And a place that you should visit as soon as you can!
While not large by area, this city with over 1 million people and surrounded by mountains is so rich in history and culture that you can easily lose yourself in its streets. Not because it’s hard to get around, because it’s surprisingly easy, but because your mind wanders as easily as your feet and as far back in time as the city’s first breaths.
Founded in 1300, this industrial city has gone thru a renaissance in the last decades and is now a cultural gem and a proud representation of Basque tradition and a great example of how an industrial giant can transform. 4 distinct sections of the city seem united by its newest highlight, the iconic Guggenheim museum designed by Frank Gehry.
The Guggenheim, built in just 4 years as well as under budget and ahead of schedule received 1.5 million visitors in the first year, earning back the entire amount of its construction. Seen as a crown jewel in the cities revitalization of its industrial Riverside has become a magnet for international tourism. By years end 2022 it will have earned back 37 times its budget.
Exploring Bilbao by foot is extremely easy and just wondering along the river side affords you beautiful views of historic Bilbao and the futuristic views of the city. Our guide advised us that while the Basque people are extremely proud and rooted in their traditions they also never say no to technology and advancement. That balance of old versus new can easily be discerned with a simple walk from one end of the city to another along the river, from the Guggenheim to the central market.
I always say that the key to understanding any culture is to sample and enjoy its gastronomical offerings and Bilbao does not disappoint. With a variety of small bars and taverna’s offering the famous Pintxos, the Basque contribution to the tapas tradition in greater Spain - a multiple ingredient snack held together by a stick (hence the name), a simple walk thru the old town will expose you to a variety of Basque specialties.
A sit down restaurant offers a more intense experience, but be prepared the most restaurants don’t open for dinner before 8pm and most locals don’t dine before 9:30/10pm. Reservations are not needed in bars and taverns but most highly recommended for restaurants especially the good ones.
We went to two really great restaurants during our time here that I highly recommend. The first one is in the heart of the old town in the famous square and was called Victor Montes. We were extremely lucky to get a table here and by the time we left at 10 o’clock there was a line of at least 20 people waiting to get in. Fate must have been smiling on us because a table opened up just as we were passing by as part of our orientation walk. The second was a 10 minute walk from the hotel and absolutely required reservations ahead of time. It was called Atelier Extanobe and we had an incredible tasting menu paired with wines and was a beautiful representation of traditional Basque cooking.
The Basque language and traditions were first recorded in written form by the Romans who referred to “the men of the mountains” living in these remote regions as fierce and hardy people and the language which is believed to be at least 6,000 years old today has 27 distinct dialects, of which 7 are official and Batua (the combination of the most common dialects) is a unification taught in schools and required for employment in the civil service along with Spanish. It’s not an easy language.
English is possible as you move around the city, but don’t expect everyone to speak or communicate with you… And let me give you a hint, try not to be very loud as you dine as you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
Bilbao has become a popular part of AmaWaterways’ pre-cruise exploration of the Basque country and is combined with San Sebastian as part of their Taste of Bordeaux cruise. They offer a four night package which includes two nights in Bilbao and two nights in San Sebastian which you can also combine with a stop in Madrid on your way if you have the time. I highly recommend it and would be happy to talk to you about it when you plan your next trip with me.