The Basque Country is arguably the best region for cycling in Spain. It has something for everybody; with beautiful countryside, interesting towns and arguably the finest gastronomy in the world.
The region is mostly situated in Northern Spain and forms a triangle around its three largest cities - Bilbao, San Sebastian and Vitoria-Gasteiz. It is the traditional heartland of cycling in Spain; home to the famous bike manufacturers Orbea and BH, as well as the Tour of the Basque Country professional race. The region is largely hilly, but a cyclist can easily choose between gently rolling routes and more challenging climbs.
This is an indepth guide to cycling in the region, with information about the terrain, the best towns, Basque culture and some of the finest cycling routes.
Basque Language & Gastronomy
One of the main factors that makes the Basque Country such a great cycling destination is the unique culture of the region. This is most evident in the Basque language, which is widely used in the region. Unrelated to any other language in the world, Euskera is the cornerstone of Basque culture and is now thriving after years of supression.
Euskera has created many words which are unique to the Basque Country and have no real translation. Many of these relate to the Basques favourite past-time - gastronomy. One of the most important is txotx which is used in reference to the cider season. Cider houses (sagardotegis) have traditionally played a key social role in many Basque communities - particularly in the eastern province of Guipuzkoa. They acted like a meeting place, similar to the local pub in the United Kingdom.
The Basque country is also home to the finest pintxos in the world and, as of 2015, was home to four of the best twenty restaurants in the world. The region is famous for its fish dishes, such as marmitako and also for its wines including rioja and txakoli.
Towns & Cities
The two standout cities in the Basque Country are Bilbao and San Sebastian; indeed our cycling holiday to the region goes from one to the other. The two cities are very different in character. Bilbao is a historically industrial city. Its port is one of the largest in Spain and also one of the major centres of finance and the mining industry in Spain. More recently, however, it has become a superb tourist destination. The undoubted star is the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum, but the narrow streets of the old town are also full of character and history.
San Sebastian has a much greater tourist tradition. The 2016 European Capital of Culture, San Sebastian is home to several beautiful beaches, including the world famous La Concha. It also hosts an international film festival and is one of Spain's principle cultural centres. The gastronomy in San Sebastian is among the best in the world, from the many michelin starred restaurants to the countless pintxos bars lining the old town.
The third provincial capital of the Basque Country - Vitoria-Gasteiz - is pleasant enough, but with far less to see and rather lacking the charm of Bilbao and San Sebastian. However, the real stars of the region are the smaller towns and villages. Along the coast, magical villages such as Lekeitio, Getaria and Hondarribia offer picture-postcard scenery with real charm and character, while Zarautz is home to the finest city beach in the region.
For history enthusiasts, Gernika is certainly worth a visit, as well as the inland towns of Oñati (home to the first Basque university) and Laguardia.
Cycling Routes in the Basque CountryAs you can see, there is plenty to see and do off the bike, but what is the region like for cycling? In a word, it is superb. There is a great variety of terrain with routes suitable for cyclists of all levels. The landscape is generally rolling, but it is certainly possible to find easy rides and very challenging rides, depending on what you are looking for. Here we look at four of our favourite rides - each of differing difficulty.
This short day ride is centered around the city of San Sebastian and is very flat and mostly off-road, making it easy for beginners. It begins from the bottom of Monte Igueldo on the western edge of the city and follows a cycle lane all the way along La Concha beach into the old town - where you can stop for a couple of pintxos and a glass of txakoli!
From here you head south along the river, staying on cycle lanes, until you reach the town of Astigarraga. Astigarraga is home to a cider museum and also the highest concentration of cider houses in the Basque Country. It makes a great place to stop for lunch and sample the traditional cider menu - Cod Omelette, Cod with Peppers, Barbecued T-Bone Steak and Idiazabal Cheese.
If you still have energy after lunch you could consider continuning inland to Tolosa - home to a dessert museum, which pays homage to the local tejas and cigarrillos which are produced here.
Rioja Wine Region
The Rioja wine region is situated where the regions of La Rioja, Castilla-y-León Navarra and the Basque Country all meet. The various areas are excellent for cycling, particularly in the spring and summer when the vines are out in force. Probably the finest ride is in the Basque part, which is just to the north of the Ebro River. The terrain here is rolling, with some short climbs, but nothing long or sustained, and the closer that you remain to the river, the easier it is.
Starting in the beautiful city of Logroña you can head north to historic Laguardia, before working your way through the delightful villages of Eltziego and San Vicente. Haro makes a nice place to end the ride, and here you could visit one of the most famous vineyards for a tasting of the world famous wine that is produced here.
More ambitious cyclists may be tempted to extend the route to include one of the beautiful climbs in the area, such as Herrera or La Aldea Starting from 2017 we are running a guided cycling tour around this region - check back soon for more details!
The most scenic cycling routes in the Basque Country follow the coast. These are what form the greatest part of our Guided and Self-Guided cycling holidays to the region. Some knowledge and preparation is essential, however, as some sections are busy and not great for cycling.
The terrain here is rolling, with mostly gentle inclines which often last 1-2km. There is little steep climbing and the altitude gained is just enough to reward you with spectacular views of the coastline.
The finest section is between Gernika and San Sebastian. For most cyclists, this is too far to ride in one day, particularly as the most direct way is not the best for riding. Instead, we recommend splitting it into three or four rides, stopping in the most beautiful towns, such as Lekeitio and Getaria. There are several route options, depending on how hilly you want to the route to be and also how important is for you to avoid traffic and use just quiet lanes.
As the name suggests, this is by far the hardest of our favourite routes in the Basque Country. There are many great cycling climbs in the region, and this route just features some of the best. Beginning in the town of Gernika, you head inland and tackle the second highest and the toughest climb in the Basque Country - Monte Oiz. This is a very tough ascent in the final few kilometres but is well worth the effort, with stunning views across the whole region from the top.
After a great descent from Oiz you can descend to Durango. Here is the option to climb the famous Puerto de Urkiola, a regular feature in the Tour of the Basque Country cycling race. This is quite a busy road though, so we would only advise climbing here if you don't mind sharing the road with traffic.
The final climb of this ride, situated slightly further along the valley is the legendary Arrate - one of the most used climbs in the world of professional cycling. Beginning from the industrial town of Eibar, it is short and fairly steep, with beautiful forested scenery lining its slopes.
There are many other possibilities to include other climbs as part of a longer route or on different days. Some of our favourites in the region include Orduña and Jaizkibel. Check out our Basque Climbs section for profiles, maps and information about all of the great climbs in the Basque Country.
Getting to the Basque CountryThe Basque Country is now very well connected with the rest of Europe. Bilbao is by far the largest airport, although San Sebastian and Biarritz-Bayonne also have international flights. Both Bilbao and San Sebastian are also easily reached by train from Madrid.
It is a great time to visit the region as, although its tourist profile is certainly growing, it is still quite under the radar, resulting in unspoilt natural scenery and a real authenticity to the culture.
Please don't hesitate to contact us if you would like any more information about cycling in the Basque Country, or if you are interested in one of our cycling holidays to the region.