This year sees Bilbao celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim museum, an institution that brought art and its lovers to the north coast city, and started an urban relaunch in which its industrial past was overlaid with fluttering palms, promenades and a proliferation of wonky, asymmetric, eye-popping glass and steel buildings by many of the world’s best architects – Norman Foster, Philippe Starck, Santiago Calatrava and Arata Isozaki among them. Thankfully, Bilbao’s old Basque soul remains intact. The additions enhance the old city, and tourism hasn’t disrupted the enviable lifestyle of its inhabitants, in which lifelong friendships, culture, pintxos (Basque tapas), and the spirit of football figure large.
Tucked into green and mountainous countryside, the city flanks the Nervión river, and there’s a string of beaches (Las Arenas, Getxo, Plentzia) within the metropolitan area, reachable by metro trains. A good way to get to grips with the city centre is to walk for half an hour along the Nervión’s left bank from San Mamés, home of Athletic Club Bilbao, past the Guggenheim to La Merced bridge. Cross the river for the narrow streets of Casco Viejo and the gourmet heaven that is Plaza Nueva; or keep south for the cool bars and cafes of Bilbao la Vieja, the former miners’ neighbourhood.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
It’s impossible to visit Bilbao and not see the Guggenheim – through planning and topography, it’s there almost everywhere you look. The Frank Gehry-designed abstract ship of glass, stone and titanium scales is sublime inside and out. And there’s art in it too! Robert Motherwell, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Eduardo Chillida, Anselm Kiefer are in the permanent collection, as is Richard Serra’s massive curved steel walkthrough installation The Matter of Time. The art outside has possibly even more impact. There’s something shocking and energising about walking past Jeff Koons’ flowery Puppy and Anish Kapoor’s big pile of steel balls, or pausing to check your messages between the legs of Louise Bourgeois’ Maman spider.
From 11–14 October, the outside of the Guggenheim will be used as a canvas to tell the story of two decades of cultural transformation in Bilbao through an animated show called Reflections.
• Adult €13, under-12s free, guggenheim-bilbao.eus
Dos de Mayo flea market in Bilbao la Vieja fills the street of the same name on the first Saturday of the month, when the area’s galleries and vintage clothing shops, which are all too often shut, fling open their doors. On the first and last Sundays of the month, the action shifts north to a soon-to-be-redeveloped industrial site on the Zorrozaurre river peninsula. General knick-knackery, art, vinyl and old clothes, plus cafes selling fabulous pintxos, vermouth, coffee and cakes, spread between a disused biscuit factory and Zawp (Zorrozaurre Art Work In Progress), a cluster of former warehouses that also host a ukelele jamming session every Sunday at 6pm. Sunday is also the day for the Casco Viejo flower market, and another, packed with antique books, canaries, and small boys trading football cards, nearby in the main square, Plaza Nueva.
Some of Bilbao’s attractions have been eclipsed in the rush to modernise, including another exceptional art gallery, the Museo de Bellas Artes, and the gigantic blood-red Eiffel Tower-esque Bizkaia Bridge. The hanging Unesco-listed Puente Colgante is the oldest transporter bridge in the world. Spanning the Nervión near its mouth from Las Arenas to the pretty suburb of Portugalete, this fantastic construction offers two options to anyone wishing to cross. Take a lift to the 50-metre-high walkway (€8pp) or ride in the hanging gondola or barquilla (40 cents). There’s a metro stop on either side and audio commentaries, ice-creams and souvenirs available from kiosks.
• puente-colgante.com, gondola open 24 hours, walkway 10am to dusk
Crusoe Treasure underwater winery
Twenty metres below the pounding seas of the Bay of Biscay is not the most convenient place to age fine wines but after years of research and technological fine tuning, Crusoe Treasure has proved it works. Sceptics will discover that the peculiarities of light, temperature and motion in this, the world’s first successful underwater cellar, do extraordinary things. Its limited edition award-winning wines have been selected by Michelin-starred restaurants including Arzak, Azurmendi and Elkano, and exported to Russia and China. Action-packed wine-tasting experiences start at the harbour in Plentzia and include an illuminating presentation, top pintxos, and a boat trip – weather permitting.
