Most travelers agree the Spanish Basque Country is a splendid region with great scenery and exceptional gastronomy. Those on a tight schedule, however, may be torn between staying in Bilbao or San Sebastian for a short stay. If you’re stuck trying to choose between these two cities, this article will hopefully help you make your decision.
Bilbao or San Sebastian: short answer
Bilbao and San Sebastian are really close to each other, a little over an hour drive or bus ride. If you have a few days available, spending at least one night in each is a great idea. If you’re time-constrained and can only choose one, here are a few pointers to help you decide:
San Sebastian is about half the size of Bilbao with over 180.000 residents vs 345.000. It’s a smaller, beautiful and lively city with an amazing food scene. It has a more classic, “Belle Epoque” kind of style than Bilbao.
Bilbao has more sights including World Heritage monuments, great museums, a larger and more interesting Old Town, and more of a big city vibe. San Sebastian is smaller though its old town is also very nice.
San Sebastian is often considered prettier due to its gorgeous ocean bay, art deco architecture, and scenic location. Travelers also appreciate its vibrant foodie scene (see Food & Nightlife below).
San Sebastian is easier to visit in less time because of its smaller size. While some people may feel there aren’t that many things to do in SS besides beach and scenic walks, others find Bilbao overwhelming and not so attractive aside from its remarkable architecture.
If you like a larger city with modern architecture and numerous museums and historic monuments, Bilbao may be your choice. On the other hand, if you prefer a smaller and prettier town with a scenic beach and pleasant historic quarters, choose San Sebastian – you can still visit Bilbao as a day trip.
Bilbao or San Sebastian: access & transportation
Bilbao has a busy international airport, the largest in Northern Spain. There are cheap flights from Bilbao to Madrid and to Barcelona.
San Sebastian also has a small airport, with low-cost flights to Barcelona and Madrid as well (Ryanair and Vueling). The bus ride from Bilbao to Madrid takes 4 hours via the Alsa bus line.
San Sebastian and Bilbao have a bus connection via Alsa (a 1:15 ride).
Bilbao or San Sebastian: vibe & people
As mentioned, San Sebastian is a smaller elegant town with a special charm due to its beautiful curved bay. The people in San Sebastian are often described as charming, and the city is generally not overrun by tourists except during summer.
Bilbao is a “real city” where many people live and work. It has an industrial past but the industrial activity has largely disappeared from the city. Bilbao, and the river that runs across it, are extremely clean. The city is very walkable and offers a great riverfront promenade ending at the new and acclaimed soccer stadium. Bilbao is a lively city with locals and tourists mixing in an atmosphere of laid back excitement.
Bilbao or San Sebastian: sights & culture
San Sebastian is generally considered more classic, elegant and majestic, while Bilbao is more modern and dynamically attractive. While some travelers feel the sights in San Sebastian can all be seen in a few hours, San Sebastian is a perfect seaside town for a relaxing vacation.
Visitors in San Sebastian enjoy walking around the three main areas, the old town, the newer city center, and the beaches. You can walk along the beach road and take a bus tour around town. You can also take the funicular up to Monte Igeldo for some of the best views of San Sebastian and the stunning La Concha beach.
The old town is not very large but has interesting and attractive art deco architecture, and one of the highest density of bars in the world.
Bilbao, on the other hand, has a newer center with beautiful buildings surrounded by nice green areas and large renovated avenues that sometimes feel like Paris boulevards. The city has the Guggenheim museum which by itself attracts millions of tourists every year. Besides the museum’s collections, the building itself and its surrounding area are replete with remarkable architectural art.
Check out this private guided tour of Bilbao’s Guggenheim and San Mamés museums:
The Bilbao Old Town has abundant contemporary architectural buildings and a range of museums including the Fine Arts, Archeological, Maritime, and Bullfighting museums. Architecture is a big attraction in Bilbao, both historic, e.g the 15th century Santiago Cathedral, and modern, including Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, Philippe Starck’s Azkuna Zentroa cultural center, the Calatrava Bridge and the Vizcaya Hanging Bridge that connects the banks of the Estuary of Bilbao.
The Bilbao old town is bustling with life with hoards of locals flocking in and out of pintxos bars and pedestrian streets. Similar to San Sebastian, the old town is pleasant to visit, safe, and well-maintained. Bilbao’s old town is larger though, with a higher number of historical attractions.
Like San Sebastian, Bilbao has a funicular, the Artxanda funicular, which ends on top of a hill with a nice park offering an exceptional view of the city and the river and estuary.
Note that most shops in Bilbao, including the old town, close on sundays except for small bakeries.
Bilbao or San Sebastian: nature & outdoors
While San Sebastian offers the beautiful Concha Beach, keep in mind it’s not exactly a beach resort. For one thing, the weather on the Basque Country is not very warm most of the year with many (often heavily) rainy days. In April, for example, sea temperature often hovers around 14ºC so swimming is hardly an option until summer. Walks alongside the beach, however, are a very pleasing activity.
Besides the Concha Beach, there are quite a few places to go for outdoors in San Sebastian, including surfing Zurriola Beach (a few minute’s drive from the center), or climbing up Ulía Hill or Urgull Hill. You can easily go hiking, mountain biking, surfing, sailing, or stand up paddling in the area.
