Rituals City Guides: Bilbao, Spain

Go for the art – stay for the pintxos. You can combine culture and cuisine in this buzzy Basque metropolis. 

Sprawling along the banks of the river Nervion, just 12 kms south of Spain’s northern coast, Bilbao, is nicknamed El Boxto (the hole) for its setting surrounded in hills and mountains. The areas you’ll find yourself spending the most time in are: Bilbi, aka Bilbao La Vieja, the boho/hipster area on the left bank of the river, with its street art, cool bars and restaurants. Then almost opposite on the right bank, there is the Old Town, Casco Vieja, home to Bilbao’s oldest monuments and churches such as the Santiago Cathedral and the Basque Museum. Its ancient Siete Calles (Seven Streets) dating back to the 14th century, are lined with shops, bars and restaurants.  


The city is most famous for the Guggenheim Museum, which opened in 1997, helping to lift Bilbao out of its urban decline. The Art District, around the Guggenheim, has more than 30 galleries, and there is plenty of architecture and sculpture to marvel at as you wander around. The second biggest attraction is the cuisine, especially the moreish pinxtos (a tapas-like snacks), so expect a lot of belt-loosening.  


If ever a museum revived the fortunes of a city, the Guggenheim Bilbao is it. Opened in 1997, and designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, the curved giant ribbons of titanium make this imposing building one of the city’s biggest attractions. Its arrival helped transform Bilbao from a fading ship building and steel manufacturing hub to a buzzing cultural hotspot.  


Outside the Guggenheim you can’t miss Jeff Koons’ 12.4-metre-high Puppy, covered in 60,000 flowering plants, and Louise Bourgeois’ steel spider, Maman, standing nine metres tall with its sac of 10 marble eggs. Inside, all sorts of treasures await including Rene Magritte’s Empire of Light, Rothko’s Untitled, Faith Ringgold’s Woman on a Bridge and Yves Klein’s Large Blue Anthropometry. Allow at least three hours to do it justice: it is a mind-expanding experience.  


And it is not just the flamboyant Guggenheim that will draw the eye of anyone interested in art and architecture: check out the dramatic, white, arched Zubizuri Bridge by Santiago Calatrava, linking Bilbao’s left and right banks. The Azkuna Zentroa by Philippe Starck, a former wine warehouse- turned-cultural and leisure centre; the beautiful stained-glass window of the Bilbao-Abando railway station; and the curved glass ‘Fosteritos’ – the distinctive Norman Foster-designed metro station entrances.  


The Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao doesn’t get the attention the Guggenheim receives but is a must-see for its impressive collections of Spanish, European and Basque art, including works by El Greco, Gauguin and Francis Bacon.  


You could be forgiven for thinking dining here is all about pintxos – the Basque answer to tapas, a small open sandwich held together with a toothpick, eaten as a pre-lunch/dinner appetiser.  


For a classic Bilbaíno evening out, go for a txikiteo (pintxo-bar crawl) around town, stopping at four or more pintxo bars trying the different ubiquitous snack in each with a diminutive tipple such as a txikito (small glass of red wine), a kalimotxo (cola and red wine, the local favourite), or a rika, beer with lemon. Each bar has its pintxo speciality – often variations on seafood, ham or cheese. The Gilda pintxos (named after Rita Hayworth’s cult forties film noir), with guindilla pepper, anchovy, olives and chilli, goes down a treat with the local txakali, the low-alcohol sparkling wine.  


A good starting point for your pintxo trail is Casco Viejo and around La Plaza Nueva, where you will find the belle epoque Cafe Bar Bilbao, the family-run Gure Toki  or Baster, near the cathedral, which is also good for breakfast, and Bar EL Globo, which is on all the best ‘must- go’ lists for its crab/bechamel gratin pintxos. And don’t miss  El Mercado de La Ribera, the world’s largest covered food market with plenty of restaurants and pintxo bars. 


For more fine dining, top of your gourmet hitlist should be the Michelin one-stars Nerua Guggenheim Bilbao, and Restaurante Mina, and Michelin Bib Gourmand Los Fueros, in Casco Vieja, and for more hearty fare, the ornate, atmospheric Café Iruña, in Abando, for acorn fed ham and sausage and tuna salads. Bilbao specialities to seek out are marmitako – tuna stew – and Bacalao al Pil Pil - salted cod cooked in a garlic, chilli and olive oil sauce.  


An innovative way to combine art and mental health, The Guggenheim runs a Wellbeing through Art programme, which includes the 40-minute ‘Slow-gazing at the Guggenheim’ tours to aid de-stressing and encourage calmness. A guide leads the tour, leaving you plenty of time to linger over selected works while doing controlled breathing and meditation.    They also run a Quiet Hour every Wednesday and the dopamine-boosting benefits of looking at something beautiful, whether art or nature, have been well proven. For more of the city’s visual treats, try the an art or architecture walk  

For more outdoorsy wellness, take a guided bike tour with Tourne Bilbao or With Locals, go paddle boarding or kayaking with Bilbo Bentura , or join a group walk with Local Experts Tours. 



Bilboats will sail you up the estuary; book the two-hour trip if you want to glide under the impressive 19th century Vizcaya Bridge, the first in the world to carry people and cars in a specially designed gondola. 


The golden triangle for Bilbao shopping is Gran Via, the main street of Ensanche, where you will find El Corte Ingles, aka Spanish Harrods and opposite our Rituals store so you can stock up on your favourites. Check out more designer wear and independent boutiques in the little streets of the Casco Viejo. 


Fancy a dip? The metro will drop you at the sandy beaches of Getxo in about 25 minutes. 


St Juan de Gaztelugatxe – Game of Thrones fans will recognise the 241 steps of this dramatic man-made causeway up to a clifftop hermitage. Best seen on a tour that takes in the pretty town of Bermeo and Guernica, made famous by Picasso’s iconic painting.  


Funicular de Artxanda  - A three-minute ride climbs to the top of Mount Artxanda for spectacular city and landscape views. Go early to avoid the crowds. 


Susan Ward Davies

Susan Ward Davies

Susan Ward Davies has been a travel editor and writer for more than 30 years- most of them spent as Travel & Lifestyle Director of British ELLE & elleuk.com, and now as Travel & Lifestyle Editor of thecalendarmagazine.com, where she writes about sustainable travel. She also freelances for a wide range of British publications including The Telegraph, The Times and Good Housekeeping. She is happiest on her way to the airport, suitcase in hand, setting off for an - as yet  - untried destination,  and loves nothing more than seeking out new places and experiences