The Basque Circuit is one of the most scenic drives you can experience on the European continent. The route may begin at the busy Spanish port city of Bilbao, but it very soon takes you cruising towards the beautiful and rugged geography of northern Spain, through forested hills and open plains and eventually back along the wild Atlantic Ocean coast to Bilbao – if you decide to complete the full circle, that is!
The Basque Circuit also allows you to explore not only Spain, but also a small section of France in beautiful Biarritz.
Being a circular route, you might imagine you could drive in either direction and it wouldn’t matter. However, it’s advisable to drive south first, through Basque Country, Pamplona and the gorgeous Pyrenees, so that you can finish your journey with a stunning coastal road.
You could, technically, drive the Basque Circuit in a day if you pushed it, but allowing yourself at least a long weekend will enable you to enjoy the diverse culture, wines and landscapes that the route has to offer. Given a leisurely pace and plenty of stops for sightseeing along the way, your trip could happily last much longer!
Before you hop into your vehicle, the starting point of Bilbao is home to many attractions in itself, most notably the Guggenheim Museum, a fascinating building that houses a spectacular collection of contemporary art. The Guggenheim was built on industrial wasteland in 1997, and it helped to propel Bilbao into the 21st century. If you’re keen to soak up some of its artistic atmosphere, be aware that it’s shut to visitors on Mondays between September and June.
Bilbao is a city roughly divided into two areas, the new and the old town. Casco Viejo is the city’s old quarter, and here you’ll find street performers, eateries and plenty of independent shops. Other noteworthy attractions include the Zubizuri and Deusto bridges, the Basilica de Santa Maria, and the Catedral de Santiago.
Before leaving Bilbao, why not visit one of the local markets and pick up some fare for the road? Better still, enjoy some pintxo (a small snack, typically eaten in bars). And remember, you could return to Bilbao at the end of your trip to see anything you might have missed.
Into the mountains
To begin the drive, leave Bilbao and head south on the B1-623 via the spectacular mountain pass to Vitoria-Gasteiz, a journey that should take you around an hour to complete.
Vitoria-Gasteiz is the capital city of the Basque Country, and features a fine medieval quarter, a 17th-century plaza and the Catedral de Santa Maria. In good weather, there’s enough to keep you entertained for at least an afternoon, but if you wanted longer without driving, outdoor diversions are close at hand.
The Green belt is a perimeter around the city, with six large parks that you can explore on foot or by bike. One park, Salburna, is home to several lakes, visited by myriad wildlife, including deer and migrating birds.
Take the scenic route
Once you’ve strolled around Vitoria-Gasteiz and are back on the road, turn east to make your way to Pamplona. There’s a speedy route via the N1 if you’re in a hurry, but it would be a shame to miss the smaller scenic mountain roads through the Urbasa Range to the south, along the A-132.
Depending on your route to Pamplona. you might pass Estella-Lizarra – a sensible place to stop off and try the local specialities: milk-fed pig and Romanesque art!
Head along the A-12 next, until you reach the idyllic city of Pamplona, where you’ll be roughly halfway through the journey.
The fortress and medieval walls of Pamplona are a must-see at any time of year, but if you are here during July, time your trip to coincide with the San Fermin Festival and the Running of the Bulls. Many visitors – Ernest Hemingway among them – have fallen under Pamplona’s spell, and with such a vibrant range of eating and drinking spots, it’s easy to see why. Try the Michelin-starred Alma restaurant for fine dining, or perhaps Bar Monasterio for a more modest meal.
From Pamplona, the N-135 leads you through the Pyrenees and into France, via the historic Roncesvalles Pass. At this point of your journey, prepare for the views to become more distracting and the driving more demanding!
Technical drivers will enjoy the hairpin turns and corners. If you’re more cautious, take care and keep your eyes on the road. You’ll likely want to stop and admire the views at many points on your journey, and while it’s worth taking every opportunity to do so, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t park on any blind spots!
