Once a drab, industrial port city known mostly for its mines, Bilbao now invites architecture and art aficionados to linger and take in its spectacular contemporary buildings. Food and wine lovers delight in ciders, fizzy whites and spreads of pintxos, or bite-sized snacks, of which a plateful is never enough. Lucky for us, Bilbao, like all of Basque Country, is bar-hopping territory.
Go on a Bar Crawl
Here, you don’t have to choose a destination based on whether you crave wine, beer or cocktails, or whether you want to get a drink or a meal. The local custom is to rove around to different bars to try the house’s specialty pours and pintxos.
Start at beloved local haunt Bar El Globo, in the Abando district, for a zurrito, or “hit,” of beer, or a pour of Sherry. At Antigua Cigarrería social club, an old cigar shop with eye-catching neon signs and a decidedly upmarket atmosphere, join locals for a “gin tonic” or glass of Rioja Tempranillo. In the 1990s, a 17th-century church near the Old Town was converted into a hip music and arts venue, Bilborock. If there’s a concert, this is where you want to enjoy a drink.
La Ribera Market is said to be the largest indoor market in Europe. The dining area is a good introduction to popular snacks like grilled tuna or gilda (skewers of anchovies, olives and peppers). Part of the attraction is to try all the pintxos set out, though you can order them fresh-made. Chalkboard menus are often written in Euskara 2, a form of Basque, so bring your phrase book. At the historic Café Iruña, meat skewers seasoned with a Middle Eastern twist are made to order.
For a splurge, try three-Michelin-starred Azurmendi. Just outside the city limits, it’s recognized for a sustainable approach and support of women farmers. The menu is a deep-dive into Basque heritage, paired with an expansive global wine list. Food lovers also should not miss Etxebarri, in a beautiful farmhouse about 40 minutes from Bilbao. The chef, Victor Arguinzoniz, used to be a flagmaker and is now globally regarded as a master of the grill. Expect the lightest kiss of smoke on carabineros (giant deep-sea prawns) and razor clams, plus butter from buffalo milk he got that very morning.
Explore Art and Architecture
You can see the city’s past and present through its structures. The narrow cobbled streets of the medieval Old Town along the riverside, Casco Viejo, are lined with traditional shops. Nearby Plaza Nueva is actually not so “nueva,” and was built in 1821. Also in this area is the striking Arenal Kiosk, an architectural gem and occasional concert site.
Frank O. Gehry’s magnificent Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is covered in glittery titanium metal ribbons made to resemble a ship at port. From Richard Serra’s exhibition inside to Jeff Koon’s mammoth puppy covered in blooms outside, you can spend half a day here. (Pro tip: Purchase the ticket that includes a visit to the Museo de Bellas Artes nearby, a modern collection of important Basque artists.) Look out for the rouge arch of the Puente de la Salve just adjacent to the museum. For a panoramic view of the whole city, take a ride on the early 20th-century funicular up to the mist-covered Mount Artxanda. Access it with a walk across the Zubizuri Bridge, which was designed by Santiago Calatrava and resembles a bright white sail that fans over the Nervión River.
In just about an hour, you can be in neighboring San Sebastián. Its shimmering white shores once provided a pretty beachside playground for the Spanish royals. Spend the day at La Concha or Gros beach. For outstanding seafood like grilled whole turbot, head to the fishing village of Getaria, home of some of the best Txakoli and the lavish Balenciaga Museum. Rioja is also just 90 minutes away. Book a tasting and lunch at Marqués de Riscal winery in the Rioja Alavesa region, which features the City of Wine, another splendid Gehry creation that houses a hotel, spa, dining and a museum of viticulture. Drink in the grapes and the majestic views.