How to experience the culinary traditions of Bilbao, the heart of Spain's Basque Country

Renowned for its art and riverfront architecture, Bilbao is a city of chattering markets, long nights and football-mad locals, but it also knows a thing or two about good food and drink.

Thursday, July 30, 2020,
By Ben Lerwill
Photographs By Slawek Kozdrasw
Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture Maman, over 30ft high, sits outside the Guggenheim Musuem Bilbao. 

Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture Maman, over 30ft high, sits outside the Guggenheim Musuem Bilbao. 

Photograph by Slawek Kozdrasw

Cyclists buzz under plane trees as traffic purrs past baroque churches. Two newlyweds are on the riverside, posing for photos. The groom is wearing a beige three-piece suit (you can get away with that sort of thing in Bilbao) and the bride a flowy white dress, the breeze catching the gauze and billowing it out, cloaking both husband and wife in a feather-light cloud of material. They giggle and embrace. Behind them, the River Nervión flows wide and blue under the sleek lines of the Zubizuri footbridge.

But Bilbao hasn’t always provided a photogenic backdrop. Thirty years ago, the idea of having your wedding shots taken at the water’s edge would have been laughable — the river was a murky, odoriferous thing, the quayside a mass of rusting industry. But the largest city in the Basque Country has since morphed into one of the most vaunted examples of urban regeneration in Europe, full of chattering markets, long nights and proud, football-mad locals, and was even designated an official UNESCO City of Design in 2014. Today, you can almost sense it swelling out its chest with self-confidence, glass of txakoli white wine in one hand and salt cod croquette in the other. 

Visitors will want to loosen their belts a notch or two, because this is a city that knows a thing or two about good food and drink, filling its larder with a bounty of produce from the Atlantic, the lush farmland of the surrounding hills and vineyards carpeting the valleys. Wander the city’s streets and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s permanently on lunch hour. Glasses are knocked back before noon, bakeries bulge with customers and pintxo bars throng with besuited workers. Near-neighbour San Sebastián might draw the international foodie garlands, but the bilbaínos eat and drink with relish. 

“Cooking is simpler in Bilbao,” says chef Paul Ibarra, speaking to me at his lively Basque restaurant, Los Fueros, which has been pulling in locals since 1878. Behind him, families pick through platters of grilled prawns. “In San Sebastián, the food is more elaborate, more French-influenced. Here, simple is good. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. If you cook something, it has to be marvellous; the flavours have nowhere to hide.”

To make his point, Paul sizzles off a portion of hake in olive oil, sprinkles it with sea salt, adds a dollop of roasted pepper mayonnaise and places it before me. “I don’t know about you,” he says, “but if I die tomorrow, this would be my last meal.” The fish is golden, with a slight crunch to the bite. It would be a fine choice, to be fair. 

“And look,” Paul says, proffering a bottle of txakoli. “The white wine here is different to San Sebastián’s. We use the same grape, but theirs is sparkling. Ours has no bubbles.” He pours some out for me, the chilled wine causing condensation to form on the glass in seconds. It’s crisp, fruity and sublimely fresh. “No bubbles, just good wine,” says Paul. “That tells you something about Bilbao.” 

“Bilbao was named European City of the Year at the 2018 Urbanism Awards, which takes into account everything from urban development to environmental issues. ”

by Ben Lerwill

Take me to the river

None of which is to say that the city lacks fizz. Bilbao can be showy, even flamboyant at times. Its transformation over recent decades has left a very visible legacy, with one particular project standing as a (literally) shining example. When it opened in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao had the world’s cultural commentators falling over themselves with excitement. Its giant, sinuous, metallic form was likened to a cross between a palace and a ship. Today, over two decades on, the museum remains a world-class attraction, inside and out. 

