Located on the coast of northern Spain, with its rugged mountains and lush forests, Bilbao is not exactly a tourist hot spot – perhaps because it doesn’t boast the same hours of sunshine per year as the more famous Barcelona or Madrid. But missing out on this gem of the Spanish Basque Country would be a cultural and culinary crime. Read on to discover why.
1 – The food
The Basque Country is famous for its pintxos – so much more than your standard Spanish tapas. Pintxos are the bite-sized wonders of the food world: miniature towers of flavour where appearance and taste are of equal importance. Fried anchovies with garlic and paprika, piquillo pepper jam served with goat cheese – or what about black pudding with a fried quail egg on top? The combinations are endless and intricate. Indeed, given the thought and care taken in creating these gastronomical works of art, it feels almost wrong to eat them. But not that wrong. And at an average of €2.5 euros a piece, why not order at least 10?
2 – The Guggenheim
This world famous modern and contemporary art museum sits along the river Nervión, a magnificent metallic structure that looks as spectacular during Bilbao’s infamous stormy showers as it does at sunset, vino tinto in hand, sat at one of the many surrounding bars. Designed by the legendary Frank Gehry – and considered one of the most architecturally significant buildings of the 20th century – Bilbao’s Guggenheim is a must-see for any art lover. Inside, there is a wide range of exhibitions as well as a permanent collection that includes a series of enormous metal sculptures by Richard Serra that work to create enthralling optical and auditory illusions.
3 – The unique Basque language and culture
As the largest city in the País Vasco, or the Spanish Basque country, Bilbao is the place to come to truly experience the Basque lifestyle. Vascos are renowned for being hardy, outdoorsy people, as well as loving a drink – in fact, champagne is referred to as “Bilbao’s water”. They are also fiercely proud of their heritage, which is unique to this corner of Spain. The language – Basque or ‘euskera’ – is unrelated to any current or even extinct language, a fact that has long baffled linguists. Forbidden from being spoken under Franco’s regime, it is now a symbol of independence and is enjoying a new level of national recognition. It’s fascinating to learn about and listen to – just don’t expect to understand a single word.
4 – Bilbao’s intriguing history
Bilbao’s past is anything but boring. Due to the region’s desire for independence, and the tension this created with rest of Spain, the city has frequently been the scene of battles and uprisings. In the 1800s, there was the famous siege of Bilbao by the Carlist forces. And then there was the Battle of Bilbao during the Spanish Civil War when the city was attacked and captured by the Nationalist Army, allies of Nazi Germany. The nearby town of Guernica was also decimated by Nazi bombs, an atrocity that famously became the subject of a painting by Pablo Picasso. The Nationalist victory was followed by Franco’s vicious oppression of the Basque language and culture.
Appreciate the city’s rich history by wandering through the winding labyrinth of streets in the historic old town, known as the Casco Viejo, or have a drink in the trendy San Francisco area, with its artsy and alternative bars overlooking the river. And look out for the Euskadi flag, signifying independence from Spain, hung proudly from many windows.
5 – Surfing
The Basque Country is home to many first class waves including the world famous Mundaka, formerly one of the sites of the World Championship Tour of Surfing, or Punta Galea, a stop on the Big Waves World Tour. Bilbao itself is within easy access of several gorgeous sand beaches, reached quickly by car or on the extremely efficient metro system. Almost empty in winter but with year round swell, these rugged beaches – such as Sopelana or Plentzia – are perfect for professionals and novices alike. There are many surf schools offering classes at competitive prices, but if you would rather watch than get wet, there are plenty of bars with great views of the waves so you can experience 360s and barrels from the comfort of land, cerveza in hand.
6 – Mountains
Ask a local their weekend plans and you will often be told ‘ir al monte’. Ascending the nearby Pagassari mountain, 671 metres high, is no big deal for the naturally sporty and intrepid vascos. Many do it as a daily work out and bikers and runners are a common sight as you huff, puff and sweat your way to the top. But it’s worth it for the views, not to mention the bar at the top – to rehydrate, naturally. Oh, and there is also a bar at the bottom.
For those who want an extra challenge, you can continue to Ganekogorta, which, at nearly 1,000 metres, is the highest mountain in the Bilbao area.
7 – Football
Football is big here – everyone loves it. When Athletic Bilbao is playing, whole families take to the streets to watch, cheer and drink. Specifically, they descend on Calle Pozas where almost every bar will be showing the match and where, at the far end of the street, you can see San Mamés, the newly designed stadium referred to as ‘the cathedral’ by fans. With its singing, shouting and mass of red-and-white striped shirts, this is a fantastic sight to behold for any football fans. And even if you’re not yet a fan, it may well convince you to become one.
8 – Getxo
The nearby seaside town of Getxo – actually a collection of different neighbourhoods, each with its own unique character – is also worth a trip. From swanky Neguri with its extravagant mansions and tree-lined avenues, to lively Las Arenas with its bars, restaurants and famous Puente Colgante – a hanging bridge joining Getxo and Portugalete – there is a lot to see in Greater Bilbao. Puerto Viejo, a pretty, historic port, is the perfect place to enjoy an aperatif on sunny days, sitting outside on the harbour wall or strolling along the sand. Look out for the strange but amusing merman mural: anonymous art installation or joke by an unknown prankster? You decide.
9 – Bilbao’s proximity to San Sebastián
If you want to venture further afield, you can easily take a trip up to see Bilbao’s more famous, but also more expensive cousin and rival up the coast. San Sebastián is famous for its cuisine and Belle Époque architecture and has some of the best food in Spain – although residents of Bilbao would be quick to disagree.
10 – The cost of living
Bilbao is cheap. You can live very well for very little. Public transport is affordable and efficient, and the food is delicious and reasonably priced. For example, you can enjoy a 3 course lunch menu on weekdays for around €10. And more importantly, it’s often cheaper to drink alcohol than to order a Coke – if you were looking for an excuse.
So from delicious food to beautiful beaches, from diverse landscape to its compelling past – not mention the fact Bilbao is somewhat forgotten by tourists – what’s stopping you from exploring the little-known delights of this fascinating European city?