This Basque beauty has impactful architecture, brilliant beaches, one of the best museums in the world and a unique gastronomic identity, says Imogen Lepere
Why go? Famously passionate and proudly independent, the Basques are an enigma. Although their unofficial country straddles northern Spain and south-west France, the residents’ impenetrable language, with its Indo-European roots, is unrelated to those of its neighbours. Locals sporting berets the size of dinner plates like to say the Devil himself spent seven years trying – and failing – to master their mother tongue. Over its 700-year history, Bilbao has gone from a trading town on the Bay of Biscay to a gritty industrial hub. Now it is enjoying a renaissance with a flourishing arts scene and some of the most experimental architecture in Europe. But what has remained constant is tradition and a love of food that borders on fanatical. Residents will tell you that Basque cuisine is the best in the world and after a few explosive mouthfuls of pintxos (local tapas served on rounds of bread), you will agree.
What to do The Guggenheim Museum guggenheim-bilbao.eus has played a huge role in putting Bilbao on the map. Designed by Frank Gehry, it’s a fantastical structure covered in gleaming silver scales and home to 19 galleries, as well as what it claims is the largest sculpture commission in history, Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time. Nestled among the folds of the Euskadi mountains, the city can’t physically expand so many of its new attractions are in historic buildings. Go for a swim then soak up some spring sunshine on the roof terrace at Alhóndiga bilbaoturismo.net built on top of an early 20th-century wine warehouse. Stroll west along the Nervión river and cross the Vizcaya Bridge, a Unesco World Heritage Site designed by Alberto Palacio, one of Gustave Eiffel’s disciples. The Casco Viejo (old town) is a gorgeous jumble of baserri (half-timbered buildings) with pots of red geraniums dotting the balconies. Las Siete Calles (the seven streets) date from the 1400s, as does gloriously gothic Catedral de Santiago.
Where to stay? Right in the heart of the old town, the 11 rooms at Caravan Cinema 00 34 688 860 907, caravan-cinema.com ooze cool cosiness. The ancient building ensures plenty of character, which is mirrored by vintage touches such as Fifties tiles and Marshall radios, while the enthusiastic owner supplies maps marked with his favourite pintxos spots. A few streets away, up an unassuming flight of stairs, Basque Boutique 00 34 944 790 788, basqueboutique.es takes local folklore as the theme for its eight funky bedrooms. Exposed brickwork and wooden beams have all the charm of a country house, while the sculptures in the lobby are inspired by the Oma Painted Forest. For proximity to the Guggenheim, try Meliá Bilbao 00 34 944 280 000, melia.com or five-star Gran Hotel Domine BiIbao 00 34 944 253 300, hoteldominebilbao.com directly opposite the museum.
Where to eat and drink? Bilbaínos spend their Saturday and Sunday mornings on txikiteo (pintxo crawls) through the old town. Plaza Nueva is the nucleus of the activity, with its many tiled bars and cheerful alfresco terraces. Try crab tempura at Gure-Toki 00 34 944 158 037, guretoki.com and salty cod at Casa Victor Montes 00 34 944 157 067, victormontes.com or tangy goat’s cheese in manzanilla sherry at Café Bar Bilbao 00 34 944 151 671, bilbao-cafebar.com which was founded in 1911. Most of the ingredients come from Mercado de la Ribera lariberabilbao.com which has been the beating heart of Bilbao’s food scene since it opened in 1929. Rove its three floors, sampling charcuteria as you go, then chat with local farmers over a glass of txakoli, the slightly fizzy local white, at one of the low-key bars. Michelin-starred Mina 00 34 944 795 938, restaurantemina.es is the place to try contemporary Basque cuisine and you’ll even get change from $70 for its seven-course tasting menu. Book ahead as there’s only space for 25 guests per service in the intimate dining room.
Time running out? Catch the cable railway from Plaza del Funicular and enjoy views from Mount Artxanda. bilbao.eus
Trip tip The beaches around Sopelana are an easy stroll from Larrabasterra metro but head north to Plentzia metro for crystal-clear water, excellent surf and fewer people.
Currency is the euro. Time is one hour ahead of BST. Flight time from Dubai is 10.25 hours. The cost to carbon-offset is $14.44. For more details visit climatecare.org
Emirates Airline flies daily to from Dubai to Bilbao via Madrid emirates.com
British Airways flies daily from Dubai to Bilbao via London ba.com
Bilbao Tourism is the local tourist board’s online resource and is packed with inspiration for your trip. bilbaoturismo.net
Bilbao – New York – Bilbao by Kirmen Uribe (Seren, $12.50) is a moving account of Basque family life that was awarded the Spanish National Literature Prize.