San Sebastian and Bilbao

“Everyone who has visited the Basque country longs to return; it is a blessed land.”
-Victor Hugo, author

Although 15 years ago it wasn’t a blip on many travelers’ radars, the area centered around San Sebastian and Bilbao – an area rooted in Basque traditions and distinctly different from other parts of Spain – is now one of the most exciting places to travel in Europe.

Surrounding a beautiful harbor and small beach, San Sebastian comes alive from May to September, when the weather is at its finest and when it is full of locals feasting and drinking.

The cuisine rivals the best of France and Italy, mixing tradition with the cutting-edge. Ask any Spaniard their favorite place to eat and many will tell you that it is this area (well, after they list their own hometowns first).

The ambitious chefs of the picturesque coastal town of San Sebastian have worked hard to earn more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world. We can arrange a kitchen tour and face time with the chef of Spain’s most famous restaurant.

It would be difficult not to go out with our culinary expert for a night of pintxos – the tapas of the region – as you hop from establishment to establishment sampling the best of each specialty. There are over 200 bars and each one has its own specialty. Some are hip and loud, while others are traditional and hidden away: more for the insider.

We can arrange for a private cooking lesson in a 400-year-old culinary society or perhaps a privileged view of the annual regatta from a private sailboat.

In marked contrast to San Sebastian, Bilbao is larger and grittier, but equally exciting – and often underrated. Thanks in part to Frank Gehry’s curvaceous Guggenheim, (with a stunning 400 foot gallery of Richard Serra) Bilbao is now on the map. Across the river, the historic center has been restored. Excellent gastronomy abounds here as well.

The area between Bilbao and San Sebastian has its own attractions. If you are an art lover, we might suggest visiting the museum of sculptor Eduardo Chillida or perhaps the town of Guernica, whose bombings by the Germans and Italians during the Spanish Civil War inspired Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece, delivered to Spain after the return of democracy (and now housed in Madrid at the Reina Sofia).

Outside San Sebastian and Bilbao are the famous sidrerias (cider houses/restaurants), charming towns such as seaside Hondarribia, and a bit further away Santillana del Mar. There are also the world-famous wine estates of La Rioja.