Bilbao: A Weekender’s Guide to the Basque Capital

August 8, 2016

From a visit to the Guggenheim to sampling the delights of the many Michelin starred restaurants, Cathy McFadden rounds up the must-dos while in the incredible Basque city of Bilbao.

On the descent into Bilbao, the glimpse of northern Spain from the plane is the first hint that you are arriving at a very special destination. The rugged coastline and lush green alpine views provide a dramatic contrast to the familiar dusty landscapes and golden beaches of the other regions of Spain.

With almost 40 Michelin-starred restaurants and a major European art centre, this unique area of the Basque country has its own distinct language and strong cultural identity. With so much to offer, Cathy McFadden spends 48 hours in the vibrant de facto capital Bilbao to help you get the most out of your city break.

1. EXPLORE CASCO VIEJO

Caso Viejo, Bilbao, Spain

Spend an evening exploring the charming, narrow streets of the Gothic old quarter. Soak up the atmosphere as fun spirited people pour from an abundance of quirky bars into the cobbled streets, creating a festival like vibe. 

Meander through the passageways as the streetlights cast a golden hue against the renaissance buildings. Pull up a chair in a cosy corner for a cold calimocho (red wine mixed with cola) or enjoy a beer in a bohemian bar before dancing the night away. 

Casco Viejo has a lot to offer during the day too, with its independent boutiques and high street stores. Bag a vintage piece for your home or wardrobe, feel cool at Loreak Mendian (local clothing brand) or bring home Iberian delights from Victor Montes’ deli before visiting the impressive Gothic Cathedral de Santiago.

On the cusp of the Casca Viejo, hugging the banks of the Nervión River, you will find one of Europe’s largest indoor food markets El Mercado de la Ribera offering the best of local cheese, fish, meat and mushrooms. The market is also home to permanent food stalls offering a fantastic selection of wines and pintxo.

2. HANG OUT IN THE PLAZA NUEVA

Plaza Nueva, Bilbao, Spain

The 19th century arcade Plaza Nueva is famous for its pintxo bars. Dubbed “catalysts for socialization”, avoid filling up on Pintxo (or Basque tapas) during the day and head to Plaza Nueva early evening with a large appetite to experience a Basque institution – the txikitea – a bar crawl involving the eating of pintxo accompanied with a small glass of wine. Pintxo is a competitive sport amongst Bilbao bar owners. An annual contest has taken place for the last 18 years to praise the best creations, so expect plates of delicious morsels and mouth-watering combinations.

Each bar around the square is unique with some being modern whilst others ooze early 20th century charm, like the self-titled Cafe Bar Bilbao. This bar has become a Pinterest favourite due to its stylish yet simple blue and red exterior and interior of beautiful hand-painted tiles. Also, don't miss the award-winning pintxo at Gure Toki.

Mingle with locals and fellow travellers in these lively bars. In fact, don't be surprised to receive a friendly head-nod or two from people who now recognise you from previous stops on the txikitea - this is the Bilbao effect; a friendly, compact city which makes you feel at home instantly.

Plaza Nueva is also home to a cheerful Sunday morning flea market. Get there early to peruse the stalls with second hand books, antiques, coins and record collections for sale. Listen to the bird song of canaries in old-fashioned wooden bird cages hanging from the arcades' arches and watch as excited local children and their parents gather in the square to swap football cards. Afterwards pop into Victor Montes for a mid-morning aperitif before thinking about lunch.

3. EXPERIENCE MIMO

Bilbao: A Weekender’s Guide to the Basque Capital - EXPERIENCE MIMO

In addition to the creative bite-sized cuisine of pintxo, the Basque country is host to almost 40 Michelin-starred restaurants making it a prime destination for epicureans.

Perhaps this is because of the abundance of food on offer in the Basque, with lush green farmland and its own coastline. Maybe it’s due to the Basques’ relationship with food and the fact that they have “mimo”; their own word for love when referring to it. However, it is most likely the beautiful marriage of all these factors which, when combined, makes the Basque country one of the best fine dining destinations in the world.

The Basque country has the most Michelin-starred restaurants per capita in the world and whilst they tend to be expensive elsewhere, you can enjoy a taster menu at one-starred restaurants in the centre of Bilbao for 70 euros. Look no further than Restaurant Mina or Nerua, in the world famous Guggenheim art museum.

