Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Basque Country
Inaugurated in 1997, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, is hailed as one of the most important architectural works of its time. Within its undulating and reflecting walls, you’ll find a rotating artistic wonderland of both modern and contemporary art.
The conception of this iconic museum was born out of a grand mission to revitalize Spain’s fourth-largest city, considered one of the nation’s most critical ports. Traditionally an industrial metropolis, the creation of Bilbao’s cutting-edge museum generated -- in its first three years -- over four million tourist visits and enough economic activity and taxes to more than pay for its cost.
During a trip to the riverside museum, you can wander its over 100 exhibitions, all interconnected and arranged around the central light-filled atrium.
Lying between El Muelle harbor and the River Urumea, San Sebastian’s Old Town has its origins in medieval times although it was largely rebuilt following the large-scale destruction of the city by fire in 1813.
By day the Old Town is a maze of charismatic alleys and clusters of townhouses hosting the city’s chaotic daily Pescadería (fish market). The Municipal Museum San Telmo, the fine Gothic church of St Vincente and the Baroque basilica of Santa María del Coro are also found here, and much of the incessant action centers around the dynamic Plaza de la Constitución. This arcaded and balconied square was once a bullring and by night it buzzes with laughter and chatter from the numerous crowded bars and restaurants; this is the best place to sample pintxos, the famous Basque-country tapas of bite-size snacks on bread with typical toppings including peppers, tortilla, garlic prawns or cod.
Constitution Square sits in the heart of San Sebastián’s old quarter. Since its construction in the early 1800s, it has served as the city’s main square, but perhaps most interestingly as a bullring. You can still see remnants of this today: look above each of the balcony windows, where you’ll spy numbers denoting the former bullring boxes once rented by spectators.
Though the bullfights long ago moved to the city’s proper Plaza de Toros, Constitution Square (or Plaza de la Constitución in Spanish) still hosts some of San Sebastián’s biggest events. The most famous of these is no doubt the start and finish – marked by the flag raising and lowering -- of the parade- and drum-filled Tamborrada, which takes place yearly on January 20th. Events aside, the main square, which is dominated by the municipal library, resides in a part of town blanketed by a web of narrow medieval streets, each dotted by Basque Country’s answer to the tapas bar: the pintxos bar.
San Sebastian’s main crescent-shaped beach is of softest sand and punctuated at both ends by craggy hills: Monte Urgull to the east and Monte Igueldo to the west. Translating into English as ‘the shell’, La Concha was fundamental in the incarnation of San Sebastian as an elegant seaside resort favored by Spanish royalty back in the 19th century.
The beach fills to bursting in the summer, when the bumpy waters of the Bay of Biscay are calm and pleasantly warm to swim in. Lifeguards are always on duty and there are showers and other facilities on the beach, making it safe and easy for families to enjoy a day on the sand. Two floating pontoons out in the bay are just the spot for sunbathing; beyond them the small, rocky islet of Santa Clara has a tiny beach that is a prime picnic spot and can be reached by motorboat or hired canoe. Now backed by formal gardens, a brightly painted carousel, and a row of charming hotels, seafood restaurants and bars.
This fabulous seaside town of Biarritz has been the Pays Basque's hot spot for centuries, a status made official in the late 1800s when Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, declared "One must be able to dance well to be received here." This decree was amended in the 1950s, when the rolling waves crashing into the Gran Plage, the wide beach lined with bars and clubs where wine flows freely from dusk until dawn, attracted another sort of attention. Today, Biarritz is one of Europe's top surf destinations, with an International Surf Festival bringing in waveriders from around the world every July. The classic French-Basque setting, complete with elegant architecture, luxurious accommodation and other cultural treasures, makes a fine backdrop to the Basque's best fête destination.
Like a fantasy castle straight out of Middle-earth, the pride of the Vizcaya looms above the Butrón River, marking the spot of a key fortification that kept the Butrón clan in control. The original structure of Castle of Butron probably dated to the 11th century, though the earliest verifiable records refer to a stone tower that existed by 1250 AD. The castle was expanded as regional wars raged, and the Basque's ruling families spilled much blood in its shadow. As peace fell across the beautiful countryside, the great families allowed their fortress to fall into utter disrepair. Finally, in 1878, new owners hired architect Francisco de Cuba to rebuild the ruins but this time with a romanticized silhouette for relaxing, rather than fighting. Today, the old Castle of Butrón seems something from a fairy tale, with turreted towers and Bavarian style that will have you wondering when the next dragon will arrive. The gardens make a fine spot for a picnic, or wander around inside.
Wandering the narrow medieval streets of Bilbao's Casco Viejo, you'll stumble upon the towering exterior walls of Santiago Cathedral. It is believed that the church, which serves as a stop for pilgrims trekking the northern Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), dates back over 600 years, when it was built on the site of two previous even older churches.
