Oct 22, 2022

Basking in Bilbao: Edgy art, bar hopping and outdoor adventures


Bilbao specializes in pintxos, the Basque version of tapas - little snacks served with zuritos - half-glasses of beer

The Guggenheim- The big reason to visit Bilbao, but not the only one

Pick up any guidebook on Spain’s northern Basque Country, and it will point you to Bilbao to visit the futuristic-styled Guggenheim contemporary art museum designed by architect Frank Gerry. Afterwards, the advice will be to decamp to nearby San Sebastián, known for its beaches, five-star restaurants and cobblestoned old town.


Tom and I decided to reverse that itinerary, skip the beaches, and take a deep dive into Basque culture by spending four nights in Bilbao, the largest city in Basque country. Known pre-Guggenheim for its iron mines and busy port, Bilbao has undergone a renaissance since the museum was completed in 1997. Still, it goes largely undiscovered by day-trippers. 

The museum’s design and riverfront location do impress. We visited on our first afternoon in town, riding the city’s efficient metro a few stops from our hotel in the historical center, and timing our visit to two hours before closing to avoid crowds.

Inside the Guggenheim 

 Most find the exterior and interior design elements more interesting than the art exhibited inside. We agreed, with one exception: The artist created this wall-length piece entirely from scraps of tin, bottle caps etc., and hired Nigerian helpers to stitch it together with copper wire.

Balconies with glass-enclosed sun porches grace buildings in  Bilbao’s medieval town center

Bilbao is split along two sides of the Nervion river. Walking paths along both sides replaced former docks in what in post-pandemic 2022 has become a compact and highly-pedestrianized city with a charming old town, an edgy arts district, and a skyscraper-filled new town with bars and restaurants on every corner.

Mercado de la Ribera

We spent most of our time in Casa Viejo, the 700-year-old medieval town center on the river’s right bank. One that side is the Art Deco-style Mercado de la Ribera, a covered market built in 1929. Opposite the market, on the other side of the river, is a scrappy but gentrifying quarter where much of the city’s former iron mining was located. Street art, chic cafes, and even a Michelin-star restaurant. Bridges connect the two sides of the river at various points.

Peppers of several varieties dominate this mural on Bilbao’s  left bank

 Clotheslines come with umbrellas for protecting hanging laundry from the rain

A historical marker in Spanish and Euskara , the Basque language that pre-dates Romance languages 

The Basque people come from a region of southwest France and northwest Spain. They have their own language and cultural traditions. Some favor independence from Spain, but the separatist threats of past years have largely been replaced by show of nationalistic pride.

Culinary traditions are strong. Mountains of sweet peppers, and fresh tuna and cod from nearby fishing villages create toppings for pintxos that appear on the countertops of bars starting mid-morning until late night.

Markets overflow with sweet red bell peppers 

Padrone peppers are served roasted and salted. Most are mild, but one in 10 could be hot. You eat the whole pepper in one bite, except for the stem

A pintxos meal

Ordering pintxos from busy bartenders requires quick decisions. Platters appear on the bar as they come out of the kitchen. You point to what you want, indicate how many, order a drink, pay, Then, if you’re still hungry, you come back for more, We made meals of pintxos most nights instead of ordering full dinners. The snacks are often paired with little half-sized beers called zuritos. The idea is that you can bar hop from one place to another, sampling different pintxos, without drinking too much at each stop.

Bilbao’s signature dessert, the Carolina (pronounced Caroleena as in “Little Carol”). Of course, I had to try it. The Carolina was invented by a pastry chef whose young daughter loved meringue. To make it easier for her to eat, he filled a miniature pastry crust with a cone of meringue, and glazed it with egg yoke and dark chocolate. Carolinas are best eaten with a spoon, and paired with a cafe con leche (latte) served in a tall glass.

Carol with a Carolina

 Cafe con leche 

Bilbao is surrounded by incredible natural surroundings. The metro connects the city with a string of beach towns within a 30-minute ride.  We traveled to one perched high above the water, found a path down through the village, and a funicular to take us back up for 20 cents. Just 10 miles inland from the Bay of Biscay on Spain’s Northern Coast, the area is considered one of the world’s top surfing locations. 

The bay also is the location of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century island hermitage dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Some might recognize it as “Dragonstone” from Game of Thrones. 

The walk to Dragonstone

Local travel agencies offer day trips for those without cars. We signed up for a morning bus excursion that included a hike to a monastery at the top via 241 steps along a zig-zag path that reminded us of the Great Wall of China. 

The view from the top

The 1.7-mile round-trip walk took about 1.5 hours, and was not as hard as it sounds. There were around 25 people on our bus, and most everyone made it up and down in about the same amount of time. The reward: fantastic views of the bay in both directions.

By the way, in my previous post about Porto in Portugal, I mentioned that almost know one was wearing masks. It’s a different story in Spain where the law still requires masks on public transportation including planes. Everyone complies.

For more pictures and stories, see Tom’s blog at https://puciello.com/wp/2-hello-from-bilbao-spain/#jp-carousel-4369

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! We are planning a trip similar to yours. Portugal Spain and ending in Paris! Would love to discuss with you!!