I recommend making a reservation ahead of your trip for a relaxed, yet sophisticated, Sunday lunch in Restaurant Mina. Sunday in Bilbao is a day where locals meet family and friends for a long lunch so why not join them. Mina is a cool and stylish restaurant with a modern rustic vibe, perfect for sampling the best produce the region has to offer.

The star of the show is Azurmendi, only a ten minute taxi ride out of the city in nearby Larrabetzu. Azurmendi is deserving of its three stars as this hilltop restaurant is a theatre of food. On arrival you are invited to have a “picnic” of pintxo and a glass of the local Txakoli white wine in an atrium disguised as a garden. Shortly after, you will receive a tour of the kitchen and the greenhouses before being brought to your table in the elegant dining room. The 14-course taster menu is incredible and changes regularly. Head chef Eneko Atxa makes a special point of talking with each dinner guest at the end of their experience, adding a nice personal touch.

4. BE SEEN ON THE ART SCENE

Arcos Rojoes, Bilbao, Spain

In 1997, Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim art museum opened on the banks of the Nervión River. When arriving in Bilbao via the La Salve Bridge, the magnificent titanium-clad building stands shimmering in the light creating an exciting first impression of the city.

Fans of Gehry’s architecture will appreciate the skyward atrium inside the museum where light floods in and invites you around the collections and world class exhibitions, such as Andy Warhol’s “Shadows”.

The Guggenheim also has plenty to offer outside. Explore the beautiful structure itself and take in the different configurations from each perspective. Feel dwarfed by Jeff Koon’s giant topiary 'Puppy' and magnified 'Tulips' and get freaked out by Louise Bourgeois’ 30ft spider.

Art lovers will find gems all over Bilbao. The very bridge that delivers you to the city is also a gallery. Not only does La Salve Bridge support Daniel Buren’s 'Arcos Rojoes / Arku Gorriak' sculpture, a massive art space known as Gallery 104 can be found under the bridge.

For fine art, head to Musea de Belles Artes de Bilbao where Francis Bacon shares this respected space with Goya and Picasso. If contemporary Spanish art is your thing you will be pleased to discover the abstract and thought-provoking works at the Sala Rekalde Gallery.

5. RISE ABOVE IT

View from the funicular in Bilbao

On a clear day, pack a picnic and ride the funicular railway to the top of Mount Artxanda for stunning views of the city and the estuary. The train runs seven days a week and departs every 15 minutes.

For a unique experience take the metro to the world’s oldest transporter bridge, Vizcaya. Built over 120 years ago, the bridge’s gondola still transports people and cars across the Nervión River every eight minutes during the day and every hour at night. If you are feeling adventurous you can brave the crossing on foot via the 45 meter high walkway.

6. EMBRACE THE RAIN

Bilbao: A Weekender’s Guide to the Basque Capital - EMBRACE THE RAIN

Rich green agricultural land doesn’t come about without rain. Bilbao is a city of umbrellas but the silver lining is that there are a vast amount of cosy yet cool cafes and bars where you can take a rest, refuel and dry off.

There is no better place to wait out a rain shower than sipping an old fashioned cocktail in the sultry Bar Basque, with its rich wooden panelled walls and nod to the Belle Epoque. Do not miss the cosy atmosphere in Cafe Iruna, a traditional cafe decorated in mosaic giving it a Moorish feel. Sit at a window table and look out over the beautiful Jardines de Albia.

If caffeine is your fix there is no shortage of cool cafes in Bilbao. My favourites are the vintage neighbourhood nook Bihotz and the Nordic-inspired Cafe Trimmer. In addition to serving a great cup of Joe, Trimmer is annexed to an independent concept store and fashion boutique. Grab a book or friends and enjoy the cosy and relaxed atmosphere both cafes have to offer.

7. BOHEMIAN LIKE YOU

Bilbao: A Weekender’s Guide to the Basque Capital - BOHEMIAN LIKE YOU

At El Mercado de la Ribera, cross the footbridge over the Nervión River and follow the artists to Bilbao la Vieja (“Old Bilbao”) to explore the neighbourhoods of Marzana and San Francisco. Hailed as Bilbao’s “Soho” this gritty neighbourhood is evolving into a destination in its own right, home to Restaurant Mina and Bibotz. Slightly off the main tourist route you can amble through the streets of the left bank, taking in colourful street art, spice vendors and indie cafes like Bar Marzana.

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Cathy McFadden
Born in Belfast and based in Manchester, Cathy inherited her love for travel from her father. Ever since her first InterRailing trip 30 years ago, Cathy has loved exploring and documenting her travels across Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. Follow her on Instagram @this_and_cat