October 2019 Spain鈥檚 Basque Region: How to Explore the Country鈥檚 Best-Kept Secret

Spain鈥檚 Basque Region: How to Explore the Country鈥檚 Best-Kept Secret

Basque in it: San Sebastián’s Ondarreta Beach.
Basque in it: San Sebasti谩n’s Ondarreta Beach.
Photo by Lukasz Janyst/Alamy
Bilbao and San Sebasti谩n may get less attention than other parts of Spain, but that leaves more delicious travel finds for the rest of us.

On a golden summer evening near La Concha Beach in San Sebasti谩n, with bronzed couples frolicking on the promenade and the hungry searching for pintxos (bite-sized snacks spiked with toothpicks), it’s easy to believe that Basque Country is Spain’s best-kept secret.

Madrid has the Prado Museum, and Barcelona boasts the wonders of Gaud铆, Picasso, and Mir贸, but San Sebasti谩n and neighboring Bilbao, Basque’s urban hubs, still feel like discoveries, even with a history that dates back to Paleolithic times. Straddling the French border in northern Spain, the autonomous region has its own language, dishes, and traditions you won’t find anywhere else, and a character as memorable as its jagged coastline along the Bay of Biscay.

“These northern cities are smaller, less glitzy, and, in my experience, even friendlier than Spain’s glamour destinations,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Bowden Sarrett. “The Basque people are proud, but in an independent, not arrogant, way. They’re also hospitable and eager to share what makes them different and special.”

From world-famous museums to some of the world’s best dining, here’s how to get your Basque culture fix.

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao’s Maman.
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao’s Maman.
Photo by Jimmy Lung/Getty Images

Museum Culture

If one image epitomizes contemporary Basque Country, it’s the curvilinear, titanium-wrapped Guggenheim Museum Bilbao on the Nervi贸n River. The shimmering, Frank Gehry-designed landmark, which locals call “The Googen,” opened in 1997, radically transforming the industrial port into a cosmopolitan destination for all manner of culturati.

Inside and out (head around to the back to behold the giant spider, Maman, by Louise Bourgeois), the Guggenheim is a treasure worth flying for, but it’s hardly the only enlightened destination in town. In the nearby Indautxu district, designer Philippe Starck turned a 1905 wine warehouse into a stylish gathering space and performance center with digital art displays, a library, and a glass-bottomed swimming pool on the roof that provides a show for those below.

The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, available on a dual ticket with the Guggenheim, sounds like it might be stuffy, but the collection surprises – a recent “ABC” exhibition, for instance, grouped museum masterworks alphabetically by themes (D for Desire, M for Mom, Q for Quiet, and so on).
The Oma Forest. 
The Oma Forest. 
Photo by ABBPhoto/Getty Images
In San Sebasti谩n, the San Telmo Museum, housed in a former Dominican convent from the mid sixteenth century, celebrates Basque artistry. “And don’t skip the countryside,” says Virginia Irurita, co-owner of Made for Spain and Portugal, a Virtuoso on-site connection based in Madrid. Irurita works with Virtuoso advisors to craft tailor-made tours of the region and is particularly fond of the Oma Forest, a sited artwork by Basque painter Agust铆n Ibarrola, who turned a grove of Monterey pines in a biosphere reserve into a painted commentary on art and nature. “Google it,” she says. “You won’t believe your eyes.”
A playful dish at Mugaritz.
A playful dish at Mugaritz.

World-Class Dining

This year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list had two Basque restaurants in the top 10 – Asador Etxebarri, in Axpe, at number 3, and Mugaritz, outside San Sebasti谩n, at number 7 – with three more rounding out the ranking. More than anyplace else in Spain, the Basque region pushes expectations when it comes to cuisine. At Mugaritz, for example, chef Andoni Luis Aduriz serves crab on ice shaped like a tongue, and bellota ham on musical dishware that plays like a chamber orchestra as plates arrive at the table.

