Fodor's Spain (2015)
Main Table of Contents
Welcome to Bilbao and the Basque Country
Bilbao and the Basque Coast to Getaria (Guetaria)
San Sebastián to Hondarribia
Navarra and Pamplona
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Top Reasons to Go | Getting Oriented | What’s Where | Planning | Exploring the Regions | Eating and Drinking Well in the Basque Country
Updated by Suzanne Wales
Northern Spain is a misty land of green hills, low russet rooflines, and colorful fishing villages; it’s also home to the formerly industrial city of Bilbao, reborn as a center of art and architecture. The semiautonomous Basque Country—with its steady drizzle (onomatopoetically called the siri-miri), verdant landscape, and rugged coastline—is a distinct national and cultural entity.
Navarra is considered Basque in the Pyrenees and Navarran in its southern reaches, along the Ebro River. La Rioja, tucked between the Sierra de la Demanda (a mountain range that separates La Rioja from the central Castilian steppe) and the Ebro River, is Spain’s premier wine country.
Called the País Vasco in Castilian Spanish and Euskadi in the linguistically mysterious, non-Indo-European Basque language Euskera, the Basque region is more a country within a country, or a nation within a state (the semantics are much debated). The Basques are known to love competition—it has been said that they will bet on anything that has numbers on it and moves (horses, dogs, runners). Such traditional rural sports as chopping mammoth tree trunks and lifting boulders reflect the Basques’ attachment to the land as well as an enthusiasm for feats of endurance. Even poetry and gastronomy become contests in Euskadi, as bertsolaris (amateur poets) improvise duels of sharp-witted verse, and gastronomic societies compete in cooking contests to see who can make the best sopa de ajo (garlic soup) or marmitako.
The much-reported-on Basque separatist movement is made up of a small but radical sector of the political spectrum. The terrorist organization known as ETA, or Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty), has killed nearly 900 people in almost four decades of violence. Conflict has waxed and waned over the years, though it has never affected travelers. When ETA declared a permanent cease-fire in April 2006, hope flared for an end to Basque terrorism until a late-December bomb at Madrid’s Barajas airport brought progress to a halt. In 2009 Basque lehendakari (president) Juan José Ibarretxe and the PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) lost, albeit narrowly, the Basque presidency in favor of Patxi López of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Party) in coalition with the PP (the right-wing Partido Popular), reflecting voter weariness with the nationalist cause. In October 2011, ETA declared a permanent renunciation of violence, received by the Spanish government with some skepticism, and two years later the Strasbourg’s European Court of Human Rights ordered the release of many long-term ETA prisoners, much to the dissatisfaction of the Spanish government and victim’s rights associations. But overall there is hope that Spain’s greatest post-Franco tragedy is nearing an end.
TOP REASONS TO GO
Explore the Basque coast: From colorful fishing villages to tawny beaches, the Basque Coast always delights the eye.
Eat tapas in San Sebastián: Nothing matches San Sebastián’s old quarter, with the booming laughter of tavern-hoppers who graze at counters heaped with colorful morsels.
Appreciate Bilbao’s art and architecture: The gleaming titanium Guggenheim and the Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum) shimmer where steel mills and shipyards once stood, while verdant pastures loom above and beyond.
Run with the bulls in Pamplona: Running with a pack of wild animals (and people) will certainly get the adrenaline pumping, but you might prefer to be a spectator.
Drink in La Rioja wine country: Spain’s premier wine region is filled with wine-tasting opportunities and fine cuisine.
Bordering the coastline of the Bay of Biscay, the Basque Country and, farther inland, Navarra and La Rioja are a Spain apart—a land of moist green foothills, lush vineyards, and rolling meadowlands. A fertile slot between the Picos de Europa and the Pyrenees mountain ranges that stretch from the Mediterranean Cap de Creus all the way to Fisterra (“World’s End”) on the Atlantic in northwestern Galicia, this northern Arcadia is an often rainy but frequently comforting reprieve from the bright, hot Spanish meseta (high plain or tableland) to the south.
Bilbao and the Basque Coast to Getaria. The contrast between Bilbao and the rest of the Basque Country makes each half of the equation better: a city famous for steel and shipbuilding turned into a shimmering art and architecture hub, surrounded by sylvan hillsides, tiny fishing ports, and beautiful beaches.
San Sebastián to Hondarribia. San Sebastián lures travelers with its sophistication and a wide beach. Nearby Hondarribia is a fishing port on the Bidasoa river estuary border with France.
Navarra and Pamplona. This region offers much beyond Pamplona’s running-with-the-bulls blowout party. The green Pyrenean hills to the north contrast with the lunar Bárdenas Reales to the southeast, and the wine country south of Pamplona leads to lovely Camino de Santiago way stations like Estella. Medieval Vitoria is the capital of Alava and the whole Basque Country, and is relatively undiscovered by tourists.
La Rioja. Spain’s wine country is dedicated to tastes of all kinds. The Sierra de la Demanda mountain range offers culinary destinations such as Ezcaray’s Echaurren or Viniegra de Abajo’s Venta de Goyo, while the towns of Logroño, Haro, and Laguardia are well endowed with superb architecture and gastronomy.
WHEN TO GO
Mid-April through June, September, and October are the best times to enjoy the temperate climate and both the coastal and upland landscapes of this wet and grassy corner of Spain—though any time of year except August, when Europeans are on vacation, is nearly as good.
Pamplona in July is bedlam, though for hard-core party animals it’s heaven.
The Basque Country is rainy in winter, but the wet Atlantic weather is always invigorating and, as if anyone needed it in this culinary paradise, appetite-enhancing. Much of the classically powerful Basque cuisine evolved with the northern maritime climate in mind.
The September film festival in San Sebastián coincides with the spectacular whaleboat regattas, while the beaches are still ideal and largely uncrowded.
When you’re looking for a place to stay, note that the largely industrial and well-to-do north is an expensive part of Spain, which is reflected in room rates. San Sebastián is particularly pricey, and Pamplona rates triple during San Fermín in July. Reserve ahead for nearly everywhere in summer, especially Bilbao, where the Guggenheim is filling hotels.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
A road trip through the Basque Country, Navarra, and La Rioja would require at least a week, but a glimpse, however brief, of Bilbao and its Guggenheim, can be done in two days. San Sebastián and its beach, La Concha, the Baztán Valley, Pamplona, Laguardia, and La Rioja’s capital Logroño are the top must-see stops.
If you have more time, visit Mundaka and the coast of Vizcaya west of Bilbao; Getaria, Pasajes de San Juan, and Hondarribia near San Sebastián; and the wineries of Haro in La Rioja.
La Rioja’s Sierra de la Demanda also has some of the finest landscapes in Spain, not to mention culinary pilgrimages to Echaurren in Ezcaray or Venta de Goyo in Viniegra de Abajo.
There’s much more to this region’s festival scene than the world-famous San Fermín and its running of the bulls in Pamplona, though this remains a massive draw. There are all kinds of events that could color your decision on when to travel, including music, dance, processions, and locals generally letting their hair down. For a few events, particularly San Fermín, you will have to take into consideration the higher cost of accommodations, but, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, it could well be worth the expense.
Fiesta de la Virgen Blanca (Festival of the White Virgin).
This weeklong festival (August 4–9) celebrate’s Vitoria’s patron saint with bullfights and more.|Vitoria.
Every four years—the next in 2017—the little village of Getaria, near San Sebastián, celebrates Juan Sebastián Elcano’s completion of Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage around the world. Magellan is usually credited with this achievement but he died en route, and Elcano was actually the first man to circumnavigate the globe. Events include a solemn procession of weather-beaten, starving “survivors” trudging up from the port along with more lighthearted dances and street parties. | Getaria.
For the city’s saint’s day, this two-day event on January 19–20 has 100-plus platoons of chefs and Napoleonic soldiers parading hilariously through the streets of San Sebastián. | San Sebastián.
San Sebastián Film Festival.
Glitterati descend on the city for its international film fest in the second half of September—exact dates vary, so check the website for details. | San Sebastián | www.sansebastianfestival.com.
San Sebastián Jazz Festival.
Drawing many of the world’s top performers, this late-July festival also attracts an international crowd of jazz devotees to the city. | San Sebastián | www.heinekenjazzaldia.com.
Pamplona’s main event, made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, remains best known for its running of the bulls, but also includes processions, bullfights, and fireworks. Held each year on July 6–14, every day begins at 8 am with a herd of fighting bulls being let loose to run through the narrow streets to the bullring, accompanied by daredevil—some say reckless—individuals testing their speed and agility in the hope of avoiding injury or death. Most, but not all, do. The atmosphere is electric and hotel rooms overlooking the course come at a price. | Pamplona | sanfermin.pamplona.es.
The “Big Week” is celebrated in Bilbao in mid-August with a fine series of street concerts and bullfights, notorious for featuring the largest bulls of the season. | Bilbao.
GETTING HERE AND AROUND
Bilbao’s airport serves much of this area, and there are smaller airports at Hondarribia (serving San Sebastián), Logroño, and Pamplona, which are generally only used by domestic carriers in high season.
Aeropuerto de Bilbao. | www.aeropuertodebilbao.net.
Bicycle travel in the Basque Country and across the north of Spain is hilly and often wet, but for the iron-hearted, -lunged, -legged, and -bottomed, this is a scenic way to travel and terrific exercise, albeit somewhat perilous on narrow roads often tight for passing motorists.
FAMILY | Bici Rent Donosti.
This bike shop is right in front of the Playa de Gros beach, and rents out bicycles and mopeds/scooters. The friendly owner, Pablo, can also help with repairs. | Paseo de la Zurriola 22 | San Sebastián | 943/271173, 639/016013 | bicirentdonosti.es | May 15–Sept., daily 9:30–8:30; Oct.–May 14, Mon.–Sat. 10–2 and 4–8 (closed Mon. in winter).
Even the remotest points are an easy one-day drive from Madrid, and northern Spain is superbly covered by freeways.
The drive from Madrid to Bilbao is 397 km (247 miles)—about five hours; follow the A1 past Burgos to Miranda del Ebro, where you pick up the AP68. Car rentals are available in the major cities: Bilbao, Pamplona, San Sebastián, and Vitoria. Cars can also be rented at Hondarribia (Fuenterrabía) and the San Sebastián (Donostia) airport.
Taxis normally can be hailed on the street, though from more remote spots, such as Pedro Subijana’s Akelaŕe restaurant on Igueldo above San Sebastián, you’ll need to call a taxi.
Direct RENFE trains from Madrid run to Bilbao (at 8 am and 4:05 pm), San Sebastián (at 8 and 4:05), Pamplona (7:30, 9:40, 3:05, 3:30, and 7:30), Vitoria (8, 8:48, 12:22, and 4:05), and Logroño (7:30, 12:30, 3:30, and 7:30). A car is the most convenient way to get around here, but if this isn’t an option, many cities are connected by RENFE trains, and the regional company FEVE runs a delightful narrow-gauge train that winds through stunning landscapes. From San Sebastián, lines west to Bilbao (the Ueskotren) and east to Hendaye depart from Estación de Amara; most long-distance trains use RENFE’s Estación del Norte.
Though top restaurants are expensive in Bilbao, some of what is undoubtedly Europe’s finest cuisine is served here in settings that range from the traditional hewn beams and stone walls to sleekly contemporary international restaurants all the way up to the Guggenheim itself, where superstar chef Martín Berasategui runs a dining room as superb as its habitat. Prices in the reviews are per person for a main course, or a combination of small plates, at dinner.
Ever since the Guggenheim reinvented Bilbao as a design darling, the city’s hotel fleet has expanded and reflected (in the case of the Gran Hotel Domine, literally) the glitter and panache of Gehry’s museum. Boutique hotels, high-design hotels, and high-rise mammoths have made the older hotels look small and quaint by comparison. Despite new developments, the López de Haro remains one of the city’s best lodging options, and many longtime Bilbao visitors prefer the storied halls of the Hotel Carlton to the glass and steel labyrinths overlooking Abandoibarra and the Nervión estuary. Prices in the reviews are for two people in a standard double room in high season, excluding tax.
EXPLORING THE REGIONS
Northern Spain’s Bay of Biscay area, at the western end of the Pyrenees along the border with France, is where the Cantabrian Cordillera and the Pyrenees nearly meet. The green foothills of Basque Country gently fill this space between the otherwise unbroken chain of mountains that rises from the Iberian Peninsula’s easternmost point at northern Catalonia’s Cap de Creus and ends at western Galicia’s Fisterra, or Finisterre (World’s End). Navarra—part Basque and part Castilian-speaking Navarrese—lies just southeast and inland of the Basque Country, with the backdrop of the Pyrenees rising up to the north. La Rioja, below Navarra, nestles in the Ebro River valley under the Sierra de la Demanda to the south and stretches east and downriver to Calahorra and the edge of Spain’s central meseta (plains).
EATING AND DRINKING WELL IN THE BASQUE COUNTRY
Basque cuisine, Spain’s most prestigious regional gastronomy, derives from the refined French culinary sensibility combined with a rough-and-tumble passion for the camaraderie of the table and for perfectly prepared seafood, meat, and vegetables.
The so-called nueva cocina vasca (new Basque cooking) is now about 30 years old, but it was originally inspired by the nouvelle cuisine of neighboring France, and meant the invention of streamlined versions of classic Basque dishes such as marmitako (tuna and potato stew). This region has the greatest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants anywhere in the world.
Though experts have often defined Basque cooking as simply “the art of preparing fish,” there is no dearth of lamb, beef, goat, or pork in the Basque diet or on menus. Cooking both beef and fish over coals is a popular favorite as are—new Basque cooking notwithstanding—bracing stews combining legumes such as lentils and garbanzos with sausage.
Don’t miss a chance to go to a sidrería, a cider house where the cider is poured from overhead and quaffed in a single gulp. Chuletas de buey (garlicky beefsteak grilled over coals) and tortilla de bacalao (cod omelet) provide ballast for hard apple cider al txotx. The cider-cod combination is linked to the Basque fishermen and whalers who carried the longer-lasting cider rather than wine in their galleys.
Angulas, known as elvers in English, are a Basque delicacy that has become an expensive treat, with prices reaching €1,000 a kilogram (about 2.2 pounds). The 3- to 4-inch-long eels look like spaghetti, but with tiny black eyes, and are typically served in a small earthenware dish sizzling with olive oil, garlic, and a single slice of chili. A special wooden fork is used to eat them, to avoid any metallic taste, and because the wood works better with the slippery eels. Don’t be misled by the plethora of “gulas” sold in lower-end tapas bars and groceries across Spain. They look just like angulas, but they’re fake—synthetic eels made from reconstituted fish stock.
Codfish, a Basque favorite since the Stone Age, comes in various guises. Bacalao al pil pil is a classic Bilbao specialty simmered—rather than fried—with garlic and olive oil in its own juices. The “pil pil” refers to the sound of the emulsion of cod and olive oil bubbling up from the bottom of the pan. Served with a red chili pepper, this is a beloved Basque delicacy.
Besugo a la Donostiarra
Besugo (sea bream) cooked San Sebastián style is baked in the oven, covered with flakes of garlic that look like scales (but taste better), with a last-minute splash of vinegar and parsley on top. The flesh of the sea bream is flaky and firm.
Oxen in the Basque Country have traditionally been work animals, fed and maintained with great reverence and care. When sacrificed for meat at the age of 12 or 13, their flesh is tender and marbled with streaks of fat rich with grassy aromas and tastes. Many of today’s ox steaks/chops (txuleta de buey, also translated as “beef chop”) may not be from authentic work oxen, but the meat, tender and fragrant, cooked over coals with garlic and a few flakes of sea salt, is dark and delicious.
Tuna and Potato Stew
Using the dark-maroon-color meat of the Thunnus albacares (yellowfin tuna), marmitako, a stick-to-your-ribs potato, tuna, and red pepper stew is the classic Basque fishermen’s concoction made for the restoration of weather-beaten seafarers. Taken from the French name of the cooking pot (marmite), there are marmitako competitions held annually.
Basque txakolítxakolí, a young white wine made from tart green grapes, is refreshing with either seafood or meat. But those who prefer a Basque red with their Basque cuisine could choose a Rioja Alavesa, from the part of the Rioja wine country north of the Ebro.
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Bilbao | San Juan de Gaztelugatxe | Bermeo | Mundaka | Elantxobe | Axpe | Getaria and Zumaia
Starring Frank Gehry’s titanium brainchild—the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao—Bilbao has established itself as one of Spain’s 21st-century magnets. The area around the coast of Vizcaya and east into neighboring Guipúzcoa province to Getaria and San Sebastián is a succession of colorful ports, ocher beaches, and green hills.
34 km (21 miles) southeast of Castro-Urdiales, 116 km (72 miles) east of Santander, 397 km (247 miles) north of Madrid.
Time in Bilbao (Bilbo, in Euskera) may be recorded as BG or AG (Before Guggenheim or After Guggenheim). Never has a single monument of art and architecture so radically changed a city. Frank Gehry’s stunning museum, Norman Foster’s sleek subway system, the Santiago Calatrava glass footbridge and airport, the leafy César Pelli Abandoibarra park and commercial complex next to the Guggenheim, and the Philippe Starck Alhóndiga Bilbao cultural center have contributed to an unprecedented cultural revolution in what was once the industry capital of the Basque Country.
Greater Bilbao encompasses almost 1 million inhabitants, nearly half the total population of the Basque Country. Founded in 1300 by Vizcayan noble Diego López de Haro, Bilbao became an industrial center in the mid-19th century, largely because of the abundance of minerals in the surrounding hills. An affluent industrial class grew up here, as did the working-class suburbs that line the Margen Izquierda (Left Bank) of the Nervión estuary.
Bilbao’s new attractions get more press, but the city’s old treasures still quietly line the banks of the rust-color Nervión River. The Casco Viejo (Old Quarter)—also known as Siete Calles (Seven Streets)—is a charming jumble of shops, bars, and restaurants on the river’s Right Bank, near the Puente del Arenal bridge. This elegant proto-Bilbao nucleus was carefully restored after devastating floods in 1983. Throughout the Old Quarter are ancient mansions emblazoned with family coats of arms, wooden doors, and fine ironwork balconies. The most interesting square is the 64-arch Plaza Nueva, where an outdoor market is pitched every Sunday morning.
Walking the banks of the Nervión is a satisfying jaunt. After all, this was how—while out on a morning jog—Guggenheim director Thomas Krens first discovered the perfect spot for his project, nearly opposite the right bank’s Deusto University. From the Palacio de Euskalduna upstream to the colossal Mercado de la Ribera, parks and green zones line the river. César Pelli’s Abandoibarra project fills in the half mile between the Guggenheim and the Euskalduna bridge with a series of parks, the Deusto University library, the Meliá Bilbao Hotel, and a major shopping center.
On the left bank, the wide, late-19th-century boulevards of the Ensanche neighborhood, such as Gran Vía (the main shopping artery) and Alameda de Mazarredo, are the city’s more formal face. Bilbao’s cultural institutions include, along with the Guggenheim, a major museum of fine arts (the Museo de Bellas Artes) and an opera society (ABAO: Asociación Bilbaína de Amigos de la Ópera) with 7,000 members from Spain and southern France. In addition, epicureans have long ranked Bilbao’s culinary offerings among the best in Spain. Don’t miss a chance to ride the trolley line, the Euskotram, for a trip along the river from Atxuri Station to Basurto’s San Mamés soccer stadium, reverently dubbed “la Catedral del Fútbol” (the Cathedral of Football).
Getting Here and Around
Bilbao’s Euskotram, running up and down the Ría de Bilbao (aka River Nervión) past the Guggenheim to the Mercado de la Ribera, is an attraction in its own right: silent, swift, and panoramic as it glides up and down its grassy runway. The EuskoTren leaving from Atxuri Station north of the Mercado de la Ribera runs along a spectacular route through Gernika and the Urdaibai Nature Preserve to Mundaka, probably the best way short of a boat to see this lovely wetlands preserve.
The BilbaoCard is good for tram, metro, and bus travel and is available in values of €6, €10, and €12, though the €6 ticket should suffice for the few subway hops you might need to get around town. BilbaoCards can be purchased at the main tourist office and at some newspaper stands and metro stations. Pass your ticket through the machine as you get on and off metros, tramways, or buses, and it is charged according to the length of your trip. Transfers cost extra. A single in-town (Zone 1) ride costs about €1.50 and can be purchased from a driver; with a BilbaoCard the cost is reduced to about €1.10.
Bilbobus provides bus service from 6:15 am to 10:55 pm. Plaza Circular and Plaza Moyúa are the principal hubs for all lines. Once the metro and normal bus routes stop service, take a night bus, known as a Gautxori (Night bird). Six lines run every 30 minutes between Plaza Circular and Plaza Moyúa and the city limits from 11:30 pm to 2 am Friday and until 7 am on Saturday.
Metro Bilbao is linear, running down the Nervión estuary from Basauri, above, or east of, the Casco Viejo, all the way to the mouth of the Nervión at Getxo, before continuing to the beach town of Plentzia. There is no main hub, but the Moyúa station is the most central stop and lies in the middle of Bilbao’s Ensanche, or modern (post-1860) part. The second subway line runs down the left bank of the Nervión to Santurtzi. The fare is €1.70.
San Sebastián Hiking
The concentration of celebrated chefs around San Sebastián is so dazzling that food is a natural rallying point here. There are famous names as well as rising stars in and around the Basque Country. Meanwhile, the excellence of ordinary food prepared with no gourmet pretensions beyond happy dining is everywhere.
Not surprisingly, maintaining an appetite (and some semblance of a waistline) can become a problem on a food safari—and hiking is the answer. Bring good walking shoes and check with local tourist offices for classic hikes such as the full-day walk over the Pyrenees from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to upper Navarra’s Roncesvalles, a unique way to get a never-to-be-forgotten feel for the Pyrenean portal. The network of trails and ancient cobblestone Roman roads up the Basque coast from Zumaia to Getaria, Zarautz, San Sebastián, and all the way to France will offer a look at corners of the Basque Country not seen from the freeways. From San Sebastián, the red-and-white GR (Gran Recorrido) markings at the end of the Zurriola beach will start you on a gorgeous three-hour hike to Pasajes de San Pedro, where a two-minute boat ride will whisk you across the Rentería shipping passage to Pasajes de San Juan (Pasai Donibane in Euskera) and the town’s several first-rate dining opportunities.
Bilbao’s tourist office, Bilbao Turismo, conducts weekend guided tours in English and Spanish. The Casco Viejo tour starts at 10 am at the tourist office on the ground floor of the main office on the Plaza Circular. The Ensanche and Abandoibarra tour begins at noon at the tourist office to the left of the Guggenheim entrance. The tours last 90 minutes and cost €4.50.
Bilbao Paso a Paso arranges custom-designed visits and tours of Bilbao throughout the week.
Stop Bilbao leads visits and tours of Bilbao and the province of Vizcaya.
Bilbao Paso a Paso. | Egaña 17, 5th fl., Casco Viejo | 944/153892 | www.bilbaopasoapaso.com.
Bilbao Turísmo. | Alameda de Mazarredo 66 (next to Guggenheim Museum), Ensanche | 944/795760 | www.bilbao.net | Mon.–Sat. 10–7, Sun. 10–3 (till 7 July and Aug.).
Stop Bilbao. | Portuondo Auzoa 4, Mundaka | 944/424689 | www.stop.es.
Bus and Subway Informaton
Bilbobus. | 944/790981 | www.bilbobus.com.
