With a name like “The Basque Route,” it is clear that tourism has become very important in the Basque Country. This is for many reasons, such as that its more than one hundred landscapes represent the beauty of the coast, mountains and cities. Additionally, the Basque Route covers the main monumental and artistic attractions of the region, as well as allows visitors to discover many designations of origin products and gastronomic traditions. Finally, the route is a circuit: it begins and ends in the same place, facilitating access for visitors who want to explore the Basque Country through public transport or by renting a car or van.
Another virtue of the Basque Route is that– although it is divided into balanced thematic stages– it can be done in several visits, or in more or less days, as the weather and your own personal tastes allow you to skip some places to spend more time in others. In this guide for the best tourist route of the Basque Country, each site mentioned has links to more-detailed pages that explain its history and top attractions, and from this you can explore pages that describe the local gastronomy, restaurants, bars and tourist accommodations in the Basque Country.
Given that the majority of travellers who come to visit the Basque Country do so through the territory of Álava, we have decided that our Basque Route should begin and end in Vitoria-Gasteiz, a city that is undervalued and one that we recommend to travellers who are looking for uniqueness and good value for their money.
1. Vitoria / Gasteiz – Laguardia
If you want an enjoyable visit to the capital of the Basque Country– famous for being one of the most ecological cities in Europe with the best quality of life– we propose two types of itineraries: one for those who have never been to Vitoria , and one for those who are familiar with it, but want to explore it more deeply. The next stop after Vitoria is the Salvatierra- Agurain fortress, where you can book a guided tour of two surrounding villages, Gazeo and Alaitza, to see the enigmatic murals of their churches. After leaving behind the beech forests of the Sierra de Entzia, we travel along the A3138 road to Antoñana, and then continue to the old fortified village of Campezo, located in the remote Izki Nature Park. Afterwards, we take the A126 towards another village: the monumental Laguardia; on the way, you can stop at Elvillar to see the spectacular dolmen of “La txabola de la hechicera.”
2. Laguardia – Orduña
Every tourist trip in the Basque Country must pay special attention to the Rioja of Álava, with Laguardia being its symbolic ‘capital’: a majestic walled hill, with lagoons and the spectacular Ysios winery. The next stop is Elciego, where we can find another impressive winery nearby: Marqués de Riscal (built by the same architect as the Bilbao Guggenheim). From there we take the AP68 motorway for less than an hour towards the east of Álava, in order to marvel at the striking landscape of salt beds in the medieval village of Salinas de Añana. After getting to know the ‘culture of salt,’ we must go to Villanañe to see the unique Torre de los Varona and the Nature Park of Valderejo. Following our tourism circuit of the Basque Country to the north, we reach the Mount of Santiago, from where we can see the Nervión waterfall and a enjoy a sensational view of the region of Orduña, an enclave of Biscayan territory between Álava and Burgos. After the beautiful descent from the Port of Orduña, you will arrive at this old village.
3. Orduña – Bilbao
As we head towards the medieval Artziniega, we cross the territory where the grapes used to make the Txakolí de Álava wine are grown– a wine that is worth tasting. The next stop on our tourist route of the Basque Country is Balmaseda, a historical village that has an important railway legacy. After photographing its medieval bridge, we enter this region of Encartaciones, a territory that has its own Casa de Juntas (or medieval parliament) in Avellaneda. We can arrange a visit to the Rolls Royce Museum, located in the Loizaga Tower in the nearby Galdames. If we continue northwards, we enter the territory dominated by the famous flag bearer Lope García de Salazar, visiting his castle of San Martín de Muñatones in the village of Muskiz and his family’s medieval tower in Portugalete. In this traditional village many people visit the Bizkaia Bridge (a World Heritage Site); you can also go up the estuary by boat to Bilbao. The end of this stage of the circuit is in Bilbao, a town that we have divided into two pages due to its numerous attractions: the old right bank of the Nervión River and the 19th century expansion on the left bank. For those of you who already have been to Bilbao, we recommend visiting these ‘secret’ places.
