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Suggestions on Bilbao/Donostia

Hello, planning out a short trip (roughly September 8-11; 3.5 days) to Bilbao. Since I’m flying in and out of BIO I’m going to use that as my home base for exploring the region. From there I plan to visit Donostia and, perhaps, Hondarribia. I’ll be relying on public transport. For the amount of time I have scheduled is there any other town I can squeeze in as a side trip from Bilbao (no rental car) or is the 3.5 days already pretty full with those three towns. Primary interests are food and just walking around, with the obligatory visit to the Guggenheim.

Posted by
234 posts

Pamplona is an interesting place to walk around - see caricatures of bulls in windows, touristy stuff

Posted by
200 posts

It was one of my favorite trips, ever! I adored San Sebastian- I spent about a week and used only public transportation ( mostly train, or bus for Sare, or hired day tours) but also stayed in St. Jean de Luz several nights. At Irun I think I remember a transfer ( it's been more than ten years) and everything became French. Bayonne's museum of the history of the Basque people was just fascinating. The Guggenheim museum was about a 2-3 hour visit and I looked at everything, inside and out, so you might have more time for other places. I hired a private guide who drove me south and we also did a hike- so that could be an option, too, albeit expensive.

Posted by
3131 posts

Between to two cities you mentioned are the small towns of Zumaia and Getaria. Getaria is a fishing village and nice to walk around for a couple hours. Just above the port is a nice old church (Iglesia de San Salvador) that doesn’t take long to see.)p Zumaia is only a few kilometers away. It has a nice beach, unique flysch rock formations, Sam Telmo hermitage, and overlooks. Hondarrbia’s historic center up on the hill is fairly small. There is an elevator so you don’t need to walk up the hill unless you want to. The lower part of the town is where the majority of the restaurants are. The beach is nice and is a short walk from the lower town. Both towns were used in the filming of the movie Ocho Apellidos Vascos (Spanish Affair).

Posted by
567 posts

Thanks for the tips. I’m still debating whether to keep that schedule or cut it by a day (which would allow for a day trip to Cordoba from Sevilla). I’m craving Salmorejo haha. Btw this trip is part of a two and a half week Spain trip.

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18727 posts

I enjoyed quick visits to Zarautz/Getaria/Zumaia. I used public transportation, which wasn't terribly flexible, so I walked one leg; there's a walkway along the highway. However, I really think Bilbao, Donostia/SS and Hondarribia will fill your time, especially since you'll be depending on public transportation. Unfortunately, those villages are closer to Donostia than to you base in Bilbao. I suppose if you get an early start on the day you go to Donostia, you might be able to hit one of the villages on your way back to Bilbao.

Hondarribia, as you probably realize, is located beyond Donostia, virtually on the French border, making it a bit of an awkward day-trip from Bilbao. I wouldn't anticipate being able to hit Donostia and Hondarribia on the same day unless your only interest in Donostia is a walk around a stop for pintxos.

Bermeo (much closer to Bilbao) is a possibility for a small coastal town to visit--but again, I'm doubtful that you'll have the time.

I'd choose Vitoria-Gasteiz over Pamplona if I had a free day in that area; I found it a lot more atmospheric, and it's much closer to Bilbao.

Between Bilbao and Donostia, the bus is significantly faster than the train. If you have time to take the train one way, I think it's worth it for the scenery. It's a local train (with cars that look like they belong on a subway) that departs from a station in the Casco Viejo, not from the main Bilbao station.

Posted by
140 posts

I´d believe that your days would be filled with those three places. Bilbao deserves a full day minimum, with easy access on metro to Getxo (to see the unique Puente Colgante or Hanging Bridge) and the Puerto Viejo; and to Plentzia, last stop of the metro (a 40min ride), a medieval town by the beach, massively ignored by foreign visitors. That would be two days, or maybe one and a half, squeezing your time a bit.

On the way to Donostia-San Sebastián I´d take the bus, direct. This city can be easily visited in less than a day, so maybe you´d like to take an early morning bus (very frequent departures from Intermodal Bus Station, formerly Termibus) to get to SS early, visit the city, and then take the bus from Plaza Gipuzkoa to Hondarribia (half hour ride). In Hondarribia do not miss the old town overlooking the town beneath, and then San Pedro street with its lively atmosphere. And, of course, the promenade by the sea (an easy two hour visit, maximum). Then bus back to Donostia and bus back to Bilbao. That would be another day.

