When I first told my friends and family about my weekend to Bilbao, many of them looked at me quizzically, digging for more clues, squinting their eyes inquisitively.
Now, in retrospect, it’s strange to think how so many of them knew so little about beloved Bilbao, a vibrant city in northern Spain and the largest in the Basque Country. Those who did recognise the name were quick to talk about the city’s innovative architecture, whilst others nodded encouragingly in knowledge of the Guggenheim Museum or its venerable dining scene, home to a constellation of Michelin stars.
Winner of the 2018 European City of the Year, Basque Country is unlike the rest of the Spain. By investing heavily in culture and art following a post-industrial economic malaise in the 1990s, Bilbao’s charm and reputation has started to slowly but surely plant an infectious seed in a generation of fervent travellers seeking new experiences and an exquisite culinary culture, becoming a top European destination and an epicure’s dream.
It has its own language, its own culinary traditions, and a distinctive geographic and cultural landscape. With outstanding architecture, a revered dining scene and impressive landscapes just outside the city centre, Bilbao is one of the great treasures of the Basque Country
We had to limit our reasons, but here are our top 10 for visiting Bilbao.
Bilbao BBK Live
Every year Bilbao hosts BBK Live in the staggeringly beautiful mountains of Kobetamendi. This July, from the 12th to 14th, the festival features a flawless line-up of internationally renowned acts from an encompassing array of music, including Florence and The Machine, Childish Gambino, Gorillaz, alt-J and many more. Nestled in the country’s extraordinary natural landscape and overlooking the city, this festival experience is particularly magical and charming, so expect balmy nights dancing under the starry sky as the sun slowly sinks behind the mountaintops.
There will be an array of festival-related activities going on in the main city too should you wish to do some extra exploring. Jamie XX will be playing at the Guggenheim museum on the 11th July as part of Night + Day, a series of parties, gigs and cinematic screenings curated by The XX. Be sure to follow @bilbaobbklive for newsy bits and updates about surprise additions to the line-up.
It’s a necessity to bar hop when you’re in Bilbao! Skipping, crawling and hopping from one bar to the next is hugely cherished by the Basque people and is fundamental to their culture. Whether you’re on a leisurely stroll or out and about town for a night to remember, make sure to visit Peso Neto located in the 5th district for its laid-back interiors, and Zurekin for its variety of delicious pintxos. I would highly recommend the pimiento relleno dish, a stuffed pepper dish made up of a variety of flavoursome fillings depending on the bar or the cook.
The chance to see Game of Thrones live
I’m not a Game of Thrones super fan, but seeing San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in real life was a truly exceptional experience. It’s incredible that this medieval masterpiece still exists, jutting out over a spacious expanse of the sea like an isolated island. And what a view!
The luxurious activity of wine tasting mixed with some traditional Basque grit is a truly tasty and educational experience, so you must take a trip to see the txakoli ladies in Bodegas Ados Basarte, located just outside the main city. Here you’ll be given a detailed and guided tour of their vineyard and household, and you’ll find yourself leaving with some shiny new facts about the process of producing your own wine – I’m inspired!
Sun and Sand
I’ve always had an obsession with Barcelona for its city/beach duality and the same stands for Montpellier in France. I love running around a new city exploring the various sights as much as the idea of lounging on the beach soaking up the sun with a book in hand. Bilbao is another hybrid city that enables you to divide your stay with the perfect mélange of city-break activities and lounging.
Art after dark
One Friday a month the Guggenheim Museum hosts a DJ night for those wanting to enjoy a bit of dancing and art after hours. The concept of dancing and attending an exhibition is fairly niche – you tend to either be participating in one activity or the other, and usually at separate times in the day. Well, now you can do both – wine in hand! Techno heads will especially love this occasion.
Dance like nobody’s watching
Speaking of dancing, the nightlife in Bilbao is buzzing! Post-pintxos crawl or post-Guggenheim tour, take yourself to San Vicente where you’ll find an array of clubs and venues all in close proximity to one another. Bar Ambigú, a cosy little bar bursting with friendly faces, is the place to be if you like the oldies. Dancing guaranteed.
Bilbao is famous for its Michelin-starred Basque gastronomy scene. There are plenty of suave and stylish restaurants scattered around the city, such as Bilbao Berria (now here in London), but if you’re looking for traditional Basque delights, then you must try Restaurante Astei. The waitresses carry an air of admirable Basque charm, and the sirloin is a mouth-watering treat you’ll still be drooling over for months to come.
The Basque coast
If you don’t get the chance to unwind on the beach, then a tour of the Basque coast is equally refreshing. La Salvaje Beach offers some picture-postcard views of verdant pathways, azure waters and Californian waves perfect for surfing. Then make your way to Mundaka, an enchanting town surrounded by idyllic cliff tops and colourful Basque houses. The town is often awash with surfers from all over the world who travel long distances to witness some of the best river-mouth waves around.
The old town never gets old
What’s an old town without labyrinthine paths to get lost in and charming architecture to make you feel like you’re far away from normality?
Bursting with history, Bilbao’s old quarter is packed with secret little gems that are sometimes hidden in the most unexpected street corners. The exquisite Epelde & Mardaras art gallery and restaurant is tucked away in a traditional apartment block that you would never even know existed unless you did some preliminary research. So keep your eyes peeled.