Over 10 days you'll embark on a gourmet road trip from Madrid to Spain's northern Basque Country. This unforgettable excursion is a delight for the eyes and taste buds that includes tapas tours in Madrid, wine tasting in La Rioja, and sampling the great cheese and seafood of the Basque coast. A visit to the famous Guggenheim caps the trip, adding a cultural cherry atop an epic vacation sundae.

Highlights

  • Discover Madrid's rich history on a private tour of the city
  • Visit the La Rioja region and sample delicious wines
  • Drive along the stunning Cantabrian coast
  • Enjoy both city and countryside tours in the Spanish Basque Country

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Madrid - Evening Tapas Tour Madrid
Day 2 Private City Tour - Discover Madrid's Royal Legacy Madrid
Day 3 Pick up Rental Car - Drive From Madrid to La Rioja La Rioja
Day 4 Full-Day Wine Tour of La Rioja Laguardia
Day 5 Drive From La Rioja to San Sebastian - Food Tour San Sebastian
Day 6 Walking Tour of San Sebastian San Sebastian
Day 7 Day Trip to the Basque Countryside San Sebastian
Day 8 Drive From San Sebastian to Bilbao - Optional Stop in Guernica Bilbao
Day 9 City Tour of Bilbao & Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Day 10 Depart Spain  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Madrid - Evening Tapas Tour

The Fountain of Cibeles, in Madrid
The Fountain of Cibeles, in Madrid

Welcome to Spain! 

Upon arrival at the nation's capital, you'll enjoy a private transfer to your hotel in the city center. Take some time to settle in before heading out to explore. You'll definitely want to see some of the highlights like the Puerta del Sol, one of the most historic and expansive plazas in the city. There's also Madrid's famous Fountain of Cibeles. Located in the city center it features a sculpture completed in 1782 and depicting Cybele, the Greek goddess of fertility, riding in a chariot pulled by lions.

In the evening, you'll really dig into Madrid's culture on a food tour. A local expert guide will lead you on a two-hour walking excursion that stops at some great tapas bars. On this tour, you'll visit Barrio Las Letras, which is known as the "literary quarter." This historic neighborhood in the city center was once home to Spanish lit legends like Cervantes and Quevedo. Besides visiting some historic sights around here, you'll also stop on Calle Huertas for a bite at one of the many tapas bars that line the street.

Day 2: Private City Tour - Discover Madrid's Royal Legacy

The Royal Palace, Madrid
The Royal Palace, Madrid

Enjoy a half-day tour of Madrid led an expert local guide today. Madrid has a long history, and today the city adorns itself with that history in its architecture, public spaces, and culture. An organized tour is ideal, and your guide will reveal insight into how different time periods influenced Madrid's neighborhoods and buildings, as well as point out the most interesting sights.

One area you'll visit that's awash in splendor is the Madrid de los Austrias. It was built in the 16th century during the reign of the Hapsburg Dynasty's first ruler, Charles I. Located in the city center, it's home to one of the grandest plazas in Spain, the Plaza Mayor, which was once the heart of Old Madrid.

Also here is the Royal Palace, which was the official home of the Spanish monarchs until 1931. You'll tour both the grounds and interior of this 3,418-room monument to opulence, entering the parade ground, the bedchambers of Charles III, several salons, the Royal Chapel, and the Hall of the Crown, which displays Charles I's crown, scepter, and throne.

Later you could visit El Retiro Park. This 308-acre expanse of verdure is the green lung of Madrid, abounding with sculptures, fountains, and a man-made lake perfect for taking a boat trip. There are also must-visit gardens here including the Jardín de Vivaces ("Garden of Vivacious Plants"), Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez (inspired by the Andalusia region), and a garden home to over 4,000 roses. The best time to see these blooms from May through June. 

Day 3: Pick up Rental Car - Drive From Madrid to La Rioja

La Rioja wine country
La Rioja wine country

In the morning you'll pick up your rental car and begin your epic road-trip. The first stop is the La Rioja wine region, located in Basque Country about 3.5 hours north of Madrid. La Rioja is a postcard of a province, with rolling green hills, alpine mountains, limestone peaks, medieval villages, and endless vineyards.  

