Day trips to San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Saragossa is a great way to get a taster of city. All 3 cities are wonders when it comes to good food and stunning cathedrals. San Sebastian is in the Basque Country famous for pintxos and the La Concha beach. Bilbao has the Guggenheim museum and Saragossa is known for its immense cathedral in historic downtown.
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Main language spoken: Spanish (or Castilian Spanish) in addition to languages spoken in autonomous regions (such as Catalan in Catalonia, a region largely associated with Barcelona).
Currency: the Euro
Voltage and plug adapter: Spain runs on 230V and uses the round pin plugs. Stock up on some adapters handling voltage range between 220 – 240V. (See my post on Essential Items to Pack in your Carry-on for tips on what plug adapters to buy.)
Major Train Stations:
Saragossa: Zaragoza-Delicias Station
Bilbao: Bilbao Abando Railway Station
San Sebastian: Donostia-San Sebastian or Estacion del Norte
Saragossa: Zaragoza Airport
Bilbao: Bilbao Airport
San Sebastian: San Sebastian Airport
Day trips to San Sebastian, Bilbao, and Saragossa can be planned by bus, high-speed trains, and planes. Depending on your origin of departure, you might have to connect in another major city and catch a bus or train to complete your journey. Download the Renfe app to buy train tickets on the go. Also check out Alsa for local buses serving the above cities.
Where to Stay
A sweet little boutique hotel right in the heart of historic downtown. It even has its own pastry shop selling pastel-coloured cakes and other baked goods. It’s a clean and nicely decorated hotel with easy access to transport. Its prime location lets you easily explore the city.
In San Sebastian…
Book hotels at least 6 months to a year before your trip if you’re heading to San Sebastian. It’s a really popular place, so hotels are expensive and get booked up quickly. I ended up staying in a shared accommodation as it was the most reasonably-priced accommodation I could find 3 months before my trip. With that being said, this is one of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed in. The bunk beds are easy to climb into and have curtains for privacy. Showers are spacious and clean. Hostel is secure and has 24 hour concierge service. It’s also easy to find and close to the main train station.
Same advice as above: book early if you want to stay in more luxurious accommodations if you’re heading to Bilbao. I, once again, did not book early enough and had to settle for a reasonable hostel. Though it’s a budget accommodation, this hostel is clean and centrally-located. It’ll get you quickly to the Guggenheim Museum if it’s on your list of places to see.
What to See, Do, and Eat
Stroll for a day in Saragossa
Tour the Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. It’s a beautiful, immense church with Baroque designs. It’s in the heart of historic downtown and located in front of many restaurants and bars. Enjoy a delicious dinner of paella while admiring the cathedral in the sunset. Don’t forget to get a photo of the cathedral at night when it’s all lit up. Simply walk across the main bridge and you can get a great view of the cathedral shining in the dark.
Visit the Mercado Central right in downtown for some market shopping. Make sure to check the opening hours so you can get there in time for some local dishes. Then taste some lovely, pastel-coloured cakes at the Hotel Sauce to round out your day of exploring. Saragossa is a walk-able city and the historic downtown is quite small. One night here is probably enough to see some major sights and taste some good food.
Enjoy a day in Bilbao
The most obvious tourist sight to visit here is the Guggenheim museum. It houses modern art and the architecture itself is stunning and a pleasure to admire. It’s definitely worth a visit if you enjoy art and architecture.
Check for any festival or cultural events which might be happening while you’re there. It’s a fun way to hear some local bands and try some free local food. I stumbled upon a festival celebrating the local language where the organizers handed out free samples of a lovely local bean dish. See the local tourism board for any planned events.
Make sure to grab a bite at the Mercado de la Ribera market place located in Old Town. It’s almost 10,000 square feet of market space selling fresh fruits and produce. A great pit stop for a snack.
Savour pintxos in San Sebastian
San Sebastian is a paradise in the heart of Basque country. Get off the train station and walk towards downtown where you’ll be confronted with the magnificent La Concha beach. It’s a beautiful beach surrounded by gnarly trees like something out of The Little Prince. The weather was wet and rainy in April 2019, but definitely go for a swim if you chance upon a hot day.
And savour the pintxos everywhere! The BEST local pintxos joint I wandered into was Bar Paco Bueno. They’re best known for their fresh, fried prawns, but give all their tapas a try because they’re simply delicious. Enjoy everything with a pint of beer. This little bar seems like it’s only open on a whim (i.e. doesn’t seem to have a set schedule), so definitely check everyday that you’re there to see if they’re open. Like the San Gines churros restaurant in Madrid, Paco Bueno pintxos joint must be on your list of places to eat!
Burn off all those tapas by hiking Mount Urgall where you’ll get a whole view of the La Concha bay from the top. It’s a relaxing hike; not taxing at all but make sure to bring comfy shoes nonetheless. At the very top of the hill is a serene chapel open to the public.
Spending a day or so in Saragossa, Bilbao, and San Sebastian is a wonderful gateway to local Spanish and Basque culture.
Take a look at my guide to Madrid and Toledo and add those cities to your Spanish trip itinerary as well!