Last year Bilbao celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Guggenheim museum, a building that supposed an urban relaunch in which the industrial past of this city was overlaid with green areas and modern architecture.
Most of art lovers around the world started to look at this city as “the next place to visit”, almost all Spaniards got rid of their prejudices and the most relevant travel experts placed Bilbao (finally) on the map. Thankfully, the old Basque traditions still remain intact. Despite the constant growth in visitors’ number, Basque people still maintain their ancient soul. Eating pintxos and supporting Athletic de Bilbao are still part of their lifestyle.
Bilbao is a great city for people interested in food, architecture, history and even music (Bilbao yearly hosts different music festivals, the most popular one is the BBK Live, maybe you have already heard about it).
Although the vast majority of visitors come to Bilbao attracted by the Guggenheim Museum, most of them go back home having discovered an unique place full of charm. And that is what I would like to show you with this post, a living city opened to embrace visitors and to share their culture with them.
What to visit in Bilbao
A good way to start discovering Bilbao is to visit the core of the city, the place where it all started: “Siete Calles” (Seven Streets), the old town of Bilbao.
Bilbao, as we all know it, started as a seven streets village located in the middle of two mountain ranges which gained importance in Spain due to its port activity. Nowadays, the old town looks much different as before. Its ancient narrow streets are closed to traffic allowing the visitor to get lost among renamed places such as the 14th century Santiago Cathedral, the Unamuno square (which honors the Spanish writer with the same name), Plaza Nueva (the most important square of the old town reconverted, nowadays, into a “place to be” for all pintxo lovers), Mercado de la Ribiera (the ancient Bilbao´s market, nowadays reconverted into a modern one. Check it here: http://www.lariberabilbao.com/en/ ) and Teatro Arriaga (the historical theater of Bilbao)
The neighboring area of Bilbao La Vieja has a similar history and vibe but it has started to attract artists and gallery owners, after years of controversy. This renovated part of the city is becoming popular among young and middle age people who like to try new, modern restaurants.
Leaving the old town and walking along the river side we start our way to the two main museums of the city: the Museo de Bellas Artes (Bilbao Fine Arts Museum) and the Guggenheim.
Although the Guggenheim take most of the credit, Bilbao´s ancient museum always organizes a great program of temporary exhibitions. Both museums complement themselves. On the one hand, the Museo de Bellas Artes, which is part of the city landscape since 1914, has one of the best collections of paintings made by many great Spanish masters like El Greco, Velazquez, Zurbarán or Goya. The Guggenheim museum, on the other hand, has one of the most renowned modern art collections of the world. Its temporary exhibitions as well as the permanent collection are in line with the groundbreaking architecture of the building. Two of the most popular outdoor artworks are the Puppy, a terrier carpeted in bedding plants created by Jeff Koons, and Maman, a tribute to Louise Bourgeois´ mother created in form of a spider.
After this cultural visit I would recommend you to enjoy some refreshment before exploring. A good street to recharge your energy is Pozas, a traditional meeting point for locals.
Following I will show you three different ways to walk from the Guggenheim until Pozas (do not forget the name of this place 😉 )
Leaving the Guggenheim and walking along the river side we start our river path. As you may already know, Bilbao experienced an architectural transformation the last 20 years which meant a radical change not only on its image to the outside world but also on its economy.
Walking along the Nervión (Bilbao´s river) is a good way to understand and to discover this transformation. Next to the Guggenheim we can find two modern university libraries (one belonging to the private and the other one to the public university) located just in front of one of the most ancient buildings of Bilbao: the renowned University of Deusto.
If we continue our way, we will find the highest building of the city: La torre Iberdrola, a modern office building. Straight forward we reach Doña Casilda park (better known as the ducks´ park) from where we can observe the modern Palacio Euskalduna, a theater and conference hall.
Just walk a couple of steps more to reach Plaza Circular (Circular Square) in Gran Vía, the commercial and financial centre of the city, and the new San Mames football stadium.
At this point we should remember that Bilbainos (people of Bilbao) are really pride of their football team. Why? Since more than 100 years ago, heritage and tradition are hugely important to Athletic de Bilbao Club. In a football world ruled by money and globalization, Athletic has a complete reliance on their cantera (youth basque players playing for Athletic Club in youth league). This non-written policy implies that every player who pulls on the famous red and white shirt is drawn from the Basque Country. This special non-written rule is the soul of Athletic Club that attracts fans not only from Bilbao but from all around the world. If you are one of those who think that this policy could create an inferiority between Athletic and other Spanish teams, let me surprise you by telling you that Athletic is one of the three clubs never relegated from “La Liga” (the others are Real Madrid and Barca).
Starting from this point, just a couple of meters away from San Mames, perpendicular to Gran Vía, we arrive to Pozas.