Upon arrival, you'll check-in to your hotel and can spend the rest of the day at leisure. Options include staying in and enjoying the hotel amenities or heading out and explore the lovely village of Laguardia, where the hotel is located. This romantic town was founded in the 10th century as a defensive outpost of the Kingdom of Navarre, and as you walk its stone streets you'll see evidence of this in the medieval walls that encircle it.

Day 4: Full-Day Wine Tour of La Rioja

Time for wine tasting
Time for wine tasting

In the morning you'll hand over the car keys to a private chauffeur and enjoy a full-day tour of Spain's most famous wine-producing region. This is more than a tasting; it's an immersive viticulture experience that showcases the entire winemaking process, from planting the vine to labeling the bottle. 

The tour begins with your arrival at a local family-run winery and a walk through the vineyards. Here you'll learn about the growing cycle of the vines and even participate in the cultivation. Depending on the time of year and the state of the grapevines, you can take part in the pruning, canopy-thinning, and even harvesting, provided the berries are ripe to do so. Afterward, you'll relax and enjoy a light snack right in the vineyards.

Then it's time to head inside the winery and visit the cellar. But this is no ordinary basement—it's a traditional wine cellar excavated in underground rock and which dates to the 16th century. You'll taste wine directly from the barrel and then make your own bottle, complete with a personalized label, that you can take home. Afterward, you'll head to a nearby restaurant for a three-course gourmet lunch.

After lunch, you'll visit a boutique winery for another tour. This includes tastings where you'll try three different wines while learning about the philosophy of their operation and the secrets to producing a great bottle. You'll then put that theory into practice and design a unique wine yourself, mixing different varietals to create your own ideal coupage (wine blend).

Afterward, your driver will return you to your hotel. Rest assured that by the end of this day, you'll have a comprehensive understanding of the effort that goes into producing some of the world's best wines.

Day 5: Drive From La Rioja to San Sebastian - Food Tour

San Sebastian, Spain
San Sebastian, Spain

In the morning you'll get in your car and drive about two hours north from La Rioja to the seaside resort city of San Sebastian. Sitting on the Bay of Biscay and nestled amid rolling green hills, this is one of the stars of Basque Country. After checking into your hotel, you'll meet a local guide who will take you on a foodie tour of a city that's famous for delicious cuisine. 

After meeting your guide, he or she will take you around the famous Parte Vieja ("Old Quarter"), which is situated in the east of the city between the ocean and the River Urumea. At the edge of Old Town is the iconic San Sebastian City Hall. Constructed in 1887, it used to be the Gran Casino during the Belle Époque period until it was closed in 1924. The building still overlooks the bay, from where an elegant promenade with railings and street lamps runs along the crescent-shaped La Concha Beach.

The Basque region is known for a type of tapas called pintxos (pronounced "peenchos"). Most bars, cafés, and restaurants in the Parte Vieja serve some version of these bite-sized delicacies, and naturally they're best paired with some delicious local wines. Here it's possible (and indeed encouraged), to hop from pintxos bar to pintxos bar, grazing until your heart's content.

Your guide will lead you on a tour of the Parte Vieja (old quarter), where you'll find the largest concentration of pintxos bars. At each one, you can feel free to sample as many of these bite-sized morsels as you'd like. Be sure to pair this incredible food with an equally delicious glass of txakoli, the local white wine.

Day 6: Walking Tour of San Sebastian

Tour the waterfront in San Seabstian
Tour the waterfront in San Seabstian

In the morning you'll meet a private guide and enjoy a four-hour tour of San Sebastian. It begins in the famous Old Town, which is situated in the east of San Sebastian between the ocean and the River Urumea. You'll stroll around the neighborhood, stopping at pintxos bars and cafés as you go. 

At the edge of Old Town is the iconic San Sebastian City Hall. Constructed in 1887, it used to be the Gran Casino during the Belle Époque period until it was closed in 1924. The building still overlooks the bay, where an elegant promenade with railings and street lamps runs along the crescent-shaped La Concha Beach.

