The unveiling of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in 1997 may have inserted Bilbao into international hipster consciousness, but the Basque city on the river clearly knew it was cool long before Gehry’s agenda was realized.
Bilbao is an immediately attractive city with green parks and a pleasingly well-heeled atmosphere. There are so many exciting things going on in Bilbao that it’s hard to know if the focus should be on the new or on the old.
The city has become a magnet for those thrilled by contemporary architecture. Gehry’s museum is a masterpiece, and Santiago Calatrava’s imprint on the city is also undeniable. His Campo Volantin Footbridge is a marvel, and Bilbao’s Sondika Airport, also designed by Calatrava, is dramatic and grand.
But lovers of older styles shouldn’t sit Bilbao out. The city’s Casco Viejo (Old Town) is dripping with old world charm. The Gothic Catedral de Santiago, at the center of the Old Town, is gorgeous; elsewhere, there are plenty of Neoclassical and hybrid eclecticism buildings to admire.
A touch of tension
Yet despite Bilbao’s palpable prosperity and many charms, there’s tension in the air. Upon observing a protest adjacent to the Arriaga Theatre led by men and women in their sixties and seventies, many holding signs written in Basque, I asked a local what the protests were about. I assumed that the protesters were holding a vigil for those murdered by separatist terrorists.
In fact, the man on the street told me, the silent protest was not for the victims of Basque terrorism at all. Those holding signs were the parents of convicted terrorists demonstrating for the transfer of their children to prisons inside the Basque Country—away from the prisons, elsewhere in Spain, where they are currently housed.
All of this, while very interesting, no doubt gives a misleading impression of the placid and quite wealthy city. In fact, Bilbao is very safe. The various skirmishes over language, culture, and politics in the Basque Country are mostly invisible to visitors.
What tourists see is an omnipresent Basque language, as well as tourist shops selling Basque flags and t-shirts.
Bilbao on a budget
Here are five tips for saving money in Bilbao.
1. Cheap savories.
One word: pintxos (pronounced “pinchos”), or: the Basque version of tapas. Pintxos come in all sorts of forms. There is a lot of cod, shrimp, and mayonnaise involved. All good, and all pretty cheap. Three pintxos and a glass of wine shouldn’t set you back more than €7. Stroll the Casco Viejo (Old Town) to find a pintxos popping perch.
2. Cheap sweets.
Refuel with cheap and filling pastries. Try the local rice tart with coffee. We like the old school feel of New York Café, at Calle Buenos Aires 12.
3. Hubbing it.
Bilbao makes a great hub for exploring other cities in the Basque Country and beyond. The exquisite city of San Sebastián is about 90 minutes away by bus (roundtrip around €18), while Santander in the neighboring region of Cantabria is roughly the same distance to the west (roundtrip beginning at €13).
4. Museum switch.
We can’t seriously recommend that you not visit the Guggenheim. But if innovative interiors are less important to you than broad permanent art collections, restrict your explorations of the Guggenheim (admission €13) to the remarkable building’s exterior and check out the Museo de Bellas Artes (admission €5.50) instead.
5. Cheap sleeps.
Bilbao has a good range of affordable beds. We like Hotel Sirimiri, right next to the Atxuri tram station, where a double room runs just €60. The word “sirimiri” means a faint yet continuous mist, a type of precipitation common to Bilbao throughout much of the year.