My perfect 24 hours in Bilbao, Basque Country

My perfect 24 hours in Bilbao, Basque Country

If Crowded House had sung, ‘Four Seasons in One Hour’, they could have been describing Bilbao.

I first encountered this most beguiling of cities back in 2012. I’ve spent about one month there in total over the last four years…despite of or maybe because of its ability to surprise, not least with regards to the weather.

One of the great things about Bilbao is the speed at which you can start to enjoy the countless charms of the city and its people. Sat towards the front of the plane, you can disembark, pass through passport control, take the public bus to the city centre, walk to your hotel to drop off your luggage and be sat in one of the thousands of bars all within an hour.

I know, I’ve done it.

Sorginzulo in Santxtutu

A few travel tips for Bilbao to help make those 24 hours perfect.

 

Tip#1

Even if visiting in summer, and umbrella is a decent investment. That said, I’ve also been in January and seen nothing but blue skies.

Tip#2

Bilbao tramGet yourself a Barik transport card for 3€. The transport system in Bilbao is fantastically well integrated, reliable and cheap as chips. You load up the card with credit via one of the machines dotted around (there is even one in the airport now) and you can use it on any of the trams, trains, buses, metro, funicular or bridge crossings! Not only that, but you can swipe up to 10 people through on the same card and each time the machines display how much credit you have remaining. Using the card also gives you a discount on the standard price – for example the price of the airport bus drops from 1€45 to 1 €13.

Tip#3

Deviate a little from the local eating habits! This might sound strange but to get the best flavour of the city in such a short space of time, don’t have a proper meal but take regular pintxos (Basque snacks similar to tapas) in the many and varied bars. Locals will have a proper meal IN ADDITION to snacking on pintxos throughout the early evening. It really is a wonder how they are not more portly over there!

Tip#4

If you are going to share the love around quite a few bars in Bilbao and you are drinking beer, remember to ask for a zurito which is the local word for a small one, somewhere between a quarter and a third of a pint depending on the particular bar that you are in. As with a lot of places soft drinks tend to be more expensive than the alcohol. Most of the bars in Bilbao also have a non-alcoholic beer and radler on tap.

Tip#5

This applies to wherever you go, not just Bilbao. Make sure that you are signed up to all the hotel group loyalty schemes – you never know when membership will give you perks that you weren’t expecting. I’ve stayed at six different hotels and apartments during my visits to Bilbao, in different locations and all with their own merits. In November I stayed at the Mercure Jardines de Albia and was pleasantly surprised with the size of the privilege room that we were given. Not only that, but juices and soft drinks from the mini-bar complimentary – not bad at all for just £55 per night.

Privilege room at the Mercure

Here’s how I would spend the perfect, action-packed 24 hours.

8am – Breakfast

After a great night’s sleep in a huge king size bed, shower and head outside for breakfast. You can go to any of the countless bars and get a coffee and pastry for around 2€60.  Add a freshly squeezed orange juice for a further euro or so. Bertiz is a chain of pleasant bakeries and coffee shops in the region. I’ve found that they usually have the best choice for breakfast and at a cracking price. Alternatively partake in something slightly less healthy.

Breakfast in Bilbao

10am – Take the funicular up Mount Artxanda

Zubizuri or White Bridge

From the new town cross  the river via the Zubizuri or White Bridge. This is as a pedestrian crossing opened in 1997 and is another architectural gem. When it first opened, the frequent rain in the city led to a slippery surface and a number of accidents. The carpet now in place does take something away from the crisp design, but at least it’s easy to remain vertical!

The funicular runs every 15 minutes up and down Mount Artxanda which rises between Bilbao and the airport to the east. The journey takes less than three minutes each way. As it is an important transportation link for locals, it is incredibly cheap costing exactly 58 cents for each trip. This is a far cry from the rather more expensive counterparts in Lisbon. The view from the top is quite simply breathtaking. Whenever we take new friends to Bilbao, I always choose to do this first to give our guests a true perspective on the city and how it all fits together between the encircling peaks.

The park at the top is also a lovely spot for a picnic. Here’s one we made ourselves!

Picnic on Mount Artxanda

You can also take the opportunity to watch local skaters plying their trade at the roller rink.

11.30am – Walk along the River Nervion to Casco Viejo and Plaza Nueva

From the bottom of the funicular it is a 10 minute riverside walk to the Casco Viejo or Old Town. The rejuvenation of the city didn’t forget the river flowing through it. Once murky and polluted the Nervion is now a hive of activity where rowing clubs and tourist boats jostle for position.

River Nervion

Casco Viejo is home to the original Seven Streets of Bilbao. The area is a fascinating mix of sights, sounds and smells – a real feast for the senses. The focal point of activity in the Old Town  is the Plaza Nueva with its neo-classical portico structure.

Plaza Nueva

There is a dizzying number of bars within the square, all covered in anticipation of the frequent precipitation! Take your pick from these in this time lapse video.

Despite the number of outlets, I have never seen anyone openly intoxicated except on the atmosphere generated. Most of the time it’s a place for families to meet up and enjoy time together, eating, drinking and playing. I have also been there when it was home to tens of thousands of protesters at the end of a march in support of bringing Basque prisoners closer to home.

