They say that challenge breeds character, and in the case of the Spanish Basque Country—once known for its periods of rebellion and unrest—it certainly rings true. The region has blossomed into one that is at once fiercely independent and pleasantly under-the-radar. Nestled in the western Pyrenees near the French border, Basque Country offers everything from architectural wonders in Bilbao to next-level cuisine in San Sebastián and verdant hills in between.
Start in Bilbao, a once-gritty port city that morphed into a hotspot for art after the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997. Architecture enthusiasts will instantly recognize the glimmering titanium exterior dreamed up by Canadian–American architect Frank Gehry, but what’s inside the museum is equally worthy of adulation. Rather than resting on the laurels of an impressive permanent collection (which most notably features Jeff Koons’s ever-blooming Puppy outside), its floors are readied for such exploratory exhibitions as this past summer’s expansive showcase of contemporary Chinese art through the transformational past 30 years. This winter, it will do the same for a retrospective of expressionist sculptor Alberto Giacometti.
Just down the street from the museum sits the Miró Hotel—conveniently a click away on booking.com—a fittingly arty boutique hotel conceived by Catalan fashion designer Antonio Miró. Boasting floor-to-ceiling views of the Guggenheim, its showcase of photographers like Ruud van Empel and Ana Laura Alaéz is a not-to-miss highlight in each of the hotel’s 50 modernist rooms.
While you might be arted out after a day spent exploring the Guggenheim, it’s important to note that Bilbao’s art focus isn’t limited to its most famous museum. The city’s Arts District is also home to Azkuna Zentroa, a wine warehouse turned cultural complex redesigned by Philippe Starck, and Sala Rekalde, a contemporary art gallery dedicated to experiential art and local talents. Pop by before treating yourself to a first taste of pintxos, the Basque answer to tapas, at La Ribera, a restaurant and music venue located underneath Europe’s largest market. Using fresh ingredients from its upstairs neighbour, La Ribera offers up everything from desalted, candied, and shredded cod served with potato purée to white tuna finger rolls with mayonnaise.
With a sampling of the region’s cuisine under your belt, head over to San Sebastián, a vacation town first crowned as such by Queen Maria Christina in 1912. Located just an hour east of Bilbao, the city (which translates to “Donostia” in Basque) is home to three idyllic beaches and the world’s largest collection of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita.
There are a myriad of explanations for San Sebastián’s culinary superiority—one, that as a matriarchal society, importance was always placed on the kitchen, or another, that its lucky geographical position allows for the best fresh ingredients—but they all seem to fade in importance upon arrival at Arzak, arguably the most notable Michelin-approved restaurant of the bunch. The world-famous eatery has been a family-run affair since 1897, but it was made what it is today by Juan Mari Arzak, who now runs it alongside his daughter, Elena. Arzak is best experienced through innovative tasting menus that feature such Insta-ready highlights as seabass served atop an iPad with moving underwater images.
Michelin experience aside, you could easily skip the white tablecloths and join in on the inexplicably transformative experience of pintxos bar-hopping in the city’s old town. Narrow streets offer a variety of eateries known for their own specialties—the foie with applesauce at La Cuchara de San Telmo, the mushroom puff pastry at Casa Urola, the stuffed piquillo pepper at Bar Martinez, and the world’s best cheesecake at La Vina (visit early and often)—which you should wash down with a glass of regional txakoli wine.
Located a short distance from pintxos heaven is the equally magical Hotel Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection Hotel named after the aforementioned Queen of Spain, who attended its opening in 1912. From its Belle Époque exterior and decadent lobby to its sophisticated and sumptuous rooms, the historic hotel will make you wish you were a permanent resident. Ask for a balcony view of the Urumea River—you’ll feel as glamorous as some of the hotel’s most famous guests, which include everyone from Mata Hari to Bette Davis.
It’s hard to describe the splendour of San Sebastián, but perhaps it was already done by Cristóbal Balenciaga, the Basque-born couturier who famously altered the course of fashion with his sculptural masterpieces. A museum dedicated to his career beckons, calling for a day trip to Getaria, a nearby seaside village famed for its turbot, grilled in its entirety on outdoor ranges in the streets.
Once you go Basque, it’ll be hard to imagine a time when you thought Spain’s best highlights were Barcelona and Ibiza.