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 the following:
- General Beauty;
- Things to see and do;
- Unique attractions;
- City Vibe;
- The people;
- Day trips;
- Food scene;
- Tourists and crowds;
San Sebastian or Bilbao
San Sebastian is an elegant city with classical architecture, located on a beautiful 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, making it more attractive. San Sebastian screams belle epoch charm.
Bilbao is a bigger city that developed as an industrial town but, in the past decades, transformed into a modern one with some beautiful buildings, parks, and museums. Bilbao has been investing heavily in architectural art, creating a fascinating town full of things to do.
Though, in our opinion, San Sebastian still has an advantage and takes the win.
Things to do in Bilbao and San Sebastian
Neither Bilbao nor San Sebastian are 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 numerous landmarks, attractions, and things to do. In fact, both cities are home to some of the most famous landmarks in Spain.
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 of the bay.
- Go to Mount Urgull
- Go to San Telmo Museum – a Basque culture and heritage museum
In Bilbao, the best things to do include:
- Go to the Guggenheim Museum;
- Cross the Vizcaya Bridge (not really in Bilbao, but close enough);
- Enjoy the modern architectural 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 stroll, 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, sometimes 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 appeals, 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 a 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 are very few bridges ever built like this, and the Viscaya is the oldest one and undoubtedly 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 more unique attractions.
City Vibe – San Sebastian vs Bilbao
As we said above, these are almost neighboring cities from the same region, the Basque country. They share the Basque culture, but they are fundamentally different.
San Sebastian is a tourist town. Its beautiful natural setting and wonderfully elegant, classic architecture have always attracted tourists. Plus, San Sebastian is comfortably small, everything important is within walking distance, and it has the world’s best pintxos/tapas bars.
Bilbao is a workers’ town that grew with the early industrialization of the Basque country. It suffered but managed 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.
The people of San Sebastian and Bilbao
They are Basques… They love their country, their food, their language, and their family. Basque people 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 wrap it up with a tie.
Day trips from San Sebastian and Bilbao
Another very simple one… San Sebastian and Bilbao are only 100km from each other, which takes little more than one hour to drive. This means that almost everyday trip that you can do from one city, you can do from the other. Or you can have a day trip from one to the other!
The main difference is that Bilbao is better located to have 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 Basque coastal route.
For all the reasons above, this has to be a tie…
San Sebastian vs. Bilbao – The Nightlife
We aren’t really a nightlife kind of traveler, it usually isn’t a relevant thing for us. However, in San Sebastian, it was different. We really enjoyed going out at night to the pintxos bars. It is so lively! San Sebastian center must have the most bars per square meter worldwide. And most of them are good… really good! It’s fun and yummy, what more do we need?
Bilbao has a similar culture… but we found it 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. Yet, we can’t stress enough that San Sebastian would beat any other city we have been to. We enjoyed the pintxos bars that much!
Lodging in Bilbao and San Sebastian
The lodging options in Bilbao and San Sebastian are very similar. Plenty of guest houses, AirBnBs, and hostels are 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 less the same level of benefits. And that’s why 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. Yet, San Sebastian takes it to a whole other level. It has even been considered the city with the 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 world’s culinary capitals. Though, note that Bilbao is still an excellent place to eat.
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. San Sebastian has slightly more sunny hours than Bilbao but also has more rain.
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 fabulous 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 freezing, 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 unlucky or unwise for something bad to happen.
So, another draw here.
Costs of traveling to Bilbao vs. San Sebastian
Bilbao and San Sebastian have very similar costs for traveling. Food is surprisingly cheap if we take into consideration the quality. Accommodation tends to be cheaper in Bilbao than in San Sebastian, especially 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 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.
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 fact.
For those who don’t want to deal with many 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 was a much closer comparison than we expected at first. San Sebastian has everything we love about a destination (beach, beauty, food), but Bilbao is comparable in many things. Plus, despite not having a beach within the city, it has some unique and exciting attractions!
In the end, Bilbao also managed to win the same number of topics…
In 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 absolute 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 thing;
- Want to visit a bigger city;
- Want to visit unique attractions (the Vizcaya Bridge is mandatory);
- Like spending time in museums;
We have a massive admiration for Bilbao and for its recent development, but we still love San Sebastian, and if we had to visit only 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 four or more days, we strongly suggest you visit San Sebastian and Bilbao and do the coastal route between them.
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