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BASQUE COUNTRY ROAD TRIP: SAN SEBASTIAN TO BILBAO
With one foot in France and another in Spain, the cultural roots of Basque Country reach far and wide along the Pyrenees Mountains. Steeped in medieval history, this seaside region offers European glitz and glamour to travelers year-round with its stunning modern architecture, rich arts and culture assets, close proximity to the celebrated Rioja wine region, moderate climate, and luxurious beach resorts.
Behind the glittering vacation, hotspots are fiercely independent and lively people, and the countryside of northern Spain is speckled with colorful smaller towns within an easy day-trip distance from the major city centers. Truly diving into this vibrant landscape simply isn't possible from the confines of a tour bus.
Break out from the world of package tours and take to the highway on an unforgettable Basque Country road trip. From the pristine white clusters of red-roofed buildings along the coast to the rolling hills and flowing rivers among the Basque mountains, the province's landscape makes a breathtaking background to Basque Country tours by car, and Auto Europe's conveniently situated pick-up and drop-off locations make road trips in Spain a breeze.
BASQUE COUNTRY ROAD TRIP DAY 1: SAN SEBASTIAN
SAN SEBASTIAN EVENTS AND ATTRACTIONS:
With its charming coves peppered with red tile roofs, it's hard to believe San Sebastián - or Donostia in the locals' native language - isn't a Mediterranean hotspot. But no, this stylish city overlooking the sparkling Bay of Biscay is your gateway to the bewitching atmosphere of northern Spain's Basque Country. Pick up your car rental at the San Sebastián airport before making the most of your easy coastal access on the Playa de la Concha or Playa de Ondarreta. These world-famous urban beaches are perfect for a refreshing ocean dip or a relaxing stroll along the golden sands, while surfers can catch the best breaks on the less populated Playa de Gros. The crystalline waters come alive in early September when San Sebastián hosts the Fishing Boat Regattas of La Concha. Explore marine life more closely at the city's aquarium or take a birds-eye-view of Donostia in all its Basque glory by taking the old funicular railway up Monte Igueldo for a spectacular panoramic view. Having a rental car from Auto Europe will make these and all other activities on your San Sebastián trip easy as Uno-dos-tres.
SAN SEBASTIAN RESTAURANTS, BARS, AND NIGHTLIFE:
No San Sebastián trip is complete without indulging in the gourmet paradise that is Parte Vieja. This historic downtown neighborhood is simply overflowing with tasty tapas and pintxos bars, and most visitors to San Sebastián enjoy making a night of hopping from place to place, sampling and sharing the best Spanish small plates. Crowded and energetic La Cuchara de San Telmo delivers creative, flawlessly prepared dishes like risotto with squid ink and foie a la plancha. Try traditional patatas bravas, calamari, or mussels at La Mejillonera, or journey to Astelana for tapas with an Asian twist. For a larger, more extravagant meal, tuck into the imaginative seafood dishes at Michelin-starred Arzak.
SAN SEBASTIAN HOTELS & LODGING:
For the budget traveler, San Sebastián is brimming with boutique guesthouses and hotels whose low prices belie the comfortable accommodations within. Pensión Bellas Artes offers spacious rooms with exposed stone walls, while Pensión Aida's vibrant decor is anchored by a cozy communal area full of helpful tourist information. Simple comfort is easily obtained at one of the many restored townhouses like Pensión Amaiur Ostatua or Pensión Altair. If you're looking to indulge in cushier lodgings, try the Hotel Villa Soro. Less than a twenty minutes' walk away from the city center, the charming Gothic eaves of this elegant hotel house well-appointed and impeccably clean rooms. Or, snag a stunning ocean view from one of the beautiful terraced rooms of Hotel de Londres y de Inglaterra.
SAN SEBASTIAN ROAD TRIP, SCENIC DRIVES:
While making your San Sebastián travel plans, don't consider yourself confined to the city limits. With a rental car from Auto Europe, several exciting San Sebastián day trips are well within your reach. Keep the good beachy vibrations flowing in border town Hondarribia, home to a well-preserved old town and more gastronomic delights than you can eat. Alternately, get active with golf, horseback riding, hand gliding, or canoeing in the enchanting river town Irun, or get to know down-to-earth locals and nosh on the freshest catches of the day in the fishing village of Getaria, the hometown of naval explorer Juan Sebastián Elcano.
BASQUE COUNTRY ROAD TRIP DAY 2: VITORIA-GASTEIZ
VITORIA-GASTEIZ EVENTS AND ATTRACTIONS:
Most who visit Spain won't find their way to modest Vitoria-Gasteiz, but with your own private rental car, getting to the heart of Basque Country is a snap. The city's top attractions are all deeply rooted in medieval history, and you can easily whisk yourself back in time with a peaceful walk along the City Walls which date all the way back to the 11th century. The soulful city center is impeccably preserved, and several Renaissance palaces, including Bendaña Palace and Escoriaza-Esquivel Palace, stand in the old town, alongside historic churches such as the Cathedral de Santa Maria. Enjoy your distance from crowded tourist areas at one of the city's many urban parks - Vitoria-Gasteiz was named the European Green Capital in 2012 - or on the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca.
