by Marti Buckley, The Telegraph, November 5, 2019
A dynamic city with a dedication to the table
What would Bilbao be without the Guggenheim? The Frank Gehry masterpiece of a museum may have brought the city worldwide fame, but it remains just a single block in the Basque Country’s largest cosmopolitan area. Bilbao’s history as an industrial centre permeates its present, infusing the city with a matter-of-factness and a no-nonsense attitude, but the post-museum evolution was a letting down of hair, leading to a burgeoning art scene. This scene fused inextricably with the signature Basque dedication to the table, from the pintxo bar to the charcoal grill.
Allow Bilbao’s authenticity to surprise you – visit the Guggenheim, yes, but then stroll past street murals by the likes of SpY and visit an abundance of galleries that highlight Basque artists and contemporary envelope pushers. Explore the dark, crooked streets of the old town and breathe in the fresh air of Plaza Nueva, ringed by some of the city’s best pintxo bars. Hopping from bar to bar is still very much a local activity in Bilbao, and you’ll see seniors mixing with young people in fringes and hiking boots – the real population of this dynamic city.
Hot right now . . .
Marti Buckley, our destination expert, offers her top tips on the hottest things to do and places to eat and stay this season.
Biscayne writer made good, Kirmen Uribe, collaborates with the Museo de Bellas Artes (Museo Plaza, 2; 00 34 944 39 60 60) for ABC, a new exhibition celebrating the museum’s renovation and 110th birthday. The 31 rooms of the museum are each dedicated to a single letter and an accompanying word chosen by the illustrious novelist. A totally new way to see this classic Bilbao institution. Until January 6, 2020.
Unassuming, save for the bright neon pig over its front door, Odoloste (Alameda de Recalde, 11; 00 34 690 19 26 28) is on the lips of the porcine-loving population. Under the masterful hand of Igor Aguirre, every part of the pig is served up. Feast on trotters stuffed with oxtail to porcini mushrooms delicately draped with thinly sliced pork fat.
The gorgeous Hotel Tayko Bilbao (Calle Ribera 13, Bilbao; 00 34 944 652 070) is housed in an old riverside building on the edge of the Casco Viejo. The serious façade hides the city’s most stylish interior, which preserves many of the original century-old building features, from walls to staircases. A new level of style in the city’s slightly ho-hum hotel offering – don’t miss the extra view rooms with bathtubs next to the windows.
48 hours in . . . Bilbao
You would be forgiven for mistaking architect Frank Gehry’s building for a savvy structural Instagram ploy – the selfies taken outside of the Guggenheim Museum (Abandoibarra Etorbidea, 2; 00 34 944 35 90 80) in Bilbao may just outnumber the entry tickets sold. Take in the special exhibits and colossal Serra sculptures and, yes, take a picture or two with Jeff Koons’ giant floral 'Puppy'.
Cross the Puente de La Salve to see an excellent example of Bilbao’s penchant for urban art, 'Giltza Bat' by Verónica and Christina Werckmeister, one of many impressive street murals around the city. Then head towards the Funicular de Artxanda, and hop on for a ride to the top of the city. On Saturday mornings, be sure to catch the free guided tour, which takes you behind the scenes to the mechanical room to tell the story of this 100-year-old railway car.
There’s nothing like fresh air atop a mountain to whet primal appetites, and Txakoli Simon (Camino San Roque, 89; 00 34 944 45 74 99) is the spot in which to dine. Take a seat at their communal outdoor tables and enjoy a giant Basque txuleta steak, served sizzling to the table. After lunch, explore the top of Mount Artxanda. Walk around the park, pop into a minuscule hermitage, and fall in with another piece of urban art: an enormous finger print by artist Juan José Novella.
Back at the bottom of the mountain, explore the city by foot, keeping an eye out for more of its impressive street art. First head west to Olabeaga, where you can catch the artist SpY’s famous ‘Soñar’ work. Then move towards the old part of town, where an amble along Bilbao La Vieja Street, Cortes Street and through to Plaza Kirikiño will be rewarded by the sightings of various murals by Bada, Fermín Moreno and Jorge Rubio.
