Bilbao Travel Guide

Bilbao Travel Guide

Kerry Murray

Bilbao isn´t what you would call a pretty city, the way you would describe Paris or Florence, but she´s definitely a city with character. The modern bridges and glass-clad skyscrapers, the manicured green spaces along the winding river, the narrow medieval streets of the old town, all of these elements, seemingly at odds with one another, somehow manage to blend effortlessly together and define the many personalities of Bilbao and her people. A port city at the mouth of the Nervion River, Bilbao has always been a place full of activity. Heavily industrialised in the late 19th and early 20th-century, it grew to be the economic heart of the Basque country and also gained a reputation as being somewhat dirty and seedy. Thankfully, this reputation is no longer applicable as the city has done much to clean up her act and has transformed into a multicultural city of art, architecture, music and gastronomy. Wondering what to do in Bilbao? Mr Hudson has got you covered.

The Arts District

The most famous landmark in Bilbao is, of course, the Guggenheim Museum. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, this artistic marvel of glass and titanium has been hailed as one the most important examples of contemporary architecture and brought millions of people to the city since its inauguration in 1997. Right by the river and within the Arts District, the museum houses an extensive permanent collection featuring art from all over the world, but with a strong focus on Spanish and Basque art in particular, in addition to temporary exhibitions that change every few months. In front of the Guggenheim is an enormous flower covered sculpture of a dog named Puppy, by Jeff Koons, which has also become synonymous with the city of Bilbao and is a much-loved local landmark.

In the gardens beside the museum is the outdoor bar and coffee shop Campa de los Ingleses, a great place to relax and grab a drink after a visit to the exhibitions. On weekends they have live jazz, and if the sun is shining, the place is packed with locals enjoying the music and the weather. Another must-do is the Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Art Museum) a few blocks away from the river, perfect for a rainy day. The Miró Hotel, opposite the Guggenheim, is a small and very central place to stay. The styling is modern but comfortable, and the personalised service and attention to detail have made this one of the most highly rated hotels in town.

Miró Hotel | Photo: Kerry Murray

Miró Hotel | Photo: Kerry Murray

A short tube ride takes you to the modern and rather unpronounceable Indautxu, a fashionable neighbourhood housing many of the cities cutting edge shops, boutiques and restaurants. Tucked away in one of the smaller streets you will find Narata, an interior design store with a quirky sense of humour and a gorgeous array of homeware items that make you want to move right in and never leave. Many of their pieces are one-off items and in addition to the shop, they feature the work of local artists by hosting frequent exhibitions in their atelier. A short stroll away is El Puertito, a tiny oyster bar that is intent on making this exclusive treat less daunting and more widely appreciated. The bar is petite, but service is impeccable, and the range of oysters is amazing and always fresh. Well worth the visit.

The best hotels in Bilbao

The people make this city buzz. Bilboans are effusive and sociable and come rain or shine (because there´s no lack of the former) they are out on the streets, drinking, eating and having a good time. The Basques have a strong culinary heritage, and the entire region is well known for amazing food. Bilbao is no exception and pintxos (a version of tapas traditionally pierced on a cocktail stick) is more than just a pre-dinner snack. It´s a local institution and an integral part of the socialising culture. The Casco Viejo (Old Town) is the heart and soul of pintxo culture and in these narrow streets, you will find many bars and small restaurants boasting counters laden with bite-sized treats. There are literally dozens of places to choose from in a few small streets so have a look at what´s on offer and choose what looks freshest. A general rule of thumb is to go to the place that has the biggest crowd of locals drinking outside.

Another great spot within the old town is the Plaza Nueva, a beautiful square lined with old buildings and quintessentially Spanish archways, and a great place for pintxos and people watching. Sundays are market days and definitely worth a visit as the entire square is converted into open-air stalls selling local produce. The Caravan Cinema Hotel is also in this district, just around the corner from the Plaza Nueva and inspired by the Spanish film industry. Each room pays homage to a Spanish director; the decor is an eclectic mix of modern and vintage and the hotel´s central location makes it an ideal base from which to explore the city on foot.

Another great accommodation option within the Casco Viejo is the self-catering apartment “El Pisitö”, a beautifully renovated 19th-century apartment in the heart of the old town. Within walking distance of just about everything in the city, this charming place has all the modern conveniences you would need without losing any of its old world character.

Narata | Photo: Kerry Murray

Narata | Photo: Kerry Murray

Right on the rivers edge, separating the Casco Viejo from the San Francisco district, you find the Mercado la Ribera, built in the 1920´s in an Art Decor style. Recently renovated it is the largest indoor market in Europe and a great place from which to explore the Basque food culture. As well as the typical fresh produce for sale, there is also a newly opened restaurant section within the market, making this a great place to browse and then stop for a bite to eat before heading out into the city again.

San Francisco

Cross the river and you´re in San Francisco, one of Bilbao’s most multicultural districts, historically poor but currently undergoing a revival as an up and coming area full of art galleries, boutiques and restaurants running along the riverfront. Mina is a Michelin starred restaurant right across the river from the Mercado housed in a fully converted industrial loading dock. The space is cosy: the design combines the old stone walls with modern minimalist furnishings, and the food is described as market cuisine, with the menu changing according to what is seasonal and freshly available at the market. Mikel Larrinaga is an interior design store a short stroll away from the river. In business since the early 1980s, the store is an eclectic mix of modern and vintage that seems to perfectly capture the multiple personalities of the city.

Mina | Photo: Kerry Murray

Mina | Photo: Kerry Murray

Further down the river, facing the northern part of the old town, there are several bars and restaurants that overflow onto the sidewalks during the weekends and are a good place to grab a drink and enjoy the views. Kubrick, across the river from the Arriaga Theatre, is one such place and as the name suggests, the decor is inspired by Stanley Kubrick films and the space is often used for cinema screenings and private parties. Keep following the river and you´ll find the Baobab Bar Teteria, a tiny place with a lot of soul and a fabulous selection of cocktails. In Africa, the Baobab tree is symbolic as the meeting place, that shady spot where people get together, and they have borrowed this concept to make the bar a vibrant, sociable place, much like the Bilbainos that frequent it.

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