We flew from Bristol with EasyJet (£8.17 per person for the return portion of the flight!), and it was a smooth and short flight across the Channel, over the beautiful west coastline of France before dropping through thick clouds onto soaking wet black tarmac next to the very new Bilbao airport. Our one checked bag rolled out onto the conveyer belt just after we cleared the short immigration queue and we quickly found our (completely free Avis – free European weekend rental after your 3rd rental) rental car, navigated out of the airport and straight onto the motorway. A short drive and one tunnel later and we burst into the middle of Bilbao without even realising we were there.Sunday 9°CMonday 4°CTuesday 3°CWednesday 6°C
The Guggenheim is literally the first thing you see after coming off the motorway sticking up into the air changing from copper to blue to silver as the light changed in the swirling rain and cloud. The massive puppy statue was the second thing you see, covered from tail to snout in flowers and glistening in the rain. Our hotel, the wonderful Hotel Miro , was so close that we drove past it without even realising that it was there. A quick circuit around a handy roundabout and we pulled in outside. Handily the hotel has a deal with the underground carpark opposite (which cleverly use a simple light system to show if there are any free spaces in a row!) where we could leave the car. Our room was a good size, huge walk in shower and a great view of the Guggenheim that looked even bigger now.
We chucked down our stuff and headed back out, grabbing some convenient umbrellas by the hotel door. The rain was getting heavier but was making the slightly yellow pavement light up – and had seemingly put other people off heading out as we had the place to ourselves. We wander around the impressive building, down to the river and across the giant bridge to see it from the other side. Despite the rain, it was a awesome object and could easily be mistaken for some giant space ship about to take off to Alpha Centauri (do you know where your towel is?).
After freshening up, we went back to the Guggenheim to the bar bistro restaurant inside. Although we booked for 8 (quite late by UK standards), it was virtually empty with the exception of an American table who appeared to be touring the whole of Europe and couldn’t make up their minds if they were allergic to nuts or not. After a warm salad (on purpose) that was much better than expected I had a pasta main with truffle at EUR2 per 1 gram – the waiter actually came over to the table with the whole truffle, a grater and some small scales – he carefully weighed it, then grated over my pasta, then weighed it again, grated a bit more before seeming happy with the outcome. A bit pretentious but slickly done and omg the truffle tasted good!
A pudding later and we wandered across the road back to our hotel that has a free bar (hot and soft drinks) with free popcorn and pic “n” mix. You can pay (via an honesty sheet) for alcohol at rates a little below the mini bar prices. Nice touch.
The next day we woke to an ever changing sky and a fantastic breakfast in the hotel – fresh breads, jams & other spreads with lovely coffee, fresh orange juice and hot extras. The lady running the morning fluently spoke at least 4 languages and was charming & attentive to everyone. After stuffing ourselves, we grabbed two umbrellas again and headed out.
Our first stopping point should have been the bottom of the funicular which was a flat 10 min walk away. An hour & half later up some incredibly steep roads and through lovely little streets full of orange trees and sleepy cats, we emerged at the top of the funicular!! Oops. We had a quick expresso in a local cafe before taking the funicular down the hill and back into Bilbao. The view from the top was certainly worth the effort and there was the added bonus of seeing a bit more of the back streets so the additional climb wasn’t all bad.
We followed the river for a bit before cutting into the old town to hunt down a highly recommended cafe with some amazing looking cakes on display. We opted for brownies and sat down just as the heavens opened and the outside square was slammed by a massive hail storm. Even the locals seemed shocked by this abrupt change and hid under the arches until it died down. After it stopped, we squished our way across the icy remains, across one of the many bridges before winding our way through backstreets to seek out a residential area where the apartment buildings are painted in geometric patterns. If you’ve seen the ones in Hong Kong, its similar but bolder colours.
We headed back towards the centre via an unusual shopping mall (Azkuna Zentroa) where each pillar is painted and sculptured in original ways and the roof is a public swimming pool with a glass bottom – you can actually see people swimming way above you! After a quick diversion to see the Health Department building (yes you read that right), we then jumped onto the metro, using a fairly easy to use self service ticket machine, and headed out towards Portugalete where there is the first, and now oldest, metal swing bridge. Designed to transport both people and traffic (cars & lorries), it was constructed to quickly get people from Portugalete to Getxo and still allow the marine traffic to travel along the river. After a short wait, it smoothly carried us over and the cars rolled off the other side with a constant flow waiting to cross back over. We took a tiny ferry boat back across which was skill-fully handled over the increasing waves before the captain flipped it around using a breaking wave to slow us down before gently mooring.
