Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain’s Hidden Basque Gem
Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Get to Know the Basque Region of Biscay
Many visitors to Spain flock to popular destinations like Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville. However, the off-the-beaten-path region of Biscay in the Basque Country deserves equal attention. Wedged between the Bay of Biscay and nestled against the Pyrenees mountains, Biscay offers visitors gorgeous seascapes, lush forests, rolling hills dotted with Basque farmhouses, and cosmopolitan cities packed with culture.
The Basque people have inhabited this corner of northeastern Spain and southwestern France for thousands of years, and they’ve developed a unique culture and language completely different from the rest of Spain. Their origins remain a mystery, but their traditions continue today. You’ll find locals conversing in the ancient Euskara language, seeing sports like pelota played, and indulging in pintxos (the Basque take on tapas).
I’m always amazed by how distinct the Basque Country feels from other parts of Spain. As you wind your way through the countryside, you’ll notice an abundance of Basque flags and hear Euskara spoken. The food also stands out with influences from the sea and locally grown produce. During my visit to Biscay, I tried seafood dishes like bacalao al pil pil (salt cod in an olive oil garlic sauce), grilled octopus, and fried anchovies. At a sidreria (cider house), I indulged in a steak doused in spicy pepper sauce.
Beyond the cultural experiences, Biscay’s location provides diverse landscapes to explore. I drove along winding coastal roads with the brilliant blue Bay of Biscay on one side and the emerald mountains on the other. The region contains two national parks that allow hiking, rock climbing, and even skiing during winter. And Biscay’s cities like Bilbao provide an infusion of art, history, nightlife, and modern architecture.
What else is in this post?
- Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Get to Know the Basque Region of Biscay
- Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Explore Bilbao's World-Famous Guggenheim Museum
- Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Wander the Historic Casco Viejo District of Bilbao
- Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - See the Coastal Beauty of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve
- Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Hike in the Gorbeia Natural Park Near Bilbao
- Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Experience Basque Culture at a Cider House in Gernika
- Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Visit the Fishing Village of Bermeo for Seafood and Charm
- Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Relax at the Beach in Plentzia Near Bilbao
- Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Sample Pintxos Hopping Around Bilbao's Old Town
Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Explore Bilbao's World-Famous Guggenheim Museum
No trip to Bilbao is complete without a visit to the city’s claim to fame – the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. This mind-blowing work of architecture almost single-handedly put Bilbao on the tourist map after opening in 1997.
Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry designed the museum, fashioning it from limestone, glass, and titanium. Approaching the building, your eyes widen at the gleaming, undulating forms that look otherworldly against the Nervion River backdrop. It appears almost like a futuristic ship docked along the water.
Once inside, the museum’s galleries wind around the signature curves of the building. But as captivating as the architecture is, the world-class modern art collection steals your gaze. You’ll find works by giants like Picasso, Miro, Rothko, Koons, and Bourgeois spread across about 11,000 square meters of exhibition space.
Don’t miss masterpieces such as Richard Serra’s monumental steel sculpture "Snake" and Jeff Koons’ "Tulips" display of technicolor balloon flowers. And Ángel Orensanz’s eerie wire mesh sculptures are hauntingly beautiful while also feeling like creepy ghosts.
Beyond the interior galleries, sculptures are installed outside the museum as well. Louise Bourgeois’ 30-foot-tall bronze spider menacingly towers over visitors near the river. Be sure to see Eduardo Chillida’s trio of stone and steel sculptures that the artist named "Peine del Viento" (Comb of the Wind). Their simple yet striking forms placed along the waterfront make for great photos.
I’d recommend buying tickets in advance online both to secure your entry time and save money. Regular admission is €16, but online tickets are only €11. Be sure to allot 2-3 hours to explore the museum at a decent pace and see all the highlights.
If you happen to visit on the first Thursday evening of the month between October and June, lucky you - admission is free during these hours! The museum will be more crowded, but the atmosphere is lively and fun on these popular community nights. Arrive closer to 9 pm to avoid the biggest crowds.
For some background on Frank Gehry’s innovative design, take the guided tour of the building's architecture offered daily. The tours give you access to spaces normally closed to the public, like the glass atrium with views of the titanium shell.
Beyond the galleries, stop for a coffee and snack at the museum's Bistró restaurant, which spills outdoors in nice weather. Or splurge on the tasting menu at the Michelin-starred Nerua restaurant, also located inside the museum.
Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Wander the Historic Casco Viejo District of Bilbao
No visit to Bilbao is complete without meandering through the atmospheric lanes of the city’s old quarter known as the Casco Viejo. This charming district next to the Nervion River has retained its medieval layout of cobblestone streets that suddenly give way to petite plazas. Wandering this historic neighborhood feels like stepping back in time.
