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February 1, 2019
By Joey Tyson
A rugged masterpiece of brooding mountains, medieval fishing villages and wild beaches, the Basque coastline is unlike any other part of Spain.
It’s world away from the southern costas and, in truth, a world away from the country itself. From the unique language to its intriguing food traditions, they do things different here. And that's exactly why you should check it out.
Forget endless rows of sun loungers and banana boats, Basque beaches will blow away all previous preconceptions you might have of a typical Spanish beach.
Itzurun, near the small town of Zumaia, might be the most remarkable of the lot. A staggering scene of prehistoric sea cliffs and bizarre geological rock formations, it recently shot to fame with a starring role in Game of Thrones, season 7. To appreciate it in its full glory, take a boat trip from the town.
Bakio is a bit closer to the traditional beach vibe, but still with plenty of Basque drama. A sloping arch of golden sand enclosed by cliffs, it’s a popular retreat for Bilbotarras escaping the city. Zaurautz, meanwhile, is quite literally fit for a Queen. Favoured by Queen Isabella II in the 19th century, the aptly named “Queen of the beaches” has almost 3km of uninterrupted golden sand to play with.
Like cities that come with sand? Supremo foodie hotspot San Sebastian has three beaches to pick from. The largest La Concha (the Shell), is flanked by Playa de Ondaretta to its west and Zurriola, to the east, just over the Urumea River.
An autonomous region of Spain, the Basque Country is defined by its own ancient language (Euskara) and unique culture. Although Spanish is still widely spoken, attempts to converse in Basque will be massively appreciated, so it’s worth having a go. The language itself is completely one-of-a-kind as it’s unrelated to any other living language. Spoken by only 750,000 native speakers, it’s a huge source of pride for Basque people.
Basque cuisine is another defining trait of the region’s culture to the point where eating takes precedence over pretty much everything. One of the most popular ways to eat out is pintxos – a type of Basque tapas. Along the coast, pintxos is heavily influenced by fresh sea food; particularly fresh anchovies and hake cheeks. To eat like a true local, try the practice of poteo; basically the Basque version of “bar hopping”, this generally involves moving from place to place, sampling a few pintxos in each bar, with a small glass of beer or wine.
Getaria, a small medieval fishing village, is one of the coast’s foodie hubs, and you can try your hand at preparing anchovies at Maisor, one of the town’s signature dishes. It takes a lot patience and a light touch to prepare, clean and de-bone these tiny fish. It’s also surprisingly satisfying, although not as satisfying as eating them after. In the hills behind the town, you can tour the Gaintza vineyard and sample the region's signature txakoli wine, a light sparkling white that goes well with anchovies.
Given its dramatic setting, most of what makes the Basque Coast attractive involves being outside; be it trekking up forest-cloaked mountains or sea kayaking between craggy bays.
If you’re into hiking, you’ve come to the right place. Basque people love to hike, and the region has one of the highest concentrations of registered mountaineers in the world. Trails trace the coastline almost in its entirety, winding their way over pre-historic sea cliffs and through time-warped fishing villages.
The Camino del Norte pilgrimage route hugs the coast from San Sebastian to Deba before heading inland, so it’s easy to dip in and out of this epic long-distance trail. A large part of the Basque Route also hugs the sea’s edge. For shorter treks still big in drama, try the hike to San Pedro Atxarre for sweeping panoramas out over the Urdaibai biosphere. For short town-to-town walks, try Meñakoz to Barrika and Zaurautz to Getaria.
Surfing is another big activity for the Basque Coast, with powerful Atlantic swells providing excellent conditions. Bakio, Zaurautz and the Urdaibai biosphere are some of the most popular spots in the region. Zarautz, in particular, has serious surfing credentials, once playing host to the world championships. Moor Surf Eskola offers lessons for all skill levels and runs group lessons for kids throughout the summer.
Sea kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and sailing are also popular here.
The beauty of this coastline is its variety. In San Sebastian, you have an exciting city, packed with art, architecture and, of course, world-class dining. Along the coast, there are hiking trails. And there are beaches everywhere.
However, one thing to be aware of: this is not the Spain of two-week beach holidays. The weather is too changeable. If you like a few days on the beach, a few in the city, a bit of time hiking and immersing yourself in the culture of a place, then this is for you.
For consistently good weather, summer is always your best bet. Peak months July and August are the busiest and most expensive, but if you can be flexible, June and September are great times to travel. June to September is the best time to hike.
San Sebastian is a year-round destination. Likewise, if you’re going for food and culture, there’s no real bad time to visit.
It’s possible to fly direct from the UK to both San Sebastian and Bilbao. Although it’s not on the coast, Bilbao probably has the best range of flights – EasyJet and British Airways both fly here. With a rental car, it’s less than 30 minutes to the nearest beach.