Bilbao: Food & Fun in Northern Spain

Bilbao's Monuments
Bilbao, Spain

Sunshine, beaches, flamenco dancers and bull fights— images of typical Spain, right? If you’re talking about Andalusia, perhaps, but Spain is an extremely diverse country and offers a lot more than sunshine and sangria. Ale and I had the chance to visit Bilbao for our anniversary; it was our first time in Northern Spain as tourists (we had both been previously for work). Our preconceptions of a gloomy, industrial city were thrown out the window as we were met with sunny and colorful Bilbao.

I had surprised Ale with the trip for our anniversary gift. Since we have two anniversaries, our plan is that I take care of our first anniversay (June 3rd) and he takes care of the second (July 30th). We’ll see what he has planned for me…

We flew to Bilbao with Ryanair, which offers summer flights for around 40€  per person round trip. Ryanair may have a shady reputation, but you just can’t beat that price! Upon arrival, the airport bus whisked us into the city in about 20 minutes. I’ve lived in Spain for three years now, but I am still wowed by the public transportation options.

Located just across from the architectural marvel that is the Guggenheim Museum, we stayed at the lovely Hotel Miró. The view from our room could not be beat!

Bilbao Guggenheim
Bilbao’s famous Guggenheim Museum. 

Hotel Miró was a fantastic choice. It offers a great location, beautiful views, comfortable rooms, a breakfast buffet, and a complimentary beer and sangria bar all day long.

Bilbao is the largest city (although not the capital) of Basque Country (País Vasco). If you aren’t familiar with Spanish history and politics, Basque Country is one part of Spain where there are groups of people who would like to see it become its own separate country. Interestingly, the native language in Basque Country, Euskara, is one of the oldest languages spoken in Europe, with hardly anything known about its origin. It is seemingly unrelated to any other language in the modern world. It’s said that about 30% of people in Basque Country speak Euskara, but, surprisingly, we never heard it while in Bilbao.

Bilbao is also known for being an industrial city, and we were expecting grey, boring buildings and not much in terms of architecture besides the famous Guggenheim. We were surprised that, in addition to the stunning museum, the city was full of beautiful buildings and cathedrals, as well as modern scultpures and art.

Bilbao buildings
Modern and old intersect throughout Bilbao.
Bilbao scultpture
My favorite street sculpture.
Bilbao street sculpture
We aren’t sure what this one meant…

I was expecting to find some great pintxos in Bilbao, and armed with suggestions from friends like Christine in Spain and after spending our first night out with Bilbao local Liz en España, I discovered more than enough amazing pintxos to enjoy in only one weekend.

Plate of Pintxos
Incredible pintxos are easy to find in Bilbao.

I would recommend Bilbao as a weekend getaway for anyone living in Spain. It especially makes an excellent and inexpensive trip from Madrid.

If you get the chance to visit Bilbao here is what you can’t miss:

Marvel at the Guggenheim

The Guggenheim Museum is a modern art museum, but the real appeal is the building itself. We didn’t end up going inside, but we did spend hours throughout our trip just staring at it from different angles and at different times of day.

Flower Puppy Guggenheim
The Guggenheim’s famous flower puppy.

Bilbao Views
A view from afar.

Eat Pintxos

The food in Bilbao was incredible and cheap. Just about any bar had a variety of tempting pintxos to choose from, and they were a deal, ranging from 1€-3€ per pintxo. My favorites made use of the area’s world renowned seafood, like this skewer with grilled octopus and shrimp.

Pintxo de pulpo
A delicious Pintxo de Pulpo

See Bilbao from Above

Normally, you are able to take a cable car up the hill to see a fantastic view of Bilbao from above. Unfortunately, the cable car service was suspended when we visited, but taking the bus up was still well worth it. The views are gorgeous and the small park at the top is peaceful and romantic.

Bilbao City
A worthwhile view of Bilbao.

Take a Stroll along the Nervión River

Bilbao’s Nervión River is beautiful, and taking a walk from the Guggenheim to the old part of town will take you about a half an hour. On the way you will pass modern bridges and get some great shots of the Guggenheim from afar.

 

Bilbao Nervíon River
Even on a gloomy morning the river looks beautiful.
Bilbao Bridge
Bilbao’s modern bridges and buildings.

Explore the Old Town

The old quarter of Bilbao is very charming, with narrow streets and towering churches. Filled with small shops and pintxo bars,  it is the perfect place to get lost and grab a snack whenever you get hungry.

Old Bilbao
Old Town Bilbao

Visit the Alhóndiga

Alhóndiga Bilbao is a former wine warehouse turned cultural center. Offering restaurants, art, architecture, a public swimming pool, and even a posh rooftop bar, the Alhóndiga is a must see both during the day and at night.