The Casco Viejo packs in many of Bilbao’s iconic sights like the 14th century Gothic Catedral de Santiago and the 16th century Basilica de Begoña perched on a hilltop. But beyond the major landmarks, simply getting lost amid the stone and stucco buildings with brightly painted wooden balconies is a delight.
Stop into cozy little bars and old-fashioned shops specializing in rope, hats, or knives – crafts that once thrived in the Casco Viejo. Duck into arched porticos that reveal tucked-away restaurants spilling out onto hidden squares. Out front, you'll see deli meats hanging above tables crowded with pintxo lovers indulging in a glass of txakoli wine or sidra.
The architecture of the Casco Viejo tells tales of Bilbao’s past going back to the 1400s. You’ll notice the tall and narrow houses squeezed together along narrow lanes, maximizing limited space within the city walls. Many building exteriors still reveal the original exposed timber framing with bricks filling in between.
Wandering these atmospheric streets, I felt transported back to a time when fishermen, sailors, and traders frequented the district. Even today, the Casco Viejo maintains its neighborhood vibe where locals go about their daily lives – senior citizens chat on benches, kids play football in plazas, and the aroma of Basque cooking escapes apartment windows.
While the Casco Viejo exudes charm, it also contains unfortunate signs of neglect and urban decay in some areas. However, major revitalization efforts in recent decades aim to rejuvenate the district. Many dilapidated buildings now undergo careful restorations to preserve their heritage. Street art adds modern vibrancy and creativity to aged walls. Stylish boutique hotels and shops cater to discerning travelers seeking character over cookie-cutter accommodations.
Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - See the Coastal Beauty of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve
Just a short drive from Bilbao, the otherworldly landscapes of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve captivate visitors. This UNESCO site protects over 220 square miles of coastal habitats that showcase the diverse natural beauty of Biscay. From marshlands to forests, mountains to beaches, the scenery here astounds.
As I drove the BI-3201 coastal road through Urdaibai, I felt like pinching myself constantly thinking “can this be real?” Every bend in the road revealed a new postcard-worthy scene. The glittering blue expanse of the Bay of Biscay juxtaposed with the rolling green mountains dotted with classic Basque farms. Secluded beaches with fine golden sand contrasted with craggy cliffs and misty hillsides.
At the heart of the reserve lies the Urdaibai estuary where the Oka River meets the sea. The nutrients flowing in from the mountains nourish extensive tidal wetlands bustling with life. Great egrets and grey herons stalk the marshy shores hunting fish. Flocks of ducks and geese winter here after migrating from as far as the Arctic. And the rare Eurasian spoonbill makes an appearance now and then, sweeping its spatula-shaped beak through the water in search of shrimp and snails.
Beyond the main estuary, smaller coves indent the coastline, their tranquil waters perfect for a refreshing dip in the Cantabrian Sea. The locals prize these hidden beaches for surfing and boating as well. Take the short hike out to breathtaking San Pedro Beach near the mouth of the Oka River for crystalline waters in a peaceful setting. Or for more amenities, Playa Laida offers a larger stretch of soft sand with amenities like showers and restaurants not far from town.
Venturing inland from the coast, entirely different scenery unfolds. Lush mixed forests blanket the hills that climb up toward Mount Oiz reaching nearly 3,000 feet. Along with common oak and beech trees, you’ll find unique Cantabrian holm oaks with their gnarled branches creating a fairy tale-like atmosphere when the fog rolls in. The foreboding Bosque de Oma Painted Forest stands as one of the reserve’s most popular attractions with trees vibrantly adorned in an array of colors.
Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Hike in the Gorbeia Natural Park Near Bilbao
Escape the hustle and bustle of Bilbao with a rejuvenating hike in Gorbeia Natural Park. This nature reserve straddles the border between Biscay and Álava, making it an easy day trip from Bilbao to enjoy the region’s breathtaking scenery. Gorbeia's lush beech forests, rolling meadows, and towering Mount Gorbeia offer the perfect backdrop for hitting the trails.
Several well-marked routes cater to hikers of all abilities. For panoramic views, head to the summit of Mount Gorbeia. At nearly 5,000 feet altitude, it towers above the surrounding landscape. Expect a strenuous 9-mile roundtrip hike and an elevation gain over 3,000 feet. But once at the top, the vistas across the Basque Country and even to the Pyrenees are well worth the effort.
Or for a more moderate hike, try the route to Santa Barbara Ermita. This tiny chapel dedicated to the patron saint of storms sits etched dramatically into a cliff face at 3,600 feet elevation. To reach it, you’ll trek through peaceful beech forests along the GR-280 trail. Gaze up to spot rock climbers scaling the sheer walls above the chapel.
