Spain Travels: Bilbao

Most estadiounidense (that’s citizens of the United States) know that Bilbao has the Guggenheim museum, and not much else. I knew this, and that they spoke Vasco, which is very different than Spanish (at least to my eyes and ears) but a trip presented itself as Jesse’s cousin Hannah graced us with her presence. After four days of showing her Gijón (and Cudillero, Jesse wrote about it here) we took the ALSA bus ride, three and half hours, leaving at 7:15 AM from Gijón. I like to write about a trip as soon as it ended, and here is what I wrote by hand while on the bus after leaving Bilbao (with edits and additions, and pictures, of course).

As we are leaving on the ALSA bus to Santander, it is important (to me) to recollect our time in Bilbao. For posterity’s sake, as well as how fun it is to read later. We moved to Gijón in April 2021, so while it felt like a vacation at first, we knew, once we were living in our apartment, that this was our life (and, sadly, no longer a vacation). I say this because this is our first real vacation since February 2020, pre-covid. I forgot how exhilarating it is to arrive in a new city, not knowing what was to come, not knowing what the highlights and low lights will be. Once we disembarked from the bus, and stepped out into the city, my excitement level rose. Though I also remember being annoyed by all the people (I like to often say, “No me gusta mucha gente en la calle”), loud and obnoxious sounds, and general dirtiness a large city possesses. Our Airbnb was fine for our stay, as it had two rooms, a large living room, and a small balcony with a cool view of the city.

The Guggenheim building was very cool, as was the art inside, and Hannah, as a sought-after designer, was excited to check it out, as were we. The outside Puppy was a favorite of mine (as exhibited by my proclivity toward flower pictures) as well as some of the interesting modern art and exhibitions. My favorites below:

There is a funicular that takes passengers up high above Bilbao for spectacular views. The top was about a half-hour away from our Airbnb, which already was at an elevated location in the city (no one said how many hills and climbing up streets there would be in Bilbao, so here is your warning). So I thought we could walk to the top of the funicular and then take it back down. On the way I saw a path and thought a short-cut could be had.

But it did not take us to the top, rather we walked by squatters homes on narrow paths through lush green overgrowth. After going for an hour, I decided to climb straight up, through long grass, where there was no path. I could not see the end, and finally came back down, ending up with many cuts on my legs and the tiniest ticks that could still be seen to the naked eye in tow. We eventually came to the end of the path, which was not far from where we had started, proceeded to find a bar, while we drank beers and I picked ticks off my legs. (The picture below of Jesse and Hannah is from very early in the walk; they were not as smiley later).

The next day we took the funicular from the bottom, first eating a sweets filled breakfast, then heading up. Spectacular views greeted us once we reached the top, and we took pictures and each had a beer while sitting on a bench, taking the city in, realizing how big and sprawling Bilbao is; Jesse and I were reminded of Los Angeles, and the view from the Observatory. From there we walked toward where the map app said there were some restaurants, but the ones we passed were long since closed, punctuated by broken widows, overgrown foliage, and covered in multi-colored spray paint from many “artists.” We also passed a chapel that was locked up and also covered in spray paint that the reviews said provided spectacular views (of the airport, the reviews failed to mention that).

The maps app said there was one more restaurant, and since we had come that far, were willing to go a bit farther as we were hungry. What luck, we found the restaurant Txakoli Simon, like an oasis in a green desert. With thirty or so picnic tables situated outside and serving food picnic-style, we procured a table and ordered a bunch of food: filete con patatas, huevos con bacon y patatas, lomo iberico joselito, pimientos verdes, ensalada mixta and a bottle of wine. It was a wonderful meal in a perfect setting, a true hidden gem.

Our Airbnb was a short elevator ride (we took a public elevator, a first for me, down two stories to the base of the city) and walk from Casco Viejo (or old town). We meandered around Casco Viejo, populated with buildings with classical European facades, grand terrazas, and pastel colors, giving a true old world feel to the experience. We had beers as we waited for our reservation at Toma Y Daka, which did not disappoint. We enjoyed Albondigas (meatballs), Carpaccio, Croquetas (my favorite Spanish appetizer), Zamburiñas, with Tarta de Queso (Cheesecake with no crust, so good) and Goxua for dessert.

At Hannah’s suggestion we took a boat tour, and this led me to an unexpected delight. Usually I am not a fan of boats or boat rides, but this one, about an hour down the river that runs through Bilbao was really fun. We drank red wine (vino tinto) out of plastic cups and stood on the deck at the front of the boat, letting the wind and sun of the day make it all the more special as we waved to people on either side of the river, or Estuary of Bilbao.

Our last day in Bilbao Jesse and I visited the Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao). Since most everyone who visits Bilbao goes to the Guggenheim, and since it was a Thursday, we basically had the Museum to ourselves. We could inspect the art we liked, for as long as we liked, with no one breathing down our necks to move along (or children screaming). The Museum was organized by subject (for example M for Mom, I for Iron, P for Pieta, etc), not by year of creation, and that really gave it a different, more exciting feel, than most museums.

It was a relaxing experience when compared to the Guggenheim, in which case there were guards making sure you stayed on the path (partly because of Covid) and did not turn around to go back, as well as all the parents who thought taking their children to a modern art museum was a good idea (it was not). Afterward we ate ice cream cones while sitting on a nearby bench. Those are my favorite moments, with no hurry to do anything, just enjoying our time together, satisfied after enjoying a cool museum with my love.

Our last evening I had something a bit more romantic planned for Jesse, as I had read that the town of Portugalete, north of Bilbao, was worth a visit. We took a taxi to the base of an extremely tall bridge that was once used to transport iron ore, and now was used to hoist a cable car that ferried people over the river to a neighborhood called Las Arenas (in the town of Gexto). There is another way across the river, and that is by boat, so we hopped on the boat, paid the fare and took the few minute boat ride across the river, gazing up at the massive bridge. We arrived just before dusk, and walked along the river until we reached the end of the pier, which led out into the ocean. We talked, and joked and felt like we were many years younger, very date-like, just living for each other and enjoying each other’s company. We sat and watched the waves crash as the sun set, then proceeded to find a restaurant, called El Puente, right on the water, where we had a quite friendly waiter who served us excellent seafood that we drank with white wine, shared a dessert and coffee, and felt supremely content. A truly wonderful last night in Bilbao.

Published by Phil Barrington

Currently living in Spain, Accountant by Day, Writer by Night. Lover of baseball, travel ,and spreadsheets. Check out my blog:

%d bloggers like this: