My wife and I vacationed in Barcelona and the Basque region of Spain in October 2015. We had previously visited Madrid
and southern Spain but had never before been to the northern part of the country. Our itinerary took us directly to Barcelona, where we spent three days, followed by five days in San Sebastian and another two days back in Barcelona before flying home. We planned the trip and traveled on our own without any difficulty.
Logistics – If you live in Baltimore, or its northern suburbs, flying internationally from Philadelphia can be an attractive alternative. The Philadelphia airport is only 93 miles from my home in Baltimore and, while further away than either Baltimore Washington International airport (26 miles) or Dulles (65 miles), offers many more international flights than BWI and, if you time it right, is an easier drive than Dulles. It also happens to offer a direct flight to Barcelona, which Dulles did not. At the Philadelphia airport, since we don’t know the facility well, we pre-booked parking at PreFlight, which offers both indoor and outdoor parking options and quick shuttle service to the terminal.
Our hotel in Barcelona was in the city center, a 30 to 45 minute drive from the airport. For our arriving flight we pre-booked a car service online for 39 euros, which was only a bit more than the 33 – 35 euro for the taxis we used for our other trips. While many guide books recommend train travel in Spain, which is fast and efficient, a friend with relatives in San Sebastian recommended we fly from Barcelona to the Basque region, which only takes an hour and is cheaper than the train. We flew Vueling, a discount airline active in Spain, from Barcelona to San Sebastian for about $94 per person each way, paying a bit extra for preferred seating and the ability to check luggage. The plane was a modern Airbus and flights were fine. The San Sebastian airport is about half an hour from San Sebastian in Hondarribia and there are only a few flights per day. Another alternative is to fly to Bilbao, which has more flights but is about an hour drive from San Sebastian, or to fly to Biarritz in France, which is actually slightly closer to San Sebastian than Bilbao airport. On the ride from the San Sebastian airport to our hotel, the cab, which did not have a meter, over charged us by about 10 euros. The proper fare should be about 33 euros.
Barcelona – is a city of 1.7 million people, the second largest in Spain, and is the capital city of the autonomous community of Catalonia. Locals prefer to speak Catalan rather than Spanish but understand both and most also speak some English. Barcelona is a charming, very walkable city with wonderful food, shopping and architecture. The city is organized by neighborhoods, with the two most important for tourists being Barri Gotic (the old walled city or Gothic Quarter) and Eixample, the fashionable district north of Barri Gotic with amazing Art Nouveau / Modernisme architecture (as the Catalans call it). These districts are linked by Placa de Catalunya, a main square in an area with many tourist hotels. We stayed in El Born, which adjoins Barri Gotic and also has small lanes, lots of shops, restaurants and bars, the Picasso Museum and the large Citadel Park.
We felt very safe in Barcelona, even when out late on the street. The guidebooks all caution you about pickpockets in Barcelona and we did take precautions for this using money belts, anti-theft purses and bags and keeping my wallet in my front pocket with two rubber bands so it could not be easily removed. But we never saw or noticed a pickpocket incident.
We really enjoyed Barcelona. The city itself and its architecture and food are the main attractions. Most guide books suggest you start with Las Ramblas, a street with a wide pedestrian-only median that runs along the edge of Barri Gotic on the line that was the former old city wall. This walk gives you a glimpse of the people, the lower edge of Eixample if you start at Placa de Catalunya, and the Barri Gotic but is increasingly filled with chain stores and tourists so not the most interesting perspectives on the city. We much preferred strolling through the windy lanes of Barri Gotic where more local shops, restaurants and many historic sites, including the main cathedral, are located. Eixample and areas north house the Modernisme architectural gems of Barcelona, which include:
La Sagrada Familia church, which is one of the largest and most magnificent religious buildings and architectural achievements anywhere. Started in 1882, it blends some Gothic elements with the Modernisme style of Antoni Gaudi. Be sure to book timed tickets in advance and, if you can, try to come in later in the day when the sun streams through the stained glass windows (see photo). We did this by accident and were delighted we did.
Park Guell, also designed by Gaudi, which started as an exclusive residential development on a high point north of the City, and has evolved into a park featuring fanciful designs and landscaping highlighting the Modernisme style. Timed tickets purchased in advance also a must here.
Casa Mila, a Gaudi designed apartment apartment building whose interior courtyard, attic, roof and top floor apartment are open to the public while the rest of the building remains a fashionable
Barcelona residential address. You can view the exterior for free but the paid tour including the former owners apartments was well worth the price of admission for us. Timed ticked in advance essential.
Block of Discord, which features three prime examples of Modernisme architecture designed by Gaudi and two other Modernisme architects. While one of these building is open for tour, viewing the facades for free from the street is probably sufficient here, particularly if you tour Casa Mila.
We found two art museums to be really special, the Picasso Museum and the Fundacio Joan Miro. Collections in both were created with works donated by the artists and their families and both present a broad range of work from the artists student days, in some cases, to very late in life. The Picasso Museum is more centrally located in three interconnected historic buildings in El Born, just outside Barri Gotic. Advance reservations are a must for the Picasso Museum to avoid long waits and this Museum has the stronger collection of the two. We would rate it a must-see for anyone with even a mild interest in art and it explains the historic and cultural influences influencing Picasso’s various periods. The Fundacio Joan Miro is located in a modern building on Montjuic, a tall hill west of the city center. In addition to a strong Miro collection, Fundacio Joan Miro has temporary exhibits by contemporary artists. We found the audio guides temperamental and the directional signage and organization of the building a bit confusing but still well worth a visit.
We ate some great meals in Barcelona and particularly enjoyed two restaurants in El Born, near our hotel – LlAmber and SABoC.
Basque Region – The Basque region includes parts of Spain and France where the two countries meet on the Atlantic
Ocean. The Basque people have a long history, a distinct language and culture and are know for excellent cuisine. We stayed in San Sebastian, which is a very attractive modest-size waterfront resort with an charming old town. We really enjoyed San Sebastian, with walks along the beach and the two hills that frame the main beach and harbor, exploring pintxo bars in the old town and shopping. Biarritz in France offers a more upscale beachfront option and St-Jean-de-Luz in France and Hondarribia in Spain both offer smaller, more intimate places to stay and all are within an hours drive of San Sebastian.
For food in San Sebastian, we mostly relied on pintxo bars, finding the full, multi-course Spanish lunches too heavy for us. Favorite pintxo bars included La Cepa, and Taverna Gandarias. We also have a very good full lunches at Branka, which overlooks Concha Beach in San Sebastian and at Txoko in Getaria overlooking the harbor, where we had a memorable white and green asparagus salad and terrific grilled fish.
The Basque region of Spain and France offers hilly, very green scenery, like Ireland or the Pacific Northwest in the US, great beaches and wonderful food. We hired a guide and driver in San Sebastian online for visits to see the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the coastal towns of Geteria and Zumaia in Spain and the French Basque region. Our guide was very good and we we would recommend Basque Tours (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Guggenheim museum in is an amazing architectural work that we thought worked less than ideally as a art museum but absolutely worth a visit. We also enjoyed visiting the French Basque region, which offers from dramatic scenery and charming towns. We particularly liked St-Jean-de-Luz which we visited on market day and where we shopped in small stores on a pedestrian-only street.