Metro Bilbao. Customer services offices are in or near four stations: Areeta, San Inazio, Casco Viejo, and Ansio. Hours are weekdays 8:30–7:30, with the San Inazio location also open Saturday 8:30–3. | C. Navarra 2, Casco Viejo | 944/254025 | www.metrobilbao.net.
Termibus Bilbao. | Gurtubay 1, San Mamés | 944/395077 | www.termibus.es.
Bilbao Turismo. | Edificio Terminus, Pl. Circular 2, El Ensanche | 94/479–5760 | www.bilbaoturismo.net | Daily 9–9.
EuskoTren. | C. Atxuri 8, Casco Viejo | 902/543210 | www.euskotren.es.
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In the early 20th century this was a municipal wine-storage facility used by Bilbao’s Rioja wine barons. Now, this city-block-size, Philippe Starck–designed civic center is filled with shops, cafés, restaurants, movie theaters, swimming pools, fitness centers, and nightlife opportunities at the very heart of the city. Conceived as a hub for entertainment, culture, wellness, and civic coexistence, it added another star to Bilbao’s cosmos of architectural and cultural offerings when it opened in 2010. The complex regularly hosts film festivals and art exhibitions, and it’s a cozy place to take refuge on a rainy afternoon. Locals lovingly call it “the meatball,” because its name is one letter off from the Spanish word for meatballs, albóndigas. | Pl. Arriquibar 4, El Ensanche | 94/401–4014 | www.alhondigabilbao.com | Station: Moyúa.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Funicular de Artxanda.
The panorama from the hillsides of Artxanda is the most comprehensive view of Bilbao, and the various typical asadores (roasters) here serve delicious beef or fish cooked over coals. | Pl. de Funicular s/n, Matiko | 94/445–4966 | €0.92 | Weekdays 7:15 am–10 pm, weekends 8:15 am–10 pm (till 11 June–Sept.) | Station: Casco Viejo.
Fodor’s Choice | Mercado de la Ribera.
This triple-decker ocean liner with its prow headed down the estuary toward the open sea is one of the best markets of its kind in Europe, as well as one of the biggest, with more than 400 retail stands covering 37,950 square feet. Like the architects of the Guggenheim and the Palacio de Euskalduna nearly 75 years later, the architect here was playful with this well-anchored, oceangoing grocery store in the river. From the stained-glass entryway over Calle de la Ribera to the tiny catwalks over the river or the diminutive restaurant on the second floor, the market is an inviting place. Look for the farmers’ market on the top floor, and down on the bottom floor ask how fresh a fish is some morning and you might hear, “Oh, that one’s not too fresh: caught last night.” | C. de la Ribera 20, Casco Viejo | 946/023791 | www.mercadodelaribera.net | Mon.–Thurs. 9:30–1 and 3:30–6, Fri.–Sat. 9–3 | Station: Casco Viejo.
Fodor’s Choice | Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts).
Considered one of the top five museums in a country that has a staggering number of museums and great paintings, the Museo de Bellas Artes is like a mini-Prado, with representatives from every Spanish school and movement from the 12th through the 20th century. The museum’s fine collection of Flemish, French, Italian, and Spanish paintings includes works by El Greco, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Diego Velázquez, Zurbarán, José Ribera, Paul Gauguin, and Antoni Tàpies. One large and excellent section traces developments in 20th-century Spanish and Basque art alongside works by better-known European contemporaries, such as Fernand Léger and Francis Bacon. Look especially for Zuloaga’s famous portrait of La Condesa Mathieu de Moailles and Joaquín Sorolla’s portrait of Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. A statue of Zuloaga outside greets visitors to this sparkling collection at the edge of Doña Casilda Park and on the left bank end of the Deusto bridge, five minutes from the Guggenheim. Three hours might be barely enough to appreciate this international and pan-chronological painting course. The museum’s excellent Arbolagaña restaurant offers a stellar lunch to break up the visit. | Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar, Museo Pl. 2D, El Ensanche | 94/439–6060 | www.museobilbao.com | €6 (free Wed.), €13.50 Bono Artean combined ticket with Guggenheim (valid 1 yr) | Tues.–Sun. 10–8 | Station: Moyúa.
Fodor’s Choice | Museo Guggenheim Bilbao.
Described by the late Spanish novelist Manuel Vázquez Montalbán as a “meteorite,” the Guggenheim, with its eruption of light in the ruins of Bilbao’s shipyards and steelworks, has dramatically reanimated this onetime industrial city. How Bilbao and the Guggenheim met is in itself a saga: Guggenheim director Thomas Krens was looking for a venue for a major European museum, having found nothing acceptable in Paris, Madrid, or elsewhere, and glumly accepted an invitation to Bilbao. Krens was out for a morning jog when he found it—the empty riverside lot once occupied by the Altos Hornos de Vizcaya steel mills. The site, at the heart of Bilbao’s steel and shipping port, was the perfect place for a metaphor for Bilbao’s macro-reconversion from steel to titanium, from heavy industry to art, as well as a nexus between the early-14th-century Casco Viejo and the new 19th-century Ensanche and between the wealthy right bank and working-class left bank of the Nervión River.
Frank Gehry’s gleaming brainchild, opened in 1997 and hailed as “the greatest building of our time” by architect Philip Johnson and “a miracle” by Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times, has sparked an economic renaissance in the Basque Country after more than a half century of troubles. In its first year, the Guggenheim attracted 1.4 million visitors.
At once suggestive of a silver-scaled fish and a mechanical heart, Gehry’s sculpture in titanium, limestone, and glass is the perfect habitat for the contemporary and postmodern artworks it contains. The smoothly rounded jumble of surfaces and cylindrical shapes recalls Bilbao’s shipbuilding and steel-manufacturing past, whereas the transparent and reflective materials create a shimmering, futuristic luminosity. With the final section of the La Salve bridge over the Nervión folded into the structure, the Guggenheim is both a doorway to Bilbao and an urban forum: the atrium looks up into the center of town and across the river to the Old Quarter and the tranquil green hillsides of Artxanda where livestock graze. Gehry’s intent to build something as moving as a Gothic cathedral in which “you can feel your soul rise up,” and to make it as playful and perfect as a fish—per the composer Franz Schubert’s ichthyological homage in his famous “Trout Quintet”—is patent: “I wanted it to be more than just a dumb building; I wanted it to have a plastic sense of movement!”
Covered with 30,000 sheets of titanium, the Guggenheim became Bilbao’s main attraction overnight. The enormous atrium, more than 150 feet high, connects to the 19 galleries by a system of suspended metal walkways and glass elevators. Vertical windows reveal the undulating titanium flukes and contours of this beached whale. The free Audio Guía explains everything you always wanted to know about contemporary art and the Guggenheim. Frank Gehry talks of his love of fish and how his creative process works, while the pieces in the collection are presented one by one.
The collection, described by Krens as “a daring history of the art of the 20th century,” consists of more than 250 works, most from the New York Guggenheim and the rest acquired by the Basque government. The second and third floors reprise the original Guggenheim collection of abstract expressionist, cubist, surrealist, and geometrical works. Artists whose names are synonymous with the art of the 20th century (Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Georges Braque, Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder, Kazimir Malevich) and European artists of the 1950s and 1960s (Eduardo Chillida, Tàpies, Jose Maria Iglesias, Francesco Clemente, and Anselm Kiefer) are joined by contemporary figures (Bruce Nauman, Juan Muñoz, Julian Schnabel, Txomin Badiola, Miquel Barceló, Jean-Michel Basquiat). The ground floor is dedicated to large-format and installation work, some of which—like Richard Serra’s Serpent—was created specifically for the space. Claes Oldenburg’s Knife Ship, Robert Morris’s walk-in Labyrinth, and pieces by Joseph Beuys, Christian Boltanski, Richard Long, Jenny Holzer, and others round out the heavyweight division in one of the largest galleries in the world.
On holidays and weekends lines may develop, though no one seems too impatient. The longest lines tend to occur late morning through early afternoon, although you can buy tickets in advance online. The museum has no parking of its own, but underground lots throughout the area provide alternatives; check the website for information. | Abandoibarra Etorbidea 2, El Ensanche | 944/359080 | www.guggenheim-bilbao.es | €11, includes audio guide, €13.50 Bono Artean combined ticket with Museo de Bellas Artes | July and Aug., daily 10–8; Sept.–June, Tues.–Sun. 10–8. Ticket office closes at 7:30 | Station: Moyúa.
FAMILY | Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao (Maritime Museum of Bilbao).
This carefully researched nautical museum on the left bank of the Ría de Bilbao reconstructs the history of the Bilbao waterfront and shipbuilding industry beginning from medieval times. Temporary exhibits range from visits by extraordinary seacraft such as tall ships or traditional fishing vessels to thematic displays on 17th- and 18th-century clipper ships or the sinking of the Titanic. | Muelle Ramón de la Sota 1, San Mamés | 94/608–5500 | www.museomaritimobilbao.org | €6 (free Tues. Sept.–June) | May 16–Sept. 14, Tues.–Sun. 10–8; Sept. 15–May 15, Tues.–Fri. 10–6, weekends 10–8 | Station: San Mamés.
Fodor’s Choice | Museo Vasco (Euskal Museoa Bilbao) (Basque Museum of Bilbao).
One of the not-to-miss visits in Bilbao, this museum occupies an austerely elegant 16th-century convent. The collection centers on Basque ethnography, Bilbao history, and comprehensive displays from the lives of Basque shepherds, fishermen, and farmers—everything you ever wanted to know about this little-known culture. Highlights include El Mikeldi in the cloister, a pre-Christian, Iron Age, stone, animal representation that may be 4,000 years old; the Mar de los Vascos (Sea of the Basques) exhibit featuring whaling, fishing, and maritime activities; the second-floor prehistoric exhibit featuring a wooden harpoon recovered in the Santimamiñe caves at Kortezubi that dates from the 10th century BC. | Pl. Unamuno 4, Casco Viejo | 94/415–5423 | www.euskal-museoa.org | €3 (free Thurs.) | Tues.–Sat. 11–5, Sun. 11–2 | Station: Casco Viejo.
Palacio de Euskalduna.
In homage to the astilleros Euskalduna (Basque Country shipbuilders) who operated shipyards here beside the Euskalduna bridge into the late 20th century, this music venue and convention hall resembles a rusting ship, a stark counterpoint to Frank Gehry’s shimmering titanium fantasy just up the Nervión. Designed by architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios, Euskalduna opened in 1999 and is Bilbao’s main opera venue and home of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra. Free, guided tours are offered on Saturday at noon on a first-come, first-served basis. Weekday tours (€4 per person) can also be booked ahead. | Av. Abandoibarra 4, El Ensanche | 94/403–5000 | www.euskalduna.net | Station: San Mamés.
Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar.
Bilbao’s main park is a lush collection of exotic trees, ducks and geese, fountains, falling water, and great expanses of lawns usually dotted with lovers. It’s a sanctuary from the hard-edged Ensanche, Bilbao’s modern, post-1876 expansion. | El Ensanche | Station: San Mamés.
Plaza Miguel de Unamuno.
Named for Bilbao’s all-time greatest intellectual, this bright and open space at the upper edge of the Casco Viejo honors Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936)—a philosopher, novelist, and professor. De Unamuno wrote some of Spain’s most seminal works, including Del sentimiento trágico de la vida en los hombres y los pueblos (The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations); his Niebla (Mist) has been generally accepted as the first existentialist novel, published in 1914 when Jean-Paul Sartre was but nine years old. Remembrances to Unamuno in the Casco Viejo include the philosopher’s bust here, his birthplace at Calle de la Cruz 7, and the nearby Filatelia Unamuno, a rare stamp emporium that is a favorite of collectors. | Casco Viejo | Station: Casco Viejo.
This 64-arch neoclassical plaza seems to be typical of every Spanish city from San Sebastián to Salamanca to Seville. With its Sunday-morning flea market, its December 21 natural-produce Santo Tomás market, and its permanent tapas and restaurant offerings, Plaza Nueva is an easy place in which to spend a lot of time. It was finished in 1851 as part of an ambitious housing project designed to ease the pressure on limited mid-19th-century Bilbao space. Note the size of the houses’ balconies: it was the measure—the bigger, the better—of the social clout of their inhabitants. The tiny windows near the top of the facades were servants’ quarters. The building behind the powerful coat of arms at the head of the square was originally the Diputación, or provincial government office, but is now the Academia de la Lengua Vasca (Academy of the Basque Language). The coat of arms shows the tree of Guernica (the Basque spelling is Gernika), symbolic of Basque autonomy, with the two wolves representing Don Diego López de Haro (López derives from lupus, meaning wolf). The bars and shops around the arcades include two Victor Montes establishments, one for tapas at Plaza Nueva 8 and the other for more serious sit-down dining at Plaza Nueva 2. The Café Bar Bilbao, at Plaza Nueva 6, also known as Casa Pedro, has photos of early Bilbao, while the Argoitia, at No. 15 across the square, has a nice angle on the midday sun and a coat of arms inside with the zatzpiakbat (“seven-one” in Basque), referring to the cultural unity of the three French and four Spanish Basque provinces. | Casco Viejo | Station: Casco Viejo.
Puente de la Ribera.
This footbridge just downriver from the prow of the Mercado de la Ribera was traditionally known as the Puente del Perro Chico (now the name of an excellent restaurant at the far end of the bridge) for the coin once charged as a toll for crossing. The real (royal) or 25 céntimo piece, known as a perro chico (little dog), was a fourth of a peseta, known as a perra (female dog). Until Calatrava’s Zubi-Zuri was built, this was the only pedestrian bridge of Bilbao’s nine river crossings. The bridge is officially named the Puente-Pasarela Conde Mirasol for the street it leads into. | Casco Viejo | Station: Casco Viejo.
Puente de Zubi-Zuri.
Santiago Calatrava’s signature span (the name means “white bridge” in Euskera) connects Campo Volantín on the right bank with the Ensanche on the left. Just a few minutes east of the Guggenheim, the playful seagull-shape bridge swoops brightly over the dark Nervión. The Plexiglas walkway suggests walking on water, though wear-and-tear has reduced the surface from transparent to merely translucent. The airport just west of Bilbao at Loiu, also designed by Calatrava, resembles a massive, white Concorde plane and has been dubbed La Paloma (The Dove), despite more closely resembling a snow goose poised for takeoff. Calatrava’s third Vizcaya creation, the bridge at Ondarroa, completes this troika of gleaming white structures exploring the theme of flight. | El Ensanche | Station: Moyúa.
San Nicolás de Bari.
Honoring the patron saint of mariners, San Nicolás de Bari, the city’s early waterfront church was built over an earlier eponymous hermitage and opened in 1756. With a powerful facade over the Arenal, originally a sandy beach, San Nicolás was much abused by French and Carlist troops throughout the 19th century. Sculptures by Juan Pascual de Mena adorn the inside of the church. Look for the oval plaque to the left of the door marking the high-water mark of the flood of 1983. | Pl. de San Nicolás 1, Casco Viejo | 94/416–3424 | Free | Mon.–Sat. 10:30–1 and 5:30–8, Sun. 11:30–2 | Station: Casco Viejo.
About a century ago, this 1,500-seat theater was as exciting a source of Bilbao pride as the Guggenheim is today. Built between 1886 and 1890, when Bilbao’s population was a mere 35,000, the Teatro Arriaga represented a gigantic per-capita cultural investment. Always a symbol of Bilbao’s industrial might and cultural vibrancy, the original “Nuevo Teatro” (New Theater) de Bilbao was a lavish Belle Époque, neo-baroque spectacular modeled after the Paris Opéra by architect Joaquín Rucoba (1844–1909). The theater was renamed in 1902 for the Bilbao musician thought of as “the Spanish Mozart,” Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga (1806–26).
After a 1914 fire, the new version of the theater opened in 1919. Following years of splendor, the Teatro Arriaga (along with Bilbao’s economy) gradually lost vigor; it closed down in 1978 for restoration work that was finally concluded in 1986. Now largely eclipsed by the splendid and more spacious Palacio de Euskalduna, the Arriaga stages opera, theater, concerts, and dance events September through June. Walk around the building to see the stained glass on its rear facade and the exuberant caryatids holding up the arches facing the river. | Pl. Arriaga 1, Casco Viejo | 944/792036 | www.teatroarriaga.com | Ticket office: Aug.–June, Sat.–Tues. 11:30–2 and 5–7, Wed.–Fri. 11:30–2 and 5–8:30; July, Mon.–Sat. 11:30–2 | Station: Casco Viejo.
Ayuntamiento (City Hall).
Architect Joaquín de Rucoba built this city hall in 1892, on the site of the San Agustín convent destroyed during the 1836 Carlist War. Sharing the Belle Époque style of de Rucoba’s Teatro Arriaga, the Ayuntamiento is characterized by the same brash, slightly aggressive attitude to which most bilbainos confess without undue embarrassment. The Salón Árabe, the highlight of the interior, was designed by the same architect who built the Café Iruña, as their mutual neo-Mudéjar motifs suggest. Tours in Spanish and Euskera, by reservation, are given weekday mornings at 9, 9:30, and 10. | Plaza de Ernesto Erkoreka 1, El Arenal | 94/420–4200, 94/420–5298 for tours | Tour free | Station: Abando.
Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Begoña.
Bilbao’s most cherished religious sanctuary, dedicated to the patron saint of Vizcaya, can be reached by the 313 stairs from Plaza de Unamuno or by the gigantic elevator (the Ascensor de Begoña) looming over Calle Esperanza 6 behind the San Nicolás church. The church’s Gothic nave was begun in 1519 on the site of an early hermitage, where the Virgin Mary was alleged to have appeared long before. Finished in 1620, the basilica was completed with the economic support of the shipbuilders and merchants of Bilbao, many of whose businesses are commemorated on the inner walls of the church. The high ground the basilica occupies was strategically important during the Carlist Wars of 1836 and 1873, and as a result La Begoña suffered significant damage that was not restored until the beginning of the 20th century. Comparable in importance (if not in geographical impact) to Barcelona’s Virgen de Montserrat, the Basílica de la Begoña is where the Athletic Bilbao soccer team makes its pilgrimage, some of the players often barefoot, in gratitude for triumphs. | C. Virgen de Begoña 38, Begoña | 94/412–7091 | www.basilicadebegona.com | Free | Mon.–Sat. 10:30–1:30 and 5:30–8:30, Sun. for Mass only | Station: Casco Viejo.
Biblioteca de Bidebarrieta.
This historic library and intellectual club was originally called “El Sitio” (The Siege) in memory of Bilbao’s successful resistance to the Carlist siege of 1876 (Carlists were supporters of Fernando VII’s brother, Don Carlos, over his daughter Isabella II as rightful heir to the Spanish throne). Now a municipal library, the Bidebarrieta has a music auditorium that is one of Bilbao’s most beautiful venues and a spot to check for the infrequent performances held there. The reading rooms are open to the public, a good place to read newspapers, make notes, or just enjoy the historical echoes of the place. | Calle Bidebarrieta 4, Casco Viejo | 94/415–0915 | Weekdays 8:30–8:30, Sat. 10–2 | Station: Casco Viejo.
Catedral de Santiago (St. James’s Cathedral).
Bilbao’s earliest church was a pilgrimage stop on the coastal route to Santiago de Compostela. Work on the structure began in 1379, but fire delayed completion until the early 16th century. The florid Gothic style with Isabelline elements features a nave in the form of a Greek cross, with ribbed vaulting resting on cylindrical columns. The notable outdoor arcade, or pórtico, was used for public meetings of the early town’s governing bodies. | Pl. de Santiago 1, Casco Viejo | 94/415–3627 | catedraldebilbao.blogspot.com.es | Free | Weekdays 11–1 and 5–7:30, weekends and holidays 11–noon | Station: Casco Viejo.
Convento de la Encarnación.
The Basque Gothic architecture of this early-16th-century convent, church, and museum gives way to Renaissance and baroque ornamentation high on the main facade. The Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro (Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art) occupies a carefully restored 16th-century cloister. The inner patio alone, ancient and intimate, is alone worth the visit. On display are religious silverwork, liturgical garments, sculptures, and paintings dating back to the 12th century. The convent is across from the Atxuri station just upstream from the Puente de San Antón. | Pl. de la Encarnación 9B, Casco Viejo | 94/432–0125 | Free | Tues.–Sat. 10:30–1:30 and 4–7, Sun. 10:30–1:30 | Station: Casco Viejo.
Bilbao’s grande-dame favorite has hosted top-tier celebrities over the last century, from Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway to Ava Gardner, casting giant Gretchen Rennell, and music czar John Court, not to mention Francis Ford Coppola. Opened in 1926, Architect Manuel María de Smith based this project on the London hotel of the same name, although the stained glass in the oval reception area is a reduced version of the one in Nice’s Hotel Negresco. During the Spanish Civil War, this building was the seat of the Republican Basque government; later it housed a number of Nationalist generals. The hotel’s bar, the Grill, has a clubby English feel to it, with murals painted by client Martinez Ortiz in 1947. The murals, representing an equestrian scene and some 10 bourgeois figures, are remarkable for the detailed painting of every hand and finger. | Pl. Federico Moyúa 2, El Ensanche | 94/416–2200 | www.hotelcarlton.es | Station: Moyúa.
Los Jardines de Albia.
One of the two or three places all bilbainos will insist you see is this welcoming green space in the concrete-and-asphalt surfaces of this part of town. Overlooking the square is the lovely Basque Gothic Iglesia de San Vicente Mártir, its Renaissance facade facing its own Plaza San Vicente. The amply robed sculpture of the Virgin on the main facade, as the story goes, had to be sculpted a second time after the original version was deemed too scantily clad. The Jardines de Albia are centered on the bronze effigy of writer Antonio de Trueba by the famous Spanish sculptor Mariano Benlliure (1866–1947), creator of monuments to the greatest national figures of the epoch. | Calle Colón de Larreátegui s/n, El Ensanche | Station: Abando.
Abandoibarra: Bilbao’s New Heart
The Abandoibarra project covers nearly a full square mile along the Nervión estuary. Formerly occupied by docks, warehouses, and shipyards, two-thirds of this new urban center is now parks and open spaces. Javier López Chollet’s 280,000-square-foot Ribera Park borders the Parque de Doña Casilda between the Guggenheim and Palacio de Euskalduna. This green space joins the quais of La Naja, Ripa, and Uribitarte to connect with the Olabeaga park downriver, creating a riverside promenade more than 3 km (2 miles) long.
The head architect for the project is Connecticut-based César Pelli, designer of New York’s World Financial Center and its Winter Garden fronting the Hudson River. Offices are also part of the project, as well as five apartment blocks and a residential building by Basque architect Luis Peña Ganchegui. Other buildings include the Meliá Bilbao Hotel by the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta; and American Robert Stern’s shopping and leisure center, Zubiarte. Flanking the riverside thoroughfare named for Bilbao businessman and benefactor Ramón Rubial are the auditorium of the University of the Basque Country and the Deusto University library. Pedro Arrupe’s footbridge, an exercise in rationalism with a simple geometrical form, connects Abandoibarra and Deusto University. The footbridge creates a complete urban promenade joining the Avenue of the Universities, the riverside walk, and the new streets of Abandoibarra, the culminating act of the revitalized, 21st-century Bilbao.
Now used for the Centro Cívico de la Bolsa, a municipal cultural center, the palace has medieval ceilings that are covered with graceful vaulting. This ancient building, oddly and erroneously known as “La Bolsa” (The Stock Exchange)—though no exchange of stock has ever taken place here—is thought to have been built over a 14th-century structure. Immigrants from Central Europe moved here in the 18th century and apparently set up such a thriving commercial enterprise that it became known as “The Exchange.” The building takes its name from Leandro Yohn, one of the successful merchants. | Calle Pelota 10, Casco Viejo | 94/416–3188 | Weekdays 8:30 am–9:30, Sat. 9 –2 (Closed Sat. July–Aug.) | Station: Casco Viejo.
