Exploring Spain’s Basque Country and La Rioja: A Culinary and Cultural Delight

By Ralph Velasco

When it comes to Spain, most travelers think of iconic destinations like Barcelona, Madrid, or the beaches of the Costa del Sol. But if you’re seeking a different kind of Spanish experience, one that’s rich in culinary delights, vibrant culture, and picturesque landscapes, look no further than the Basque Country and La Rioja region. These neighboring regions in the northern part of Spain, on the Bay of Biscay, offer a unique blend of traditions, flavors, and history that will leave you enchanted. Let’s explore the best things to do in this lesser-known, but utterly captivating part of Spain.

1. Savor Pintxos in San Sebastián

San Sebastián, or Donostía in Basque, is often hailed as the culinary capital of Spain. Start your journey by exploring the Old Town’s narrow streets, where you’ll find countless pintxos bars. These bite-sized culinary creations are a Basque specialty, and each bar offers its unique twist. Try classics like Gilda (olive, anchovy, and pepper) or venture into more adventurous flavors. Don’t forget to pair them with a glass of local Txakoli wine (and marvel at the way the bartender pours it)..

2. Visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao

Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is a masterpiece of contemporary architecture. Even if you’re not an art enthusiast, the building itself is worth a visit. Inside, you’ll find a world-class collection of modern and contemporary art. Explore the exhibits, and be sure to take a moment to admire Jeff Koons’ “Puppy,” a giant floral sculpture at the museum’s entrance.

3. Wander the Streets of Bilbao’s Old Quarter

After the museum, stroll through Bilbao’s charming Casco Viejo (Old Quarter). This historic area is a maze of narrow streets filled with colorful buildings, boutique shops, and delightful cafes. It’s a great place to savor a Basque-style lunch or simply people-watch.

4. Wine Tasting in La Rioja

La Rioja is Spain’s premier wine region, renowned for its exceptional red wines, particularly Tempranillo. Visit renowned wineries like Marqués de Riscal (another Gerhy masterpiece) and Bodegas Ysios (by Calatrava) to explore their cellars and enjoy tastings. The picturesque vineyards and the stunning architecture of these wineries make for a memorable experience.

5. Explore the Rioja Alta Towns

While in La Rioja, explore the charming towns of Haro and Briones. Haro, known as the “Wine Capital of La Rioja,” hosts the famous Batalla del Vino (Wine Battle) each June. Briones boasts historic architecture and the absolutely fabulous Vivanco Museum of Wine Culture, which is a must-visit for wine enthusiasts.

6. Hike in the Basque Countryside

Basque Country is not just about food and cities; it’s also home to stunning natural beauty. Lace up your hiking boots and explore the scenic landscapes of the Basque countryside. The Urkiola Natural Park, near Durango, offers a range of hiking trails suitable for various skill levels. Or visit a portion of the Camino del Norte, section of which is paved with 2,000 year old Roman stones that you can see till this day.

7. Visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

This iconic spot on the Basque coast is a must-visit. A picturesque stone bridge leads to a small hermitage perched on a rocky islet. The views from the top are breathtaking, and it’s a popular spot for Game of Thrones fans as it served as a filming location.

8. Experience Basque Festivals

If your visit coincides with a local festival, consider yourself lucky. Basque Country is known for its vibrant fiestas, featuring traditional music, dance, and Basque sports like stone lifting (herri kirolak). The San Fermín festival in nearby Pamplona is world-famous for its running of the bulls.

9. Try Basque Cider

Venture into the apple orchards of Astigarraga and partake in a traditional Basque cider house experience. Enjoy a hearty meal of bacalao (salt cod), steak, and local cheese, all while tasting the region’s cider poured directly from wooden barrels.

10. Discover the Basque Language and Culture

Basque, or Euskara, is a unique language with no known linguistic relatives. Immerse yourself in the local culture by trying to pick up a few Basque phrases and engaging with the warm and welcoming Basque people.

11. Go Hiking and Vineyard Tours

In conclusion, Spain’s Basque Country and La Rioja offer a captivating blend of culinary excellence, cultural richness, and natural beauty. Whether you’re indulging in pintxos in San Sebastián, sipping wine in La Rioja, or hiking in the Basque countryside, this region promises a memorable journey. 

So, pack your bags and get ready to savor the flavors and culture of this hidden gem in Spain. ¡Buen viaje! (Safe travels!)

If you’d like to see this region for yourself, consider joining us on my Northern Spain and La Rioja experience, it’s like no other!

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