Today's cathedral – which shouldn't be confused with the much larger one of the same name located in Santiago de Compostela, at the end of the Camino de Santiago – has expanded over the course of time, growing to the cathedral that you see now. During a visit, you can peruse its many chapels, wander the peaceful 15th-century gothic-style cloister, or just take in the exterior with its 19th-century gothic-revival facade and spire.
The neo-Gothic cathedral of Buen Pastor (the Good Shepherd) was completed in 1897 at a time when San Sebastian was flourishing as an aristocratic seaside resort; it was promoted to cathedral in 1953. Buen Pastor is the largest religious construction in the city, made of sandstone harvested from Monte Igueldo and with a tapering spire that serves as a local landmark.
The vast church was designed by Basque architect Manuel de Echave along elegant, slender Gothic lines; its needle-like spire is the tallest in the Basque country at 246 feet (75 meters). Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida created the ‘Cross of Peace’ that adorns the main façade. Based on the Latin cross, the cathedral has three naves and the interior is awash with light flooding in through the stained-glass windows by Juan Bautista Lázaro; vast chandeliers hang down from the vaulted roof and rose windows illuminate both ends of the transept.
One of the two headlands that bookend the sweep of San Sebastian’s sandy La Concha Bay, Monte Igueldo stands to the west of the town and is the perfect vantage point for panoramic views over the rocky islet of Santa Clara toward the hump of Monte Urgull at the east end of the beach.
Rearing up at the end of La Concha Bay, steep Monte Igueldo can be ascended by car or on foot along the winding Paseo del Faro; alternatively a funicular runs up the hill from Plaza del Funicular, 4. Once up there, there are viewing terraces and a small theme park but most people just visit for the panoramas, which are especially wonderful at sunset as the lights of the town twinkle below. Although the amusement park won’t impress hardened Disney veterans, it has a certain passé charm and enough to entertain families with toddlers for a couple of hours, from bumper cars to carousels and gentle roller coasters as well as themed rides in the Pirate Park.
More Things to Do in Basque Country
Just a few blocks off Bilbao’s main Plaza Moyúa is one of the city’s most unique and surprising structures: the Alhóndiga Bilbao. The multi-purpose venue marries culture and leisure, the past and the present, and is a free-to-enter stop you should definitely add to your list of things to do during your visit.
Indeed, the Alhóndiga Bilbao didn’t start out as such an innovative concept, but instead as a wine warehouse. Inaugurated in 1909, it was designed by Ricardo Bastida, and, come the 1970s, had an uncertain future, with proposals to turn it into public housing, a museum of modern art, and even to simply demolish it. But the structure had a more promising future in store: the Basque Government decided to declare it a “Public Property of Cultural Interest,” and henceforth it has become the center that you find today.
Wandering Bilbao's streets, you'll inevitably end up crossing Plaza Moyúa. Also known as Plaza Elíptica, due to its oblong shape, this main “square” is more than just a central crossroads, but a garden- and fountain-filled roundabout worth checking out and even stopping in (especially given its central area accessible to pedestrians).
Originally designed back in 1873, Plaza Moyúa sits in one of Bilbao's most exclusive neighborhoods, where it bisects the bustling shopping street Gran Vía. The plaza itself is dotted by various noteworthy buildings, such as the 20th-century Flemish-style Palacio Chávarri, the headquarters of the Civil Government since 1943, and the Hotel Carlton, the city's most famous hotel, which stands alone on its own spoke-like corner of the square.
The plaza is also a convenient location to catch the city's Metro – the third-busiest in Spain -- which rises out of Moyúa with its glass-domed entrance.
Gaztelugatxe is a small islet connected to the Basque coast by only a narrow stone bridge and a winding staircase. Dating back to the 10th century, the island was crowned in the name of John the Baptist and remains a small hermitage with a modest monastery. Two-hundred steps zig and zag up to the top of the mountain where the chapel sits, carving a scenic path visible from the top. The rocky island looks like a castle rising from the sea, which is where the island Gaztelu-aitz or ‘castle rock’ gets its name.
The rough waters of this coastline have carved several arches and caves dotting the edges of the peninsula and giving the island its unique, rugged look. This majestic spot is believed to be a former convent of the Knights Templar, as well as a former conquest of Sir Francis Drake. Climb to the top for the best views of the surrounding area.
In 1491, on the once much humbler site of this enormous and ornate Mudejár-style shrine that is the Sanctuary of Loyola, a family of minor nobility welcomed its 13th child, who would one day change the world. San Ignatius Lopéz de Loyola, a soldier turned to the priesthood by his strange visions, founded the Brotherhood of Jesus, or Jesuit order, whose radical interpretation of Catholicism left its mark on both the New and Old World.
A place of pilgrimage and wonder for the devout and secular alike, San Ignatius' former home has been transformed with Chirriguerresque flair into a grand compound. In addition to the basilica and shrine, there is an art museum displaying a few of his belongings and writings, as well as religious objects collected over the centuries. Shrines to other Jesuit saints are also arranged around the grounds.