Distinguished for accumulating the deepest water of any building in the Casco Viejo during the disastrous 1983 flood, as can be witnessed by the water mark more than 14 feet above the floor in the back of the church (to the left as you come in), this simple baroque church was the first Jesuit building in Bilbao, built in 1604. Originally the home of the Colegio de San Andrés de la Compañía de Jesús (St. Andrew’s School of the Order of Jesuits), the original school is now divided between the Museo Vasco and the church dedicated to both St. Johns—the Evangelist and the Baptist. The church’s most important relic is the Relicario de la Vera Cruz (Relic of the True Cross), a silver-plated cross containing what is widely believed to be the largest existing fragment of the cross used at Calvary to execute Jesus in AD 33. | C. de la Cruz 2, Casco Viejo | 94/415–3997 | Mon., Tues., Thurs., and Fri. 11:30–12:30 and 6–7 | Station: Casco Viejo.
Estación de la Concordia.
Designed by the engineer Valentín Gorbeña in 1893 and finished by architect Severino Achúcarro in 1898, this colorful train station looks across the Nervión River to the Paris Opéra–inspired Teatro Arriaga, responding with its own references to the colonnaded Parisian Louvre. The peacock-fan-shape, yellow-and-green-tiled entrance is spectacular, along with the immense stained-glass window over the access to the tracks in which facets of Vizcayan life and work are represented, from farmers and fishermen to factory workers and jai alai players. Meanwhile, the graceful arch of the hangar over the tracks is typical of traditional railroad terminals around Europe. The station was fully renovated in 2008 and now hosts cultural and social events along with providing train and metro connections. | Calle Bailén 2, El Ensanche | 94/423–2266 | Station: Abando.
Metro Bilbao (Norman Foster subway station).
The city’s much-cherished subway system opened in 1995, and was designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, winner of the 1999 Pritzker Architecture Prize and architect of Barcelona’s 1992 Collserola Communications tower, and—more recently—the international terminal at Beijing Airport. Bilbao’s first metro has become a source of great pride for bilbainos. Only a necessity when Bilbao began to spread up and down the Nervión estuary, the Bilbao subway now connects Bolueta, upstream from the Casco Viejo, with Plentzia, a run of 30 km (19 miles) and, in the other direction, with Basauri. The metro is invariably spotless, graffiti is scarce, and most of its passengers are well dressed and ride in a respectful silence. A fairly recent line runs down the left bank of the Nervión to Portugalete and Santurtzi.
Winner of the railway architecture Brunel Prize of 1996, the metro in general and the Sarriko station in particular were designated as the prizewinning elements. The Sarriko station, the largest of all of the 23 stops, is popularly known as El Fosterazo (the Big Foster); the others are Fosteritos (Little Fosters). The most spectacular are segmented glass tubes curving up from underground, such as those at Plaza Circular and Plaza Moyúa, widely thought to resemble transparent snails. Metro Bilbao runs tours of the network—apply online. | Plaza Circular, El Ensanche | www.metrobilbao.net.
QUICK BITES: Café La Granja.
Founded in 1926, this café, near the Puente del Arenal, is a Bilbao classic, offering excellent coffee, cold beer, tortillas de patata, a good lunch menu—and free Wi-Fi. Hours are long (weekdays 7:30 am–12:30 am, Saturday 10:30 am–1:30 am), but it’s closed Sunday. | Pl. Circular 3, Casco Viejo | 94/423–0813 | www.grupoiruña.net | Station: Abando.
Palacio de Ibaigane.
This graceful manor-house design is the only one of its kind left in Bilbao. It is an elegant and sweeping country estate with classic caserío (farmhouse) details surrounded by the generally hard-edged Ensanche. Now the official seat of the Athletic de Bilbao soccer club, the house was originally the residence of the de la Sota family, whose most outstanding member, Ramón de la Sota, founded the company Euskalduna and became one of the most important shipbuilders in Europe. His company specialized in ship repair and opened shipyards in New York, London, Rotterdam, and Paris. Awarded the title “sir” by Great Britain for his services to the Allied cause in World War I, de la Sota went on to found the Euskalerria Basque rights organization, which later joined forces with the Basque Nationalist party. Because of his affiliation with Basque nationalism, Sir Ramón de la Sota’s properties and businesses were seized by the Franco regime in 1939 and not returned to the family until 1973. You can step inside the lobby, but the house is no longer open to the public for tours. It’s nevertheless still worthwhile to view from the outside. | Alameda de Mazarredo 23, El Ensanche | 94/424–0877 | www.athletic-club.net | Station: Moyúa.
Palacio de la Diputación Foral.
Architect Luis Aladrén created this intensely decorated facade just two blocks from Plaza Moyúa for the seat of the Diputación (provincial government) in 1900. A manifestation of the bullish economic moment Bilbao was experiencing as the 20th century kicked off, the building was much criticized for its combination of overwrought aesthetic excess on the outside and minimally practical use of the interior space. The 19th-century Venetian motifs of its halls and salons, the chapel, and the important collection of paintings and sculptures are the best reasons to see the inside of the building. | Gran Vía 45, El Ensanche | Free | Guided tours weekdays from 10:30 am | Station: Moyúa.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Puente de Vizcaya.
Commonly called the Puente Colgante (Hanging Bridge), this has been one of Bilbao’s most extraordinary sights ever since it was built in 1893. The bridge, a transporter hung from cables, ferries cars and passengers across the Nervión, uniting two distinct worlds: exclusive, bourgeois Las Arenas and Portugalete, a much older, working-class town. (Dolores Ibarruri, the famous Republican orator of the Spanish Civil War, known as “La Pasionaria” for her ardor, was born here.) Portugalete is a 15-minute walk from Santurce, where the quayside Hogar del Pescador serves simple fish specialties. Besugo is the traditional choice, but the grilled sardines are hard to surpass. To reach the bridge, take the subway to Areeta, or drive across the Puente de Deusto, turn left on Avenida Lehendakari Aguirre, and follow signs for Las Arenas; it’s a 10- or 15-minute drive from downtown. | Barria 3, Las Arenas | 94/480–1012 | www.puente-colgante.com | Pedestrians €0.35, car €1.35 (5 am–10 pm; price increases after 10); tour with audio guide €9; observation deck €7 | Station: Areeta.
Teatro Campos Elíseos.
If you’ve come from Barcelona, this extraordinary facade built in 1901 by architects Alfredo Acebal and Jean Baptiste Darroquy may seem familiar. The wild Modernista (Art Nouveau) excitement of the intensely ornate circular arch—nearly plateresque in its intricate decorative detail—is a marked contrast to the more sober Bilbao interpretation of the turn-of-the-20th-century Art Nouveau euphoria. Predictably, bilbainos don’t think very highly of this—to the Basque eye—exaggerated ornamentation. The theater is called Campos Elíseos after Paris’s Champs-Elysées (a brief spasm of Francophilia in a town of Anglophiles), as this area of town was a favorite for early-20th-century promenades. During most of the 20th century Bilbao’s theatrical life had two poles: the Casco Viejo’s Teatro Arriaga and the Ensanche’s Campos Elíseos. Known as la bombonera de Bertendona (the candy box of Bertendona) for its intimate and vertical distribution of stage and boxes, the 742-seat theater was restored and reopened for performances in 2010. | Calle Bertendona 3, El Ensanche | 94/443–8610, 94/443–8641 | www.teatrocampos.com | Station: Abando.
WHERE TO EAT
SPANISH | Euskera for “in the wind,” the hotel restaurant for the Meliá Bilbao, under the direction of chef José Miguel Olazabalaga, has become one of the city’s most respected dining establishments. Typical bilbaino culinary classicism doesn’t keep Olazabalaga from creating surprising reductions and contemporary interpretations of traditional dishes such as rape con espuma de patata y trufa e infusión de champiñones (monkfish with potato and truffle cream and infusion of wild mushrooms) and falda de buey Wagyu en láminas, con ajos en texturas y zanahoria (Wagyu beef with “textured” garlic and carrots) in escabeche. The clean-lined contemporary dining room and the streamlined, polished cuisine are a perfect match. | Average main: €40 | C. Lehendakari Leizaola 29, El Ensanche | 94/428–0039 | www.restaurante-aizian.com | Closed Sun. | Station: San Mamés.
Fodor’s Choice | Arbolagaña.
CONTEMPORARY | On the top floor of the Museo de Bellas Artes, this elegant space has bay windows overlooking the lush Parque de Doña Casilda. A devotee of the ‘slow food’ movement, chef Aitor Basabe’s modern cuisine offers innovative versions of Basque classics such as codfish on toast, venison with wild mushrooms, or rice with truffles and shallots. The €45 menú de degustación (tasting menu) is a superb affordable luxury, while the abbreviated menú de trabajo (work menu) provides a perfect light lunch. | Average main: €30 | Museo de Bellas Artes, Alameda Conde Arteche s/n, El Ensanche | 94/442–4657 | www.arbolagana.com | Reservations essential | Closed Mon. No dinner Tues., Wed., and Sun. | Station: Moyúa.
BASQUE | The cider-house experience is a must in the Basque Country, and Arriaga is a local institution, on the ground floor of an ancient tower where locals sing to the Virgin of Begoña on religious festival days. Cider al txotx (shot straight from the barrel), sausage stewed in apple cider, codfish omelets, txuletón de buey (beefsteaks), and Idiazabal cheese with quince jelly are the classic fare. Reserving a table is a good idea, especially on weekends. | Average main: €30 | C. Santa Maria 13, Casco Viejo | 94/416–5670 | www.asadorarriaga.com | No dinner Sun. | Station:Casco Viejo.
BASQUE | Dinner is served until midnight in this sleek, contemporary but casual bistro in the Casco Viejo. Fresh wood tables with a green-tint polyethylene finish and exposed ventilation pipes give the dining room an industrial design look, while the classic cuisine ranges from Iberian ham to smoked salmon, foie gras, cod, beef, and lamb. | Average main: €15 | C. Jardines 8, Casco Viejo | 94/416–7035 | Station: Casco Viejo.
Bistro Guggenheim Bilbao.
SPANISH | Complementing the Guggenheim’s visual feast with more sensorial elements, this spot overseen by Martín Berasategui is on everyone’s short list of Bilbao restaurants. Try the lomo de bacalao asado en aceite de ajo con txangurro a la donostiarra i pil pil (cod flanks in garlic oil with crab San Sebastián–style and emulsified juices), a postmodern culinary pun on Bilbao’s traditional codfish addiction. A lobster salad with lettuce-heart shavings and tomatoes at a table overlooking the Nervión, the University of Deusto, and the heights of Artxanda qualifies as a perfect 21st-century Bilbao moment. If you don’t feel like splurging on the full menu, there’s also a cafeteria and bar that serve tapas versions of some of the most popular dishes, with the same views and at a quarter of the price. | Average main: €32 | Av. Abandoibarra 2, El Ensanche | 94/423–9333 | www.restauranteguggenheim.com | Reservations essential | Closed Mon. No dinner Tues., Wed., and Sun. | Station: Moyúa.
Fodor’s Choice | Café Iruña.
CAFÉ | This is an essential Bilbao haunt on the Ensanche’s most popular garden and square, Los Jardines de Albia. Famous for its interior design and boisterous ambience, the neo-Mudejar dining room overlooking the square is the place to be. (If they try to stuff you in the back dining room, resist or come back another time). The bar has two distinct sections: the elegant side near the dining room, and the older, more bare-bones Spanish side on the Calle Berástegui, with its plain marble counters and pinchos morunos de carne de cordero (lamb brochettes) as the house specialty. | Average main: €17 | C. Berástegui 4, El Ensanche | 94/424–9059 | www.grupoiruña.net | Station: Moyúa.
Fodor’s Choice | Casa Rufo.
BASQUE | More than 100 years old, this place is a Bilbao institution that’s actually a series of nooks and crannies tucked into a fine food, wine, olive oil, cheese, and ham emporium. It has become famous for its txuleta de buey. Let the affable owners bring on what you crave. The house wine is an excellent crianza (two years in oak, one in bottle) from La Rioja, but the 1,000-strong wine list offers a good selection from Ribera del Duero, Somontano, and Priorat as well. | Average main: €18 | C. Hurtado de Amézaga 5, El Ensanche | 94/443–2172 | www.casarufo.com | Reservations essential | Closed Sun. | Station: Abando.
Fodor’s Choice | El Perro Chico.
BASQUE | The global glitterati who adopted post-Guggenheim Bilbao favor this spot across the Puente de la Ribera footbridge below the market. Frank Gehry discovered the color “Bilbao blue”—the azure of the skies over Bilbao—on the walls here and used it for the Guggenheim’s office building. Despite celebrity sightings, the restaurant retains its quaint style, with tiled floors and walls and authentic menu. Noteworthy are the alcachofas a la plancha (grilled artichokes) and the bacalao con berenjena (cod with eggplant). | Average main: €30 | C. Aretxaga 2, El Ensanche | 94/415–0519 | Reservations essential | Closed Sun. and Mon. | Station: Casco Viejo.
BASQUE | This luminous top corner of the Euskalduna palace overlooks the Nervión River, the hills of Artxanda, and Bilbao. Fernando Canales creates homegrown, contemporary cuisine using traditional ingredients. Standouts are the five codfish recipes, the duckling with Pedro Ximenez sherry, poached eggs with lamb kidneys and foie gras, and the braised scallops with shallot vinaigrette. | Average main: €70 | Palacio de Euskalduna, Av. de Abandoibarra 4, El Ensanche | 94/442–1071 | www.etxanobe.com | Closed Sun. | Station: San Mamés.
Fodor’s Choice | Guetaria.
BASQUE | With a wood paneled dining room decorated with antiques, this family operation is a local favorite for fresh fish and meats cooked over coals. Named for the fishing village west of San Sebastián known as la cocina de Guipúzcoa (the kitchen of Guipúzcoa province), Bilbao’s Guetaria does its namesake justice. The kitchen, open to the clientele, cooks lubina, besugo, dorada, txuletas de buey, and txuletas de cordero (lamb chops) to perfection in a classic asador setting. | Average main: €50 | Colón de Larreátegui 12, El Ensanche | 94/424–3923, 94/423–2527 | www.guetaria.com | Reservations essential | Closed Easter wk | Station: Moyúa.
Fodor’s Choice | Guria.
BASQUE | The late Genaro Pildain, founder of the restaurant, learned cooking from his mother in the tiny village of Arakaldo and always focused more on potato soup than truffles or caviar. Don Genaro’s influence is still felt here in the restaurant’s streamlined traditional Basque cooking that dazzles with its simplicity. Every ingredient and preparation is perfect, from alubias “con sus sacramentos” (fava beans, chorizo, and blood sausage) to crema de puerros y patatas (cream of potato and leek soup) to lobster salad with, in season, perretxikos de Orduña (wild mushrooms). | Average main: €50 | Gran Vía 66, El Ensanche | 944/415780 | www.restauranteguria.com | Reservations essential | No dinner Sun. | Station: Indautxu.
BASQUE | This graceful mansion, the setting for one of Bilbao’s finest restaurants, is 20 minutes from downtown on the subway, and then a seven-minute walk. At Jolastoki (“place to play” in Euskera), wild salmon from the Cares River; dark, red Bresse pigeon roasted in balsamic vinegar; lubina al vapor (steamed sea bass) as light as a soufflé; becada estofada a los nabos o flambeada al Armagnac (woodcock stuffed with turnips or flambéed in Armagnac); and encyclopedic salads are all done to perfection. The red-fruit dessert includes 11 varieties with sorbet in raspberry-and-mint coulis. Afterward, take a walk through the fishing quarter or head for the beach. | Average main: €30 | Av. Los Chopos 21, Neguri | Getxo | 94/491–2031 | www.restaurantejolastoki.com | Reservations essential | Closed Mon. No dinner Sun. and Tues. | Station: Gobela, Neguri.
Fodor’s Choice | Kiskia.
BASQUE | A modern take on the traditional cider house, this rambling tavern near the San Mamés soccer stadium serves the classic sidrería menu of chorizo sausage cooked in cider, codfish omelet, txuleta de buey, Idiazabal with quince jelly and nuts, and as much cider as you can drink. Actors, sculptors, writers, soccer stars, and Spain’s who’s who frequent this boisterous marvel. | Average main: €25 | C. Pérez Galdós 51, San Mamés | 94/442–0032 | www.sidreria-kiskia-bilbao.com | No dinner Sun.–Tues. | Station: San Mamés.
TAPAS | For carefully prepared food at friendly prices, this simply designed, intimate space is one of the best values in the Casco Viejo. The crema de puerros (cream of leeks) is as good as any in town, and the dorada al horno (roast gilthead bream) is fresh from the nearby La Ribera market. | Average main: €12 | C. Jardines 1, Casco Viejo | 94/415–0944 | Station: Casco Viejo.
La Taberna de los Mundos.
BASQUE | Sandwich-maker Ander Calvo is famous throughout Spain, and his masterpiece is a sandwich on ciabatta of melted goat cheese with garlic, wild mushrooms, organic tomatoes, and sweet red piquillo peppers on a bed of acorn-fed wild Iberian ham. Calvo’s two restaurants in Bilbao and one in Vitoria include creative interpretations of the sandwich along with photography, art exhibits, travel lectures, and a global interest reflected in his obsession with early maps and navigational techniques. The tapas bar is open longer hours than the dining room. | Average main: €12 | C. Lutxana 1, El Ensanche | 94/416–8181, 94/441–3523 | www.delosmundos.com | Station: Moyúa.
CONTEMPORARY | For designer cuisine in a designer setting, this Guggenheim-inspired lounge creates sleek, postmodern fare in an exciting environment. The VIP table serves diners on Versace crockery and Baccarat crystal, and the cooking is no less exquisite. The menu changes frequently, but expect up-to-the-minute tricks such as meat or fish cooked at low temperatures (45°C), salads with contrasting textures and temperatures, and some of the best risottos in Bilbao. | Average main: €35 | C. Henao 54, El Ensanche | 94/405–2824 | www.public-bilbao.com | Closed Sun. No dinner Mon.–Thurs. | Station: Moyúa.
Txakolí de Artxanda.
BASQUE | The funicular from the end of Calle Múgica y Butrón up to the mountain of Artxanda deposits you next to this excellent spot for a roast of one kind or another after a hike around the heights. Whether ordering lamb, beef, or the traditional Basque besugo, you would have a hard time going wrong at this picturesque spot with unbeatable panoramas over Bilbao. For weekend lunches, especially in springtime, it’s best to call ahead or make a reservation—this is a popular spot for weddings. | Average main: €30 | Ctra. Artxanda-Santo Domingo 19, El Arenal | 94/445–5015 | www.eltxakoli.net | Station: Abando.
TAPAS | On the ground floor, there’s a deli and tapas bar where the well-stocked counter might offer anything from wild mushrooms to txistorra (spicy sausages), Idiazabal, or, for the adventurous, huevas de merluza (hake roe)—all taken with splashes of Rioja, txakolí (a young, white wine made from tart green grapes), or cider. There’s a sprawling terrace and a dining room upstairs, but the bar is most popular. | Average main: €20 | Pl. Nueva 8, Casco Viejo | 94/415–7067 | www.victormontesbilbao.com | Reservations essential | Closed Aug. 1–15. No dinner Sun. | Station: Casco Viejo.
TAPAS | Amid bright lighting and a vivid palette of green and crimson morsels of ham and bell peppers lining his bar, chef Santiago Ruíz Bombin creates some of the tastiest and most interesting and varied pintxos in all of tapas-dom. Among the specialties are grilled mushrooms, stuffed with smoked cod and topped with apple cream, or other varieties topped with cured duck or salmon and liver. | Average main: €12 | C. El Perro 2, Casco Viejo | 94/415–9772 | www.xukela.com | Station: Casco Viejo.
SPANISH | Within the Philippe Starck–designed Alhóndiga Bilbao complex in the Ensanche, Yandiola serves chic designer cuisine. The atmosphere is cool and casual, especially on the terrace, and the market cooking is creative but soundly based on quality products. The croquetas caseras de hongos (homemade wild mushroom croquettes) are not to be missed, while the fideuà cremosa de coliflor y langostas al ajillo (vermicelli noodle paella with cauliflower and garlicky prawns) is a delicious nod to Spain’s east coast culinary canon. | Average main: €59 | Edificio Alhóndiga Bilbao, Pl. Arriquibar 4, El Ensanche | 94/413–3636 | www.yandiola.com | Reservations essential | Closed Mon. No dinner Sun. | Station: Moyúa.
SPANISH | An ultramodern kitchen housed in an ultrahistoric building, this fine dining restaurant is run by chef Daniel García, one of the Basque Country’s culinary stars—with a Michelin star to prove it. García also offers a cooking exhibition for groups of 10 or more at a special table where diners can watch him in action. Reserve your table online. | Average main: €60 | C. Alameda Mazarredo 17, El Ensanche | 94/423–9743 | www.zortziko.es | Reservations essential | Closed Sun. and Mon. | Station: Moyúa.
WHERE TO STAY
FAMILY | Artetxe.
B&B/INN | With rooms overlooking Bilbao from the heights of Artxanda, this Basque farmhouse with wood trimmings and eager young owners offers excellent value and tranquility. It’s surrounded by the green hills and meadows you see from the Guggenheim museum, so what you lose here in big-city ambience you gain in good air and peace. Local asadores (restaurants specializing in meat or fish cooked over coals) are good dining options. You’ll need a car to connect easily with downtown Bilbao. Pros: a peaceful, grassy place from which to enjoy Bilbao and the Basque countryside; great service; plenty of space for children to play Cons: far from the center, the museums, and the action. | Rooms from: €65 | C. de Berriz 112, off Ctra. Enékuri–Artxanda, Km 7 | Artxanda | 94/474–7780 | www.hotelartetxe.com | 12 rooms | Breakfast.
Fodor’s Choice | Castillo de Arteaga.
HOTEL | Built in the mid-19th century for Empress Eugenia de Montijo, wife of Napoleon III, this Neo-gothic limestone castle with rooms in the watchtowers and defensive walls is one of the most extraordinary lodging options in or around Bilbao. Overlooking the Urdaibai Nature Reserve wetlands 30 minutes north of Bilbao near Guernica, Torre Arteaga is a favorite for bird watchers, with excursions by canoe available for exploring the marshes. The excellent restaurant and interaction with local products from seafood to txakolí (young white wine) producers make this a culinary destination as well. Rooms are palatial and equipped with contemporary technology. Pros: excellent wine and local food product tastings; views over the wetlands. Cons: somewhat isolated from village life and a half-hour drive to Bilbao. | Rooms from: €190 | Calle Gaztelubide 7, 40 km (24 miles) northwest of Bilbao | Gautegiz de Arteaga | 94/627–0440 | www.castillodearteaga.com | 7 rooms, 6 suites | Closed late Dec.–early Jan. | Multiple meal plans.
HOTEL | The taurine crowd fills this modern, hotel during Bilbao’s Semana Grande in early August, partly because it’s near the bullring and partly because it has taken over from the Carlton as the place to see and be seen. Impeccable rooms, amenities, and service underscore its reputation. Pros: a Bilbao nerve center for journalists, politicians, and businesspeople. Cons: this might not be the place to stay if you’re looking for a quiet getaway. | Rooms from: €89 | C. Ercilla 37 | 94/470–5700 | www.ercillahoteles.com | 325 rooms | Multiple meal plans | Station: Moyúa.
Fodor’s Choice | Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao.
