13 Odd Things To Know before Traveling to Basque Country Spain

As with all regions with a strong identity and longing for independence, it makes for a very interesting place to travel to. And the Basque Country in Spain is no exception! But before you head off and book your ticket to this northwestern region in Spain, here are some remarkable things to know before traveling to Basque Country in Spain.

I’ll share my findings, my surprises, and some things to be aware of before you travel to the Basque Country. All to make your trip that much more enjoyable and interesting and give you some of my own experiences. Enjoy the read!

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If you're considering hiring an electric car from Bilbao airport I have 8 easy tips to make your electric road trip in Basque Country simple and a smashing succes
San Sebastian should be on the itinerary for sure!

Travel to Basque Country Spain

Sunsoaked beaches, winding roads, and amazing food. That pretty much sums up the great appeal of the Basque Country in Spain. But there is more to see and do in this region of Spain and plenty more reasons why you should travel to Basque Country Spain.

Its close proximity to the sea and sandy beaches is highly appealing to holidaymakers from Spain and abroad. But if you’re traveling outside the summer season, or want to dive deeper into the culture and traditions of the Basque Country, then the small villages, mountains and traditional life are what makes you fall in love with the region.

Will you visit Spain and ask yourself 'is Bilbao worth visiting?' Then I have 6 excellent reasons why you should visit Bilbao on a city trip.
Early morning visit to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

How to get to the Basque Country in Spain

The Basque Country is located in the far top northwestern corner of Spain. On the opposite side of Barcelona, which is a 625 km drive away, or Madrid, which is 425 km away. Bordering France and the Pyrenees Mountains in the north, The Bay of Biscay in the west. Neighboring Cantabria and Navarre region inland.

The Basque Country has 2 major airports: Bilbao and San Sebastian. The airport at San Sebastian is located north of the city and close to the French border and mainly serves domestic airlines.

Bilbao Airport is located close to the city of Bilbao and serves both domestic and international airports.

Travel to Basque Country by train

If you arrive at Barcelona or Madrid airport or travel from elsewhere in Europe, it is easy to reach Bilbao or San Sebastian by train. Local high-speed Spanish trains from Renfe bring you to these 2 cities in no time. Arriving from the UK, France, Belgium, or the Netherlands?

Can you travel by train to San Sebastian from London or NL? I help you with my step by step guide for the train to Basque country from France
Arrived in Hendaye. In the background, you can see what the train looks like

Where to stay in Basque Country

If you have little time in the Basque Country, I recommend staying in the big cities of Bilbao or San Sebastian. Choose a swanky 5-star hotel, or a charming boutique hotel in the old town. Use the city as a base to explore the region.

If you’re off to a sun-soaked holiday by the beach, then take your pick as the coastline of the Basque Country is lined with guesthouses, luxury resorts, and holiday cottages. Keep an eye out for Spanish or French holidays as the region is very popular for off-season summer breaks.

If you have more time and want to explore more of the Basque Country, I highly recommend moving away from the big cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian after a few days. The regional capital Vitoria-Gasteiz is charming and is a good base to venture off into the countryside. But charming villages like Laguardia (for wine), Oñati, or Añana ooze with charm and village life.

For all bookings, from hotels to B&Bs, guesthouses to apartments, I use Booking.com. They have the biggest assortment and range of accommodations in Europe and guarantee the lowest prices, flexibility in booking, and genuine reviews. If you’re more familiar with Hotels.com, they have a similar assortment of accommodations.

Should you visit Bilbao Spain for a city break or weekend trip? I found Bilbao surprisingly divers and charming, so it definitely worth a visit.
Bilbao is a great place to base yourself to explore more of the Basque Country

Remarkable things to know before traveling to Basque Country

Great! You have decided to travel to the Basque Country in Spain. Then here are some remarkable things to know before you start your trip!

1. There is a Basque Country in Spain and in France

You probably know this already, but there is a Basque Country in Spain and in France.

Both regions have a Basque identity and are connected by the Basque culture, but they are two different countries. I focus in this article on the Basque Country in Spain.

2. Border hopping is not as straightforward as you might expect

Although the Basque Country is not an independent country recognized by the UN but more a region within 2 different EU countries, it is remarkable that the border crossing was not as straightforward as expected.

When crossing from Basque country in Spain to Basque country in France by train, there were no border patrols or even passport checks. But be aware if you rent a car in Bilbao, you might need to check if you can take it across the border to France. Check the fine print of your rental agreement, because fees might apply.

Find the best car rental deals with Sunnycars (NL), or Easyterra (NL), or RentalCars.