If you have another day, I´d take no doubt a bus or train to Gernika, to see one of the oldest forms of Parliament in the world, the Casa de Juntas and our Tree of Gernika, under it we were summoned to discuss the matters of the territory. But I´d continue on the bus to Lekeitio, a must see if you really want to see a very quaint, unspoilt, beautiful Basque town. That would make another full day. Then you can return on the direct bus from Lekeitio to Bilbao (Lekeitio used to be the place for my summer holidays when I was a kid).

If not, I´d visit the frequently overlooked Vitoria-Gasteiz, the capital and the smaller of the three cities, with a great old quarter. One hour bus ride direct from Bilbao.

This is a very rainy area, but September is normally drier and with very pleasant temperatures. It may rain any time though, so bring a light coat just in case. Beautiful scenery all over the place.

Just take into account that our lunch is normally around 2pm and it´s the most important meal of the day (in many places you´ll see from M-F the Menú del Día, for around 12eur you´ll have a first, a second, dessert, wine, water and bread included), and dinner is kind of late for you (rarely earlier than 0930pm), but it´s small and not as heavy as lunch.

If using public transport only, I believe these suggestions make most sense.

Posted by
567 posts

Acraven and Mike (and to whomever else I missed), thank you thank you for your generous input. I just happened to do a quick Google map search of the three towns I listed and, to my surprise, San Sebastian is a lot bigger than the map in the RS guidebook makes it out to be. So, yes, I've decided to just keep the plan as is. We'd have about 3.75 days in the area (arriving first day in BIO at about 8 or 9 am).

Funny enough I had taken a screen shot over the weekend of Vitoria-Gasteiz and just looked at the town a few minutes ago. Looks very interesting. Hondarribia looked ok, I think the main draw was some of the German looking buildings.

I'll be sure to write down all your notes so that I can plan this part of the trip well. I am no stranger to Spain and I am well aware of the eating times there :-).

And of course this trip is assuming vaccinated Americans will be allowed in the country, which I am very hopeful will be a reality.

I'm curious, are there any major changes in this part of Spain in regards to COVID? I care more about being able to shop and dine. Music venues are not a priority whatsoever.

Posted by
201 posts

I second the recommendation to see Getaria. It really is a charming little town. If possible, go around dinner time and eat at one of the restaurants near the water. The people come out and hang out near there, having a glass of wine or just talking. We went there almost by accident and we really enjoyed it. In fact, we'll get back there someday.

Posted by
30 posts

As one who biked from Bilbao to Donostia in 2018, I can attest that Gernika, Lekeitio, and Getaria are all quaint villages worthy of at least a day and night. If food is an interest, you are in luck, especially seafood. Donostia especially; with many Michelin-starred restaurants.

Posted by
140 posts

Gabriel, those "German" looking buildings are all over the Basque Country, as it´s the way our farm houses´s called "Basque" style :).

Regarding COVID, situation is improving quickly day by day. Figures in the Basque Country are receding and future looks optimistic, with 40% of the Basque population already vaccinated at least once. Currently, bars and restaurants close at 10pm (as you know, that´s way too early for us) and we can go anywhere, no restrictions. Masks are compulsory, but the Government has said that it may change in June for open air spaces, and the vaccination programme is going at very high speed. But you never know with this virus!

Posted by
104 posts

I really enjoyed the Eduardo Chillida museum and sculpture garden outside of Donostia.

And the Gugger in Bilbao was my introduction to Jenny Holzer some 20 years ago. The piece affected me so strongly, I sank to the floor and sobbed.

Posted by
140 posts

Scudder, there was a magnificent exhibition centered only on Jenny Holzer a couple of years ago. Really impressive.

Posted by
52 posts

We have traveled extensively in this part of the Basque Region. San Sebastián and Bilbao alone cannot be appreciated in less than 3. 5 days. I recommend the following San Sebastián activities:
TI 3 hour Walking Tour is outstanding
Pinxto bars breakfast, lunch and into the night
Beautiful beach
Rent bikes or electric scooters for cruising around Gros and New Town
Hike to the top of Mt Urgull for exercise, views and tour the fortress
Paseo and people watching over wine
Both cities are well represented in the RS Spain guidebook. Please try not to over book site seeing and just take in the beauty and culture of this remarkable corner of Spain.

Posted by
567 posts

Thank you so much for your input. Definitely want to do a lot of walking around and a lot of eating. I'll incorporate the other towns mentioned by others, but if our time in Bilbao and Donostia seems to short then we can always adjust the itinerary.