The gardens and surrounding mountains make a fine backdrop to the scene, and you're welcome to stay on at their inexpensive hostel.
With formal gardens that tumble down to the beach edge at Ondarreta, the Miramar Palace was once the retreat of Queen Marie Christine Habsburg, the wealthy widow of King Alphonse XII of the Spanish ruling royal family; she was responsible for putting San Sebastian on the map as a popular seaside vacation resort in the late 19th century.
The palace was the work of Basque architect José Goicoa, and was completed in 1893 in the English style. The influence of his design partner, English architect Seldon Wornum, can be seen in the mock-Tudor detailing in the patterned brickwork, gables, tall thin chimneys, and rounded towers. The gardens of Marie Christine’s summer palace are so extensive that a road runs underneath them, connecting San Sebastian’s beaches with the elegant suburb of El Antiguo. After much to-ing and fro-ing between the Spanish royal family and local government officials, the gardens now form an elegant public park.
If your visit to Bilbao has gotten you into an artistic mood, then embrace that notion with a little theater at the city's Teatro Arriaga. The 19th-century Neo-baroque theater goes easy on the traveler's eyes with an elaborate facade that overlooks the east bank of the Nervión River, and a fancy interior of plush red chairs, golden balconies and ornate crown molding.
This may sound like theater-viewing perfection, but Teatro Arraiga's past hasn't been quite as flawless. Designed by Joaquín Rucoba, the theater was opened in 1890, and dedicated to Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, considered the Mozart of Spain. Flash forward to 1914, when a fire essentially demolished it, followed by other setbacks, such as its closing for a time during the Civil War. Then came threatening floods in 1983, which inundated the structure to the second floor, closing it once more.
Get to know Bilbao beyond just its artsy image by taking a trip to the city's Casco Viejo. Dating back to Medieval times, this – the Old Quarter – and its original seven streets still retain an almost untouched charm, free of the touristy trappings you might find in other big cities.
This once walled-in neighborhood originally consisted of exactly seven streets and, for that reason, is sometimes still called Los Siete Calles (“seven streets” in Spanish). Each of these original avenues still exist, with names such as Tendería Kalea (Shoekeeper's Street) and Carnicería Vieja Kalea (Old Butchery Street). Since Medieval times, the barrio has expanded to include still more streets beyond those seven originals, and also squares like Plaza Berria and Plaze Nueva.
The Casco Viejo draws a crowd for more than just its historical appeal, too. Head to the old-world district to fulfill your culinary cravings by popping from one bar to the next for pintxos.
Until the 1980s, when the Basque Country earned autonomous status from the Spanish government, Vitori-Gaitez was just another quaint provincial capital, notable for its two outstanding cathedrals, Gothic 14th-century Santa María and 1907 María Inmaculada, surrounded by scores of monumental buildings, some housing museums focusing on art, history, and in the 1525 Palacio de Bendana’s Museo Fournier, playing cards.
The hilltop old town was founded in the 6th century, though the oldest surviving structures are part of the well-preserved Medieval stronghold. This is surrounded by newer (14th to 18th-century) plazas and shady pedestrian promenades lined with shops and cafes.
The more affluent and energetic modern center of the young capital, however, showcases today’s talented architects, heralding the bright future of the Basque region.
The shimmering panels of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum may capture visitors’ oohs, but it’s the giant Puppy that draws all the awes. Standing at 43 feet tall, the flower-covered topiary stands out as a colorful symbol of Spain’s fifth-largest city, and will undoubtedly capture both your heart and the attention of your camera lens.
This cuddly canine giant was created by Jeff Koons, the American artist who found fame during the 80s, particularly for his pieces that hover between pop and pure kitsch. The life of this flowery man’s best friend didn’t start in Spain, though, but rather in Germany, where it was originally commissioned for a castle. Not done with traveling, the West Highland White Terrier puppy relocated to Sydney Harbour’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and ultimately to the grounds of Bilbao’s museum, where it is now part of its permanent collection. Since then, its journey has continued, making a temporary appearance in New York’s Rockefeller Center.
Site of many battles from the 12th century onwards, Monte Urgull is San Sebastian’s eastern headland and was an important defensive and lookout position until the town’s defensive walls were destroyed by the French and Portuguese in 1863. It is traversed with a tangle of hiking paths and topped by the small, fortified tower of Castillo de la Mota, built around 1150 and once used as a prison.
Today the castle provides glorious views west over La Concha Bay plus its little rocky outcrop Isla de Santa Clara. It also houses a small museum, the Casa de la Historia, which is chiefly memorable as it displays the sword of Boabdil, the ill-fated last Moorish king who saw his kingdom collapse at the hands of Isabella and Ferdinand in the 16th century. Above the castle looms the Monumento al Sagrado Corazón, a statue of Jesus that was erected in 1950 and looks beadily down over its verdant surroundings toward San Sebastian’s photogenic Parte Vieja (Old Town).
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