There are a lot of lists of “underrated cities” in Europe, and Bilbao is toward the very top of mine. Northern Spain is easily a top 5 food destination due to the number and quality of both Michelin star dining and casual tapas options. It has Spanish wine bars and restaurants offering full access to Rioja and other wine regions in Spain, and even a surprising number of quality breweries and bottle shops. It’s a family atmosphere city with streets spilling over with neighborhood kids, dogs and friends enjoying the city. The buildings are flush with Maltese balconies, Art Nouveau architecture and like most of my favorite cities, a nice river winding through the middle of it. There are incredible hiking options just minutes outside of town, and then of course the utterly remarkable city of San Sebastian is an easy day trip or weekend option. In short, Bilbao would easily finish among our top European cities for food, drinking, hiking, nature, day trip options, architecture and walk-ability. Add that all up and the fact it probably isn’t even on your top 20 list of European cities to visit explains why it is so grossly underrated. Maybe some of the pictures below will help change your mind.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Azurmendi: Go!Go!Go! Located just 15 minutes outside of Bilbao is one of the World’s best restaurants. I’m not just saying that for effect, as Azurmendi is a 3 Michelin Star restaurant and is also a mainstay on the annual Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants list. While expensive compared to most other restaurants, Azurmendi was the cheapest so far of the 3 Michelin Star restaurants we’ve been to and for me personally, my favorite. It’s not just that the food was delicious, but the entire experience is so unique. You are moved through several different rooms before you’re even seated, and the service, food presentation, wine pairings, and atmosphere – including the beautiful perched viewpoint over Basque Country – makes this a true bucket list travel experience.
Gure Toki: Go!Go!Go! There are only a select handful of restaurants throughout Europe that were so outstanding, so memorable, so insanely and ridiculously delicious that we decided to go off-book and visit them twice during our stay. Our goal is usually to try as many options and different experiences as possible, but sometimes a restaurant or particular food is so good we just have to go back for seconds. Gure Toki is one of an even smaller and more select group that we went back to 3 times during our stay! Yes, in a city full of amazing food, we stopped by here 3 times in just 3 days. The food in this place is absolute perfection, you’ll want to try it all. Our favorites were the white asparagus, the octopus, and the fried calamari.
Café Bar Bilbao: Go!Go! A local and tourist favorite, with great tables for people watching at the beautiful, historic Plaza Nueva (also see it referred to as Plaza Barria). Historic, charming feel with some of the best pintxos in Bilbao
El Sacacorhcos: Go!Go! At the time of our visit, Ad Hoc Cascanueces was the #1 restaurant in Bilbao on TripAdvisor. While their food looked wonderful, and they boast a Michelin Star, we didn’t want another sit-down reservation dinner. So, we were thrilled when we read about El Sacacorhcos, located caddy corner from Ad Hoc with the same chef and quality items, but in a casual tapas bar environment. Despite being pretty full, this was our last stop on a long day of eating and drinking and exploring Bilbao. It lived up to the hype. Inventive, creative, large portion tapas that were incredible. Maybe the best jamon we had on the trip. Depending on the type of experience you are looking for, I strongly recommend trying either (or both) of these stops while in Bilbao.
La Ribera Market: Go! At over 10,000 sq feet, the La Ribera Market in Bilbao has bragging rights as the largest indoor market in Europe. While the “indoor” is a notable qualifier, bottom line is it’s a beautiful building right on the water with gorgeous views, it’s spotlessly clean, it has live music, restaurants, shops, and plenty of pintxos places if you want to try as many options as possible. The colors, vibe, quality and variety of European markets are what make them one of my absolute favorite things about visiting Europe. While La Ribera isn’t in my upper echelon of European markets, I would go back again in a heartbeat and highly recommend you make a stop for a snack or lunch.
Pengiun Bar: Go!Go! We really liked the Penguin Bar. Probably our favorite bar in Bilbao. It’s in the commercial center of Bilbao, but tucked away in a nice little hidden square with it’s own front yard. Largest selection of draft, craft beer that we found. We had an excellent sampler and a snack – would definitely return when back in Bilbao.
Singular: Go!Go! Very nicely done craft beer bar with an excellent selection of Spanish and European brews. Even in Europe, finding a place that sells Westvleveren is rare, so the fact that this place had it on the menu immediately made it a must do for us! Great stop for before/after the Guggenheim.
