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Help with Itinerary Basque Country (Spain and France)

Hello! I am looking for help with an itinerary for a solo traveler in mid March 2020. I fly from Barcelona to Bilbao and plan to spend one night there. I'm looking for some guidance from Bilbao. I'm interested in exploring both the Spanish and French areas. I am trying to decide if I should rent a car and drive and have the freedom to explore at my own pace/interests or if I should plan to use public transportation. I spent a couple days about 20 years ago in San Sebastian and I loved it. I'm sure it's changed and is much busier, but I'd love to get back and see it again, so that's a must stop. As a solo traveler, I enjoy the bustle of a more lively part of town for the evening. I do enjoy nature and hiking, eating, wine tasting, and exploring old architecture. Oh, and, I only have 5 days. Is it better to have one home base and make day trips or 2? I was considering San Sebastian for 2 nights and somewhere else for 2 nights, possibly Biarritz? Places that got my interest so far are: Bilbao, San Sebastian, Saint Jean de Luz, Esplette. I know there are many other and I've read a lot of the other posts, I'm just a bit overwhelmed with my short stay. Also, I'd prefer not to drive more than one hour each way for a day trip.

Thanks for the help!

Posted by
20872 posts

I'm no good at suggesting itineraries that involve moving as fast as you're going to need to, but I think you need to have a car--something else I have had no experience with in Europe. I'll just make a few comments in hopes something will be helpful.

The Basque Country is cool and even rainy in mid-summer. Another reason you may prefer to travel by car.

I am not a bar-hopper and found the tourist load in the historic area of San Sebastian (which is the restaurant/bar district) way too heavy for me circa 2016. It sounds as if you will enjoy it, and it will probably be a lot less crazy in March. I much, much preferred Bilbao, which has a larger and far less touristy Casco Viejo (medieval district). It's a large city, so you'll have no trouble finding lively places in the evening.

The three small coastal towns of Zumaia, Getaria and Zarautz west of San Sebastian were worth a quick visit in the summer. I wouldn't be surprised if they are dead in March. They are former fishing villages now heavily focused on tourism. Guidebooks often mention Lekeitio, which is farther west, but I haven't been there.

Bermeo, on the coast east of Bilbao, is picturesque but again may not be exactly lively in March. It was pretty dead on the rainy day in June when I visited.

Hondarribia, not far from San Sebastian and almost on the French border, has a fishermen's district full of restaurants along the waterfront and a medieval area up on the hill.

Over the border in France, I found St-Jean-de-Luz a picturesque but very touristy place. Fun to walk around for several hours or for an overnight if you need to stay in the area and arrive in the afternoon. I don't know what it would be like in March.

Biarritz I didn't much care for, but it was raining persistently that day, which never helps. I did very much enjoy the privately-run Asian Museum (which seems to be open afternoons only), but the rest of the city just didn't grab me. I didn't find most of the architecture very interesting, and it seemed rather like a Belle Epoque resort past its prime. I wouldn't be surprised, though, if others found it more congenial. The rain limited my interest in doing as much walking around as I generally do.

Of the three French towns/cities I visited, I strongly preferred Bayonne. It retains a lot of historic architecture, has at least one good museum, and there's an interesting chocolate museum with a very generous tasting room.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to any of the mountain villages, having been slowed down a bit by a bus strike.

Posted by
3 posts

Thank you for the tips and advice. I am ok with some rain (I do live in Seattle), but realize it may alter what is fun to do!

I don't necessarily need to see it all, but both sides seem to be interesting. Wish I had 2 weeks! The car seems to be the way to go given rain, I agree. Any thoughts on a place you'd recommend staying on the French side?

Posted by
20872 posts

I'd choose Bayonne if you were satisfied just to see that city, St-Jean-de-Luz and perhaps Biarritz. I haven't looked at driving times from any of those three to the mountain villages, and that would be a consideration.

I think it's agreed that the Basque identity is stronger on the Spanish side. How evident that will be on a short trip, I cannot say.

I'm a fan of seeing fewer places in more detail, so it's hard for me to suggest how to split 5 days here. I think there's more to see on the Spanish side, but that doesn't matter if you don't have time to see it.

I hope a few others will soon weigh in here. We need to hear from folks who've driven in that part of Europe. They will be in a much better position to help you.

Posted by
3 posts

Thank you for the reply. Maybe I should consider just staying on the Spain side. I don't necessarily need to see both, but just figured I should try. I would prefer a home base for the entire time and could stay in Bilbao for 6 days and make trips from there, but I feel like I'll be driving a lot more than I want, being on my own. However, getting into the mountain towns would be nice too. So much to see, such little time.