City Travel Battle: Should I Go to Bilbao or San Sebastian?

There is a constant travel battle between the two most popular cities of the Basque country – charming San Sebastian & artsy Bilbao. Travel forums are full of people curiously asking which of these cities is better to visit.

Travel Battle: is better to travel to Bilbao or San Sebastian?

Let’s have a deeper look at travelling to Bilbao versus San Sebastian and see if we find out whether one of them really is better.

There is a saying we Slovak people love to repeat time and again: ‘thousands of people, thousands of tastes.’ This phrase nicely describes my answer to the question: should I travel to San Sebastian or Bilbao?

I visited both cities during my May solo travels to the Basque country and I can’t give you an A or B answer. The cities are very diverse and each of them offers you a slightly different travel experience. The choice really depends on what you want from a city getaway.

Read on to find out what’s waiting for you in San Sebastian or Bilbao. Where do I suggest travelling with a group of friends and which of the towns is better for solo travellers?

The facts you should know about the cites before you make a decision:

Facts about Bilbao

Points of interest Bilbao: Guggenheim museum

Population: 345,821

Density: 8,300/km2

Average daily cost according to Budget Your Trip: €82.00 pp

TOP Points of interest of Bilbao:

  • Bilbao is well-known for its love of contemporary arts. The most famous art museums are Bilbao Guggenheim Museum & Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.
  • The old town Casco Viejo is the centre of busy nightlife, pintxos .restaurants and historical buildings such as the Church of San Nicolás and Bilbao Cathedral.
  • There are several hiking trails around Bilbao (approximately 15 close to Bilbao, hundreds a bit further out).
  • The closest beach is 15 minutes by car or 1 hour by public transport from the centre.
  • Bilbao is home to 22 restaurants awarded at least 1 Michelin star.
  • One of the attractions is the Ría de Bilbao which is the best way to get to know all the curves of this busy city.

  • Other famous points of interest of Bilbao are Zubizuri bridge and Maman – a big spider statue constructed next to the Guggenheil Museum.

Facts about San Sebastian

Size: 60.89 km2

Population: 186,665

Density: 3,686.16/km2

Average daily cost according to Budget Your Trip: €57.00 pp

San Sebastian points of interest - Mount Igueldo View

TOP Points of interest of San Sebastian:

  • San Sebastian has 3 beautiful beaches; Ondarreta beach, Zurrriola beach and of course the best beach of Spain & the fourth best beach in the world La Concha with its stunning.
  • Old town of San Sebastian is packed with beautiful historical buildings such as the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Chorus and Saint Vicente Church.
  • San Sebastian comes second only to Kyoto in Japan as the city with the most Michelin stars restaurants per capita in the world. Of course, pintxos are the stars of the show in San Sebastian.
  • Three famous mounts of San Sebastian offer some lovely hiking possibilities; you can choose between Monte Urgull, Monte Igueldo and Monte Ulia.

San Sebastian points of interest: Mount Igueldo

  • San Sebastian is home to several museums and expositions such as the famous Aquarium, San Telmo Museum, Euskal Itsas Museoa-Museo Marítimo Vasco, Eureka! Zientzia Museoa and other.
  • You can also visit a small island in the middle of Concha bay called Santa Klara.
  • Don’t forget to snap some pictures of the stunning contemporary sculpture of Peine del viento 

Travel Battle with No Winner

There’s no doubt that some battles have no winner! If you really can’t visit both San Sebastian and Bilbao during your planned trip, ask yourself what you’re looking for.

Busy Bilbao - entrance to the Casco Viejo

Busy Bilbao – the Entrance Bridge to the famous Casco Viejo

Do you prefer busy cities, crowded streets, party life, independent art scene and a touch of modern architecture? Don’t mind using public transport on a daily basis to reach some natural spots? Are you travelling with a group of friends? Then you may have more fun in Bilbao.

San Sebastian - a view from Monte Igueldo

San Sebastian is about views and shores!

Do you prefer smaller cities with a more intimate atmosphere? Do prefer having everything close together? Do you love incredible views, yellow sandy beaches and hilly scenery? Do you love walking, and are you travelling alone or as a couple? Then you’d love to pay a visit to San Sebastian!

If You Travel Alone, Say Yes to San Sebastian

If you asked me which of the cities would be more suitable for a female solo traveller, I’d answer with no hesitation: San Sebastian rather than Bilbao.

Not just because of my personal preferences for smaller and more intimate cities or the fact I explored this town more than Bilbao. I’d recommend San Sebastian mostly because I felt much safer there than in Bilbao.

San Sebastian - Piene del Viento

As a female traveller I didn’t feel very comfortable with the constant sound of sexist whistling behind my back in Bilbao. Nothing really happened to me, it was just that kind of uncomfortable feeling of being the centre of attention without ever asking to be.

On the other hand, I always felt safe in San Sebastian and didn’t worry about moving around the town during the night.

Bilbao Is a Party Town for Groups of Friends

Even though Bilbao has officially just double the population of San Sebastian, I bet that the real numbers of Bilbao’s municipality go much higher than the claimed 345,000. The city was crowded, full of young students and tourists who seemed to be having a party around every corner.

The funniest was my journey to the airport. I had an early flight, so I headed to the bus stop at 5-ish. I met dozens and dozens of drunk people, either trying to get back home or to get some early breakfast. It was insane!

Casco Viejo on Saturday night

Casco Viejo on Saturday evening

Bilbao has a crazily vibrant night life and visiting the Old city Casco Viejo on Saturday’s evening on my own made me feel really lonely. It seemed for me a place you go to eat and drink with your friends, rather than alone. I never had this feeling of loneliness in San Sebastian. That’s why I’d suggest Bilbao for a friends’ getaway, with hikes during the day and parties at night!

Whatever you choose, have a Buen Viaje!

I hope that my comparison of these two most famous cities of the Basque country will help you to decide whether to travel to Bilbao or San Sebastian. You can’t really say that one of them is a better travel destination than the other, they’re just too different.

Ultimately, the best option would be to visit both Bilbao and San Sebastian on the same trip. The bus connection between them is very regular and the journey is quick. If you need further encouragement, they both are foodie capitals of Northern Spain!

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