San Juan De Gaztelugatxe, Spain: Essential Tips for Visiting

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Planning a visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe?  This post has everything you need to know, including a map of the area and the San Juan de Gaztelugatxe hike, information on parking, how to get tickets for admission ahead of time, and exactly what to do afterwards to make the perfect day trip from Bilbao or San Sebastián to Gaztelugatxe Spain.  San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is one of the most incredible places to see in Spain, and it’s no wonder that the area has become a popular spot for Game of Thrones fans, because of its significance in the series.

reflections at san juan gaztelugatxe

Planning a visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in Spain’s Basque Country?  It’s one of the most magical places in Europe that I’ve ever been to.  You’re in for a treat!

Visiting San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in 2023

Important update on visiting San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in 2002: Following the January 2021 landslides that temporarily closed the site, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe has now reopened to visitors as of April 2022!

For a smooth and memorable visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, it’s helpful to know a few things ahead of time including how to get to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe from Bilbao or San Sebastian, what to do while you’re visiting Gaztelugatxe, and how to round out your day trip to Gaztelugatxe with other nearby sights and activities on the Basque Coast.

If you’ll be in Spain for a while, check out my top Spain travel tips, as well as the perfect 3 day Barcelona itinerary.

What Is Gaztelugatxe Spain?

If you’re reading this post, odds are good that you’re already familiar with San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.  I’ll give you a quick recap, but you’ll learn many more details about the islet’s history once you’re there.

San Juan de gaztelugatxe spain

Location on the Basque Coast

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a small islet in the Bay of Biscay on the northern coast of the Basque Country in Spain.  The islet sits along a rocky coastline and is connected to the mainland by a manmade stone bridge.

A long, winding staircase of 241 stone steps snakes back and forth up the steep hillside of the islet, all the way up to the top where a small chaple sits.  

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Chapel

The original San Juan de Gaztelugatxe chapel is a small church that was first built in the 9th century and is dedicated to St. John the Baptist.

Legend has it that if you ring the bell at the chapel three times after your hike and make a wish, it’ll come true. It is also said that you’ll have good luck that that ringing the bell will chase away evil spirits. Hey, it’s worth a shot.

History of Gaztelugatxe

Over the centuries, the chapel underwent several renovations and additions, and in the 10th century, a hermitage was established on the island. The island also served as a strategic point of defense against pirate attacks, and a fortified tower was built on top of the island in the 14th century.

During the Spanish War of Independence in the early 19th century, the island was occupied by French troops, and the hermitage and tower were destroyed. In the 20th century, the hermitage was rebuilt, and today it stands as a popular pilgrimage site and tourist attraction.

The name Gaztelugatxe comes from the Basque language and means “castle rock,” a reference to the fortified tower that once stood on the island. The island’s location on the rugged Basque coast, surrounded by steep cliffs and crashing waves, adds to its mystique and beauty.

Dragonstone And Game of Thrones Fame

In addition to its long and rich history, Gaztelugatxe has recently become famous from being used as a filming location in Season 7 of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

If you watch Game of Thrones, you’ll see that the church on the top of the islet has been replaced by a castle, Dragonstone.  The Dragonstone connection has recently made San Juan de Gaztelugatxe an incredibly popular place to visit.

Pro Travel Tip: These days, travel can be more uncertain than ever. Check for any COVID-related restrictions at your destination, and never travel without travel insurance! I recommend SafetyWing, because they have flexible + affordable insurance plans, and also cover COVID-related impacts on your trip (not all companies do)!

Visiting San Juan de Gaztelugatxe: An Overview of What to Expect

Before you visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, it’s helpful to know what to expect, because the photos you’ve seen definitely don’t tell the whole story.

In addition, a lot of visitor information online is no longer current because the visitor experience has changed recently given the area’s rise in tourism. So here’s all the details on what to expect:

San Juan de gaztelugatxe hike

Hiking San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

Here’s a few things to know before you hike San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.  The layout of the hike is like a giant “V”.  You will park up on top, on one side of the “V”, and then hike all the way down to the ocean, which represents the bottom of the “V”.

