When planning a trip to Spain's northern coast, travelers often face a decision: Bilbao or San Sebastián? Both Basque cities offer distinct sites and activities, world-class gastronomy, rich cultural experiences, and comfortable lodgings. But what makes them different, and which one should you visit if you had to choose? Let's break it down with the help of kimkim local specialists.

Bilbao or San Sebastián: At a Glance

  Bilbao San Sebastian

Guggenheim Museum
Casco Viejo (Old Town)
Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

La Concha Beach
Parte Vieja (Old Town)
Mount Igueldo

Budget $$ $$$
Best For Architecture & art Beaches & food
Museums 11 10
Beaches 0 3
Day Trips

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
San Sebastián

French Basque Country

How Many Days 2-3 1-2
Family Friendly Yes Yes

Bilbao or San Sebastián: Overview

Both cities are on the northern coast near sites like San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (pictured)

Whether you're drawn to the urban renaissance of Bilbao or the coastal elegance of San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque), Spain's northern Basque region promises a memorable experience. Both cities are worthy of a visit, and if time allows, why not explore both? You can easily combine the two in one trip, as they're just about 63 miles (102 km) apart, meaning you can travel from one to the other in just over an hour. Many past kimkim travelers prefer to stay in both cities and spend any extra time exploring the Basque Coastline in between.

As Luis Fernandez de Vega Chavarri from Hidden in Spain puts it, "Both cities offer numerous activities, so if you visit one, go and get to know the other." 

Here are some itinerary ideas that balance both urban centers with the beauty of the Basque region:

Self-Drive in Basque Country & La Rioja - 6 Days
Explore the Spanish Basque Country & More - 10 Days
Culinary Journey Through Spain & Portugal - 21 Days

Bilbao or San Sebastián: What's the Difference?

You'll likely enjoy either city; combining Bilbao and San Sebastián is your best bet. But if you're short on time and need to choose one over the other, it helps to understand what sets the two cities apart. 


The riverfront of Bilbao with the modern Guggenheim Museum

Bilbao, the capital of the Basque Country province, is a bustling urban center that has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past few decades. Once an industrial hub, Bilbao now hosts a blend of old-world charm and modern architecture, most notably the Guggenheim Museum. This city offers an eclectic mix of art, culture, and commerce and feels like a city on the move. It's lively and dynamic, perfectly balancing its industrial past and a future looking toward art and culture. While it's a larger city, Bilbao retains a sense of intimacy, especially in its old quarters.

Luis continues, "While Bilbao was very industrial years ago, it has been renewed, and now it's a modern city with a cosmopolitan effect. The arrival of the Guggenheim Museum opened an era of modernism and changes in this northern capital." 

While San Sebastián often steals the gastronomic spotlight, Bilbao offers its own culinary delights. Pintxos bars are aplenty, and there's an emerging contemporary dining scene. The city's restaurants and eateries capture the essence of Basque cuisine, and the Mercado de la Ribera is a must-visit for fresh produce and local flavors.

San Sebastián

San Sebastián's famed La Concha Beach

Set on the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastián is a picturesque seaside town famed for its beaches, Belle Époque architecture, and a culinary scene that rivals the world's best. Its iconic crescent-shaped La Concha Beach and laid-back vibe make it a preferred spot for beach enthusiasts and foodies.

There's a serene elegance to San Sebastián. As Karin Eckhard from Espíritu Travel puts it, "Bilbao is a city whereas San Sebastián is an elegant city." Whether you're strolling the promenade, lounging on the beach, or navigating the alleyways of the Old Town, the city exudes a relaxed and refined energy, feeling sophisticated without being pretentious.

Another perk of San Sebastián is that it lives and breathes food. With more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than almost anywhere else in the world, dining in this coastal city is an event. Don't miss out on the traditional pintxos bars, where small dishes are served atop crusty bread, and be sure to indulge in a Basque cheesecake.

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Bilbao or San Sebastián: Best Things to Do

You'll surely enjoy your time in either city, but with such distinctive personalities, there's a different vibe and various activities to enjoy in each hub.

What to Do in Bilbao

Ride a bike under Bilbao's bridges and sculptures, like the iconic Maman

Probably the most popular activity in Bilbao is to tour the Guggenheim Museum. This iconic museum, designed by Frank Gehry, is a masterpiece of contemporary architecture. Its exhibitions feature a mix of modern art and rotating displays from around the world. If you'd like to venture beyond the Guggenheim, go on a walking tour of the city or take a bike ride through Bilbao along the Nervión River, stopping to see other sites, such as the Cathedral of Bilbao, La Salve Bridge, and unique Puppy and Maman statues.

The historic heart of Bilbao is a maze of narrow streets filled with bars, shops, and the city's original seven streets. A fun way to explore the Old Town is with a pintxos and wine experience. And because of the city's location, be sure to explore the nature and history of the Basque Coast. Stops on this excursion include walking the stone bridge to the 11th-century hermitage Gaztelugatxe, learning about the Spanish Civil War at the Gernika Museum, and exploring the estuary of the Urdaibai River.

What to Do in San Sebastián

Hike along the coastline of San Sebastián

San Sebastián is known for its gastronomy, with a historic quarter packed with pintxos bars, traditional shops, and the city's oldest buildings. One of the best ways to experience the city is with a pintxos and wine walk or learning how to make pintxos with a professional chef. If you'd rather focus on history and culture, take a bike ride through San Sebastián or go on a guided city walk, visiting sites like the 18th-century San Sebastián Basilica, La Concha Beach, and the Tabakalera Museum

Besides its culinary appeal, visitors to San Sebastián also enjoy taking advantage of the city's proximity to nature. Go for a hike and boat ride along the Bay of Biscay or a coastal walk along the St. James Way trail, a portion of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. 