But once again the atmosphere was one of solidarity and togetherness rather than anything more threatening.

If your 24 hours coincides with a Sunday you will see the Plaza transform into a flea market of sorts. One side seems to become an aviary with a collection of feathered friends for sale. Stalls along the sides can focus on books, pin badges, vintage posters or what can only be described as ‘any old tat.’ In one corner you will find grown men, fathers and children all comparing their football card collections and I presume making ‘swaps’ or making deals.

Birds for sale in Plaza Nueva Buying books in Plaza Nueva Swapping Match Attax cards

At other times there may be entertainment provided by local artists such as Los Arlotes, a Basque male choir, which visits the city frequently, and from what I have seen, sing in return for a complimentary drink or three!

One final thing to note about the Plaza Nueva – there seems to be scant regard for health and safety legislation. Just look at the competition that was taking place during our last visit…

1pm – Take the metro out to Portugalete and explore the Puente Bizkaia and Getxo

While not strictly in Bilbao, you could class it as still being within the metropolitan area and provides an opportunity for a delightful stroll beside the seaside. Built in the 1890s, the transporter bridge or Puente Colgante is a magnificent feat of engineering. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre and like the funicular before, is still used today as an integral part of the transport infrastructure, ferrying people and vehicles across the estuary.

Puente Bizkaia

You can pay to take the lift up to the top of the bridge and admire the views it provides. Alternatively you can use your Barik card for a 40 cent crossing via the hanging gondola which makes its way back and forth every couple of minutes.

Transporter bridge gondola

Both sides of the river possess beautiful buildings – crossing over to the Getxo side permits a fantastic seaside stroll, mixing with the throngs of walkers, joggers and cyclists. We walk a couple of miles, stopping off for refreshments at the marina before taking in the Playa de Ereaga with its hardy swimmers and surfers, before making our way up to Neguri metro station for our journey back to the centre.

Portugalete

Boats in the harbour

A palace in Getxo

Refreshments at the marina

A seaside stroll

3pm – Stop off at San Mames, The Cathedral

On the way back its time to stop of at what I consider to be one of Bilbao’s most impressive architectural feats. Many people class football as a religion and this is the case in Bilbao times ten. The football ground at San Mames is known as The Cathedral and if you are in the city on a match day you will understand why. The city is a sea of red and white from the youngest in their strollers to old ladies with walking sticks all contributing to the chorus of ‘Aupa Athletic!’ Don’t make the mistake of calling the team Athletic Bilbao, it is simply Athletic Club – be warned.

The impressive San Mames

The new San Mames only opened in 2013 but is immediately adjacent to the site of the old ground. I was fortunate enough to see the transformation from old to new take place, indeed I was in Bilbao during the staging of the last match at the Old San Mames against Levante (whose team were staying in the same hotel as us). Having tickets to see Rihanna at The BEC Arena later that evening, we only managed the first 15 minutes at a bar on the famous Licienciado Poza just in front of the stadium. The atmosphere was electric.

Stadium under construction in 2012

The latest addition to San Mames is a sports bar overlooking the pitch. The Campa de Los Ingleses or Field of the English is not your typical football ground bar. It is named so because of historical ties between the club and England, and is a modern, inexpensive and atmospheric setting for some drinks and snacks. And you are allowed to take photos of the pitch.

La Campa de los Ingleses

View of the pitch

4pm – Stroll along the Gran Via Lopez de Haro

Stretching from the south east of San Mames right to the Old Town is the principal shopping thoroughfare of the city, the Gran Via. There is a mix of designer shops and more mainstream chains sitting alongside some local outfits. This pleasant walk along a wide boulevard, not particularly busy with traffic, takes you across the impressive Plaza Moyua. From here there are views across to the mountains on one side and the architectural masterpieces that are the Iberdrola Tower and the world-famous Guggenheim to the other. In my humble opinion, ‘El Guggi’ is far more impressive on the outside but worth one visit inside. Not this time though!

Torre Iberdrola and San Mames

El Guggi

Wandering past Moyua I would take a quick refreshment break at either El Globo or La Vina del Ensanche, impressive and popular little bars, filled with character.

The enchanting El Globo

5pm – Short stop at Hotel for a quick shower and change of clothes

A short rest might be required to set yourself up for the evening ahead. Take a deep breath and get ready for action!

Mercure Hotel

7pm – Ledesma area and the two Grand Dames of Bilbao

At 7pm, the area around Calle Ledesma will be starting to buzz. In fact this will be a good first indicator of the evening to come where, subject to weather conditions, you will find three times as many people congregating outside the bars to those actually inside…and that’s not to say that they are at all empty!

The bustling Calle Ledesma

If you are feeling a little peckish, pay a visit to Café Iruna. In addition to a formal restaurant area and busy bar packed with pintxos, the real star of Iruna is Ahmed and his sons who occupy a corner of the bar. Pintxos Moruno are kebabs but made with fresh simple ingredients and cooked over hot coals in front of your eyes. These spicy swords of joy are incredibly moreish but beware, go at the wrong time and you might be joining a queue outside the door. The wait might be twenty minutes with your mouth watering…but it is still worth it.