Alhondiga Bilbao
Artistic pillars inside the Alhóndiga.
Pool at Alhondiga
The see through pool at the Alhóndiga!

Bilbao was fantastic and I can’t wait to return. Next time we get a chance to go up north, I’m dying to visit nearby San Sebastián, and check out some of the area’s beaches too. I seriously recommend Bilbao to anyone traveling– whether with friends, family, or alone, and with any budget– from five star luxury to budget backpacking.

Lauren Aloise
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Lauren Aloise

Professional eater, writer, cook, food tour operator. Fascinated by food and its history. Loves: a gooey slice of tortilla, fish markets, homemade cocktails, train travel. Hates: Overhyped restaurants, wine snobs, long menus, mediocrity. Check out my food tours at www.devourspain.com.
Lauren Aloise
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Comments

  1. says

    I love Bilbao! What a great way to spend the first half of your first anniversary 🙂

    When I traveled to Bilbao last November, RyanAir hadn’t yet begun their route to Bilbao. We paid 52 euros round-trip (per person) for a 5-hour bus ride, so these new flights are a terrific bargain.

    I second the Alhóndiga, too, it’s an interesting space. Also, this pulpo is making me salivate!

  2. says

    Even in just the picture that giant spider freaks me out! I can’t wait to see what he has planned for your second anniversary because you really set the bar 😉 It looks like a beautiful getaway!

  3. says

    Aw, love your idea for the wedding stuff! Kike and I have something similar: our date of meeting (November 17th), and the date our pareja de hecho was conferred (June 17th). Tomorrow we’re celebrating by him taking me to a new place, La Bulla. Will let you know how it is!

  4. says

    The giant spider reminds me of that movie Wild Wild West, you ever see that? 😀

    Anyway, I’d love to see the Guggenheim museum, I had no idea it was there, thanks for that. Lovely pictures, too, by the way.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

      • says

        Haha, when I have the money! I honestly want to travel so, so much but it’s just not the best idea right now, I could just take off and blow all my savings on it but that would set back my plans to get my website producing enough income for me to live off of significantly and I’d just have to start over on that again. Maybe in a year if I had to guesstimate, we’ll see, but I do look forward to it, and thank you for asking!

        Regarding Wild, Wild West and that spider…you have to watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgYhLIThTvk

        It’s 20 minutes long but so, so worth it, it’s hilarious–do you know who Kevin Smith is? That’s the speaker. He wrote Clerks, Chasing Amy, Mall Rats, Dogma and some other really cool movies.

        Cheers,
        Andrew

  5. Lauren says

    I’ve been following your blog for a while and just had to comment on this post! I studied in Bilbao last year and lived right next to the Guggenheim, so I got to pass the spider every morning on my way to school. Lots of schools from all over take tours of the Guggenheim and one day I got stopped by a group of students filling out a worksheet asking me if I knew the name of the spider. I had no idea but the first thing that came to mind was my own name – Lauren (not telling them that I didn’t know the name would have been the more logical answer here). So now there is a group of high school French students that think the spider is named Lauren – oops! Glad to see you enjoyed Bilbao!

  6. says

    Great post – thanks. I have been thinking about a trip to Bilbao for ages, have not been there for years when I remember seeing the museum in its ‘skeleton’ state and I would love to see the finished article.

  7. Michelle says

    Great article on Bilbao and I loved the photos. Jorge and I went last summer and we really enjoyed it. I think you’d love San Sebastian! It’s my favorite city. I’ve been twice and I stay at Pension Amaiur…right on la calle 31 de agosto in the casco antiguo…Go during Semana Grande in August. It’s an incredible week long festival with cabezudos, gigantes, international music groups, stand up comedy, djs, dancing, free concerts, contests and nightly fireworks…the city comes alive and around every corner there is something going plus you can hit the 2 beaches…and the pintxos…oh the pintxos….Not too far from Bilbao we went to the bosque pintado de Oma…tons of painted trees that make images as a whole…what a sight…I also recommend going to Hondarribia on the border of France and then crossing over the border to Biarritz for a day trip. So nice that you’re in Madrid and can explore the north more easily!

    • says

      Thanks so much for the suggestions Mickey! I want to go so badly– we’ll see about August, that would be incredible. Being in Madrid is great, it’s so central, but I miss Andalusia too!

  8. says

    I was recently in Bilbao and loved it. I made the trip up to San Sebastian and I’m really glad I did. The beach was gorgeous and the food even better – yum!

  9. says

    What a great post. I had heard Bilbao was quite industrial so hadn’t been to eager to visit but this post paints a different picture. You kept me reading with all your descriptions and photos!
    Glad you had a great anniversary in Bilbao! Congrats on your one-year!

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