I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Basque Country twice at the end of August and I would gladly return every year if I could. The weather is perfect, the days are long and if you make sure to arrive after August’s final Sunday, you will avoid the European holiday travelers. The restaurants and tapas bars will still be open and crowded with locals, though. Each evening feels like a party as revelers tossing back spritzy Txakoli and sampling Iberian ham spill into the street.
Here’s where to go for the perfect Basque Country holiday:
French Basque Country
Bee-uh-rits, it’s fun to say and visit. The famed French resort town has beautiful architecture including the beachfront Hôtel du Palais, a onetime residence of Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie. The city’s wide crescent shaped beach is called Le Grand Plage and the white lighthouse on the city’s northern bluff offers wonderful views of Plage Miramar to the north, Le Grand Plage and Hôtel du Palais. For a quick bite, Le Comptoir du Foie Gras/Maison Pujol serves delicious pinxtos (the Basque word for tapas), reasonably priced glasses of wine and, ofcourse, foie gras spread on fresh baguette. Tables take over the sidewalks on either side of the corner restaurants.
Biarritz is worth seeing, but I prefer to stay in Guéthary, a charming town 20 minutes southwest. Guéthary sits up on a bluff overlooking the sea, but there are beautiful and easily accessible beaches nearby including the somewhat protected, family friendly Plage de Maiarko. There are a number of campsites next to this beach if you’re looking for an affordable stay. In town, Hotel Madrid offers surf-inspired rooms and a lively bar and restaurant that serves excellent seafood and a to-die-for profiteroles for dessert. On summer nights there’s often live music on the patio. Heteroclito is a funky tapas bar overlooking the sea. It gets more and more lively as the night progresses. In the morning visit the white-washed storefront Providence for smooth coffee and a look at the carefully curated selection of surf gear and home goods. And when you’re in town, make sure to see if there’s a jai alai tournament, a Basque sport played with wicker scoops, outside the town Mairie (mayors office). The whole town comes out for these events and you can buy a glass of beer or wine and watch from the stone steps as local players bounce the ball off the walled court at extremely high speeds.
This pretty port town founded in the 13th century is where Louis XIV married the Spanish princess Maria Teresa. It’s a great destination for food as well as history. Famed french chef Yves Camdeborde owns Le Suisse and Le P’tit Suisse, a more formal restaurant and casual tapas bar next door. Take a place at one of the high top bar tables outside and stuff yourself with cod-filled piquillo peppers, corn cakes topped with pepper compote and pork belly and boudin macarons. This makes a wonderful half day stop on your way into Spain. Take time to do a quick tour around making sure to see the fishing port, the Infanta of Spain’s house, the Saint-Jean-de-Luz town hall and the Church of St. John the Baptist where the famed marriage took place. Have lunch at Le P’tit Suisse and be on your way.
Spanish Basque Country
It’s just 30 minutes from Saint-Jean-de-Luz to San Sebastián. Bring a big appetite and stay at least two nights. This seaside city is one of the world’s great dining destinations. Whether you slip into a crowded tapas bar or you make reservations at a Michelin star restaurant, you won’t be disappointed. Work it all off by surfing at Zurriola Beach, running at the more protected Playa de La Concha or hiking up the Urgull, an imposing hill topped with a castle that juts out into the ocean from the center of the city. Do a tapas crawl in Old Town one night. Go to La Cepa for pimientos de Gernika and jamon Iberico de Bellota.
At La Cuchara de San Telmo order tuna, octopus and seared steak with red peppers and at Gandarias sample the Duo, bacon wrapped around goat cheese and served atop a pepper on a piece of baguette. In the morning head to the Gros neighborhood where the food is excellent as well. At La Guinda, a cute cafe and bakery where waitstaff wear French sailor shirts, you can order a perfectly runny tortilla Espanola with caramelized onions and seasonal muffins. For your second night, make reservations at Rekondo, known for having one of the world’s best wine lists, or make reservations at the Michelin three star Arzak, the pinnacle of Basque gastronomy. The Astoria7 Hotel has interiors inspired by famous cinema. It’s reasonably priced and about a mile from Old Town.
This town 30 minutes from San Sebastián is a must visit for its life-altering steakhouse, Casa Julián de Tolosa. If you don’t mind the drive there and back, you can stay in San Sebastián or you can find a room for the night in the pleasant town. The restaurant’s entry way looks like a storage room, so you will definitely ask yourself “am I at the right place?” You are. Press on and someone will mostly likely come out of an adjacent room to assist you.
The dining room is in the bowels of the building and is decorated with simple wood furnishings, dusty bottles of Rioja and an ancient charcoal grill, the main attraction. Watch as the bone-in rib steaks are grilled with a heaping pile of salt on top that draws out the juice and flavor. The beef is so delicious, the mammoth portion you never think you’ll finish will disappear before your eyes. Don’t pass up the other dishes on the small menu little gem lettuce hearts with olive oil and salt and blistered piquillo peppers. They’re simple, delicious and compliment the steak perfectly.
Another must stop for a restaurant. Are you sensing a theme here? Food writers the world over sing the praises of Elkano, a family owned seafood restaurant where fresh catches are cooked outside on a wood-fired grill. While I’m partial to seafood from the Pacific Northwest where I grew up, this restaurant is special and worth driving 25 minutes west of San Sebastián for. Whole grilled turbot dressed with olive oil and salt is so good you’ll suck the bones dry and you must try kokotxas, a restaurant speciality. The throat of the hake is cooked three ways. It’s oily and flavorful.
This is one of the most photographed places in Spanish Basque Country and for good reason. The small church atop a rocky island attached to the mainland by a stone bridge and surrounded by brilliant blue water is a dramatic sight to behold. Getting there is good exercise. You have to walk about a mile down a gradually descending pathway and them up 241 steps to get to the church. The 360 degree view of endless sea and shore is stunning. On the way back, take time to photograph the island from a variety of vantage points, the best of which is on the hill directly across from the island. You have to leave the pathway to get there, but people seem to do it all the time.
Bilbo is a wonderful city to visit for its mix of historic and modern architecture. When I was there, I marveled at how from certain viewpoints, it really looks like the city of the future. This is in large part because of the rippling titanium and limestone Guggenheim Museum Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry. The museum is large and you’ll want to soak up every inch (the permanent collection features works by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol and ever changing exhibitions might include artists such as Jeff Koons and David Hockney) so make sure you’ve allotted a full day to spend in the city. You can maximize your time by staying at the sleek Hotel Miró virtually across the street from the museum.
Try Bar El Globo and Bitoque Gastrobar for tapas, and Café Iruña for a delicious and cheap lamb sandwich. To see Bilbao’s old district, make reservations at Mina, a Michelin star kitchen with Scandinavian decor and a seven course tasting menu.
Family friendly? Absolutely! Everything in this itinerary, perhaps with the exceptions of dining at Arzak and Rekondo (you’ll want a sitter), are doable with children of all ages. If you have an infant, make sure to bring a carrier so you can do the hike to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe and eat tapas hands free. We dined next to families at both Casa Julián and Elkano.
Have some favorites spots in Basque Country I missed? Please let me know in the comments below.