Spain’s Basque Country Is Ready For Its Closeup

A slice of European heaven.

by Katy Spratte Joyce
Originally Published: 
Ondarroa skyline by Artibai river and bridge Latxambre in Biscay Basque Country of Spain

As the second most googled travel destination in the world last year, and a regular contender for the most-visited country, Spain is a well-known tourism hotspot. But, this year, go beyond its marquee cities (we see you, Madrid and Barcelona) and tap into something ultra special in the Basque Country. A scenic slice of northeastern Spain, the area is quickly developing into a must-visit spot for in-the-know travelers. In fact, one of its major metropoles, San Sebastián, was included on Fora Travel’s 2024 Hot List destinations. According to the modern travel agency, San Sebastián rose in the ranks to be a top five Spanish destination for the first time ever this year. “Calling all foodies. It is no exaggeration to say San Sebastián has the most incredible food scene I've ever experienced in my life,” Fora Advisor Anny Chen said in a press release.

But wait…what exactly is the Basque Country? For those unfamiliar, it’s an autonomous region with a strong cultural identity and ancient language that stretches over four provinces in Spain and another three across the border of France. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Basque Country is geographically bounded by the Bay of Biscay to the north and the autonomous communities of Navarra to the east, La Rioja to the south, and Cantabria to the west. The Pyrenees Mountains separate the region from the Basque Country of France to the northeast.

Ross Thomason, Fora Travel’s head of training and development, explains, “Most people have never heard of the Basque region, but it’s gaining in popularity because it aligns with multiple trends in travel, like culinary tourism, getting off the beaten path and into second or even third cities, and exposure to niche cultures, communities, and languages. This delightful area might be one of Europe’s most underrated destinations, but thanks to a new luxury tourism program, visitors can plan an upscale vacation easier than ever before. So if you’re looking for a smart, elevated European getaway that still feels a bit off-the-radar, this is it. Here’s how to make the most of a Basque Country escape.


Where To Stay

With unparalleled views of the beautiful La Concha Bay, new kid on the block Nobu San Sebastián debuted in August of 2023 to much-deserved fanfare. Though it’s in the heart of the city, this 17-room boutique property still feels a world away from the bustling Miraconcha Promenade. Nobu San Sebastián perfectly marries Japanese minimalism with the distinct Basque Country feel and includes a full fitness center, open terrace breakfast spot, and world-class eatery. (Don’t miss the yuzu twist on traditional Basque cheesecake!) Rooms boast surprising features like custom-designed closets, which open to reveal instantly iconic ruby-red interiors. It’s almost too pretty of a property to depart, but drag yourself away to explore all that the Basque Country has to offer. You won’t be disappointed.

Plug Into Basque Country Confidential

This region is particularly well-suited for luxury travelers, with a slew of Michelin-starred eateries, high-end shops, and elegant hotels. Now, it’s even easier to navigate with the debut of the "Basque Country Confidential" program, run by the local tourism board, which labels premium tourism products like the aforementioned luxury hotels, upscale tours, bespoke shops, and high-end wineries. These spots offer sophisticated experiences and have to re-earn this certification yearly, too. Try an authentic, chef-lead cooking class, sleep in a former palace-turned-hotel, visit a fashion icon’s hometown museum, savor the aforementioned Basque cheesecake where it was invented, shop at a sister-owned boutique, and sip the region’s effervescent wine, Txakoli, at Bodega Berroja. Topa.


Experience The Bilbao Effect

Don’t miss the awe-inspiring Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, which began a tidal wave of transformational development in the former industrial port city. 2023 marked 25 years since its long-heralded premiere, and in the decades since Bilbao has emerged as an international art capital. Fora Travel’s Thomason expands, “Most people do a bit of a circuit from Bilbao to see the Guggenheim, which is truly the primary driver of culture and art in the region. It opened in the ’90s and transitioned Bilbao from a down-and-out industrial hub to a cultural center.” The Gehry-designed museum is a beacon of contemporary art and boasts a stunning collection of works from Jenny Holzer, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois, Mark Rothko, Richard Serra, El Anatsui, and more. It is a must-visit on any Basque Country itinerary. Pro tip: Crash at the Gran Hotel Domine, just across the street, to enjoy prime views of the famed outdoor Puppy sculpture and the dazzling modern architecture of the museum.

Have A Michelin Moment

A great food scene is another major reason to visit the region in 2024. “Everyone will say food is the big draw to the Basque Country right now, and culinary tourism is certainly strong with numerous Michelin-rated restaurants,” shares Ross Thomason, head of training and development at Fora Travel. “I call this the Anthony Bourdain effect. [One of his last episodes] ever filmed was [in] San Sebastián,” he adds. The city is home to 16 Michelin stars, making it the highest concentration of Michelin restaurants in all of Europe. Of Spain's nine restaurants with three stars, a trio are in San Sebastián and the surrounding area alone: Arzak, Akelarre, and Martín Berasategui. Make sure to book in advance, as these are coveted reservations that can be hard to snag with little notice.

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