First things first – this is not the Spain in which I grew up holidaying.
Take all the preconceived notions: flashes of TV show ‘Benidorm’ and the droves of Brits in all-inclusive resorts swilling beer, cocktails with umbrellas and karaoke bars, and consign them firmly to memory.
Bilbao is an entirely unexpected jewel of the Spanish Basque Country.
Located in Northern Spain, a mere 1hr 50min flight from London Heathrow, the city is a sophisticated centre of art, culture and design. Most famously, it is home to the world-famous Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum.
The arrival of the Guggenheim in 1991 set the tone for the region
which has grown around it, originating in industry and evolving into cultural authenticity and strong identity. A beautiful culture of art and design museums, riverside architecture and informal creativity is seen everywhere, in the people and the surroundings. I also didn’t realise that the city was surrounded by lush mountains and lush greenery and boasts some beautiful big beaches. Bilbao oozes sophistication and soul.
On first glance, Bilbao is a modern and contemporary capital of cool.
The locals are all well-dressed and well-heeled. I honestly don’t see anyone in casual attire. At its most casual, on a sunny Sunday, the folks are dressed in chinos and chino shorts with smart shirts or polo tops. The women are head-to-toe sophistication – think matching pastels, silky flowing fabrics and crisp cottons, with great attention to detail. Hair is coiffed, handbags and heels are standard and accessories are expected, age irrelevant.
On second look, cutting-edge nestles beside tradition and heritage.
The city comprises much modern architecture, with names such as Philippe Starck re-designing the interiors of the Alhondiga culture and leisure centre. Yet this modernity is in keeping with the elegant and well-maintained traditional architecture, classic Spanish in style with an air of regality.
The Old Town, Casco Viejo
7 arterial streets form the main area of Casco Viejo. This is where bougainvillea-clad lanes and wisteria-swept facades add a noble beauty to an already attractive and wealthy city.
Newer Indautxu district
Indautxu is where shoppers can fill their boots. The city ‘centre’ showcases contemporary design shops, from kitchens to interiors to clothing and shoes. Spanish and international brands can be found interspersed with cute cafes and pretty churches.
But on closer inspection, the city is loaded with hidden neighbourhoods exuding Spanish charm & character.
It’s not enough for Bilbao to be an innovative world-class leader on the design and gastronomy scene. Deeper exploration unveils unique additions by Basque Country authorities, after Spain joined the EU in 1986, to develop the perfect city for work, life and lifestyle. Connected by fantastic infrastructure, they built a stylish and clean Metro with Norman Foster-designed sleek glass entrances, a tram service and the stylish Santiago Calatrava-designed airport, to facilitate the traveler (foreign and domestic) across the city and beyond.
Spend a day in the utterly local and cute colourful Puerto Viejo neighbourhood.
It is a whitewashed village tucked away up a hillside, with cavern pubs and authentic 5-table seafood restaurants, so picturesque in the way the village tumbles down a hillside into the vast Ereaga golden-sand beach. The village is full of locals enjoying the balmy evenings and weekends with friends. There beachfront is lined by upmarket seafood restaurants and champagne bars, again all local, along the historical Avenida Zugatzarte beachfront, itself replete with traditional palatial mansion homes of the founding nobility of Bilbao. A stroll here leads to the convergence of the Nervion River, lifeblood of the city, with the sea.
Here lies a quirky Unesco world heritage site, the Puente Bizkaia (Vizcaya)
It’s the world’s oldest transporter bridge, with its historic hanging mechanism carrying passengers and cars from one side to the other. Watch the brave throw themselves off the bridge by bungee rope, whilst elderly locals watch on from the sidelines, mildly amused.
The face of Bilbao has evolved since the turn of the millennium.
From a critical industrial port and the former dwindling manufacturing glory, has developed an artistic, architectural and cultural jewel of the Basque Country. Affluent, design-led and with world class gastronomy, it’s a dynamic fresh city offering lifestyle & quality for the creative & cultured. Tradition, heritage and cutting-edge converge in both architecture & culture. Nowhere is this more evident than along the Nervion river, starting at the sea port, through the heart of Casco Viejo, the Old Town, with its maze of pretty ancient architecture, narrow cobbled streets and Pintxos bars, to the newer Guggenheim district with its leading contemporary art-lined riverbanks, office buildigs and designer footbridges.
Siesta is a tradition which lives on.
The pace is relaxed. And the feel is of a middle-class culture with family at its heart. By evening, head to any of the Michelin restaurants or cosy bars and expect a social scene of families with babies and children. Friends converge with their families in a heart-warming scene of community, which is refreshing.
This is a family-run boutique hotel located opposite the Guggenheim Museum. Design-led, low-key and stylishly homely, it’s an exquisite choice for anyone wanting proximity to the main city sights, comfort and class without pretence. The focus is on familiarity and personability. They achieve it through little details such as individually-purchased art, an honour bar in which to convene at any time of day for free drinks and a cosy little spa and wellness area. It helps that my room has an incredible view over the Guggenheim and river. I’d highly recommend Hotel Miro for solo travellers, couples or young families.
In a full week based in Bilbao you can also explore the surroundings. An itinerary can easily encompass Bilbao, neighbouring gastronomy haven San Sebastián and the Rioja winelands. It’s a perfect week’s holiday combining relaxation and activity. With it’s proximity, you could even visit the Bordeaux region of France in the same trip.