Just the name of the region – “Basque Country” – evokes scenes of rolling hills, gorgeous people dining al fresco, and a calm serenity of the sea…among many other glamorous things. While I’ve never personally been, Basque Country native, Patricia Palacios, confirms my visions and shares the many gems the city of Bilbao (part of the Basque region) has to offer. After traveling extensively throughout the world, she is back home in the Basque Country, working on her latest project, Eusko Guide, a travel guide dedicated to promoting this special and little known region of northern Spain and southern France. Patricia is also the author and creator of the Bilbao Travel Guide app for the iPhone. So if you happen to be journeying to this region, be sure to reference this amazing guide and check out the many additional resources Patricia has for you. –Stephanie
Read the full guide after the jump…
Bilbao is the beating heart of the Basque Country, a region in northern Spain and southern France, that spans from the Bay of Biscay to the western foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. The region is famous for having a unique culture and one of Europe’s oldest languages, called Euskera. Historically, Bilbao has been the economic center for the Basque region, largely due to the amount of industry that was developed there. During Industrialization, the city expanded greatly, however, by the 1980s Bilbao had received a reputation for being polluted and somewhat of an industrial wasteland. Thankfully, the government, along with its citizens, began an ambitious plan to rejuvenate the city. During the past few decades, Bilbao has gone through an incredible transformation. The city that was once constantly covered by gray clouds of smoke, is today a sophisticated and metropolitan city with a lot to offer.
Bilbao has become a design and art mecca that features the Guggenheim Museum from Frank Gehry, a timeless metro system designed by Sir Norman Foster, a cultural center from French designer Philippe Starck, a bridge and an airport from Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, and the list goes on and on. All of these new design highlights, plus its old charm, make Bilbao a city worth checking out.
Be sure to check out the Google Map with all of the below listings!
The old town of Bilbao is the core of the city and is where it all began many centuries ago. This area is also known as the “seven streets” (“Zazpi kaleak” in Basque) because these were the original seven streets that formed the town. Today, it is one of the most picturesque neighborhoods of Bilbao and is composed of narrow cobblestone streets packed with bars, restaurants, shops, etc. It is a must for any visitor of Bilbao.
Basque Boutique is a small, charming hotel located in the heart of Bilbao’s old town. Each room is unique and individually decorated with a special theme that represents a place or symbol of the Basque Country. The furnishings throughout the hotel are handmade and there are also art pieces inspired by Basque culture. (Calle de la Torre 2, 48005 Bilbao // +34 944 790 788)
Right next to the New Square (Plaza Nueva) stands the Caravan Cinema hotel, another unique establishment inspired by the Spanish film industry. Each room is designed to represent a Spanish film director. The overall decoration is a mixture of modern and vintage, creating a cozy and welcoming atmosphere. (Calle Correo 11, 48005 Bilbao // +34 688 860 907)
The Old Town of Bilbao is an area full of restaurants and pintxo bars, frequented by both locals and visitors alike. Pintxos are the Basque version of Spanish tapas – they are smaller, more experimental and generally better.
