. In this post, we will mostly explore the differences between the two main cities of the Basque country and which is the best destination for you. To achieve this we will explore both towns in terms of:

  • General Beauty;
  • Things to see and do;
  • Unique attractions;
  • City Vibe;
  • The people;
  • Day trips;
  • Accommodation;
  • Nightlife;
  • Food scene;
  • Weather;
  • Safety;
  • Costs;
  • Tourists and crowds;

San Sebastian or Bilbao

General Beauty

San Sebastian is a very elegant city with a classical architecture, located on a wonderful bay with two mounts on each side and an esthetically pleasant island in the middle. The city isn’t very large (only half the size of Bilbao) and its old town is even smaller which makes it even more attractive. San Sebastian screams belle epoch charm.

Bilbao is a bigger city, one that developed as an industrial town but in the past decades managed to transform itself into a modern one with some beautiful buildings, parks, and museums. Bilbao has been investing heavily in architectural art creating a very interesting town full of things to do. Though, in our opinion, San Sebastian still has an advantage and takes the win.

Explore La Concha bay Donostia

Things to do in Bilbao and San Sebastian

Neither Bilbao or San Sebastian is particularly big cities, though Bilbao is considerably bigger than San Sebastian. So you can easily visit either of them in 2 or 3 days or both in 4 days. Despite being small both cities have a few landmarks, attractions, and things to do.

Some of the best things to do in San Sebastian include:

  • Go to La Concha Beach
  • Roam around the old town and enjoy the Belle Epoque architecture
  • Pintxos bars hopping
  • Climb to Mount Igueldo to enjoy the views to the bay
  • Go to Mount Urgull
  • Go to San Telmo Museum – a Basque culture and heritage museum
the amazing Basque Coast

In Bilbao the things to do include:

  • Go to the Guggenheim Museum;
  • Cross the Vizcaya Bridge (not really in Bilbao, but close enough);
  • Enjoy the modern architecture design created by prestigious architects like the new Zorrozaure area by Zaha Hadid or the metro by Norman foster and the zubuzuri footbridge by Calatrava.
  • Stroll through Casco Viejo, the old Bilbao
  • Enjoy as many Pintxos as you can.

We will give a tie here. There are a few things that are similar (like the pintxos culture) or the old town visit, and others that are very different, but in the end, they offer similarly fun things to do and in similar quantities. It depends on what you want.

Unique attractions of Bilbao vs San Sebastian

In our opinion this is one of the most important topics… let’s be honest, there are several attractions and things to do in a destination that can be seen/done elsewhere, sometimes almost everywhere. Many times what sets a destination apart is the unusual attractions, and in that regard, Bilbao wins.

Bilbao has two incredible landmarks that are rather unique. The Guggenheim Museum created by Frank Gehry and the Vizcaya bridge. The Guggenheim is the major symbol of Bilbao and its construction gave the city the new life. About a million people go to the Guggenheim per year and anyone who has visited it is sure that’s a unique attraction.

The Viscaya bridge is a UNESCO heritage landmark and an ingenious engineering work of the 19th century. It’s the coolest bridge that you’ll ever cross! Why? This basically an aerial transfer bridge where you get into a gondola and then are transferred to the other side. There very few bridges ever built like this and the Viscaya is the oldest one and surely the most impressive.

San Sebastian doesn’t really have a unique thing. La Concha is one of the most beautiful beaches in Spain and one of the best urban beaches in the world, but it’s hardly unique. San Sebastian is also very romantic and elegant but not really unique…

So, when comparing Bilbao and San Sebastian, Bilbao is easily the one with the most unique things.

City Vibe – San Sebastian vs Bilbao

As we said above these are almost neighbor cities, from the same region, the Basque country. They share the Basque culture, but they are fundamentally different.

San Sebastian is a tourist town. It has always attracted tourists, because of its beautiful natural setting and wonderfully elegant, classic architecture. Plus, San Sebastian is comfortably small, everything important is within walking distance and it has the best pintxos/tapas bars in the world.

Bilbao is a workers town, a town that grew with the early industrialization of the Basque country, that suffered but manages to reinvent itself into a modern, creative city with a vibrant lifestyle. We like Bilbao, we like it a lot, but we are in love with San Sebastian and that’s why it wins this question.

Best Beaches of San Sebastian

The people of San Sebastian and Bilbao

They are Basques… They love their country, their food, their language, and their family. Basque love to hang out in Pintxo bars, eat talk and discuss things with friends and family. We honestly don’t find any difference between the Basques of Bilbao San Sebastian.

Thus, we simply wrap it up with a tie.

Day trips from San Sebastian and from Bilbao

Another very simple one… San Sebastian and Bilbao are only 100km from each other, which takes little more than one hour to do. This means that almost every day trip that you can do from one city you can do from the other. Or that you can do a day trip from one to the other!

The main difference is that Bilbao is better located to do a day trip to victoria while Biarritz is easier to visit from San Sebastian. If you want to visit Bilbao from San Sebastian, or vice versa we strongly advise you to do the scenic coastal route.

