A tale of two cities: Bilbao and San Sebastián (Donostia)

The third stage of our trip (see stage one and two here) was to visit San Sebastian and Bilbao to top up the wine levels and indulge in some artistic culture. The two cities provide real contrast to one another with Bilbao certainly having a more industrial feel compared to San Sebastian’s Victorian seaside glamour. However, both are chock full of beautiful things to eat and drink along with world class museums and galleries.

Getting your bearings in San Sebastian is easy with a short hike up Monte Urgull. The views from the top out into the Bay of Biscay make you feel like you are in a city on the edge of the world. Looking back over the town you can see the beautiful crescents of sand that make up the city’s two most famous beaches. Beyond the city there is a ring of hills hugging the city with nature.

The weather meant it was easy to justify whiling away time in the many, many pintxos bars of the old town and Gros. Further indoor delights were to be found in the Musee San Telmo, a museum stuffed full of ancient and modern Basque culture in a converted monastery. One of my favourite ‘exhibits’ was that the museum was due to hold a film premiere for the San Sebastian film festival which was due to start later that day – a sneak preview of this gave a real glimpse of the glamour San Sebastian is famed for.

However my most memorable San Sebastian moment came from a visit to Bar Garbola. Making a snap decision in the pouring rain to enter what looked potentially like a less than classy establishment was one of the best decisions of the trip. An ornate wood paneled bar contained all the spirits you could think of plus hundreds more. The owner Gregorio was Spain typified and a master of the cocktail. The cocktails were strong and the soundtrack which switched song approximately every 30 seconds encouraged swift drinking. We didn’t stay long (more than one cocktail on top of the wine consumed would have led to unmitigated disaster) but nonetheless I cannot think of a better cocktail bar in the world!

Ignore your instincts and get inside!

From San Sebastian we headed to Bilbao. The weather was no longer our friend. It became obvious that Bilbao was a city that was prepared for precipitation. Every building had an umbrella holder inside the door. People sported coordinated wet weather gear and umbrella combinations and there was the largest selection of umbrellas I have ever seen in the department stores. Umbrella and additional layers swiftly purchased we set out to explore Bilbao’s cultural attractions. We drank little beers in art deco cafes and lunched in modern pintxo bars before taking in the art delights of the Museo de Bellas Artes. When people think of Bilbao and art I would imagine that the Guggenheim is the first gallery that comes to mind. However definitely make time to visit both galleries. I enjoyed them equally for different reasons.

The next day it was still raining which suited us a-ok as we had planned to visit the Guggenheim. The building is truly unique and memorable. The exhibits were challenging and thoughtfully displayed. All together I’m not sure the experience felt as cohesive as the Museo de Bellas Artes but perhaps this was the point.

There were some culinary highs and lows in Bilbao. Being a highly touristed town one night we fell fowl of the age old tourist problem of being hungry, rained upon and desperate just to pick somewhere to eat. We made a bad choice – the signs were there from the beginning and we debated leaving before ordering. We definitely should have done, I can honestly say the meal at Kasco was one of the worst I have ever paid for. Obviously being British there was no complaining done just a swift exit and consumption of a large amount of wine to compensate. To balance this the previous evening had seen us eat at Bascook which was a truly memorable meal of loveliness in a stone cellar deep beneath the new town. Their lunch deal is an absolute steal and comes highly recommended.

Combining the two cities provided perfect contrasts in this fascinating region of Spain. I would have loved to spend more time in San Sebastian but it is not a cheap city so a bit of penny saving is necessary before heading back. Two days in Bilbao felt just right although with better weather I know there are plenty of day trips I would have liked to go on.

Definitely have a think about northern Spain for your next mini break destination. As I hope you can see it is an absolute corker!


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