The bar Gure Toki opened its doors in 1982 and is proud to have a long tradition of award-winning pintxos. Located in the lively New Square (Plaza Nueva), Gure Toki offers Basque gastronomy in miniature form. The wide variety of pintxos visible at the counter range from traditional to modern and bold creations. There is also a menu of so-called “warm pintxos” cooked on the spot and those are also highly recommended. (Plaza Nueva 12, 48005 BILBAO // +34 944 15 80 37)
With its modern and fresh decoration, the bar Irrintzi Pintxos & Friends was born as an alternative to the traditional pintxo bars of Bilbao’s old town and it has definitely made a name for itself. Located in one of the busiest streets of the old town, Irrintzi offers culinary combinations from all over the world in pintxo form or, as they themselves describe it, “small treasures displayed at the counter in an unbeatable atmosphere.” (Calle Santa María 8, 48005 Bilbao // +34 94 416 76 16)
While visiting Bilbao’s old town, the one thing that you should do is to get lost in the narrow, stone-paved streets and then eventually find your way to one of the terraces of the New Square (Plaza Nueva). The square has a lively atmosphere and is frequented by locals as well as visitors. The perfect time to visit the New Square is on a Sunday, when it transforms into a market, full of artisans selling crafts. (Plaza Nueva, 48005 Bilbao)
A very interesting museum located in the old town is the Basque Museum – the perfect place to learn about Basque culture and history. Housed in a beautiful 16th century convent, the museum contains information about Basque ethnography, culture and traditions throughout history from prehistoric times to the present. (Plaza Miguel de Unamuno 4, 48006 Bilbao // +34 94 415 54 23)
Wandering through Bilbao’s old town, another building that is sure to catch your attention is the St James Cathedral. Although its construction started in the 14th century, the overall build time lasted for more than a century. Most of the cathedral was erected later during the 15th century in gothic style. (Plaza de Santiago 1, 48005 Bilbao)
At the southern edge of the Old Town, right next to the river, stands the main market of the city, the so-called Ribera Market. Although there has been a market in the same location since the 14th century, the building that stands there today was built in 1929 in art deco style. This unique market was very modern for its time and even today is an impressive construction. The market is the place to go for any type of local products or, if you enjoy the local cuisine, just to discover all the fresh ingredients that are so important in Basque gastronomy. (Calle Ribera 22, 48005 Bilbao // +34 94 602 37 91)
Adelia Ivañez is a candy store with a very long tradition. It opened its doors in 1855 and specializes in one type of candy, called turrón. Turrón is typically made with honey, sugar and toasted almonds, although today there are hundred of varieties – some with nuts, chocolate, coconut, etc. Turrón is very popular all over Spain and it is something that you will find in just about every household during Christmas time. Apart from its signature product, at Adelia Ivañez you will also find ice cream, liquors and other sweets. (Calle Correo 12, 48005 Bilbao // +34 94 416 93 26)
The neighborhood of Abando is located west from the Old Town, just on the other side of the river. This area was originally an independent town until it was annexed by the city in 1870. Today, it is Bilbao’s business and commercial center – an area full of shops, bars and restaurants. It is also a classy neighborhood where a large portion of Bilbao’s bourgeoisie live.
The Silken Gran Hotel Domine is a modern 5-star hotel located right in front of the Guggenheim Museum. The hotel was designed to compliment Frank Gehry’s masterpiece across the street. It features a facade full of oversized windows set at various angles that reflect images of the Guggenheim building. Each window is like its own little abstract work of art. The hotel also features a nice selection of furniture and art pieces that represent some of the most emblematic design of the 20th century. In addition, there is also a rooftop terrace where you can have breakfast or enjoy the sun setting on the Guggenheim. (Alameda de Mazarredo 61, 48009 Bilbao // +34 944 253 300)
Hotel Carlton is the most symbolic and luxurious hotel of Bilbao. This 5-star hotel opened its doors in 1926 and is located in the center of the business and commercial district of the city, at Federico Moyua Square. *Interesting Fact* – The Hotel Carlton was actually the first hotel in Spain to offer en suite bathrooms. Its initial slogan was “200 rooms, 200 bathrooms.” (Federico Moyúa Square 2, 48009 Bilbao // +34 944 162 200)
Nerua is located in the most iconic building of the city, the Guggenheim Museum. Guests can enjoy a unique and unforgettable experience in a space where the beauty and elegance of the museum converge with outstanding gastronomy. The cuisine at Restaurant Nerua is light and aromatic, having Basque roots as well as accents from the rest of the world. The restaurant also has one Michelin star. (Avda. Abandoibarra 2, 48009 Bilbao // +34 94 400 04 30)
However, if you are looking for something more informal – somewhere where you can have a couple of pintxos and drinks surrounded by locals – then the neighborhood of Abando is a great place. An excellent choice is the Bar El Globo, located right next to Bilbao’s main street, the Gran Via. The warm and welcoming atmosphere of El Globo invites guests to enjoy its tasty pintxos, winners of several contests. There is also a menu offering salads, sandwiches, raciones and cazuelitas. (Calle de la Diputación 8, 48008 Bilbao // +34 94 415 42 21)
A visit to Bilbao can’t be considered complete without visiting its most iconic building, the world famous Guggenheim Museum. Designed by star architect Frank Gehry, the museum opened its doors in 1997 and is now considered to be one of the most important structures of contemporary architecture. The titanium panels that wrap the building were designed to capture light, creating random organic curves that make the building look different depending on the time of the day and especially at night, when the city lights reflect off it.
The permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum is made up of art pieces from 1952 to the present day and is formed by artists from all over the world. However, the collection has a strong focus on Spanish art and more concretely, art from the Basque Country. It includes several works from Basque sculptors such as Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida, among others. There are also always at least two or three temporary exhibitions that change every couple of months. (Avda. Abandoibarra 2, 48009 Bilbao // +34 944 35 90 00)
Only a couple of minutes walk away from the Guggenheim Museum, following the river, stands the Zubizuri Bridge, a modern bridge designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava in 1997. Its name, Zubizuri, is a simple description of what it really is – a “white bridge.” The bridge is characterized by its curvature, which together with the arch and the glass floor, creates a beautiful and interesting structure. (Campo de Volantín Pasealekua 22, 48007 Bilbao)
The main street of Bilbao, which stretches along both the Abando and Indautxu neighborhoods, is called the Gran Via Don Diego López de Haro, but is commonly known as the Gran Vía. This wide boulevard is the commercial and business artery of the city and is where some of the most important residential, commercial and institutional buildings of Bilbao are located. One of the most impressive buildings to be found in the Gran Via is the Biscay Delegation Palace, a majestic construction in eclectic style from the end of the 19th century. (Gran Vía Don Diego López de Haro 25, 48009 Bilbao // +34 944 06 80 00)
La Viña del Ensanche is a delicatessen store located in the neighborhood of Abando, right next to the bar with the same name. The bar la Viña del Ensanche first opened in 1927 and has since become a classic in Bilbao. Apart from its popular pintxos, starters and a tasting menu, the establishment is especially well known for its high quality ham (jamón ibérico de bellota) from the brand Joselito.
In 1996, to fulfill customers’ needs, the family who owns La Viña decided to open a store next door. Here they are able to offer clients the same products that they use at the bar, such as a wide selection of wines, cheeses and other high quality local products. (Calle Diputación 10, 48008 Bilbao // Bar: +34 944 155 615, Store: +34 944 169 127)
Only a couple of minutes away from the Gran Via stands Espacioaerre, which is the home of the design studio Aerredesign as well as a small showroom where you will find design items that have been curated by the studio and that are related to the experience of traveling and the city of Bilbao. Although located across the river from the Abando neighborhood, it can very well be considered part of it since it is situated right across from the Guggenheim Museum, in a location from where some of the best views of the museum can be enjoyed. At Espacioaerre, they also hold exhibitions from various designers that are usually related to typography or any other aspect of graphic design. (Avda. Universidades 2, 48007 Bilbao // +34 944 42 27 35)
The neighborhood of Indautxu is located west from Abando and is more or less just its continuation. It is a business and commercial area as well, quite busy and full of things to do and see. The Gran Via street also crosses the Indautxu neighborhood.
Etxanobe is located at the top of one of the most important buildings of the neighborhood, the Euskalduna Palace. This one-Michelin-star restaurant offers a mixture of traditional and creative cuisine, where technique is secondary to fresh ingredients. The spectacular terrace of the Etxanobe restaurant also offers nice views of the river and the city of Bilbao. (Avda. Abandoibarra 4, 48002 Bilbao // +34 94 442 10 71)
The restaurant Cultural Center Alhóndiga. Today, only the façade of the original construction remains. The interior of the building was completely gutted before French designer Philippe Starck redesigned everything, down to even the smallest of details. The result is an interesting new modern interior space that contrasts with the original façade from 1905. Some of the highlights of the building are its 43 columns, each of them with their own unique design, and a glass bottom pool that is viewable from the ground floor.
