Bilbao + Basque Country See And Do
4 Plaza Miguel de Unamuno
Tel: 34 94 415 5423
Though the exhibits are captioned only in Spanish and Basque, this small Casco Viejo museum will still give you a strong sense of the Basque region's history. The collection includes archival photos, artwork, and artifacts like the prehistoric tools and pottery found in nearby Paleolithic-era cave dwellings—remnants of one of the world's oldest civilizations.
San Sebastián is home to three terrific swimming and sunbathing beaches, all with golden, powdery sand. La Concha, named for its curved seashell shape, is right off the city center and the longest of the three (nearly a mile from end to end). It's also narrow, though, and the crowds can reach Coney Island density during the summer. The water is calm here, so expect lots of families with kids. Just west of La Concha, the smaller Ondarreta draws a slightly tonier crowd. Though it's only a third of a mile long, its breadth means there's room for rows of striped cabanas (which can be rented by the day and offer some small measure of privacy). Zurriola, east of La Concha and across the river in the Gros neighborhood, is the hippest and most sceney; it's the choice of the city's gay population, and its rougher water also attracts surfers.
If baking in the sun's not your thing, take a stroll, jog, or bike ride along the elegant paseo (boardwalk), fronting La Concha and Ondarreta. Along the way, you'll pass Miramar Palace, the former summer home of Spanish royalty, built in the 1880s. Though the building is now used for conferences and educational events and is not open to the public, the beautifully landscaped gardens that face the ocean (and are free to visit) are an ideal place to stop and relax with a good book. If the weather cooperates, you can walk to the end of the boardwalk to see Eduardo Chillida's dramatic sculpture The Comb of the Winds, three steel forms fused onto a rocky outcropping, where they're constantly buffeted by the ocean's spray.
In an effort to promote sustainability, Bilbao's city government is launching a program in April 2007 to make free bikes available to tourists. The program will allow visitors to pick up bikes at one of seven different spots around the city, ride for four hours, and drop the bike off at whichever location is most convenient. For a map of routes and more information, check out www2.bilbao.net/bilbaoturismo/ingles/qvisitar/bicicleta.htm.
2 Avenida Abandoibarra
Tel: 34 94 435 9080
Traveling to Bilbao without stopping at the Guggenheim is like going to Paris and skipping Notre-Dame. Unfortunately, everyone else feels the same way—so set your alarm early on a weekday and beat the crowds by heading right for the always well-curated temporary exhibitions on the second and third floors. Past exhibits here have ranged from masterworks by Rubens and Michelangelo to ancient Aztec art to cutting-edge motorcycle designs. The permanent collection, which focuses on contemporary art, includes some notable pieces—like Richard Serra's steel sculpture The Matter of Time, Jenny Holzer's LED display Installation for Bilbao, and Jeff Koons's topiary Puppy—but is otherwise surprisingly thin. It's better to save for the end of your visit. You can cover the whole museum in about three hours. Of course, you'll want to leave time to explore Frank Gehry's building itself—the true star of the show—both from the inside and out. It's impossible to take a bad photo of the structure from any angle, and when you see it in all its undulating, shimmering titanium glory, you'll understand what the fuss is about.
Closed Mondays (except July and August).
Parque Natural de Aralar
With its gorgeous mountainous terrain and dramatic coastline, the Basque country is prime territory for outdoor activities. For a particularly breathtaking location where you can hike and horseback ride, head about 30 minutes south of San Sebastián to the Parque Natural de Aralar, a 27,000-acre nature preserve that has 4,000-foot-high peaks crisscrossed with trails. The park also has more than 30 prehistoric dolmens (Stonehenge-like prehistoric monuments that date back to the Neolithic period) and cave dwellings. Though you can explore the park on your own, it's best for newcomers to pick up maps and arrange guided visits through the helpful folks at the tourism office in Ordizia, open seven days a week (24 Santa María; 34-943-882-290; open MonFri 101 and 47; weekends 112 and 47).
If you've got wee ones in tow, you'll want to take the Funicular from Ondarreta beach up Monte Igueldo. The panoramic view of the city will wow them (and you), and there's a small amusement park with rides at the top of the mountain (34-943-210-564; www.donostia.org). Access to the park is included in the price of your funicular ticket (less than $5).
At the foot of the opposite mountain, Monte Urgull, is San Sebastián's Aquarium, with live piranhas, clown fish, and sharks as well as an enormous whale skeleton (1 Carlos Blasco de Imaz Plaza; 34-943-440-099; www.aquariumss.com).
1 Avenida de Zurriola
Tel: 34 943 003 000
The unmistakable translucent cubes of the Kursaal buildings, designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, loom over Zurriola beach in the San Sebastián neighborhood of Gros—though they're hard to miss from any part of downtown along the Urumea River. More than just a convention center, the Kursaal also hosts concerts by artists ranging from Ben Harper to the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the annual San Sebastián International Film Festival.
2 Plaza Museo
Tel: 34 94 439 6060
Sharing a city with the Guggenheim means Bilbao's fine-arts museum doesn't always get the recognition it deserves. But its impressive collection—which spans eight centuries and includes works from artists as varied as El Greco and Francis Bacon—makes it a destination in its own right. The neoclassical building houses works dating back to the 12th century, including Orazio Gentileschi's intensely emotional 17th-century painting Lot and His Daughters; the newer wing focuses on contemporary art, such as Maria Helena Vieira da Silva's luminous Passage of the Mirrors, and the unsettling Three Graces by Antonio Saura Atares.
