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Bilbao: Guggenheim, Tapas and Basque Beauty

The fused scents of cigar smoke, charred wet stone and centuries of Basque history permeate the seven streets of the Casco Viejo, the cobblestone old quarter of Bilbao. I am dwarfed by ornate, 15th century six-story architecture, panoramic hills strafing the distance, and the cooling breeze from the Bay of Biscay fluttering my bilbaohair. This charming Basque city, once hardened and industrial, is now every bit a pleasant destination that has endured a significant facelift in recent years.

The Basque region is known for an attitude of often-fierce independence. Their linguistic origins are unique, and their cultural traditions are noticeably foreign to the rest of Spain. Certain factions of the Basque populace believe in the right to self-determination as a nation separate from the rest of the country. The Basques are clearly a proud people with a history as rich as their unique culture and customs.

guggenheim-bilbaoBilbao itself has hit the headlines in recent years with its ongoing urban renewal and makeover aimed at building a stronger tourism draw. The construction of the impressive 100 million dollar Guggenheim Museum has ignited a massive tourism boon, and the Guggenheim is the showpiece of the city’s recent tourist-friendly facelift.

We arrived on Easter Sunday to the sounds of ‘Ave Maria’ filtering through the clean, modest streets, while a sizeable collective of religious locals were spilling out of the Cathedral de Santiago. Keen to jump deep into the Basque culture, we followed the streaming crowd of locals for the consumption of various delectable bits of tapas at a nearby tapas bar, ‘Aritz’ on Calle Zugastinobia. There we chowed down on a number of delicious, savoury Spanish bites and then drank some house beer to wash it down. Perfecto! Small ‘pitxtos’ are a delicacy in the Basque region and the tapas bars in and around Bilbao offer some of the finest. Check out ‘Café Iruna’, and the ‘Victor Montes’ for dinner, cervezas, or delicious local red wine.

topiary-bilaboA number of affordable pensions and guesthouses can be found littered about the casco viejo. We opted for a cozy spot, the Pension Ladero, which had a very friendly owner.

Later in the day, we made sure to discover the magnificent Guggenheim, designer Frank Gehry´s dazzling titanium-tiled piece of modern architecture that houses an impressive array of modern art. Even if you’re not an art buff, this building is remarkable and deserves a careful look. The popular symbol of Bilbao, the oversized ‘flower puppy’, will greet you at the front entrance.

After a customary 2 1/2 hour siesta, we dined that evening on tapas while  sampling another few house beers at an historic, ornate roofed, neo-Moorish Spanish restaurant. With full stomachs and still buzzing from our memorable day of taking in the marvelous Basque culture, fine food, and excellent wine, we trundled through a typical Bilbao downpour, making our way back through the rain to our cozy pension.

Cafe Iruña
Berastegui Kalea, 5
48001 Bilbao, Spain
Tel: 944 237 021?

Victor Montes
Dirección: Plaza Nueva, 8
C. Postal: 48005
Localidad: Bilbao
Tel:   944 157 067
Fax:  944 159 510
E-mail: restaurante@victormontes.com


Monday 7th of December 2009

Hey guys, I am studying in Bilbao and I'm heading back to the U.S in a week and I wanted to know where the two restaurants you mentioned were: Cafe Iruna and the Victor Montez. Are they in Casco Viejo or in the city?? Glad you liked Bilbao. Agur

Terri Fogarty

Monday 7th of December 2009

Hi, I've amended the post to include addresses and a link to the Victor Montes

Cam Hassard

Thursday 1st of October 2009

Thanks Jen, It's a gorgeous place isn't it? My first ever taste of Spain. Thanks for reading, and hope you get back there soon! Cheers Cam

Jen Bouchard

Thursday 1st of October 2009

Nice job evoking the "feel" of Bilbao- one of my favorite places. I find myself craving pintxos and calimotxos around 4pm, even when I'm back home!

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