For years, visiting Basque Country, the autonomous Spanish territory hugging the northern Atlantic seaboard, really meant San Sebastián. And while the elegant beach town should rightfully remain a tourist favorite, to see a less traversed, but equally alluring side of Basque Country, venture an hour westbound–to Bilbao.
The city has fully shed its past life as a smoggy, industrial port town, and has quietly established itself as a destination of its own accord. Urban revitalization here jump-started in 1997, thanks to the opening of Frank Gehry’s architectural marvel, the Guggenheim Museum. That, in turn, sparked other visionary designers to step in with their own masterpieces, like Santiago Calatrava’s Zubizuri bridge and a cultural center by Philippe Starck. But groundbreaking design is far from the only reason to visit Bilbao.
The city is a beguiling mix of contrasts: old and new, manufactured and natural, gritty and refined. It’s small enough to be walkable in a day, yet filled with storied, distinctive neighborhoods–like Casco Viejo (old town), Indautxu (the city center), and Abandoibarra (where the Guggenheim is).
In short? Bilbao is one of those increasingly rare spots everyone’s heard of, but few have explored. Even better? It’s a breeze to get to from the frequented hubs of Barcelona, Madrid, and naturally, San Sebastián. Below, our guide on where to eat, what to do, and where to stay when heading to the vibrant Basque city.
Where to Eat
If haute cuisine is your beat, book a table at Nerua, the Michelin-starred restaurant adjacent to the Guggenheim. The decor airs on the minimal side, to let chef Josean Alija’s delicate and considered Basque-inspired cuisine–the prix fixe menu changes three times a year – take center stage. Each course is comprised of a few select ingredients and artfully plated to be as easy on the eyes as it is on the palate.
Even though Al Margen just opened last year, this intimate neighborhood spot, helmed by two Nerua alums, Adrian Leonelli and Pablo Valdearcos, has been generating terrific buzz. The location is discreet; the staff is bubbly and youthful, and the menu is lean and ingredient-driven. Not only are the tasting menus reasonably priced, everything can be ordered in half-portions for sharing.
Pintxos, bite-sized snacks served on bread or skewered with a toothpick are Basque Country’s answer to tapas, and part of everyday eating. Sure, the restaurants lining Plaza Nueva, Bilbao’s main square, are always bustling, but bypass them for Bar Mugi, a local haunt owned by the Díez family for over 50 years. The offerings are wonderfully diverse, from freshly-carved jamon to tender octopus finished in the grill.
When the weather’s fine, take the historic Bilbao Funicular to the top of Mount Artxanda for unbeatable views of the city. Then, explore the area on foot before dining at Txakoli Simon, a traditional Basque restaurant that’s fed generations of locals. The signature of the house is txuleton, behemoth, richly-marbled rib steaks, which are expertly grilled and sliced to order.
What to Do
The Guggenheim is, no doubt, the crown jewel of Bilbao. Frank Gehry’s architectural landmark, wrapped in titanium, limestone, and glass, arguably remains the architect’s most recognizable structure. It’s easy to spend an entire day here, ambling through the Richard Serra exhibition (appropriately titled “The Matter of Time”) and other provocative pieces, picking up beautifully-designed goods (like Cookplay, a collection of amorphous dishes by industrial designer Ana Roquero) from the museum shop, and naturally, ending the day with dinner at Nerua.
Bilbaínos are extremely proud of their food and drink. For the latter, it's all about txakoli, a subtly fizzy white wine that’s low in alcohol but high in acid – making it dangerously easy to drink, and a terrific match for savory food. To learn more about the unique beverage, drive 45 minutes out to Gernika’s Itsamendi, a winery credited with transforming txakol’s reputation from being sipped locally to adored worldwide. Guided tours and tastings are available, so book ahead.
It takes but a few hours to explore Bilbao’s design marvels by foot, so complete your excursion with some design-focused retail therapy. Opened in 1962, Mosel is widely recognized as one of Europe’s leading design shops, specializing in furniture and home goods. Owner Rosa Orrantia stocks her boutique Persuade with a quirky mix of avant-garde fashion labels (like Bernhard Willhelm and Shiro Sakai) and inspired, one-off items from her travels. And beauty hounds will flip for owner Elena Mendiola’s hip lineup at Arropame, which is beautifully merchandised alongside of-the-moment, yet timeless clothing.
Where to Stay
To honor its plum location right across the Guggenheim, Spanish designer Javier Mariscal also made contemporary art the focal point of Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao. Even the exteriors, paneled in oversized mirrors to reflect its famous neighbor, impress, while the interiors are decked out with dazzling pieces, like Mariscal’s Fossil Cypress, a soaring installation made from over 80,000 stones sourced from the Nervión river. Accommodations are simply and chicly appointed, with sleek (but plush) beds, marble-clad bathrooms, and Philippe Stark soaking tubs. For breathtaking views of the city and its natural surroundings, take breakfast or later in the day, drinks, on the buzzy terrace.
Conveniently located in the heart of the city, Hotel NH Collection Villa de Bilbao is an easy walking distance to the area’s top restaurants, museums, and sites. The design is minimalist and clean, with a soothing grey and white palette extending from the lobby to the 142 spacious and airy rooms and suites. To ensure a restorative night’s sleep, a customized pillow menu is available, and the hotel’s restaurant, Le Bol Blanc, is a cheerful day-to-night nook popular amongst locals for its lavish breakfast spread.