Then, you cross the stone bridge and hike up the 241 steps to the top of the islet or the other side of the “V”.  On the way back, you do it all again, but in reverse.

Of course, you don’t have to hike the entire trail at Gaztelugatxe if you don’t want to, or aren’t able to.  You only have to walk down the trail for about 10 minutes before you begin to see stunning views of the islet and the coastline.

A Map of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe: Three Car Parks and The Hiking Trail

Before I visited myself, I couldn’t really tell from other maps or articles exactly where to go or where to park.  

I didn’t even realize that there would be a hike involved!  So I made my own map, just for you, with all of these details.

Below, I’ve marked the two parking lots in yellow, and have also marked the hiking trail in blue.  To access the map, just head here.

The closest major cities in Spain to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe are Bilbao and San Sebastian.  A visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe can easily be done as a day trip from either Bilabo or San Sebastian.

How to Get to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe from Bilbao

Driving from Bilbao takes about 30 minutes, and it’s easiest to do if you have your own car. 

The drive is about 15 minutes on the freeway, and the last 15 minutes on a two lane roads that winds through several small towns.

dragon stone game of thrones

The end of the drive will take you through the beautiful beachside town of Bakio, which is absolutely worth a stop on the way home – but more on that later on.

Note that if you use Google Maps for your drive, the map will give you directions as though you can drive all the way to the church itself, which is of course not the case.

Bizkaibus Bus Line

If you don’t have a car, you can also reach Gaztelugatxe by bus on the Bizkaibus line. From Bilbao, take either the A3518 line (Bilbao to Bakio) or the A3527 line (Bilbao to Bermeo). 

The easiest way to get to Gaztelugatxe from Bakio or Bermeo is to take a taxi. Alternatively, you can walk from Bakio (20-25 minutes).

How to Get to San Juan de Gaztelguatxe from San Sebastian

The drive from San Sebastian takes about an hour and a half if you go directly, and drive via larger highways.

If you’re staying in San Sebastian, I recommend visiting Gaztelugatxe as part of a larger day trip to the central Basque coast, since there is so much to see in the area.  I’ve linked below to a few tours from San Sebastian that do exactly this.

The Best Tips for Visiting

Here are a few essential tips for your visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, including a few that I wish I’d known before my trip there.

1. Plan to visit Gaztelugatxe first thing in the morning

My number one tip for visiting San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is to visit first thing in the morning.  The area opens at 10:00am, so plan to arrive right around then.

walk San Juan de gaztelugatxe

By starting your visit first thing in the day, you’ll avoid all of the crowds that start to arrive later in the day.  Avoiding the crowds is especially critical if you want to take photos of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.  And believe me, it gets very crowded!

2. Reserve Your Tickets Ahead of Time

Now that San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is becoming a popular place to visit in Spain, the number of visitors is starting to be limited, and you must reserve your place online ahead of time.

Reservations for Gaztelugatxe

In order to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, you MUST have a ticket to enter. The link to make a reservation is here (I’ve linked to the English version of the site).  

You’ll need your passport number as well as the date and time you plan to visit.  I recommend securing your spot as soon as you know which day you’ll be able to go.

While it is still possible to purchase a ticket on-site, it may not always be available, so I highly, highly recommend that you make a reservation ahead of time, so that you won’t be disappointed when you arrive. 

gaztelugatxe Spain bay of biscay

3. The Best Tours to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

If you prefer to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe as part of a tour, there are a few that I would recommend based on their itineraries:

Tours from Bilbao

For a tour of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe from Bilbao, check out this tour.

Tours from San Sebastian

If you’ll be visiting from San Sebastian, this tour is your best bet.  And if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you will love this tour where you’ll visit multiple filming locations for the show.

And if you’re staying in San Sebastian, don’t miss my perfect San Sebastian itinerary for everything to do while you’re visiting.

4. What to Bring for a Visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe:

Bring food and water if you plan to hike the whole trail

If you’re planning to hike the entire trail at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, I recommend bringing plenty of water, as well as some snacks to eat along the way.  

Once you arrive, the there aren’t many options for food, so if you think you’ll be hungry, bring something with you to munch on.