Loren Taberna: Go! Located on the steps from the park down to the Miguel Plaza, Loren Taberna is away from the crowds, has a great patio, and is famous for their exceptional tortillas.
Bodega Urbana: Go! In a neighborhood that feels a bit like a financial district, but still with many beautiful buildings, this place is a bit modern and feels a bit like a business lunch or happy hour spot. However, they have some solid food options, including high quality jamon and some of the best (spicy) potatoes we’ve ever had. While they don’t have a lot of draft beer options, their sampler is basically 4 full pints of their own brand brewed in-house.
La Olla de la Plaza Nueva: Go! We went here purely because of their specialization in Jamon. As I’ve noted in many other reviews, Bellota Iberico Jamon is one of my all-time favorite foods, and it is still not available in the US. At least, the really high-quality stuff is not available. It’s reason enough to go to Spain! While I’d prefer to have my meal at Gure Toki a few doors down, this is a good spot to stop and get a plate of Jamon with a glass of wine for a snack.
Eneperi: Go! Located right at the start/finish of the incredible San Juan de Gaztelugatxe hike (see below under “Things to Do”). Normally, restaurants at tourist attractions are crap, but Eneperi has great views, good food, and plenty of charm! It’s a perfect choice to a pre or post hike meal!
Bihotz Café: Nice café with one of the better and more varied selection of bottled beer you’ll find in Bilbao. Very casual, with soup, salad and sandwich offerings as well. While I wouldn’t walk out of my way (as we did) to get there, it’s a very well-reviewed café and I’m sure you’ll be happy with their beer selection and lunch options.
Bar Fermin: Located right at the beautiful Miguel Unamuno Plaza, just past the Museum of Archaeology, Bar Fermin is a Bilbao pinxtos staple and local favorite. It’s simple, small and old school. They are known for their salted cod, which was good but didn’t amaze us. A solid, non-touristy option.
THINGS TO DO:
Guggenheim – Go!Go!Go! in terms of walking around it from the outside and seeing it from the surrounding areas. As for actually going inside, it’s only a Go! for us. In the same manner that the Eiffel Tower is synonymous with Paris and Big Ben is with London, the Guggenheim is of course the most recognizable and famous landmark in Bilbao – it’s hard to miss. As I’ve noted many times, we are not art lovers and tend to enjoy the buildings themselves more than the art inside them. This goes doubly so for modern art, as I just will never understand how or why a rope hanging from an empty room is considered art or worth paying to see. The picture below of the large copper circle structures is one of the “exhibits”. In addition to the modern art staples of 1-color canvases and cheesy scrolling neon messages, the Guggenheim also has other more traditional art options. During our visit, they had an exhibit of the 1920s art nouveau…or maybe it was art noir… or maybe deco… whatever, it’s the ads you recognize like the cat noir poster that everyone bought for their first apartment after graduating from college. It was fine. Anyway, overall, yes, the building itself is a unique, bucket-list gem that has to be seen. Whether or not you go inside is optional depending on the particular exhibits and if you’re an art person.
Casco Viejo – Go!Go!Go! Why even go to Europe if you don’t plan to explore the old town areas of each city? Known as Zazpikaleak in Basque, the old town of Bilbao is a medieval neighborhood of 7 streets and narrow alleys that connect them. Don’t miss the Miguel Unamuno Plaza, which functions as kind of a Spanish Steps for Bilbao, and of course the nearby Plaza Barria. It is a thriving district full of beautiful architecture, wonderful photo opportunities, and local families (including dogs) both sitting outside enjoying pintxos and wine, playing music, singing, dancing, and flowing in and out of all the restaurants that conveniently leave their doors wide open in a way that makes the streets almost feel like their communal balcony. Sure we had some wine, sure we are generally in a good mood while traveling, but I tell you there was just something about the vibe walking around Bilbao in general but especially the old town that just gave you a feeling of joy. I could live in this city.