Pintxos Moruno at Iruna Lamb skewers and crianza

Iruna’s younger sister Café La Granja, just round the corner, is a spacious bar and restaurant, busy with people taking advantage of the lunchtime set menus during the day. These can be found in almost every restaurant across the city and starting at around 10-12E for three courses including wine present fantastic value for money. In the evening you will find revellers listening to live music into the early hours.

[POST UPDATE – SADLY LA GRANJA CLOSED IN EARLY 2017 – LET’S SEE WHAT POPS UP IN IT’S PLACE]

Cafe la Granja

Cafe La Granja with temporary street art

9pm – Casco Viejo

Cross the bridge past the stunning Arriaga Theatre and drop back in to the Casco Viejo. To acclimatise yourself for the evening ahead, return to the Plaza Nueva. Soak up the relaxed yet bustling family atmosphere. Choosing the bars to sample will depend on an ability to reach the bar but this is far from the challenge it sounds! Sorginzulo with it’s amphibian mascot is a personal favourite.

Sorzinzulo, a personal favourite

Each and every bar seems to have its own peaks and troughs of traffic. Keep an eye out for a crowd moving on and slide into their space when you get the chance.

Crowds outside Gure Toki on Plaza Nueva

If the munchies return as they surely will another personal recommendation is the rather unassuming Bar Charly in the South East of the square. For 1€ chomp on a juicy Torrezno or Pork Scratching – actually it’s a well done piece of belly pork, literally oozing with flavour.

Torrezno at Charly Bar

Head out of the Plaza Nueva at the nearest exit and you arrive at Plaza Unamuno, equally lively and slightly cheaper than Nueva. A personal favourite is the Cervecceria Casco Viejo with its mini hamburgers a real delight.

Plaza Unamuno crowds

10.30pm – Siete Calles

OK, it’s getting on so time for a little change of pace. The streets around Casco Viejo and in particular around the original Siete Calles are a real labyrinth each having its own character. Independent shops and bars pack the streets.

One of the original streets, Calle Somera is probably the most edgy street in the centre of the Old Town with an eclectic mix of patrons and a rather dubious haze in the air. It is also the location of some of my favourite bars and home to some of the finest memories Bilbao has ever given me. There are times when walking down Somera is like trying to get through a London tube station when all the buses are on strike. This is a rowdy place where twenty somethings gather with their own refreshments at one end of the street and a more mixed crowd of revellers further up the thoroughfare create a tsunami of chatter. Approaching the street from a quieter place, the noise slowly builds until it hits you smack in the face.

Street art or protest? Calle Somera

There are some really lovely bars on Somera. My favourite and a legend in Bilbao is a somehat more basic affair. I’m particularly keen on places that specialise in one particular thing that they are renowned for. Bar Motrikes is no exception. This is a boisterous place where punters are packed in like sardines. But I find it almost impossible to walk past without sampling the delights within. So what am I taking about?

Quite simply…the mushrooms.

Champis at Bar Motrikes

The owner smothers them in a secret, spicy oil and then lovingly fries them on a molten hot plate. They are served in the Basque way on a slice of crusty bread. The rush to consume this culinary masterpiece will often result in the blistering of the upper palate. Although inordinately difficult to do, wait just one minute. The melt-in-the-mouth spice-fest will have you longing for more…and more.

12 Midnight – Late night gig

Time for another change of pace and what will probably be the last stop of the evening. Walking down to the river and the impressive Mercado de Ribera you will discover the classy La Ribera. The venue overlooks the Michelin starred Mina over the over side of the Nervion. La Ribera once again is a restaurant and bar and has a fairly mature crowd. They regular host live music covering jazz, blues and rock. It’s a wonderfully civilized venue to finish off a hectic day.

2am – Recuperation?

To enjoy another perfect 24 hours in Bilbao the following day it’s probably time to turn in and get some rest. It takes about 15 minutes to stroll back to the Jardines de Albia and the quiet refuge of our hotel bedroom.

Or maybe not…as we approach our lodgings we notice that we are next to three of the busiest clubs in Bilbao…and they are just opening with hundreds of revellers waiting to enter.

Queues gathering for nightclub entry

Should we give in and join them? Nah, we’re a bit past that now. We’re just thankful for double-glazing and ear plugs!

Txiki Stu

 

For more ideas on creating YOUR perfect 24 hours in Bilbao visit Bilbao Bizkaia. The official Bilbao tourism website is a fantastic resource for plotting your time around the city.

We’re always so sad to leave Bilbao:

Sad to leave

But we always know we’ll be back!

We've booked again!

See you again in May 2017!

Extra photos from our recent trip:

Bilbao people

Revelers in the Plaza Nueva Having a quiet drink Couple crossing road Hunting for a bargain

Bilbao bars

More torreznos

Wine and carpet anyone?

Cafe Bar Bilbao

Colourful pintxos

Txiki Stu at Txiki Bar!

Please share this Txiki Tale!

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