Perhaps inevitably, the Guggenheim has its own Michelin-starred restaurant, Nerua Guggenheim Bilbao. Focused on seasonal Basque ingredients, its best-known dishes include a sole and clam cream soup and a smoked eel ravioli with beetroot and green apple. Maritime influences are everywhere you turn in this port city, from the set menus to the architecture. I even arrive by overnight ferry, and there aren’t many city-break destinations where you can do that. 

“It’s hard to explain how much Bilbao has changed since the 1970s,” guide Miriam Ruíz López tells me as we wander the streets around energetic Plaza Moyúa. Around us, grand hotels look out over trim lawns and curvy, Norman Foster-designed subway entrances. “People know us now for our art and our riverside architecture, but when I was growing up there was an urban myth that the water was so dirty that if you fell in, you’d die.”  

Bilbao’s long history has been shaped by its estuary location. From its beginnings in the year 1300, this has always been a city of seafarers, traders and shipbuilders, a place happy to draw its influences from all compass points. At the same time, of course, it’s also somewhere that prides itself on its self-determination. A case in point: the city’s top-flight football team, Athletic Bilbao, famously still employs a Basque-only policy for its player recruitment. In all sorts of respects, Madrid is a distant notion. 

The produce used by the city’s bars and restaurants also belongs squarely to the region. At the Mercado de la Ribera, a riverside hall that’s the largest covered market in Europe, the aisles accost you with mounds of mussels, towers of tomatoes, walls of cheeses and vats of green beans. There’s a touristy element to it — local advice is to avoid eating in the style-over-substance bars within the market hall — but many of Bilbao’s leading chefs still stock up their restaurant larders right here.  

The sheer variety of local ingredients makes the omnipresent pintxo — the Basque take on tapas — the perfect Bilbao food. Found on almost every bar counter in town, these snack-sized creations are traditionally meant to be consumed in two bites. Today, however, they’ve evolved from simple-but-brilliant classics such as the gilda — an olive, a chilli and an anchovy on a stick — to creative concoctions that might involve anything from quail eggs to spider crab. 

Most bars offer a wide choice, but generally have their own, honed-to-perfection house speciality. The locals have a word — poteo — which refers to the act of moving from bar to bar, ordering a drink and a pintxo in each. You hear the word said a lot, and no wonder. To spend an evening drifting around a softly lit neighbourhood, gorging on bite-sized dishes and watching the edges of the buildings grow gradually hazier, is one of Bilbao’s greatest joys.  

Pintxos at Mercado de la Ribera, a riverside hall that’s the largest covered market in Europe. There’s a touristy element to it — local advice is to avoid eating in the style-over-substance bars within the market hall — but many of Bilbao’s leading chefs still stock up their restaurant larders right here.  

Photograph by Slawek Kozdrasw

The times they are a-changin’

“I’ve worked behind the bar here for 30 years,” says Aitor Aginako, his face cracking into a grin above his neatly pressed blue shirt. Café Bar Bilbao sits in one corner of the Old Town’s Plaza Nueva and has a marbled counter, a chequerboard floor and patterned wall tiles. “In 30 years, you learn how to look after customers. You need to know where to stand — always be close by, but without invading their space — and how to treat people with respect. But most of all,” he says, pointing to small portions of bacalao al pil-pil (salt cod in a garlic and chilli sauce), “you need good pintxos.”

Close to Plaza Nueva are the seven medieval streets — known as Las Siete Calles — that make up the heart of the Old Town. Ancient five-storey buildings with wrought-iron balconies look down on the cobbles. On one of these streets, Calle Carnicería Vieja, is Bilbao’s first vegan bakery, Bohemian Lane. Its owner, Sandra Mateo, welcomes me with a coffee and a slice of carrot, cinnamon and walnut cake (verdict: two sticky thumbs up). 

“Bilbao is changing,” she says. “People thought I was crazy to go against the usual traditions, but, as in so many places, veganism is growing.” A steady flow of customers through the doors underlines her point. “I actually studied architecture,” Sandra continues. “I still love walking around the city and staring at buildings. I like to think I actually use my education in my baking. It takes architectural skill to create a three-layered vegan cake!”  