Can you travel by train to San Sebastian from London or NL? I help you with my step by step guide for the train to Basque country from France
You cross the French-Spanish border between Hendaye and Irun by Euskotren

3. Names of places in Basque

When researching my train trip to the Basque Country, I was surprised that I was not able to find San Sebastian as a train station. I knew the place had a station, but I couldn’t find it because it’s named Donostia.

In the Basque languages, the names of places might be different than the standard Spanish or English names. Bilbao is Bilbo historically, which isn’t that different.

San Sebastian is actually short for her official name: Donostia / San Sebastián. Don’t worry, when traveling around, all signs are multilingual, so you will not miss the exit to San Sebastian or arrive at the wrong airport.

Visit Bilbao, Spain and see San Sebastian on this Basque Country day trip from Bilbao and visit the Basque Country and San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
The beach in San Sebastian is a great place to soak up the sun and people watch at the same time.

4. The Basque Country in Spanish and Basque

As soon as you cross the border into the Basque Country from any of the other regions in Spain it is clear: now you’re in the Basque Country!

What we call Basque Country, is called Pays Vasco in Spanish, but Euskal Herria in the Basque language (and Pays Basque in French but that is often referred to as the French part of Basque Country – not the be confused with Pays Bays which is French for the Netherlands).

Somewhere on the A8 highway, I saw the Spanish signs for Pays Vasco and I was wondering what a Vasco would be (I thought some sort of cow. When I came closer to Bilbao, the sign said: welcome in Euskal Herria, which was very confusing to me.

If you're considering hiring an electric car from Bilbao airport I have 8 easy tips to make your electric road trip in Basque Country simple and a smashing succes
Bermeo is one of those lovely villages along the coast between Bilbao and San Sebastian

5. Language: more tx and k combo’s

Staying on the topic of languages: you’ll find some unusual letter combinations and word configurations for most Westerners. The amount of tx, x and tz and combinations with the letter K is astonishing. Some useful phrases to put a smile on everyone’s face:

  • Kaixo: hello (kai-sho)
  • Agur: goodbye
  • Eskerrik asko: thank you (pronounced as “a scary cas-koo” more or less)
Breakfast was served on this placemat with all the translations for basic phrases.
Breakfast was served on this placemat with all the translations for basic phrases.

6. Basque independence

If you’re a 90’s girl, like me, you’ve grown up with the news of the Basque independent movement ETA on the news. But with the turn of the century, the violent struggle for independence has vanished and moved to a political movement.

Nowadays, you cannot imagine the Basque Country as a region with negative travel advice only 20 years ago. I notice not many people want to talk about it and it still seems to be a sensitive subject that should be addressed carefully (or not at all).

Most people emphasize they are Bilbao citizens first, then Basque, then Spanish (or San Sebastian first if you speak with anyone there). The identity is very strongly focused on the city, then the region, and only after that, the country of Spain.

If you want to know more about the difference between Basque autonomy and Catalania’s search for independence, check out this interesting read from the Financial Times.

San Sebastian is a great day trip from Bilbao Spain, where you get to see the Basque Country
Great park between the Opera and the Maria Cristina Hotel in San Sebastian

7. Basque Country is a popular travel destination with the Spanish and French

It might surprise you, but not all the people you’ll meet in the Basque Country are locals. The region is very popular with Spanish holidaymakers and French people. So if you see a Spanish car, don’t automatically assume they know directions, speak Basque, or are locals. They might, but they very well be not.

Be sure to check if your tour runs in English if that is your preferred language. Because often, the tours only run in Basque language or Spanish. Might be a pity to tour the Guggenheim with a guide that you don’t understand.

Should you visit Bilbao Spain for a city break or weekend trip? I found Bilbao surprisingly divers and charming, so it definitely worth a visit.
The Guggenheim is a 100% must-see in Bilbao if you ask me.

8. Travel to 3 different subregions within the Basque Country of Spain

It might surprise you that such a small region as the Basque Country is, again subdivided into 3 smaller subregions:

  • Álava, with Vitoria-Gasteiz as its capital
  • Biscay, (or Vizcaya) with Bilbao as its capital
  • Gipuzkoa; with Donostia-San Sebastián as its capital

Each region has a different regional government and characteristics. So visiting only one is not sufficient to experience the whole region.

Although you might have too little time to travel to all 3, it is great to experience the differences between worker-class Bilbao and Mondaine San Sebastian or green and historic Vitoria-Gasteiz.

If you're considering hiring an electric car from Bilbao airport I have 8 easy tips to make your electric road trip in Basque Country simple and a smashing succes
Impressive street art in Vitoria Gasteiz that I did not expect to find.

9. Food is a way of life in the Basque Country

I feel that many tourist brochures of regions in the world promote themselves via their food. But in the Basque Country, food really is a way of life and the way of life is food.

