Cycle Touring in the Basque Country

The Basque Country is one of the best regions for cycling in Spain. We have run cycling holidays there for many years and never tire of the incredible scenery, fascinating towns and delicious food.

The region is mostly situated in Northern Spain and forms a triangle around its three largest cities - Bilbao, San Sebastian and Vitoria-Gasteiz. It's the traditional heartland of cycling in Spain; home to the famous bike manufacturers, as well as the Tour of the Basque Country professional race. The region is largely hilly, but offers cyclists both rolling routes and more challenging climbs.

Green Scenery in the Basque Country.
In this guide we give an introduction to the Basque country; its culture and some of its traditions. And we provide examples of four great cycling routes that you can do, which are taken from our Bilbao to San Sebastian and Rioja & Basque cycling holidays.

Basque Culture & 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.

The language has experienced a real renaissance in recent years, having been banned for much of the 20th century. The fascist government of Francisco Franco associated the language with the Basque resistance movement to his rule, and looked to stamp it out and make it extinct.

Euskera has created many words which are unique to the Basque Country and often have no direct translation. Some of these relate to the other cornerstone of Basque culture: its gastronomy.

One of the most important of these is the short word txotx. Txotx relates to the cider season and the various celebrations involved in it. Cider houses (sagardotegis) have traditionally played a key social role in many Basque communities - particularly in the eastern province of Guipuzkoa. Throughout much of history they have acted like a meeting place, similar to the local pub in the United Kingdom. But they have also had a political role, in promoting the values and ideas of an independent Basque country.

Cider House Txotx

Enjoying txotx in a Cider House

Today they provide the most authentic Basque gastronomic experience. If you go to the outskirts of San Sebastian, in a town like Astigarraga you can go for lunch in the cider house and experience the unique menu, which is the same in all of them. Involving plenty of chorizo, cod, steak, cheese and cider, it's a real hearty feast in a beautiful traditional setting.

As well as cider, The Basque country is also home to the finest pintxos in the world. These elaborate creations are at their most spectacular in the cities of Bilbao and San Sebastian, but they can be found throughout the region, and are best eaten as an evening snack alongside a drink. Other typical Basque dishes often focus around cod or other sea food. The fish stew marmitako and the simple Bacalao a la Vizcaína are both well worth trying. The region is home to many Michelin star restaurants as well, including some that are regularly named amongst the finest in the world. Check out our pages on Bilbao and San Sebastian for more details.

In terms of drinks; the most popular local wine in much of the region is txakoli, which is a young lightly sparkling white wine. It is produced in vineyards close to the coast and has quite a distinctive flavour. More famous internationally, the southern part of the Basque country is also home to much of the Rioja wine region. Here you can find some of the finest red wines produced anywhere in Europe.

Pintxos in Bilbao

Pintxos in Bilbao

Basque 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.

Guggenheim Museum - Bilbao

Guggenheim Museum - Bilbao

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 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. It is most well known for being bombed by Hitler's Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War, but it was also the former capital of the Basque Country and has a great local tradition, centered around its parliament oak tree.

Gernika Oak Tree

The Basque parliament met under the oak tree in Gernika

Several of the villages in the region also have a connection with significant international personalities and events. The stunning town of Getaria was home to both the fashion designer Cristobal Balenciaga, and also the explorer Juan Sebastian Elkano. Elkano was the first man to circumnavigate the globe - completing the voyage started by Ferdinand Magellan in the early 16th century.

Inland from Getaria, the town of Loyola is something of a curiosity. It houses a huge church, which seems out of proportion with the size of the town. The reason behind this is because it was the home town of Ignatius of Loyola - the founder of the Jesuits. This counter-reformation movement promoted the traditional values of the Catholic church and had a profound impact throughout Europe in the Early Modern period.

Loyola Cathedral

Loyola - the home of the Jesuit movement

Cycling Routes in Basque Country

Below are four cycling routes that we have designed in the region which showcase some of the highlights of the Basque country. The first one is a short tour of San Sebastian with a focus on the gastronomy.

The second route visits historic Gernika and explores the stunning coast of the Urdaibai Biosphere, before finishing in the picturesque fishing village of Lekeitio. The third route heads into the south of the Basque country to the Rioja wine region. It explores some of the smaller villages on the very edge of the region which are home to the most renowned wineries in Spain.

The final route is a more challenging one which showcases the beautiful mountainous scenery of the region. It tackles some of the most famous climbs in professional races.

All of the routes include a link to Ride with GPS so that you can explore them in full and download it to your GPS or phone if you wish. Please note that all of the suggestions and routes on this page are for information purposes only and are to be used at your own risk.

Atlantic Coast

The dramatic Atlantic coastline

1.) San Sebastian: Cider Houses

San Sebastian: Cider Houses Map

View interactive route and download on Ride with GPS

This short day ride is centered around the city of San Sebastian and is adapted from a route on our Bilbao to San Sebastian cycling holiday. It is mostly on off-road cycle paths, making it a good choice for beginners or for families.

The route is 25km long and begins on the main La Concha beach in San Sebastian. From there it heads inland on cycle routes and climbs a small hill, giving fine views of the city and taking you to the edge of the beautiful Basque countryside.
La Concha Beach

La Concha Beach - San Sebastian

One of the highlights is the town of Astigarraga, which is home to numerous traditional cider houses (as well as the 3-Michelin Star Restaurant Mugaritz). The ride reaches the Cider Museum which is worth a tour, and they can let you know the lunch options for the day.

From Astigarraga, you ride along cycle lanes back into the heart of San Sebastian. The route loops around the old town and underneath the city castle, with fine views of the ocean. And it heads along some of the best streets for pintxos in the city!

We recommend taking your time on this easy going route, stopping frequently to experience all the culinary delights of the city!
Basque Cider House Menu

One of the courses of the traditional cider house menu

2. Rioja Wine Region

Basque - Rioja Route Map

View interactive route and download on Ride with GPS

This medium length ride is adapted from our Rioja & Basque cycling holiday. It is a rolling ride through the vineyards of the Rioja wine region, with the chance to visit some of the best known vineyards in Spain including Marques de Riscal and Ramon Bilbao.

Spain's most famous wine region; Rioja is actually split between the provinces of the Basque Country, Navarre and (surprisngly enough!) La Rioja. It's all centered around the fertile plains of the Ebro River and the terrain here is undulating with some short hills, mixed in with much more gently rolling sections.
Rolling Countryside

Rolling countryside through the Rioja vineyards

Much of the region is great for cycling; but we particularly like this stretch to the north of the Ebro River. It starts and finishes in the capital of the Rioja region - Logroño - but most of the ride is through the Basque part.

The ride follows quiet lanes through the vineyards and passes through historic villages such as Eltziego and Laguardia. In these, and other towns, there are dozens of wineries of all sizes where you can enjoy a tasting.

For further information about visiting the Rioja wine region - check out our complete cycle touring guide to the region. Here you can find more information about the gastronomy, the wineries, the history of Rioja and also more cycling routes.

3. Basque Coastal Route

Basque Coast Route Map

View interactive route and download on Ride with GPS

This medium length ride is adapted from our Basque Country Coast cycling holiday. It is 35km long with rolling hills and one slightly longer climb, but it is easy enough to be suitable for riders of most levels.

The ride begins in the historic city of Gernika, not far from the oak tree that represents the history of the Basque parliament. It follows the coast around to the fishing town of Lekeitio, home to a stunning beach and a charming old town.

In our opinion, this is the best part of the Basque Coast to ride (there are other great sections of the coast, but also some which are best avoided due to the traffic). The stunning scenery, lack of traffic, picturesque villages and gently rolling roads make it a real pleasure to cycle.

Basque Coastal Route

The Urdaibai Estuary - part of the coastal route

4. Great Climbs of the Basque Country

Climbs of the Basque Country Map

View interactive route and download on Ride with GPS

As the name suggests, this is a more challenging route, which tackles some of the best hill climbs in the Basque Country. Starting and finishing in the industrial city of Eibar, this is one for fans of quiet roads, challenging gradients, sweeping descents and incredible mountain views.

The first climb of the day is the ascent of Arrate - the star of the show of the Tour of the Basque Country professional race. Its sharp gradients are a nice way to warm up, before you tackle four more climbs, all in quick succession.

Arrate is followed by Urkarregi, Azurki, Elosua, and Karabieta, all before returning to Eibar.

These are classic climbs of the Basque country - not as hard as those in high mountains like the Pyrenees or Alps, but there are a lot of them in quick succession!
Arrate View

View over the Basque countryside from Arrate

More Information

This has been a fairly basic introduction to the Basque Country and we hope you have found it useful. There is so much more to discover about the region though, both on and off the bike, and so we strongly recommend visiting here, whether you come on one of our tours or explore it by yourself.

Below you can also find links to the various cycling holidays that we run in the region. And please don't hesitate to get in touch with us if you have any questions or would like any further info.

Basque Coast Beach
Basque Flag Spanish FlagSpain

Guided Cycling Holiday
Length: 7 Days
Level: Difficulty Easy to Medium
Price: €1,760 EUR
*Bike Hire Included

Rioja Vineyards
Basque Flag Spanish FlagSpain

Guided Cycling Holiday
Length: 7 Days
Level: Difficulty Easy to Medium
Price: €1,640 EUR
*Bike Hire Included

Monte Igeldo - San Sebastian
Basque Flag Spanish FlagSpain

Self-Guided Cycling Holiday
Length: 7 Days
Level: Difficulty Easy to Medium
Price: from €1,570 EUR
*Bike Hire Included

Rioja Vineyards
Basque Flag Spanish FlagSpain

Self-Guided Cycling Holiday
Length: 7 Days
Level: Difficulty Easy to Medium
Price: from €1,570 EUR
*Bike Hire Included