Spain’s fabled northern port city is an architectural gem and a gateway to Rioja wineries and the Basque Country.
This city’s international status got a big boost 15 years ago with the opening of the Frank Gehry-designed, ultrachic Guggenheim Bilbao museum, but the city’s reputation still rests on its proximity to the nearby vineyards of Rioja blended with its Basque-influenced food scene.
The Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao and the Guggenheim stare across the street at each other, making rooms on that side pricey. Inside, the sculpture tower of thousands of caged river stones in the elevator lobby is an attraction itself, as are the interior design influences of Javier Mariscal, creator of Olympic mascot, Cobi. The Carlton is in the hub of town on the Plaza Federico Moyúa, and its business center offers free computer and Internet services. Also in the shopping district and close to the museums is the NH Villa de Bilbao on Gran Via. If your preference is to stay within the cozy confines of Old Town, then the Tryp Arenal is a good choice to set up base camp.
First, take a Facebook shot beside the signature outdoor sculpture at the Guggenheim, Jeff Koons’ “Flower Dog,” then slip inside to traverse the skywalks connecting the museum’s 18 galleries. You’ll see why the edifice garners as much attention as its shows. For more conventional art-viewing, the Museo de Bellas Artes is in nearby Doña Casilda de Iturrizar park. More architectural bedazzlement reigns along the Abandoibarra, the old, repurposed steel mill-and-rail district. Hang out in the Philippe Starck-designed Alhondiga, an old wine warehouse turned into a cineplex, exercise center and shopping area. Walk across the Pasarela Zubizuri footbridge, then go shopping along the Gran Via that slices through modern Bilbao. Old Town—Casco Viejo—nestled against a hillside across the river is the place to soak up many centuries of history along its narrow streets.
Wine & Food:
Tapas and Rioja wines are a must—except here small plates are called pintxos or banderillas—and you can find the best ones in Old Town and along Calle Ledesma and Calle Licenciado Poza, both near the Gran Via. Victor Montes is a favorite for traditional northern Spanish food and has both wine and pintxos and full-service dining, and Monterrey is a great bar/restaurant if you don’t mind the crowds. For more modern, but still locally influenced, cuisine, Yandiola is a must-stop with its great wine list and imaginative selection of set menus with wine pairings plus an unparalleled view of the city from its rooftop terrace. Hungry for something hot off the grill? La Garbarra is a traditional Basque asador y sidrería or steak-and-cider restaurant with wood-grilled steaks and fish. Superior hotel-restaurant food can be found at Beltz the Black in the Gran Hotel Domine, the Aizian in the Melia Bilbao and Artagan in the Carlton. Beltz is edgy, minimalist and heavily Basque and very popular. Aizian is more formal in its presentation and is an excellent place for food pairings with a long (and varied) list of Rioja wines. Artagan is noted for its Basque cuisine and seafood. Dedicated foodies might want to take suburban side trips to well-reviewed Asador Etxebarri in Atxondo and Andra Mari in Galdácano. Finally, if you find you just can’t leave the Guggenheim, try the museum restaurant managed by Michelin three-star chef Martín Berasategi from nearby San Sebastián.