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Bilbao, one of the largest cities in Spain‘s Basque region, may not be as famous as Barcelona or Madrid, but it has a lot going for it and makes for a great city break. Perhaps the two things it’s most famous for are its art and food scenes. From pintxos bars to seafood, wine and fine dining, here are our top five food experiences in Bilbao.
The Basque country’s most famous export are its small tapas bites known as pintxos. These are typically little slices of bread topped with various ingredients such as anchovies, chorizo, cheese, ham or an infinite number of topping combinations. In Bilbao they can range to anything from wild mushroom croquettes on sticks, to chunks of octopus or little spoonfuls of tortilla de patata (potato omelette) with aioli sauce. There are pintxos bars located all over the city, where these small bites are piled up high along the bar. Each one costs between one and three euros and the idea is to help yourself to as many as you want throughout the evening. At the end of the night, when you’ve had your fill, your sticks or small plates will be counted and you will be charged accordingly.
The Basque Country is particularly well-known for its fine dining and Michelin-starred restaurants, and the city of Bilbao boasts several excellent ones. Restaurants such as Boroa Jatetxea, Etxanobe, Etxebarri, Nerua Guggenheim, Zortziko, Andra Mari and Zarate offer exquisite dining experiences, as well as gourmet Basque-style cuisine. To really splash out, book a table at Azurmendi, the only restaurant in the city with three Michelin stars. Headed by chef Eneko Atxa, it was named as the world’s 16th best restaurant in 2016 and serves up international cuisine using homegrown produce from its own rooftop vegetable garden.
If pintxos are the Basque Country’s best snack or light bite, then its seafood makes for the best main meals. One of the region’s most famous dishes is bacalao al pil pil, made by frying salt cod in olive oil and garlic until its skin bubbles up and becomes crispy. Other must-try dishes include squid cooked its own ink, kokotxas (hake or cod cheeks), merluza en salsa verde (hake in green sauce made from parsley and olive oil) and txangurro (stuffed crab). Marmitako is another traditional seafood dish – a hearty tuna, potato and vegetable stew.
Pastel vasco is one of the most classic Basque desserts and you can’t visit Bilbao without trying a slice paired with a cup of café con leche. Pastel vasco is a cross between a cake and tart, and consists of a spongy type of pastry wrapped around vanilla or almond-flavoured cream. Sometimes fruit such as cherries or berries are added too. Some of the top places to try this delectable dessert in Bilbao include Pasteleria Arrese and Pasteleria Don Manuel.
Bilbao is located very close to one of the world’s top wine regions, La Rioja. Located just an hour and a half’s drive away from the city, the region is known as ‘the land of the thousand wines’ because of the many varieties produced there. This means of course that Bilbao is home to a good array of excellent wine bars where you can sample a glass or two. Bodega Urbana is a good choice, but most of the city’s pintxos bars will serve delicious Rioja wine too.