Of Bilbao’s Michelin-starred spots, Mina (Muelle Marzana; 00 34 944 79 59 38) is definitely the spunkiest. Chef Álvaro Garrido and his self-titled 'warriors' serve up cheeky dishes, like a twist on everyone’s favourite spicy mussel pintxo, swapping out béchamel for lemon balm-coconut juice (it works). With a lovely location overlooking the Ribera market, it’s worth staying and splurging on the well-priced tasting menu.
Finish off the night at Gin Fizz (Lersundi Kalea, 1; 00 34 946 42 14 10), where the bartenders can be found in snazzy suits, twirling their shakers and serving up magic cocktails.
Start the morning like many locals do, at the Mercado de La Ribera (Erribera Kalea; 00 34 944 79 06 95). One of the best places to shop for food in all of Basque Country, this market still retains the authenticity it had when it opened in 1929. Gather up that shopping bag and a bit of courage and speak with the friendly stallholders, generally happy to help advise on produce purchases and preparation.
With your eyes sated, it’s time for a bit of an appetite-opener for the stomach. Aperitif time, better known as the hora del vermut, is a ritual. Across the estuary from the market, prop up on your favorite stair of the muelle de Marzana to enjoy a prepared vermouth from the vintage favourite, Marzana 16 (Martzana Kalea, 16; 00 34 946 75 30 36).
Bilbao’s pintxo scene is worthy of extended study, so start your crash course at nearby El Perro Chico (Arechaga Kalea, 2; 00 34 946 40 26 65), where you can get internationally inspired small bites, from gyozas to arepas. Then head over to Gure Toki (Plaza Nueva, 12; 00 34 944 15 80 37) one of Bilbao’s obligatory pintxo stops, both for number of awards won and originality of creations.
Make your way to the affluent neighbourhood of Indautxu, which is known for its nightlife and also houses one of the city’s most fascinating buildings. Azkuna Zentroa (Arriquíbar Plaza, 4; 00 34 944 01 40 14) a former wine and olive oil warehouse, has been repurposed into an all-purpose cultural centre.
There’s no big building in Bilbao without a big name architect, and the interior of the 'Alhondiga' (as it is popularly called) is a journey into Philippe Starck’s imagination, with splendidly trippy columns and an expansive atrium full of surprises. Check out the running exhibition, or take a swim in the top-floor swimming pool.
The importance of football in the average Bilbao resident’s life cannot be overstated, and with good reason – the Athletic is one of the only clubs in Spain to have never dropped out of La Liga’s first division. Catch a game, in season, at the futuristic San Mamés Stadium (Rafael Moreno Pitxitxi; 00 34 944 24 08 77), recently renovated to the tune of €211 million (£186 million), and get caught up in the patriotic fervour with 53,000 other fans.
Take a taxi to one of Basque Country’s best places to eat: Azurmendi (Legina Auzoa; 00 34 944 55 83 59). Toss out the GPS you needed to arrive, because chef Eneko Atxa’s explosive tasting menu is best enjoyed without a roadmap. Named #38 in The World’s 50 Best, it’s also won the award for most sustainable restaurant, thanks to its housing in a bioclimatic building powered by geothermal energy and a commitment to compost food waste to fertilise local farms, as well as research into heritage food breeds.
Where to stay . . .
Luxury is synonymous with design in Bilbao, and the five-star Gran Hotel Domine impresses with its modern décor. It’s only befitting a hotel that boasts the best view of the Guggenheim. The marble bathrooms, romantically lit and separated by a glass partition, are a highlight; some feature Philipe Stark bathtubs. If ambience were awarded Michelin stars, the hotel’s rooftop terrace would add three more to the Basque Country’s constellation.
