Lives bathed by the sea
The salty water of the Cantabrian sea caresses the cliffs and beaches of Bizkaia and enriches its fishing villages.
Fishermen spend more time at sea than aground. The experience shows in their eyes, their silence and the way they look at both the sea and tourists – intently.
The long shore of Bizkaia accommodates fishing villages like Ondarroa, Lekeitio, Ea and Elantxobe on the eastern coast, and Mundaka, Bermeo, Armintza and Algorta on the western coast. These towns are worth a visit for their beauty, the smell of salt in the air, the superb gastronomy and the friendly local people.
Arrantzales (Basque word for fishermen) and their families have spent their entire lives at sea. The lovely towns nestled on the coast stand in contrast to inland towns in Bizkaia, so when you come, allow enough time to travel along our wonderful coast.
Seaside of Bizkaia
A 150-kilometre coastline and lots of things to do
If you have time, you should not miss any of the fishing villages in Bizkaia. While all of them are caressed by the same waters, each one has its distinctive character, traditions and legends.
Ondarroa is a beautiful town wedged between the mountains and the sea on the eastern shore of Bizkaia. The river Artibai flows along the town, crossed by nice bridges. In the Old Town you will see the medieval tower of Likona and the Church of Andra Mari, both from the fifteenth century. Ondarroa is a place of tourist and historic interest, inhabited by friendly people who speak a dialect of the Basque language that is difficult to understand but will sound like music to your ears. The ever-present sea has left some deep marks, like the rocks of Saturraran, named after two local lovers, Satur and Aran.
Lekeitio or Lekitto, as euskaldun zaharras (native speakers of Basque) call it, offers a level of tranquillity not to be found in other tourist spots. Many centuries ago, arrantzales here were whale hunters, until the whale population declined dramatically in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the colourful port area, you will find plenty of bars and restaurants. The establishments that line the charming narrow streets of the Old Town invite you to a bar crawl. If you have time, walk from Isuntza to Karraspio beach. On a low tide, you can go to San Nicolás island on foot for a magic experience that is difficult to put into words.
Ea looks like a hiatus in the natural setting. Were it not for the road signs, no-one would find this town. Located in Busturialdea, to the east of Ibarrangelu and to the northwest of Ispaster, Ea is called Ie by euskaldun zaharras. It is a tiny village, which you can visit in just 15 minutes. In the centre of town are the Parish Church of Santa María de Jesús and the Church of Santa María de la Consolación, also known as Natxitua. The small beach and the port are very close to the town centre. Climb the steps across the Beletxe building to see the Chapel of Talako Ama, which affords spectacular views of the sea.
Elantxobe is a beautiful seaside village you cannot miss. Sitting between two cliffs, Elantxobe is perched in the Ogoño hill. Upon arrival, you can drive to the port or right to the upper, modern, part of town. The streets are so narrow that buses need a special platform to make a U-turn. Steep cobbled streets lead down to the port, where you will see the pools that form at neap tides.
Most villages on the east coast make great fish and shellfish dishes, the star dish being marmitako, a delicious tuna and potato stew. It used to be cooked by fishermen with whatever leftovers they would find in the kitchen. Nowadays, it is one of the best-known dishes of Basque cuisine. Besides marmitako, baby squid in ink, grilled seabream or clams in green sauce are local favourites: they taste like treasures from the sea.
To the west coast
Driving to the west coast, you will come to Mundaka, whose name comes from the Latin phrase “munda aqua” (clear water), which is what the sailors on a Scottish ship called a fountain they saw here. In this village, with a population of nearly 2000, there is something for every taste: from the Church of Santa María and the Casino in the Old Town to the Chapel of Santa Catalina on the peninsula to the northeast, across Izaro island. The Chapel, an example of the transition from the Gothic to the Renaissance style, was rehabilitated in 1879. One of the primary activities in the cape the town stands on was the control of the vessels sailing in and out the Urdaibai estuary.
In the streets of Bermeo’s Old Town, the onshore breeze merges with the savoury smells coming out of the restaurants. Walking by the port and its surroundings is a pleasant experience. Stand on the docks to enjoy the views of the port and the village – they are just wonderful. Like other seaside villages in Bizkaia, Bermeo was home to whale hunters. If you want to learn more about whale hunting, pay a visit to the local Fishermen’s Museum.
The port of Armintza is great to watch the fishing boats as they land their catches. Marine fishing is a main staple of the local economy. No wonder that in Armintza’s bars they serve mostly seafood pintxos! You must try them all! Apart from the tales told by old fishermen, the squawking of the seagulls hovering over the fishing port and, of course, the sea roaring at the other side of the wharves, this small town is very quiet.
In the Old Port of Algorta, the atmosphere is completely different. The fishing village stands atop a cliff. Wandering the streets seems like a journey back in time. The narrow streets are lined with bars, small squares and traditional houses. Locals are kind and nice, as people used to be in the old days. And they wear traditional outfits as well! In front of the old houses, looking at the sea, there is a sculpture of two arrantzales.
East coast town and villages road trip kicks off in Ondarroa. To get here from Bilbao, take the Txorierri highway (N-637) to Durango. Once in Durango, continue on highway N-633 to Markina-Xemein. The journey takes about one hour.