HOTEL | As much modern design celebration as hotel, this Silken chain establishment directly across the street from the Guggenheim showcases the conceptual wit of Javier Mariscal, creator of Barcelona’s 1992 Olympic mascot Cobi, and the structural know-how of Bilbao architect Iñaki Aurrekoetxea. With adjustable windowpanes reflecting Gehry’s titanium leviathan and every lamp and piece of furniture embodying Mariscal’s playful whimsy, this is the brightest star in Bilbao’s hotel design firmament. Comprehensively equipped and comfortable, it’s the next best thing to moving into the Guggenheim. Pros: at the very epicenter and, indeed, part of Bilbao’s art and architecture excitement; the place to cross paths with Catherine Zeta-Jones or Antonio Banderas. Cons: hard on the wallet and a little full of its own glamour. | Rooms from: €150 | Alameda de Mazarredo 61, El Ensanche | 94/425–3300, 94/425–3301 | www.granhoteldominebilbao.com | 139 rooms, 6 suites | Multiple meal plans | Station: Moyúa.
FAMILY | Hesperia Zubialde.
HOTEL | Overlooking the San Mamés soccer stadium, also known as “La Catedral,” and with views of the Nervión River, this former schoolhouse is just a 15-minute walk through the lush Parque de Doña Casilda gardens from the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Guggenheim. Rooms are contemporary in style and outfitted with all the latest technology, from flat-screen TVs to Wi-Fi. The restaurant, El Botxo, serves carefully prepared Basque and international cuisine. Pros: views over the Nervión; good for hiking beside the river; handy to the tramway and the metro; babysitting available. Cons: when national-league soccer games erupt in the nearby San Mamés stadium, the neighborhood is bedlam; a long hike (or short metro ride) from the Casco Viejo. | Rooms from: €75 | Camino de la Ventosa 34, El Ensanche | 94/400–8100, 91/398–4661 | www.hesperia-zubialde.com | 82 rooms | No meals | Station: San Mamés.
Fodor’s Choice | Hotel Carlton.
HOTEL | This illustrious hotel exudes old-world grace and charm along with a sense of history—which it has aplenty. Past luminaries who have trod the halls of this elegant white elephant of a hotel include Orson Welles, Ava Gardner, Ernest Hemingway, Lauren Bacall, Federico García Lorca, Albert Einstein, and Alfonso XIII, grandfather of Spain’s King Juan Carlos I. Squarely in the middle of the Ensanche, the Carlton is equidistant from the Casco Viejo and Abandoibarra area. Exemplary service from front desk staff, plus luxury gym and business center. Pros: historic, old-world surroundings that remind you that Bilbao has an illustrious past. Cons: surrounded by plenty of concrete and urban frenzy. | Rooms from: €320 | Pl. Federico Moyúa 2, El Ensanche | 94/416–2200 | www.hotelcarlton.es | 136 rooms, 6 suites | Breakfast | Station: Moyúa.
HOTEL | A small, attentively run hotel near the Atxuri station, this modest spot has modern rooms with views over some of Bilbao’s oldest architecture. The owner and manager offer helpful advice about Bilbao. Pros: handy to the Mercado de la Ribera, Casco Viejo, and the Atxuri train station; excellent buffet-style breakfast. Cons: tight quarters; lacking character of surrounding buildings. | Rooms from: €60 | Pl. de la Encarnación 3, Casco Viejo | 94/433–0759 | www.hotelsirimiri.es | 28 rooms | Breakfast | Station: Casco Viejo.
Fodor’s Choice | Iturrienea Ostatua.
B&B/INN | Extraordinarily beautiful, with charm to spare, this hotel is in a traditional Basque town house one flight above the street in Bilbao’s Old Quarter. The staff is particularly friendly and helpful. With wooden ceiling beams, stone floors, and ethnographical and historical objects including a portable Spanish Civil War combat confessional, there is plenty to learn and explore without leaving the hotel. Pros: budget-friendly; all no-smoking; exquisite rustic style; free Wi-Fi. Cons: nocturnal noise on the front side, especially on summer weekend nights—try for an interior room or bring earplugs. | Rooms from: €70 | Santa María 14, Casco Viejo | 94/416–1500 | www.iturrieneaostatua.com | 19 rooms | No meals | Station: Casco Viejo.
López de Haro.
HOTEL | This luxury hotel five minutes from the Guggenheim is under the same ownership as the Ercilla and, like its sister hotel, it’s becoming quite a scene now that the city is a bona fide contemporary art destination. A converted 19th-century building, the López de Haro has an English feel and all the comforts your heart desires. Rooms are classical in design, yet feel contemporary in equipment and comfort. The trendy in-house bar-restaurant, The Lounge, serves modern Basque dishes and cocktails—a handy alternative on one of Bilbao’s many rainy evenings. Pros: state-of-the-art comfort, service, and cuisine; traditional and aristocratic setting. Cons: a less than relaxing, slightly hushed and stuffy scene; not for the shorts-and-tank-top set. | Rooms from: €100 | Obispo Orueta 2–4, El Ensanche | 94/423–5500 | www.hotellopezdeharo.com | 49 rooms, 4 suites | Breakfast | Station: Moyúa.
Meliá Bilbao Hotel.
HOTEL | Designed by architect Ricardo Legorreta and inspired by the work of Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida (1920–2002), this high-rise hotel was built over what was once the nerve center of Bilbao’s shipbuilding industry, and it feels appropriately like a futuristic ocean liner. The Meliá is filled with contemporary art and a collection of Spanish ship models, including miniaturized versions of vessels constructed in the city’s historic shipyards. Rooms are high, wide, and handsome, with glass, steel, stone, and wood trimmings. Although massive in scope, the comforts and the views from upper floors are superb. Both the café and the restaurant, Aizian (Fsee Where to Eat), are excellent. Pros: great views over the whole shebang if you can get a room facing the Guggenheim. Cons: a high-rise colossus that might be more at home in Miami or Malibu. | Rooms from: €105 | C. Lehendakari Leizaola 29, El Ensanche | 94/428–0000 | www.melia.com | 199 rooms, 12 suites | No meals | Station: San Mamés.
HOTEL | Perfectly placed between the Guggenheim and Bilbao’s excellent Museo de Bellas Artes, this boutique hotel refurbished by Barcelona fashion designer Toni Miró competes with the reflecting facade of Javier Mariscal’s Domine Bilbao just up the street. Comfortable and daringly innovative, it is one of the city’s sleek new fleet of hotels inspired by the Guggenheim. The high-tech, contemporary rooms are spacious and lavishly draped in subdued mauves and salmon-hued fabrics. Pros: a design refuge that places you in the eye of Bilbao’s art and architecture fiesta. Cons: not unpretentious; a hint of preciosity pervades these halls. | Rooms from: €110 | Alameda de Mazarredo 77, El Ensanche | 94/661–1880 | www.mirohotelbilbao.com | 50 rooms | No meals | Station: Moyúa.
NH Villa de Bilbao.
HOTEL | Although a bit big-city brisk (very bilbaino, not unlike New York City), this businesslike place offers great extras—morning newspapers at your door, great breakfasts, and modern rooms that are comprehensively equipped. Nearby Doña Casilda Park becomes part of your day as you set out for the Guggenheim, the Museo de Bellas Artes, or any other point in Bilbao (the farthest of which is a 45-minute hike away). Five minutes from the Palacio de Euskalduna or the taverns of Licenciado Poza, this is a fine location from which to tackle Bilbao. Pros: terrific breakfasts; latest technology and comfort; a verdant walk through the park to the Bellas Artes and Guggenheim museums. Cons: a primarily business hotel; seems to pride itself on no-nonsense, big-city manners. | Rooms from: €85 | Gran Vía 87, El Ensanche | 94/441–6000 | www.nh-hoteles.com | 139 rooms | No meals | Station: San Mamés.
Petit Palace Arana.
HOTEL | Across from the Teatro Arriaga in the Casco Viejo, this design hotel has a blended style of contemporary and antique. Centenary limestone blocks, exposed brickwork, hand-hewn beams, and spiral wooden staircases are juxtaposed with clean new surfaces of glass and steel. The standard rooms and the showers are a tight fit, and the street below can be noisy on weekends, depending on your location. Fifteen executive rooms have exercise bikes and computers, and all rooms have hot tubs with hydromassage and computer hookups. Pros: in the heart of traditional Bilbao. Cons: can be noisy at night on the street side of the building. | Rooms from: €83 | Bidebarrieta 2, Casco Viejo | 94/415–6411 | www.hthoteles.com | 64 rooms | Multiple meal plans | Station: Casco Viejo.
Pensión Méndez I & II.
HOTEL | This may be the best value in town, with small but impeccable and well-appointed rooms, some of which (nos. 1 and 2) overlook the facade of the Palacio Yohn. Pensión Méndez I, on the fourth floor of this walk-up, has shared baths, whereas Pensión Méndez II is slightly more expensive and has in-room private baths. A brace of handsome sculpted setters stands vigil at the bottom of lovely, creaky wooden stairs. Pros: excellent value; location in the middle of the Casco Viejo. Cons: no a/c; rooms with best views are noisy at night. | Rooms from: €50 | Santa María 13, 1st and 4th fl., Casco Viejo | 94/416–0364 | www.pensionmendez.com | 24 rooms | No meals | Station: Casco Viejo.
FAMILY | Urgoiti Hotel Palacio.
HOTEL | This extraordinary hotel, occupying a reconstructed 17th-century country palace out toward the airport, is a great retreat for active travelers or families, with a nine-hole pitch-and-putt in the hotel gardens and other activities nearby. There’s sand, surf, and sailing 15 km (9 miles) away in Plentzia, and equestrian activities in Mungia. Rooms are spacious and well furnished with the latest technologies, and the restaurant, Harria, serves polished Basque cuisine. Pros: handy train service into Bilbao; nearly walking distance from the airport; elegant and peaceful environment; golf and water sports nearby. Cons: Bilbao and the Guggenheim a short excursion away; a particular flight path into the airport can be teeth-rattling. | Rooms from: €115 | Arritugane Kalea s/n, 13 km (8 miles) west of Bilbao, 2 km (1.2 miles) from the airport, Mungia | 94/674–6868 | www.palaciourgoiti.com | 42 rooms, 1 suite | Breakfast.
SPORTS AND THE OUTDOORS
“Sports” in Bilbao means the Athletic de Bilbao soccer team, traditionally one of Spain’s top fútbol powers during the city’s heyday as an industrial power. Although it has been 30 years or so since Bilbao has won a league title, “the Lions” are often in the top half of the league standings and take special pleasure in tormenting powerhouses Madrid and Barcelona. The local rivalry with San Sebastián’s Real Sociedad is as bitter as baseball’s Yankees–Red Sox feud.
Bilbao’s Semana Grande (Grand Week), in mid-August, is famous for scheduling Spain’s largest bullfights of the season, an example of the Basque Country’s tendency to favor contests of strength and character over art. (Note that in Barcelona, bullfights are no longer allowed under local legislation.)
Plaza de Toros Vista Alegre.
Prices and times of the bullfights held here vary by event; check the website for listings. | Martín Agüero 1, San Mamés | 94/444–8698 | www.plazatorosbilbao.com | Station: San Mamés.
The main stores for clothing are found around Plaza Moyúa in the Ensanche, along streets such as Calle Iparraguirre and Calle Rodríguez Arias. The Casco Viejo has dozens of smaller shops, many of them handsomely restored early houses with gorgeous wooden beams and ancient stones, specializing in an endless variety of products from crafts to antiques. Wool items, foodstuffs, and wood carvings from around the Basque Country can be found throughout Bilbao. Txapelas (berets, or Basque boinas) are famous worldwide and make fine gifts.
The city is home to international fashion names from Coco Chanel to Calvin Klein. The ubiquitous department store El Corte Inglés is an easy one-stop shop, if a bit routine.
EN ROUTE: From Bilbao, drive northwest down the Nervión to Neguri and Getxo and follow the coast road around through Baquio, Bermeo, and Mundaka to Gernika before proceeding east—this is the scenic route but well worth the extra time. Depending on stops for lunch or sprawling on a breezy beach, this can be a two-to-six-hour drive, all of it spectacularly scenic. The other choice is to pick up the A8 toll road east toward San Sebastián and France, exiting for Gernika and the BI635 coast road through Vizcaya’s hills.
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SAN JUAN DE GAZTELUGATXE
37 km (23 miles) northeast of Bilbao.
This tiny, gemlike hermitage clinging to its rocky promontory over the Bay of Biscay is 231 steps up along a narrow corridor built into the top of a rocky ledge connecting what would otherwise be an island to the mainland. A favorite pilgrimage for bilbainos on holidays, the Romanesque chapel is said to have been used as a fortress by the Templars in the 14th century.
HOTEL | The views from this diminutive hotel and restaurant, overlooking the hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, are some of the most vertiginous of the Basque coast. In Euskera, the Basque language, gaztelu means castle and begi is the word for eye, so “Gaztelubegi” adds up to eye-castle, or lookout point. The bar is always booming and the food is simple Basque cooking, from alubias to besugo (white beans to sea bream). Pros: simple lodging with panoramas in all directions; friendly service. Cons: roadside can be noisy; no frills such as hair dryers. | Rooms from: €54 | Ctra. BI–3101, Km 3 from Bakio | 94/619–4924 | www.gaztelubegi.com | 7 rooms | No meals.
Museo del Pescador.
The craft and history of fishermen and the fishing industry, from whales to anchovies, is the subject of this museum. The tower was built by native son Alonso de Ercilla y Zuñiga (1533–94), poet and eminent soldier. Ercilla’s “La Araucana,” an account of the conquest of Arauco (Chile), is considered one of the best Spanish epic poems. | Torre de Ercilla, Torronteroko enparantza 1 | 94/688–1171 | free | Tues.–Sat. 10–1:30 and 4–7:30, Sun. 10–2:15.
SEAFOOD | You’ll almost certainly have a good view of the puerto viejo (old port) from this cheerful, strategically located restaurant, perfectly placed to watch the day’s catch being unloaded from the boats in the harbor below. The bar near the front entry serves excellent tapas—good as appetizers or full meals. Try the rape Jokin (monkfish in a clam and crayfish sauce) or chipirones en su tinta (squid in its ink) and, for dessert, the tarta de naranja (orange cake). And in case you’re wondering what the joke is, Jokin is the Euskera version of the name Joaquin. | Average main: €20 | Eupeme Deuna 13 | 94/688–4089 | www.restaurantejokin.com | No dinner Sun.
37 km (22 miles) northeast of Bilbao.
Tiny Mundaka, famous among surfers all over the world for its left-breaking roller at the mouth of the Ría de Gernika, has much to offer nonsurfers as well. The town’s elegant summer homes and stately houses bearing family coats of arms compete for pride of place with the hermitage on the Santa Catalina peninsula and the parish church’s Renaissance doorway.
Mundaka. | Josepa Deuna kalea s/n | 94/617–7201 | www.mundakaturismo.com.
On Monday, April 26, 1937—market day—the town of Gernika, 33 km (20 miles) east of Bilbao, suffered history’s second terror bombing against a civilian population. (The first, much less famous, was against neighboring Durango, about a month earlier.) Gernika, a rural market town, had been one of the symbols of Basque identity since the 14th century: Since the Middle Ages, Spanish sovereigns had sworn under the ancient oak tree of Gernika to respect Basque fueros (special local rights—the kind of local autonomy that was anathema to the generalísimo’s Madrid-centered “National Movement,” which promoted Spanish unity over local identity). The planes of the Nazi Luftwaffe were sent with the blessings of General Francisco Franco to experiment with saturation bombing of civilian targets and to decimate the traditional seat of Basque autonomy.
When the raid ended, more than 250 civilians lay dead or dying in the ruins, and today Gernika remains a symbol of independence in the heart of every Basque, known to the world through Picasso’s famous canvas Guernica. The city was destroyed—although the oak tree miraculously emerged unscathed—and has been rebuilt as a modern, architecturally uninteresting town. Not until the 60th anniversary of the event did Germany officially apologize for the bombing.
When Spain’s Second Republic commissioned Picasso to create a work for the Paris 1937 International Exposition, little did he imagine that his grim canvas protesting the bombing of a Basque village would become one of the most famous paintings in history.
Picasso’s painting had its own struggle. The Spanish Pavilion in the 1937 International Exposition in Paris nearly substituted a more upbeat work, using Guernica as a backdrop. In 1939, Picasso ceded Guernica to New York’s Museum of Modern Art on behalf of the democratically elected government of Spain—stipulating that the painting should return only to a democratic Spain. Over the next 30 years, as Picasso’s fame grew, so did Guernica’s—as a work of art and symbol of Spain’s captivity.
When Franco died in 1975, two years after Picasso, negotiations with Picasso’s heirs for the painting’s return to Spain were already under way. Now on display at Madrid’s Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Guernica is home for good.
Famous for its waves, rolling in and breaking on the left side of the mouth of the River Laidatxu, this beach is said to have the longest surf break in Europe and among the best in the world. This attracts summertime surfers from everywhere, but means that in summer and fall this beach is off limits for families who just want to splash around. Land around the river mouth is part of the Urdibai Natural Preserve, a UNESCO-designated biosphere. Amenities: lifeguards, water sports. Best for: surfing. | Matadero Kalea.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
BASQUE | In the village of Forua, about 11 km (7 miles) south of Mundaka and 1 km (½ mile) northwest of Guernica, this restaurant is in a stunning 18th-century caserío (Basque farmhouse). Strings of red peppers and garlic hang from wooden beams in the cathedral-like interior, and the kitchen is famous for its hearty fish and meat dishes prepared over a wood-fired grill. | Average main: €25 | BI635 to Bermeo, Km 2 | 94/625–3408 | www.baserrimaitea.com | No dinner Sun. July and Aug.; no dinner Sun.–Thurs. Sept.–June.
Fodor’s Choice | Casino de Mundaka.
SEAFOOD | Built in 1818 as a fish auction house for the local fishermen’s guild, this building in the center of town, with wonderful views of Mundaka’s beach, is now a fine restaurant and a well-known and respected eating club. The public is welcome, and it’s a favorite place for lunches and sunset dinners in summer, when you can sit in the glassed-in, upper-floor porch. Don’t be confused by the name—there’s no gambling here (“casino” means something like a gentleman’s club in Castilian). | Average main: €25 | Kepa Deunaren 1 | 94/687–6005.
BASQUE | Spectacular terraces outside a traditional caserío overlooking the Laida beach, the aromas of beef and fish cooking over coals, a comfortable country dining room upstairs, and an easy 15-minute walk outside Mundaka all make this a good stop for lunch or dinner (in summer—it’s a good idea to book ahead). Offerings are balanced between meat and seafood, and the wine list covers an interesting selection of wines from all over Spain. The tapas area downstairs crackles with life on weekends and during the summer. | Average main: €50 | Portuondo Auzoa 1, Ctra. Gernika–Bermeo (BI2235), Km 47 | 94/687–6050 | www.restauranteportuondo.com | Closed Mon.
HOTEL | Tastefully converted from a private house, this 1911 landmark has become a big favorite for quick rail-getaway overnights from Bilbao—the 37-km (22-mile) train ride out is spectacular. Guest rooms are charming and comfortable; those upstairs have balconies with marvelous views, and No. 22 is the best room in the house. The breakfast room is cheerful and light. There’s also a sauna. Pros: intimate retreat from Bilbao’s sprawl and bustle; friendly family service; weekend specials. Cons: tight quarters in some rooms. | Rooms from: €110 | Itxaropen Kalea 1 | 94/687–6899 | www.atalayahotel.es | 13 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
HOTEL | Just a few steps from the Plaza de los Fueros in downtown Guernica, the Boliña is a pleasant and modern base camp for exploring the Vizcayan coast. Rooms are simple and small but comfy, and the food is great value. Pros: comfortable and efficient; central location; good value. Cons: small rooms; restaurant seats 100 and is a local favorite for wedding receptions and gatherings. | Rooms from: €35 | Barrenkale 3 | 94/625–0300 | www.hotelbolina.es | 16 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
HOTEL | Basque for Palacio de la Cruz, this elegant 18th-century town house is a perfect alternative to the Atalaya for an overnight getaway from Bilbao. The dormered rooms up under the eaves, nestlike and and protected, will make you want to stay forever. Pros: cozy retreat in downtown Mundaka. Cons: small rooms; tight streets; parking can be difficult. | Rooms from: €70 | Kurtzio Kalea 1 | 94/687–6925 | www.kurutziagajauregia.com | 23 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
EN ROUTE: From Mundaka, follow signs for Gernika, stopping at the Mirador de Portuondo—a roadside lookout on the left, a kilometer outside of Mundaka (BI635, Km 43)—for a grand view of the estuary. The restaurant Portuondo serves excellent tapas and Basque cooking on a terrace overlooking the Laida beach and the estuary.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Bosque de Oma.
On the road to Kortezubi, 5 km (3 miles) from Guernica, stop off at the Urdaibai Natural Reserve for a stroll through the Bosque de Oma, also known simply as Bosque Pintado (Painted Forest) because of the rows of trees vividly painted by Basque artist Agustín Ibarrola. It’s a striking and successful marriage of art and nature. The nearby Cuevas de Santimamiñe have important prehistoric cave paintings that can be accessed virtually at a visitor center. | Barrio Basondo | Kortezubi | 94/465–1657.
50 km (30 miles) northeast of Bilbao, 24 km (15 miles) east of Mundaka.
The tiny fishing village of Elantxobe (Elanchove in Spanish) is surrounded by huge, steep cliffs, with a small breakwater that protects its fleet from the storms of the Bay of Biscay. The view of the port from the upper village is breathtaking, and the lower fork in the road leads to it.
WHERE TO STAY
FAMILY | Casa Rural Arboliz.
B&B/INN | On a bluff overlooking the Bay of Biscay just outside of Elantxobe, this rustic, family-run inn is removed from the harborside bustle, offering a breath of country life on the Basque coast. The cheerful rooms have terraces overlooking the sea, and two suites are available for families. Pros: bucolic setting. Cons: could be too isolated and quiet for some; breakfast not included in room rate. | Rooms from: €65 | Arboliz 12, about 2 km (1 mile) along the road to Lekeitio | 94/627–6283 | www.arboliz.com | 4 rooms, 2 suites | No meals.
B&B/INN | At the foot of Monte Ogoño in the upper part of the charming and colorful fishing and seafaring village, this amicable place rents simple, cheery rooms and serves home-cooked Basque cuisine in its diminutive dining room. Rooms with wood beams overhead look directly down into the deepwater harbor below; fourth-floor rooms have the best views. The hotel is a family enterprise, and the staff is unfailingly cheerful and helpful. Pros: part of the hustle and bustle of village life; simple and comfortable. Cons: tight quarters in some rooms; rooms facing the square can be noisy on weekends. | Rooms from: €55 | Nagusia 32 | 94/627–6174 | www.itsasmin.com | 12 rooms | Closed early Jan.–early Feb. | No meals.
47 km (28 miles) east of Bilbao, 42 km (26 miles) south of Elantxobe.
The village of Axpe, in the valley of Atxondo, nestles under the limestone heights of 4,777-foot Amboto—one of the highest peaks in the Basque Country outside the Pyrenees. Home of the legendary Basque mother of nature—Mari Urrika or Mari Anbotokodama (María, Our Lady of Amboto)—Amboto, with its spectral gray rock face, is a sharp contrast to the soft green meadows running up to the very foot of the mountain. According to Basque scholar and ethnologist José María de Barandiarán in his Mitología Vasca (Basque Mythology), Mari was “a beautiful woman, well constructed in all ways except for one foot, which was like that of a goat.”
