Should you visit Bilbao or San Sebastian on your trip to Spanish Basque Country? If you only have a short amount of time for your Basque itinerary, it can be hard to narrow down exactly where you may want to visit in this beautiful region. Both cities have a lot to offer visitors, but they also both provide different things and can have different appealing aspects.
It’s the above points that can make choosing between San Sebastian vs Bilbao especially difficult. If you don’t have the time to visit both cities, it can be tricky to know which one is going to suit your tastes more.
In general, Bilbao is best if you’re after a big city, want to visit the Guggenheim and enjoy an eclectic atmosphere. On the other hand, San Sebastian is ideal if you’re looking for a beachy vibe and want to indulge in Basque cuisine.
However, there is a lot more to unpack when deciding between Bilbao and San Sebastian to visit on your trip to Northern Spain.
Having spent time in both cities. we know what each can offer to the individual traveller. Weighing things like accessibility, affordability, cuisine and things to do, I will help make what seems like an impossible decision a bit easier.
Bilbao is a city that has seen a complete transformation in the past few decades. What used to be a gritty and industrial city is now an eclectic and artistic metropolis. Known for being home to its own branch of the Guggenheim, Bilbao also has much more to offer than some art museums.
If you’re simply planning a Basque itinerary or are looking for a quick city break, Bilbao is certainly the more accessible city when comparing it to San Sebastian. Home to its own international airport that, while small, does serve a number of airlines across Europe and beyond, arriving in Bilbao is quick and easy.
Bilbao is also accessible by bus and train and there are frequent connections from other nearby and major Spanish cities. The main train station is located in the city centre and is an easy walk (less than ten minutes) from all of the top sites of the old town. You can view schedules here.
Once in Bilbao, the city is incredibly easy to get around. While the residential areas surrounding the centre and Old Town can get quite hilly, the area close to the Bilbao Estuary, old and new towns are actually quite flat and easy to walk on. In fact, if you’re planning to stay within Bilbao the entire time you’re there, you will find that you could get around while relying on your own two feet.
If you don’t feel like walking everywhere, Bilbao also has a robust public transit system that consists of buses, trams and a metro.
You can use this easily by purchasing a Barik card (available at kiosks at all metro stations) and loading that with the money that you need for your journeys (you also only need one card per party, not one per person). The Bilbao metro reaches as far as Getxo and Sopelana, so you can very easily explore the Bilbao metro area using only public transit.
All in all, Bilbao has a more robust public transport system than San Sebastian but it is also very easy to get around on foot. It is also worth noting that it is a much larger city than San Sebastian, in general, so that is why it has more public transport options.
Another major consideration for those choosing between San Sebastian vs Bilbao would be the affordability of the city, however, there really isn’t too much of a difference between these two places.
In general, you may find that accommodation costs a bit closer to the city centre may be slightly less expensive in Bilabo over San Sebastian, however, it isn’t anything particularly notable.
If you’re budget-conscious and the affordability of the city is going to be your main determining factor, it may not be the easiest indicator to decide whether Bilbao or San Sebastian is the right city for you to visit.
One of the main reasons to visit the Basque Country is its world-renowned cuisine, however, that is frequently mostly attributed to San Sebastian. Converse to this, though, is that Bilbao also has a thriving food scene and its own fair share of Michelin-starred restaurants to give the other city a run for its money.
Though the pintxo was invented in San Sebastian, there is still a bustling pintxos scene in Bilbao. There are countless bars where you can sample the local delicacies and really get to know the cuisine.
Pintxos culture is also a bit different in Bilbao vs San Sebastian. It is more commonplace to order cold pintxos from behind the bar, for instance, whereas in San Sebastian, locals will generally suggest ordering hot pintxos off the menu.
Bilbao is also home to the lovely La Ribera Market. This was considered, at one time, to be one of the largest covered market halls and it is a great place to visit to see how lovely a fresh the local ingredients are.
There are also plenty of “gastro bars” on the ground floor. San Sebastian is in the process of renovating its main market, but as of now, it doesn’t have such an impressive market hall.
If you want to have a Michelin-starred dining experience, you will find that Bilbao is home to a whopping six Michelin-starred restaurants.
Though it doesn’t quite match up to San Sebastian’s 11 restaurants, it is still quite impressive and means that you can certainly have a memorable fine dining experience in Bilbao should you wish.
Things to do in Bilbao
Bilbao is a bigger city than San Sebastian, but does that mean there is more to do there? Well, it really depends on what you’re after.
