Not many years ago, Bilbao was the heartland of Basque independence, a no-go zone where few outsiders dared to venture.
ETA, the independence movement, had killed hundreds of people in its fight for a Basque homeland and was particularly active under the authoritarian Franco regime. But when Franco died, it was time for peace and the Basque country was given a reprieve, plenty of privileges, a certain level of autonomy – and the population was tired of bombs. So over the years, with stops and starts, ETA moved away from violence.
Today, in the thriving and lively streets of Bilbao, you’d never know this society had been torn apart by its roots just a decade ago.
I love Madrid. I was brought up there. It’s my favorite city in Spain. But…
I was literally blown away by Bilbao, because of its warmth and architecture and food of course but also because landing at the seaside Bilbao airport is a bit like taking a blind run at a wall, bouncing off it sideways, and then slipping on an oil slick. It is known as a windy airstrip but on that particular day, even local spectators admitted they could see the plane rock at a distance.
But it was worth it.
There are so many things to see in Bilbao, the Guggenheim Bilbao (the museum of modern and contemporary art housed in a spectacular modernist building) being possibly the first but by no means the only sight. On the contrary, the best way to take a bite out of Bilbao is to walk its streets, particularly rewarding if you catch the city on a bright spring day.
17 TOP BILBAO SIGHTS AND EXPERIENCES: BILBAO HIGHLIGHTS
1. The Guggenheim, of course
2. Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, with the classics – Goya, El Greco
3. Casco Viejo, the Bilbao Old Town, also known as the Seven Streets, or 7 Calles
4. Go for a txikiteo (pronounced as chee-kee-tay-o), a culinary bar hop from pintxo to pintxo (like tapas but better)
5. La Ribera market: food, pintxos, history, and a long walk through one of the largest covered markets in Europe
6. Plaza Nueva, a monumental square a bit like Madrid’s Plaza Mayor
7. Arriaga Theater – for a few euros, take a guided tour through the breath-taking opera house
8. Gran Via, the main shopping street
9. Azkuna Zentroa, a striking center for Basque culture designed by Philippe Starck
10. Bilbao Cathedral
11. Zubizuri Bridge by Calatrava (the slippery glass tiles are all covered up – so it’s safe and beautiful no matter the season)
12. Catch the funicular for a view
13. Vizcaya Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
14. A boat ride on the Ria de Bilbao or a trip to one of the beaches nearby
15. A day trip to Guernica, the inspiration for Picasso’s painting
16. Maritime Museum
17. Museo Vasco – the Basque Museum
18. The Bullfighting Museum
If your time is limited, consider a Bilbao tour guide or walking tour to see as much as you can:
Bilbao travel guide to restaurants I loved
I should be heading straight for Bilbao’s stunning architecture but the city’s food is so superb I can only sample all those extraordinary buildings once I’ve satisfied my taste buds.
Bilbao, the Basque country’s largest city, has some of the best food and products in the world. The region is famous for exporting chefs – and scratch a Michelin restaurant in any country and you’ll find plenty of Basques. Whether it’s the freshness of the produce or the peculiar quality of the rain-fed grass (it rains plenty), food has a deep, resounding taste.
I managed to eat two extraordinary meals in Bilbao (not bad considering I was there for under 48 hours).
The first meal was at Victor Montes Restaurant in the old town and predictably, my first course was an array of pintxos (pronounced pin-choes), similar to Spanish tapas. The word comes from the verb pinchar or pinched, because of the toothpick that often holds the garnish to the thin slice of Spanish-style baguette underneath.
What are some typical Basque pintxos?
Any type of cod. Baby eel. Seafood. Anchovies. Iberian ham. Sometimes both together. Salmon, egg, prawn, and anchovy. Individually or combined. Red peppers, tuna salad, and mushrooms. In other words, there’s very little you can’t put on a pintxo. The flavors have to marry well, and it has to look pretty. I’d say they’re a type of art form.
A last word about pintxos: they’re not usually eaten at a sit-down meal, as I did. This is finger food at the bar. Usually, you push your way through the crowd and order – or in many places, you just help yourself and settle up later. Better yet, gang up with a bunch of friends and head off for a txikiteo, the pintxo version of a pub crawl, from bar to bar, stopping off in each for a specialty (and a little drink). And to think that some people sit down for dinner after this extravaganza.
Oh, I did. I had thought of ordering something light, fish perhaps, but the waiter’s glare put me immediately in place by pointing to the house specialty: an amazing cut of beef so rich it felt like a pat of butter sliding down my throat.
