Face Off: Bilbao vs. San Sebastian, Which Is the Better City?
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
If you're looking for a travel base in the Basque region of northern Spain, this is the perfect guide for you. I compare the attributes of the Basque region's two premiere cities -- Bilbao and San Sebastian -- and help you decide which one is the better city and a better base for Spain.
San Sebastian, of course, has the glitzy reputation as a revered foodie beach town. As we prepared for a trip through northern Spain, my travel partner was already biased in the city's favor. She moodily declared that Bilbao was just "an industrial city" and that San Sebastian was the "holy grail."
Honestly, that's what most people think. They automatically default to objectively beautiful San Sebastian, lulled by its hyped reputation as a beachy playground, and skip or de-value the less glamorous Bilbao.
But my pre-trip research suggested the opposite. I thought that Bilbao would be the better destination of the two cities. As we visited each city, I kept tabs and now report my findings below.
To my mind, Bilbao is the clear winner for best city in northern Spain and a perfect destination for a geographical cure. Bilbao is a cosmopolitan mountain city teeming with art, architecture, great food, and a decidedly pleasant lack of tourists. Bilbao's a rock star, while San Sebastian is a pretty but over-touristed smaller resort town without much that passes for actual culture.
Let's break it down:
Bilbao vs San Sebastian: What's the Better City?
1. Old Quarter Vibe: Bilbao Wins Handily
Casco Viejo is the atmospheric old town of Bilbao. At is heart, are its original "seven streets," las siete calles, which are pedestrianized streets dating from the 15th century.
They teem with lively and quirky cafes, pintxos bars, shops, and tiny squares. Locals mix with tourists and there is definitely Basque energy flowing. Even in a touristy square like the arcaded neoclassical Plaza Nuevo, you can find locals.
One of my favorite moments was sipping wine at the Cafe Bar Bilbao in Plaza Nuevo. At an adjacent table was a stag party of senior men. They were telling stories, drinking liberally, slapping each other on the back, laughing boisterously -- all with a certain elegant but passionate Spanish flair. It was nice to be part of a real city, rather than just part of the tourist gibe. In moments like this, the destination reveals itself.
Connected to Casco Viejo is nearby La Vieja, nicknamed Bilbi, another ancient part of the city. Bilbi has a hipster vibe and is Bilbao's trendiest district. Full of funky bars, art galleries, and boutique, it will keep you entertained and busy.
San Sebastian has a pretty old town too, Parte Vieja, though I found it fairly underwhelming. It is much smaller than Bilbao's Casco Viejo and the sites will be quickly exhausted.
San Sebastian was also crammed to the gills with tourists in season, while Bilbao was relatively stress free. My travel partner, who had gushed about San Sebastian, was horrified by the crowds and almost immediately wanted to leave. The words "f*cking tourist trap" issued forth at regular intervals. No doubt, San Sebastian more charming off season.
San Sebastian does have a duck shop, though, so there's that.
2. Food: San Sebastian Slight Edge
You can happily fill your stomach on wine and excellent food in either city, but San Sebastian probably has a slight culinary edge.
San Sebastian is frequently called the "food capitol of the world" and has three restaurants with the rarest of accolades: a three star Michelin rating. It has more Michelen starred restaurants per capita then any place in the world. The big three with the most buzz are:
Akelarre - Paseo Padre Orcoloaga, 56, 20008 San Sebastian
Arzak - Avenida Alcalde Jose Elosegi / Jose Elosegi Alkatearen Hiribidea, 273, 20015 San Sebastian
Martin Berasategui - Calle de Loidi, 4, 20160 Lasarte-Oria
Aside from its high end restaurants, San Sebastian also has dazzling Basque-style tapas known as "pintxos," which is pronounced peen-cho. What are pintxos, you're thinking. Pintxos are tapas-like:
"usually small pieces of bread, topped with a variety of different ingredients – anything from Spanish ham, prawns and anchovies to cheese, chorizo or wild mushroom croquettes. They are usually speared with sticks and placed along the bar for diners to come and help themselves, and cost between €1-3 each. At the end of the night, your sticks are counted up, and you pay your bill."