The Cultural Center Alhóndiga is used for a wide variety of purposes, such as for exhibitions, concerts, lectures, films and children’s workshops. The complex also has a gym, swimming pool, library, bar, restaurant, design shop, and more. (Plaza Arriquibar 4, 48008 Bilbao // +34 944 01 40 14)
Bilbao’s Bodega Urbana is a space dedicated to wine. It is a combination of a wine shop, a bar serving pintxos, a classroom and even a small winery. Apart from tasting and buying wine, what makes Bodega Urbana unique is the winery where customers are able to create their own blends, fabricating tailor-made mixtures based on the 10 offered varieties. And you can even design the label for your bottle! They also organize tasting sessions and courses for those interested in the world of wine. (Gran Vía 66, 48011 Bilbao // +34 944 416 181)
Narata can be found in an industrial-bohemian loft. It is a concept store dedicated to art, fashion and interior decoration where you will find clothing, accessories, furniture and much more. They also collaborate with local artists, letting them exhibit at the store and the exhibitions generally change every two months. (Calle Indautxu 4, 48009 Bilbao // +34 944 39 90 47)
Bilbao la Vieja (Bilbao la Vieja + San Francisco + Zabala)
The neighborhood of Bilbao known as Bilbao la Vieja is divided into three smaller areas called Bilbao la Vieja, San Francisco and Zabala. It is located south from the old town, just across the river. Although Bilbao la Vieja was for sometime an area forgotten by many, in recent years many artists, students and young people have started to move into the neighborhood, in search of affordable rent. As a result, Bilbao la Vieja has become one of the most bohemian neighborhoods of Bilbao as well as its most multicultural.
The one-Michelin-star restaurant Mina occupies the location where a loading dock previously stood. It was the dock for a mine and where iron was loaded onto ships heading to England. From its origins comes its name, since Mina means “mine” in English. The cozy space at this fully renovated dock features raw stone walls complemented by slick and stylish furnishings. At Mina, they call their cuisine “market cuisine,” since the plates depend on what is fresh in the the market and what is in season. (Muelle Marzana s/n, 48003 Bilbao // +34 944 795 938)
BilboRock is a music venue housed in a church from the 17th century. The church was bought by the government in the 90s and since then, BilboRock has become a space for social and cultural gatherings. Apart from the main room which has space for almost 500 people, there are also several smaller rooms for meetings, courses, and rehearsal rooms rented to music groups, etc. (Muelle La Merced 1, 48003 Bilbao // 94 415 13 06 and 94 416 17 99)
Vinos y Licores Ruiz is a liquor stored that has become a tradition in Bilbao since it first opened in 1942. The competitive prices, huge selection and the personalized treatment make it a favorite of many locals. Vinos y Licores Ruiz has such a large variety that is also known outside of Bilbao and in the entire Basque Country. (Calle Hernani 8, 48003 Bilbao // +34 944 162 261)
Jon Kortajarena is a model and actor who has worked for Just Cavalli, Calvin Klein, Versace, Jean Paul Gaultier, Giorgio Armani and Karl Lagerfeld, among others. He has also been Tom Ford’s muse for nine seasons in a row and is currently considered one of the top male models at the moment.
Eneko Atxa is the chef of the 3-Michelín-star restaurant Azurmendi, located in the beautiful rural landscapes of Larrabetzu, 10 minutes away from Bilbao. At 35 years old, Eneko is one of the youngest chefs to have ever received a third Michelin star. In addition, Arzurmendi is also ranked number 26 in the “World’s 50 Best Restaurants.”
Álex de la Iglesia is a film director, producer and comic book artist. His films are mainly dark comedies that often combine death and murder elements with horror and drama. He was also the head of the Spanish Academy of Arts and Cinematographic Sciences from 2009 until 2011.
Joaquín Almunia is a politician who was responsible for the economic and monetary affairs of the European Commission from 2004 until 2010 and now serves as the vice president.
Joaquín Achúcarro is a classical pianist who has worked in 58 countries with over 200 orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony.