Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga and the Costa del Sol…. visitors to Spain may be easily attracted to its Mediterranean coastline for it sun-drenched beaches and culturally rich ports. But it’s the country’s northern Basque Country that I’m most inclined to return to after spending just a few days in Bilbao and the surrounding area during my stint working for Semester at Sea two years ago. We had just a long weekend to get to know the metropolitan city of Bilbao with its architecturally inspiring, modern Guggenheim Museum and the region’s fantabulous pintxos — the Basque version of tapas, which are little slices of bread topped with seafood, vegetables, meats and more and served on platters in bars that invite sampling and lingering. Honestly, these finger foods (accompanied by Spanish and Basque Country wine) are one of the main reasons I’d love to return to Basque Country! Since returning home, we’ve had “Pintxo Night” dinners at my house, never quite accurately recreating the savory snacks, but having a lot of fun trying!

I could vacation in Basque Country for a week and only eat pintxos for lunch and dinner and I'd be one happy traveler.

I could vacation in Basque Country for a week and only eat pintxos for lunch and dinner and I’d be one happy traveler.

Indeed, if I had my druthers, I’d rent a car to take my time driving the northern coast of Spain from inland Bilbao to its nearby beaches then east toward the border of France. Surfing spots, fishing villages and wide expanses of sandy beaches surrounded by cliffs mark this coastline with opportunities for exploring and adventuring. Here’s where I’d poke around:

Sopelana & Plentzia: My family and I took some day trips from Getxo (where our ship was docked) to this surfing town and laid-back fishing village, but we, alas, had some overcast and then very windy weather to truly enjoy the ocean. That is, my crazy kids got in the chilly Atlantic Ocean with a bunch of wetsuit-clad surfers, but I hunkered down, wrapped in towels and a sweatshirt in the sand. Plentzia, in particular, had a great boardwalk near the ocean for strolling, but I couldn’t thoroughly enjoy it in the wind. I’d like to get to know these two spots when sunbathing and strolling weather!

Surfers in Sopelena, Spain, on an overcast (and slightly chilly) summer day.

Surfers in Sopelena, Spain, on an overcast (and slightly chilly) summer day.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (say that three times fast): “Castle rock” in the Basque language, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a small, rocky island with a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist at its top. But what’s super fun about this old attraction in the Basque Country is the walk along a man-made stone bridge to reach the island followed by 241 steps that switchback to the church. Legend has it if you make a wish and ring the church bell three times, your wish will come true. Sure, it sounds a little kitschy and touristy, but I’d make it a must-stop on my Basque Country coastal road trip. After all, look at the photo opps of the crashing waves and the nifty arches in the rock formed by water erosion.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe/Creative Commons

Geteria & Zarautz: Apparently, the must do in he small town of Geteria is enjoy a meal of freshly caught fish accompanied by the local wine, txakoli — a slightly sparkling, young and fruity white. Sounds good to me! The land surrounding Getaria is home to the largest collection of vineyards that produce txakoli, so wine tasting can definitely be on the agenda here. The jewel in this vacation destination is Zarautz’ 1.6-mile stretch of beach, ideal for strolling. Like many of the beach locales on Spain’s Basque coast, hills and cliffs rise from the coast, making for dramatic, scenic photos. I like that the western end of the beach is popular among families and sunbathers, while the middle part is where you’ll find the best surf (and there are plenty of surf schools around if you’re there to learn). To the east it’s quieter, with a protected estuary, sand dunes and marshlands.

The beach in Zarautz stretches for 1.6 miles.

The beach in Zarautz stretches for 1.6 miles. Freeimages.com/Ibon San Martin.

San Sebastian: Finally, I’d spend a couple nights in San Sebastian, fewer than 20 miles from the French border. This is the Basque Country’s most sophisticated coastal destination, known not only for its ah-mazing Playa La Concha on Biscane Bay — dubbed Europe’s most beautiful beach, but also its cuisine. I just found out the city has 15 Michelin stars spread across seven different restaurants, boasting more stars per capita than anywhere in the world besides Tokyo. Another fun fact: Pintxos (my fave!) are ever present in this city, whose old city center claims to have the highest concentration of bars in the world! Topa!

This post was written in partnership with Alamo.

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San Sebastian is a jewel of a beach destination on Spain's northern coast.

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