The top of the islet is a fantastic place to linger for a while and enjoy a light lunch or picnic while you take in the dramatic views of the Basque coastline.

how to get to San Juan de gaztelugatxe

Places to Eat

There are only two options for food at Gaztelugatxe.  At the beginning of the trail near the parking lots, there’s a small restaurant called Enepari.  

There are some limited snacks and drinks available for purchase from a small stand at the very top of the trail, but once you start on the hike, there aren’t any options for refreshments, other than a place to fill up a water bottle halfway through.

As an aside, I also recommend using a bathroom before you head down on the hike.  There’s another bathroom just at the beginning of the bridge over the water, but that’s it.

Wear comfortable Hiking Shoes

One of the most important things to know before visiting San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is that you absolutely need to wear comfortable shoes.

You’ll likely be hiking quite a distance, mostly downhill and uphill, and climbing a ton of stairs, so make sure to wear sneakers, or one of my other top picks for the best walking shoes for Europe.

Bring a swimsuit and a towel

If you plan to visit a beach after your visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, bring a swimsuit and a beach towel with you.  After a long hike, taking a dip in the Bay of Biscay is a fantastic way to cool off!

What to Do Before or After your Visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

As part of a day trip to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, I highly recommend stopping in Bakio, the closest town. 

It’s a charming seaside hamlet with an absolutely gorgeous beach, and it’s less than a five minute drive from San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.

If you’re in the mood for a sit-down lunch, make a reservation ahead of time at Gotzon, a beachside spot that serves local seafood dishes.

If you want something more casual, pizza spot La Parra is close by (Bentalde Auzoa, 4, 48130 Bakio, Bizkaia, Spain), or you can grab a panini from the beachside snack stand.

bakio beach near San Juan de gaztelugatxe

After lunch, relax on the beach across the street or bring your surfboard, since Bakio beach is one of the Basque coast’s great surf spots.

If you’re in the mood for some txakoli tasting, there are also a handful of places nearby.  Txakoli is the region’s sparkling wine and I highly recommend tasting some during your visit to this part of Spain.

Hotels Near San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

For suggestions on more places to stay, check out the map below (you may need to zoom out a bit).

Frequently asked questions

How much does it cost to Visit?

Visiting San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is absolutely free, so it’s a perfect activity to do in Spain if you’re traveling on a budget.  Parking at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is also free.

Check the online reservation system for more details.

How Long Does a Visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe Take?

A lot of people have asked me how much time they should spend at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.  In total, plan to budget about three hours for a visit, not including driving time to and from.

At a moderate pace, hiking the entire San Juan de Gaztelugatxe trail will take about 1.5 hours round-trip. 

You’ll probably want to spend 20 – 30 minutes at the church at the top, so add that to the total time you allocate for visiting San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.

staircase San Juan de gaztelugatxe

In addition, you will likely linger a bit to take photos, so budget time for that as well.

If you don’t have three hours for your visit, don’t let that stop you from going, because it’s easy to make the visit shorter.

For a quick visit, you can still just park at the top of the trail and walk downhill for about 15 minutes.  Even at that point, you’ll still get to see amazing views of the islet and coastline.

What is the best place to take photos?

The honest answer: it’s hard to find a bad spot! This area is easily one of the most photogenic places I have visited in Europe (and I’ve visited a lot).

Personally, I think the best place to photograph San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is just before the bridge that goes over the ocean. 

You can capture the manmade bridge, as well as the winding staircase that goes up to the top of the islet.

Is it worth visiting San Juan de Gaztelugatxe?

I think a visit to Gaztelugatxe is absolutely worth it.  

As with any activity, its worth depends on your personal interests and how much time you have to spend in the area, but visiting this beautiful area was hands-down one of the best experiences I had during my recent trip to northern Spain.

There you have it – Everything you need to know for your visit!

Will this be your first trip to Europe?  If so, check out all of my essential tips for first-time visitors to Europe.

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  1. I suggest you wear socks also in any slip on tennis shoes. The hike is Steep, any if your toes rub on the inside if your shoes, BLISTERS! I know from experience!

    1. Great suggestion, Bethany! It’s definitely a strenuous hike. Thank you for stopping by and hope you enjoyed your time at Gaztelugatxe!