Mention Basque Country, and most travelers minds default to San Sebastián, the beachy playground of Europe’s literati and glitterati on the Bay of Biscay.
But in recent years, it’s the sister city of Bilbao, approximately an hour’s drive west from San Sebastián, that’s been piquing the interest of those seeking a destination a bit less explored – but equally beguiling in its own right.
It all began in 1997, when Frank Gehry’s groundbreaking Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao. It sparked the revitalization of the gritty Spanish Basque city – once beleaguered by terrorism and a flailing economy – by bringing in much-needed tourism and economic relief. In following years, other design-world notables (like Santiago Calatrava and Philippe Starck) followed suit by envisioning the Zubizuri bridge and Azkuna Zentroa (a cultural center) respectively.
Naturally (and eventually), this mindset extended to local businesses in the form of design-driven hotels, boutiques, and restaurants – proving there’s more to visiting Basque Country than a glamorous beach town, and far more to visiting Bilbao than a dazzling museum. Here, AD‘s top picks on where to eat, shop, and stay in Bilbao.
Eat and Drink
Located in the Guggenheim, this Michelin-starred restaurant has been quietly elevating the city’s culinary landscape since 2011. Like the museum, Nerua is starkly and simply decorated – an all-white palette, Frank Gehry wood chairs, and undulating ceiling – allowing chef Josean Alija’s thoughtful, artful cuisine to take the spotlight. The fixed-price menu shifts three times a year and focuses on hyper-seasonal products unique to Basque country (like tear peas, anchovies, and perretxiko mushrooms) rather than traditional plates. neruaguggenheimbilbao.com
Opened in 1903, this cherished city institution obviously predates the Guggenheim, yet it firmly remains one of Bilbao’s design marvels. The space is awash in Moorish flourishes, like intricate tile work and mosaics spanning floor to ceiling, and is ideal for a casual meeting over a drink – or better yet, the house specialty: pintxos morunos. These tender lamb skewers are accompanied by bread and intended to tide you over until your next meal. cafeirunabilbao.net
Mina is tucked away in a historic building off a pedestrian promenade in the city’s old town, so it’s easy to miss. But once you find it, you’ll be rewarded with an intimate dining room accented by craggy brick, weathered wood, and playful pendant lighting to go with chef Alvaro Garrido’s vibrant tasting menu, which changes daily. Flavors and textures are meant to play off each other from course to course, and they are heightened when paired with Mina’s wines, many of which are sourced from small, lesser-known vintners. restaurantemina.es
In 2016, Ary and Darío Rowshan transformed their longstanding Persian carpet shop into as a posh cafe. The result continues to pay homage to their family business, evidenced by the carpet-graced ceiling and upholstered bar and stools. From coffee to caviar, there’s something for every appetite, and if you decide one of the decorative carpets would look sharp in your home, the Rowshans take custom orders in their studio downstairs. Colón de Larreátegui Kalea, 8, 48001
Newly opened, this swanky lounge is introducing beer and wine-loving Bilbaínos to the world of craft cocktails. The decor is punchy and eclectic (think emerald green velvet seating, bottle-lined walls, and an oversize, glowing sphere) and fittingly, the drink offerings are equally inventive. And unlike many of the area bars, Sumerian is open every day, until the wee hours of the morning. Calle Heros 9, 48009
Cloaked in all white, this airy boutique houses buzzy fashion and beauty brands from all over the world, many of which are city exclusives. From gauzy tunics by France’s CristaSeya to facial oils from Australia’s Grown Alchemist, owner Elena Mendiola sells items that aren’t just easy on the eyes but will be used for years to come. arropame.com
Housed in a former warehouse, Persaude is like two boutiques in one. The front displays clothing and accessories from fashion heavyweights including Issey Miyake, Bernhard Willhelm, and Comme des Garçons, while the back room stocks a mix of furniture and other eclectic finds discovered during owner Rosa Orrantia’s travels. persuade.es
Since 1962, this family-run business has established itself as one of Europe’s top design shops for its highly curated lineup of chic furniture and homewares. While there’s a strong showing of industry stalwarts (including Alessi and Knoll), there’s plenty of unique Spanish finds, like Cookplay, a line of freeform tableware by local industrial designer Ana Roquero. mosel.es
Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao
Like its neighbor, the Guggenheim, this hotel was designed by a renown creative, Javier Mariscal, and features an impressive collection of contemporary art, including a mesmerizing lobby clock installation commissioned to Stockholm-based design duo Humans Since 1982. The rooms are minimally but thoughtfully appointed (request one with views of the museum), and the new lobby bar, Sixty-One, is an ideal spot to kick or cap off your evening. hoteldominebilbao.com
Though it’s Bilbao’s oldest boutique hotel at 16 years old, Miró feels warm and inviting as ever thanks to the timeless creative vision of designer Antonio Miró. A crisp white palate runs throughout the property, save for the occasional pop of color and original photography. And in place of a bland breakfast buffet, Miró offers a hearty morning spread of local eggs, bread, cheese, and honey, called “The Brown Bread Bag.” mirohotelbilbao.com