After a lovely breakfast of tomato toast, coffee, and fresh juice at a local San Sebastián café, my friend Els and I headed to the bus station to spend the weekend in Bilbao.
Many guidebooks and websites call Bilbao an ugly city, but I actually found it to be quite nice and charming in its own way. It was once an industrial city, and this is evidenced by its architecture. Yet its distinct bridges, colorful graffiti, and somewhat strange modern art structures made it a feast for the eyes.
Upon arrival, we decided to walk around to get a feel for the city. Our walk into the Casco Viejo (old town) confirmed our suspicion that Bilbao also partakes in siestas; however, it was fun to watch the city liven up somewhat as time passed. It rained on and off while we walked, but even so, I was surprised by how quiet the city seemed, despite the fact that it was a Friday afternoon. I guess the stereotype that people work more in the North is true! Or maybe Bilbao just isn’t popular among tourists in September. Who knows.
Els and I stopped for an early dinner at a restaurant in Plaza Nueva. The pintxos were absolutely delicious and really cheap (around 2 euros each), but they were not at all comparable to San Sebastian’s in terms of creativity and freshness. Plus, in Bilbao you pick the pintxos off the bar rather than ordering them from the kitchen. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed my meal.
After eating and relaxing in the plaza for a bit, we crossed the Zubizuri (“white bridge” in Basque) over into the modern part of town near the Guggenheim Museum. People-watching near the Guggenheim is nothing short of hilarious. Not only did we spot several street “performers”, but we also had an excellent view of people posing in front of the giant spider structure nearby. Too good. Of course, we had to circle around to take a picture with the famous dog made of flowers, fondly referred to as Puppy by locals. The baby in the stroller was clearly not amused by my pose for the photo.
We crossed the river via a different bridge (the red one pictured), and scored some fabulous shots of the museum as well as a gorgeous mural under the bridge.
Although it was early in comparison to our usual evening escapades, Els and I were beat and decided to head back for the night. We played a game of rummy and Skip-Bo (I won!) before calling it a night. I took a quick nighttime stroll around the neighborhood for some fresh air and water, then I too headed for bed.
On Saturday, Els and I decided to split for the day and meet for dinner. Even though it was cold and somewhat drizzly, I was determined to ride the Funicular de Artxanda (cable car) to the top of Bilbao, where I hoped I would enjoy views of the entire city.
Umbrella in tow, I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast (going to miss Spanish tortilla!) at a nearby café before making my way over to the Funicular plaza. The ride up only took less than ten minutes, but the guidebook was not kidding about the views. Even though it was cloudy, I could see all of Bilbao, distant mountains included. The climate here is very different from the rest of Spain, but the citizens reap the rewards with lush green mountains.
I strolled through the park for a while and debated whether I should walk back down to the city or just take the funicular again. In the end, my cold feet won (for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to wear sandals), and I took the funicular back down.
At this point, it was nearly 1 pm and I really wanted to go to Mercado de la Ribera, a fresh food market in the old city that was closed the evening before. The Mercado supposedly closed at 2, so after a quick pit stop at my room for real shoes, I walked back into the old town and into the market with half an hour to spare.
The city was definitely alive and bustling since it was a weekend, which was really nice. The sun came out as well, so tons of families were out in and about the park, and groups of teens were milling about too. The market was also quite busy when I arrived. It’s split into two sides: on one side is an actual cafeteria where you can order lunch and sit down, and on the other, a fresh food market with vendors selling meats, fish, cheese, and other goods. I wasn’t hungry enough to have lunch just yet, but walked slowly through the market’s aisles and took in the environment; listening to the shouting across stalls, watching people carefully choose their meats, and sampling olives from the huge variety available. So much fun!
I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering throughout the city; people-watching on the narrow streets of the old city, stopping for pintxos and ice cream, and relishing my last full day in Spain. Remembering that I was going to cold and rainy Amsterdam the next day, I slowly wandered in and out of shops on Gran Via, the main shopping street, and came away with three new long-sleeved tops. I walked the long way back to the hotel, cutting through a gorgeous family-filled park, and once again climbed the stairs to observe passersby near the Guggenheim.
When I got back to the hotel, Els and I decided to go for pintxos in the old town. We had a few bar bites from Irrintzi, but were feeling a tad underwhelmed by the choices after the gastronomic heaven we’d experienced in San Sebastián. After a few pintxos each, we opted to go to a nearby sit-down restaurant where I had a bacalao al pil-pil con gambas salad. The Basque region is well-known for its cod in pil-pil sauce (a creamy sauce with garlic and herbs), so I was excited to try some in Bilbao.
Els and I hung out and walked around in the Saturday night frenzy for a bit before heading back to the hotel to pack.
A brief gracias to Spain:
The warm climate and equally warm people are what enticed me to visit this country in the first place. I had a feeling it would be an amazing place to spend a month of my 6-week “quarter life crisis” trip.
I’m thankful to say that I wasn’t disappointed. Spain is a wily charmer, with its stunning landscapes and charismatic allure. It has it all: beaches for swimmers and surfers, an engrossing past for the history and cultural nerds, gastronomic pleasures for foodies, and art in all its forms for those seeking inspiration.
I am so grateful for my time in Spain, and am equally delighted to have met an extraordinary number of people. I met up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, as well as friends I’d made the week or even the day before.
You all know the details of what I did and who I met, so I’ll keep this concise: thanks for the experiences and the memories, Spain. To each person who made Spain special: thank you.
As they say in Spanish: nos vemos pronto (we’ll see each other soon)!
TLDR: a short summary of what I did and where I ate in Bilbao for those too lazy to read the post
Where I went:
- Casco Viejo: the charming old town with beautiful architecture and ancient buildings
- Zubizuri: the strangely shaped white bridge crossing the Nervion River
- Guggenheim Museum: the famous Bilbao museum, constructed by architect Frank Gehry. Don’t miss a photo with Puppy, the large dog made of flowers
- Funicular de Artxanda: the cable car that takes you to a park atop a steep hill. It gives you excellent views of the entire city.
- Gran Via: the main shopping road that cuts through the city.
What I ate:
- Pintxos in Plaza Nueva
- Didn’t eat at Mercado de la Ribera, but it’s a fresh food market in the old city offering a variety of options
- Unique pintxos at Irrintzi
Where I stayed:
Barceló Bilbao Nervión: Perfectly located across the Nervion river and a quick walk from both the old town and the Guggenheim. Definitely a nicer hotel, but since I was sharing the cost with a friend it worked out.