Bilbao is obviously most well known for being home to the Guggenheim Museum, but there is quite a bit more to the city than simply that one museum. If you’re interested in classical art, there is also the high-rated Fine Arts Museum in Bilbao featuring works from Spanish and international old masters.
Apart from museums, there are plenty of things to do in the city that can easily occupy a few days, which is precisely why we recommend planning to spend 2 to 3 days in Bilbao.
The Old Town is lovely to explore, as is the gorgeous, cosmopolitan New Town. There are countless pintxos bars to sample and you can easily spend an afternoon or evening (or both!) hopping from bar to bar.
It is also worth taking the funicular up to Mount Artxanda and enjoying the views of the city below and the lovely park. Casilda Park in the New Town is also very much worth a visit.
Even if you don’t visit the inside of the Guggenheim, take the time to admire the incredible architecture of the Frank Gehry-designed building and the lovely Puppy sculpture outside. Speaking of architecture, the Zubizuri bridge is also interesting to look at.
You can also opt to hop on the metro and visit the city of Getxo at the mouth of the Bilbao Estuary and, if the weather allows for it, even all the way to Sopelana to enjoy one of the area’s finest beaches.
All in all, there is plenty to do in Bilbao and you’re certainly not going to be lacking activities if you choose to visit here.
Where to Stay in Bilbao
If Bilbao is the Basque city that seems to have won your heart, you’re going to need to find an accommodation option that suits your needs while in the city. If you’re wondering where to stay in Bilbao, have a look through these suggestions:
Hotel Gran Bilbao – This luxury hotel is a great option if you’re looking to splash the cash in Bilbao. Its central location is perfect for exploring the city and they have a number of lovely rooms available to ensure you have a great stay. Click here to see their availability
Hotel Bed4U Bilbao – If you’re looking for a mid-range hotel, this place is a great option and is going to be a little bit more friendly on your budget. It has a great, central location so you can walk to all of Bilbao’s top attractions, they have a range of rooms on offer and even have an on-site bar and fitness centre. Click here to see their availability
Latroupe la Granja – If you’re travelling solo or on a tight budget, then this central hostel is an excellent choice. They have both private and dorm rooms available, there are great common areas where you can meet other travellers and all rooms are ensuite. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental – If you want to live like a local in Bilbao, then a private apartment rental is an excellent choice. There are lots of properties to choose from – like this modern flat in the Old Town – that can suit all kinds of travel styles and budgets. Click here to browse Bilbao private rentals
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Bilbao hotels!
Once the summer residence of the Spanish royal family, San Sebastian is a beautiful little city on the sea. Boasting beautiful beaches, a great energy and some of the best restaurants in the world, choosing San Sebastian as your Basque destination is never a bad idea.
I am just going to come out and say it — San Sebastian is not as easy to access as Bilbao. In fact, if you want to visit as a city break destination, you are going to have to fly into Bilbao in order to access it. San Sebastian is located about 100 kilometres from Bilbao and it is easy to get there either via car, bus or train in roughly an hour.
Once you’re in San Sebastian, you will find that it is quite easy to get around on foot. While there is a bus network that you could use, this isn’t entirely necessary. The streets of the old town are pedestrianised and a joy to walk around and the city centre is mostly flat, meaning that it isn’t a problem to walk everywhere that you may want.
San Sebastian is also fairly compact, so the idea of using public transport isn’t really something you generally need to consider.
Though the city itself is incredibly pedestrian-friendly, you may find it easiest to rent a car if you want to visit some smaller towns and villages nearby to San Sebastian.
Contrary to Bilbao, where you can reach some areas outside of the city via the metro, this isn’t really an option in San Sebastian and it is something to keep in mind when trying to choose between the two cities. You can browse rental car options here.
As mentioned in the above section about Bilbao, San Sebastian isn’t necessarily any more or less expensive than Bilbao. Prices in the centre may be marginally more expensive than in Bilbao, it isn’t necessarily anything too drastic and shouldn’t really affect your travel budget much either way.
So if you’re trying to choose between San Sebastian or Bilbao and the affordability of the city is a major concern, then you would be fine with either place as the costs are roughly the same.
No one can write about San Sebastian without mentioning the food. Considered to be one of the gastronomic capitals in Europe, you can eat INCREDIBLY well in San Sebastian without breaking the bank – thanks to the phenomenal local pintxos bars churning out fantastic local delicacies and agreeable prices.
However, San Sebastian is known for having the highest concentration of Michelin-starred restaurants per capital in the entire world.
