The entire Basque country is only about 2,800 square miles—half the size of Connecticut—and Bilbao and San Sebastián are its twin cities. San Sebastián is right on the Cantabrian coast, while Bilbao is about 60 miles west (and about ten miles inland); it's just over an hour's drive or bus ride between the two.
In Bilbao, the Nervión River hugs the city's curves and separates the Abandoibarra, Ensanche, and Indautxu neighborhoods (where the Guggenheim and many hotels are located) from the medieval Casco Viejo, or "Old Town" (a literally more free-spirited area, due to the proliferation of pintxos bars).
The focus of modern-day San Sebastián (sometimes called Donostia, its Basque name) is its seashell-shaped beach, La Concha. But the city's roots are in its Casco Viejo, a warren of tiny streets and enclosed plazas packed with stores and—again—bars. The Centro area, south of La Concha, has the best upscale shopping. Gros, a more residential neighborhood east of the Casco Viejo, also has its share of stores (plus some of the city's finest pintxos), but it's quieter than Old Town.
WHEN TO GO
The best time to visit Basque country is in the fall. The temperate weather (with daytime highs typically between 60 and 70 degrees) and changing leaves make for wonderful walking and outdoor activities; in the early fall, the sea is still warm enough for swimming. This period also coincides with the start of the grape harvest in nearby Rioja. In fact, there's only one thing about visiting in autumn that can be problematic: The San Sebastián International Film Festival, which happens in late September and takes over the small city (and makes hotel and restaurant reservations almost impossible to score). The month of August is also best avoided; it's when locals take their annual holiday and the area is overrun with tourists. No matter when you visit, it's smart to carry both a sturdy umbrella and sunglasses: The weather can change on a dime, especially during the winter and spring.
HOW TO GET THERE
Bilbao and San Sebastián each have their own regional airports, which offer only domestic flights, so most international travelers need to connect in Madrid or Barcelona. From the U.S., Delta, Continental Air, British Airways, and Spain's national carrier, Iberia, fly nonstop to these two Spanish cities. Ryanair and EasyJet fly directly to Bilbao from London.
Bilbao's airport is in the town of Loiu, just five miles away from the city. A taxi will run you about €23 ($30), but there's also an airport-to-Bilbao transfer bus, Bizkaibus 3247, which only costs $1.50 and departs every 30 minutes. San Sebastián's airport is in the town of Hondarribia, about 15 miles away. Expect to spend about €30 ($40) for a cab. A cheaper option: buses run by Iparbus (www.iparbus.com), which are about €3 ($4).
Both Bilbao and San Sebastián are compact cities, and they are easy to get around on foot. Bilbao has a tram and metro (with stations designed by architect Sir Norman Foster) in addition to its public buses. If you're going to be in the city for a few days, do like the locals do and buy a Creditrans card (on sale at newsstands and metro and tram stops). It gets you discounted rides, and you can use it on all the various modes of public transportation. (For more detailed information about fares, which vary by distance traveled, check out www2.bilbao.net/bilbaoturismo).
San Sebastián only has a public bus system (www.dbus.es/web), which, for about $1.30, connects various neighborhoods and suburban areas. The city also offers the Donostia Card, available for about €10 ($13) through the tourist office; it gets you museum discounts and three-day unlimited use of city buses.
Many of the region's great restaurants are in rural and suburban areas just outside of the two cities, so having a car is helpful if you plan to visit a lot of them or if you want to take side trips to the coast or other towns nearby. If you want to visit a single restaurant, ask your hotel about arranging transportation by taxi. Otherwise, you can rent a car at either of the region's airports. The Bilbao airport has branches of Avis, Europcar, Hertz, and National, while at San Sebastián's airport, your choices are Avis, Europcar, or Hertz. The PESA bus company (www.pesa.net) runs hourly buses between Bilbao and San Sebastián for about €8 ($11.50) each way.
Everyone speaks Spanish in addition to Basque (or Euskara) in this part of Spain, but to ingratiate yourself with the locals, it doesn't hurt to know a few Basque words. Kaixo (kye-sho) means "hello," eskerrik asko (ehs-keh-reek ahs-koe) is "thank you very much," and agur (ah-goor) means "good-bye."
Mark Kurlansky's book The Basque History of the World provides an excellent introduction to the culture, history, and people of this region.
Basque Country Tourism
Tel: 34 942 637 358
Bilbao Tourism Office
11 Plaza del Ensanche
Tel: 34 94 479 5760
Open weekdays 9–2 and 4–7:30
San Sebastián Tourism Office
3 Calle Reina Regente
Tel: 34 943 481 166