Today’s city has eye-catching buildings by the dozen, from the 41-storey curves of the Iberdrola Tower to the neo-baroque detailing of the Arriaga Theatre. For me, one in particular stands out. Not the Guggenheim, for all its showstopping beauty, but the Akzuna Zentroa, a bizarre but brilliant cultural complex created by French architect and designer Philippe Starck in 2010. Its vast, dark foyer is supported by a series of squat, stylised pillars. Commuters wander through this otherworldly gloom while families recline on glowing benches and, way overhead, swimmers float in a glass-bottomed rooftop pool. It’s an oddity that somehow finds a natural home in Bilbao. 

The building was once an enormous wine warehouse. This makes sense. Sooner or later, everything in Bilbao comes back to food and drink. I later learn that the local couple I’d seen having their photos taken on the riverside were about to embark on a banquet of what can only be described as Basque proportions: a traditional seven-course wedding feast lasting several hours. It’s no wonder they were looking so happy.     

Café Bar Bilbao, which sits in one corner of the Old Town’s Plaza Nueva, prides itself on serving some of the best pintxos in the city. 

Photograph by Slawek Kozdrasw

Q&A with Patrizia Vitelli, Bilbao Food Tours

How important is food to the local culture?
Food is everything in Bilbao. Every big decision, every celebration, every important meeting takes place around a table. We’re lucky to have a huge variety of ingredients — we have a long coastline and the climate is just right for growing crops and vegetables — although Basque cuisine is still quite traditional. It’s honest food. 
What’s the relationship like between San Sebastián and Bilbao? 
There’s a healthy rivalry. San Sebastián gets called ‘Little Paris’ — in the ‘70s and ‘80s, some of its chefs trained in France, so it’s a bit posher there. Although if you ask them, they’ll say the bilbaínos think a lot of themselves!  
Where traditional Basque restaurants would you recommend? 
Try El Arandia de Julen — it does the best beans and steak — or Pulpería Vermutería Florines for good-quality octopus.  
bilbaofoodtours.com

Four insider tips

1. Kalimotxo is a drink that’s popular across the Basque region. Improbable though it sounds, it’s made by mixing equal parts cola and red wine, and tastes much as you’d expect. 

2. Locals rarely order more than one pintxo per bar, although no one’s going to object if you choose to stay put and try multiple options.   

3. The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is closed on Mondays, but otherwise opens from 10:00 to 18:00. Coming later in the day is a good way of beating the crowds.

4. If you’re travelling by car, the underground Arenal Casco Viejo car park is centrally located and has reasonable daily parking rates.  

Essentials

Getting there and around
Bilbao is typically served by non-stop flights from London and Manchester, with airlines such as British Airways, EasyJet, Ryanair and Vueling. Aer Lingus flies direct from Dublin. ba.com  easyjet.com   
Average flight time: 2h.
Brittany Ferries sails between Bilbao and Portsmouth and Rosslare, with up to three sailings a week in each direction. There are also sailings between nearby Santander and Portsmouth (three times a week, both directions) and Plymouth (once a week, both directions).
Average sailing time: 24h.
Bilbao is easy to cover on foot, but its metro and tram system is efficient. Fares start from €1.60 (£1.40) and €1.50 (£1.30) respectively. The airport is easily reached by public transport.
When to go
Late spring and autumn are the best times to visit, avoiding the intense heat and high prices of the peak summer months and the wetter days of winter and early spring.
More info
bilbaoturismo.net  
How to do it
Brittany Ferries has ferry-and-hotel packages, at Bilbao’s four-star Hotel Abando, from £389 per person, including a four-berth cabin with return sailings.
Love Holidays has four nights at the four-star NYX Hotel Bilbao in December on a room-only basis, from £233 per person, including flights and flight amendments.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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