The next day, still overwhelmed by the previous evening’s meal, I was confronted with the Bistró Guggenheim Bilbao, whose more formal sister restaurant, Nerua, has a Michelin star but whose kitchen is also run by Nerua’s chef, Joseán Martínez Alija.
I ordered roast boned lamb and here’s what arrived.
In a panic I almost sent it back, thinking they’d forgotten my main meal and brought me a dessert brownie instead. False alarm. This was pressed deboned lamb, possibly one of the most exquisite lamb dishes I’ve ever tasted. And those lovely nutlike sprinkles on top are chickpeas.
Sometimes you have to be brave and jump in, and if you don’t know where to start, this food and wine tour will get you into the mood.
Architecture – One of the main Bilbao attractions
With this kind of eating activity going on, walking is the only antidote to enjoying your Bilbao vacation and this is a great walking city.
There’s something about Bilbao, a certain contemporary nonchalance that casually throws out ultramodern structures into the midst of classical monuments. And it works. Bilbao is one of the most visually stimulating cities I’ve visited in Spain, not because of its utter beauty – it is more attractive than beautiful – but because of the contrasts and the corners.
Despite its cultural and culinary wealth, most tourists come to Bilbao for one reason: the hyper-modern Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. The relatively recent (1997) structure was designed by noted (and sometimes controversial) architect Frank Gehry. It is certainly a striking building, surrounding by exhibitions of modern art and plenty of interesting viewpoints.
Just as glorious in my opinion are the vestiges of Art Nouveau, much of which was left untouched by the bombings of the Spanish Civil War which destroyed the city’s bridges in 1937. What damage did take place was repaired and the city retains a pristine feel.
Beyond Bilbao: Guernica or Gernika?
What’s in a name, you ask?
Everything, it seems.
Guernica is the Spanish name of a small Basque village. And Gernika is how the Basques themselves spell it. The two reflect radically different realities and how you spell the town says a lot about how you view its history, a bit like the capital of Ukraine being spelled Kyiv or Kiev.
It is a perfect day trip from Bilbao, a pleasant one-hour train journey, a peaceful and friendly place in which people go about their business.
There is little to remind anyone that the village was leveled by the Nazis in 1937, even before World War II began. The Spanish Civil War, on the other hand, was in full swing
It was a sunny Monday during the Spanish Civil War, 26 April 1937 to be exact. It would have been market day in Gernika, the town’s population swollen by shoppers and farmers from other villages, the atmosphere tense from the sound of distant aircraft, and the taste of fear, palpable after the recent bombing of a nearby village.
The battlefront was inching closer.
At midday, the church bells sounded an alarm, a sound so common few people heeded the warning. By mid-afternoon, Nazi bombers were strafing the streets and by evening, the thriving little riverside town had been carpet-bombed into rubble, killing hundreds, possibly as many as 1600, wounding many more.
But why was Gernika bombed?
As soon as the Spanish Civil War began, Adolf Hitler proclaimed his support for the Nationalist cause of General Francisco Franco, and sent him tanks and planes: the Condor Legion. Gernika would be the Nazi stepping stone to World War II, a practice session, a prelude.
So when Franco asked Germany’s Luftwaffe, or air force, to bomb Gernika, they obliged. The bombs and bombers were German, but the order came from Spain, a fact some Basques never forgot.
No one really knows what the bombing was designed to achieve: the destruction of a strategic bridge (unlikely, since the bridge stayed standing), the repulsion of advancing Republicans, the testing by Germany of new carpet bombing tactics, or the simple desire to spread terror.
Whatever the reasons, the destruction of Gernika eventually reached the ears of Picasso, then living in Paris. Outraged, the usually apolitical Spanish artist put his brushes to work.
The result was one of the world’s most famous paintings, Guernica, a cry of anguish about war.
The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 with a victory for Franco and although pro-Nazi, Spain would not officially fight in World War II; it was busy nursing its own wounds.
