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Posted by on Feb 19, 2013 in Basque Country, Blog, Travel Photography | 28 comments

Day Trip From Bilbao: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Day Trip From Bilbao: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Some sights are so out of the ordinary, you have to see them to believe them. So when I first heard about San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (Gahz-telu-gah-che), an islet in the Bay of Biscay with a hermitage on top that’s only accessed by climbing up hundreds of stone steps, I was intrigued. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe makes for a great day trip from Bilbao, best accessed by renting a car and making the drive out to the coast; otherwise, you’re looking at a bus-ride +a long hike.

So what’s a hermitage exactly? Well, a hermitage is a type of monastery where people seek religious seclusion. This hermitage in particular, is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and has existed since the 9th Century. Though San Juan de Gaztelugatxe isn’t far from civilization (The towns of Bakio and Bermeo are just a few km down the road) it’s easy to see why this place was chosen as the site of a hermitage; after you make the laborious climb to the top of the islet, you’re rewarded with sweeping views of the sea and coastline. If you go in the off-season and manage to avoid other tourists making the trek up, you’ll get an idea of just how alone, but also how inspired, those monks cooped up there might have felt.

The landscape is awe-inspiring–here the raw beauty of nature is highlighted amongst the craggy coast, and the way the sun hits the rough water. The history of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is equally compelling–from the burial remains found on-site that date back to the 9th Century, to the legends of pirate attacks and fires, to the very real attack and ransack by Sir Francis Drake in 1593–this hermitage has a storied past.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

The hike down to the islet.


Looking down on the gorgeous landscape from the top of the islet.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Stairs to the top of the hermitage.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

stone path San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Stone paths to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

The Bay of Biscay

The Bay of Biscay

The islet: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.

The islet: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.


A water fountain before the hike up.

Rough landscape and coastline.

Rough landscape and coastline.

The man-made bridge to the islet.

The man-made bridge to the islet.

When to go: Try going outside of the high season unless you don’t mind sharing this experience with hoards of other tourists.

How to get there: If you can’t take a rental car, in Bilbao, take either the A3515 or A3527 bus to Bermeo. Once in Bermeo, walk to the road named Matxitxako Hiribidea toward Gaztelugatxe.

Tips: The parking lot is far from the actual site. It took about 30-45 minutes to walk just one-way. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes that you don’t mind hiking in–the walk from the parking lot all the way to the top of the islet and back is a good workout!


  1. I loved Gaztelugatxe when I visited in August! There were a fair amount of hikers but most of the time you could walk along the trail without bumping into others. What time of year did you go?
    Cassandra recently posted…OropesaMy Profile

    • I remember reading your post about it! I went in December–we were alone up on the top and saw just a few people on the walk back to the car.

    • It’s so unique and close to lots of other pretty places…it’s a perfect day-trip!

    • Aw, thank you! Don’t feel too bad, it rains here pretty often :)

    • You must go and when you do, tell me! I’d love to finally meet you.

  2. This looks absolutely amazing! I´m planning a slow trip across the north when the weather warms a little so I´ll have to add this to the list.
    Alexis recently posted…Marrakesh and the Big HustleMy Profile

    • Yes, finding the warm weather, however, is the key! Road-tripping across the north is on my list!

  3. Reading your post and looking at those beautiful pictures made me so homesick! (I’m from Bilbao.)
    I’ve been to Gaztelugatxe dozens of times and have never taken such amazing pictures. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Such a compliment coming from someone from Bilbao! I LOVE your city. Eskerrik asko! :)

    • It was really a stunning place! Thanks!

  4. I like that your photos of the inlet are free of people – makes you appreciate the landscape more! Hoards of tourists can really change the perspective and experience you’ll get from a place.
    Erica recently posted…Movies Set in Paris That Inspire TravelMy Profile

    • Thankfully I went in late Dec/early Jan (can’t remember exactly) and there was hardly anyone else!

  5. Eskerrik asko Christine, what a beautiful place! I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before. I’ll be back in the Basque Country over the summer, hopefully I’ll be able to check it out :)
    Caitlyn recently posted…KOTO, our selfish good deedMy Profile

    • Let me know when you’re coming and we’ll have to try to meet up!

  6. This landscape is truly awe-inspiring. I wish I had known about this when I was in Spain. Good thing I’ll be going back to teach I October though (assuming I get a placement…). If I do though, this will certainly be a must see.

    • Nice! Which region did you request to be placed in?

  7. Great timing on this post as I’ve been looking up how to get here by public transit when my mom visits in a few weeks. We’ve been trying to avoid renting a car, neither of us feels comfortable for different reasons, but maybe it’s worth it. hmmm.

    It’s on our MUST list so will have to figure it out, someway…
    40 minute walk from the parking lot! how long do you think it would be to walk from the bus?
    Lauren @ roamingtheworld recently posted…Taking a drive during a snow day in Basque CountryMy Profile

    • It’s a few km at least! Maybe you can take a taxi if you’re not up to walking all of it?

  8. This place is incredible!!!! Love your photos. I am an American living in Madrid teaching English and taking Spanish lessons. I can’t wait to read more of your blog for ideas of where to travel in this beautiful country! :)

    • Thank you! Looking forward to checking out your blog :)

  9. I absolutely love San Juan. The views are really awe-inspiring!

    If you are interested in getting some more ideas for travel within the Basque Country, check out Eusko Guide. There is a nice overview of destinations as well as a look at the Basque culture. Enjoy!

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