If you are based in one of Bilbao’s neighbouring towns in Gran Bilbao, you should start driving east, so that you visit the places situated farther away first
Ondarroa is beautiful. In the Old Town, you will find the tower of Likona and the Church of Andra Mari, both from the fifteenth century. The village is a place of tourist and historic interest, inhabited by friendly people who speak a dialect of the Basque language that is difficult to understand but will sound like music to your ears.
Your next stop is Lekeitio, or Lekitto, as the locals call it. To get there, take road BI-3438. Lekeitio is a quiet town. Many centuries ago, arrantzales (fishermen) here were whale hunters, until the whale population declined dramatically in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the colourful port area, you will find plenty of bars and restaurants. The establishments that line the charming narrow streets of the Old Town invite you to a bar crawl. If you have time, walk from Isuntza to Karraspio beach. On a low tide, you can go to San Nicolás island on foot.
Back in the car, take the BI-3238 to Ea, a tiny town that euskaldun zaharras (native speakers of the Basque language) call Ie. A full tour of the town centre cannot take more than 15 minutes. In the centre of town are the Parish Church of Santa María de Jesús and the Church of Santa María de la Consolación, also known as Natxitua. The small beach and the port are very close to the centre. Climb the steps across the Beletxe building to see the Chapel of Talako Ama, which affords spectacular views of the sea. Travelling during the off-peak season is a good idea to avoid the crowds; in the summer you have to be very lucky to find a parking place. In the warmer months, younger locals and holidaymakers like sunbathing by the pristine sea.
Upon leaving Ea, drive along road BI-3238 towards Elantxobe, a 15 minutes’ drive away. Elantxobe sits between two cliffs on the slopes of a hill. You can drive right to the port or to the upper, modern, part of town, which offers a spectacular panoramic view. (Either way, you will have to park your car uphill.) The streets are so narrow that buses need a special platform to make a U-turn. Steep cobbled streets lead down to the port, where you will see the pools that form at neap tides.
Elantxobe is the last fishing village on the east coast. Bear in mind that the sun goes down earlier in winter, so plan your trip ahead, choosing the towns you want to visit during daylight hours, before returning to your hotel. If you are ready for a longer drive, you can visit Laga, from whose beach the Ogoño hill looks amazing.
West coast towns and villages
The seashore that is closer to Bilbao is Bizkaia’s west coast. Bilbao is only a 20 minutes’ drive from the sea. Each seaside town or fishing village has characteristics of its own. The Old Port of Algorta, for instance, blends the old traditions with the fresh customs brought along by the youth, whereas in Armintza fishermen stick to conventional fishing methods.
To reach Getxo from Bilbao, take road BI-637 in the direction of Algorta. Past Ereaga beach is the Old Port. Park your car, climb up the stairs and get lost in this tiny village’s colourful streets.
On leaving the Old Port, get back in your car and take road BI-634. Drive all the way to Plentzia along road BI-2122, past Berango, Sopela and Barrika. From Plentzia, continue to Lemoiz on road BI-3151 and then road BI-3154, which leads to the port of Armintza.
Far from other towns, Armintza oozes charm from every corner. Save for the sounds coming from the fishermen at the port, this is a town where silence reigns. In the morning, fishermen prep their boats and sail out to catch fish, while in the afternoon, they land their catch and clean their boats. The popular bars of Armintza serve mainly seafood pintxos, made with txangurro (spider crab), nécora (small crab) or caracolillos de mar (sea snails).
Leave Armintza and take road BI-2120 to Bermeo. On your left-hand side, the fantastic views of Bakio and San Juan de Gaztelugatxe will absolutely amaze you. Then follow the BI-3151 to get to Bermeo.
In the Old Town of Bermeo, the streets run restlessly uphill and downhill. The marmitako served in local restaurants never fails to amaze visitors. You can buy tinned tuna or anchovy to bring home as a favourite edible souvenir. The upper part of the Old Town and the port afford wonderful views – and the best photo ops!
From Bermeo, continue along road BI-2235 for about 15 minutes to Mundaka. The port of Mundaka is smaller than Bermeo’s, but its pristine waters have no parallel in any other part of the coast. The charming narrow streets and the family-friendly ambiance have turned Mundaka into a meeting place in the region. In this fishing village, they play host to a stage of the World Surfing Championship and the Mundaka Festival-The Basque Music & Cook Festival, held in the summer.
How to get there
This great road trip is easy to plan. You can come by bus, as Bizkaibus has bus lines that run to the seaside towns and fishing villages on both the west and the east coast. Bizkaibus timetables change with the seasons, so check beforehand.
This is a whole day trip. If you do not have your car, consider hiring one. Get familiar with your surroundings before heading out. Look at your maps or use your favourite road-navigation tool. Take the Txorierri highway to do the east coast first or roads N-637, N-633 and BI-3438 from Bilbao to drive along the west coast.
Where to eat
All the towns in the tour serve superb food. Locals enjoy bar crawling for drinks and pintxos with family or friends. If you are still hungry, make your way to a restaurant. Needless to say, in coastal towns you should do as locals do in the culinary department: order a seafood dish made with the fresh catch of the day – marmitako, baby squid, clams, anchovies, seabream…
Where to sleep
Each town offers different types of accommodations. In smaller towns you will find mostly hostels and bed & breakfasts. If your favourite accommodation is a hotel room, make a reservation in bigger towns like Bermeo. Hotels are usually a few miles away from the centre of town.