The Basque Country is a part of Spain that I had interest in exploring for quite some time. In general, I had been keen on visiting the north of Spain to see how it compared to my time dominantly spent south of the country, most notably in the Catalan and Andalusian regions. Visiting the north would be a first for me, and Bilbao was a solid introduction to it all.
Bilbao was different from other cities I’d experienced in Spain. For one thing, it’s exceptionally modern, with lots of industrial structures amidst artsy, experimental landmarks that are scattered throughout the city. The Old Town of Bilbao is really tiny, consisting of no more than three or four blocks of cobblestone streets and buildings. It was surprising to go from the Old Town to the modern side within a couple of steps, and I found it to be an eclectic stay during my three nights in town.
Getting to Bilbao was simple, as I took the bus from Madrid. It was a peaceful, four-hour ride over, and I soon reached the Basque city in the mid-afternoon. I walked over to my hostel, located in the Old Town, where I checked in and dropped off my belongings and got settled in.
My hostel experience overall was quite lackluster. What particularly got me was the fact that it had a kitchen (equipped with a refrigerator, microwave, even ingredients), but no stove! I was puzzled by this logic, and as I’d intended to cook for some of the days, I found this limitation somewhat frustrating.
Another *hilarious* thing was that I’d tried buying something from their vending machine, which ended up getting jammed: not only did I lose 3€, but I also wasn’t able to get the item out of the machine! Not only that, but it also wasn’t until my last day that a hostel roommate mentioned she’d gotten bed bugs …in our room! Thank goodness I left that day, and thank goodness I didn’t get any bed bugs, but I definitely didn’t enjoy my stay in that particular hostel, unfortunately.
Despite the tepid time in the hostel, I had a decent time in Bilbao. I spent most of my time out-and-about in town, so I really only used the hostel to shower and sleep. Upon dropping off my belongings in my room, I headed out for a late lunch at 15:00…as the Spanish do.
There was a tapas/pintxos bar just around the corner from my hostel, and I popped in for my late lunch. I opted for a tapenade and croquetas de bacalao (cod croquettes) with a glass of white wine, and it was a light meal to stave off the hunger for sightseeing and until dinner.
I spent my first afternoon in by strolling along the Estuary of Bilbao, a part of three rivers (Nervion, Ibaizabal, and Cadagua) which eventually empties out into the Bay of Biscay. After checking out the cobblestone Old Town (and its Catedral de Santiago), I headed upstream towards the Guggenheim Museum, one of the main highlights of Bilbao. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open the day I went, but in any case, I saw the sculptures of “Maman” (spider statue), “Puppy,” and “Tulips.” It was cool walking around these massive artworks, all the while enjoying the sunny, slightly-breezy weather in June.
Feeling tired from the travel I’d done that day, I turned in early to the hostel to rest until the next day, when I decided to spend a half day in Getxo (“get-cho”), a town along the Bay of Biscay coast. It’s an affluent, residential area in the Greater Bilbao, and it was a pleasant change from the metropolitan part of town. I spent a couple of hours strolling the quiet neighborhood, with its clean pavement and occasional roses for that pop of color on an otherwise overcast day.
While still in Getxo, I also ambled along the cliffs towards la Galea Fort. The views were breezy, yet calming, and they were reminiscent of my days in Normandy several years prior: to be alone, but also with nature was the most surreal feeling, and it was in that moment that I felt that I had all the time in the world to continue exploring and living in Europe.
I also made a pit stop at the 18th-century Aixerrota Windmill before heading into Getxo’s town center. By then, the sun had come out, and the streets were bustling with locals at the shops and main square. I got a glimpse of El puente colgante (“Vizcaya Bridge”) that connected two banks in its suspension-like structure. It’s considered a symbol of the Bay of Biscay, and viewing it was a solid end to my brief visit in Getxo before I took the metro back to Bilbao.
Likewise with the previous day, I got a relatively-late lunch at 14:00 in town. This time, I head to Cafe Bar Bilbao, which I’d heard about from Vagabrothers on YouTube. I was first drawn to its stunning, blue-and-white tiled shop, but I stayed for their tapas and pintxos. No joke: the tapas and pintxos were some of the best I’ve had…ever!
One that particularly stuck out was the goat cheese and jam open-faced sandwich: sweet, tart, and savory, it was truly a gastronomic experience. Another one was the cod al pil-pil flatbread: the cod was flaky and ridiculously tender, and the pil-pil sauce (a Basque invention) offered an incredible, indescribable flavor that had me ordering a second one– it was THAT good. I ended up ordering two rounds of tapas and pintxos, and I left a very happy (and full) camper.
The Funicular de Artxanda ended up being the last highlight of my time in Bilbao. I took the cable car to the top of the hill, where I got somewhat foggy, but lovely views of the city from above. I also enjoyed walking along the viewing ledge, continuously spelled “Bilbao” in cherry-red text. I returned to my hostel shortly thereafter, and I concluded my stay in the Basque capital soon after.
Overall, my time in Bilbao wasn’t as thriving as it had been in Madrid or my previous visits south of Spain. I suppose it was because the city itself is quite modern and industrial, and it doesn’t offer as many historic sights as one might expect in a European city. If anything, I found Bilbao to be rather “mild,” but I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the tapas and pintxos I had at Cafe Bar Bilbao– I’d go back just for that! In the end, though, Bilbao was a solid start to my time in the Basque Country, and I looked forward to seeing more.
More to come– stay tuned!