4. Bilbao – Lekeitio
Going up the Nervión again we arrive at the noble village of Getxo with its views over El Abra. The route continues along the coast to the so-called ‘concha de Gorliz,’ a bay that this town shares with the beautiful Plentzia. Then we head towards Bakio to see the spectacular islet of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, the most international tourist attraction in the Basque Country. From there we enter the coastline that forms the protected Urdaibai Nature Reserve, crossing the seaside towns of Bermeo and Mundaka until we reach the ‘foral capital’: Gernika, where the other Assembly House is located because it is there where the mythical Jaun Zuría swore the rights of the region. We’ll then return to the coast, stopping at the Oma Forest and its Santimamiñe Cave, and then heading by the stunning beaches of Laida and Laga until we reach Elantxobe: the village that ‘hangs on the cliffs.’ A few kilometres to the east we find the magical Ea, one of the narrowest and most unique villages in the world; with a tiny and charming port. Our last stop for this first coastal stage of the Basque Route is the beautiful Lekeitio, with its scenic bay, beaches, palaces and basilica.
5. Lekeitio – Zarautz
After travelling along the twisty road to Ondarroa, we’ll arrive at this Basque fishing port that has remained faithful to its maritime traditions. After photographing its beautiful bridges, we continue along the coast until we arrive at Mutriku, a village of aquatic heritage with a secluded port. Continuing along the coastal road, we arrive at Deba, a place known for its beaches, bullfighting, and being an important stop on the Way to Santiago in the Basque Country. The tourist route in the Basque Country then takes us to the seaside resort of Zestoa, where we visit the Ekain Interpretation Centre. We continue up the road that borders the Urola River until we reach the world famous Loiola Sanctuary, the origin of the Jesuits and an example of the most wonderful Baroque architecture. On the way back to the coast along the same road we can stop to visit Azpeitia, a town full of palaces and known as one of the four `foral capitals’ of Gipuzkoa. The next stop on this tourist circuit of the Basque Country is the town of Zumaia, where in addition to a unique fortified church and many palaces, we find the Basque Coast Geopark, with its world-famous flysch formations. Our next town is Getaria, with its Balenciaga Museum and magnificent town centre; take a look at the original Elkano monument in Art Deco style. Continuing along the picturesque Basque coast, we’ll reach Zarautz.
6. Zarautz – San Sebastián
The best way to start the day is by taking a dip at the fantastic beach of Zarautz and then walking along its shore. If we take the N 634 road eastwards, when we go up the way we can turn right towards the Pagoeta Natural Park where we can see a forge in operation and a botanical garden. Back on the main road, we’ll head down to reach the village of Orio, famous for its trainera (Basque row boat) and it delicious ‘Orio style’ sea bream. If we continue along the main road, leaving San Sebastián on our left, we travel to Astigarraga to make a gastronomic stop on our tourist route of the Basque Country. There, we visit the Sagardoetxea (where you can explore the culture of Basque cider). We take the motorway to Irún, a modern city where we visit the Roman Oiasso museum. We then head towards the coast along the Bidasoa River, until we reach Hondarribía; it is an old town with typical fishermen’s architecture and a lively bar area. From Hondarribía we climb up to the fort and the chapel of Guadalupe; then we continue along a spectacular little road– which coincides with the Northern Way to Santiago, so we must be extremely careful– until we reach the mouth of the bay of Pasaia. We’ll arrive at Pasajes de San Juan, a charming town that houses two distinctive museums. We recommend the experience of crossing the bay by boat to Pasajes de San Pedro (the other option is to go around the bay by road). Once there, you can learn about the fishing culture in the Mater Boat Museum and in the Albaola Factory, where a replica of the Nao San Juan is being built with the ancient carpentry of the riverbank. This unique museum-workshop has become an important tourist destination in the Basque Country.
7. San Sebastián – Vitoria – Gasteiz
It is difficult to summarize the charm of San Sebastián– a major tourist destination, but also a place with a few less-visited places, as well as a variety of good and inexpensive restaurants. After stopping in Tolosa– the old ‘Carlist capital’– we make two gastronomic stops on our Basque tourist route: Ordizia to see the atmosphere of its famous market, and Idiazabal, which is also the name of the famous Basque cheese. Then we visit the ancient village of Segura–which lives up to its name– and the immaculate and peaceful villages of Zerain and Zegama, which transport us to previous centuries. The latter town is now an ‘end of the road’ town, as it is surrounded by the walls of the Aizkorri Natural Park; but if you were to travel on foot or horseback, this is not the case, as a little further up is the medieval San Adrián Tunnel, an opening through which armies and emperors once travelled on their way to Vitoria-Gasteiz. We’ll return to Zerain to take the road to the lovely Oñati and then make the ascent to see the impressive Sanctuary of Arantzazu. After returning to Oñati, take the road towards Arrasate-Mondragón and then the motorway back to Vitoria-Gasteiz. This is the end of our tourist route of the Basque Country.