After re-tracing our steps, sampling some of the local beer from our help yourself bar, and grabbing a quick shower, we headed back out in a taxi to the old quarter where I had booked a table at the highly reviewed Los Fueros. Despite it being highly reviewed, it was utterly empty which normally isn’t a good sign, but we had impeccable service, a wide menu and a helpful waiter who tried his hardest to put my partner off having pasta in squid ink – he didn’t and she wished she had listened! I genuinely think that if I hadn’t booked a table then they wouldn’t have bothered opening that night. We braved the rain on the walk back so we could cross over the Zubizuri bridge (apparently the locals love it) and take yet another look at the Guggenheim.
The next morning we woke early, had our fantastic breakfast in the hotel and headed out in the car. We followed the motorway north east (one toll) for some time, got slightly lost due to roadworks and a stupid map system but finally found the car park for the Bosque De Oma about an hour from Bilbao.
We grabbed a quick coffee from the bar cafe next to the parking (full of loudly talking Spanish people on their weekends off) before starting the several mile hike (each way) up into the forest. Bosque De Oma is a living art gallery – people have drawn massive symbols and pictures on various trees and when you stand in the correct place (indicated on the ground), all the trees line up to show you the full picture. Impressive, unusual and I’d definitely recommend it – though maybe take walking boots as it was really muddy in places!
We followed the fire road back to the car park, bashed off as much mud as possible and followed the twisty B road back to the main A road and followed it out to the coastal road – we followed this for a short while through small towns, passed stunning cliffs and sea views, passed a large estuary and finally our (stupid) map app pinged that we were at our final destination – San Juan de Gaztelugatxe – otherwise known as the glorious footbridge you see Jon Snow and Daenerys walking along in Game of Thrones to Dragonstone.
I had seen this tiny islet before on a few travel blogs but the arrival of GOT pushed it into the limelight and I’m sure it will be heaving in the summer. Luckily the local authorities seemed up for the challenge as there are a few car parks now, newer steps and a gravel path leading down to the start of the wall which crosses over through the sea before you climb 237 steps (or 229 or 237 or 241 depending on what you read) to the top of the tiny island on which perches a tiny church. Dating from the 10th century, it is dedicated to John the Baptist and legend has it that his foot print is embedded into the rock after taking three giant steps from Bermeo – I’ll admit, it does look like a foot print! After crossing over and climbing the steps, you are supposed to ring the bell outside of the church 3 times and make a wish.
After climbing the steep path back to the top where the car was parked, we had a swift cold drink before driving back to Bilbao which was only a short drive away now. I’d suggest taking some water for the hike to the island and whilst not overly difficult, sensible shoes would be a good idea and be prepared for sudden weather changes – this part of the coast has particularly rough seas and it can get a bit windy (and chilly) if the sun goes behind a cloud.
That night we ate in the Hindu Punjabi which was a short walk from our hotel. I’ve been very lucky to have eaten in some pretty amazing Indian restaurants all over the world but I was a little disappointed by this one which got rave reviews. The atmosphere was odd for a start (massive TV playing an American cop TV show) and the dishes were a little meh. We tried to find a cocktail bar on the way back to our hotel but failed so ended up having a (very nice) large glass of local red wine in our help yourself hotel bar.
The next morning before heading back to the airport, we walked back towards the old quarter where we had hid from the hail storm before to get a coffee and some cake. As we passed the Guggenheim yet again they had mist rising from the moat around it making it look even more like a space ship taking off! We got to the square and it was lovely to see it full of families in the sun with children running around, parents talking (and drinking wine), old men swopping old coins, children swopping football stickers and loads of other things. The whole city had burst into life finally and all the outdoor spaces were full of families and people mingling and chatting. We finished the trip by getting some local churro dipped in chocolate for the walk back to the hotel which promptly made us feel sick!
Tips and Tricks:
- Our Revolut cards worked everywhere as normal.
- The totally free offline maps.me app has been getting worse and worse with the recent updates. Sadly, as much as I love the ability to save every place we are going to visit for each trip (including walking), the driving guidance side just isn’t good enough anymore and I’ll be switching to another iPhone based app.
- There are speed cameras in a few places. Most of the time they are bright yellow and hard to miss but stay alert as a few weren’t as obvious (clearly I’d advise staying within the speed limit *ahem*)
- One visit/walk around the Guggenheim isn’t enough. It changes in the light and weather so try to see if a few times
- A rental car was great for us but if you are just doing the city then you can easily get a bus/taxi from the airport and then walk around or use the metro for longer distances. Use either Avis or Europcar
- I use Questor‘s annual worldwide car hire excess protection insurance. Additional peace of mind and no bad surprises a few weeks after getting home! Use this link (or image below) and code MSE2097 to get 25% off.