Bilbao was our first stop in our northern Spain trip. We only gave ourselves two days in the city before heading off to our next stop. The city is fairly small and very walkable. Two full days is enough time to see the major highlights and have time to wander the city without feeling rushed. That being said we really enjoyed Bilbao and would recommend giving yourself more time if you can. The city is beautiful and there are plenty of areas nearby that make great day trips.
Getting around: From the airport there is a bus that will take you directly into the city. The Bilbao airport is quite small which makes finding the bus very easy. When you leave baggage claim there is literally just a door that says bus, you walk through and will immediately see the ticket counter and the bus stop. Don’t waste your money on a taxi, the city is just a short bus ride away, approx. 20 minutes.
As we said, the city itself is very walkable and the best way to see it is on foot. There is also a subway/metro which is easy to use. This will take you around the city and out of the city for a low cost. You will see most locals using a card/pass to pay for their routes (barik card). If you happen to get one of these cards it will cost you less for each route. We were lucky enough to have a wonderful Airbnb host who left us her extra card so we could load money on it and then travel on the metro for cheaper. We took the metro from the city center to the Las Arenas area which is on the bay of Biscay. This was approx. 20-30 minute ride and only cost us less than one Euro per person with the barik card. You can load money onto the card using an machine similar to an ATM at any metro station.
What to See and Do:
Old town (Casco Viejo): This is a beautiful part of the city and it is where you will get the best pintxos. This area is full of cobblestone streets, old churches and other beautiful buildings. We recommend you wander around and eat at any pintxo bar you pass that is full of people; the best pintxo bars are the crowded ones! For more information on how to order pintxos check out our blog post here: Ordering Pintxos in Basque Country
Guggenheim Museum: We stayed near the museum and we really liked that area. It was not a far walk to any of the areas of the city listed in this post. Staying in this area or staying in old town would both be great options. We are not big museum people and we were only in the city for two days so we did not go into the museum. We had read that the entrance fee is a bit expensive. The big draw to the museum is the building itself. The architecture is very cool and surrounding the museum there are several sculptures which are worth seeing.
Funicular up Mount Artxanda: If you are staying in old town or near the Guggenheim you will need to cross the river to get to the funicular. From the top of Mount Artxanda you have the best views of the city. There is a look out point great for taking pictures, a small park area and several restaurants. We highly recommend doing this during your stay! The funicular leaves every 15 minutes during the day.
Zubizuri Bridge: beautiful white foot-bridge over the river. If you walk along the river you can’t miss it! This is the bridge you will take to get across the river if you are heading to the funicular.
Mercado de la Ribera: This is the largest covered market in Europe. Here you will find venders selling local fruits and vegetables, meats, fresh seafood and local cheeses. We wandered through and were not hassled or pressured at all to buy anything. On the other half of the building there is a large sitting area with venders selling pintxos, coffee and drinks. You will find a good variety of pintxos here. Different from the pintxos bars in old town here you can order you pintxos and then go sit down at a table to enjoy them. Although normally pintxos are eaten standing up, in a crowded bar this setting can be more comfortable if traveling from somewhere where you are used to sitting down for all your meals. You will see a mix of locals and tourists eating here.
Las Arenas: This area was recommended to us by our air b and b host. It was about 20-30 minutes ride out of town on the metro. There is a small beach area as well as a beautiful walkway along the port. You can also see the Vizcaya bridge which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2006. For a small fee you can take the bridge across the river to the other side of the city. The bridge hangs over the water, unlike anything we had seen before. We spent an afternoon in this area, first wandering the city and then heading to the beach. It’s a great place to visit, especially if you aren’t planning on spending a lot of time on your trip along the coast. This area will give you the coastal city feel and some beach time without having to travel too far outside the city.
Bilbao really took us by surprise! We expected to like it but it wasn’t the place we were most excited about on our trip. We found it to be an absolutely beautiful city which we would love to get back to. The people are kind and helpful and the city is not overrun by tourists yet so go soon!
We had heard a lot of great things about San Sebastian in all of our research for northern Spain. We saved it for the end of our trip and made sure we gave ourselves several days to wander the city and take it all in. We would highly recommend staying at least 3 days in San Sebastian as a part of any northern Spain trip but you could easily stay longer. There are plenty of great spots along the Basque coast to explore as well if you are basing yourself in the city and planning on day trips out further. Here are our recommendations for what to see and do while you are in the city. There is definitely more to see and do that what we are listing here. For us we spend a lot of time on the beaches, eating some amazing food and just wandering the streets soaking up our last days in Spain.
Take a food Tour- Food is a big deal in San Sebastian. It is known for amazing pintxos and a significant number of Michelin star restaurants to choose from. We booked a food tour the first evening we were in the city and we were so glad we did! We booked through air B and B and ended up with a small group of 9 plus our guide. We got some general information about the city as we walked from place to place and the most important part, we had some truly amazing food! Food tours are a bit pricy but all your food and drinks are included. We are typically do it ourselves kind of travelers so we were a bit nervous we wouldn’t get our money’s worth. We were pleasantly surprised by the experience! We learned a lot and had several dishes we would not have even known to order if it weren’t for our guide. For more information on ordering pintxos and specific pintxo bars to eat at check out our blog post here: Ordering Pintxos in Basque Country
Walk around old town (Parte Vieja)– This is where you will find the best pintxo bars! The streets are lined with places to stop in for a pintxo. We recommend wandering around and finding the places that are crowded as those are the places that will have the best food. Old town is a beautiful part of the city with cobblestone streets and old churches. We would recommend staying in or near old town so that you will be close to everything you want to see and do in the city.
