Bilbao & the Basque Region
April 9, 2017
Words: Helene Ravlich/
Photos: Gareth Gardner
From Instabloggers to seasoned travel professionals, all agree that when it comes to a truly unique destination, the Basque Region has it all.
Seriously different and a region that should be on every conscious traveller’s list, Basque Country is different – and they like it that way. Euskadi or Euskal Herria (‘the land of Basque Speakers’) is where craggy mountain peaks rise to the sky and sublimely chilled rocky coves are battered by mighty swells when the mood takes them. It’s a region that demands exploration beyond its thriving cosmopolitan main city, but it’s a good place to start.
At the heart of the Basque Region is the city of Bilbao, an urban success story if ever there was one. The best way for a newbie to explore its leafy streets is via the Euskotren Tranbia, a hard to miss, lime-green and silver tram that runs on only one line, in two directions. It’s a great way to see the deceptively small city along the left bank of the Nervión River, past the famous Guggenheim, and then over to the edge of the medieval Casco Viejo, or old quarter, on the right bank. Hop on and off using a 24-hour Bilbao Card, a handy pass that includes public transport, museum admission fees and various discounts.
Seriously different and a region that should be on every conscious traveller's list"
Get your culture on at the Guggenheim, and more
The opening of the Guggenheim in 1997 officially put Bilbao on the culture vultures’ map – it was made to explore and delight. Getting lost in Richard Serra’s maze of rusty steel, “The Matter of Time” is a must, and it would be rude not to delight in the world of modern and contemporary art found within its walls by the likes of Motherwell, Anish Kapoor, Jenny Holzer. If you want to stick to the Basque theme, there’s the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum to visit. Founded in 1908, it sits at the edge of the Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park and has a collection of some 10,000 major works, from old masters to Basque luminaries, such as the sculptors Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida. The Basque Museum will also keep you busy.
Shop the design district
In the Indautxu district you’ll find a brilliant design shop full of locally made wonders. The Azkuna Zentroa is an old wine warehouse that has been converted into a vast cultural centre with a modern interior courtesy of Philippe Starck. From there, head north to Calle del Doctor Nicolas Achucarro to explore the local, independent boutiques. Then head into Casco Viejo, Bilbao’s old town, it's now packed full of small boutiques and art galleries where you’ll find unique gifts made in Basque Country.
Take time to indulge
The famed Basque location of San Sebastián has some of the best food in all of Spain, with their pintxos (Basque tapas, more or less) made with love and care. You can discover the best pintxos-filled bars in town via a dinner-crawl hosted by many of the foodie-centric, local tour companies.
If something a little more luxurious is what you had in mind, on the outskirts of Bilbao you’ll find Azurmendi. Lunch at the Michelin-three-star restaurant starts with a tour of the garden and greenhouse. Then comes a “picnic” of pintxos accompanied by txakoli (an effervescent wine produced in northern Spain) and a peek into the stainless-steel kitchen. You’re then led to a wood-panelled dining room for the main event, a fifteen-course extravaganza as prepared by chef Eneko Atxa. It’s pricey, but worth it.
For casual dining in Bilbao we also recommend the very authentic Café Txinbo for pintxos and Café Lago for coffees, homemade churros with chocolate and the most perfectly formed pastries in the district.
Get lost in nature
The Bardenas Reales is a semi-desert natural region, or badlands, of some 42,000 hectares (100,000 acres) in southeast Navarre. The soils are made up of clay, chalk and sandstone and have been eroded by water and wind to create surprising shapes, canyons, plateaus and isolated hills, called cabezos. Vegetation is scarce and the many streams that cross the territory have a markedly seasonal flow, so it stays dry most of the year and is perfect for hiking.
Amazing waterfalls and pools of the clearest blue can be found at Parque Natural Urbasa y Andía, where every walking trail becomes a fairy tale. It’s a peaceful and romantic hike, and even though you can’t swim in the water, just pack a picnic and zen-out in the wonderful location.
Where to stay – Bilbao and beyond
Our pick for a perfectly located base is Hotel Miro (mirohotelbilbao.com) in Bilbao. Some of the hotel’s immaculate rooms even have great views of the Guggenheim just across the avenue; downstairs, there are free cups of Nespresso and mini croissants in the bar.
For a completely different experience, check out the Ea Astai rural properties (http://en.astei.net/), some of which date back to the fifteenth century. Situated in Natxitua, between the towns of Gernika and Lekeiti, it’s rural accommodation but comes with free Wi-Fi, full kitchens and fireplaces. It even has its own Basque restaurant, fuelled by locally made produce.