For all the reasons above this has to be a tie…

Top activities to do in the Basque country

San Sebastian vs Bilbao – The Nightlife

We aren’t really a nightlife kind of travelers, it usually isn’t a very relevant thing for us. However, in San Sebastian it was different. We really enjoyed going out at night to the pintxos bars. San Sebastian must be the city with most bars per square meter in the world. And most of them are good… really good! It’s fun and yummy, what more do we need?

Bilbao has a similar culture… but less intense. It has plenty of bars and pintxo bars with good food, but not as good. Or at least we weren’t as lucky. In San Sebastian, it was just incredible both in terms of quality and quantity of options.

Thus, San Sebastian wins this one.

Lodging in Bilbao and San Sebastian

The lodging options in Bilbao and San Sebastian are very similar. There are plenty of guest houses, AirBnBs, and hostels in the old towns. There are some mid-range hotels and some high-end luxury hotels. Unless it’s really high season, you shouldn’t have problems finding a place that meets your expectations.

San Sebastian seems to have slightly more options, but it’s also a touristic town that receives more travelers than Bilbao. It’s also a little more expensive for more a lesse the same services. And that’s way Bilbao wins this one, but only by an inch.

Bilbao vs San Sebastian – The food scene

The Basque Country must be one of the best regions in the world to eat. It’s a true foodies paradise. It’s not only the pintxos culture but also the great restaurants and the love for good food and ingredients that the Basques have. However, within the Basque County, San Sebastian is the clear winner.

The food scene in Bilbao is above the average with good pintxos, some good restaurants, and a few Michelin star ones. San Sebastian takes it to a whole other level. It has even been considered the city with most Michelin stars per person in the world. And then there’s the pintxos culture we have mentioned before… It’s almost a Masterchef experience.

So, San Sebastian wins this, as it’s considered one of the culinary capitals of the world. Though, note that Bilbao is still a good place to eat.

What to eat in San Sebstian

San Sebastian vs Bilbao – Weather

The weather of San Sebastian and Bilbao is very similar, which isn’t surprising as the cities are so close located. We can’t really say which city has better weather but San Sebastian has slightly more sunny hours than Bilbao, but it also rains more.

We will have to give a draw on this one. However, we need to mention one thing about the weather. One of the best features of San Sebastian is the wonderful La Concha Beach, but don’t expect it to have nice warm water! The sea temperature usually only reaches 21º C between July and September. During the rest of the year, it’s usually very cold, sometimes below 15º degrees.

Safety – San Sebastian vs Bilbao

Safety is a non-issue here. These days both cities are perfectly safe. There aren’t any problems walking at night or going anywhere in the cities. You would need to be very unlucky or unwise for something to happen to you.

So, another draw here.

Costs of traveling to Bilbao vs San Sebastian

Bilbao and San Sebastian have very similar costs of traveling. Food is surprisingly cheap if we take into consideration the quality. Accommodation tends to be a little cheaper in Bilbao than in San Sebastian, particularly when it starts to sell out during the high season. San Sebastian also has a problem with parking. If you are traveling by car, you’ll need to pay for parking as it’s virtually impossible to find parking spots in or close to the old town of San Sebastian.

In a hindsight, the difference isn’t very big but we believe Bilbao is a bit cheaper than San Sebastian, namely during high season. During off-peak, the prices tend to be similar. So, Bilbao wins this one.

City Hall San Sebastian

Tourists and tourism

San Sebastian seems to be more popular with tourists, but Bilbao is catching up. San Sebastien has been a travel destination for many decades now. During Summer San Sebastian is packed, while during the low season both cities are uncrowded, with few tourists in facts.

For those who don’t want to deal with lots of tourists, Bilbao is a good choice all year round, though it has more people in Summer. San Sebastian leaves you with a problem, particularly if you want to go to the beach. You can only really enjoy it during summer, but that’s also when it’s packed. You may need to choose between crowds and a not so great weather/seawater.

Bilbao wins this one as it hardly has the same crowds as San Sebastian in Summer.

San Sebastian or Bilbao

This turned out to be a much closer comparison than we expected at first. San Sebastian has everything we love about a destination (beach, beauty, food), but Bilbao is similar in many things. Plus, despite doesn’t have a beach within the city, it has some unique and interesting attractions! But Bilbao managed to also win the same number of topics…

In a hindsight, Bilbao and San Sebastian offer different things to travelers. So, you should choose San Sebastian if

  • You want to go to the Beach;
  • You want the absolutely best pintxos;
  • Don’t have a car;
  • Want to enjoy the Belle Epoche Architecture;

On the other hand, Bilbao is the best choice if:

  • Modern architecture is your things;
  • Want to visit a bigger city;
  • Want to visit unique attractions (the Vizcaya Bridge is mandatory);
  • Like spending time in museums;

We have a huge admiration for Bilbao, and for its recent development, but we still love San Sebastian and if we had to solely visit one, we would visit San Sebastian. But, for all the above reasons it’s completely understandable if you choose Bilbao!

One final note, if you have 4 days or more, we strongly suggest you visit both San Sebastian and Bilbao and do the coastal route between them.

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