There are a total of eleven Michelin-starred restaurants in the city that have been awarded nineteen individual stars. So if you’re looking for an unforgettable fine dining experience, San Sebastian will have you spoilt for choice.
Even if you don’t opt to splash the cash as a fine dining restaurant, you can still have an incredible gastronomic experience in San Sebastian. The culture is a bit different than in Bilbao – pintxos bar hopping is more fast-paced and the concentration of bars is really something special.
It is also more the norm to order hot pintxos rather than the cold ones on display behind the counter. In fact, the best bars won’t have prepared dishes on display at all!
Each bar has its own speciality and the norm is to have a drink (enjoy a cider or a txakoli – a local sparkling white wine) and order one or two small plates before moving onto the next place. Pintxos aren’t necessarily lunch or dinner, but they definitely can be!
Though you certainly will be in for a culinary treat when visiting Bilbao, if you’re looking for a true gastronomic destination, then San Sebastian is your city!
Things to do in San Sebastian
So what is there to do in San Sebastian? Quite a bit for such a small city – in fact, you can easily spend 2 or 3 days in San Sebastian and not be bored at all. Alternatively, it is also possible to visit San Sebastian on a day trip and see some of the highlights.
Obviously, the Old Town of San Sebastian is one of the greatest highlights of the city. There are a lot of sites to see here and it is also incredibly nice to simply stroll through and grab a few pintxos at a couple of the bars here.
Another major attraction is La Concha Beach and Promenade. This is a beautiful promenade along San Sebastian’s biggest beach and it is absolutely lovely.
If you’re interested in trying your hand at surfing (or simply want to watch some people catch the waves), then make sure to head to Zurriola Beach in the trendy Gros neighbourhood. Gros is also a great place to explore and find some more local places to eat.
It is also well worth riding the antique funicular up to Monte Igeldo. The funicular was built in 1912 and has a lovely, old school feel to it. Monte Igeldo is home to a small amusement park including a wooden roller coaster that juts out over the Bay of Biscay.
If you’re interested in learning more about Basque history, then make sure to head to the San Telmo museum in order to learn about the culture and history of this fascinating ethnic group.
All in all, there are countless things to do in San Sebastian and you won’t be bored spending time here in the slightest.
Where to Stay in San Sebastian
If you’ve determined that San Sebastian is the place for you, then you’re going to need to find a great place to rest your head. If you’re wondering where to stay in San Sebastian, have a look at these suggestions:
Hotel Boutique Villa Favorita – This swanky hotel is an excellent choice if you’re after a luxury hotel in San Sebastian. Centrally located on La Concha Promenade, they have a number of great rooms available and the perfect location for exploring all this beautiful city has to offer. There is also an on-site bar and free parking for guests! Click here to see their availability
Hotel Villa Katalina – This hotel is an excellent choice in San Sebastian if you’re looking for a solid mid-range option. Situated within easy walking distance of all of the city’s top attractions, they have a number of lovely rooms available and plenty of amenities to ensure you have a great stay. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental – If you’d like to experience San Sebastian like a local, then a private rental is an excellent choice for you. Places like this sunny apartment near La Concha beach can give you a great idea of what it might be like to live in this beautiful Basque city. Click here to browse more San Sebastian rentals
Surfing Etxea – This hostel located in the Gros neighbourhood is a great choice for all those budget and solo travellers – or simply those looking for a social atmosphere. They have both dorm and private rooms available and this hostel is great for those who want to try their hand at surfing or simply want an affordable and amicable place to meet other travellers! Click here to see their availability
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more San Sebastian hotels!
Bilbao or San Sebastian: The Verdict
So should you plan to visit Bilbao or San Sebastian on your trip to the Basque Country? As outlined above, both cities have a lot to offer visitors and are very much worth visiting in their own right. However, if you’re only able to choose one of these lovely places, then you need to weigh a few things.
If you’re interested in a big-city vibe, love art museums and an eclectic atmosphere, then Bilbao is the place for you. Bilbao also allows visitors to explore a bit outside of the city centre while still relying on its public transit system. As home to its own international airport, it is also easier to reach from abroad.
If you want to eat your weight in Basque delicacies while enjoying a delightful, beachy vibe, then San Sebastian is an excellent option. San Sebastian is also smaller and can seem a bit more manageable to get around, however, it is more popular with tourists so you will have to contend with a few more crowds here.
Regardless of whether you choose to visit San Sebastian or Bilbao, there really is no bad choice. Both of these Basque cities make excellent destinations and have so much to offer visitors.
Are you trying to choose between San Sebastian and Bilbao? Have any questions about either city? Let us know in the comments!