Basque Country prides itself on a sense of otherness. It isn’t just the graffiti sprawled on nearly every wall reminding visitors that “This is not Spain. This is not France. This is Basque Country.” From dueling languages (that would be Spanish and Basque, a language that’s mysteriously unrelated to any other in Europe), to side-by-side food philosophies (outstanding dive bar snacks and a slate of Michelin-anointed eateries), to art-centric cities and an Instagram-worthy countryside, Basque Country offers a land of contradictions. This is an area that isn’t fully part of Spain, and also can’t be explained away by its proximity to neighboring France, which is often referred to as Northern Basque Country. So where are you exactly? What’s Basque for heaven? Here’s a few places that’ll help you start exploring the delicious paradox that is this tiny, free-thinking mini-nation.
Stuff yourself on pintxos
Enjoy eating things off tiny plates but hate sharing? Head to your local bar for a round of pintxo, the Basque Country snack of choice. For a Euro or two per plate, you can get any number of small bites, including slivers of meat and cheese, omelets, baby eels and olives—all usually served with a side of bread. (Praise be carbs!) Pro tip: Don’t fill up at a single bar. Each establishment usually specializes in a certain flavor or style of pintxo, so if it’s dinner you’re after, treat yourself to a bar crawl, and sample as many bites as possible.
Take a GoT-worthy hike
Embrace your inner Khaleesi and take a drive 16 miles out of Bilbao to Gaztelugatxe, an islet located just off the coast of Bermeo. The jagged, man-made staircase served as the location for Dragonstone in GoT. Climb the 241-step staircase 80m above sea level and announce your presence by ringing the bell outside the church three times. (You’ll probably have to wait in line to do it—this is a popular activity.) Just get there early—while it’s free to make the pilgrimage, only a limited number of people are allowed on the stairs each day to prevent erosion.
Put the “fun” back in funicular
Then again, why climb when you can ride? To get a bird’s-eye view of Bilbao, hit up the Funicular de Artxanda, a 106-year-old transit system that will deliver you to the top of Artxanda Mountain in only three minutes. Linger at the top for some truly impressive #Cityscape (on clear days you can see the crazy quilt of city architecture all the way to the Bay of Biscay), and then retire to a nearby café for a glass of wine and toast the region’s impressive beauty. Or drink to anything you want—there’s no statute of limitation on celebrations.
Snap a selfie in front of the Guggenheim
This is the institution that put Bilbao on the map when, in 1997, it opened in what was previously only known as a rough-edged industrial city. Blessed with architect Frank Gehry’s trademark curves, it’s almost impossible to take a bad photo of Bilbao’s flagship museum. Adding to your ultimate surreal selfie mission is the institution’s impressive collection of outdoor art. Crouch under “Maman,” a 30-foot tall spider by Louise Bourgeois (actually a symbol for maternal love—not terror!). Add an extra layer of drama via Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Sculpture #08025, which triggers every hour on the hour, or get to know the building’s guardian, an overgrown shrub by artist Jeff Koons named “Puppy.”
Go dog spotting
Did you leave your furry bestie at home? Get your dog fix in Basque Country. Koons’ statue isn’t the only canine in the area. With its rolling hills and plentiful parks, Bilbao is one of the best dog cities in the world, so much in fact, that most restaurants and bars keep water bowls handy. Hang out in the riverside walk surrounding Guggenheim, or just park yourself outside a pintxo bar (with a drink, natch) to enjoy the four-legged parade.
Take the plunge at Azkuna Zentroa
Located in the center of Bilbao, Azkuna Zentroa is a multi-use entertainment complex. The redesigned wine warehouse features a restaurant, bar, shops and a fitness complex. But the real centerpiece is the glass-bottomed pool, where swimmers can look down into the atrium—and those on the ground floor can enjoy the heavily-silhouetted, “brains in a jar” visual effect.
Hang 10 (or just chill) at the beach in San Sebastian
The city of San Sebastian is blessed with one of the best shorelines in the world, and even has special sections dedicated to loungers, surfers and splashes. Grab your spot on the beach for a day of sun (just watch out—thanks to dramatically shifting tides, a brief nap could mean watching your belongings float away), or watch from the boardwalk above as local artists draw dramatic designs in the sand. Travel aches and pains got you down? Take a “talaso” at the seaside spa, an ancient sea water treatment that believers claim will cure any ailment life can throw at you.
Build your own feast at Mercado de la Bretxa
In the mood to get your Bourdain on and cook your own feast? The late foodie/adventurer loved Basque Country. Given the region’s dedication to fresh, seasonal ingredients, it’s easy to understand why. Head to the Mercado de la Bretxa to meet your meat, chat with fish mongers, and learn more about the magic that goes into your favorite meals.
Located a short stroll away from the Guggenheim, Hotel Silken Indautx is a perfect refuge for your mid-day break (you’ll need it!). If you can’t disconnect, there’s a business center. If you’re dying to reconnect, there’s on-site babysitting. And a burger joint…just in case you need something other than pintxos. (Unlikely, but best to be prepared.)
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