Hiking San Juan de Gaztelugatxe – Go!Go!Go! We visited Bilbao in the height of Game of Thrones hysteria…basically about a year or so before the final season came along and dropped the ball. It’s always fun to visit places that were filming locations for your favorite shows, and we were looking for a good day hike anyway, so it was a no-brainer for us to embark on the now famous hike to the Escalinatas de San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. While there are many, many outstanding hikes in the Bilbao area, I promise you will not regret choosing this hike if you only get to pick one. The day we did the hike it was around 100 degrees and other than the sheer overwhelming beauty of the hike, the other memory we both have of that day is perhaps never being thirstier. We made the mistake of not bringing water on our hike – as it’s only about an hour there and an hour back – but the temps made it close to unbearable and there are some very steep sections of the hike. Still, despite that, it was one of our favorite hikes in terms of views and uniqueness, and we highly recommend going. Also, if you missed it above, the Eneperi restaurant is surprisingly good given it’s location by a tourist attraction. Great choice for a pre or post hike/drink. For us, given the temps, our drink of choice was a 1 liter bottle of water…each.
Plaza Nueva / Plaza Barria – Go!Go! This neoclassical square in Casco Viejo (old town) district is a must see. It’s clean, with ample seating to enjoy your wine and people watching, and the architecture is beautiful. Of course, both Bar Bilbao and Gure Toki are located here, so even if it were a dark, dirty, dungeon of despair, you’d have to go just to eat at those two spots.
Walk the City: Go!Go!Go! While “walking around the city” is basically an assumed activity no matter where you visit, we especially loved walking around Bilbao. The architecture was romantic and a mix of Malta, Budapest, Helsinki and traditional Spanish. The city has a great energy and vibe, at least it did the few days we were there. We spent most of our time walking around eating and drinking in the Abando district and the Old Town. I included a lot of pics below to try to get my point across…
Azkuna Zentroa – Go! Very unique inner-city oasis with movie theaters, fitness centers, restaurants, events, shows, and much more. A couple of the more notable features are the 32 individually designed (by Phillipe Stark) pillars on the ground floor, which happens to look up several stories to a glass bottom swimming pool.
Biblioteca Central de Bidebarrieta – Okay, how “must do” can a library be? Well, in this case, it is worth stopping by if you like eclectic architecture, stained glass and frescos. We walked through in about 10 mins just to take a look, and since it’s located right in Old Town, it isn’t out of the way.
We had a few other goals for our trip to Bilbao but we ended up liking the city so much we spent extra time walking around and just bar/tapas hopping. When we go back, these activities will be on the top of our to do list:
- Bike ride to Getxo district
- Vizcaya Bridge – We didn’t get to so see this bridge, unfortunately, but I wanted to include it here just to make those that read this aware of it. We love a unique, interesting, or architecturally special bridge. At some point I’ll probably do a top 10 bridges of our travels, and hopefully by then I’ll get to go back to Bilbao and see the Vizcaya Bridge myself. Just Google image it, it’s very unique, in that the bridge for pedestrians is at the top and instead of a bridge for vehicles, they built basically an open air horizontal elevator… crazy!
- Day trip or overnight to Rioja wine country – Northern Spain is the mecca for Tempranillo. The Rioja valley, like most wine regions, is a beautiful, picturesque landscape, with more wineries than you could visit in a year. Rioja also has some of the most architecturally amazing, newly constructed, luxurious wine tasting rooms anywhere, as well as plenty of memorable 4 and 5-star accommodations.
WHERE TO STAY:
We stayed in two hotels during our stay in Bilbao. One for 2 nights when we arrived, and then another just for a night after returning from San Sebastian before heading to the airport the next morning. Overall, in doing my research, one of the things that jumped out at me was how inexpensive hotels in Bilbao were. I even checked a few other dates just to see if we just happened upon a good time, but in general hotels of all classes were relative bargains compared to other places in Spain and Europe in general.
Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao – Go! This hotel was one of only a two or three 5-star hotel options in Bilbao, and it had by far the best location and review score. For those that have read any of my other reviews, you know I like a good view in my hotel room. The Domine is located directly across from the Guggenheim, so the view both from our room and from the rooftop deck (where breakfast is served as well) was fantastic. The rooms were fairly standard, but overall it was a nice hotel with very good staff and it is where I would recommend staying when visiting Bilbao.
Hotel Tayko Bilbao – This hotel opened up after our stay in Bilbao, but for those wanting a modern, newly renovated place this hotel is worth a look. It’s also right next to the old town area – really perfectly located.
Barcelo Bilbao Nervion – We stayed one night at the Barcelo before having to catch our flight the next morning. We had an early flight, so we wanted a hotel that was a bit outside of the city center to make our exit a bit easier. Our suite was large but somewhat claustrophobic given the single, small window in the room. Overall, it was a nice facility and it gets great reviews on TripAdvisor, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It felt too much like a business hotel.
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