La Concha Beach- This beach is the closest to old town. It is the iconic beach you see in pictures everywhere. La Isla de Santa Clara is in the center and you can see Mont Urgull and Mont Igueldo on either side. There are plenty of boats mooring out in the bay as well. It’s a beautiful beach to spend the afternoon.
Zurriola Beach- This is the surfing beach in the city. On good wave days there will be surfers of all levels out all day. We actually enjoyed this beach more than la concha since it is a bit further from the main part of the city and the beach is bigger. When you sit on this beach you don’t feel as much like you’re in the city. The surfing offers endless entertainment whether your out in the waves or just watching. There are several shops around the area to rent surfboards if you want to give it a try. It is good to know that if the red flags are flying at the beach the surf shops are not supposed to rent you a board. You can surf on those days if you have your own board.
Hike up Mont Urgull – There are multiple paths you can follow that wind up the hill. There are multiple small park areas, a small café and lots of places to stop and get a view of the city and the sea as you walk up. At the very top there is a free museum with artifacts from the city’s history. Most of the museum is in Basque and Spanish only. As you walk through the museum you can get right up to the Sagrado Corazon (sacred heart) statue (also known as the Cristo de la Mota) at the top of the hill and get some great views of the city. You can also wander through parts of the Castillo de la Mota fortress that was built in the 12th century and was used to defend the city.
Funicular up Mont Igueldo– This is where you will get the amazing view of the city and they bay, the one you have probably seen on every blog post or travel site for San Sebastian. It is a must do while you are in the city! There is a restaurant at the top of the hill with outdoor seating so you enjoy the view while you have a drink or a snack (reasonably priced considering the monopoly). The funicular leaves every 15 minutes.
Free Parking – One good thing to know if you are driving (which we were as we did this as part of a larger road trip) is that parking in the city is pretty pricy. The last night we were there we parked in a parking garage in old town, close to our air b and b so that we could more quickly and easily get to the airport. We paid 24 euro for overnight parking. The first several nights we stayed in the city we parked in a free lot in Loiola. This was about 20-25 minutes walking to old town. There is also a bus stop nearby so you could park and take the bus into the city. The buses were running on schedule and were easy to navigate. Below is a map of the free parking lot!
We absolutely loved it in San Sebastian! It’s a wonderful sit to eat, relax and just soak it all in! It was a great way for us to end our trip through northern Spain and we would love to go back again!
The food culture in the Basque region of Spain is truly amazing! San Sebastian is quickly becoming one of the top foodie destinations and for good reason. At the center of the Basque food culture are pintxos. These are small bites, similar to a tapa which people are probably more familiar with. In general pintxos are larger and more complex than most tapas offered in Spain. You can easily create an entire meal on pintxos, trust us we did this very often while we were in Bilbao and in San Sebastian.
It can be intimidating to walk into a pintxos bar when you aren’t fluent in Spanish and aren’t sure the protocol. Most pintxo bars are small places and the best ones are jam packed with people. But don’t worry, we have some tips for how to order and what to order. The first stop on our northern Spain trip was Bilbao. When we arrived we knew we had to eat pintxos but we weren’t exactly sure what to do. We walked into a pintxo bar and just watched for a few minutes so we could see what people were doing and get a lay of the land. We saw people pointing to the pintxos on the bar so that is what we did. Most pintxo bars have cold pintxos out on the bar or just behind the bar, on display. So if you don’t know any Spanish you can simply point to which ones you want. Most often pintoxs are enjoyed with a drink so knowing how to order a beer or wine is helpful. Una copa de vino tinto or vino blanco will get you a glass of red or white wine respectively. You can ask for a cerveza and that will get you a beer but most locals will order a cana, which is a small glass of beer. Pintxos are meant to be eaten standing up and most locals go from place to place so don’t expect to sit at a table and stay at the same bar all night long.
We spent the first two days of our trip eating only these pintxos we saw on display. We ate well and were not disappointed but we knew we weren’t getting the full pintxo experience. We learned more later on in our trip once we got to San Sebastian. Here we took a food tour our first night hoping we would learn more than what we had already picked up on based on our observations.
What we learned is that a lot of the pintxo bars have a hot pintxo (pintxos caliente) menu which is often listed on a board (often a chalk board) on display on the wall behind the bar. Some of the bars will also have a paper copy on this menu and that may be offered in English. Hot pintxos can typically be ordered as pintxo size (small, bite size portion), a half portion (media racion) or as full portion (racion) which is a larger portion similar to what you would expect if you ordered an entrée. Either way most locals still enjoy their food standing up at the bar or a small counter.