Leaving Puppy behind our backs we will start this path which will lead us to Pozas.
Streets such as Mazarredo, Elcano, Iparraguirre or Alameda Rekalde make up the modern “art district”. Among them it is easy to find art galleries, modern pintxos bars as well as gift and antique stores. At the end of this area we will reach Gran Vía, the financial centre of Bilbao, a 1.5 kilometers street long between Plaza Circular and Plaza del Sagrado Corazón. The halfway point is Plaza Moyua (Moyua square), home to the Carlton Hotel and to the shopping area of the city.
Although Moyua contains historical, dramatic buildings, one of the most interesting monuments of this square are the subway entrances.
Designed by Norman Foster, Bilbao´s subway stations are station-caverns made of stainless steel and glass. Inside, the stations are a large basilica-style gallery with two platforms. Outside, at the street level, the entrances are circular canyons made of glass. The renowned architect changed Bilbao´s landscape with this perfect example of engineering and architecture combination. You can find subway stations almost all around the city. It is well worth visiting them.
To reach our destination we just need to walk through Alameda Recalde until Pozas or to enjoy a ride in the subway 😉
Parque de los patos path
Although its real name is “Parque de Doña Casilda” this beautiful park located in the middle of Bilbao is popular known as ‘”Parque de los patos” (Ducks´ park) due to its lake usually crowded by lovely ducks and swans.
At the entrance of this city´s little green lung, appears the previously mentioned Museo de Bellas Artes, whose outdoor exhibition welcomes the visitors of the park. Walking through Doña Casilda Park we can discover a huge variety of trees and plants until we reach Indautxu, a centric area of Bilbao which offers a wide range of stores and businesses, although it is particularly noted for its many pintxos bars and ancient constructions.
Where to eat: The tradition of Pintxos
Pintxos are skewered and bite-sized foods, traditionally pierced with a cocktail stick to attach them to a piece of bread. They range from traditional pintxos to mini haute cuisine experiments such as grilled foie with a cream of blackberry and warm flavoured cheese. When going to have some pintxos, it is important to know that there is no need to order them, you can directly take them from the bar counter. Do not forget to don´t throw away the toothpick attached to it, you will need them to show the barman how many pintxos you ate, so that he can charge you accordingly.
Locals usually eat one or two pintxos with a glass Txakoli (traditional Basque white wine) or Zurito (a small glass of beer) before moving on to the next bar. Resist to sample every pintxo in a single bar, there is always another bar around the corner with more amazing pintxos waiting for you! 😉
But, where can I find Pintxos in Bilbao?
Let me show you the best streets to enjoy this tasty bite-sized foods.
The famous Pozas Street is back on the post! Yes, if you remember we came walking from the Guggenheim until Pozas to have some refreshment after our cultural visit to the dramatic Frank Gehry´s building.
Here there are traditional bars such as Restaurante Sotera, Zaharra or Restaurante Serantes. From Pozas, you can follow your gastronomical route in Calle Maestro Garcia Rivero (best pintxo bar of the street: Gozatu) or in Plaza Campuzano (traditional Pintxo bar: Bar el Estoril, highly recommended).
Years ago Plaza Nueva looked different, nowadays it is the new Bilbao´s pintxos area. Reconverted in «the place to be», many new bars are opening their doors in this part of the old town. The best ones? I would like to recommend you: Bar Sorginzulo, Bar Zuga and Bar Gure Toki. All of them have a great pintxos variety.
Classics never die.
Diputación is a small square located in the downtown, nearby the council office (ES: Diputación), full of traditional Bilbao bars. I recommend you to try at least one pintxo in each bar:
- Bar el Globo: Most popular pintxo – Pintxo de Txangurro
- Café la Vina: Do not forget to eat jamón there. They have the best one in the entire city
- Bar Zurekin: Try one Pintxo de Bacalao
- Bar la Olla: Really tasty Tortilla de Patata
What else to visit in Bilbao
Before leaving this beautiful basque city I would like to recommend you a couple of places more to visit:
You can take a cable car in Plaza del Funicular, a couple of meters away from the city hall, up to the hill to see a fantastic view of Bilbao from above. It is worthy!
Basílica de Begoña
Built on the site where the Virgin appeared in the early sixteenth century, this Gothic Basilica is the sanctuary to venerate the Virgin of Begoña, patron saint of Bizkaia. Thousands of tourists and pilgrims (the Way of Saint James pass through its main arcade) visit this one of the greatest symbols of the city.
Ready to drive to the coast? Just take the modern city subway and go to Las Arenas. Have a walk around, visit Puente Colgante and walk along the river side until you reach the beach. Fantastic views!
If you travel in summer you can also go to Larrabasterra or Plentzia to enjoy the beautiful, wild basque beaches.
Have a nice trip!