Inside my Bilbao Trip
Last year, I hadn't even heard of Bilbao. This year, I went for four days and fell in love and decided I wanted to move there before we even got to the hotel.
I know, I know. I have been on three holidays this year and I’m not even a quarter into the year. There is a reason for that… I wrote two books last year whilst I had Long Covid and dragged myself to the brink of burnout. So this year, I am making time for rest, relaxation, and all the holidays I deserve.
We booked this trip last minute. In fact, we booked it on my last night in Amsterdam on FaceTime, and whilst I say ‘we’ booked it. My boyfriend did it all. Traveling with him is like how I used to travel when I was 7 years old, I don’t need to know where my passport is, I don’t know which airport we need to go to, I don’t even need to know what time the flight is. Everything is done and IT. IS. BLISS.
The reason it was last minute is that we always forget about bank holidays until it’s right around the corner and we wanted to take advantage of the double one. As a word of warning though, we have now realised we need to stop going to Christian countries on Easter because everything is shut. This happened last year too when we went to Lake Como and found that there were no taxis or ferries for the whole weekend. But regardless, we made the most of what was open while we were there for four days.
We arrived early on Good Friday and started off the trip with an audio walking tour using a free app called Izi.Travel. This again is a discovery courtesy of my boyfriend and we first discovered it in Venice. I really recommend it, especially as a first thing to do because it gives you the lay of the land and you can get your bearings at your own pace and learn about the history as you explore. We have used it in many places and if like me, you hate being in groups, allows you to avoid a tour group! Usually, it’s a 10/10 but the Bilbao felt like it was in the wrong order and as I said before, most of the stops on the tour were closed so we were listening to all the details about a building that was shut. Halfway through the audio guide, we stopped off for Pintxos, the most popular dish in the Basque region and we have since joked that everything must now come with bread because even croquetas come with a slice of baguette underneath it. And we tried the one most famous in Bilbao, Bacalao al Pil Pil (salted cod with pasteurized olive oil).
Another positive of traveling with the boy is that he is a foodie just like me and he came prepared with a list of food we must try. Here was his list:
Bacalao pil-pil: pil-pil is apparently the sound when it is frying
Bacalao a la Vizcaína: Baked cod in red sauce
Txangurro: Spider crabs stuffed and baked
Marmitako: A winter dish - Tuna and potato stew
Kokotxas: Fleshy cheeks of cod/hake
Txipirones: Baby squid cooked in their own ink
Merluza en salsa verde: Hake fish in green sauce
Alubias de Tolosa: Black beans, often cooked with chorizo or black pudding
Pastel Vasco: Soft pasty-like sponge around vanilla custard
We had originally planned to eat in Plaza Nueva but that was a no-go on Good Friday, so we went around the corner to a cafe called Koben where a lovely woman helped us with our selection. We then continued on the tour, stopping at all the main landmarks from Azkuna Zentroa to Basilica of Begona ( a long climb to this one!).
20 km later we headed back to the hotel originally to go for a swim. We stayed in Hotel Melia which was a good price for a five-star hotel but won’t lie, the main attraction, the pool was oversold. We expected a rooftop pool where we could relax, get drinks, or even just sit on a sun lounger. Instead, the pool is quite small, more like a fitness pool and it’s weirdly built in the middle of the building so it’s sheltered and has no sun. There was nothing surrounding it apart from a gym so our hope to sit by the pool was dashed. Upon seeing the pool and it being packed with kids and no space to even sit down, we headed back to our room and got ready to go for dinner. He had booked us Cevitxef which had apparently been rated the fourth-best restaurant in Bilbao. What he originally thought was typical Basque cuisine, veered more into Peruvian food with a fusion flair but was incredible either way!
Our next day started bright and early as we wanted to get there for the opening of La Ribera Market, where we were told the best Pintxos were. We were told it opened at 8 am so we were there on the dot, only to realise most were closed and the stalls selling Pintxos usually opened a lot later. We managed to find one stall open and over Pintxos, I began reminiscing about when I lived in Salamanca for 3 months when I was 13 years old and how every siesta we would have chocolate con churros. This led me to wanting to go on a hunt for them, no matter how many times my boyfriend insisted that it was what Spain was known for, and not from the Basque region. Nevertheless, I hunted some down (with a lot of effort!), and yes, he was right. No wonder they were so hard to find!