But in the summer months, along Calle 31 de Agosto, you'll be standing, in a crowded room, getting pushed and shoved by other tourists while you eat. So the pintxos may be divine, but the atmosphere may be stifling.
Bilbao provides fierce competition. Bilbao has 22 Michelin starred restaurants, including one three starred restaurant, and is considered a foodie haven. Azurmendi, with its three Michelin stars, is the jewel in Bilbao and alone is worth a trip to city. Restaurant Mina is another deserving recipient of a Michelin star.
Aside from these two heavy hitters, Bilbao also has fabulous local restaurants, many scattered throughout its old town. And, like San Sebastian, has innovative pintxos at Irrintzi, La Vina Del Ensacnche, Iruna, and Ledesma No 5.
3. Art: Bilbao Slam Dunk
Are you kidding? Is it even worth discussing? Slam dunk for Bilbao when it comes to art scenes and culture.
Who can argue with the emblematic Guggenheim Museum? Frank Gehry's twisting shimmering museum is the star of Bilbao. The building itself is renowned and dramatic. Both inside and out, it's an awe-inspiring blend of titanium, glass, and limestone.
Some claim the building is "all there is" to the museum. Nonsense.
For starters, there are dramatic outdoor sculptures. There's Puppy, a gigantic 1992 sculpture vertical garden by Jeff Koons, which towers near the entrance. Though intended to be temporary, Bilbao loved it so much that it adopted as its own. Behind the museum is Louise Bourgeois’ Maman a massive 30 foot bronze, steel and marble spider.
On the inside, there are treats as well. My favorite was the sculpture A Matter of Time by Richard Serra. The undulating minimalist sculpture takes up an entire chunk of the museum and is meant to encourage viewers to move around -- and sometimes on, in, and through -- the work and encounter it from multiple perspectives, creating an unforgettable, dizzying feeling of space in motion.
Among other things, the museum also owns one of my favorite Chagall paintings, The Birthday, and a luminous Rothko, Untitled, from 1952-53.
If you're not a fan of modern art, no problem. Just veer over to the Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao in the new town, the Museo de Bellas Arles. There, you'll find a fine collection of classical art, Basque painting, and modern art. You'll also find some more contemporary masters -- Kiefer, Richter, Basquiat, Still, and Bacon. There are also temporary exhibits that attract discerning viewers as well.
Museums or art in San Sebastian? Eh, well, there is a museum that features Basque history, the San Telmo Museum, housed in a 16th century cloister, which is interesting but not exactly mind blowing art. There's an aquarium. An aquarium? Does anyone want to Europe to see aquariums?
Not me, for sure.
4. Architecture: Bilbao Slam Dunk
Bilbao is architecturally magnificent, anchored by the Guggenheim Bilbao. But there's so much more to be seen.
There's the Gothic Santiago Cathedral, built in the 14th and 15th centuries. There's the imposing La Sale (the "red bridge") arching over the river, the Zuberini Bridge (the "white bridge"), the cultural center Azkuna Zentroa, the Teatra Arraiga, and the grand La Ribera Market (Europe's largest covered market).
Outside of old town, there's a UNESCO site, the 19th century Vizcaya Bridge. It was the first bridge to carry people and traffic on a high suspended gondola, and one of the iconic architectural construction of the industrial age. You can even drive or walk on it in a suspended gondola.
San Sebastian? Well, it does have some nice churches and elegant art nouveau buildings with filligried balconies, to be sure. But most of San Sebastian was destroyed by the French in the 19th century and re-built. So much of the city is a recreation that lacks the ancient quality of Bilbao.
