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Blown Away by Bilbao, Spain

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Not many years ago Bilbao, Spain was the heartland of the Basque independence movement, a no-go zone where few outsiders dared to venture.

ETA, the independence movement, killed hundreds of people in its fight for a Basque homeland and was particularly active under the authoritarian Franco regime. But when Franco died the Basque country was given a reprieve, plenty of privileges, a certain level of autonomy – and the population was tired of bombs. So over the years, with stops and starts, ETA moved away from violence.

Today, in the thriving and lively streets of downtown Bilbao, you’d never know this society had been torn apart at its roots just a few short years ago.

Angry skies over Bilbao, Spain

Contrasting skies over Bilbao

Before we visit Bilbao’s stunning architecture I’d like to spend a bit of time on eating here because the Basque country has some of the best food and products in the world.

I managed to eat two extraordinary meals in Bilbao (not bad considering I was there under 48 hours).

At Victor Montes Restaurant in the old town my first course was an array of pintxos (pronounced pin-choes), similar to Spanish tapas. The word comes from the verb pinchar or pinched, because of the toothpick that often holds the garnish to the thin slice of Spanish-style baguette underneath.

Pintxos in Bilbao Spain

Dinner at Victor Montes began with nearly a dozen plates just like these (we were about 8)

Seafood pintxo in restaurant in Bilbao Spain

I managed to take a photo of this baby seafood pintxo before it disappeared – just

Other typical Basque pintxos? Any type of cod. Baby eel. Seafood. Anchovies. Iberian ham. Sometimes both together. Salmon, egg, prawn and anchovy. Individually or combined. Red peppers, tuna salad and mushrooms. In other words there’s very little you can’t put on a pintxo. The flavors have to marry well, and it has to look pretty. I’d say they’re a type of art form.

A last word about pintxos: they’re not usually eaten at a sit-down meal, as I did. This is finger food at the bar. Usually you push your way through the crowd and order – or in many places you just help yourself and settle up later. Better yet, gang up with a bunch of friends and head off for a txikiteothe pintxo version of a pub crawl, from bar to bar, stopping off in each for a specialty (and a little drink). And to think that some people sit down for dinner after this extravaganza.

An amazing cote de boeuf in Bilbao Spain

Ah yes, dinner: a cote de boeuf, Basque style (and to think I almost had the fish)

Once is not enough

Next day, still full from the previous evening, I was confronted with the Bistró Guggenheim Bilbao, whose more formal sister restaurant, Nerua, has a Michelin star but whose kitchen is also run by Nerua’s chef, Joseán Martínez Alija.

I ordered roast boned lamb and here’s what arrived.

Main dish of roast lamb at Bistro Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain

Does this look like roast lamb to you?

In panic I almost sent it back, thinking they’d forgotten my main meal and brought me a dessert brownie instead. False alarm. This was pressed deboned lamb, possibly one of the most exquisite lamb dishes I’ve ever tasted. And those lovely nutlike sprinkles on top are chickpeas.

Bilbao, Spain: it’s also a feast for the eyes

With this kind of eating activity going on, walking is the only antidote and this is a great walking city.

There’s something about Bilbao, a certain contemporary nonchalance that casually throws up ultramodern structures in the midst of classical monuments. And it works. Bilbao is one of the most visually stimulating cities I’ve visited in Spain, not because of its utter beauty – it’s more attractive than beautiful – but because of the contrasts and the corners.

First, the contrasts.

The neo-gothic Arriaga in Bilbao Spain

Bilbao is home to a dazzling variety in architecture, from the Neo-Gothic Teatro Arriaga…

Outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao Spain

…to Frank Gehry’s hypermodern and glorious Guggenheim (stunning even under leaden skies)

Bilbao Spain

From the fancy sculptures and bridges on one side of the river…

Facade of University of Deusto in Bilbao, Spain

…to the handsome facade of the University of Deusto.

And now the corners. In a city that is now catching its stride, striking spaces surprise you when you least expect it.

Art Nouveau theater Campos Eliseos in Bilbao, Spain

The magnificent Campos Eliseos Theater was renovated in 2008

A few snapshots of Bilbao, Spain

A few charming corners of Bilbao

Despite its cultural and culinary wealth, most tourists come to Bilbao for one reason: the Guggenheim Museum.

I, unfortunately, managed to miss the museum (despite my lunch there). I was in Bilbao on business and lunch was part of it. I excused myself to take a peek but there wasn’t much I could see. That means… a return trip.

I was literally blown away by Bilbao, because of its warmth and architecture and food of course but also because landing at the seaside airport is a bit like taking a blind run at a wall, bouncing off it sideways, and then slipping on an oil slick. It is known as a windy airstrip but on that particular day even local spectators admitted they could see the plane rock at a distance.

No matter.

Because I plan on doing it again.

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • Victor Montes Restaurant is an essential stop – but you should be in a meat mood to enjoy it to its fullest.
  • When you visit the Guggenheim Museum – and you must (if only so you can tell me about it) try having lunch at the Bistró.
  • If you’re keen on making your own pintxosGerald Hirigoyen’s book of the same name will show you how (I promise you’ll get so hungry you might start eating the book!)
  • Bilbao is on the coast of northern Spain. Roads aren’t that speedy and even the train from Madrid takes five hours. Iberia has hourly flights from Madrid (and also flies from elsewhere in Spain), and EasyJet has cheap flights from London and Geneva.

10 Comments

  1. Miruna on June 16, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Great post! I can’t wait to finally make it to Bilbao.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on June 16, 2013 at 5:16 pm

      Thanks Miruna, totally worth it! I was surprised – pleasantly, and so much so I have decided to return, probably this autumn.

      • Miruna on June 16, 2013 at 5:22 pm

        That’s good to know. Both Asturias and the Basque Country are on my list. I love Spain and I intend to explore all of its regions (especially those that I haven’t)in the near future.

  2. Ross on November 24, 2013 at 10:16 pm

    Great post. It was always tentatively on my to do list but after your raving reviews I definitely will head soon. It looks and sounds great.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 24, 2013 at 10:38 pm

      Once you visit be careful – you might get hooked! I’m heading there again next week…

  3. Adelina on November 28, 2013 at 12:54 am

    That lamb dish looks unreal! I would love to try it. The buildings look gorgeous – especially that theatre.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on November 30, 2013 at 9:42 pm

      I’m just back from my second trip to Bilbao and the food was every bit as good as the first time – and the buildings as interesting! And I STILL haven’t managed to see the inside of the Guggenheim Museum…

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