36 Hours in Bilbao, Spain
Basque shipping expeditions have been forging ties with other nations for more than a millennium, but this modern region now attracts foreigners to its homegrown achievements.
In Bilbao a century of industry-based wealth is being poured into the arts and sciences creating a newfound identity as a creative capital.
If it wasn’t for Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum, this little-known northern Basque city might still be hidden in the shadows of San Sebastian.
Unlike San Sebastian, this 19th-century industrial maritime stalwart is an urban success story that’s still in the making. Improved transportation, open green spaces and plans to renew dilapidated neighborhoods are a reminder of the values shared across the city: enduring family legacies and reinvention.
What hasn’t changed since this port town was founded, in 1300, are its under appreciated lush rolling green hills, amazing sheep’s milk cheese and wine.
Award winning chefs are winning over hearts, minds and stomachs of not only the locals but food crazed people from around the world.
One of the best ways to understand this region’s love of food and drink is to go on a txikiteo, a Basque pub crawl. Traditionally, you move from bar to bar sipping small glasses of wine, ‘txikitos’, in each, while being accompanied by pintxos (Basque version of a tapas). To refrain from committing any type of pfaux pas, the local custom is to eat standing up and to finish each pintxos in two bites.
1: Tram La Casilla
For those less inclined to see the city by foot, Euskotren Tranbia is a tram that lets you see the city at a leisure pace. For 1.5 euros, it’s a great way to see the left bank of the Nervion River, running past the Guggenheim, and then on through the old town on the right bank.
2: Time to Wader!
After orientating yourself in the city, head to the affluent Indautxu neighborhood and Philippe Starck’s 2010 Azkuna Zentroa, a 1909 wine warehouse turned cultural center (cinema space, media lab, gym, etc). East toward the river is Villarias, a hip street that’s marked by Arropame, a new fashion concept store.
Bigger is not always better. Standing in the shadows of the Guggenheim is the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. Originally founded in 1908, it houses an impressive array of over 10,000 pieces from old Basque artists to more contemporary.
4: Party Time!
The best places to eat and drink are in residential areas with the locals. In an exclusive area just behind the tree-lined Gran Via you can do just that. At Bitoque Gastrobar, pintxos are displayed on upside-down fruit crates atop the bar. You can never go wrong with plates with pulpo (octopus).
Food markets in Europe are the life and soul of a place. Mercado de la Ribera sits on the east side of the city on the banks of the Nervion River. Fresh fish caught that morning can be bought at reasonable prices. Try the freshly filleted anchovies.
6: Old Town
Bilbao’s heart still beats in the Old Part, also known as the “Siete Calles” or seven streets. Despite the areas ancient character, this is the main shopping part of town. Cafe tables line the streets next to the Santiago Cathedral.
7: Lunch Well Deserved
The Spanish treat lunch with the same respect towards their churches, it’s a big deal. Bilbao is one place with no shortage of goods places to eat. Restaurant – Mina – is a hidden gem in Bilbao La Vieja. Head chef and owner, Alvaro Garrido, turns out tasting menus that have earned him a Michelin star.
A trip to Bilbao is not complete without a visit to the famous Guggenheim museum, which arguably put this part of Spain on the map 20 years ago. Even for those not completely impressed by modern and contemporary art will appreciate this place.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do! In Bilbao, do as the Bilbainos do and bar hop. Cafe Iruna is a classic institution serving up mouth watering pintxos for decades. The lamb sandwich (pintxo morano) made on the grill, at only 2.50 euros, is a must try.
10: Stylish Yandiola
At La Terraza del Yandiola, the rooftop bar above the restaurant, which serves delicious cocktails offers one of the best views of Bilbao. Drinks from 4 euros.
11: Seeing a City Unfold
A walk along the Nervion river, from the República de Abando park to the Zubizuri Bridge, shows just how much Bilbao has changed over the years and continues to grow. Modern glass commercial buildings stand in contrast to industrial remains.
Where to Stay
Gran Hotel Domine is just a stones throw away from the Guggenheim museum. Located in the center of the city, the hotel itself boasts traditional Bilbao-style architecture and a fully renovated interior, which provides a nice contrast between tradition and modernity.
For a more rustic experience in the Basque countryside Palacio Urgoiti is a 17th century palace turned hotel just 15 minutes from town. French ceilings, hand painted tile floors and antique decorations are represented throughout the hotel.