In the heart of the Basque Country, Bilbao is an elegant conurbation whose citizens are still affectionately nicknamed ‘chirene’ (txirene) meaning jovial, eccentric, humorous. Stretching along the banks of the Nervión river, it is surrounded by low mountains, creating a unique setting for a city that has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last quarter of a century.
A period as one of Spain’s most important industrial ports was followed by a post-industrial decline. But the building of the iconic Guggenheim Museum in 1997 led to an urban renewal programme along with a major growth in tourism. The riverside was redeveloped with new embankments and a tramway.
But like many Spanish cities, Bilbao still preserves its Casco Viejo (old town). In this case, the term refers to an area in and around the famous ‘Seven Streets’, taking in the Plaza Nueva and the Cathedral. For a stunning overall view of the city, enjoy a ride on the old funicular railway that links downtown Bilbao with the summit of the Artxanda mountain.
Not least of the city’s attractions is its local Basque cuisine, primarily based on the fish and seafood that abound on this part of the Spanish coast. The Mercado de la Ribera is said to be Europe’s largest covered food market and was completely rebuilt in Art Deco style in 1929. It has several pintxo bars on the main level, with the market stalls above.
Bilbao classics such as Café Iruña and El Globo are a long-standing part of the city’s dynamic pintxo scene, which also includes great little wine bars and popular spots for the city’s renowned tortilla de patatas. Look out for La Taberna de Zarate and Cafetería Swansea. Go in and try a slice, you won’t regret it.
Local Txakoli wine, much improved in recent years, is found everywhere, though you will also come across red and white wines from nearby Rioja in abundance, as well as cider. Also, don’t forget to have a sundowner on the splendid rooftop terrace at the Gran Hotel Domine overlooking the Guggenheim Museum. The city’s principal festival is La Semana Grande (the Grand Week) in late August, which features street concerts, theatre, fireworks alongside a lot of eating and drinking. Otherwise, bar hopping – known locally as ‘doing the Stations of The Cross’ – is pretty much a daily occurrence.
Top Bilbao destinations for food and wine lovers
This is a relatively new wine bar/bistro, presided over by footballer Dani García, sommelier Ander Fernández, and chefs Alexis Patrick and Baladi Goiburu. But it has already acquired a reputation for its wide range of quality wines and its innovative fusion menu – don’t miss the panko-crusted jamón croquetas. But the plan is to make Salitre more than briefly fashionable; the owners want it to become a classic of the Bilbao bar scene – and the plush downstairs bar in blue velvet is a statement of intent. There are also two dining rooms where you can enjoy a full meal, either haute cuisine or more traditional fare.
- Address: Henao Kalea, 28
- Open: Tue-Thu 10am-12am; Fri 10am-1am; Sat 11am-1am; Sun 11am-6pm
When José Luís Pérez Landeta welcomes you into his grocery-cum-restaurant you feel immediately at home. The original grocery store – or abacería – was founded in 1955, then expanded in 1995 to include a small rustic eatery specialising in grilled meats, traditional Basque dishes and an excellent selection of wines. Friendly service and an intimate atmosphere, combined with a cosy feeling of being among friends and neighbours, makes Casa Rufo a local favourite not to be missed.
- Address: Hurtado de Amézaga, 5
- Open: Mon-Sat 1.30pm-4pm, 8.30pm-11pm; Sun 1.30pm-4pm
A total gem of a wine bar run by Jonathan Hernando and his wine-savvy team, Cork is well stocked with more than 300 bins (about 80 of which are available by the glass) including international wines and everything Spanish from Sherry to Txakoli. Hernando ensures that the bar offers an original but approachable selection of unusual grape varieties, small-production wines and some more expensive bottles served at an affordable price. Cosy and inviting, Cork is a bar for everyone from novices to aficionados, with a good selection of pintxos and tapas to go with your selections.
- Address: Poza Lizentziatuaren Kalea, 45
- Open: Mon-Sat 11.30am-3.30pm, 7pm-10.30pm; Sun 12pm-3.30pm, 7pm-10.30pm
Opened in 1981, El Viejo Zortzi is best known for its vast selection of both national and international wines (from 19 countries), available by the bottle or glass as well as retail sale. The small, elegant dining room offers a seasonal market-based menu with excellent food and service. There is also a caviar menu. For a more casual experience, you can opt for the adjoining bar and a sampling of their quality tapas (don’t miss the tortilla au gratin).
