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San Sebastián, or Donostia to the Basques, lies just over an hour’s drive or train ride to the east of Bilbao, making it a very easy weekend getaway – and a popular one, too. The town may be small, but it’s Spain’s biggest foodie capital and holds a total of 16 Michelin stars, three of which have the highest three-star Michelin award. In fact, San Sebastián holds one of the highest number of Michelin stars per square metre of any city in the world, apart from Kyoto in Japan. Spend your weekend here touring the town’s pintxos bars or dining at one of the three exclusive three-Michelin-starred restaurants: Akelarre, Arzak and Martín Berasategui. Some of the top Basque dishes to try while you’re here include txistorra, a type of thick cured sausage made from minced pork and beef, bacalao pil pil (cod fried in olive oil), txangurrus (spider crabs) and hongos (wild mushrooms).
Santander on the other hand, lies an hour and half to the west of Bilbao, along the coast. It may be a city, but Santander is home to some of the northern coast’s best beaches. Playa de la Magdalena is the first of the city’s beaches – an undulating golden ribbon, backed by green forested hills, and set on a small peninsula. The second beach, further to the west is La Concha, a long sweep of yellow sand, backed by the city and the Piquio Gardens. Further on, this turns into Playa Camello, where the Mesones Park meets the shore. All of the beaches are great for swimming, sunbathing and dining, while Playa de la Magdalena is also particularly good for windsurfing. When you’re not at the beach, Santander has a host of other attractions including the Catedral de la Asunción, the Museo de Prehistoria y Arqueología de Cantabria (Prehistoric and Archaeology Museum of Cantabria) and the Palacio de la Magdalena.
Pamplona is best known for being the home of the famous Running of the Bulls festival – San Fermín, which happens every July. If you’re not here for that, however, there are still plenty of other reasons to make a trip to the city and wander around its rambling cobbled streets. Visit the Ciudadela, a fortified citadel built between 1571 and 1645 under King Felipe II. It is one of the best examples of Renaissance-style Spanish military architecture. Another top attraction is the Museo de Navarra, located in an old medieval hospital and housing everything from Roman mosaics to art by Francisco Goya. Other sights include the Catedral de Santa María and the Interpretation Centre of the Fortifications of Pamplona.
The ultimate weekend getaway for cheese fans is to follow the Basque Country’s cheese trail or the GR283. Although the whole trail takes around six days to complete, you could easily just do a small section of it during a weekend. Split into six stages – the last two are the best to do on a short weekend, and to get in as much cheese tasting as possible. Begin in the village of Lizarrusti, an hour and a half’s drive southeast of Bilbao and hike the traditional shepherds’ route to the Lareo Reservoir, dotted with impressive megaliths along the way. Pass through Oidui, with its many fields of sheep, Zaldibia, and finally to Ordizia, home to the main cheese market in the area. On day two, the walk takes you along the granite ridge of Txindoki and the historic village of Igartza. Take the route to Idiazábal, the village which gives its name to the local cheese here, and make a stop at the Idiazábal Cheese Visitor Centre. The trail ends in the historic centre of Segura.
Approximately 75 kilometres southeast of Bilbao, not far from the capital of the Basque Country – Vitoria-Gasteiz – lies the Aizkorri-Aratz Natural Park, an ideal getaway for those who love hiking and mountaineering. Here sit some of the highest summits in Cantabria, mountain pathways, meadows and river sources, as well as huge limestone karsts. Activities such as rock climbing, biking, potholing, bungee jumping, paragliding, canyoning and abseiling can also be organised here. You can camp here or stay overnight in a hotel in the small village of Arantzazu, where the entrance of the park is located.
Nature lovers won’t be disappointed with a trip to the UNESCO-listed Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, an area of outstanding natural beauty, located just over an hour northeast of Bilbao, along the coast. At the heart of the reserve is the River Oka, which meets the sea at the Urdaibai estuary, creating a vast wetland, home to many species of birds and other wildlife. Some of the types of birds you can spot here include spoonbills, Eurasian bittern and fish eagles –visit the Urdaibai Bird Center to learn more about them. The reserve is also home to some of the areas most wild and natural beaches – ideal for a spot of surfing.
Wine aficionados can’t visit the Basque Country and not make a trip to La Rioja, one of Spain’s most famous wine regions. Approximately one hour directly south of Bilbao lies the charming town of Haro, in the heart of La Rioja’s wine country – a good place to base yourself for a weekend of tastings, bodegas and vineyard tours. Vineyards surround the historic town, which is also home to a wine museum. If you’re here during the summer on July 29, don’t miss the famous Batalla del Vino festival, where participants enjoy the world’s largest wine fight – throwing thousands of litres all over each other.