After two decades of ripping up the urban rulebook, Bilbao continues to fast forward into the future with new projects like the colossal Zorrotzaurre island development. The city retains its traditional character, however, in the Old Town and its famous pintxo routes (the Basque spin on tapas). Check out our list of the 6 most offbeat things to do on your next visit to Bilbao.
Marvel at milestones of modern architecture
The Guggenheim put Bilbao on the international tourist map in 1997, kick-starting a revolution that changed the riverside’s grey, industrial face forever, particularly on the left bank. This seismic change brought praise and prizes raining down on the city, including being named European City of the Year at the 2018 Urbanism Awards. The best way to take in its metamorphosis is on a river tour, and the views are best at high tide. Along the way, you’ll pass some of the new Bilbao’s key landmarks: the Zubizuri bridge; Arata Isozaki’s residential complex; the labyrinthine footbridge designed by Pedro Arrupe; the metal skin of the Guggenheim; César Pelli’s new monument to commerce, the Iberdrola tower; and the Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall. And not forgetting the San Mamés stadium, which is lit up by a brief light show in the evenings.
Seek out a sustainable souvenir
If you’re the type who just has to have a memento from everywhere you’ve been, we’ve got something special in store next time you’re in Bilbao: fashion becomes ‘trashion’. That’s right, fashion made from trash (or rubbish to you Brits). And not just rubbish: take home a handbag, shoulder bag or wallet made from the PVC advertising posters lining the streets of Bilbao. Located in the old town, by the Cathedral, Rzik specialises in recovering materials which would otherwise just add to drowning the planet in waste, and their imagination knows no bounds. Bags made from car seatbelts, handbags from paper, wallets from old tyres and even belts that were firehoses in a previous life. If you can find a more original souvenir in the whole of Bilbao we’d like to see it.
Scoff a felipada at Alameda
Yes, yes, pintxos are the classic Bilbao bite, but there’s more to gastro life than just the champi-tigre-txori combo you know. By which we mean a bar snack treat you won’t want to miss next time you’re in the city: the felipada. This anchovy, lettuce and mayo sandwich was invented over 60 years ago in Alameda, putting the bar firmly on the map for those touring the local delicacies. The unexpected combination of savoury anchovy and light lettuce spread with mayonnaise is a taste sensation you won’t forget in a hurry. If you’re feeling brave, ask for it spicy (but don’t say we didn’t warn you). The perfect way to eat like a local.
Dive in at Azkuna Zentroa
This is the pool of choice for keen and arty-farty swimmers and one of the most unusual sights in Bilbao. Superstar architect Philippe Starck’s renovation of the old Bilbao Corn Exchange (today the Azkunza Zentroa) has a few surprises up its sleeve, but none more surprising than the Atrium of Cultures. Look up as you pass through this space on entering the cultural centre and, nine metres above your head, you’ll see the swimmers ploughing up and down as if suspended in a rectangular sky. This is precisely the effect the French architect was after when he designed the three pools on the building’s upper floors. But don’t panic, the pool floor is made from safety glass.
An island of creative treasures
Zorrotzaure island looks set to be Bilbao’s next architectural milestone. Even before work is finished on Zaha Hadid’s ambitious urban regeneration project, it’s already become one of the most offbeat sites to visit in Bilbao. Several activities are already up and running on Zorrozaure: the first to move in was Asociación Haceria, followed, in 2008, by Zorrotzauire Art Work Progress (ZAWP), which puts on concerts and performing arts events in the empty units. Culture and tradition come together in spaces like Open Your. Housed in the former Artiach biscuit factory, every Sunday it hosts a shopaholics’ dream: Azaka market. Occupying some 2000 m2, this unique covered flea market has a designer’s area and is the place to pick up eco-friendly or zero-waste products. You can also catch small-scale, avant-garde theatre at Pabellón Nº6, bust out your skater moves at Skatepark Zorrozaurre or climb at the indoor wall. All reasons why Zorrotzaure island should be on everyone’s Bilbao bucket list.
Get a table riverside
Crowds flock to the Guggenheim to see Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time, Puppy by Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois’ disturbing spider or Crucifixion by Antonio Saura. However, since 2011, it’s also become a destination for dining thanks to chef Josean Alija’s restaurant. Highly recommended for foodies planning a break in Bilbao, Nerua is a sublime dining experience and proof that an apparently simple exterior can conceal a complex and intriguing inner life. Alija is one of the European chefs creating arrangements with a limited number of ingredients based around artisan and seasonal produce. What arrives on your plate is the result of hours of toil and deliberation behind the scenes. And, of course, the space doesn’t hurt either: a spacious, well-lit dining room whose central feature is a large window looking onto the Nervión river. No contest, this is one of the most original ways to experience Bilbao’s legendary riverside.
So, what do you reckon? Ready to find a cheap flight to Bilbao and start planning that getaway?