Day one: art
Start your Bilbao holiday by visiting its most famous sight – the Guggenheim Museum. Designed by the architect Frank Gehry, it presides over the city like a giant metal ship. Inside you’ll find one of the best modern art collections in Spain, showcasing works from artists such as Eduardo Chillida, Mark Rothko, Anselm Kiefer and Richard Serra. For lunch, dine at the chic Michelin-starred Nerua Guggenheim restaurant, where dishes are works of art in themselves. Spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the city’s art district surrounding the museum itself; it’s filled with large-scale sculptures such as Jeff Koons’ “Puppy” covered in flowers, Louise Bourgeois’ “Mamen” spider or Anish Kapoor’s “Tall Tree & The Eye” – a stack of silver balls.
Day two: Old Town and pintxos
Spend the morning strolling around the Casco Viejo historic quarter and climb to the top of the barrio to marvel at the Basilica de Begoña, a 16th century basilica with both Gothic and Renaissance touches. Go for lunch at one of the quaint little restaurants or bars in the historic quarter; you’ll find some great ones hidden down tiny cobbled lanes or set around atmospheric plazas such as Plaza Nueva. Make sure you sample a classic Basque dish such as bacalao al pil pil (salted cod fried with garlic and olive oil) or marmitako fish stew. In the afternoon, head to the Euskal Museoa (also in Casco Viejo) to learn all about Basque culture and history. The museum opened in 1921 and is housed in an elegant Baroque building with central cloisters. In the evening, stay in the Old Town and do as the locals do for dinner – go bar hopping for pintxos. Pintxos are the Basque Country’s answer to tapas – small pieces of bread topped with various ingredients such as any combination of cheese, ham, fish or vegetables.
Day three: the sea and music
In the morning visit the Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao to learn all about Bilbao’s maritime history. The sea is an important part of the city and has been woven into many aspects of its culture, traditions and cuisine. In keeping with the seafaring theme, check out one of the city’s excellent seafood restaurants for lunch. If you feel like splashing out again, you can try the nearby Michelin-starred Etxanobe restaurant, whose main focus is seafood. Those who want to tighten the purse strings a little can opt for Restaurante Marisqueria Mazarredo, also nearby. Other Basque seafood dishes to try are squid cooked in its own ink and kokotxas (grilled hake cheeks).
After lunch cross the famous La Salve Bridge, also known as “Prince and Princess of Spain” Bridge. Built in the early 1970s from green concrete, it connects the Guggenheim to the city suburbs. In 2007 a red arc was built on the bridge by the French artist Daniel Buren. Soon after the bridge, you’ll find the Funicular de Artxanda, where you can ride to the top of the hill and admire the spectacular views across the city. Come evening, check out the city’s nightlife and discover the best venues with live music.
Day four: wine tasting in La Rioja
By now you’ve seen most of the major city sights, so why not head to the Basque Country’s famous wine region, La Rioja. Filled with cute towns and villages, it’s home to a wide array of bodegas (wineries), from historic ones to modern art ones and even an excellent wine museum, Vivanco Cultura del Vino. Start your exploration in Haro, home to a number of great historic bodegas. Haro also plays host to the Batalla del Vino – a giant wine fight held each June.
Day five: more art and more food
Back in the city, it’s time for some art exploration once again, but this time something a little more traditional. Bilbao’s Museo de Bellas Artes, or Fine Arts Museum can be found in the Doña Casilda Iturrizar park, and fuses together old and modern architecture. It displays Basque, Spanish and European art from the Middle Ages up until the modern day. Some artists whose work is shown here include El Greco, Francisco de Goya and Paul Gauguin. In the afternoon, make your way to the city’s famous La Ribera Market and pick up some fresh produce such as cheeses and olives for a picnic lunch. When night begins to fall go back to your favorite part of the city for dinner or simply indulge in more of Bilbao’s pintxos bars.