The Basque Country is one of the most exciting regions to visit in Spain. It has a very special identity and has a lot to offer visitors. Its major cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian are far less well known than Madrid or Barcelona but have plenty to interest tourists on a short break.
The Basque Country straddles the border between France and Spain in the Western Pyrenees and along the coast of the Bay of Biscay. By staying in one of the Basque cities the visitor will experience something quite different to the rest of Spain. The language, said to be the oldest in the world, is quite unlike Spanish, and many other aspects of this region are very different to other parts of Spain.
Bilbao is a port and an industrial city, but in more recent years it has undergone quite a transformation to a modern cosmopolitan city. Tourists head there for many reasons, most notably its star attraction, the Guggenheim Museum. Even if you aren’t a fan of modern art, the Frank Gehry-designed building is worth a visit. This spectacular structure is made of titanium, glass, and limestone, and when it opened in 1997 it was hailed as the most important building of its time. The museum is dedicated to modern and contemporary art with a collection spanning the mid-20th century to the present day, concentrating particularly on post-war painting and sculpture in America and Europe. Another cultural attraction in Bilbao is the Fine Arts Museum, the “Museo de Bellas Artes,” arguably one of the top-five museums in Spain. Described as a mini-Prado, the museum displays Spanish works from the 12th to the 20th centuries, in addition to French, Italian and Flemish masterpieces. Bilbao also has some excellent shopping and very good restaurants and pintxos bars (the Basque version of tapas).
San Sebastian lies on the coast about 100 kilometres to the east of Bilbao and can easily be reached by train in just over an hour, making the two cities an ideal twin-centre city break. Many people visit San Sebastian for the wonderful beaches with their fine sand and clear waters. Fish restaurants are plentiful here, as are the pintxos bars. The pintxos in San Sebastian tend to be quite inventive in their presentation and use of ingredients. They often have unusual combinations of sweet and savoury and are traditionally laid out on the top of the bar, where you can either help yourself or point to what you want and have the bartender serve you. The area around Calle 31 de Agosto is particularly well known for its pintxos bars. For those looking for a more substantial meal, Basque steakhouses are also well worth a visit.
San Sebastian hosts the San Sebastian International Film Festival every September. Created in 1953, this has become one of the most important cinema festivals in the world. It has hosted several film premieres and a number of major actors and directors such as Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Gere, Mel Gibson have attended the festival since its inception.
Bilbao and San Sebastian – two very different but very interesting and appealing Basque cities, with plenty of attractions to keep visitors busy for a few days.