Bilbao’s comeback has been well documented. A once thriving port city fallen on hard times, the visionary Museo Guggenheim shook it from decades of decline, sparking a new wave of interest and investment in the Basque Country. International acclaim and travelers soon arrived, drawn to the now iconic silver sails and a gleaming titanium hull forever moored on the banks of the Nervion. But while the Guggenheim is an important part of the city’s story, there is more to Bilbao than a museum.
A language unlike anywhere else and a lifestyle that places food and drink above almost all else, set Bilbao apart from other cities in Spain. Bilbao is packed with museums and theaters dedicated to the Basque identity, but for the best lesson in culture head to one of the city’s innumerate pintxos bars in the early evening when Bilbao comes out for a pre-dinner snack. Do as the locals do: fill your plate, follow the crowds, and drop in the odd “eskerrik asko” ( thank you in Basque).
The Guggenheim may have brought the crowds, but Bilbao’s best bits were there all along.
Food is synonymous with the Basque way of life, and Bilbao, as the region’s cultural capital, is the place to fill your belly. The best way to do it? Pintxos, pintxos and pintxos. The Basque answer to tapas, think tiny open sandwiches, stacked with the freshest regional ingredients—from beef reared in its lush hinterland to fish plucked straight from the foaming Atlantic—and skewered to the bread with a toothpick.
Typically, a pintxos doesn’t cost more than a few euros, and can be a light snack or a full meal. For the true Basque experience, hop from bar to bar, sampling a few pintxos in each, and wash it down the region’s signature semi-sparkling white wine, txakoli.
Casco Viejo and the streets around Calle Ledesma in Abando are the de facto centers of Bilbao’s pintxos scene. In the former, head to Plaza Nueva, a neoclassical square ringed with bars and restaurants. Casa Victor Montes offers the classic experience and Gure Toki a more contemporary snack. Over in Abando, try La Viña del Ensanche, and Artajo, famous for its squid and octopus.
The Basques are fiercely proud of their seafaring heritage and the counters of Bilbao’s bars almost buckle under the spoils of the sea. Be sure to try la gilda (fresh anchovies and green olives), kokotxas de merluza (fish cheeks) and salted cod. Other traditional Basque dishes include, txuleta, flame-grilled beef steaks and Idiazabal, a smoky cheese made from ewe’s milk.
Bilbao is brimming with world-class art, visionary architecture and Basque culture, and you’ll find all three represented in Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, the city’s iconic showpiece.
The museum, designed by architect Frank Gehry as a nod to Bilbao’s shipbuilding past, is an attraction in its own right, never mind the remarkable collection of contemporary art it houses. Must-sees in the collection include Rothko’s “Untitled,” Serra’s maze-like “Matter of Time,” and Jeff Koons towering flower pooch, “Puppy.”
After your art fix, stroll east along the river to Bilbao’s old town, a warren of gothic and neoclassical architecture. Here, you’ll find Bilbao Cathedral, a splendid 14th-century church, Teatro Arriaga, one of the city’s best examples of neo-baroque style, and Euskal Museoa, an important center for Basque culture.
To appreciate the beauty of Bilbao’s surroundings, hop on the metro to Getxo for a glimpse of the Basque Country’s dramatic coastline: beaches backed by jagged cliffs, endlessly pummelled by the wild Atlantic. The beach town of Bakio is a surfer’s paradise. Before you leave, be sure to take in Bilbao’s cityscape from the summit of Mount Artxanda. An old school funicular runs to the top, and it’s the perfect way to see Bilbao in brilliant widescreen.
Hotel Bilbao Plaza
Located on the riverfront, close to the Guggenheim, Hotel Bilbao Plaza puts you within walking distance of some of the city’s greatest hits. The rooms are paired-back, furnished in muted tones, and many have sweeping views out over Bilbao’s mountain-framed skyline. Just across the river, you’ll find the Abando district, Bilbao’s main shopping area, while Casco Viejo, the heart of Bilbao’s nightlife and restaurant scene, is less than ten minutes away.
Poshtel Bilbao is a new breed of up-market hostel, offering comfortable, simply styled private rooms at affordable prices. The location is great, but it’s the atmosphere, centered around the bar, which makes Poshtel easy to love. An industrial-inspired take on the classic pintxos bar, you’ll find a countertop full of tasty Basque classics, such as la gilda and cured Iberico ham.