• Tasting experiences from €22-€90pp, underwaterwine.com
WHERE TO EAT
These mini-gastronomic treats are seriously creative in Bilbao, and piled high on virtually every bar. With pintxos costing around €2, a poteo – bar crawl – is a cheap, traditional and highly entertaining way to eat well.
See my 10 local local favourites here
This small restaurant is on the quay facing Mercado la Ribera, the city’s huge covered market, where chef Alvaro Garrido sources the ingredients for his sensual concoctions. Garrido took a gamble opening a fine-dining establishment in Bilbao la Vieja a decade ago when it was something of a no-go area – but fans followed, as did a Michelin star. Six tables have river views and eight places at the counter offer a chance to watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen. Tasting menus move mellifluously through courses – creamy potato concealing a soft-yolk egg; a dollop of cool cheese mixed with squid ink in a warm mushroom infusion; creamy sea urchin topped by bright split peas. All are cleverly matched with sharp dabs, dusts, salty roe and olfactory surprises, building to a finale in the multiple desserts.
• Tasting menus from €66, +34 944 795 938, restaurantemina.es
Dando La Brasa
This feelgood place in Bilbao la Vieja may have a black ceiling and a concrete floor but there’s much to see in between, from blue-tiled walls, paintings, bunting, flyers for workshops and concerts and video art, plus raucous joshing at the bar. Candles help make everything cosy and boho. The house speciality is a Latin American-Asian fusion (del inca al nikkei) with plenty of chipotle, guacamole and miso, ceviche, seaweed and sake matched with the local staples of octopus, vieiras and zamburiñas (varieties of scallop). It offers massive choice, good value and generous portions playfully presented. Ordering the tasting menu keeps things simpler (but ensure the renowned red tuna tataki is on it) with a bottle of Itsasmendi txakoli (the local white wine).
• Five-course tasting menu €33, +34 946 756196, dandolabrasa.com
Bistró Guggenheim Bilbao
Frank Gehry oversaw every design element of this airy bistro, which slips seamlessly into the folds of the Guggenheim. Like its environs, the food is innovative and beautifully presented. And, given the top service, river views, designer chairs and excellent wine list, it represents fantastic value for money. A daily three-course set menu (that can feature cod ravioli with leek soup, Iberian meatballs, cauliflower cream and black olive, followed by Idiazabal cheese cake, plum cream and walnut ice-cream), plus a glass of wine is €29.50. If you’re in a rush to go and see masterpieces, the two-course express menu is €22. A separate entrance allows people to dine here whether or not they are going into the museum.
• +944 239333, bistroguggenheim-bilbao.com
A txoko is a Basque club where (traditionally male) friends gather to cook, eat, drink, fix the world’s problems and sing. But groups of between four and 12 people can enjoy the experience (from €33 a head) – without having to do any cooking – in a designated txoko room in this restaurant below Mercado la Ribera. The chef takes guests on a market tour or the brave could shop alone for fresh fish and seafood, hand over their purchases, pop open the txakoli, and watch (through a window) as their feast is whipped up. There’s a second txoko-style space in a semi-private corner of the main white- and emerald-tiled dining room – though you can just order from the menu.
• +34 946 575474, lariberabilbao.com
The theory is perfect: affordable alta cocina from Michelin-starred chef Eneko Atxa via a kitchen headed by partner chef Edurne Martín and served in an informal modern space in green countryside 15-minutes’ drive from Bilbao. The six-course menu is exceptional value at €38 and each dish, from deliciously creamy arroz negro and magret de pato to the dessert trolley, is beautifully presented, with a twist. The wine list includes sublime txakolis from Atxa’s own winery. Just up the hill is Atxa’s three-Michelin-star Azurmendi Gastrónomico, one of the best restaurants in the world, where diners are enjoying a meal they’ll remember for a lifetime, albeit for an additional €137 a head.
