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The heart of Bilbao—credited with transitioning the city from its industrial past to its sophisticated present, is The Guggenheim Museum. Though its modern-art collection is no stand-out from those of Europe, the building itself is a modern marvel, designed by Frank Gehry and opened to the public in 1997.
A must for any football fan is a stop at San Mamés, home of Athletic Bilbao. The team is the lifeblood of the city, and even the most uninterested Bilbaoian will still hold a special place for this team in their heart. The unique aspect of Athletic is that they hold true to their Basque pride, and only accept Basque players to play on the team. Along with Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona, Athletic is part of the elite 3 teams in the first division league in Spain that have never been relegated to second division.
If football isn’t your thing, head to the Casco Viejo (Old Town) and be greeted by narrow lanes filled with busy specialty shops, clothing stores and pintxos (Basque word for tapas) bars. Here, you’ll also find the Santiago Cathedral and the Basque Museum, both worthy stops in their own right.
Bilbao is a shopper’s haven. Head to Gran Via for unique boutiques, Spanish label clothing stores and big-name in Spain department store El Corte Inglés. For high-fashion C/San Martín serve up a multitude of designer names.
Outside of downtown you’ll find shopping centers Artea and Max Center; which includes over 100 shops, a cinema, boutiques and designer goods.
Basque food is considered the best in Spain, and one of the best cuisines in the world. This makes Bilbao a diner’s dream, as there seems to be pintxo bars on every corner and high-class cocina vasca within easy reach. Café Iruña (Colón de Larreategui) was established in 1903 and serves up a vast array of pintxos. You must try the pincho morunos, which are hot off the charcoal, mini lamb kebabs. Sip on the Basque white wine of txakoli and admire the tile work in the restaurant—it’s impressive.
There are two drinks you’ll come to know quickly during your time in Basque Country. One is the ubiquitous txakoli, a dry white wine that nicely accompanies almost any pintxo, or a kalimotxo—a 50/50 mix of red wine and coke that is surprisingly delicious.
Head to Bullitt Groove Club for an eclectic mix of dance and indie or the ever-fashionable Lamiak (C/Pelota, 8) while you sip on your newly-loved Basque beverages.
For budget hotels and pensiones, the Casco Viejo is the best option for sleeping. Try Pensión Ladero or Hotel Bilbao Jardines. If its luxury you seek, go to the posh Ensanche district for hotels like Hotel Carlton or the Sheraton Bilbao.
Bilbao makes for a great walking city as it’s well-planned and mostly flat. Head down to the riverfront near the Guggenheim Museum for a riverside promenade, or head to one of the city’s several beaches. Try Sopelana, Getxo and Plentzia on the rarer-in-the-north sunny days.
45 minutes from Bilbao is Lekeitio, a beautiful Basque fishing village that has a small population during the cold winter months, and a much bigger population during the summer.
Lekeitio is well-known for its eccentric festival in the first week of September called Los Gansos. Essentially boatloads of friends paddle out in the marina to a greased-up dead goose hanging from a wire and are dunked in and out of the water (rather violently!) until one can remove the goose. This week-long festival includes lots of eating and drinking and is a fun peek into Basque culture.
Whether you come outside of the crowded summer months or not, you’ll find a gorgeous seaside pueblo, set amongst emerald green hills and brown sugar beaches.
Bilbao has a large music scene, and BilboRock-La Merced is the center of it. At one time a church, this large, retro-style venue is the city’s best for rock and alternative music. For those into dance music, try Image Club, which is the region’s largest warehouse-style club or Hegoak (C/Dos de Mayo, 7) which features live house music and alternative art.
Saying pleasantries in Spanish if you can. It’s not bad or looked-down upon, but learning a few useful Basque phrases will really charm the locals. Eskerrik asko= thank you,