Franco’s government would last until his death in 1975 and his rule would be marked by a cycle of Basque aggression, repression, and oppression. Under him, the Basque language was banned, and Basque intellectuals and politicians were detained and tortured. The nascent Basque terrorist group, ETA, sowed fear into Spanish hearts and killed hundreds of people, many of them police and army officials, before renouncing violence in 2011.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT THE BASQUE LANGUAGE
- The Basques call their language Euskera
- Basque is Europe’s oldest language
- There are many debates about its origins, but none is conclusive
- It isn’t linked to any other European language – or any language, for that matter
- It may have survived because of the mountainous isolation of the Basque Country
- Under the Franco regime, Basque was forbidden (as were other regional languages)
- Basque is also spoken in neighboring France and among some Basques abroad
ETA left a deep mark on Spain’s psyche and for decades the entire Basque population would be thought of as closet terrorists not only by Spaniards but by people outside the country too.
As a Basque friend told me, “I had to make excuses whenever I traveled and told people I was Basque. They looked at me with alarm, and I had to explain to them I wasn’t a terrorist.” Today, the future is bright for the region: it has regained a measure of autonomy and is one of the richest regions in an otherwise financially battered country.
During my own youth in Spain, the only time Basques were ever mentioned was when there was a terrorist attack. As children, we were kept dreadfully ignorant and the ‘Basque province’ was a no-go zone so it was with some trepidation that I finally visited Bilbao and tried to understand the region’s story.
While history may be a bit discreet these days, it is anything but forgotten.
The Museum of Peace, at the left of the handsome central square, tells the story of war by reconstructing the sights and sounds of that April night.
As I sat in a darkened room, I heard the church bells, the sounds of bombing, and the warning sirens. I tried to imagine what it might have been like to gather my children or elderly parents in fear and rush into a shelter, not knowing if I would ever leave it, the buildings all around me crashing to the ground.
No, I couldn’t even begin to imagine that, even though my heart beat faster.
And that may be what the museum is trying to do – remind us that some horrors are unimaginable and that peace is always a better alternative than war.
One symbol that survived the bombing is the Tree of Gernika, possibly the most important Basque symbol of freedom. This is where Basque leaders traditionally gathered to make essential decisions and pass the laws of Biscay province.
The tree itself isn’t the original but a descendant, a member of a dynasty. The original tree lasted 450 years and the withered trunk of the second, which survived through the 19th century, is showcased in a stone gazebo on the grounds of the Assembly Hall, the headquarters of the Biscay parliament.
Today’s tree, the fourth, is a sapling, its slim, pliant branches waving as much towards the future as towards the past.
In Gernika, the past is never far from the collective consciousness. Here, Picasso is revered, a main street named after him.
His painting, Guernica, is at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.
However, that’s not to everyone’s liking.
“That is indeed where the painting is,” said a local lady with whom I chatted over a coffee. “But that’s not where it should be. We want it here.”
Guernica, or Gernika, for so long a reminder of war, has now become an emblem of peace.
And Bilbao is the perfect jumping-off point for this major history lesson.
A few Bilbao city guide resources
- Bilbao is on the coast of northern Spain. Roads aren’t that speedy and even travel from Madrid to Bilbao by train takes five hours. Iberia has hourly flights from Madrid (and also flies from elsewhere in Spain), and EasyJet has cheap flights from London and Geneva.
- If you’re coming from the UK, there are ferries, although the crossing is known to be rough. Still, it’s faster than driving…
- Victor Montes Restaurant is an essential stop – but you should be in a meat mood to enjoy it to its fullest.
- When you visit the Guggenheim Museum – and you must (if only so you can tell me about it) try having lunch at the Bistró. Or, if you can afford it, Nerua.
- Gernika is an easy day trip from Bilbao. A train to Bermeo leaves every hour or so from Zazpikaleak/Casco Viejo station. Get off at Gernika-Lumo.
- The Gernika Peace Museum Foundation explores the nature of peace, in Gernika and beyond. Well worth the visit, as is the Assembly House and the Tree of Gernika.
- How much time should you spend here? 2 days in Bilbao is ideal, but even with one day in Bilbao, you’ll be able to see plenty.
- For more information about Bilbao, consult the Bilbao Tourist Office.
BOOKS YOU SHOULD READ BEFORE VISITING BILBAO
➽ If you’re keen on making your own pintxos, Gerald Hirigoyen’s Pintxos will show you how (I promise you’ll get so hungry you might start eating the book!)
➽ Mark Kurlansky’s Basque History of the World is exactly what it says, an overview, so well-written you won’t want to put it down.
➽ Guernica by Dave Boling is a fictionalized account of a Basque family from the early 20th century through the civil war and beyond – it is gripping and will give you an intimate understanding of the region.
➽ And finally, Lonely Planet’s Pocket Bilbao & San Sebastian will help you get around.