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.
Everything You Need to Know to Plan the Perfect Visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
Planning a visit to Spain’s San Juan de Gaztelugatxe? It’s one of the most magical places in Europe that I’ve ever been to. You’re in for a treat!
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, what to do while you’re there, and how to round out your day with other nearby sights and activities.
What Is San Juan de 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 is a small islet in the Bay of Biscay on the northern coast of Spain. The islet sits along a rocky coastline and is connected to the mainland by a manmade 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 church sits. The original church was first built in the 9th century and is dedicated to St. John the Baptist.
Legend has it that if you ring the church bell three times after your hike and make a wish, it’ll come true.
Dragonstone: San Juan de Gaztelugatxe’s Game of Thrones Fame
In addition to its long and rich history, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe has recently become famous from being used as a filming scene 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If you watch Game of Thrones, you’ll see that the church on the top of the islet has been replaced by a castle, Dragonstone.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.
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 In addition, a lot of visitor information online is no longer current because the visitor experience has changed recently given the area’s rise in tourism.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:
The layout of the area 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 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 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: Parking and Hiking Trail
Before I visited San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, 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 is a map of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. I’ve marked the two parking lots in yellow, and have also marked the hiking trail in blue. In red, I’ve marked Bakio beach, since it’s a great place to stop after your visit (more on that below)!
How to Get to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
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 city.
How to Get to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe from Bilbao
Driving from Bilbao to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe 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.
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.
How to Get to San Juan de Gaztelguatxe from San Sebastian
The drive from San Sebastian to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe 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 San Juan de Gaztelugatxe as part of a larger day trip to the central Basque coast, since there is so much to see in the area between San Sebastian to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. I’ve linked below to a few tours from San Sebastian that do exactly this.
Tips for Visiting San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
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 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.
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 for San Juan de Gaztelugatxe 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.
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.
According to the online reservation system, admission will be free until Easter 2019, after which time there will be a fee to purchase tickets. At the time of writing this post, I don’t know what that fee will be.
3. Consider a Guided Tour of 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 of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe from Bilbao
For a tour of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe from Bilbao, check out this tour.
Tours of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe from San Sebastian
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.
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. It was closed during my visit so unfortunately I can’t recommend it one way or the other.
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 shoes to Hike San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
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 cute 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.
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 near San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, check out the map below (you may need to zoom out a bit).
Frequently asked questions about visiting San Juan de Gaztelugatxe:
How much does it cost to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe?
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.
Although it’s currently free to visit San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, an admission fee will be start to be charged for visits beginning after Easter 2019. 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. 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 of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe?
The honest answer: it’s hard to find a bad spot! San Juan de Gaztelugatxe 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 San Juan de 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 San Juan de Gaztelguatxe 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 to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe!
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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