A few weeks ago, I made way up to the north of Spain – the Basque Country, aka Pais Vasco.
Bilbao doesn’t get the credit it deserves among tourists. I hear a a lot of:
– “You went to Bilbao? Did you make it to San Sebastian?”
– Me: “No, not this time.”
– “Oh, that’s a bummer.”
Over the last decade, Bilbao has been known to be more industrial, grungy, and less-touristy than its posh neighbor.
To be fair, San Sebastián is stunning, there’s no denying it. The city center is located right on the peninsula, where the ocean waves crash next to a boardwalk surrounding old town. It is also well-renowned for its food, likely to have been influenced by the proximity to France.
When my sister and I did our tourney through Spain a few months ago, we only spent a day and night in Bilbao (and most of the day was spent for a lost car and credit card, but that’s another story,) then bolted to San Sebastian, in pursuit of pintxos, beaches and hot Spanish men. And without fail, it lived up to it’s expectations (read the post here), but we certainly neglected Bilbao. How much of a place can you really see in such a short amount of time? Full of naivety, I didn’t really have much of a desire to return… it seemed to me that all there really was to Bilbao is the Guggenheim museum, which we already saw.
However, when Madrid is nearly 100 degrees, and you have a cousin in Bilbao, which is approximately 75 degrees year-round… You’d be crazy not to go to Bilbao. So I took my first Bla Bla Car excursion (you can read about that here.) I enjoyed Bilbao so much, that when I returned to Madrid, I was reminded of why I left… The only people crazy enough to brave the streets of Madrid are the tourists. So… what do I do…? I go back to Bilbao. There were other reasons that may or may not involve a guy I briefly met in Bilbao… but… that’s a whole ‘nother post 😉
So, how did my opinion of Bilbao change after spending over a week there?
This is bold statement, but the Basque Country has the best food you can find in all of Spain. This isn’t just another tourist claim, you’ll find that even Spaniards agree. Usually, Spaniards are very proud of whatever region of Spain they’re from (there are 17 autonomous regions.) They’ll claim that their region is the best for X, Y, Z. But when it comes to food, there’s no argument. They’ll agree that the Basques know what they’re doing.
Pais Vasco is most well-known for pintxos, which are NOT tapas (they’ll tell you,) they are PINTXOS. Which are essentially really extravagant tapas. More on the differences in this post. I didn’t spend quite enough time to truly discover the local hidden gems, however I did make it a point to do my research and made a list of must-see places. If you ever make it to Bilbao, use the map below as a starter guide to the coolest places to eat/drink.
La Vina del Ensanche
This restaurant had a similar effect to the rest of my experiences in Bilbao… At first, nothing to write home about. The atmosphere is nothing special; just your typical traditional Basque bar – rude waiters, seats few-and-far between, and napkins littering the ground. I was shocked when I saw a sticker on the window claiming to be a Michelin-starred restaurant, because up until this point, the expectations were pretty low.
But… the food. The foooooood! It blew me away.
The other place I really enjoyed is called Cafe Iruña, built in 1903. It’s walls are lined with traditional Spanish style mosaics, bars topped with what appeared to be hundreds of pintxos, and you guessed it, impatient wait staff. That’s as traditional as it gets!
During my first few days in Madrid, I made friends with an internationally-renowned bartender. Convenient, right? 😉 Now, I always have a solid resource when it comes to finding the best spots to have cocktails during my travels around Spain. Naturally, I had to visit at least one of the places he recommended. So, head to meet his buddy, a well-known bartender in the area. Based on a photo, he looked like the gritty type – thick, dark salt and pepper hair, heavy chops lining his face, and an expression that doesn’t seem capable of a smile. I was surprised to coincidentally see the same face in a magazine ad for the bar. So, I head over to the Residence Cafe to see what the big deal was about this Manu character.
And… there he was, dark aviators covering his eyes, only recognizable by his characteristic beard… In a painting on the wall! I was so disappointed. I realized that I didn’t even go for the cocktails, I went to meet this mysterious man.
Luckily, his co-worker was an exceptional bartender and made up for it. She whipped up a refreshing Moscow Mule for me and semi-sweet Mojito for my cousin.
I returned to the Residence Cafe during this most recent trip, again on the hunt for Manu. No Manu, yet again. He’s the chupacabra of bartenders. I don’t even know if he exists. I’ll find him someday.
Gran Hotel Domine (Rooftop Bar)
Not that this one is a secret, but good luck finding any solid information on the best places to go in Bilbao. Google Spain and Google USA are slightly different when it comes to SEO rankings. Ok, I’ll stop. This rooftop bar is located on the top of a hotel quite literally right across from the Guggenheim. If you want an amazing view of the museum and the river, go here. The cocktails were so-so (in comparison with Residence), but the views are totally worth the 12€ cocktails.
Aside from the Guggenheim, there are several places in Bilbao worth checking out.
Casco Viejo, which my sister and I made the mistake of not visiting our first go round, is a must-see. It’s the quaint old town, where it seems like almost every day you can find entertainers and musicians in the center plaza. It’s jam-packed with traditional Spanish bars and also has a cornucopia of hipster stores, which I found really odd.
Nearby is also Mercado Ribera, a stinky fish market with an awesome tapas cafeteria on the main floor. I didn’t eat there, but taunted my sister via video chat by showing her all of the pintxos lining each bar… needless to say, she was drooling from 5,000 miles away. That one is on my list to try next time!
My cousin took me to perhaps one of my favorite places so far, called San Juan del Gaztelugatxe. It was so incredible that it deserves it’s own post.