A weekend in Bilbao
Our little boy was only a few days old when his dad decided to schedule a trip to Bilbao for the end of March. At about six months old, it was the first time we would be leaving for the night - let alone three. After a few tears in the morning to say goodbye to the baby (from me obviously, he was totally fine) we headed to the airport with a heavy heart but also excited to discover this new place none of us had visited before.
The flight felt like a morning commute - it was barely 10am when we landed in Bilbao, where the sun was shining and not a cloud in sight.
From the airport, it’s very quick and easy to get to the city. We jumped into a bus - which cost €3 each - and after about 20 minutes, we did a grand entrance to the city. Bilbao surely has a sense of grandiose as it welcomes its guests through a beautiful bridge which offers the most stunning view of the city’s most famous landmark: the Guggenheim Museum. Designed by Daniel Buren, it is a stunning piece of architecture sitting by the river Neviour. Our bus dropped us near a tram station, and we jumped in it to get another stunning view of the city, its riverside.
Where to stay
We checked into Lô Bilbao, a nice hotel with great location in the Casco Viejo, the Old Town. Overlooking the Plaza Berria and its many bars and restaurants, it was perfect to sense the pulse of the city - a little less if you need total quietness to sleep.
The city being rather small - a weekend is more than enough to see pretty much everything - you can’t really pick a bad location for your accommodation as long as you stay between the Casco Viejo and the San Mamés stadium.
What to do
Of course, you can’t come to Bilbao without visiting its crowning glory, the Guggenheim Museum. Designed by Frank Gehry, this magnificent building built in 1997 hosts modern and contemporary art, but it seems like the home of the art became more iconic that it art it is a home for. While we admired it plenty of times from the outside during our stay, we saved the visit for the last day. It wasn’t peak tourist season and we really enjoyed a feeling of space and tranquility while discovering all the secrets of the museum through the free audioguide.
Another mandatory attraction is the Funicular de Artxanda. Opened in 1915, this cable railway brings you to the top of Mount Artxanda, where you get a beautiful view of the city and take a quick stroll in the park.
The very centre is quite small and we really enjoyed walking around, going from bar to bar (more on that topic below), enjoying the relaxed pace of the city. A nice stop is the Mercado de la Ribera, a food market located right beside the river. The Azkuna Zentroa, a culture and leisure centre designed by Philippe Starck, is also worth the visit. Previously a corn exchange, the stunning venue opened in 2010 and consists of a cinema multiplex, a fitness centre, a library, showrooms, an auditorium, shops and a restaurant.
What we really enjoyed about Bilbao, apart from the beauty of the city and the fact that we were blessed with a gorgeous weather, was the fact that the people were incredibly nice. A random young man told us not to get a ticket for the tram when he saw us at the machine because for some reason it was free that day. In the bars, restaurants and shops, we didn’t get one bad experience. Overall, we found the Bilbao people very welcoming, helpful and genuine.
Where to eat
The question in Bilbao isn’t really where to eat, but where not to eat. The city overflows with bars serving tasty inexpensive wines by the glass as well as pintxos, the Basque country’s take on tapas. From simple mini sandwiches to wedges of tortilla or sophisticated shot glasses, every bars displays them on their counter to allow you to make your choice.
We tried several places around Ledesma, a small pedestrian street, Artajo, Lateria Ledesma, El Globo or Café Iruña just around the corner. In the Casco Viejo, we tried Gure Toki and Koben, both lovely. One of my favourite pintxos was the tortilla de cebolla (potato and onion omelette) from Lateria. Simple but so tasty, with a slightly runny centre, it was a pure delight. A goat’s cheese, ham, cherry jam and crispy onion bite from Gure Toki also impressed me.
The sweet speciality of Bilbao is the Carolina, a custard tart topped with a massive swirl of meringue - the Spanish answer to the Portuguese pasteis de nata. We tried one from Arrese and enjoyed it, but just not as much as the pasteis, which simply taste much finer.
While you can really enjoy some cheap and tasty food in Bilbao, the food scene also extends toward the other end of the spectrum price-wise, with a few Michelin-starred restaurants. We tried two during our weekend: Nerua, which is the restaurant of the Guggenheim museum, and Zortziko.
We went to Nerua on our first night. The restaurant opens at 8.30pm, and we were the first people push the door. We enjoyed an introduction to the kitchen by one the chefs, where we had our first bites - and probably our favourites: a cod fried ball, a leek broth and a piece of pork with crispy skin. After that, we continued our meal at our table, in a rather soulless room with very little ornament. We went for the 9 course menu for €110, or 9 products as it is called on the menu, since every plate is created around an ingredient. Among our favourites were the oyster, with egg yolk and rice crunch, the fried hake and a gorgeous corn bread. The yucca cake with banana ice cream and the sautéed leeks didn’t make any impression, and the lamb was a bit of a waste on us since none of us are very fond of it. Among the petits fours served with the coffee, a chocolate and lime cream finished the meal on a high.
The following day, we went for lunch at Zortziko, a more classic Michelin star restaurant with high ceilings and chandeliers on the walls. The contrast was stark with the contemporary minimalism of Nerua, but we didn’t find it unpleasant. We opted for the menu called by chef Daniel Garcia “A short trip but intense”, priced €65. We enjoyed our meal with a €40 Robatie Rioja, aptly advised by the sommelier.
While the shrimp ceviche with Moscatel ice cream was a bit sweet as a starter, we really loved the plankton ravioli served with laquer bacon. My main, a turbot served with pil pil and seasonal veggies, was absolutely delicious, and Damien loved his suckling pig with tomato chutney and crunchy bulgur. For dessert, the coconut mousse with lemon and lime jelly and crispy basil was a subtle dish with a lovely balance of sweet and tart flavours.
We enjoyed these two experiences with a slight preference for Zortziko, as the atmosphere, in spite of the classic decor, felt a little less uptight. Maybe the fact that we shared a bottle of wine at lunchtime made us quite relaxed.
Whether on a budget or a fuller wallet, Bilbao is a lovely place for a weekend break, as a couple or with a group of friends. Cheap wine, stunning architecture and a lively atmosphere: what more could you need?