And in lieu of eye catching modern architecture, San Sebastian has a lot of casinos and luxury hotels. Not sure it rates as a cultural giant in my mind, despite the great press to the contrary. Indeed, it makes me wonder what precisely is meant by "culture." Surely not just a few attractive building facades and the occasional festival?
5. Beaches: Tie
A tie, you say? With San Sebastian having the world famous La Concha?
In the abstract, La Concha is undoubtedly a beautiful crescent of golden sand. But it is still a city beach, which means it is covered not just with sand but with people. Far too many people for my taste.
La Concha rarely looks this blissful:
More often, especially during the summer months, it is hard to find space for your towel or beach chair.
When I saw La Concha, which I'm sure effected my assessment of it to some degree, it was a rainy day. The beach looked more gray than golden. But I still preferred this view to the one above with people unappealingly crammed elbow to elbow.
I admit that walking along San Sebastian's glamorous promenade with the sea in your eyes and wind in your hair is quite appealing, even on a gloomy day, especially if you stop for a seaside espresso at a cafe.
And what does Bilbao, a mountain city, have to offer in the way of beaches, you wonder? Surprisingly, a lot. There are quite a few beaches within only a 30-60 minute range, some conveniently reached by metro.
My favorite was just 30 minutes away: the lovely Sopalena Beach, where cliffs drop into the ocean. Here, swimming is mandatory and nudity is optional. When we arrived around 10:00 am, it was completely deserted and mostly stayed that way. If you don't want to swim, a hike along the cliffs yields stunning views.
To me, this was altogether a much better experience than the famous La Concha.
Even nearby Bakio Beach, outside San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, was more pleasant than La Concha.
6. Day Trips: Bilbao Wins
There are myriad possible day trips from Bilbao, depending on your willingness to drive and particular area of interest. Here is a solid list, with time estimates for getting there:
San Sebastian (1:15)
Castro Urdiales (:30)
Santillana del Mar (1:30)
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (:45)
The Painted Forest of Oma (:40)
Gorbeia Natural Park (1:30)
La Rioja region (1:40)
My favorite day trip from Bilbao was to the stunning and wild San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, where you take a long hike over an ancient man made stone bridge to a hermitage church and bask in unfiltered natural beauty. If you're a Game of Thrones fan, you'll recognize Gaztelugatxe as Daenerys Targaryen's ancestral home, Dragonstone, from the hit HBO show.
I also adored Santillana del Mar, a charming medieval Cantabrian town that looks like a film set. There, I snacked on chocolate and churros and witnessed an actual religious procession march down the main pedestrianized street to the Colegiate, one of the oldest religious buildings in Spain.
I combined Santillana del Mar with the village of Comillas in pursuit of one of Gaudi's most colorful creations: El Capricho, a jewel of European modernism and one of the first buildings he ever designed. It's a rare Gaudi building outside his modernist architecture in Barcelona.
There are also good options for day trips from San Sebastian, including:
Biarritz France (:45 min)
Painted Forest of Oma (1:15)
In general, Bilbao is just more centrally located for siteseeing in the Basque and Cantabrian regions of Spain. True, you can day trip to Basque France from San Sebastian. But there are many more options from Bilbao that are less glitzy than Biarritz, which is almost another version of San Sebastian with inferior food.
7. Tourists Hordes: Bilbao is Much Less Congested
Is there more that even needs to be said?
San Sebastian is packed wall to wall, and jowl to jowl, with tourists. It's a town designed to please tourists, and so attracts many -- especially glamor seeking wealthy tourists and royals. Fed up with tourists, the locals have begun protesting, much like in Venice and Dubrovnik.
If you don't like "big cities" (Bilbao is actually a small city and eminently walkable) and opt for San Sebastian, you'll be beset with tourists at every step. I'm not even sure I saw a local apart from someone handing me something tasty.
In stark contrast, Bilbao is designed to please the locals, not tourists. It has more authenticity without the congested hassle of a tourist town.