Long before Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao put Spain’s little-known northern Basque city on the bucket-list tour, and with it coined terms like “starchitecture” and the “Bilbao effect,” there was the city of Bilbao—a 19th-century industrialized maritime stalwart that had fallen on harder economic times in the latter half of the 20th century. What hasn’t changed since this port town was founded, in 1300, despite Spanish Civil War bombings and the decline of shipbuilding, are its undercelebrated rolling hills, superior sheep’s-milk cheese, and sparkling wine. We say make your pilgrimage to the deconstructivist, titanium monument to postindustrial optimism, and then eat your way through the rest of your stay.
The best way to understand the region’s “a little bit often” philosophy is to go on a txikiteo, a Basque pub crawl: You’ll sip small glasses of txakoli, the region’s slightly effervescent white wine, and nibble pintxos—the Basque tapa, which, according to locals, you have to be able to eat while standing up and in two bites. If you start early, you’ll have time to hit one of the city’s rustic taverns or siderias (hard-cider houses), which crank out traditional—and more substantial—tortillas de bacalao and grilled steak Or go the modernist route and check out the city’s gastro scene that, long the bridesmaid to those of neighboring San Sebastian and the Rioja, has come into its own.
To get your mind around the insanely high-level architecture that’s cropped up post-Gehry, take a walk along the winding Nervion River. From the Guggenheim, head south past Santiago Calatrava’s cantilevered Zubizuri footbridge. Turn inland to the affluent Indautxu neighborhood and Philippe Starck’s 2010 Azkuna Zentroa, a 1909 wine warehouse turned cultural center. Walk northwest toward Cesar Pelli’s glass Iberdrola tower, Alvaro Siza Vieira’s Bizkaia Aretoa hall, and cross the river and head west to the late Zaha Hadid’s Zorrozaurre, a massive urban-renewal project converting a 148-acre peninsula to a live-work island complex.