The tail end of our trip to Basque Country was Bilbao (I still need to share our day trip to the Rioja region). Let me start by just saying that two days in Blibao was not enough! I must admit, before visiting Bilbao, I thought the only thing to see was the Guggenheim Museum. Boy, was I wrong. Not only is Bilbao the biggest city in the Basque Country, it has so much culture and charm. And just like our visit in San Sebastian, Bilbao has a great pinxtos scene. The architecture in this city is a mix of modern, quaint, and industrial. We didn’t get to do everything the city has to offer. Like other cities in Basque Country, Spanish and Basque are mostly spoken in Bilbao.
I’m highlighting things that we did, ate and saw in the short time that we were there. But if you want a more in depth experience of the city, please check out the blog – Bilbao Mola (I discovered her Instagram account and blog while researching our trip). I also used the Eusko Guide, which is a very helpful guide for not only Bilbao but all of the Basque Country. Lastly, Bilbao’s tourism’s website is a very good resource.
First and foremost, a visit to the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum is a must! If you’re not a museum person, I think you can just admire the architecture and art from the outside. The museum is designed by architect Frank Gehry, who happened to also the design the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago. So of course, I already loved the Chicago connection. Unilike the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, The Guggenheim Museum is about 4x its size. We spent about half a day at the museum and got complimentary passes from a winery we visited in La Rioja (more information on that in a later post).
One of the pieces of art that I wanted to see at the Guggenheim was actually outside of the museum – the “Puppy” flower sculpture that stands in front of the entrance. The Puppy is a 42-foot tall West Highland Terrier that is planted with flowers and designed by artist, Jeff Koons. The first day we arrived in Bilbao, we were sad to see that there as scaffolding around the puppy for its semi-annual maintenance. Upon our return the next day, the scaffolding was removed and we got to take tons of pictures in front of it (Luke thought it was a pig at first).
As a Francophile, I was surprised and happy to see that the current exhibition was “Paris, fin de Siecle” or Paris, End of Season, which features work by Signac, Redon, Toulouse-Lautrec about the Paris scene during the late 19th century. Unfortunately we couldn’t take pictures of the exhibition but I was happy that we were there to experience it.
Casco Viejo (Old Town)
We spent a rainy afternoon in Casco Viejo or Old Town. Bilbao’s Old Town seems a lot bigger than San Sebastian’s. The buildings are taller with so many shops in addition to the pintxos restaurants.
Because it was raining while we were in Bilbao, we hung around most the restaurants and bars located in Plaza Nueva, an arcade-line square. We were there on a Saturday night and saw groups of bachelorette parties and tons of family with kids running around while the parents drank and ate the good food.
I don’t think I can get tired of eating pinxtos in Basque Country. And the pinxtos in Bilbao did not disappoint! I wanted to highlight two places that we ate at that was truly memorable – Café Iruna in the Abando neighborhood and Gure-Toki in Plaza Nueva.
Cafe Iruna’s interior is neo-Moorish and from what I’ve researched, the restaurant is like an institution in Bilbao. I think what they are known for is moruno, or Moorish, pinxto. The lamb pinxtos are grilled by two gentlemen at the side of the restaurant and put on a skewer pinched with lemon and over a baguette. We ordered three skewers at 2 Euros a piece and loved it!
Gure-Toki serves more modern and inventive pinxtos, mixing some Asian flavors. My favorite was the yakitori chicken skewer served in a shot glass filled with potato cream. I ate three of those in one night!!
Santiago Calatrava’s Architectural Designs
If Chicago is known for architecture in the Midwest, then Bilbao is its sister in the Basque Country! I’m still in awe of Santiago Calatrava’s work including the Zubizuri Footbridge, which was near our hotel and Luke loved walking on. We made the walk many times in one day.
When you land in Bilbao, pay special attention to the architectural at the airport, which is also designed by Santiago Calatrava. I think it’s one of my favorite airports. The architecture was even amazing between the airport and the car rental garage.
Where we stayed
We decided to stay in a hotel in Bilbao instead of an Airbnb. For the most part, I wasn’t very familiar with the neighborhoods in the city and our time in the city was very short. We stayed at Barceló Bilbao Nervión, which was walking distance to the Zubizuri Footbridge and the Guggenheim Museum. The hotel had good reviews on TripAdvisor and our room was pretty big! The hotel has a restaurant and cafe at reasonable prices. Parking was about 27 Euros a day…which was quite expensive but very convenient.\
Things we want to do in Bilbao the next time we visit
Like I said before, two days in Bilbao is not enough! We still have so much to explore in this city!
- Explore the San Francisco neighborhood for wall art.
- Take the funicular up Mount Artxanda to see views of the city.
- Do a walking tour around Casco Viejo.
- Eat more pintxos in the Abando neighborhood.
- Take a rountrip ride on the tram (Luke loved the short tram ride).
- Take the Metro to see the work designed by Sir Norman Foster.
- Visit the Biblioteca Central de Bidebarrieta since I’m trying to visit a library in every city we visit.