Rupert Parker gets a taste of the Basque country in his guide to Bilbao.
Bilbao is a shining example of the harmonious coexistence of tradition and modernity. This vibrant city, with its rich history and contemporary charm, captivates visitors from around the world. Once a grimy industrial centre, the factories have closed and the air is clean. From its iconic Guggenheim Museum to its delightful culinary scene this guide to Bilbao offers an immersion into Basque heritage and the shock of the new.
The Old Town, locally known as “Casco Viejo,” is a living testament to the city’s history. Narrow alleyways wind their way through charming squares, flanked by medieval architecture, including the Santiago Cathedral, a stunning example of Gothic and Romanesque fusion.
Bilbao’s culinary scene is an integral part of its identity, and exploring the city’s flavours is a must for any visitor. Pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, are bite-sized delights that showcase the region’s culinary creativity. The Casco Viejo is a haven for pintxo enthusiasts, with its countless bars offering an array of these tasty treats. From tender grilled octopus to savoury chorizo-stuffed mushrooms, each bite tells a story of local ingredients and generations-old recipes.
For those seeking a more substantial meal, Bilbao’s restaurants showcase the region’s dedication to gastronomy. At the heart of Basque cuisine lies an emphasis on high-quality, seasonal ingredients. Txakoli, the local white wine, perfectly complements dishes like bacalao a la vizcaína (salted cod with red pepper sauce) and chuletón (a succulent grilled steak). A visit to one of the city’s traditional asadores, where these expertly cooked meats are served, offers an authentic taste of the Basque table.
Bilbao is not stuck in the past – it effortlessly combines its historical roots with contemporary flair. The crown jewel of this juxtaposition is undoubtedly the Guggenheim Museum, a masterpiece of modern architecture designed by Frank Gehry.
Its titanium clad façade glistens in the sunlight, capturing the essence of Bilbao’s renaissance. Inside, the museum’s collection of contemporary art dazzles visitors, featuring works by luminaries such as Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor, and Eduardo Chillida.
Beyond the urban sprawl, the nearby coastline, with its rugged cliffs and sandy beaches, offers opportunities for both relaxation and exploration. Portugalete is a hidden gem with a rich history. The town’s historical significance is epitomized by the charming Casco Antiguo, the old quarter, where narrow cobbled streets wind their way past centuries-old buildings.
The town is home to several museums, including the Museo Rialia, where you can delve into the history of the region’s maritime traditions. From ship models to navigational instruments, the museum provides an engaging insight into the life of seafarers who once called this place home.
One of the most distinctive landmarks of Portugalete is its iconic transporter bridge, Puente de Vizcaya. This engineering marvel, often referred to as the “Hanging Bridge,” is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a testament to the town’s industrial heritage. Take a lift up top to the walkway and get panoramic views of the Nervión River and the surrounding landscape.
On the other side of the bridge is the charming town of Getxo, where cobblestone streets wind their way past traditional Basque houses and quaint shops. Plaza de San Nicolás is a focal point of the Old Town, surrounded by cafes and restaurants that serve typical Basque cuisine.
But the prime attraction in any guide to Bilbao is its beaches, boasting soft sands and clear waters. Playa de Ereaga and Playa de Arrigunaga are among the most popular, where visitors can soak up the sun, enjoy water sports, or take leisurely strolls along the promenade.
On my final day I take a boat back into the city following the river. Derelict factories on its banks are now being repurposed as residential apartments and a whole new district is emerging. It seems that the Guggenheim Museum was just the start of the ongoing renaissance of this once industrial city.
Tell Me More About This Guide To Bilbao, Spain
The Bilbao Bizkaia Card allows unlimited travel in the city and access to museums and other cultural attractions.
Bilbao Turismo has information about this guide to Bilbao and more of the city.
Hotel Gran Bilbao is brand new and convenient for the centre.
Hotel Puente Colgante in Portugalete is a luxury base right next to the bridge on the water and has an excellent restaurant.
Vueling offers connections between the UK and Spain and flies to Bilbao from London Gatwick seven days a week, averaging 22 weekly flights over the summer season. Single flights to Bilbao start from £28.86. There are currently 23 direct routes on sale for the summer season from the UK to Spain and other European destinations. Vueling also partners with Avikor to offer Sustainable Aviation Fuel to travellers, with over 100,000 holidaymakers opting to contribute over the last year.
The Gatwick Express is the fastest way to get to the airport from central London.