Getting Here and Around
To reach Axpe from Bilbao, drive east on the A8/E70 freeway toward San Sebastián. Get off at the Durango exit 40 km (24 miles) from Bilbao and take the BI632 toward Elorrio. At Apatamonasterio turn right onto the BI3313 and continue to Axpe.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
Fodor’s Choice | Etxebarri.
SEAFOOD | Victor Arguinzoniz and his development of innovative techniques for cooking over coals have been hot news around the Iberian Peninsula for a decade now, with woods and coals tailored to different ingredients and new equipment such as a pan to char-grill angulas or caviar. Everything from clams and fish to meats and even the rice with langoustines is healthy, flavorful, and exciting as prepared and served in this blocky stone house in the center of a tiny mountain town. | Average main: €40 | Pl. San Juan 1 | 94/658–3042 | www.asadoretxebarri.com | Reservations essential | Closed Mon. and Aug. No dinner Tues.–Fri.
Fodor’s Choice | Mendigoikoa.
HOTEL | This handsome group of hillside farmhouses is among the province of Vizcaya’s most exquisite hideaways. The lower farmhouse, Mendibekoa (“lower mountain” in Euskera), has stunning rooms, an elegant breakfast room, and a glassed-in terrace overlooking the valley. Normally closed in winter, the hotel will open for groups of six or more. At the restaurant Mendigoikoa (upper mountain), heavy beams loom overhead and a fire usually crackles in the far corner. The pichón de Navaz a la parrilla (Navaz wood pigeon cooked over coals) and the txuleta de buey (beef chop) are memorable. The restaurant is closed on Monday and doesn’t do dinner on Sunday. Pros: gorgeous setting; smart and attentive service. Cons: need a car to get here. | Rooms from: €80 | Barrio San Juan 33 | 94/682–0833 | www.mendigoikoa.com | 11 rooms | Closed Nov.–Easter | Breakfast.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: The Sanctuary of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
This sanctuary, in Cestona, about 34 km (21 miles) southwest of San Sebastián, is an exuberant baroque structure erected in honor of Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola (1491–1556) after he was canonized as Ignacio de Loyola in 1622 for his defense of the Catholic Church against the tides of Martin Luther’s Reformation. Almost two centuries later, Roman architect Carlos Fontana designed the basilica that memorializes the saint. The ornate construction contrasts with the austere ways of St. Ignatius himself, who took vows of poverty and chastity after his conversion. Polychrome marble, flamboyant altar work, and a huge but delicate dome decorate the interior. The fortresslike tower house has the room where Ignatius (Iñigo, in Euskera) experienced conversion while recovering from a wound received in an intra-Basque battle.
GETARIA AND ZUMAIA
80 km (50 miles) east of Bilbao, 22 km (14 miles) west of San Sebastián.
Getaria (Guetaria in Spanish) is known as la cocina de Guipúzcoa (the kitchen of Guipúzcoa province) for its many restaurants and taverns. It was also the birthplace of Juan Sebastián Elcano (1487–1526), the first circumnavigator of the globe and Spain’s most emblematic naval hero. Elcano took over and completed Magellan’s voyage after Magellan was killed in the Philippines in 1521. The town’s galleonlike church has sloping wooden floors resembling a ship’s deck. Zarautz, the next town over, has a wide beach and many taverns and cafés.
Zumaia is a snug little port and summer resort with the estuary of the Urola River flowing—back and forth, according to the tide—through town. Zumaia and Getaria are connected along the coast road and by several good footpaths.
Getaria. | Parque Aldamar 2 | 94/314–0957 | www.getaria.net.
Zumaia. | Pl. de Kantauri 13 | 94/314–3396 | zumaia.net.
Cristóbal Balenciaga Museoa.
Although his fashion house lives on in Paris, the haute-couture maestro Cristóbel Balenciaga (1895–1972) was born in Getaria. This museum dedicated to his life is a must see, not only for followers of fashion, but for anyone who believes in the transformative power of design. The collection gathers together 1,200 pieces that represent his life’s work. | Aldamar Parkea 6 | 94/300–8840 | www.cristobalbalenciagamuseoa.com | €10 | Nov.–Feb., Tues.–Fri. 10–3, weekends 10–5; Mar.–May and Oct., Tues.–Fri. and Sun. 10–5, Sat. 10–7; June and Sept., Tues.–Sun. 10–7; July and Aug., daily 10–7.
On the N634 at the eastern edge of town, this museum has an extraordinary collection of paintings by Goya, El Greco, Zurbarán, and others, in addition to works by the Basque impressionist Ignacio Zuloaga. The collection is housed in an ancient stone convent surrounded by gardens. With limited hours, the office phone often goes unanswered, so it’s best to email with any requests. | Casa Santiago-Etxea 4 | 67/707–8445 | www.espaciozuloaga.com | €5 | Mid-Apr.–mid-Sept., Fri.–Sun. 4–8
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
BASQUE | Zumaia natives like to access this rustic hideaway by boat when the tide is right, though you can also walk or drive. A specialist in tortilla de patatas con pimientos verdes de la huerta (potato omelet with homegrown green peppers), Bedua is also known for tortilla de bacalao, txuleta de buey, and fish of all kinds, especially the classic besugo cooked a la donostiarra (roasted and covered with a sauce of garlic and vinegar) and fresh baby eels, in season. | Average main: €15 | Cestona, Barrio Bedua, up Urola, 3 km (2 miles) from | Zumaia | 94/386–0551 | www.bedua.es.
SEAFOOD | Suspended over Getaria’s colorful and busy fishing port and with panoramas looking up the coast past Zarautz and San Sebastián all the way to Biarritz, this spectacular place puts together exquisite fish soups and serves fresh fish right off the boats—you can watch it being unloaded below. The town is the home of Txomin Etxaniz, the premier txakolí, and this is the ideal place to drink it. | Average main: €15 | General Arnao 4 | 94/314–0500 | www.kaia-kaipe.com | Closed Mon. Oct.–June.
FAMILY | Landarte.
B&B/INN | For a taste of life in a Basque caserío, spend a night or two in this lovely, restored, 16th-century, country manor house 1 km (½ mile) from Zumaia and an hour’s walk from Getaria. Run by the Iribar family for more than half a century, the inn is a child-friendly, traditional spot with rustic exterior, modern, stylish interior, and ocean views from the sprawling garden. There are extra beds for children, and mid-week specials. The walk down to town and the hike back will prime you for the pleasures of Basque dining. Stone walls, hand-hewn beams, sea views, and happy and helpful hosts make this a top choice. Pros: warm, family-friendly atmosphere; traditional cuisine on request. Cons: some top-floor rooms under the low roof eaves could be tricky for taller guests; breakfast costs €6 extra per person. | Rooms from: €88 | C. Artadi Anzoa 1 | Zumaia | 94/386–5358 | www.landarte.net | 6 rooms | Closed mid-Dec.–Feb. | No meals.
Fodor’s Choice | Saiaz Getaria.
HOTEL | For panoramic views over the Bay of Biscay, this 15th-century house on Getaria’s uppermost street is a perfect choice. The beautifully decorated rooms on the street side have heavy stone walls, but the plainer rooms on the sea side have the spectacular views. The long surfing waves crashing into the beach down below provide water music for sleeping. Pros: opportunity to stay in a noble house in a unique fishing village; free Wi-Fi; discounts at nearby spa and gym. Cons: rooms on the seaside are small and undistinguished except for the views. | Rooms from: €109 | Roke Deuna 25 | 94/314–0143 | www.saiazgetaria.com | 17 rooms | Closed Dec. 20–Jan. 6 | No meals.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Pello Urdapilleta.
For a look at an authentic Basque caserío where the Urdapilleta family farms pigs, sheep, cattle, goats, chickens, and ducks, take a detour up to the village of Bidegoian, on the Azpeitia–Tolosa road. Pello Urdapilleta (which means “pile of pigs” in Euskera) sells artisanal cheeses and sausages, depending on what’s available on the day. | Elola Azpikoa Baserria | Bidegoian | 605/701204 | www.urdapilleta.eu.
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San Sebastián | Pasajes de San Juan | Hondarribia
Graceful, chic San Sebastián invites you to slow down: stroll the beach, or wander the streets. East of the city is Pasajes, from which the Marquis de Lafayette set off to help the rebelling forces in the American Revolution and where Victor Hugo spent a winter writing. Just shy of the French border is Hondarribia, a brightly painted, flower-festooned port town.
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100 km (62 miles) northeast of Bilbao.
San Sebastián (Donostia in Euskera) is a sophisticated city arched around one of the finest urban beaches in the world, La Concha (The Shell), so named for its resemblance to the shape of a scallop shell, with Ondarreta and Zurriola beaches at the southwestern and northeastern ends. The promontories of Monte Urgull and Monte Igueldo serve as bookends for La Concha, while Zurriola has Monte Ulía rising over its far end. The best way to see San Sebastián is to walk around: promenades and pathways lead up the hills that surround the city. The first records of San Sebastián date from the 11th century. A backwater for centuries, the city had the good fortune in 1845 to attract Queen Isabella II, who was seeking relief from a skin ailment in the icy Atlantic waters. Isabella was followed by much of the aristocracy of the time, and San Sebastián became a favored summer retreat for Madrid’s well-to-do.
San Sebastián is divided by the Urumea River, which is crossed by three bridges inspired by late-19th-century French architecture. At the mouth of the Urumea, the incoming surf smashes the rocks with such force that white foam erupts, and the noise is wild and Wagnerian. The city is laid out with wide streets on a grid pattern, thanks mainly to the 12 different times it has been all but destroyed by fire. The last conflagration came after the French were expelled in 1813; English and Portuguese forces occupied the city, abused the population, and torched the place. Today, San Sebastián is a seaside resort on par with Nice and Monte Carlo. It becomes one of Spain’s most expensive cities in the summer, when French vacationers descend in droves. It is also, like Bilbao, a center of Basque nationalism.
San Sebastián’s neighborhoods include La Parte Vieja, tucked under Monte Urgull north of the mouth of the Urumea River; Gros (so named for a corpulent Napoleonic general), across the Urumea to the north; Centro, the main city nucleus around the cathedral; Amara, farther east toward the Anoeta sports complex; La Concha, at stage center around the beach; and El Antiguo, at the western end of La Concha. Igueldo is the high promontory over the city at the southwestern side of the bay. Alto de Miracruz is the high ground to the northeast toward France; Errenteria is inland east of Pasajes; Oiartzun is a village farther north; Astigarraga is in apple-cider country to the east of Anoeta.
Getting Here and Around
San Sebastián is a very walkable city, though local buses (€1.65) are also convenient. Buses for Pasajes (Pasaia), Errenteria, Astigarraga, and Oiartzun originate in Calle Okendo, one block west of the Urumea River behind the Hotel Maria Cristina. Bus A-1 goes to Astigarraga; A-2 is the bus to Pasajes.
The EuskoTren, the city train, is popularly known as “El Topo” (The Mole) for the amount of time it spends underground. It originates at the Amara Viejo station in Paseo Easo and tunnels its way to Hendaye, France, every 30 minutes (€4.60; 45 minutes). EuskoTren also serves Bilbao (€5.60; 2 hours, 40 minutes) hourly and Zarautz (€3; 40 minutes) every half hour.
For the funicular up to Monte Igueldo (943/213525 | www.monteigueldo.es | €3.10) the station is just behind Ondarreta beach at the western end of La Concha.
Bus station (Estación de autobuses). | C. de Fernando Sasiaín 7 | 94/346–9074 | www.dbus.es.
Europcar. | Aeropuerto de San Sebastián (Hondarribia [Fuenterrabía]), C. Gabarrari 22 | 94/366–8530 | www.europcar.com.
EuskoTren. | 90/254–3210 | www.euskotren.es.
San Sebastián train station. | Estación de Amara, Pl. Easo 9 | 90/254–3210 | www.euskotren.es | Estación del Norte (RENFE), Paseo de Francia 22 | 90/224–3402 | www.renfe.es.
San Sebastián–Donostia. | Erregina Erregentearen 3, Blvd. 8 | 94/348–1166 | www.sansebastianturismo.com.
Every corner of Spain champions its culinary identity, but San Sebastián’s refined fare is in a league of its own. Many of the city’s restaurants and tapas spots are in the Parte Vieja (Old Quarter), on the east end of the bay beyond the elegant Casa Consistorial (City Hall) and formal Alderdi Eder gardens. The building that now houses city hall began as a casino in 1887; after gambling was outlawed early in the 20th century, the town council moved here from the Plaza de la Constitución, the Old Quarter’s main square.
FAMILY | Aquarium Donostia–San Sebastián.
For a stroll through and under some 6,000 fish—ranging from tiger sharks to sea turtles, with one participative pool where kids are encouraged to touch and try to pick up fish—this is a great resource on one of San Sebastián’s many rainy days. The illustrated history of Basque whaling and boatbuilding is also fascinating. | Pl. Carlos Blasco de Imaz 1 | 94/344–0099 | www.aquariumss.com | €13 | July and Aug., daily 10–9; Easter–June and Sept., weekdays 10–8, weekends 10–9; Oct.–Easter, weekdays 10–7, weekends 10–8.
Catedral Buen Pastor (Cathedral of the Good Shepherd).
Looking directly south from the front of Santa María, you can see the facade and of this 19th-century cathedral across town. With the tallest church spire in the province, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd was constructed in the neo-Gothic style. It’s worth a glimpse inside at beautiful stained-glass windows. | Urdaneta Kalea 4, Pl. del Buen Pastor | 94/346–4516 | Free | Weekdays 8:30–noon and 5–8, weekends for Mass only.
Isla de Santa Clara.
The tiny Isla de Santa Clara, right in the entrance to the bay, protects the city from Bay of Biscay storms, making La Concha one of the calmest beaches on Spain’s entire northern coast. High promontories, Monte Urgull on the right and Monte Igueldo on the left, dominate the entrance to the bay. June through September, ferries run from the mainland every 30 minutes, and are packed on summer weekends. There’s a small bar at the ferry dock, and lifeguard service at a beach that reveals itself only at low tide. Bring sandals, as the coastline is rocky.
Designed by renowned Spanish architect Rafael Moneo and located at the mouth of the Urumea River, the Kursaal is San Sebastián’s postmodern concert hall, film society, and convention center. The gleaming cubes of glass that make up this bright complex were conceived as a perpetuation of the site’s natural geography, an attempt to underline the harmony between the natural and the artificial and to create a visual stepping-stone between the heights of Monte Urgull and Monte Ulía. It has two auditoriums, a gargantuan banquet hall, meeting rooms, exhibition space, a set of terraces overlooking the estuary and the Ni Neu restaurant. For guided tours of the building, make arrangements in advance. | Av. de Zurriola 1, Gros | 94/300–3000 | www.kursaal.org.
On the western side of the bay, this promontory is a must-visit. You can walk or drive up or take the funicular (€3.10 round-trip), with departures every 15 minutes. | 94/321–3525 for funicular | www.monteigueldo.es | Funicular: Apr.–June, weekdays 11–8, weekends 10–9; July and Sept., daily 11–8; Oct.–Mar., Mon., Tues., Thurs., and Fri. 11–6, weekends 11–7; Aug., daily 10–10.
Museo de San Telmo.
In a 16th-century monastery behind the Parte Vieja, to the right (northeast) of the church of Santa María, the former chapel, now a lecture hall, was painted by José María Sert (1876–1945). The museum displays Basque ethnographic items, such as prehistoric steles once used as grave markers, and paintings by Zuloaga, Ribera, and El Greco. | Pl. de Ignacio Zuloaga 1, Parte Vieja | 94/348–1581 | www.museosantelmo.com | €5 | Tues.–Sun. and holiday Mon. 10–8.
Just in from the harbor, in the shadow of Monte Urgull, is this baroque church, with a stunning carved facade of an arrow-riddled St. Sebastian flanked by two towers. The interior is strikingly restful; note the ship above the saint, high on the altar. | C. 31 de Agosto 46 at C. Mayor | 94/342–3124 | Free | Daily 10:15–1:15 and 4:45–7:45.
FAMILY | La Concha.
San Sebastián’s shell-shaped main beach is one of the most famous urban beaches in the world. Night and day, rain or shine, it’s filled with locals and tourists alike, strolling and taking in the city’s skyline and the uninhabited Santa Clara Island just offshore. Several hotels line its curved expanse, including the famed Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra. The beach has clean, pale sand and few rocks or seaweed but only a bit of shade, near the promenade wall. Lounge chairs are available for rent. La Concha is safe night and day. Amenities: lifeguards, showers, toilets. Best for: sunrise, sunset, walking. | C. de la Concha Ibilbidea.
Just across the Urumea River from San Sebastián’s main La Concha beach lies this smaller, more tranquil beach. It offers the same views of Santa Clara Island but with fewer vendors and tourists. Summertime waves can make it too dangerous for children to swim, but they attract surfers—for blocks you’ll see them, barefoot, wearing wet suits, and toting their surfboards beachward, particularly in summer and autumn when waves are biggest. Amenities: lifeguards, water sports. Best for: surfing. | Zurriola Ibilbidea.
WHERE TO EAT
CONTEMPORARY | On the far side of Monte Igueldo (and the far side of culinary tradition, as well) presides chef Pedro Subijana, one of the most respected and creative chefs in the Basque Country. Prepare for tastes of all kinds, from Pop Rocks in blood sausage to mustard ice cream on tangerine peels. At the same time, Subijana’s classical, dishes are monuments to traditional cookery: try the venison with apple and smoked chestnuts. Subijana also offers cooking classes; reserve online. | Average main: €155 | Paseo del Padre Orkolaga 56, Igueldo | 94/331–1209 | www.akelarre.net | Reservations essential | Closed Mon. (and Tues. Jan.–June), Feb., and Oct. 1–15. No dinner Sun.
Fodor’s Choice | Arzak.
BASQUE | Renowned chef Juan Mari Arzak’s little house at the crest of Alto de Miracruz on the eastern outskirts of San Sebastián is internationally famous, so reserve well in advance. Here, traditional Basque products and preparations are enhanced to bring out the best in the natural ingredients. The ongoing culinary dialogue between Juan Mari and his daughter Elena, who share the kitchen, is one of the most endearing attractions here. The sauces are perfect, and every dish looks beautiful, but the prices (even of appetizers) are astronomical. | Average main: €189 | Av. Alcalde Jose Elosegui 273, Alto de Miracruz | 94/327–8465, 94/328–5593 | www.arzak.es | Reservations essential | Closed Sun. and Mon., June 15–July 2, and 3 wks in early Nov.
BASQUE | In what was once a banana warehouse, chef Ander González has transformed narrow stone rooms into one of the finest spots for modern Basque dining at a very good price. The €24 daily menu and the €36 weekend tasting menu list changing seasonal specials like taco de bacalao sobre verduritas asadas (salt-cod taco with grilled vegetables) and magret de pato (duck breast) or alcachofas rellenas de rabo (artichokes stuffed with bull’s tail). The restaurant is conveniently located in the old quarter, near the Victoría Eugenia theater and Kursaal. | Average main: €15 | Euskal Herria 3, Parte Vieja | 94/342–5867 | www.restauranteastelena.com | Closed Mon. No dinner Sun.–Wed.
TAPAS | This busy favorite near Plaza de la Constitución is now run by the third generation of the same family. Specialty morsels range from shrimp and asparagus to Ibérico acorn-fed ham on croissants to anchovies, sea urchins, and wild mushrooms in season. | Average main: €10 | C. San Jerónimo 21, Parte Vieja | 94/342–2575 | www.ganbarajatetxea.com | Closed Mon. No dinner Sun.
TAPAS | Next to open-air La Brecha Market, this traditional little pintxos bar is a classic, filled with good cheer and delicious tapas. | Average main: €10 | C. San Juan 3, Parte Vieja | 94/342–8353 | Closed Sun.
Bar San Marcial.
TAPAS | Nearly a secret, downstairs in the center of town, this is a very Basque spot with big wooden tables and a monumental bar filled with cazuelitas (small earthenware dishes) and tapas of all kinds. | Average main: €10 | C. San Marcial 50, Centro | 94/343–1720 | Closed Tues.
TAPAS | Winner of many a miniature cuisine award, this rustic tavern on the corner of Arteche and Bermingham offers a stylish take on traditional tapas and pintxos, and also serves meal-size roasts. | Average main: €20 | General Arteche 8, Gros | 94/327–5026 | www.pinchosbergara.es.
TAPAS | This hangout for locals during the week and everyone else on weekends serves excellent morsels: fried peppers, octopus, salmon with salsa, and especially fine pimientos with anchovies. There’s a dining room for sit-down meals in the back, but the bar is most popular with the tapas crowd. | Average main: €12 | C. Puerto 7, Parte Vieja | 94/342–2055 | www.bernardoetxea.com | Closed Thurs. No dinner Wed.
TAPAS | Beloved by locals, the bar combines great value with excellent food. Freshly prepared tapas creations go up on the bar at midday and again in the early evening, but it’s open throughout the day for meals or snacks. There’s a wood-paneled formal dining room out back, and tables on the sidewalk terrace out front. | Average main: €15 | C. Reyes Católicos 10, Amara | 94/345–2210 | www.barvalles.com | Closed Wed. No dinner Tues.
TAPAS | This cozy bar, in front of the Santa María del Coro church, is always filled with reverent tapas devotees—and the counter is always piled high with delicious morsels. | Average main: €15 | C. Mayor/Nagusia 21, Parte Vieja | 94/343–1073 | www.casavergara.com | Closed Wed.
TAPAS | The specialty of this tiny bar—and the reason locals flock here on weekends—is the crisp yet juicy prawn brochette. | Average main: €8 | Fermín Calbetón 4, Parte Vieja | 94/342–5204.
TAPAS | This boisterous tavern has been around virtually forever (it opened in 1948). The ceiling of the wood-beamed bar is lined with dangling jamónes, the walls covered with old photos of San Sebastian and the room probably packed with locals. Everything from the Ibérico ham to the little olive, pepper, and anchovy combos called “penalties” will whet your appetite. | Average main: €25 | C. 31 de Agosto 7, Parte Vieja | 94/342–6394 | www.barlacepa.com | Closed Tues. and 2nd half of Nov.
Fodor’s Choice | Martín Berasategui.
CONTEMPORARY | One of the top restaurants in San Sebastián, sure bets here include the lubina asada con jugo de habas, vainas, cebolletas y tallarines de chipirón (roast sea bass with juice of fava beans, green beans, baby onions, and cuttlefish shavings), and the salmón salvaje con pepino líquido y cebolleta a los fruitos rojos y rábanos (wild salmon with liquid cucumber and spring onion, red fruits and radish), but go with whatever Martín suggests. | Average main: €55 | C. Loidi 4, Lasarte, 8 km (5 miles) south of town | 94/336–6471, 94/336–1599 | www.martinberasategui.com | Reservations essential | Closed Mon., Tues., and mid-Dec.–mid-Jan. No dinner Sun.
Fodor’s Choice | Mugaritz.
SPANISH | This farmhouse in the hills above Errenteria, 8 km (5 miles) northeast of San Sebastián, is surrounded by spices and herbs tended by chef Andoni Aduriz and his crew. In a contemporary rustic setting with a bright and open feeling, Aduriz works to preserve and enhance natural flavors using avant-garde techniques such as sous-vide (cooking vacuum-packed foods slowly in low-temperature water) with pristine products from field, forest, and sea. The tasting menu is the only option here. | Average main: €170 | Aldura Aldea 20, Otzazulueta Baserria, Errenteria | 94/352–2455, 94/351–8343 | www.mugaritz.com | Reservations essential | Closed Mon. and mid-Dec.–mid-Apr. No lunch Tues.; no dinner Sun.
