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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6 Things You MUST do in San Sebastian

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. 

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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

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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-TFWYs

 

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