Visiting San Juan de Gatzelugatxe

San Juan de Gatzelugatxe for anyone who doesn’t know, is an island off of Spain’s northern coast. It’s in Basque country near Bilbao and San Sebastian. The island is connected to the mainland by a manmade bridge. On top of the island is a small church dedicated to John the Baptist.

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When we first saw pictures of San Juan de Gatzelugatxe we knew we had to visit while we were in Northern Spain! The place just looks incredible.  We later learned this place was also featured on Game of Thrones so it recently has been getting more tourists for that reason. We didn’t watch the show but we can certainly say that this place is beautiful! As long as you are up for a hike it is definitely worth a visit! We visited as a day trip from San Sebastian which was very doable. It was a little over an hour drive from the city. It is much closer to Bilbao so if you are planning to visit both of those cities it would be easier to get to San Juan de Gatzelugatxe from Bilbao.

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A more recent change to this place is that you now need a ticket to enter. The tickets were free of cost when we visited. You can book online ahead of time and then just scan your pass to enter. If you don’t book ahead of time you can get your tickets when you arrive but there will likely be a line you need to wait in to register for your tickets. We arrived just before 10 AM and then line was pretty small but having booked online we got to skip right through. Online it says this place opens to visitors at 10AM however there were people already at the top when we started our walk so they had to have let people in early. We would highly recommend getting there right when it opens so that you can be there before the crowds. Get your tickets here: http://web.bizkaia.eus/es/gaztelugatxe

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You will get great views of the church and the island as you walk the path down from the parking area to the start of the stairs. Then the real climb begins as you walk up the 231 steps up to the church. The staircase is pretty steep for much of the climb and fairly narrow. You will pretty much be walking single file. There are handrails the entire way but we would not recommend doing this walk if you do have mobility difficulties. The steps are cobblestone and uneven at times making it a bit challenging to navigate, wear good shoes for sure! The views of the surrounding coastline as you walk up are incredible, you will want to stop for pictures along the way! Once you are at the top you can see the church and if you would like ring the bell three times and make a wish. Total time it took us to walk from the entrance all the way up to the church and back down was about an hour and a half. We did see a small café and there was an ice cream truck setting up by the parking lot when we got back to our car. We didn’t eat at the café so cannot comment on the food or pricing but know that it is an option for after you hike.

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For more recommendations on what to do in the surrounding cities of San Sebastian and Bilbo check out our other blog posts here:

San Sebastian

Bilbao

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-TFWYs

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Why You Shouldn’t Skip Bilbao in Northern Spain

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.

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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  

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

-TFWY’s

How to Order Pintxos Like a Local in Basque Country

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. 

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 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. 

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La cuchara de San Telmo – 1/2 racion of Scallops

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.

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La cuchara de San Telmo – 1/2 racion of Suckling Pig

San Sebastian:

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.

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La cuchara de San Telmo –  1/2 racion of Morcilla

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.

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Atari Gastroleku – Racion of Octopus (pulpo)

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.

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Bilbao:

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.

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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!

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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!

-TFWYs