For great views, you and your guide can take a ferry to the iconic offshore island of Santa Clara, or ride a funicular up to Mont Igualdo, which offers sweeping panoramas. You might also stroll the banks of the Urumea River, where you'll find the 19th-century Victoria Eugenia Theatre, the palatial Maria Cristina Hotel, and many aristocratic houses dating to the turn of the 20th century. You can get some good pictures walking across the Puente María Cristina, the bridge that crosses the river.

After the tour, you'll return to your hotel and can spend the remainder of the day however you see fit. Once the sun goes down, however, you'll likely want to head back out and indulge in San Sebastian's famous dining scene.

Day 7: Day Trip to the Basque Countryside

Enjoying Basque country
Enjoying Basque country

In the morning, you'll meet your guide and drive into the mountains outside of San Sebastian for an active four-hour tour of the country. During the pleasant drive, you'll get an overview of rural Basque culture and gain insight into a region whose residents have traditionally lived in mountain farms called caserios. Even today many locals live in small villages in the foothills, raising sheep and cows, making cheese, and generally living off the land.

The real cultural experience begins when you arrive at a local farm. The farm's owner will accompany you on a tour of the property, and you'll get a firsthand lesson in cheesemaking. This covers the whole process, from milking the cows to aging the cheese the traditional way, in caves. You'll have contact with the farm animals and even watch how sheepdogs herd the flock. It culminates with a homecooked country lunch made from fresh local produce and, of course, accompanied by delicious Basque cheeses.

Day 8: Drive From San Sebastian to Bilbao - Optional Stop in Guernica

Itm doesn't get more beautiful than the Basque Coast
It doesn't get more beautiful than the Basque Coast

The drive from San Sebastian to the city of Bilbao is a stunner. In a little over an hour, you'll drive along the wild Atlantic coast and pass through the Cantabrian Mountains before emerging back on the coast in Bilbao. Along the way, you'll wind around coastal cliffs and pass charming little fishing villages that perfectly encapsulate the soul of Spanish Basque Country. Feel free to stop for lunch in any one of them for an unforgettable plate of seafood. 

History and art buffs might also want to stop along the way in the pastoral mountain town of Guernica. Once a Republican stronghold during the Spanish Civil War, it was nearly destroyed by a Nazi air raid in 1937. This event spurred Pablo Picasso to drop everything he was doing and paint his anti-war masterpiece, Guernica, which is a potent representation of the suffering caused by war.

Two important landmarks remain in the town despite the bombing: the Biscayan Assembly House and the Guernica Tree. The latter is an oak tree that has been one of the strongest symbols of Basque culture since the Middle Ages. 

Upon arrival in Bilbao, you will check into your hotel and can spend the remainder of the day relaxing.

Day 9: City Tour of Bilbao & Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum is the star of Bilbao
The Guggenheim Museum is the star of Bilbao

You'll have the entire day to discover Bilbao. Better yet, you'll do so on a guided tour with an expert local guide who will take you to the more colorful neighborhoods in the city, particularly along the waterfront. The guide can also tailor the tour according to your interests. 

Of course, no visit to Bilbao is complete without stopping in at the Guggenheim Museum, a masterpiece of contemporary architecture by the legendary Frank Gehry. This glimmering titanium structure looks more like a sculpture than a building, with its sleek lines sensually curving in seeming defiance of physics. Inside, the museum's 24,000 square-meter space houses a treasure trove of works from great artists such as Andy Warhol, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois, and Eduardo Chillida.

Day 10: Depart Spain

Adios, Spain!
Adios, Spain!

It's time to say farewell to Spain! Depending on the time of your flight or train reservation, squeeze in one more morning of sight-seeing, perhaps picking up some last-minute souvenirs. At the designated time you will be picked up at your hotel and transferred to the airport or rail station for your departure onwards.

Map

Map of Northern Spain Road Trip: Madrid to the Basque Country - 10 Days
Map of Northern Spain Road Trip: Madrid to the Basque Country - 10 Days