Doubles from €160 (£139). Mazarredo Zumarkalea, 61; 00 34 944 253 300
The artsy, boutique Hotel Miró, the creation of fashion designer Antonio Miró, has simple design-driven rooms that serve as a blank canvas for the real asset: the up-close view of Bilbao’s main attraction, the Guggenheim. Miró has been called Spain’s Calvin Klein, which explains his affinity towards neutral beige and white, clean-cut lines.
Doubles from €86.50 (£74). Alameda Mazarredo, 77; 00 34 946 61 18 80
Basque Boutique offers eight rooms with furniture and décor inspired by the local folklore of the Basque Country. Unconventional materials make for an utterly charming guesthouse, just up an unassuming staircase in the middle of Bilbao’s Old Town. It’s well-positioned for foodies: it’s walking distance to La Ribera, Europe’s largest covered market, and Mina, one of Bilbao’s Michelin-star restaurant gems.
Doubles from €55 (£43). Dorre Kalea, 2; 00 34 944 13 48 49
What to bring home . . .
Plate up pintxos in style back home with a few gorgeous dishes from bilbaína Ana Roquero’s Cookplay line, available at Mosel (Don Diego López Haroko Kale Nagusia, 53; 00 34 944 41 78 35). If you dined Michelin during your visit, you probably experienced these ceramic beauties, with their colourful, polished interiors.
Make like a local and head to Arrese’s grand dame of a bakery (Gran Vía 24; 00 34 944 23 40 52) on one of Bilbao’s main arteries. Their truffles are oversized craggy bits of chocolate goodness, with fillings of cream, chocolate, Bailey’s or Cointreau (and are available in retro chic travel packaging).
When to go . . .
Autumn hits that sweet spot in Bilbao, when a drop in tourism coincides with the best weather of the year. And rain is no small factor when planning a trip to Bilbao – the winter and spring months average about 20 days of rain a month. July and August are celebratory, featuring the BBK Live festival and Aste Nagusia, or Big Week, but unless you are coming for the events that mostly means more expensive lodging and bigger crowds.
Know before you go . . .
Tourist Office: Plaza Biribila, 1, 48001 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain/ 00 34 944 79 57 60
Tourist board information:for Bilbao: bilbaoturismo.net
Emergency fire and ambulance: 080
Emergency police: 112
Flight time: London to Bilbao normally takes around an hour and a half
Currency: Euros €
International dialling code: +34
Local laws and etiquette
• Basque is the dual official language alongside Spanish. Ingratiate yourself with the locals by learning a few key phrases: kaixo (hello), eskerrik asko (thank you), and agur (goodbye). A little goes a long way.
• Here, the small bites are known as pintxos; do not call them tapas.
• Tipping is not customary, mostly consisting of change left behind by people to lazy to grab it. At nicer restaurants, a five to 10 per cent tip is appreciated.
• It’s best to adapt your meal schedule to local time to reduce frustration and off-hour hunger. Lunch is served from 1pm to 3pm in most places and dinner from 8pm to 11pm.
• When you first meet someone, women tend to give two kisses, one on each cheek, regardless of the new acquaintance’s gender, while men often offer a handshake to men and two kisses to women.
• Bilbao is well-connected by metro, train, city bus, and taxi to wherever you want to go. Be sure to get tickets in advance for popular destinations like San Sebastián in summertime.
• The majority of businesses close from 1:30pm or 2pm to 4:30pm or 5pm, save for larger supermarkets or global chains.
• You can’t hail taxis just anywhere; look for official taxi stands or call to arrange a pickup (00 34 944 102 121).
• The norm is to pay one’s bill (for drinks and food) when finished consuming. It is often up to the diner to keep track of food and drink consumed.
Marti Buckley has lived in the delicious city of San Sebastián since 2010, and she still thinks it’s absolutely perfect (minus the rain). She left her job as a cook in the States and moved there for the food. She has gone on to publish an acclaimed cookbook, Basque Country, and you can find her trying every new pintxo in the name of research.
Experience Bilbao with The Telegraph
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