When you think about visiting the Basque Country, you probably think of San Sebastian and Bilbao, which are both incredible cities that deserve to be visited! Thus, if you are visiting both you’ll need to go from one to another. So, if you going to do the trip, you might as well enjoy it! In this post, we chose an itinerary from San Sebastian to Bilbao but you can do it backward, from Bilbao to San Sebastian as easily.
In this road trip through the Basque Coast, you will see amazing beaches, incredible lookouts, cute villages, stunning cliffs, great hikes, unbelievable islets and a unique bridge. Here you will discover that Spain‘s coastline is much more than the southern beaches!
This trip starts in San Sebastian, but we are assuming that you have already visited the city. It is the most beautiful city on the Basque coast and it should take you 1 or 2 full days visiting it. You won’t have time to do San Sebastian and the destinations below in just one day.
Are you still unsure if you should visit San Sebastian? Check this article about the best things to do San Sebastian.
From San Sebastian, we suggest you avoid the highway and go on the road closer to the sea. You start by going to Mount Igueldo and then continue to Zarautz through a small road with beautiful views and it’s very pleasant to drive.
Zarautz’s main attraction is definitely its 2.5 km long beach. This massive stretch of sand is known as “the queen of the beaches” and has been attracting beachgoers since the 19th century. If you are traveling in Summer, you really shouldn’t skip it! During summer this sleepy beach town changes completely, becoming very lively. Watersports lovers, surfers in particular love this town.
Getaria is very close to Zarautz and the maritime road connecting them was beautifully built on the edge of the cliffs right in the sea. It’s definitely a place to enjoy the views and the road.
Getaria was a whaling town, much like many others on the Basque coast and nowadays it’s an attraction by itself where you could easily spend a full day. You have an old town, a seaport, the ocean, beaches and a mountain-islet with a lighthouse. We suggest you start by having a walk through the old town, visiting the church of San Salvador and its tunnel underneath! Interestingly the church used to belong to the wall that surrounded the town.
If you like quick hikes (and stunning views) we strongly suggest you climb Mount San Antón. There are several paths leading to the top. On the way up, you will discover the lighthouse, from which they used to observe whales. On the top, you will be rewarded with beautiful panoramic views of the town and the coast. We really enjoyed this! It’s a very gratifying piece of exercise during a road trip and after several days eating pintxos!
Zumaia is the next beach town in the Basque country that really needs to be visited. This small town has two wonderful beaches, an interesting Old Town, a modern leisure port and several interesting buildings, however, we will focus in the Flysch Cliffs and the Geopark because that’s what makes this town unique.
Between Zumaia and Deba the mountains descend abruptly to the sea forming one of the most spectacular natural areas in the Basque Country. Over thousands of years, the sea waves have eroded the smooth clayey materials of the Flysch, sculpting the amazing cliffs that form a plane surface on the coastal line. Besides being unique and a geologists wet dream the Flysch cliffs and incredibly photogenic and the whole scene just invites for a walk, both on the beach and on the edge of the cliffs.
To have more info about Flysch Cliffs and why these are so important to check here.
Hiking in the Geopark
Hiking around the Basque Coast Geopark is one of the best ways of discovering the local Flysch, Karst, and its culture. Between Zumaia and Dena you can do a 60 million years trek in an 8-hour walk! I mean, you can watch 60 million years of geological history in 8 hours, while taking in the magnificent views! Though, if you have a full day, you can also do short treks. We strongly advise you to do the Algorri trail which starts from the San Telmo chapel and covers the most exciting chapter of the Flysch. This is also where the most you can find the most beautiful views. This is a scenery that you won’t forget easily!
It’s a fairly easy walk with only 1.5 Km, although you should take about 1 hour to do because you’ll want to stop, enjoy and take lots of pics. Note that the trail takes you to the edge of the cliff which could be dangerous and difficult for children and people who are afraid of heights.
Boat Ride in the Geopark
There are several organized boat trips to better see the cliffs, usually between Zumaia, Deba, and Mutriku. The impressive Flysch cliffs can be observed from the sea allowing you to witness more than 60 million years of geological history. Plus, with a guide explaining the importance and the details of the cliffs you can enjoy more than just its beauty but also understand its relevance.
Despite being available all year, the boat trips are a better option in summer. During winter the wind and waves make the trips less pleasant and the boat can’t approach the cliffs. Moreover, if it’s really bad weather the trips may even be canceled or shortened! This happened to us and it was very frustrating.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
It’s really difficult to choose the highlight of this trip from San Sebastian to Bilbao, but I think that the islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is our favorite! The whole setting is astonishing and being a Game of Thrones fan will only make your experience even better as you will remember the stone bridge and stairs as the real-life Dragonstone!
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe islet is connected to the mainland via a man-made footbridge which transitions into a narrow path that contains 241 steps and zigzags its way back and forth to the top. Descending the hill, crossings the bridge and climbing up to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a small adventure that will reward you with impressive views. On top, there’s a tradition of ringing the chapel’s bell three times and make a wish.
Our last stop before arriving at Bilbao is the Vizcaya Bridge, connecting Portugalete and Getxo! This is a bridge unlike any other we have ever seen. Why? People and traffic are carried on a high suspended gondola operating every 8 minutes during the day. Each gondola can transport six cars and several dozen passengers in one and a half minutes. Yes, you read it right! You don’t actually drive (or walk) through the bridge, you drive the car into a gondola that “floats” to the other side! Pretty cool, ah? We had to try it. We have to say that the trip was really smooth and the bridge is a perfect combination of beauty and functionality.
The 45-m-high bridge with its span of 160 m, merges 19th-century ironworking traditions with the then-new lightweight technology of twisted steel ropes. The bridge was built to connect Portugalete and Getxo without disrupting the maritime traffic of the Port of Bilbao and at a reasonable price. In 2006 the Vizcaya bridge was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (in the industrial heritage category), it was the first to use a combination of iron technology and new steel cables which began a new form of constructing bridges which were later imitated throughout the world.
Bilbao is the biggest city in the Basque country and the last stop of this road trip. As we said about San Sebastian, Bilbao deserves at least one day of your time. In Bilbao, you have to visit the Guggenheim Museum, or at the very least take some time to look around and enjoy the views of that amazing and iconic building. You should also visit the Casco Viejo, the old town of Bilbao, full of old buildings, narrow streets and a charm of its own.
Only the trip from San Sebastian to Bilbao could be a full day, or even 2 or 3 days, depending on the time you have. The Basque country and particularly the Basque coast is beautiful and has plenty of things to do. We strongly advise you to take your time and enjoy!
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Jorge is an economist who loves to travel. He has worked in Portugal and in Angola as the Head Financial Controller of an international transports and logistics company. He is always planning new trips and discovering new places he wants to go. He explores his ability in finance and planning to help you plan your trips, take the most of your dollars and travel more, smarter and better.