Add in 40 Michelin-starred restaurants, if you take in nearby towns such as Pamplona and Biarritz in France, and you have one of the most acclaimed dining destinations on earth. Like everything else in these parts, the spotlight is on enjoyment more than fuss – the Basque are famously unpretentious – and that means even the finer restaurants are less formal (and usually less expensive) than in other food-centric locales.
La Vin虄a del Ensanche’s josellinis.
La Vin虄a del Ensanche’s josellinis.
Photo by Daniel Gibert Cobos
You can also do just fine grazing on an urban bar crawl. “The happiest street in Bilbao,” as Irurita calls it, is Calle Ledesma, parallel to the main shopping strip (Gran V铆a) and closed to traffic. Pintxos counters there are open all day and well into the night, with tables on the sidewalk and flavors fit for palates both tame and highly daring. La Vi帽a del Ensanche and Artajo both serve traditional favorites such as yellowfin tuna with anchovies and deep-fried croquetas. But places like Baster, with pulled pork burgers and hipster coffee, are built for the Instagram set. “Taste and move on – that’s the idea,” Irurita says.
A typical pintxos setup.
A typical pintxos setup.
Photo by Chris Costello/Getty Images
In San Sebasti谩n, Alex Montiel, who trained alongside El Bulli’s Ferran Adri脿, runs La Cuchara de San Telmo, where crowds go wild for mini plates of suckling pig, scallops, and beef cheeks. At Zeruko, the emphasis is on more-modern pintxos that include a deconstructed potato omelet and a biscuit with caramelized foie gras. Pair it with a squat glass of Txakoli, the beloved Basque dry white wine. And don’t be alarmed if you see locals tossing used napkins on the floor. It’s not bad manners; it’s tradition.

“Figuring out how to order pintxos is half the fun,” Sarrett says. For cold items, take a plate and either serve yourself or point to what you want. Hot dishes are listed on a menu or chalkboard, but gesturing works there too. Eat first, have fun, and marvel later as the cashier rings up your bill by counting the number of toothpicks on your plate.
Sweeping views from atop Monte Igueldo.
Sweeping views from atop Monte Igueldo.
Photo by Saiko3p/Getty Images

City Walks

You’ll need wheels if you’re shuttling the hour and a half between cities, but the best way to explore within each destination is on foot. The walkways of San Sebasti谩n wind through town and into the hills that surround the city. Atop Monte Igueldo (accessible by stairs or a 1912 wooden funicular) on the western side of the bay, there’s a charming old amusement park with a drone’s-eye view of the city’s beaches, churches, medieval boulevards, and belle 茅poque buildings.

Down below, at the end of Ondarreta Beach, local artist Eduardo Chillida embedded modern ironworks into the rocks where the Cantabrian Sea breaks. To visit these magnificent sculptures during the evening paseo, with pedestrians strolling arm in arm and a natural blowhole providing a haunting soundtrack, is, Irurita says, “probably the best way to feel like a real Giputxi,” as someone from San Sebasti谩n and its province of Gipuzkoa, is called.

Walking gets you to the heart of Bilbao as well. Heading south from the Guggenheim along the Nervi贸n River and the edge of the medieval Casco Viejo, or Old Quarter, you come to La Ribera Market, Europe’s largest indoor food hall, with probably the planet’s greatest array of Basque meats, cheeses, and wines. You can shop like (and with) locals at El Corte Ingl茅s department store or amble from the Rep煤blica de Abando Park to the Zubizuri, a translucent glass footbridge spanning the river, and wonder how a destination this enchanting could remain a secret for so long.
A room with a (museum) view at Gran Hotel Domine.
A room with a (museum) view at Gran Hotel Domine.

Stay

Bilbao: Art and architecture lovers will thrill over the Gran Hotel Domine’s location directly opposite the Guggenheim, with views of the museum and Jeff Koons’ 40-foot Puppy sculpture. Its 145 sleekly modern rooms complement contemporary Basque cuisine at Beltz Restaurant and creative cocktails at the Rooftop Terrace. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily plus a set daily lunch at Le Caf茅 bistro.
Tip: “Have your advisor book a room with a museum view. Watching the building as its colorful ribbons of titanium change with the light is a magical experience.” – Patricia Cotti, Virtuoso travel advisor

San Sebasti谩n: With 139 lavish, classically appointed rooms (including the Bette Davis Suite, which has a collection of pictures from her stay), sophisticated Hotel Maria Cristina is a regal address overlooking the Urumea River, just a short walk to the Old Quarter and beaches. Its four dining venues include the pop-up Ezcaray by Francis Paniego, serving Spanish cuisine by the multi-Michelin-starred chef. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 dining credit.
Tip: “Make time for a cooking class at Mimo San Sebasti谩n, a culinary school housed within Hotel Maria Cristina.” – Patricia Cotti

See

Your travel advisor can work with Virtuoso on-site Made for Spain and Portugal to craft customizable journeys in Basque Country and beyond. A few suggestions: an insider’s pintxos hop in San Sebasti谩n and a tour of Chillida Leku – an open-air sculpture park showcasing the works of Eduardo Chillida – with the artist’s son. Possible Bilbao adventures include an after-hours (read: closed to the public) visit to the Guggenheim Museum.

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