In the weeks leading up to my trip to Bilbao (Bilbo in Basque), I was faced with one of two reactions (and sometimes both) from my Spanish friends as I shared the news:
“Why?…San Sabastián is more beautiful.” or “The food is the best in Spain!”
Although I can’t vouch for the former, I certainly agree that the Basque know how to artfully pile high everything but the kitchen sink on top of a thick slice of crusty bread all strategically held together by a toothpick. These mouthwatering creations are famously known as pintxos (the Basque take on the traditional Spanish tapa, yet usually larger). All these should be washed down by a cold glass of sidra (hard cider produced from local apple orchards). Anyone who gets excited about food like I do, will surely find the Basque cuisine a highlight of your Northern Spain adventure.
One of my personal goals for the weekend was to find beauty in Bilbao – after all, the guidebook even used the word “ugly” to characterize this town with a soot-covered industrial past. Using the hashtag #BeautyOfBilbao I tagged my Instagram posts showing off the amazing sites of this charming city. I didn’t have to look very hard as decades of citywide clean ups have moved the coal barges out of the river and helped transform Bilbao into a cultural gem. Here is one of my favorites!
Although the contemporary Guggenheim Museum is synonymous with Bilbao for many, it was not my favorite piece of architecture. Personally, I enjoyed the Teatro Aarriago, which is a gorgeous baroque style theater perfectly situated on the Ría de Nirvión and just off the Plaza del Arenal. Strolling through this lively plaza on a warm and sunny afternoon does not only feel overwhelmingly European, it is quite rare since the north of Spain is plagued by cold and rainy weather for many of the winter months.
After a long and leisurely walk along the river, I set out for a bird’s eye view by taking the Funicular de Artxanda up to a breathtaking park that looks out over the entire city. With the Basque mountains and hills as a majestic backdrop, I watched Bilbao light up for the night as the sun set. I also recommend making the trek out to the small village of Getxo where you can fill your lungs with salty sea air, walk along sandy beaches, and maybe even spot a surfer hanging ten. Near Getxo you can find the Vizcaya Bridge (Puente Colgante – hanging bridge) and enjoy the architecturally rich and historic mansions with manicured lawns that dot the coastline.
In my opinion Bilbao is best characterized as a humble mix of architecture, language, and culture while exuding character. From wide avenues lined with the latest fashion in the commercial district to the quaint winding streets of the Casco Vieja to the modern Iberdrola Tower standing with an ominous presence, Bilbao has a diverse architectural landscape for a small city. Although Spanish is the primary language, the mysterious Basque language of Euskara is not rare, and in fact almost every signpost boasts Euskara with its Spanish equivalent. Although you might be in Spain, your are always reminded of the pride residents have for their Basque culture that does not go unnoticed as massive flags wave patriotically: red, white, and green. Have you traveled to a city that you thought was underrated? Where and why?