• +34 94 455 8866, azurmendi.biz
WHERE TO DRINK
This venue, known for hosting indie and emerging rock bands, is a converted church, with space for around 500, and chairs and tables on two tiers of balconies. The location, just across the bridge (Puente la Merced) from Casco Viejo is perfect. Bilbao does a fine job repurposing its churches: the Museum of Reproduction (housing meticulous plaster copies of classical sculpture) is in a beautiful one just up the hill (San Francisco, 14).
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Cafe-Teatro Badulake and El Balcon De La Lola
These two small, dark, gay-friendly clubs minutes apart in Bilbao la Vieja attract a broad mix: expect disco, 1980s pop, electronica and plenty of kitsch. Badulake hosts camp cabaret act Las Fellinis on Thursdays; the seedier La Lola has entertaining videos on a screen over the dancefloor. There are clubs in every district, but for sheer fun start here. Or rather, end here as neither gets going until 3am at weekends.
On a dark night, this confidently stylish bar, an old cigar shop, is lit with pink, scarlet and ice-blue neon and exudes an air of elegant decadence. While it’s open for breakfast, most come for their massive gin and tonics and a couple of pintxos in the early hours of the morning. Squeeze down the long, narrow room to the back, where a wall of logs provides a surreal Nordic log-cabin touch.
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With salvaged armchairs grouped around a 1950s coffee table, Bihotz (which means heart) is known for its constantly changing selection of craft beers, so squeezing through to the bar on a Saturday night is no mean feat. But it is as much cafe as bar, offering specialist coffees and teas (and moist slabs of chocolate cake) and a comfortable place to sit during the day.
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Bilbao la Vieja’s best bar is not retro or vintage, it’s just old, with a maroon floor, blue wall tiles and signage authentically worn. It’s run by the grandson of the original proprietor, a heartening example of continuity in an area undergoing big cultural change. Nab a bocadillo (filled roll), a txakoli and one of the few marble-topped tables inside, or a prized space on the steps down to the river on a hot day, and you’ll be laughing. It’s an ideal launchpad for an exploration of the surrounding bars, clubs and restaurants. Start with Perro Chico across the street.
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WHERE TO STAY
There are eight individually designed rooms on the second floor of this old building in Casco Viejo. Each room riffs on a Basque theme, from language (Euskara) to wine (txakoli) to history (Gernika), but it’s all tempered by plain exposed brickwork, crisp, white bedding and classy bathrooms. The shared space is small, but there are plazas and terraces in all directions to sit with a book and a beer.
• Doubles from €63 room-only, basqueboutique.es
In new-look Bilbao, this rusty red block is conspicuous for its lack of white walls, glass and curves but the 10-storey atrium lit by a wonky tower of alabaster blocks provides the requisite wow factor. The Meliá is subject to tides of travelling salespeople but rates drop between major fairs and conventions, making rooms (with attendant perks – two restaurants, bar, spa, river view pool, gym, good service) astonishing value. Spacious rooms have lots of wood, marble, tan leather and massive windows.
• Doubles from €80, melia.com
Gran Hotel Domine
Opposite the Guggenheim, this hotel has references to 20th-century modernism and avant-garde art throughout. The cafe is inspired by Bauhaus, the baths are by Philippe Starck, the lobby seating could be an art installation and there’s a 26-metre tree trunk sculpture in the spectacular asymmetrical atrium. From the atrium, the floors look like the decks of a cruise ship, and, leaning against the railings of the roof terrace bar you could imagine you were docked on the Nervión.
• Doubles from €119 room-only, hoteldominebilbao.com
Pension Caravan Cinema
Rooms in this cinema-themed pension are small and charming . The five rooms on the first floor are dedicated to Spanish film directors, and the recently opened second floor pays homage to international ones (Clint Eastwood is particularly nice). An apartment dedicated to Alfred Hitchcock, in a separate building, is period perfect, with its cool retro pieces, and witty – check the etching on the shower glass.
• Doubles from €75, breakfast €3.50, caravan-cinema.com
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