CONTEMPORARY | Chef Mikel Gallo’s Ni Neu (“Me, Myself” in Euskera) occupies a bright corner of Rafael Moneo’s dazzling Kursaal complex at the mouth of the Urumea River. The new formula here has been christened bistronómico, a term coined by French chef Sebastián Demorand to describe a less formal, family-bistro environment with more affordable and creative cuisine. Eggs fried at a low temperature with potatoes and codfish broth and pork ribs cooked for 40 hours and accompanied by creamy chicory and vanilla rice are two examples of comfort food with creative touches. The tapas-bar section of the restaurant is an excellent value. | Average main: €25 | Avenida Zurriola 1, Gros | 94/300–3162 | www.restaurantenineu.com | Closed Mon. No dinner Tues., Wed., and Sun.
BASQUE | For hearty dining and a certain amount of splashing around in hard cider, make this short excursion southeast of San Sebastián to the town of Astigarraga. Gigantic wooden barrels line the walls, and sidra al txotx (cider drawn straight from the barrel) is classically accompanied by cider-house specialties such as tortilla de bacalao, txuleta de buey, the smoky local sheep’s-milk cheese from the town of Idiazabal, and, for dessert, walnuts and membrillo (quince jelly). You can also buy cider in bulk, and take a tour of the factory. | Average main: €30 | Ctra. San Sebastián–Hernani, Km 7, Astigarraga | 94/345–7188, 94/347–2208 | www.petritegi.com | No credit cards | Closed mid-Dec.–mid-Jan. No lunch Mon. and Tues.–Thurs. late Sept.–late June.
TAPAS | It may look like just another tapas bar, but the pintxos served here are among the most advanced and beautiful concoctions in town. Don’t miss the bacalao al pil pil that cooks itself on your plate. | Average main: €10 | Pescadería 10, Parte Vieja | 94/342–3451 | www.barzeruko.com | Closed Mon. No dinner Sun.
Fodor’s Choice | Zuberoa.
BASQUE | Working in a 15th-century Basque farmhouse 9.5 km (6 miles) northeast of San Sebastián outside the village of Oiartzun, Hilario Arbelaitz has long been one of San Sebastián’s most celebrated chefs due to his original yet simple management of prime raw materials such as tiny spring cuttlefish, baby octopi, or woodcock. The lenguado con verduritas y chipirones (sole with baby vegetables and cuttlefish) is a tour de force. The atmosphere is unpretentious: just a few friends sitting down to dine simply—but very, very well. | Average main: €40 | Araneder Bidea, Barrio Iturriotz, Oiartzun | 94/349–1228 | www.zuberoa.com | Closed Wed., and Sun. June–Oct. No dinner Sun., and Tues. Nov.–May.
WHERE TO STAY
FAMILY | Aristondo.
B&B/INN | A 15-minute drive above San Sebastián on Monte Igueldo, this comfortable and rustic farmhouse hideaway is a scenic and economical place to stay. After 20 years working in Basque industry, the friendly owners have decided to devote themselves full-time to country life and organic farming, and are keen to give advice on hiking trails and scenic routes. Hiking up and down from Monte Igueldo is the ideal way to keep appetites raging for San Sebastián’s endless culinary offerings. Pros: good value; great views; bucolic peace and quiet. Cons: far from the action; requires a lot of walking, riding the funicular, or driving up and down Monte Igueldo. | Rooms from: €58 | Camino de Pilotegui 70, Igueldo | 94/321–5558, 615/780682 | www.aristondo.com | 16 rooms | No meals.
Fodor’s Choice | Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra.
HOTEL | On the main beachfront promenade overlooking La Concha, this stately hotel has a regal, old-world feel and Belle Époque aesthetic that starts in the elegant marble lobby, with its shimmering chandeliers, and continues throughout the hotel. The sophisticated bar and restaurant face the bay through large windows, and the classically styled, pastel-toned guest rooms with views west out to sea are some of the best in town. New seventh-floor rooms, added in 2013, have private terraces with superb vistas. Pros: sunsets from rooms on the Concha side are stunning; great location over the beach. Cons: street side can be noisy on weekends. | Rooms from: €129 | Zubieta 2, La Concha | 94/344–0770 | www.hlondres.com | 139 rooms, 9 suites | No meals.
Hotel María Cristina.
HOTEL | The graceful beauty of the Belle Époque is embodied here, in San Sebastián’s most luxurious hotel, which sits on the elegant west bank of the Urumea River. The grandeur continues in salons filled with Oriental rugs, potted palms, and Carrara marble columns and in stylish bedrooms, all recently renovated and many with lovely river views. Marble bathrooms add still more pampering, with deep soaking tubs and separate showers. A piano player pounds out an eclectic medley of tunes nightly at the bar. Pros: polished service; supreme elegance; the place to stay. Cons: staffers occasionally can be stiff. | Rooms from: €250 | Paseo República Argentina 4, Centro | 94/343–7600 | www.hotel-mariacristina.com | 108 rooms, 28 suites | Some meals.
HOTEL | Overlooking the Kursaal concert hall and the Zurriola beach at the mouth of the Urumea River, this small but bright new hotel is also at the edge of the Parte Vieja, San Sebastián’s prime grazing area for tapas and vinos. Some of the cheerfully decorated rooms (though not all) have views northeast across the Urumea River and out to sea. Pros: prime location; views; the crashing of the waves; free Wi-Fi. Cons: rooms are a bit cramped and cluttered; room style is efficient but drab. | Rooms from: €157 | Paseo de Salamanca 10, Parte Vieja | 94/342–8893 | www.hotelparma.com | 27 rooms | No meals.
San Sebastián’s top disco is near the western end of La Concha. Guest DJs and events determine the vibe, although you can count on high-energy dance music and enthusiastic drinking. | Paseo de la Concha s/n, Centro | 94/347–3601 | www.bataplandisco.com | Thurs.–Sat. midnight–7 am.
This publike bar, on the edge of the Urumea River, has regular live Latin and jazz music. Hours vary; check the website for listings. | Paseo de Salamanca 3, Parte Vieja | 94/342–9869 | www.barbebop.com.
Across the street from Bataplan and below Miraconcha, this is a top nightspot. | Paseo de la Concha 6, Centro | 94/342–9095, 639/146268 | www.rotondadisco.com.
Overlooking the city’s prime surfing beach, People packs in young revelers. | Paseo de la Zurriola 41, Gros | 94/329–7853 | www.peopledisco.com.
Home of the Orquesta Sinfónica (Symphony Orchestra) de Euskadi, this venue is also a favorite for ballet, opera, theater, and jazz. | Av. de la Zurriola, Gros | 94/300–3000 | www.kursaal.com.
Teatro Victoria Eugenia.
In a stunning 19th century building, this elegant venue offers varied programs of theater, dance and more. | Paseo de la República Argentina, 2, Centro | 94/348–1155, 94/348–1160 | www.victoriaeugenia.com.
San Sebastián is a busy designer-shopping town. Wander Calle San Martín and the surrounding pedestrian-only streets to see what’s in the windows.
Previously known as Bilintx, this shop is one of the city’s best bookstores—it’s now part of the Basque bookstore chain Elkar. There’s a decent selection of English-language books, as well as CDs, games, and stationary. | Fermin Calbeton Kalea 21, Parte Vieja | 902/115210 | www.elkar.com.
Stop by this stylish shop for a fabulous selection of chocolates, hot chocolate, teas, and other fixes for sweet-tooths. | Peña Florida 6, Centro | 94/342–4721 | www.maitiana.com.
The best place to buy Basque berets—the Leclerq family has been hatting (and clothing) the local male population for four generations, since 1838. It’s closed between 1 and 4 pm, and all day Sunday. | C. Narrica 4, at C. Sarriegui 3, Parte Vieja | 94/342–0876 | www.casaponsol.com.
Tapas Menu Decoder
This cheat sheet will help you order tapas throughout Spain.
pincho, pintxo, tapa: snack-sized portion
ración: large portion of tapas, usually to share
media-ración: half-size portion of tapas
montadito: small open-faced sandwich/tapa mounted on small baguette slice
bar: bar, which nearly always serves food
tasca: tapas bar
taverna: informal restaurant serving tapas and full meals
restaurante: full menu, service
marisquería: seafood restaurant
vinoteca: wine bar
Method of Cooking/Preparation
a la plancha: grilled
a la parilla: barbecued
a leña: cooked slowly over wood fire
al horno: baked
brochette: on a stick (shish kebab)
en vinagre: marinated in vinegar brine (usually uncooked)
frito: fried (usually in olive oil, breaded)
surtido de... : an assortment
bocadillo, bocata: large hot or cold sandwich on crusty baguette
pulga, pulguita: smaller sandwich on baguette
sandwich: smaller sandwich on sliced white bread
Asking for Help
What would you recommend? ¿Qué recomienda?
What’s in that dish? ¿Qué lleva ese plato?
I don’t eat meat. No como carne.
I’m allergic to... Tengo alérgia a...
almendras: almonds, usually fried or roasted
banderilla: small kebab of vegetables
boquerones: small fish, usually sardines or anchovies, in vinegar or fried
caracoles: small snails
champiñones, setas: mushrooms; wild mushrooms
chipirones: baby squid
croquetas: breaded, fried croquettes with béchamel and jamón or fish stuffing
embutidos: cured meats
empanadas, empanadillas: pastry stuffed with meat, fish, or vegetables; smaller version
ensalada Rusa: cold potato salad with mayonnaise, peas, and carrots
gambas al ajillo: shrimp sautéed with garlic
morcilla: blood sausage
morros: pig snout
patatas bravas: fried potatoes with spicy red sauce
patatas alioli: fried potatoes with garlic sauce
patatas mixta: fried potatoes with half red spicy sauce, half garlic sauce
pimientos de Padrón: fried and salted green peppers from Padrón, usually sweet but sometimes hot
pincho de tortilla: slice of potato and onion omelet
rabo de toro: stew made from bull’s tail (usually fresh from the bull ring)
PASAJES DE SAN JUAN
7 km (4 miles) east of San Sebastián.
Generally marked as Pasai Donibane, in Euskera, there are actually three towns around the commercial port of Rentería: Pasajes Ancho, an industrial port; Pasajes de San Pedro, a large fishing harbor; and historic Pasajes de San Juan, a colorful cluster of 16th- and 17th-century buildings along the shipping channel between the industrial port of Rentería and the sea. Best and most colorfully reached by driving into Pasai de San Pedro, on the San Sebastián side of the strait, and catching a launch across the mouth of the harbor (about €1, depending on the time of day), this is too sweet a side trip to pass up.
In 1777, at the age of 20, General Lafayette set out from Pasajes de San Juan to aid the American Revolution. Victor Hugo spent the summer of 1843 here writing his Voyage aux Pyrénées. The Victor Hugo House is the home of the tourist office and has an exhibit of traditional village dress. Ondartxo, a center of maritime culture, is directed by Xavier Agote, who taught boatbuilding in Rockland, Maine. Pasajes de San Juan can be reached via Pasajes de San Pedro from San Sebastián by cab or bus. Or, if you prefer to go on foot, follow the red-and-white-blazed GR trail that begins at the east end of the Zurriola beach—you’re in for a spectacular three-hour hike along the rocky coast. By car, take N1 toward France and, after passing Juan Mari Arzak’s landmark restaurant, Arzak, at Alto de Miracruz, look for a marked left turn into Pasaia or Pasajes de San Pedro.
FAMILY | Barco Museo Mater (Mater Ship Museum).
A former Basque fishing boat now offers tours of the port, visits to a rowing club, and to the Victor Hugo house in Pasai Donibane, as well as a treasure hunt for young and old alike. You can join a one-hour trip or rent the ship out for the whole day (for groups of 10 or more). Book ahead, online or by phone. | Muelle Pesquero, Pasai San Pedro | 619/814225 | www.itsasgela.org | €5 for 1-hr trip | Tues.–Thurs. at 5 and 6, weekends at noon and 1.
WHERE TO EAT
Fodor’s Choice | Casa Cámara.
SEAFOOD | Four generations ago, Pablo Cámara turned this 19th century fishing wharf on the Rentería narrows into a first-class seafood restaurant with classic fare. The dining room has lovely views over the shipping lane, and a central “live” tank that rises and falls with the tide and from which lobsters and crayfish can be hauled up for your inspection. A steaming sopa de pescado (fish soup) on a wet Atlantic day is a memorable event. Try cangrejo del mar (spider crab with vegetable sauce) or the superb merluza con salsa verde (hake in green sauce). | Average main: €37 | C. San Juan 79, Pasai Donibane | 94/352–3699 | www.casacamara.com | Reservations essential | Closed Mon., and Wed. Nov.–Easter wk. No dinner Sun.
SEAFOOD | Picturesque and friendly, this unusual restaurant sits like a matchbox on stilts at the edge of the Rentería shipping passage, in the shadow of the occasional freighter passing only a few dozen yards away. The sopa de pescado (fish soup), thick and piping hot, is among the best available on the Basque coast, and the fresh grilled sole and monkfish, not to mention the pimiento-wrapped bacalao (cod), are equally superb. Make sure you leave some time to stroll around town. | Average main: €20 | Donibane 71 | 94/352–3952 | www.restaurantetxulotxo.com | Reservations essential | Closed Feb. No dinner Sun. and Tues.
18 km (11 miles) east of Pasajes.
Hondarribia (Fuenterrabía in Spanish) is the last fishing port before the French border. Lined with fishermen’s homes and small fishing boats, the harbor is a beautiful but touristy spot. If you have a taste for history, follow signs up the hill to the medieval bastion and onetime castle of Carlos V, now a parador.
Hondarribia. | Pl. de Armas 9 | 94/364–3677 | www.bidasoaturismo.com.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
BASQUE | The three Txapartegi brothers—Mikel, Kepa and Gorka—are the star chefs behind this restaurant, which opened in 1997 after the brothers’ apprenticeship with, among others, Lasarte’s master chef Martín Berasategui. The elegantly restored house in upper Hondarribia is a delight, as are the seasonally rotated combinations of carefully chosen ingredients, from fish to duck to vegetables. Both surf and turf selections are well served here, from Ibérico ham to fresh tuna just in from the Atlantic. | Average main: €50 | Minasoroeta 1 | 94/364–2789 | www.restaurantealameda.net | No dinner Sun., and Mon. and Tues. late Dec.–early Feb.
FAMILY | Casa Artzu.
B&B/INN | Better hosts than this warm, friendly clan are hard to find, and their family house and barn—here in one form or another for some 800 years—offers modernized accommodations overlooking the Bidasoa estuary and the Atlantic. With its classic low, wide roofline, the property is just west of the hermitage of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, 5 km (3 miles) above Hondarribia. Pros: good value; friendly family. Cons: free parking; breakfast costs €3 extra. | Rooms from: €47 | Barrio Montaña | 94/364–0530 | www.euskalnet.net/casartzu | 6 rooms | No meals.
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | Parador de Hondarribia.
HOTEL | You can live like a medieval lord in this 10th-century bastion, home in the 16th century of Spain’s founding emperor, Carlos V—hence it’s alternative name: Parador El Emperador. Replete with suits of armor and other chivalric bric-a-brac, the place feels like a movie set (and has occasionally been used as one). Many rooms have views of the Bidasoa estuary. Reserve ahead and ask for one of the three “special” rooms, with canopy beds and baronial appointments, well worth the moderate extra expense. Pros: great sea views; impeccably comfortable. Cons: no restaurant. | Rooms from: €220 | Pl. de Armas 14 | 94/364–5500 | www.parador.es | 36 rooms | No meals.
EN ROUTE: The fastest route from San Sebastián to Pamplona is the A15 Autovía de Navarra, which cuts through the Leizarán Valley and gets you there in about 45 minutes. Somewhat more scenic, if slower (two hours) and more tortuous, is the 134-km (83-mile) drive on C133, which starts near Hondarribia and follows the Bidasoa River (the border with France) up through Vera de Bidasoa. When C133 meets N121, you can turn left up into the lovely Baztán Valley or right to continue through the Velate pass to Pamplona.
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Pamplona | Puente la Reina | Estella | Vitoria-Gasteiz | Laguardia
Bordering the French Pyrenees and populated largely by Basques, Navarra grows progressively less Basque toward its southern and eastern edges. Pamplona, the ancient Navarran capital, draws crowds with its annual feast of San Fermín, but medieval Vitoria, the Basque capital city in the province of Alava, is largely undiscovered by tourists. Olite, south of Pamplona, has a storybook castle, and the towns of Puente la Reina and Estella are visually indelible stops on the Camino de Santiago.
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79 km (47 miles) southeast of San Sebastián.
Pamplona (Iruña in Euskera) is known worldwide for its running of the bulls, made famous by Ernest Hemingway in his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. The occasion is the festival of San Fermín, July 6–14, when Pamplona’s population triples (along with hotel rates), so reserve rooms months in advance. Every morning at 8 sharp a rocket is shot off, and the bulls kept overnight in the corrals at the edge of town are run through a series of closed-off streets leading to the bullring, a 924-yard dash. Running before them are Spaniards and foreigners feeling festive enough to risk goring. The degree of peril in the running (or encierro, meaning “enclosing”) is difficult to gauge. Serious injuries occur nearly every day during the festival; deaths are rare but always a possibility. What’s certain is the sense of danger, the mob hysteria, and the exhilaration. Access to the running is free, but tickets to the bullfights (corridas) can be difficult to get.
Founded by the Roman emperor Pompey as Pompaelo, or Pampeiopolis, Pamplona was successively taken by the Franks, the Goths, and the Moors. In 750, the Pamplonians put themselves under the protection of Charlemagne and managed to expel the Arabs temporarily. But the foreign commander took advantage of this trust to destroy the city walls; when he was driven out once more by the Moors, the Navarrese took their revenge, ambushing and slaughtering the retreating Frankish army as it fled over the Pyrenees through the mountain pass of Roncesvalles in 778. This is the episode depicted in the 11th-century Song of Roland, although the anonymous French cast the aggressors as Moors. For centuries after that, Pamplona remained three argumentative towns until they were forcibly incorporated into one city by Carlos III (the Noble, 1387–1425) of Navarra.
Pamplona. | C. Yanguas y Miranda 2 | 90/202–3651 | www.estaciondeautobusesdepamplona.com.
Europcar. | Blanca de Navarra Hotel, Av. Pio XII 43 | 94/817–2523 | www.europcar.com | Aeropuerto de Pamplona (Noain), Carretera Bellaterra s/n | 94/831–2798 | www.europcar.com.
Pamplona. | Estación de Pamplona, Pl. de la Estación s/n | 90/232–0320, 90/243–2343 | www.adif.es.
Pamplona. In addition to Pamplona’s main tourist office, there’s a tourist information kiosk in Plaza Consistorial from Easter to September, open 10–8 daily. | Av. Roncesvalles 4 | 84/842–0420 | www.turismodepamplona.es.
Archivo Real y General de Navarra.
This Rafael Moneo-designed structure of glass and stone, ingeniously contained within a Romanesque palace, is Pamplona’s architectural treasure. Containing papers and parchments going back to the 9th century, the archive holds more than 25,000 linear yards of documents and has room for more than 18,500 yards more. The library and reading rooms are lined with cherrywood and topped with a gilded ceiling. | C. Dos de Mayo s/n | 84/842–4667, 84/842–4623 | www.cfnavarra.es/agn | Free | Weekdays 8:30–2:30.
Ayuntamiento (Town hall).
Pamplona’s most remarkable civic building is the ornate town hall on the Plaza Consistorial, with its rich ocher facade setting off brightly gilded balconies. The interior is a lavish wood-and-marble display of wealth, reinforcing Navarra’s historic status as a wealthy kingdom in its own right. The present building was erected between 1753 and 1759. You can appreciate it from the outside and even step inside the lobby, but the building is not otherwise open to visitors. | Pl. Consistorial s/n.
QUICK BITES: Café Iruña.
Pamplona’s gentry has been flocking to this ornate, French-style café since 1888, but Ernest Hemingway made it part of world literary lore in The Sun Also Rises in 1926. You can still have a drink with a bronze version of the author at his favorite perch at the far end of the bar, or enjoy views of the plaza from an outdoor table on the terrace. It’s closed on Saturday afternoon. | Pl. del Castillo 44 | 94/822–2064 | www.cafeiruna.com.
Near the portion of the ancient walls rebuilt in the 17th century, this is one of the most important religious buildings in northern Spain, thanks to the fragile grace and gabled Gothic arches of its cloister. Inside are the tombs of Carlos III and his wife, marked by an alabaster sculpture. The Museo Catedralicio Diocesano (Diocesan Museum) houses religious art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Call in advance for guided tours in English. | C. Dormitaleria 3–5 | 94/821–2594 | www.catedraldepamplona.com | €5 | Cathedral Mon.–Sat. 9–10:30 and 7–8:30, Sun. 10–2; museum Mon.–Sat. 10:30–5.
The central parkland of promenades and pools, site of an ancient fortress, is a great place to walk in late afternoon, the time of the paseo (traditional stroll), for a taste of everyday life here.
The Palacio de Congresos y Auditorio de Navarra, built in 2003 by local architectural star Patxi Mangado, is a sleek assemblage of black Zimbabwean granite. It contains a concert hall of exquisite acoustical perfection, utilizing beechwood from upper Navarra’s famed Irati haya (beech) forest. Performances and concerts, from opera to ballet, are held in this modern venue, built on the remains of one of the five bastions of Pamplona’s 16th-century Ciudadela. | Plaza del Baluarte | 94/806–6066 | www.baluarte.com.
Museo de Navarra.
In a 16th-century building once used as a hospital for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, this museum has a collection of regional archaeological artifacts and historical costumes. | C. Santo Domingo, 47 | 84/842–6492 | €2, free Sat. afternoons and Sun. | Tues.–Sat. 9.30–2 and 5–7, Sun. and holidays 11–2.
Plaza del Castillo.
One of Pamplona’s greatest charms is the warren of small streets near the Plaza del Castillo (especially Calle San Nicolás), which are filled with restaurants, taverns, and bars. Pamplonicas are hardy, rough-and-tumble sorts, well known for their eagerness and capacity to eat and drink.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Fundación–Museo Jorge Oteiza.
Just 8 km (5 miles) east of Pamplona on the road toward France, this museum dedicated to the father of modern Basque art is a must-visit. Jorge Oteiza (1908–2003), in his seminal treatise, Quosque Tandem, called for Basque artists to find an aesthetic of their own instead of attempting to become part of the Spanish canon. Oteiza created a school of artists of which the sculptor Eduardo Chillida (1924–2002) was the most famous. The building itself is a large cube of earth-colored concrete designed by Oteiza’s longtime friend, Pamplona architect Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza. The sculptor’s living quarters, his studio, and the workshop used for teaching divide the museum into three sections. | C. de la Cuesta 7, Alzuza, 8 km from Pamplona on N150 | 94/833–2074 | www.museooteiza.org | €4 (free Fri.) | July and Aug., Tues.–Sat. 11–7, Sun. 11–3; Sept.–June, guided tours by reservation only, Tues. and Sat. at 11 and 1.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
SPANISH | Generally considered Pamplona’s best restaurant, the Europa, in the hotel of the same name, offers a decidedly epicurean take on traditional Navarran cooking, with a Michelin star to show for it. The small and light first-floor dining room offers the perfect backdrop to dishes like slow-cooked lamb and pork, or the best bacalao al pil pil you may try on your trip. À la carte dining is reasonably priced, and there are excellent tasting menus available for €41, €48, and €60. | Average main: €20 | C. Espoz y Mina 11 | 94/822–1800 | www.hreuropa.com | Closed Sun.