Once we discovered how to get hot pintxos there was no going back to the ones on display on the bar. The pintxos we ordered in San Sebastian were some of the best things we have ever eaten. While there are many Michelin star restaurants in San Sebastian we decided to stick with pintoxs each night we were there. That way you can still get amazing food but at a much lower price and get a real feel for the city as you wander the streets. You can get hot pintoxs in Bilbao but as we were there before we really had it all figured out we don’t have as many specific recommendations for Bilbao as we do for San Sebastian. Here is our list of pintxo bars you must eat at while in each city.
La Cuchara de San Telmo: We ate here three times! The first time our food tour guide brought us. We loved it so much that we went back the following two nights. Everything on their menu looked amazing. The guy behind the bar taking orders was also awesome! He remembered our name and took time to say thank you and have a great night before we left. This is even more incredible when you see just how crowded this place is. Everything we had here was excellent, but you must try the Morcilla (blood sausage)! We also had the suckling pig, scallops, and pigs ear – and everything we saw come out of the kitchen looked and smelled phenomenal. One thing to note is that they almost exclusively have ration/half ration order sizes (no pintxos and everything is made to order), but don’t worry – you will wish you had more.
Atari Gastroleku: We ended up going here twice. Once with our guided tour and once later in the week on our own. They are known for their Galician Octopus, and we also had the braised beef cheeks which are a traditional dish to the region. They are also known for their Gin & Tonics, so if you mind skipping the wine for a stop – this is the place.
Ganbara: This place is known for their mushrooms, you will see a pile of different types and there are a few different dishes you can get made to order with mushrooms and they are all on the menu. We also went here with our guide, and he ordered tuna off menu (called bonito in northern Spain, this place had it when it was in season).
Bar Sport: It was recommended by our AirBnB Host who’s brother owns this place. Despite the bias, we agreed it was very good. We mostly had the cold pintxos, and the sea urchin soup was really good.
Mercado de la Ribera: This is the largest covered market in Europe. You can buy fresh seafood, meats, cheeses, vegetables and fruits here. There is also a large indoor sitting area surrounded by venders selling a wide variety of pintxos.
El Sacachoros: This was the first pintxo bar we stepped into. We didn’t really know what to do, so we ended up ordering off the cold bar, then sitting down at a table. We had the octopus pintxo in the picture below, which was excellent. the Iberico ham one was good too though!
There are plenty of other pintxo bars in both these city’s. Wander through old town in Bilbao or San Sebastian and go into any pintxo bar full of people. We promise you won’t be disappointed with the food!
Use this website for tide tables and general info: http://ascatedrais.gal/ascatedrais/portada.php?idioma=en
During your Visit:
Once you scan your ticket and head down to the beach you won’t be allowed to go back down a second time, so take your time! Even though the number of visitors is limited each day it will be crowded. The beach is large with lots to explore but do be aware it can be difficult to get a picture of the rock formations without anybody in them. Most of the large arches you will have seen pictures of before you go are to the right of the stairs down to the beach. But trust us walking the entire length of the beach in both directions is worth it. We recommend wearing shorts or pants that can easily be rolled up and wear shoes you can easily kick off. We visited the week after the full moon at low tide (the best week to visit) and while the beach was mostly dry there are rock formations closer to the water so if you want to see it all you may have to walk through some shallow water.
There is a restaurant at the top of the stairs to the beach if you want lunch after you explore. We didn’t eat there so cannot recommend it. There are also picnic tables with better views of the beach so we would recommend taking a picnic lunch or some snacks to enjoy there before or after your beach walk. There are bathrooms you can use while your there but do be prepared, you will have to pay a small amount so do bring some small change.
We hope this helps! Go and explore this incredibly beautiful beach!
We love Venison. And we love bourbon. And we love grilling, grilling planks and meatballs. What do you get when you combine them all? Magic. You can buy the bourbon barrel planks here on Etsy: Bourbon Barrel Grilling Planks (full disclosure – we sell them at this shop!)
- 1 Lb. Ground Venison (you can also substitute for another ground game meat, lamb, or grass fed beef)
- 1 Tsp Sea Salt (we use Himalayan Pink salt)
- 1 Tsp Black Pepper
- 1/2 Tsp Red Pepper Flakes
- 1 Tsp Garlic (granulated or diced)
- 1/2 Tsp Onion powder
- Soak Bourbon plank for at least 30 minutes to an hour
- Mix ground venison with the dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix without overworking the meat.
- Form into meatballs and place on plate and refrigerate one hour.
- Preheat grill with indirect heat at 400F
- Place plank on the grill to preheat for 10 minutes. As the moisture escapes the wood fibers it brings the oak and bourbon flavor out of the barrel plank and into your meatballs!
- Once the plank is warmed up, place the meatballs on the plank
- Cook approximately 20 minutes, or to your liking. I shoot for medium for meatballs, or 150F internal temp. Do not overcook them, Venison does not have the fat content beef has and they will dry out quickly!
- They should be brown and glistening when you take them off. Enjoy them with naan and Tzatziki!
Please let us know if you try this out in the comment section!
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