When you need a break from hiking, stop at the Murko Waterfall. Here the Murko Stream plunges nearly 300 feet into a steep, mossy gorge. The power of the waterfall thundering down into the pool below feels mesmerizing. Just a short stroll from the parking area, it's perfect for families and anyone seeking a quick scenic reward.
Throughout the park, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife like red deer, wild boar, foxes, martens, and even the endangered brown bear. Birdwatchers will delight in species ranging from golden eagles to common wood pigeons flitting through the trees. And anglers can try their hand catching salmon and trout in the park’s rivers.
The months of May through October offer the most pleasant weather for hiking Gorbeia. Trails can remain snow-covered well into spring at these elevations. Be sure to pack layers and proper hiking boots since conditions range from sunny and warm to misty and windswept. And take caution during the unpredictable storms that gave the Santa Barbara chapel its name.
Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Experience Basque Culture at a Cider House in Gernika
No visit to the Basque Country is complete without an evening at a sidreria, or cider house, and the town of Gernika provides a lively and welcoming atmosphere for such an experience. In the northern Spanish region, sidra is more than a drink - it is ingrained in Basque tradition going back centuries. Gathering over a shared meal and countless glasses of naturally effervescent sidra allows you to fully immerse yourself in this unique culture.
Walking into a cidery in Gernika feels like entering another world that proudly maintains its heritage. The sound of the Basque language flows off patrons' tongues as servers glide between tables balancing elaborate porrons. These glass cider pitchers with spouts for thin streams require skill - and provide entertainment as novices inevitably end up soaked in sidra. Platters stack high with famous Basque delicacies like txistorra sausage, Idiazabal cheese, and hulking chuleton steaks share space with congealed blood pudding and roasted peppers.
Each cidery specializes in its own house-made sidra, which flows freely from massive wooden barrels. The ritual of txotx season means sidra aficionados flock in winter months to try newly fermented and blended batches straight from the source. But thankfully, you can indulge in this crisp, slightly sour brew year-round. Servers expertly pour at an angle from great heights to create natural carbonation - make sure not to miss your glass! Locals down sidra like a shot, so don't fret about not savoring the flavor. This practice will soon make sense as another glass magically appears the moment you set yours down empty.
Between glasses, take time to appreciate the history of Gernika itself, as it stands as a symbolic heart of Basque identity. The ancient meeting house where representatives of Biscay's towns gathered - the seeds of Basque democracy - still proudly overlooks the town. And while much of Gernika suffered tragic destruction during the infamous 1937 bombing, resilience led the Basque people to rebuild. Visiting a cider house here feels especially meaningful given the town's storied past.
Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Visit the Fishing Village of Bermeo for Seafood and Charm
On Biscay’s wild northern coast, the endearing fishing village of Bermeo offers visitors two things done exceptionally well – seafood and charm. This historic port town has long made its living from the bounty of the Cantabrian Sea, creating a hardworking character still evident today. Strolling the harbor, you’ll see weathered trawlers unloading the overnight catch while grizzled fishermen mend nets destined to return to the waves. The cry of gulls overhead accompanies the tang of salt air.
But Bermeo also knows when to lay down the nets and enjoy life’s pleasures. The cozy harborfront and atmospheric lanes buzz with patrons spilling out of pintxo bars and seafood eateries. Locals and visitors mingle over glasses of cider and plates of grilled rodaballo or kokotxas, nodding in appreciation of the day’s hard work now rewarded.
I found myself drawn to Bermeo initially by its reputation for the finest traditional seafood dining in the region. Places like Eneperi, Atalaya and Aldeaga Restaurante exceeded even my high expectations with delicacies like scallops drizzled in lemon vinaigrette, grilled razor clams, and bacalao al pil pil that just melts in your mouth.
But Bermeo charmed me in so many other ways beyond the incredible food. Exploring the warren of narrow medieval streets, I felt immersed in the authentic heritage of a fishing village continuously inhabited since the 14th century. The handsome portside mansions hint at the town’s wealth accumulated over centuries from whaling and trade across the Atlantic. Symbols of Bermeo’s seafaring livelihood like the maintained lighthouse and former fish market enforce an ever-present connection to the sea.
On my visit, I took the short ferry ride out to the uninhabited San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Island crowned by the hermitage clinging dramatically to towering cliffs. Walking the island’s perimeter and climbing the tiny stairway up to the chapel perched precariously above the waves gave me new perspective looking back upon Bermeo across the bay. Seeing the jumble of red-roofed buildings rising up from the harbor against the sweeping coastline helped me understand how inextricably linked to the sea this special town remains.
Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Relax at the Beach in Plentzia Near Bilbao
What traveler doesn’t yearn for a rejuvenating beach escape while in Europe? After days spent exploring Bilbao’s cultural attractions, unwind seaside in the laidback fishing village of Plentzia just 20 minutes outside the city. With over 2 miles of golden sand and glittering blue Cantabrian Sea waters, Plentzia’s beaches pamper visitors seeking relaxation.
As I strolled from Bilbao’s metro and emerged along Plentzia’s pleasant promenade, sea breezes instantly recharged my tired senses. The main beach swells with soft sand, along with mellow waves perfect for swimming and wading. Diving into the bracing but refreshing ocean provides a jolt to shake off lingering urban energy. Bodyboarding down little waves or floating along with the swells rising and falling proved hypnotically calming.
Dotting the sand, playful sculptures and colorful beach huts provide quirky visual interest. But otherwise, the setting remains blissfully peaceful. I could sink into my beach chair for hours watching sailboats drifting along the horizon and admire the coastal mountains rising in the distance.
Plentzia caters to both active beachgoers and relaxation seekers. Lifeguards survey designated swimming areas while paddleboarders glide across the bay. Children splash and build sandcastles under parents’ watchful eyes. Yet plenty of space allows strollers and sunbathers to claim their own quiet slice of shoreline.
When you need a beach break, promenade cafés serve light bites, coffee, and cooling drinks. I refueled with a tortilla de patata, pausing under the outdoor umbrellas to simply savor the seaside environment. For heartier Basque seafood fare, head to harborside restaurants like Playa Kaia or Las Delicias de Plentzia. Grilled sardines and seafood rice satisfy after a day in the sun and surf.
As evening falls, the beach morphs into a lively social hub. Strolling hand-in-hand along the sand at sunset, families transition to couples lingering over sunset cocktails at chiringuito beach bars. Bubbly young friends snap selfies and old fishermen clink glasses of Rioja wine at harborfront tables.
Plentzia retains an authentic local vibe despite its popularity for Bilbao beach getaways. The main beach services visitors well, but I discovered even more scenic coves and stretches of sand along the coastline slightly farther afield. Don’t miss wild Gorrondatxe Beach reachable by water taxi from the harbor. For peaceful isolation, Bakio Beach lies nestled between verdant headlands just a couple miles west of Plentzia.
Discover Biscay: The Ultimate Weekend Guide to Spain's Hidden Basque Gem - Sample Pintxos Hopping Around Bilbao's Old Town
No visit to Bilbao is complete without indulging in a pintxos crawl through the city’s atmospheric old town. These bite-sized snacks – the Basque take on tapas – exist as edible art meant for sharing over glasses of wine or cider. Beyond amazing flavors, partaking in pintxos culture allows you to experience Bilbao like a local.
As you meander through the Casco Viejo district, you’ll come across countless pintxo bars sprinkled along the cobblestone lanes. Look for counters piled high with creative culinary creations on crusty slices of baguette. The diversity amazes - you'll see everything from simple ham and cheese to avant garde molecular gastronomy concoctions. Towering creations defy gravity, stacked with shrimp, cheese, peppers, olives and anchovies impaled precariously on a toothpick. The colors and textures prove endlessly eye-catching.
Don’t expect a menu - just point at whatever tempts your tastebuds. The laidback atmosphere means you’ll probably share a standing table amid chatter in the Basque language swirling all around. Servers rapid-fire take orders and dole out drink refills while somehow remembering who ordered what. Navigate the crowded spaces while trying not to knock any wobbly stools as the revelry rises as glasses empty.
So what pintxos should you prioritize? Classics like gilda (olive, anchovy and pickled pepper skewer) offer a crash course in Basque flavor profiles. Tortilla encapsulates the Spanish omelet in bite-sized form. And you can’t miss bacalao, morsels of salt cod balanced by piquillo peppers. croquetas creaminess proves downright addictive.
Beyond the classics, creative combos include duck breast with fig jam on rye bread, or the surprising marshmallow and anchovy pairing at La Viña. Foie gras and fig pintxos should be on any foodie’s must-try list. And for seafood lovers, bacon-wrapped scallops or grilled shrimp skewers right off the boat satisfy.
Whetting your appetite between stops? Pop into venerable markets to assemble the makings of an impromptu picnic. Laden down with Idiazabal cheese, membrillo quince paste, Spanish sparkling wine and luscious cherries, establish a makeshift camp on any open square. Or gather local delights like artisan chocolate and marcona almonds to sustain you through an extended pintxo pilgrimmage.
While sampling Bilbao’s decadent pintxos, don’t forget to peek at their interior architecture and decor as well! Ornate bars with rich wood and engraved mirrors signal institutions that have stood the test of time. Peek at century-old brick and timber construction details. Check out the Biscayan coats of arms indicating historic ties to noble families. And notice the dark patina worn into stair railings by generations of hands passing through.