Following on, the D-918 leads you to Biarritz, but not before another breathtaking series of panoramas. Once you’ve made it through the Pyrenees into France, you could spend a couple of days exploring Biarritz – an elegant seaside town that’s become a favourite destination among surfers and beach lovers.
Along the Corniche
Some drivers decide to end their Basque journey in Biarritz, but they would arguably be missing the best part of the whole journey. Head back to Bilbao along the Cantabrian Corniche, and you’ll have a fine view of mountains on your left and the Bay of Biscay below on your right, not to mention more stops to explore along the way.
One major attractions on this road is the beach town of San Sebastian – a hotspot for foodies. The city is renowned for its delicious Basque cuisine, and has one of the highest numbers of Michelin stars (per square metre) in the world.
To work off some of that fine food, you could join a free walking tour of San Sebastian. These are hosted every day by local guides in the Old Quarter. Although they are described as ‘free’, you will be encouraged to decide on a price to pay at the end of the tour!
On from San Sebastián – 25km (15.5 miles) further on to be precise – you have the chance to turn off the N-634 and explore the picturesque villages of Getaria and Zumaia. Getaria’s fishing port explains the profusion of top-quality fish served in its restaurants, and the working boats make a colourful addition to the harbour. Getaria is also the birthplace of iconic fashion designer Balenciaga, and has a museum devoted to him.
Zumaia is more of a hidden gem. At first glance, it might seem unsurprising, but its stunning cliffs features in the TV series Game of Thrones. If you have time, explore the Basque Coast Geopark, a geological wonder spanning 60 million years.
To complete your trip around the Basque Country, yo need to join the slightly less scenic AP-8 back to Bilbao. Now is the time to experience anything you missed in the city first time around, or simply find bar, kick back and review your photos!
A bimble in Biarritz
Biarritz is likely to be your first official stop when you cross the border into France. It’s a small town, but a very picturesque one, not only boasting expansive beach views, but offering an array of boutique shops, galleries and eateries.
The transformation of this former fishing village into an elegant seaside resort began back in the 1800s, when Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III, had a palace built on the beach there.
Today, Biarritz is also a very popular destination with surfers – yet it retains a definite air of French style.
There’s a lovely stroll that starts from the Rocher de la Vierge – a statue-topped rock in the sea – then follows a seaside path to the Phare de Biarritz, a lighthouse on the town’s northern edge. Head there at sunset for a truly scenic (and romantic) photo opportunity.
If sports suit you better, Biarritz is well known for its surf scene. It also has a golf course and a campsite close to the centre, and along the seafront, you’ll find the Cité de l’Océan museum and art deco Musée de la mer aquarium. Whether you prefer glitz or a hippy vibe, you will find it in Biarritz.
- Duration Three to seven days
- When May to September (for the least rainfall)
- Distance 300 miles
WHERE TO STAY
- Avenida Atxabinbil Etorbidea, 30 Camping De, 48600 Sopela, Bizkaia, Spain