VITORIA-GASTEIZ RESTAURANTS, BARS, AND NIGHTLIFE:
If you're looking for a memorable splurge, head down the Calle Correría past 15th-century mercantile storefronts to El Portalón, an ancient stagecoach inn turned atmospheric restaurant complete with wait staff in antique farmers' costume. Get more bang for your buck with the eight-course tasting menu at the classically appointed Zaldiarán, or take a more adventurous approach to Basque cuisine with the "surprise degustation" menu at the distinctively Spanish Restaurante El Clarete. For a quick breakfast or midday snack, pop into Fresa y Chocolate Vitoria for homemade pastries and natural juices.
VITORIA-GASTEIZ HOTELS & LODGING:
When you have a comfortable private car at hand, rooms in the city center aren't a must-have, so don't be afraid to book accommodations in nearby residential areas, such as Hotel Restaurante Araba with its stylish simplicity, quiet location, and well-reputed in-house restaurant and bar, or the Gran Hotel Lakua which caters primarily to business travelers. For livelier lodgings, head further into town to the contemporary and colorful Jardines de Ulta.
BASQUE COUNTRY ROAD TRIP DAY 3: HARO
HARO EVENTS AND ATTRACTIONS:
Spanish wines are among the best value bottles in the world, and Rioja is the country's biggest claim to viticultural fame. Haro sits at the northwestern tip of this celebrated wine region and is home to numerous bodegas. The region is best known for its oaky Tempranillo-dominant reds with velvety textures and notes of cherry and vanilla, but crisp whites can also be found and make splendid pairings for northern Spain's excellent seafood dishes. The best time to visit is summer when the Haro Wine Festival soaks vintners and oenophiles from head to toe in red wine - literally. Don a white shirt on the day of patron saint San Pedro, June 29, and prepare for a wine-slinging free-for-all. If you miss out on the midsummer melee, there's ample opportunity to visit wineries with authentic old-world charm like Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia, with its traditional 19th-century equipment, or Bodegas y Vinedos Gomez Cruzado, with a welcoming staff and tastings in the form of wine flights. For breathtaking views of rolling vineyard hills, Globos Arcoiris offers once-in-a-lifetime hot air balloon rides.
HARO RESTAURANTS, BARS, AND NIGHTLIFE:
French wine merchant and writer Andre Simon once said: "Food without wine is a corpse; wine without food is a ghost." Unite the two on your Basque road trip at one of Haro's many fabulous restaurants, like the ambient Asador Beethoven or the rustic Terete which both serve traditional Spanish dishes with lamb, asparagus, and mushrooms alongside a reasonably priced wine list. Centrally located Arrope offers hospitable service and plenty of vegetarian options.
HARO HOTELS & LODGING:
Luxury seekers can experience Haro from the Hotel Los Agustinos with large, clean rooms, close proximity to excellent restaurants, and a storied history reaching all the way back to its origin as a 13th-century convent. The exceptionally romantic Casa de Legarda is situated in a small village three kilometers from Haro's center, making an ideal remote getaway for couples. If you're traveling on a shoestring, the family-run Hostal Aragón is great for short stays with simple, spacious rooms.
BASQUE COUNTRY ROAD TRIP DAY 4: BILBAO
BILBAO EVENTS AND ATTRACTIONS:
Art lovers and culture vultures will find themselves truly at home in the bustling commercial hub of Bilbao. The towering contemporary façade of Frank Gehry's world-renowned Guggenheim Museum is as much a tourist attraction as the rotating art exhibitions inside. Meanwhile, the Museo de Bellas Artes houses vast collections, both contemporary and classical, as well as work by local Basque artists, such as the great sculptors Jorge de Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida. Tour the decadent Teatro Arriaga Antzokia, inspired by the Paris Opera House, or catch a show - this historic building still stages opera, ballet, concerts, and live theater. Get close to Basque culture at the Euskal Museoa, which holds everything Basque from prehistoric times to the 21st century in a former Jesuit college cloister.
BILBAO RESTAURANTS, BARS, AND NIGHTLIFE:
Road trips in Spain have a delightfully leisurely pace, and your Basque road trip is best punctuated by relaxing, laidback meals. Browse the open-air markets in Casco Viejo like the Mercado de la Ribera to prepare a delicious, inexpensive picnic or settle into a prime people-watching spot on the Plaza Nueva, which is filled with tapas bars. Get adventurous with truly traditional Basque fare like sheep brains and squid in pools of its own ink at Rio-Oja.
BILBAO HOTELS & LODGING:
Bilbao's streets are filled with quirky, independent shops and its hotels are no less unique. The wonderfully eccentric Pensión Iturrienea Ostatua is decorated with original, locally crafted paintings, antiques, and other curiosities. Modern artwork also takes center stage in the brightly colored Hostal Begoña. In a more traditional camp, Hotel Miró is just a stone's throw away from the Guggenheim Museum with sleekly furnished rooms and friendly staff. Need extra help booking a room? The Bilbao tourism authority has a reservations department ready to assist travelers.
BILBAO ROAD TRIP, SCENIC DRIVES:
Journey into Spanish history with a day trip to Guernica, best known as one of the first aerial bombing targets by the Nazis in 1937 and the inspiration for Pablo Picasso's moving black-and-white mural Guernica. Less than 40 minutes by car from Bilbao, this workaday market town is also an important meeting place for major Basque politicians. After considering the challenges of war and peace at the Gernika Peace Museum, visit the time-tested Gernika Assembly House and Oak Tree where the province's leaders continue the medieval tradition of assembling beneath an old oak tree. Drivers from Bilbao might also choose to visit Lekeitio, which swings from backwater fishing village in the offseason to a teeming seaside resort in the summer.