- Address: Poza Lizentziatuaren Kalea, 54
- Open: Mon-Sat 1pm-12am
Founded in 1982 in a prime location beside the Plaza Nueva in the old town and relaunched in modernised premises during 2015, Gure Toki is now run by the original owners’ children Iván, Yolanda and Begoña Siles. When the Guggenheim Museum opened, they foresaw a major growth in visitors to the city and began a process of culinary innovation, modifying many of the ingredients used in their pintxos – especially the hot dishes. Gure Toki is now one of the most popular and celebrated bars in the city and also boasts an excellent wine list.
- Address: Plaza Nueva, 12
- Open: Mon, Tue, Thu-Sat 9am-11.30pm; Sun 9.30am-4.00pm
Julen Bergantiños is a feisty young chef (above, centre) who has spent half his life working in restaurants. His latest fine-dining venture (opened summer 2022) features two tasting menus. They both showcase various specialities and wines of Northern Spain – from Cantabria and Asturias to his home town of Bilbao. With its prime location opposite the Guggenheim Museum, this small attractive space, run by a small, dedicated team of young professionals, offers an exceptional gastronomic experience.
- Address: Alameda de Mazarredo, 65
- Open: Mon-Thu 2pm-3.30pm; Fri-Sat 2pm-3.15pm, 9pm-10.15pm
In the heart of the Abando neighbourhood (El Ensanche), La Viña (founded in 1927) still presents an appearance and layout almost identical to the original, though it’s now added a shop and ’cooking workshop’ in adjoining premises. Unusual for this part of Spain, the food is primarily tapas (including Joselito Jamón Ibérico de Bellota), although there is also a small selection of pintxos. Plenty of local wines and a friendly, relaxed atmosphere make this an excellent pit stop.
- Address: Diputación, 10
- Open: Mon-Fri 10.30am-10.30pm; Sat 1pm-10.30pm
Founded in 1878 and located just off the Plaza Nueva, Los Fueros is reputed to be the oldest restaurant in Bilbao – and one of its most popular. Chef Paul Ibarra (a protégé of Fernando Canales) took over the management in 2015, and together with a team of key staff has added innovations to its top-quality traditional fare. With its distinctive decor (note the mosaics and tiles) and a great selection of food and wines, Los Fueros deserves its reputation as a Bilbao classic.
- Address: Plaza Nueva, Foru Kalea, 6
- Open: Mon, Wed-Fri 12.30pm-4pm, 7.45pm-11pm; Sat 12pm-4pm, 8pm-11pm; Sun 12pm-3.30pm, 7.45pm-11pm
The Guggenheim’s in-house restaurant is a one-star Michelin venue occupying an elegant minimalist space overlooking the river (entered by way of the kitchen). It specialises in seasonal and tasting menus with wine pairings as well as a carte. Founded in 2011 as a conscious gastronomic complement to the Museum, Nerua has developed a cuisine rooted in the best local produce and the know-how of an experienced team under the guidance of chef Josean Alija (above). His thoughtful, delicate dishes are beautifully presented, while the resident sommelier will help you choose your wines from an impressive list.
- Address: Guggenheim Museum, Av. Abandoibarra, 2
- Open: Tue-Wed 1pm-3pm; Thu-Sat 1pm-3pm, 8.30pm-10pm; Sun 1pm-3pm
Opened in 1943 in the heart of the ‘Seven Streets’ in Bilbao’s old town, Taberna Basaras is at once traditional and contemporary. Jon Ocaña took over the reins of his family’s emblematic tavern when his mother Bea retired in 2020. While maintaining his family’s legacy – including their legendary Santoña anchovies and an impressive choice of Sherry (Ocaña’s father, Pepe, was a distributor for Gonzaléz Byass) – Ocaña has expanded the wine list to over 200 bins with about 75 available by the glass. Also, be sure to try his extra-special ’vermut preparado’ (above).
- Address: Pilot Kalea,2
- Open: Tue 7pm-11pm; Wed-Fri 11.30am-4pm, 7pm-11pm; Sat 12pm-4pm, 7pm-11.30pm; Sun 12pm-4.30pm