As for day trips, take advantage of your location with a fun trip to the French Basque area, stopping in charming Biarittz, Bayonne, and St. Jean de Luz. You can also enjoy a foodie countryside experience or check out Rioja for history, wine, and culture

Bilbao or San Sebastián: Where to Stay

There's a big difference between staying in Bilbao compared to San Sebastián. Though both are close to the sea, Bilbao is more of an inland city, whereas San Sebastián is right on the water. Regardless of which city you plan to explore, you can find plenty of hotels that blend modern flair with historical and cultural elements, whether you need a budget option or want to stay in a more luxurious spot.

Where to Stay in Bilbao

Stay and enjoy views of the Guggenheim (photo courtesy of Vincci Consulado De Bilbao)

With a smaller city center, most of kimkim's recommended hotels in Bilbao are walkable to many of the major attractions. The city also has a metro system, so you can rely on public transportation to go from one end to the other or explore the area's coastline. Stay in one of the best hotels near the Guggenheim Museum if you'd like to gaze out at the incredible structure from your window. Or, if you prefer something more authentic, stick to the hotels in Bilbao's Old Town

See the best boutique hotels in Bilbao, ranging from luxury to budget-friendly. 

Where to Stay in San Sebastián

Choose a hotel right on the beach in San Sebastián (photo courtesy of Lasala Plaza Hotel)

Remember that San Sebastián is a seaside locale. As Alba Cruells of Spain Insights says, "I prefer San Sebastián; the sea is a very important factor!" There are several hotels in San Sebastián near the beach, so you can also enjoy the beautiful bay views from your room. The city's historic center is near the coast, too, so staying in a hotel in San Sebastián's Old Town can also include sea vibes. For a bit more fun, book a room at one of the city's rooftop hotels, which are typically seasonal and offer incredible views and perks like pools and eateries. 

Explore the best boutique hotels in San Sebastián, whether you're looking for a luxury stay or a budget-friendly one. 

Luis adds, "The hotels in San Sebastián with sea views are more expensive, but waking up in the morning to see the ocean while having breakfast is priceless."

Bilbao or San Sebastián: How to Get There

Driving between the two cities (Bilbao and San Sebastián) is very scenic

When deciding between Bilbao and San Sebastián, it's also helpful to consider how you'll reach either city. Both options have well-established transport links, but the nature of your journey will differ slightly depending on your point of origin and preferred mode of transportation.

How to Get to Bilbao

By air: Bilbao Airport (BIO) is the main international gateway to the region, welcoming flights from various European cities and a few long-haul destinations. It's about 5.5 miles (9 km) north of Bilbao city center. Travel from the airport to the city center generally takes 15 to 20 minutes by car or taxi.

By train: Bilbao has two main train stations: Bilbao-Abando and Bilbao-Concordia. Abando is the primary hub for Renfe, Spain's national rail service, connecting the city to major destinations like Madrid, Barcelona, and other regional cities. Travel time from Madrid to Bilbao by train is usually about 5 hours, while it takes roughly 6.5 to 7 hours from Barcelona.

By bus: The Bilbao Intermodal Bus Station, also known as the Termibus, links the city with other parts of Spain and some international destinations. Bus travel from Madrid to Bilbao typically takes around 4 to 4.5 hours, and from Barcelona to Bilbao, it takes approximately 6 to 7 hours, depending on the service and specific route.

How to Get to San Sebastián

By air: San Sebastián's own airport (EAS) mainly serves domestic flights. For more international options, many travelers fly into Bilbao Airport or Biarritz Airport in France, each roughly an hour away. Both these airports are approximately an hour's drive from San Sebastián.

By train: San Sebastián's main train station is Estación del Norte. It connects the city to Madrid, Barcelona, and other Spanish locales. The Euskotren service also connects San Sebastián to Bilbao and other Basque towns. Travel time by train from Madrid to San Sebastián is typically around 5 to 5.5 hours; from Barcelona, it's about 5.5 to 6 hours. Additionally, the Euskotren service links San Sebastián with Bilbao and other towns in the Basque Country, with travel times to Bilbao averaging around 3 hours.

By bus: The San Sebastián Bus Station, located near the train station, provides services to numerous national and some international destinations. Bus journeys from Madrid to San Sebastián generally take around 4.5 to 5 hours; from Barcelona, the travel time is approximately 7 hours.

Bilbao or San Sebastián: The Verdict

sunrise over Bay of Biscay, San Sebastian
Take in the sunrise over the Bay of Biscay from La Concha in San Sebastián

Choose Bilbao if you're looking for a city experience with a mix of modern art, historic charm, and an evolving culinary scene. It's a destination for those interested in architecture, art, and the transformation of urban landscapes. If dreamy beaches, world-class dining, and a laid-back coastal vibe are on your list, San Sebastián should be your pick. It's ideal for food enthusiasts, beach lovers, and anyone looking to unwind in a picturesque setting. 

To make the best of both, take the advice of Patricia Marqués from YourTripToSpain&Portugal: "Bilbao is nice for one or two nights, but San Sebastián is absolutely beautiful, with many different things to do in the city and its surroundings, so plan for more time there."


Map of Bilbao or San Sebastián: Which Is Best for You?
Map of Bilbao or San Sebastián: Which Is Best for You?