Running with the Bulls
In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway describes the Pamplona s (bull running) in anything but romantic terms. Jake Barnes hears the rocket, steps out onto his balcony, and watches the crowd run by: men in white with red sashes and neckerchiefs, those behind running faster than the bulls. “One man fell, rolled to the gutter, and lay quiet.” It’s a textbook move—an experienced runner who falls remains motionless (bulls respond to movement)—and first-rate observation and reporting. In the next encierro in the novel, a man is gored and dies. The waiter at Café Iruña mutters, “You hear? Muerto. Dead. He’s dead. With a horn through him. All for morning fun.”
Despite this, generations of young Americans and other internationals have turned this barnyard bull-management maneuver into one of the Western world’s most famous rites of passage. The idea is simple: At daybreak, six fighting bulls are guided through the streets by 8 to 10 cabestros, or steers (also known as mansos, meaning “tame”), to the holding pens at the bullring, from which they will emerge to fight that afternoon. The course covers 902 yards. The Cuesta de Santo Domingo down to the corrals is the most dangerous part of the run, high in terror and short in distance. The walls are sheer, and the bulls pass quickly. The fear here is of a bull hooking along the wall of the Military Hospital on his way up the hill, forcing runners out in front of the speeding pack in a classic hammer-and-anvil movement. Mercaderes is next, cutting left for about 100 yards by the town hall, then right up Calle Estafeta. The outside of each turn and the centrifugal force of 22,000 pounds of bulls and steers are to be avoided here. Calle Estafeta is the bread and butter of the run, the longest (about 400 yards), straightest, and least complicated part of the course.
The classic run, a perfect blend of form and function, is to remain ahead of the horns for as long as possible, fading to the side when overtaken. The long gallop up Calle Estafeta is the place to try to do it. The trickiest part of running with the bulls is splitting your vision so that with one eye you keep track of the bulls behind you and with the other you avoid falling over runners ahead of you.
At the end of Estafeta the course descends left through the callejón, the narrow tunnel, into the bullring. The bulls move more slowly here, uncertain of their weak forelegs, allowing runners to stay close and even to touch them as they glide down into the tunnel. The only uncertainty is whether there will be a pileup in the tunnel. The most dramatic photographs of the encierro have been taken here, as the galloping pack slams through what occasionally turns into a solid wall of humanity. If all goes well—no bulls separated from the pack, no mayhem—the bulls will have arrived in the ring in less than three minutes.
It is illegal, punishable by hefty fines, to attempt to attract a bull, thus removing him from the pack and creating a deadly danger. It’s also illegal to participate while intoxicated or take photos.
TAPAS | A legendary address for tapeo (tapas grazing) and txikiteo (wine tippling), this small tavern serves some of the best tapas in Pamplona. Just off Plaza del Castillo, in the eye of the hurricane during San Fermín, there is a surprising sense of peace and quiet here, even as the fiesta spins out of control outside. Tapas range from the classical chistorra (spicy sausage) to contemporary creations such as the deconstructed vieira (scallop), an apt metaphor for Pamplona’s blend of old and new. | Average main: €7 | C. Espoz y Mina 7 | 94/822–5073 | www.cafebargaucho.com.
Fodor’s Choice | Gran Hotel La Perla.
HOTEL | The oldest hotel in Pamplona, after several years of refurbishing, has reinvented itself as a luxury lodging option. Rooms have been modernized and redecorated in plush pastels and sleek contemporary lines. Several have retained their early-20th-century style, among them Hemingway’s (No. 201, from which he watched the running of the bulls in 1924). The hotel founder’s son, Lalo Moreno, was a bullfighter, and the mounted heads of two of his taurine adversaries preside over the restaurant. Prices triple during San Fermín. Pros: read your worn copy of The Sun Also Rises in the place where the book was first conceived; impeccable comfort. Cons: round-the-clock mayhem during San Fermín. | Rooms from: €155 | Pl. del Castillo 1 | 94/822–3000 | www.granhotellaperla.com | 44 rooms | Breakfast.
Fodor’s Choice | Hotel Europa.
HOTEL | More famous for its world-class Michelin-starred restaurant on the ground floor, this modest hotel is one of Pamplona’s best-kept secrets, just a block and half from the bullring and within shouting distance of party-central Plaza del Castillo. Nicely renovated from top to bottom, this 3-star gem is a handy alternative to the grand hotels of Pamplona. The bathrooms have cool marble floors. Pros: central location; good value; special restaurant offers for hotel guests. Cons: noisy during the fiesta unless you score an interior room; rooms on the small side. As with all Pamplona properties, prices can double during the San Fermín festival. | Rooms from: €88 | C. Espoz y Mina 11 | 94/822–1800 | www.hoteleuropapamplona.com | 25 rooms | Breakfast.
FAMILY | Hotel Maisonnave.
HOTEL | Renovated in early 2013 and reclassified as four-star, this modern hotel has a nearly perfect location, tucked away on a relatively quiet pedestrian street, just steps from all the action on Plaza del Castillo and Calle Estafeta. It’s popular with business travelers, with reliable Wi-Fi, a gym, and a sauna. There are also suites and triple rooms for families. Pros: friendly, multilingual staff; great location; lively bar and restaurant. Cons: modern interior design lacks local character. | Rooms from: €80 | C. Nueva 20 | 948/222600 | www.hotelmaisonnave.es | 138 rooms | No meals.
FAMILY | Los Tres Reyes.
HOTEL | Named for the three kings of Navarra, Aragón, and Castile—who, it was said, could meet at La Mesa de los Tres Reyes, in the Pyrenees, without stepping out of their respective realms—this modern glass-and-stone refuge operates on the same principle: come to Pamplona without leaving the comforts of home. Note that prices triple during the festival of San Fermin. Pros: a refuge from the excitement of San Fermín, with quiet, leafy gardens and a pool; modernized and elegant comfort. Cons: so modern and streamlined it could just as well be a Marriott in Malibu. | Rooms from: €103 | Jardines de la Taconera s/n | 94/822–6600 | www.hotel3reyes.com | 152 rooms, 8 suites | No meals.
HOTEL | This 18th-century palace in the center of town has been restored to the original architecture and aristocratic style, including the wooden ceilings and the grand staircase. Even the collection of carriages of the counts of Guendulain—who continue to live in the building—is on display and many of the sumptuous rooms have original furniture. This one is worth the slight splurge. Pros: opportunity to stay in a historical monument; central location; outstanding service. Cons: provides little refuge from the mayhem during San Fermín; noise from the street is a problem on weekends; extra charge for parking. | Rooms from: €143 | Zapatería 53 | 94/822–5522 | www.palacioguendulain.com | 23 rooms, 2 suites | Multiple meal plans.
The city has a thumping student life year-round, especially along the length of Calle San Nicolas. Calle Estafeta is another hot spot.
Dress up or you might flunk the bouncer’s inspection at this barnlike rager, filled until dawn with young singles and couples. Cover charge depends on visiting DJs and events. | Av. Bayona 2 | 94/826–5542 | www.discotecamarengo.com | Thurs.–Sat. 1:30 am–6 am.
Botas are the wineskins from which Basques typically drink at bullfights or during fiestas. The art lies in drinking a stream of wine from a bota held at arm’s length without spilling a drop, if you want to maintain your mojo (not to mention your clean shirt).
Navarran favorites such as piquillo peppers and chistorra sausages are sold here. It’s closed on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. | C. San Miguel 12 | 94/822–4286 | www.torrensalimentacion.com.
This chain is famous for colorful T-shirt prints with San Fermín and Basque themes, and has two shops in Pamplona. The other is at Mercaderes 19. | C. Estafeta 76 | 94/822–7394 | www.kukuxumusu.com.
Here you can buy some toffee called “La Cafetera,” a café con leche sweet known all over Spain. The shop also sells Navarran wine and other delicacies. | C. Tudela 5 | 94/822–3174 | www.casamanterola.es.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Javier (Xabier).
This gorgeous Navarran hamlet, about 54 km (33 miles) southeast of Pamplona, is perched atop a lush riverbed and gorge, and is the birthplace of the 16th-century Roman Catholic missionary Francis Xavier, cofounder of the Jesuit order. There’s a fine castle, cathedral, and monastery, two comfortable hotels, three restaurants, and an impressive visitor center with rotating exhibits. The town has seen a surge in pilgrim visits since the election of Pope Francis (a Jesuit) in March 2013, but whatever your religious persuasion, it’s a beautiful stop on your travels in the Pamplona area. | Javier | 948/884024 | Castle €2.50 | Castle daily 10–1:30 and 3:30–6:30.
An unforgettable glimpse into the Spain of the Middle Ages is the reward for journeying to this town. The 11th-century church of San Pedro is revered for its finely worked Romanesque cloisters and portal, but it’s the town’s castle—restored by Carlos III in the French style and brimming with ramparts, crenellated battlements, and watchtowers—that captures the imagination most. You can walk the ramparts, and should you get tired or hungry, part of the castle has been converted into a parador, making a fine place to catch a bite or a few Z’s. | Olite, 41 km (25 miles) south of Pamplona | 94/874–0000.
PUENTE LA REINA
24 km (15 miles) southwest of Pamplona.
Iglesia de Santiago (St. James’s Church).
The church of Santiago is known for its door and its gold sculpture of the saint. | C. Mayor.
Iglesia del Crucifijo (Church of the Crucifix).
An expressive wooden sculpture of Christ on a Y-shaped cross in this church was the gift of a 14th-century pilgrim on his way to Santiago de Campostela. | Ctra. de Pamplona s/n.
Santa María de Eunate.
This octagonal church in Muruzabal was once used as a burial place for pilgrims. | 5 km (3 miles) east of Puente la Reina.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
FAMILY | Fodor’s Choice | El Peregrino.
HOTEL | A haven for pilgrims and travelers alike, this handsome stone house north of town is a real gem, with an excellent restaurant. The rooms are impeccably decorated in antiques, and there’s a swimming pool and lovely gardens. Roasts, menestra de verduras (vegetable stew), suckling lamb or piglet, and hearty bean-and-sausage soups are among the star offerings at the restaurant (closed for Sunday dinner and all day Monday). Pros: historical feel with handsome antiques; professional service. Cons: low ceilings in some (not all) rooms. | Rooms from: €160 | C. de Irunbidea s/n, Ctra. Pamplona–Logroño, Km 23 | 94/834–0075 | www.hotelelperegrino.com | 12 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
43 km (27 miles) southwest of Pamplona, 22 km (14 miles) west of Puente la Reina.
Once the seat of the Royal Court of Navarra, Estella (Lizarra in Euskera) is an inspiring stop on the Camino de Santiago.
Estella. | Plaza San Francisco de Asis 3 | 94/855–6301 | www.turismotierraestella.com.
Church of San Miguel.
Across the River Ega from San Pedro, the doorway to this church has fantastic relief sculptures of St. Michael the Archangel battling a dragon. | Pl. Mercado Viejo s/n.
Monasterio de Irache.
Dating from the 10th century, this monastery was later converted by Cistercian monks to a pilgrims’ hospital; next door, and now operated by the Bodegas Irache, is the famous brass faucet that supplies pilgrims with free-flowing holy wine. Call ahead to arrange a guided tour. | Pl. de Irache 4 | Ayegui | 94/855–4464 | Free | Wed.–Sun. 10–1:15 and 4–7 (6 in winter).
Palacio de los Reyes de Navarra (Palace of the Kings of Navarra).
The heart of Estella is the arcaded Plaza San Martín and its chief civic monument, the 12th-century Palacio de los Reyes de Navarra. The palace now houses the Museo Gustavo de Maeztu, displaying work from a 20th-century Navarran painter, Gustavo de Maeztu y Whitney. The building itself is what’s really impressive, but the museum is free so you might as well have a peak. | C. San Nicolás 1 | Estella-Lizarra | 94/854–6037 | www.museogustavodemaeztu.com | Free | Tues.–Fri. 9:30–1, weekends and holidays 11–2.
San Pedro de la Rúa.
This church has a beautiful cloister and a stunning carved portal. | C. San Nicolás s/n.
70 km (44 miles) northwest of Estella, 100 km (62 miles) west of Pamplona, 93 km (56 miles) north of Logroño, 101 km (62 miles) southwest of San Sebastián, 64 km (40 miles) southeast of Bilbao.
Vitoria-Gasteiz was chosen as the European Green Capital in 2012 because of its abundance of green space, including its six parks, all within the city center.
The capital of the Basque Country, and its second-largest city after Bilbao, Vitoria-Gasteiz is nevertheless in many ways Euskadi’s least Basque city. Neither a maritime city nor a mountain enclave, Vitoria occupies the steppelike meseta de Alava (Alava plain) and functions as a modern industrial center with a surprisingly medieval Casco Medieval (Medieval Quarter), which serves as a striking example of the successful integration of early and contemporary architecture. Founded by Sancho el Sabio (the Wise) in 1181, the city was built largely of granite, so Vitoria’s oldest streets and squares seem especially weathered and ancient.
Vitoria is a big city, but the area you’ll spend your time in is small, only about 1 km (½ mile) square, and easily walked.
Vitoria. | Pl. España 1 | 94/516–1598 | www.vitoria-gasteiz.org | Oct.–June, Mon.–Sat. 10–9, Sun. 11–2; July–Sept., daily 10–8.
Europcar. | Adriano VI 29 | 94/520–0433 | www.europcar.com.
Vitoria-Gasteiz. | Pl. España 1 | 94/516–1598 | www.vitoria-gasteiz.org.
Officially titled Centro-Museo Vasco de Arte Contemporáneo, this former bus station was opened in 2002 by King Juan Carlos, who called it “the third leg of the Basque art triangle, along with the Bilbao Guggenheim and San Sebastián’s [now closed] Chillida Leku.” The museum’s permanent collection—including 20th- and 21st-century paintings and sculptures by Jorge Oteiza, Chillida, Agustín Ibarrola, and Nestor Basterretxea, among many others—makes it one of Spain’s finest treasuries of contemporary art. | C. Francia 24 | 94/520–9020 | www.artium.org | €6 (suggested donation Wed. and weekends following exhibit openings) | Tues.–Fri. 11–2 and 5–8, weekends 11–9.
The 1525 Palacio de Bendaña and the adjoining bronze-plated building are home to one of Vitoria’s main attractions, the Bibat, which combines the Museo Fournier de Naipes (Playing-Card Museum) with the Museo de la Arqueología. The project, by Navarran architect Patxi Mangado, is a daring combination of old and new architecture, though it was dubbed “the chest” because of its dark facade. The palacio houses the playing-card collection of Don Heraclio Fournier, who, in 1868, founded a playing-card factory and eventually found himself with 15,000 sets. As you survey rooms of hand-painted cards, the distinction between artwork and game piece is scrambled. The oldest sets date from the 12th century, and the story parallels the history of printing. The Archeology Museum, in the newest building, has Roman art and artifacts and the famous stele of the horseback rider, an early Basque tombstone. | C. Cuchillería 54 | 94/520–3707 | €3 (free 1st Sat. of every month) | Tues.–Fri. 10–2 and 4–6:30, Sat. 10–2, Sun. 11–2.
Casa del Cordón.
A 15th-century structure with a 13th-century tower, the casa is identifiable by the Franciscan cordón (rope) decorating one of the pointed arches on the facade. | C. Cuchillería s/n.
Catedral de Santa María.
Dating back to the 14th century, the cathedral is currently being restored but is still open for visitors—in fact, that’s part of the fun. Tour guides hand out hardhats, and show you around the site. A prominent and active supporter of the project is British novelist Ken Follett, whose novel World Without End is about the construction of the cathedral. A statue of the author has been placed on one side of the cathedral. | C. Cuchillería 95 | 94/512–2160, 94/525–5135 | www.catedralvitoria.com | €8.50, €10.50 including tower | Daily 10–2 and 4–7.
Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts).
Paintings by Ribera, Picasso, and the Basque painter Zuloaga are among the collection here. | Paseo Fray Francisco de Vitoria 8 | 94/518–1918 | €3 | Tues.–Fri. 10–2 and 4–6:30, Sat. 10–2 and 5–8, Sun. 10–2.
Museo Provincial de Armería (Provincial Arms Museum).
Just south of the park, this museum has prehistoric hatchets, 20th-century pistols, and a reproduction of the 1813 battle between the Duke of Wellington’s troops and the French. | Paseo Fray Francisco de Vitoria 3 | 94/518–1925 | €3 | Tues.–Fri. 10–2 and 4–6:30, Sat. 10–2, Sun. 11–2.
Palacio de los Alava Esquivel.
One of Vitoria’s most splendid buildings, this palace was erected in 1488 and reformed in 1535 and 1865. It’s reached from the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca along Calle de Herrería. | C. de la Soledad s/n.
Don’t miss this austere palace, built in 1538 across from the church of San Miguel. | Pl. del Machete 1 | 94/516–1260 | Weekdays 8:30 am–9 pm (8:30–1:30 in summer).
Parque de la Florida.
During a tour of Vitoria, this park offers a nice respite. | South of Pl. de la Virgen Blanca.
Plaza de España.
Across Virgen Blanca, past the monument and the El Victoria café, this is an arcaded neoclassical square with the elegance typical of 19th-century squares all over Spain.
Plaza de la Virgen Blanca.
In the southwest corner of old Vitoria, this plaza is ringed by noble houses with covered arches and white-trim glass galleries. The monument in the center commemorates the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoléon’s army here in 1813.
Plaza del Machete.
Overlooking Plaza de España, this plaza is named for the sword used by medieval nobility to swear allegiance to the local fueros (special Basque rights and privileges).
San Miguel Arcángel.
A jasper niche in the lateral facade of this Gothic church contains the Virgen Blanca (White Virgin), Vitoria’s patron saint. | Pl. Virgen Blanca s/n | 94/516–1598.
Torre de Doña Otxanda.
This 15th-century tower houses Vitoria’s Museo de Ciencias Naturales, which contains botanical, zoological, and geological collections along with amber from the nearby archaeological site at Peñacerrada-Urizaharra. | C. Siervas de Jesús 24 | 94/518–1924 | €3 | Tues.–Fri. 10–2 and 4–6:30, Sat. 10–2, Sun. 11–2.
Torre de los Anda.
Across from the exquisitely sculpted Gothic doorway on the western facade of the cathedral, you’ll find the Torre de los Anda. In the courtyard on the west side of this square is the sculpted head of a fish protruding from the grass in front of an ornate door. | C. Fray Zacarías Martinez s/n.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
Fodor’s Choice | El Portalón.
SPANISH | With dark, creaky wood floors and staircases, bare brick walls, and ancient beams, pillars, and coats of arms, this rough and rustic 15th-century inn turns out classical Castilian and Basque specialties that reflect Vitoria’s geography and social history. Try the cochinillo lechal asado (grilled suckling pig) or any of the rape (anglerfish) preparations. The wine cellar is a gold mine. Call 48 hours ahead to reserve any of the special tasting menus, a good value ranging between €35 and €61. Once a month the restaurant organizes a theater night (€65), where performers surround your table. | Average main: €22 | C. Correría 147 | 94/514–2755 | www.restauranteelportalon.com | No dinner Sun.
CONTEMPORARY | Vitoria’s most recent culinary star serves contemporary interpretations of classics and daring combinations of prime ingredients from black truffles to to lobster in a sleek environment. The tasting menu (€55) changes seven times a year. | Average main: €55 | Av. Gasteiz 21 | 94/513–4822 | www.restaurantezaldiaran.com | Mon. and Thurs.–Sat. 1–3:30 and 9–11:30, Wed. and Sun. 1–3:30.
NH Canciller Ayala.
HOTEL | This modern hotel is handy for in-town comfort, two minutes from the old quarter next to the lush Parque de la Florida. Recently taken over by Spain’s NH Hoteles chain, the rooms are bright, streamlined, and beyond reproach, if unremarkable. Standard double rooms may be available at bargain rates in the off-season. Pros: clean comfort; reliable chain brand. Cons: lacking any historical character. | Rooms from: €110 | C. Ramón y Cajal 5 | 94/513–0000, 90/257–0368 | www.nh-hotels.com | 184 rooms, 1 suite | No meals.
Parador de Argómaniz.
HOTEL | This 17th-century palace has panoramic views of the Alava plains and retains a sense of romance with long halls peppered with antiques. It’s said that Napoleon’s forces rested here before attacking Vitoria. Rooms have polished wood floors, and some have glass-enclosed sitting areas or hot tubs. The wood-beam dining room on the third floor makes each meal feel like a baronial feast. Pros: contemporary rooms and comforts; gorgeous details and surroundings. Cons: isolated, about a 15-minute drive from Vitoria. | Rooms from: €120 | N1, Km 363, east of Vitoria off N104 toward Pamplona | Argómaniz | 94/529–3200 | www.parador.es | 53 rooms | No meals.
66 km (40 miles) south of Vitoria, 17 km (10 miles) northwest of Logroño.
Founded in 908 to stand guard—as its name suggests—over Navarra’s southwestern flank, Laguardia is on a promontory overlooking the Ebro River and the vineyards of the Rioja Alavesa wine country north of the Ebro in the Basque province of Alava. Flanked by the Sierra de Cantabria, the town rises shiplike, its prow headed north, over the sea of surrounding vineyards.
Laguardia. | C. Mayor 52 | 94/560–0845 | www.laguardia-alava.com.
Starting from the 15th-century Puerta de Carnicerías, or Puerta Nueva, the central portal off the parking area on the east side of town, the first landmark is the 16th-century Ayuntamiento, with its imperial shield of Carlos V. Farther into the square is the current town hall, built in the 19th century. A right turn down Calle Santa Engracia takes you past impressive facades—the floor inside the portal at No. 25 is a lovely stone mosaic, and a walk behind the triple-emblazoned 17th-century facade of No. 19 reveals a stagecoach, floor mosaics, wood beams, and an inner porch. The Puerta de Santa Engracia, with an image of the saint in an overhead niche, opens out to the right, and on the left, at the entrance to Calle Víctor Tapia, No. 17 bears a coat of arms with the Latin phrase “Laus Tibi” (“Praise Be to Thee”).
Casa de la Primicia.
To the north of the ornate castle and hotel El Collado is the monument to the famous Laguardia composer of fables, Felix María Samaniego (1745–1801), heir to the tradition of Aesop and Jean de La Fontaine. Walk around the small, grassy park to the Puerta de Páganos and look right—you can see Laguardia’s oldest civil structure, the 15th-century Casa de la Primicia, where tithes of fresh fruit were collected in medieval times. You can also visit the recently restored underground bodega. | C. Páganos 78.
Fodor’s Choice | Herederos de Marqués de Riscal.
The village of Elciego, 6 km (4 miles) southeast of Laguardia, is the site of the historic Marqués de Riscal winery. Tours of the vineyards as well as the cellars are conducted in many languages, including English. Reservations are required. The estate also includes the stunning Frank Gehry-designed Hotel Marqués de Riscal, crafted out of waves of metal reminiscent of his Guggenheim Bilbao. | C. Torrea 1 | Elciego | 94/560–6000 | www.marquesderiscal.com | €10.25 includes tour and tasting of 2 wines | Tours daily, but hrs vary; book ahead.
Santa María de los Reyes.