Club Deportivo de Bilbao
28 Alameda de Recalde
Tel: 34 94 423 1108
Sports fans looking to witness something unique to this region should check out a pelota match. Pelota is a traditional Basque handball that comes in three varieties: a paleta (with a wooden paddle), a mano (bare-handed), or cesta punta (played with wicker baskets and better known as jai alai). The matches themselves are fun to watch, but even more entertaining is the loud, chaotic crowd, with bookies constantly calling out the changing odds to gamblers, even while the point they're betting on is played. Bilbao's frontón (court) features professional pelota a paleta matches. Tickets can be bought on game day, or the day before, at the frontón.
For centuries, religious pilgrims have walked from various points across the country to reach this city, in Spain's northwestern region of Galicia. It's said that the body of Saint James the Apostle is buried in the ornate cathedral. There are various routes one can take to Santiago de Compostela—and these days, hikers and other adventurers make the journey, too—but one of the oldest is the coastal Camino del Norte, or "northern way." This roughly 500-mile passage starts in the Basque border town of Irún, passes through San Sebastián and Bilbao, and hugs the dramatic Cantabrian coastline. The route varies at different points—sometimes it's a rural hiking trail through farmland, sometimes it's a gravel track overlooking the sea, and at other points it parallels paved roads—but following it is a unique way to see some of Spain's most beautiful country. Spanish Steps, based in Aspen, offers 13-day half-walk/half-guided-drive trips to Santiago along the Camino del Norte. The tours require about eight to ten miles of walking per day but also include plush accommodations and meals (877-787-9255; www.spanishsteps.com). For general information about the pilgrimage, its history, and its routes, check out the website of the Confraternity of Saint James, a non-denominational association of former and current pilgrims (www.csj.org.uk).
A must-go destination for oenophiles, the Rioja region was turning out serious vintages even back in the 1970s and '80s, when the rest of the country was still making plonk. The best way to get access to top winemakers and their wineries is to go with a knowledgeable guide. Tenedor Tours, based in San Sebastián, runs all kinds of food and wine tours throughout the Rioja as well as the surrounding Basque country; these let you sample the region's classic reds made from tempranillo grapes, along with a growing number of notable whites and rosados, or rosés (34-943-313-929; www.tenedortours.com ). If you'd rather go on your own, the Rioja region's tourism department has a fairly detailed website that lists everything from accommodations and the location of wine museums to wine-tasting classes. Not every winery is open to the public, but if you sign up via the site (registration is free), you'll be able to download brochures that list visiting hours and contact information for all those that do welcome tourists (lariojaturismo.com; 34-941-291-260).
Tel: 34 943 481 212
During the second half of every September, San Sebastián is overrun by actors, directors, and cineastes from all over the world as it hosts its annual film festival. Tickets can be hard to come by, particularly for official festival selections, so go online early the week before the festival if you have your heart set on attending the screenings. All showings are held at the Kursaal convention center.
1 Plaza Zuloaga
Tel: 34 943 481 580
The Basque Country's oldest museum has just added a brand-new modernist concrete wing to the 16th-century Dominican convent that houses its collection. The museum now offers two very distinct areas. One is an art museum with paintings from the 16th to the 21st century from artists such as El Greco, Rubens, Soroya, and Miró. The other area is dedicated to a trip down Basque memory lane, with everything from 15th-century farming tools to 1950s kitchen appliances on display.—Guy Fiorita
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 am to 8 pm.
Facing the Cantabrian Sea, the Basque coastline—a 150-mile stretch from Muskiz on the western edge of Vizcaya to the border of France—is a surfer's paradise, with some amazing breaks within easy reach of Bilbao and San Sebastián. The towns of Sopelana and Bakio are particular hot spots; so is the fishing village of Mundaka, which is known for having one of the longest left-handed waves in the world. The Aussie-owned Mundaka Surf Shop is a good place to stop if you need equipment or advice (8-10 Txorrokopunta, Mundaka; 34-94-687-6721; www.mundakasurfshop.com).
Tel: 34 94 479 2036
Like the city it calls home, the Arriaga theater has gone through its own dramas and difficulties—from a devastating fire in 1914 to floods in the 1980s—but the institution has endured to become a haven for arts and culture. The grand building, perched on the edge of the Casco Viejo, is the place to go to see opera, ballet, classical music, dance, and theater performances. If zarzuela is on the schedule, make sure to check out this classic Spanish genre of lyrical theater.
Bilbao Tourism Office
11 Plaza del Ensanche
Tel: 34 94 479 5760
On weekends and summer weekdays, Bilbao's tourism office offers two separate 90-minute walking tours of the city. One covers the Casco Viejo area, including the Gothic cathedral, the Ribera market, and the ruins under the San Antón church. The other focuses on the urban development of the Ensanche and Abandoibarra neighborhoods, from the 19th century to the present day. The average person will likely find the Casco Viejo choice more interesting, although architecture buffs will prefer the other option. Tours are offered in both English and Spanish, and cost less than $5 per person.