For example, you can take the scenic 3.5-hours walk of the El Camino Norte to Pasajes de Juan, starting at Avenue Navarre from Zurriola beach, then taking a board from San Pedro to Pasajes – a nice small village with great seafood. On this popular trail, you’ll walk along the wild and beautiful coastline.
Bilbao is not located directly on the ocean but in an estuary. Nevertheless, it has similar endless options for nature and outdoor lovers – the Basque Country in general does. A great example is Playa de Azkorri, one of the best beaches in the region with unspoiled beauty, a 20-minute drive from the Bilbao city center.
Bilbao is also an awesome basecamp for some amazing trekking tours to the Basque mountains with some really stunning hiking routes. The below tour includes mountain hiking on some of best trails in the region, cooking workshops, forest baths and massages, and more:
Bilbao or San Sebastian: food & nightlife
Most travelers agree that the food in the Basque Country is among the best in the world. There are fantastic places to eat in both San Sebastian and Bilbao, though the San Sebastian food scene has more promotion around it.
San Sebastian is famous for its creative and delicious pintxos – the Basque version of the Spanish tapas, served on a piece of bread. The area behind the Ayuntamiento (City Hall) and Calle 31 de Agosto in the old quarter is the place to go for Basque pintxos bars.
In Bilbao, the old part of town has the Called Licenciado Poza and a square full of traditional bars to eat the best local pintxos. Famous pintxo bars include El Huevo Frito, La Viña del Ensanche, Café Bar Bilbao, and Irrintzi.
San Sebastian is also a foodie’s paradise comparable with Paris for gourmet cuisine. It has one of the highest concentrations of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. An example is Azurmendi, chef Eneko Atxa’s restaurant which includes both a posh restaurant and a lower budget menu. Akelarre and Arzak are two other famous 3-star restaurants.
Bilbao also has its own starred restaurants (though maybe with fewer stars) such as Nerua near the Guggenheim and Zortziko.
San Sebastian is also a fun place to be for soccer fans with the wide support for the Real Sociedad soccer team. There are numerous bars dressed out in the team’s colors around the stadium. The Whiskey Museum is also a sports bar with a vast selection of whiskeys from around the world.
Besides pintxos and Michelin stars, both San Sebastian and Bilbao have their Basque Ciderhouses (sagardotegi in the Basque language) which are known to serve giant cider drums and some of the best steaks in the country. The Sidreria Asador Arriaga in a good example in Bilbao.
In addition to pintxos and bars, San Sebastian and Bilbao both have great seafood places. Cod (bacalao pil-pil) and squid cooked in its own ink, are examples of traditional Basque seafood dishes. Restaurante Mandoya is a reputed seafood restaurant in Bilbao.
The Basque Country also has its own unique wine, usually white, called Txakoli.
In short: both Bilbao and San Sebastian offer a very rich food scene, including Basque pintxos places and bars, excellent seafood houses, award-winning gourmet restaurants, and traditional cider houses. While Bilbao has more places to choose from, San Sebastian has the most 3-starred chefs.
Bilbao or San Sebastian: lodging
Generally speaking, hotels are cheaper (for similar quality) in Bilbao than in San Sebastián.
The best areas to stay in Bilbao are the Old Town (Casco Viejo), where most of the landmarks and touristic action is, Bilbao la Vieja and San Frantzisko, two trendy and artsy neighborhoods, and Indautxu, the shopping and financial district (read more here).
Here are two often recommended hotels in Bilbao:
Hotel Barceló Nervión: centrally located, on the river. Walls a bit thin, great breakfast.
Abando hotel: nice hotel, located in the new town across the river from the old town, easy access to everything, shops around it.
Pension Koxka: excellent little place many travelers recommend
Hotel de Londres y Inglaterra: very good hotel beside La Concha beach
Hotel Barceló Costa Vasca: beautiful and quiet though a bit far from old town
Bilbao or San Sebastian: day trips
From San Sebastian: Hondarribia is a very pretty little town right on the French border (across the bay from Hendaye) and right next to the San Sebastian airport. You can enjoy a stroll and pintxos there, e.g. before a flight.
There are numerous really nice small towns between San Sebastian and Bilbao, such as Bermeo, Getaria, Ondarroa, Orio, Zumaia, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Mundaka, Gernika, Elantxobe, Lekeitio, Getxo, and others.
Bermeo is a small fishing village near Bilbao with great seafood restaurants and a train ride that’s definitely worth your time.
Vitoria is another very nice small town, further South and inland from Bilbao, with even more museums and sights than San Sebastian, yet much less touristy.
You can cross the border to France and visit Bayonne, Biarritz, and St Jean de Luz.
San Sebastian and Bilbao are both worth a visit, e.g. a day or 2 in San Sebastian and 2-3 days in Bilbao. If you must choose between the two, however, San Sebastian is a smaller and more elegant town with great gastronomy and a scenic ocean bay, while Bilbao is an larger city full of life and historical sights which typically requires more time to grasp.
(1) Featured: “Bahia de la Concha, San Sebastian” (CC BY 2.0) by Eric Titcombe
(2) “bilbao 2013” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by k0a1a.net
(3) “San Sebastian_12” (CC BY 2.0) by Mari (Maria Giovanna Colli)
(4) “Bilbao” (Public Domain) by Carlos Reusser Monsálvez
(5) “Bilbao” (CC BY 2.0) by Metro Centric
(6) “San Sebastian, Spain” (CC BY 2.0) by Emmanuel Dyan