Laguardia’s architectural crown jewel is Spain’s only Gothic polychrome portal, on this church. Protected by a posterior Renaissance facade, the door centers on a lifelike effigy of La Virgen de los Reyes (Virgin of the Kings), sculpted in the 14th century and painted in the 17th by Ribera. To see it, ask at the tourist office. | C. Mayor s/n.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
BASQUE | Aficionados travel great distances to dine in this restaurant, known for its excellent roasts, views, and value, in the Marixa hotel. The heavy, wooden interior is ancient, and the cuisine is Vasco-Riojano, combining the best of both worlds. House specialties are Navarran vegetable dishes and meat roasted over coals. There are also 10 guest rooms, which offer good-value half- or full-board terms, with meals taken in the restaurant. | Average main: €30 | C. Sancho Abarca 8 | 94/560–0165 | www.hotelmarixa.com.
Fodor’s Choice | Hotel Marqués de Riscal.
HOTEL | Frank Gehry’s post-Guggenheim Iberian eruption of genius looks as if a colony from outer space had taken up residence (or crashed) in the middle of La Rioja’s oldest vineyards. The jumble of pink and gold titanium sheets and stainless-steel curves around rectilinear sandstone surfaces looks like a pile of gift wrap. Inside, the rooms feature innovative design, ultra-modern luxury, and far-reaching views. The winery’s visitor center, the historic cellars, and the rolling hills offering activities from horseback riding to golf keep visitors well entertained. The spa provides new ways to use grape juice, while the Marqués de Riscal gourmet restaurant and the more traditional Bistró 1860 more than take care of all culinary needs and tastes. Pros: dazzling architecture; 5-star environment; superb dining. Cons: expensive. | Rooms from: €300 | C. Torrea 1, 6 km (4 miles) southwest of Laguardia | Elciego | 94/518–0880 | www.hotel-marquesderiscal.com | 43 rooms | Breakfast.
Fodor’s Choice | Posada Mayor de Migueloa.
HOTEL | This 17th-century palace is a beauty, with stone entryway floors and guest rooms that have original, rough-hewn ceiling beams. The property includes a tavern at Calle Páganos 13, where recommendations include starters like patatas a la riojana (potatoes with chorizo) and pochas con chorizo y costilla (beans with sausage and lamb chop) and mains ranging from beef with foie gras to venado con miel y pomelo (venison with a honey-and-grapefruit sauce). Pros: beautiful rooms; off-season specials. Cons: in a pedestrianized area a long way from your car; rooms on the front side exposed to boisterous racket on weekends. | Rooms from: €92 | C. Mayor de Migueloa 20 | 647/212947 | www.mayordemigueloa.com | 8 rooms | Closed Jan. 8–Feb. 8 | Breakfast.
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Logroño | La Rioja Alta | Haro | The Highlands
A natural compendium of highlands, plains, and vineyards drained by the Ebro River, La Rioja (named for the River Oja) has historically produced Spain’s finest wines. Most inhabitants live along the Ebro, in the cities of Logroño and Haro, though the mountains and upper river valleys hold many treasures. A mix of Atlantic and Mediterranean climates and cultures with Basque overtones and the meseta’s arid influence, La Rioja is composed of the Rioja Alta (Upper Rioja), the moist and mountainous western end, and the Rioja Baja (Lower Rioja), the lower, dryer eastern extremity, more Mediterranean in climate. Logroño, the capital, lies between the two.
85 km (53 miles) southwest of Pamplona.
A busy industrial city of 153,000, Logroño has a lovely old quarter bordered by the Ebro and medieval walls, with Breton de los Herreros and Muro Francisco de la Mata the most characteristic streets.
Near Logroño, the Roman bridge and the mirador (lookout) at Viguera are the main sights in the lower Iregua Valley. According to legend, Santiago (St. James) helped the Christians defeat the Moors at the Castillo de Clavijo, another panoramic spot. The Leza (Cañon) del Río Leza is La Rioja’s most dramatic canyon.
Logroño’s dominant landmarks are the finest sacred structures in Rioja.
Logroño. | Av. España 1 | 94/123–5983.
Logroño. | Estación de Logroño, Av. de Colón 83 | 90/243–2343, 90/232–0320 | www.adif.es.
Logroño. | Portales 50 | 94/129–1260 | www.logroturismo.org.
Catedral de Santa María de La Redonda.
Noted for its twin baroque towers, the present-day cathedral was rebuilt in the 16th century in a Gothic style, on top of the ruins of a 12th-century Roman church. | C. Portales 14 | 94/125–7611 | www.laredonda.org | Daily 8:30–1 and 6–9.
Puente de Piedra (Stone Bridge).
Many of Logroño’s monuments, such as this elegant bridge, were built as part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.
The oldest still-standing church in Logroño, most of San Bartolomé was built between the 13th and 14th-centuries in a French Gothic style. Highlights include the 11th-century Mudejar tower and an elaborate 14th-century Gothic doorway. Some carvings on the stone facade depict scenes from the Bible. This is also a landmark on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage path. | Pl. San Bartolomé 2.
Santa María del Palacio.
This 11th-century church is known as La Aguja (the Needle) for its pyramid-shape, 45-yard Romanesque-Gothic tower. | C. del Marqués de San Nicolás 30.
Santiago el Real (Royal St. James’s Church).
Reconstructed in the 16th century, this church is noted for its equestrian statue of the saint (also known as Santiago Matamoros, or St. James the Moorslayer), which presides over the main door. | C. Barriocepo 6 | 94/120–9501.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
For tapas, Calle and Travesía del Laurel or el sendero de los elefantes (the path of the elephants)—an allusion to trompas (trunks), Spanish for a snootful—offers bars with signature specialties: Bar Soriano for “champis” (champiñones, or mushrooms), Blanco y Negro for “matrimonio” (a green pepper–and–anchovy sandwich), and La Travesía for potato omelet. If you’re ordering wine, a crianza brings out the crystal, a young cosecha comes in small glasses, and reserva (selected grapes aged three years in oak and bottle) elicits snifters for proper swirling, smelling, and tasting.
SPANISH | The Castilian rustic interior here includes a coffered wood ceiling that merits a long look. Roast lamb cooked over wood coals is the specialty, but alubias (kidney beans) and migas de pastor (literally, “shepherd’s bread crumbs,” cooked with garlic and sausage) are hard to resist. The wine list, not surprisingly, is stocked with most of La Rioja’s top finds, from Roda I to Barón de Chirel Reserva. | Average main: €20 | C. República Argentina 8 | 94/125–8844 | www.asadoremilio.com | Closed Aug. No dinner Sun.
SPANISH | Local fare based on roast lamb, goat, and vegetables is the rule at this local favorite in the middle of Logroño’s main food and wine preserve. Coming in from Calle del Laurel is something like stepping through the looking glass: from street pandemonium to the peaceful hush of this culinary sanctuary. Though the dining room is classical and elegant, with antique furnishings and a serious look, the cuisine is homespun, based on seasonally changing raw materials. Patatas a la riojana (potatoes stewed with chorizo) is a classic dish here. | Average main: €25 | C. Laurel 3 | 94/122–8463 | www.cachetero.com | Closed Tues. and 1st 2 wks in Aug. No dinner Sun.
Fodor’s Choice | Tondeluna.
SPANISH | Francis Paniego’s “gastro-bar,” with David Gonzalez as chef de cuisine, strives to bring haute cuisine to everyone, and everyone into the kitchen. There are only six tables, and all have views into the kitchen. Gonzalez makes an excellent croqueta de jamón from Echaurren or La Zapatilla, a grilled open ham canapé. | Average main: €15 | C. Muro de la Mata 9 | 94/123–6425 | www.tondeluna.com.
NH Herencia Rioja.
HOTEL | This modern 4-star hotel near the old quarter has contemporary, comfortable rooms, first-rate facilities, a well-trained staff, and a healthy, businesslike buzz about it. The halls and corridors are somewhat somber and over-lavishly draped with fabrics, but the efficiency of the place makes up for its aesthetic shortcomings. The fine restaurant, El Zarcillo, with a grill for cooking over coals, has a good wine list. Pros: top comfort; two steps from Calle del Laurel’s tapas bonanza. Cons: undistinguished modern building; lugubrious interiors. | Rooms from: €70 | Marqués de Murrieta 14 | 94/121–0222 | www.nh-hoteles.com | 81 rooms, 2 suites | Multiple meal plans.
Marqués de Vallejo.
HOTEL | Close to the food- and wine-tasting frenzy of nearby Calle del Laurel, this small but trendy hotel within view of the cathedral is nearly dead center amid the most important historic sites and best architecture that Logroño has to offer. Rooms are on the small side but cozy. Stash your car in the garage beneath the nearby Plaza del Espolón. Pros: central location; traditional Logroño architecture with very modern, renovated interior. Cons: streetside rooms can be noisy in summer when windows are open. | Rooms from: €80 | Marqués de Vallejo 8 | 94/124–8333 | www.hotelmarquesdevallejo.com | 50 rooms | No meals.
LA RIOJA ALTA
The Upper Rioja, the most prosperous part of La Rioja’s wine country, extends from the Ebro River to the Sierra de la Demanda. La Rioja Alta has the most fertile soil, the best vineyards and agriculture, the most impressive castles and monasteries, a ski resort at Ezcaray, and the historic economic advantage of being on the Camino de Santiago.
Enter the Sierra de la Demanda by heading south from Santo Domingo de la Calzada on LR111. Your first stop is the town of Ezcaray, with its aristocratic houses emblazoned with family crests, of which the Palacio del Conde de Torremúzquiz (Palace of the Count of Torremúzquiz) is the most distinguished. Excursions from here are the Valdezcaray ski station; the source of the River Oja at Llano de la Casa; La Rioja’s highest point, the 7,494-foot Pico de San Lorenzo; and the Romanesque church of Tres Fuentes, at Valgañón. The hamlet is famous for its wild-mushroom-gathering residents—and the resulting tapas too.
This town, 15 km (9 miles) west of Navarrete, was site of the court of the kings of Navarra and capital of Navarra and La Rioja until 1076, when La Rioja became part of Castile and the residence of the Castilian royal family. The monastery of Santa María la Real (941/363650 | www.santamarialareal.net | €3 | Tues.–Sat. 10–1 and 4–5:30 [till 7 in summer], Sun. and holidays 10–1 and 4–7), the “pantheon of kings,” is distinguished by its 16th-century Claustro de los Caballeros (Cavaliers’ Cloister), a flamboyant Gothic structure with 24 lacy, plateresque Renaissance arches overlooking a patio. The sculpted 12th-century tomb of Doña Blanca de Navarra is the monastery’s best-known sarcophagus, while the 67 Gothic choir stalls dating from 1495 are among Spain’s best.
From Logroño, drive 14 km (8 miles) west on the A12 to Navarrete to see its noble houses and 16th-century Santa María de la Asunción church.
Fodor’s Choice | San Millán de la Cogolla.
This town, southeast of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, has two monasteries on the UNESCO World Heritage sites list. Take LR205 southeast through Berceo to the Monasterio de Yuso (941/373049 | www.monasteriodeyuso.org | €6 | Easter–Sept., Tues.–Sun. 10–1:30 and 4–6:30 [also Mon. in Aug.]; Oct.–Easter, Tues.–Sat. 10–1 and 3:30–5:30, Sun. 10–1), where a 10th-century manuscript on St. Augustine’s Glosas Emilianenses contains handwritten notes in what is considered the earliest example of the Spanish language, the vernacular Latin dialect known as Roman Paladino. The nearby Visigothic Monasterio de Suso (941/373082 | www.monasteriodesanmillan.com/suso | €3 | Tues.–Sun. 9:55–1:25 and 3:55–5:25; obtain required reservation at Yuso ticket office) is where Gonzalo de Berceo, recognized as the first Castilian poet, wrote his 13th-century verse in the Castilian tongue, now the language of more than 300 million people around the world.
Santo Domingo de la Calzada.
This town has always been a key stop on the Camino. Santo Domingo was an 11th-century saint who built roads and bridges for pilgrims and founded the hospital that is now the town’s parador. The cathedral (Pl. del Santo 4 | 941/340033) is a Romanesque-Gothic pile containing the saint’s tomb, choir murals, and an altarpiece carved by Damià Forment in 1541. The live hen and rooster in a stone chicken coop commemorate a legendary local miracle in which a pair of roasted fowl came back to life to protest the innocence of a pilgrim hanged for theft. Stroll through the town’s beautifully preserved medieval quarter. | 20 km (12 miles) west of Nájera on the N120.
WHERE TO STAY
Fodor’s Choice | Echaurren.
HOTEL | This rambling roadhouse, 7 km (4 miles) below Valdezcaray, La Rioja’s best ski resort, is famous for its restaurants, El Portal, showcasing fine traditional cuisine engineered by Marisa Sánchez, and her son Francis Paniego’s Bistrot Comilón. Marisa’s patatas a la riojana (potatoes stewed with peppers and chorizo) are a classic, while Francis experiments with charcoal made from grapevine clippings and serves contemporary numbers such as spring fava beans and baby peas with potato soup. A new gastrobar called E-Tapas occupies the old lounge area, and Francis also oversees the Hotel Marqués de Riscal restaurant in Elciego, and the gastro-bar, Tondeluna, in Logroño. There’s a choice of 3- or 4-star rooms, and package deals including meals. Staff are warm and engaging. Pros: traditional building (though modernized inside); comfortable beds; family service. Cons: the bells from the church across the way. | Rooms from: €140 | Padre José García 19 | Ezcaray | 94/135–4047 | www.echaurren.com | 25 rooms | Some meals.
Hospedería del Monasterio de San Millán.
HOTEL | Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this magnificent inn occupies a wing of the historic Monasterio de Yuso, famous as the birthplace of the Spanish language. Heavy medieval stone walls conceal a surprisingly contemporary and minimalist interior, with an elongated baronial dining room that serves regional dishes from La Rioja. Guest rooms are elegant and may seem austere at first glance, but the converted and restored monastery has all the modern comforts of any first-class 4-star hotel. Pros: historic site; graceful building. Cons: somewhat isolated; monastic interiors. | Rooms from: €120 | Monasterio de Yuso | San Millán de la Cogolla | 94/137–3277 | www.sanmillan.com | 22 rooms, 3 suites | Breakfast.
49 km (29 miles) west of Logroño.
Haro is the wine capital of La Rioja. Its Casco Viejo (Old Quarter) and best taverns are concentrated along the loop known as La Herradura (the Horseshoe), with the Santo Tomás church at the apex of its curve and Calle San Martín and Calle Santo Tomás leading down to the upper left-hand (northeast) corner of Plaza de la Paz. Up the left side of the horseshoe, Bar La Esquina is the first of many tapas bars. Bar Los Caños, behind a stone archway at San Martín 5, is built into the vaults and arches of the former church of San Martín and serves excellent local crianzas and reservas and a memorable pintxo of quail egg, anchovy, hot pepper, and olive.
Haro. | Pl. de la Paz | 94/130–3580 | www.haroturismo.org.
Haro’s century-old bodegas have been headquartered in the barrio de la estación (train-station district) ever since the railroad opened in 1863. Guided tours and tastings, some in English, can be arranged at the facilities themselves or through the tourist office.
Fodor’s Choice | Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia winery.
Call or email the Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia winery to reserve a tour and tasting of the most famous of them all. | Av. Vizcaya 3 | Haro | 941/310244 | firstname.lastname@example.org | www.lopezdeheredia.com | €10.
The architectural highlight of Haro is the church of Santo Tomás, a single-naved Renaissance and late Gothic church completed in 1564, with an intricately sculpted plateresque portal on the south side and a baroque organ facade towering over the choir loft. | C. Santo Tomás 5.
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
SPANISH | A local favorite, this rustic spot has been roasting lamb in wood ovens since 1877 and serves a hearty menestra de verduras (vegetables stewed with ham) that is revered as a regional institution. With wooden tables distributed around dark stone, the medieval stagecoach-inn environment matches the traditional roasts. The wine cellar is a virtual museum stocked with some of the Rioja’s best reservas and crianzas. | Average main: €20 | C. Lucrecia Arana 17 | 94/131–0023 | www.terete.es | Closed Mon., 1st 2 wks in July, and last 2 wks in Nov. No dinner Sun.
HOTEL | Across the street from the tourist office, Haro’s best hotel is built into a 14th-century monastery with a cloister (now a beautiful covered patio) that’s considered one of the best in La Rioja. Arches, a great hall, and Renaissance tapestries complete the medieval look. The restaurant serves creditable local fare in two comfortable dining rooms, and the glassed-in wine cellar holds Haro’s greatest treasures. This hotel is also more affordable than ever before; prices have been adjusted down to attract visitors in the economic crisis. Pros: gorgeous public rooms; convivial hotel bar; close to town center but in a quiet corner; free Wi-Fi. Cons: unexciting room interiors; staff not very helpful. | Rooms from: €87 | San Agustín 2 | 94/131–1308 | www.hotellosagustinos.com | 60 rooms, 2 suites | Some meals.
The rivers forming the seven main valleys of the Ebro basin originate in the Sierra de la Demanda, Sierra de Cameros, and Sierra de Alcarama. Ezcaray is La Rioja’s skiing capital in the valley of the Rio Oja, just below Valdezcaray in the Sierra de la Demanda. The upper Najerilla Valley is La Rioja’s mountain sanctuary, an excellent hunting and fishing preserve. The Najerilla River, a rich chalk stream, is one of Spain’s best trout rivers. Look for the Puente de Hiedra (Ivy Bridge), its heavy curtain of ivy falling to the surface of the Najerilla. The Monasterio de Valvanera, off C113 near Anguiano, is the sanctuary of La Rioja’s patron saint, the Virgen de Valvanera, a 12th-century Romanesque wood carving of the Virgin and Child. Anguiano is renowned for its Danza de los Zancos (Dance of the Stilts), held July 22, when dancers on wooden stilts plummet down through the steep streets of the town into the arms of the crowd at the bottom. At the valley’s highest point are the Mansilla reservoir and the Romanesque Ermita de San Cristóbal (Hermitage of St. Christopher).
The upper Iregua Valley, off N111, has the prehistoric Gruta de la Paz caves at Ortigosa. The artisans of Villoslada del Cameros make the region’s famous patchwork quilts, called almazuelas. Climb to Pico Cebollera for a superb view of the valley. Work back toward the Ebro along the River Leza, through Laguna de Cameros and San Román de Cameros (known for its basket weavers), to complete a tour of the Sierra del Cameros. The upper Cidacos Valley leads to the Parque Jurásico (Jurassic Park) at Enciso, famous for its dinosaur tracks. The main village in the upper Alhama Valley is Cervera del Rio Alhama, a center for handmade alpargatas (espadrilles).
WHERE TO EAT AND STAY
SPANISH | High over the ancient bridge of Anguiano, this is an excellent place to try the local specialty, caparrones colorados de Anguiano con sus sacramentos (small, red kidney beans stewed with sausage and fatback) made with the much-prized hometown bean. Family-run La Herradura (“horseshoe”) is a local favorite, usually filled with trout fishermen taking a break from the river. | Average main: €15 | Ctra. de Lerma, Km 14 | Anguiano | 94/137–7151.
FAMILY | Hospedería Abadía de Valvanera.
HOTEL | A 16th-century monastery, this is an ideal base for hiking, but it’s hard to secure a room for October 15, when there’s a pilgrimage from Logroño to the monastery’s 12th-century carving of the Virgin of Valvanera. Patroness of the grape harvest and barren couples, the Virgin is portrayed with a pomegranate (symbolizing fertility) and vines. Her infant is said to have turned away in embarrassment when a hopeful couple performed the procreative act on the altar. Rooms here are simple and the restaurant offers local dishes at unbeatable prices. Pros: cool air during summer heat; simplicity and silence; rooms of varying sizes for families. Cons: spartan accommodations; limited dining choices. | Rooms from: €60 | Monasterio de Valvanera s/n, 5 km (3 miles) west of LR113 | 94/137–7044 | www.abadiavalvanera.com | 28 rooms | Multiple meal plans.
Fodor’s Choice | Venta de Goyo.
B&B/INN | A favorite with anglers and hunters in season, this cheery spot across from the mouth of the Urbión River has wood-trim bedrooms with red-check bedspreads and an excellent restaurant specializing in venison, wild boar, and game of all kinds. Juan Carlos Jiménez and his nephew, chef Juan Carlos Esteban, serve some of the best caparrones (pygmy red beans from Anguiano) in La Rioja. The hotel has options for full- or half-board, or room only. Friendly staff can advise on area hikes. Pros: excellent game and mountain cooking; charming rustic bar; unforgettable homemade jams. Cons: next to road; hot in summer. | Rooms from: €42 | Puente Rio Neila 2, Ctra. LR113, Km 24.6 | Viniegra de Abajo | 941/378007 | www.ventadegoyo.es | 22 rooms | Some meals.
Spain’s Wine Country
The Ebro River basin has been an ideal climate for grapevines since pre-Roman times. Rioja wines were first recognized in official documents in 1102, and exports to Europe flourished over the next several centuries. With its rich and uneroded soil, river microclimates, ocean moisture, and sun, La Rioja is ideal for high-quality grapes. Shielded from the arid cold of the Iberian meseta (plain) by the Sierra de la Demanda and from the bitter Atlantic weather by the Sierra de Cantabria, Spain’s prime wine country covers an area 150 km (93 miles) long and 50 km (31 miles) wide along the banks of the Ebro. The lighter limestone soils in the 50,000 acres of the Rioja Alta (Upper Rioja) produce the region’s finest wines; the vineyards in the 44,000-acre Rioja Baja (Lower Rioja) are composed of alluvial and floodplain clay in a warmer climate, ideal to produce wine in great volumes.
The main grape of the Upper Rioja is the Tempranillo—so named for its early (temprano) ripening in mid-September—a dark, thick-skinned grape known for power, stability, and fragrance. Other grape varietals include the Mazuelo, used for longevity and tannin; and the Graciano, which lends aroma and freshness. Garnacha, the main grape of the Lower Rioja, is an ideal complement to the more acidic Tempranillo. The Viura, the principal white variety, is fresh and fragrant; Malvasía grapes stabilize wines that will age in oak barrels.
Rioja wines are categorized by age. Garantía de Origen is the lowest rank, assuring that the wine comes from where it purports to come from and has been aged for at least a year. A Crianza wine has aged at least three years, with at least one spent in oak. A Reserva is a more carefully selected wine also aged three years, at least one in oak. Gran Reserva is the top category, reserved for extraordinary harvests aged for at least two years in oak and three in the bottle.
Wine and ritual overlap everywhere in La Rioja. The first wine of the year is offered to and blessed by the Virgin of Valvanera on the riverbank at the Espolón de Logroño. Haro’s Batalla del Vino (Wine Battle) festival is famous throughout Spain. Everything from the harvest and the trimming of the vines to the digging of fermentation pools and the making of baskets, barrels, and botas (wineskins)—even the glassblowing in bottle manufacture—takes on a magical, almost religious significance.
For a tour of vineyards and wine cellars, start with Haro, filled with bodegas (wineries) and noble architecture. Its barrio de la estación (train-station district) has all of La Rioja’s oldest and most famous bodegas.
Fodor’s Choice | Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia winery.
Call or email the Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia winery to reserve one of their tours and tastings of one of the most famous Riojan wine producers of them all. | Av. Vizcaya 3, | Haro | 94/131–0244 | www.lopezdeheredia.com | €10–€30.
Another famous winery offering visits, tours and tastings of two wines (reservations required), this sprawling bodega also includes a wine bar and restaurant. | Barrio de la Estación, | Haro | 94/130–6060 | www.bodegasmuga.com | €8.
Other visits in the Upper Rioja could include Fuenmayor, a wine-making center with an old quarter; Cenicero, with several ancient bodegas; Briones, a perfectly preserved Renaissance town; Ollauri, with a cave bodega, “the Sistine Chapel of the Rioja”; and Briñas, with a wine museum.