It took me quite a while to finally make my way to the north of Spain and finally visit the Basque Country and, most specifically Bilbao, the largest city, seaport and the location of the world famous Guggenheim Museum.
From the moment I set foot in the airport to my departure three days later, I was enchanted by the atmosphere, surrounding green mountains, delicious food and magnificent buildings and sights that captivate at every turn.
The heart of the city is Casco Viejo or Old Town between Plaza Nueva and the river estuary. This quarter with rather narrow streets is easy to negotiate because they are all pedestrian-only. From the airport to the center of town in about 25 minutes by car. You can either take a taxi (approximately 25 euros) or hop on the green 3247 bus to the stop Moyna Square and from there the red metro line (there is only a blue and a red one) that leaves you close to the river.
Plaza Nueva and the Guggenheim
My two main destinations in Bilbao were the Plaza Nueva and the Guggenheim Museum, that is why I chose the Petit Palace Arana hotel. Located opposite the Arriaga Theatre, the Petit Palace is most conveniently situated. (Rates at the Petit Palace start at about 115 euros.)
From there I just walked along streets filled with small shops of every kind, from artwork to clothes to chemists, fish mongers and cake shops. The people of Bilbao definitely like pastries and cakes, which are huge.
Plaza Nueva reminded me of St Mark’s Square in Venice. Arcades run around the square with one
café ad pinxto bar after another. One that you mustn’t miss is called Victor Montes, a historical bar
and restaurant with a huge collection of wines, whiskey and – the latest novelty – Italian Vodka in a
bottle designed by Roberto Cavalli.
This year celebrates the 25th anniversary of the Guggenheim Museum. Therefore a visit there was top
of my agenda.
From the hotel and the theater it’s about a 2-kilometer walk along the Nervion River below pretty bridges. You can walk along both shores until you come to the two leaning towers that are the signature signs of the museum, the on to the iconic titanium clad, rounded building with huge glass facades that houses the various collections.
Ticket counters are at the main entrance. (Be aware that during summer season there can be long lines.)
The architect is celebrated Canadian American Frank Gehry. There are several levels in the museum,, each housing their own collection of modern art (among them works by Anselm Kiefer, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons) as well as works on loan from Guggenheim New York and Foundation Louis Vuitton Paris during the anniversary.
There are several cafeterias inside and outside the museum where you can have refreshments and,
of course, some of the monumental cakes that are never far away in Bilbao.
Beyond the Guggenheim
Whilst you are walking towards to museum, you come to a pier from where river boat tours depart,
something I did the next day. There are two tours, one that lasts one hour and takes in the estuary
and the bridges and one that lasts three hours and goes all the way into the Bay of Biscay along
part of the port and industrial district.
One of the bridges is a big red one and another is adorned with a huge green and white mural. The boat company is called Bilboats. The ticket for the short tour costs 6 euros. You can’t buy them at the boat – book either online here, or make your way across the road to the offices of Bilboats. Just know they have very irregular opening hours.
Speaking about opening hours, they keep the siesta hours in Bilbao except in bigger supermarkets
but most shops don’t open before 10 a.m. A word about churches. Blbao has a a cathedral that features several styles. If you want to see the inside, you have to pay an admission fee of 6 euros pp. There are many more churches throughout the city that are free to visit.
Once you have seen the city from the water you might also want to take a breathtaking view from
above. Get on the old funicular cable railway and ride up to Mount Artxanda (4.30 euros). You will also find cafés, restaurants and some nice hiking paths.
No visit to Bilbao is complete without some serious pintxos tours. In the rest of Span these little snacks are known as tapas, but in the Basque country they are called pinxtos (spikes) because the delicacies t piled on the slices of bread are pinched on with toothpicks.
I can only recommend Victor Montes in Plaza Nueva (and Charly’s bar next door). In Victor Montes I indulged in creamed lobster.
Now let’s talk about legends and souvenirs. The Basque country if full of legends referring to witchcraft, the devil , healing and wise men and women. A symbol you will see in several arts and crafts shops of Bilbao is a silver pendant in the form of the thistle flower or the same carved from wood. They are called Eguzkilore and are meant to protect from illness, bad luck and the evil spirit.
You hang the wooden one over your door.
Another symbol is called Lauburu, which means four heads and refers to the same tales and legends.
• As far as the language is concerned, Spanish and Basque (or Euskera) are used interchangeably because otherwise you wouldn’t understand a word of Basque. Basque – which is what the scholars call a “language isolate” – is not only not an Indo-European language, it’s not related to any other language on the planet and no one has ever figured out exactly where it came from.
About the author:
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is an international attorney-turned-travel-and-lifestyle writer based in Spain. She has contributed to BBC/Travel, several in-flight magazines, TripSavvy (Spain) and TravelAwaits, among many other publications. After several years in Turkey, she now lives on Spain’s Costa Blanca.
Read more about Spain in our Dispatches archive here.
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is an international attorney-turned-travel and lifestyle writer based in Spain. She has contributed to BBC/Travel, several in-flight magazines, TripSavvy (Spain) and TravelAwaits among many other publications.