- Web www.campingsopelana.com
Camping Playa Arenillas
- Barrio Arenillas 43, 39798 Islares, Cantabria, Spain
- Web www.campingplayaarenillas.es
Área de Autocaravanas de Kobetamendi
- Kobeta 31, 48002 Bilbao, Bizkaia, Spain
- GPS N 43.25962, W 2.96353 N 43º15’35”, W 2º57’49”
Camping El Roble Verde
- Carretera A3322, Neville Entitatea, Km24 01428, Álava, Spain
- Web campingelrobleverde.com
- Ctra, Angosto Errepidea, 2 bis, 01426 Villanañe, Álava, Spain
- Web www.camping-angosto.com
Camping de Haro
- Avenida Miranda, 1, 26200 Haro-La-Rioja, Spain
- Web www.campingdeharo.com
Camping Lizard Navarra
- Paraje de Ordoiz, s/n, 31200, Estella, Navarra, Spain
- Web www.campinglizarra.com
Camping Iratxe Ciudad de Vacaciones
- Avenida Prado de Irache, 14, 31240 Ayegui-Estella, Spain
- Web www.campingiratxe.com
- Carretera N-121A, Km 7, Carretera Pamplona-Irun, Km 7, 31194 Orikain, Navarra, Spain
- Web www.campingezcaba.com
- Pamplona-Roncesvalles Road, Km 42, 31694 Valcarlos, Navarra, Spain
- Web www.campingurrobi.com
- KM 12, 8 Ctra Gulina, 31867 Aroztegi, Navarra, Spain
- Web campingizarpe.com
- 28 Rue de Harcet, 64200 Biarritz, france
- Web www.biarritz-camping.fr
Camping Ilbarritz Yellow! Village Bidart
- Avenue de Biarritz, 64210 Bidart, France
- Web www.camping-ilbarritz.com/fr
Camping Le Pavillon Royal
- Avenue Prince de Galles, 64210 Bidart, France
- Web www.pavillon-royal.com
Le Ruisseau des Pyrénées Camping Biarritz
- 900 Rue Burruntz, 64210 Bidart, France
- Web www camping-le-ruisseau.fr
Camping Orio Kanpina
- Hondartza Bidea, s/n 20810 Orio, Gipuzkoa, Spain
- Web oriokanpina.com
Gran Camping Zarautz
- Calle Monte Talai Mendi, s/n, 2080 Zarautz, SS, Spain
- Web www.grancampingzarautz.com
- 38, Olaskoegia, 20810 Orio, Gipuzkoa, Spain
- Web zingiracamping.com/en
Camping Talai Mendi
- N-634, 5, 20800 Zarautz, SS, Spain
- Web www.campingseuskadi.com
Camping & Bungalows Itxaspe
- Barrio Itxaspe, s/n, 20829 Deba-Itziar, SS, Spain
- Web www.campingitxaspe.com
- 31820 Etxarri Aranatz, Spain
- Web www.campingetxarri.com
- Beach car parks in Solepana at Atxabiribil and La Salvage are popular for free camping
- Portal de Foronda, 01001 Vitoria-Gasteix, La Rioja (26) – Pais Vasco (01-20-48)
- GPS N 42.86532, W 2.68535 N 42º51.55″, W 2º41’07”
Área de Ayegui
- Estella-Lizarra, Navarra (31), Spain
- GPS N 42.65428, W 2.04517 N 42º39’15”, W 2º02’43”
- €4 for up to 72 hours (coins only)
Área Camper Pamplona
- Calle Biurdana, 1417, 31011 Pamplona, Navarra (31), Spain
- GPS N 42.82114, W 1.65690 N 42º49’16”, W 1º39’25”
- Avenue de la Milady/Rue de Madrid, 64200 Biarritz, Nouvelle-Aquitaine
- GPS N 43.46577, W 1.57166 N 43 º27’57”, W 1º34’18”
- Spaces for 8m motorhomes, only a couple for larger ‘vans
Autokarabanak Paseo de Berio
- Donostia-San Sebastian, La Rioja (26) – Pais Vasco (01-20-48), Spain
Parking lot day/night
- N-634, 20808 Getaria, Spain
- GPS N 43º18’32.0436″ W -2º13’56.8776″ 43.308901, -2.232466
Área di sosta Zumaia
- Trenbide Pasealekua Hiribidea 6, 20750 Zumaia, La Rioja (26) – Pais Vasco (01-20-48), Spain
- GPS N 43.29221, W 2.24755 N43º17’32”, W 2º14’51”
- El Wgido Kalea, 2, 01110 Santa Cruz de Campezo, Alava
- GPS 42.67278/ -2.34417 N 42º40’22’/W 02º 20’39”
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There's a speedy route via the N1 if you're in a hurry, but it would be a shame to miss the smaller scenic mountain roads through the Urbasa Range