In Bilbao, you stumble from one pintxos bar to another, and San Sebastian is home to more Michelin restaurants than any other place. But even if you’re not into fine dining, the region is known for excellent wines, impressive foods and daring combinations. And all very affordable for our wallets.

You don’t have to go out for pintxos every single night. Even a 2 pm lunch plate with a glass of wine is prepared from prime ingredients and prepared with care. Enjoy it!

If you're considering hiring an electric car from Bilbao airport I have 8 easy tips to make your electric road trip in Basque Country simple and a smashing succes
The Basque Country is not only about beaches, but the wine country is also beautiful. Cheers to a successful road trip!

10. Check out at noon

Another remarkable thing I noticed with the hotels and guesthouses I stayed at: check-out is at noon. Oftentimes, you can have breakfast until 10 or even 11 am and check out is at 12.

As I’m not an early bird, I think this is brilliant and I wouldn’t mind if all accommodations in the world would adopt this. The downside is, that when you arrive early for check-in, they might not be able to accommodate you, as the rooms still have to be cleaned.

Read my 13 things to known before traveling to Basque Country in Spain for a more enjoyable trip! Travel to Basque Country prepared
Extra time to sleep in, in the Basque Country at this lovely rural guesthouse

11. Streets are empty in the morning

This later start of the day is also reflected in how empty the streets are in the morning. I had an 8.30 am tour start across town and I walked around town at 8 am. And there was literally nobody there. Not even street sweepers or vendors or cafés were open.

Don’t be surprised if the party continues well into the 2 and 3 am of the night, but don’t come knocking on anyone’s door at 8 am thought!

The lovely sleepy village of Oñati with its historic university was very quiet at this time of day.
The lovely sleepy village of Oñati with its historic university was very quiet at this time of day.

12. Basque Country is more than just beaches

If you think the Basque Country is only interesting for a summer beach holiday, then think again. First off, when you’re lucky, the weather is amazing, even outside summer.

I visited San Sebastian both in February and in October, and both times, the weather was sublime. Sunny, warm, and wonderful.

But even if you’re not a beam bum or don’t like the sea, the Basque Country has plenty to offer. There are foodie adventures in Bilbao or pintxos hoppin’ in San Sebastian. But there is also the Roja wine region that is partly in the Basque Country, you find mountains and outdoor adventures, secluded monasteries, and prehistoric dolmens!

Chabola de la Hechicera dolmen (megalithic tomb) is one of the most important monuments of its kind in the Basque Country.
Chabola de la Hechicera dolmen (megalithic tomb) is one of the most important monuments of its kind in the Basque Country.

13. Camiño de Santiago Norte

Did you know that over 1,000 years ago, the most popular route to Santiago went through the Basque Country?

Nowadays, the popular Camiño de Santiago route Frances runs from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, via Pamplona and Logroño to Burgos and Santiago. They don’t cross into the Spanish Basque Country.

But you can walk the historic Camiño Norte or The Northern Way from San Sebastian, along the coast via Bilbao to neighboring regions of Cantabria and Asturias, before reaching the final destination of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.

The route is amazing, through the green country, along the coast. You pass through quaint fishing villages and walk along golden beaches, but be aware: it is not an easy route. The impressive coastline is like a roller coaster and you better bring your trail legs for this route of the Camiño!

Read my 13 things to known before traveling to Basque Country in Spain for a more enjoyable trip! Travel to Basque Country prepared
The sign of the Camino is never far away

Travel to Basque Country: an absolute success

As Spain is such a vast and diverse country, it is no wonder that you’ll find such a gem of a region as the Basque Country tucked away in a little corner. With my 13 remarkable things to know before your trip to the Basque Country, you’ll be well prepared and can enjoy your travels in the Basque Country even more!

Helpful tips and tools for your Spain trip
  • Learn a few Basque words with this easy Basic Basque Dictionary. Purchase your copy here.
  • Book your hotels in Bilbao and the Basque Country via Booking.com or Hotels.com
  • Find your direct flights to Bilbao here
  • Book your tours and activities direct with GetYourGuide or Viator
  • Book your train tickets in and around Spain direct here or find the cheapest car rentals here
  • I love to design travel themed items and I made several vibrant Spain inspired travel themed patterns. Check my own designs here!
  • Unfortunately, things can and do go wrong when you travel in Spain. World Nomads offers coverage for more than 150 activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation and more.

I hope you found my observations useful, and can use them when planning your next trip to the Basque Country! What are you waiting for?

Let me know if you have any questions or comments. You can drop them in the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you! If you’ve liked my tips and stories, please share them with friends and family and come back for more travel stories next time.

Read my other content on Spain, for example: BarcelonaSevillaCosta BravaBasque Country

Read my 13 things to known before traveling to Basque Country in Spain for a more enjoyable trip! Travel to Basque Country prepared
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