Next stop, we were the Guggenheim Museum where the famous Puppy was located. I found the Jeff Koons pieces the most interesting but as for the rest, I must just say I am not an art person and therefore cannot appreciate it.
I was then tasked with finding lunch and I was so focused on the fact it was four minutes walk away, I might have landed us in an extremely expensive restaurant called Porrue that I probably wouldn’t visit again. It was really good but should have been half the price. On the plus side though, we tried Barnacles for the first time (after being told twice to eat it whole, we soon discovered, this was not how to eat it!) and got to tick Kokotxas and Txangurro off our list and they were worth the hype.
We then took a funicular to the top of Mount Artxanda where gorgeous views awaited and I enjoyed soaking up the sun sitting on the grass. We then were off to dinner at Restaurant Abando recommended by my boyfriend’s parents. They had been in Bilbao for a few days and they said they went to this restaurant twice and it’s no surprise as to why. Hands down the best restaurant we went to when we were out there! The standout dish was the scallops and just like his parents, we actually returned for breakfast the next morning because it was just that good!
Another word of warning if you choose to go to Spain in Easter, you will see a lot of people wearing capirote, or pointed hoods. I know that these are for different reasons and actually predate the Klu Klux Klan wearing them, but it did still bring about a sense of discomfort in me, especially as we had to cross a parade of them wearing specifically white capirotes.
Our plan was to go to breakfast on the way to Plaza Nueva where a flea market was held every Sunday but because of Easter, it wasn’t on so we made our way to Gaztelugatxe. It was apparently made famous by Game of Thrones, but since I have never watched it myself, I was more excited about a day trip to the sea. Unfortunately, when we arrived we discovered you needed to book tickets in advance and they were sold out for the day so we just saw it from the lookout and then decided to venture to Guernica.
We saw the infamous tree that survived the bombings that took place there during the Civil War and went to Euskal Herria Museum which is housed in one of the only buildings to survive that day too. It was largely about the history and culture of the Basque Country and then we went on to The Peace Museum. This was probably one of the best museums I’ve been to. It was so immersive that I actually found it quite emotional. People who survived on that day tell you stories themselves in a video and there is a room that really lets you see the human side. I never had even heard of Guernica but it was so devastating to hear that for years there was so much denial that it even took place and who was responsible
We then returned to Bilbao and took the train to go see the famous hanging bridge that transports a gondola across the river in less than 60 seconds and had a peek at a beach, with the intention to stay there. As much as traveling on the train and the bridge was interesting, it was a little far out and I would miss this if you go. Each day we had walked over 20 km so we were pooped to say the least and headed back for an early night. My boyfriend visited the San Mames stadium and loved both the stadium and the tour whilst I had a slightly slower start to the morning and sat in a coffee shop doing my April Q&A with you all before it was time to return home!
Despite the chub rub on my thighs from walking 20 km a day (you’ll understand if you follow me on Instagram), this was actually by far the most relaxing holiday I have been on this year. It’s ironic because, for the first 8 months of our relationship, we didn’t go on holiday together because we feared if we did, we would break up. We have opposite holiday styles. He says it’s not a holiday unless you come back exhausted and I like to be a sloth and sit on a beach and not move. And yet somehow it works! He knows to schedule more breaks for me and I remember that whilst I’m doing more than I would like, I also don’t have to book or plan a thing! Also, turns out I do like leaving a place feeling like I’ve fully covered everything because he is so thorough with his planning!
For anyone interested in going, I highly recommend it. My suggestion would be to go for 2-3 days (not 4) and miss the bridge and the beach. We missed the Fine Arts Museum because we aren’t art people but if you are, apparently that’s interesting and I’d also recommend getting a tour guide to take you to Gaztelugatxe so it’s guaranteed that you get in, or at the very least buy tickets in advance. And finally, you must go to Restaurant Abando!
Lots of love,
Have you been to Bilbao? Did we really miss out by not getting tickets for Gaztelugatxe? Where’s top of your travel list?