Looking for restaurants in Bilbao? Want to know where to eat in the Basque city? Local travel writer Esme Fox shares her insider trips for the best restaurants in Bilbao, along with where to find the best homemade tarts, Iberian cured ham and mushroom croquetas. Make it a longer trip and head onwards to San Sebastián…
Casa Rufo – for traditional deli produce
This cute little restaurant is squeezed into a traditional 1950s deli, complete with original wooden shelves and floral green and red floor tiles. In the shop at the front they sell everything from cheeses and tinned seafood to bottles of wine; in the back, you can dine on regional delicacies such as anchovies from Cantabria, grilled asparagus from Navarra and peppers from Guernica. For something more substantial, order the succulent sirloin or traditional oven-baked cod.
Bistró Guggenheim – for modern Basque cuisine
A museum restaurant might not be your first stop in a new city, but the Bistró Guggenheim isn’t your typical gallery café. A favourite with locals and visitors alike, it focuses on Basque cuisine with a modern edge. Contemporary art decorates the walls and you can eat while enjoying soothing river views. Try pork meatballs with cauliflower cream in a Jerez sherry sauce, or creamy rice with mushrooms and duck (many dishes can be made vegetarian on request). Make sure you try the torrija for dessert – it’s the Basque answer to French toast, topped with caramelised sugar and served with a dollop of ice cream.
Café Iruña – for coffee in style
Serving locals since 1903, Café Iruña makes for an elegant coffee stop. Decorated with Moorish-style décor, it’s filled with geometric coloured tiles, intricately carved wooden panels and graceful arched doorways. Pair your coffee with a homemade tart such as the typical Gâteau Basque – an almond pastry case filled with smooth custard and sharp black cherries.
Gure Toki – for contemporary pintxos
In the atmospheric Plaza Nueva, at the heart of the old quarter, Gure Toki offers a contemporary twist on traditional pintxos – think haute cuisine in miniature. Order bowls of marinated cod sprinkled with herbs, spoonfuls of wild mushroom risotto or bread topped with a quail egg and black pudding. Pair with a bottle from the bar’s own wine cellar – try txakoli, a lightly sparkling Basque white wine.
El Perro Chico – for market-fresh fusion creations
With its prime riverfront position, opposite the city’s La Ribera market, El Perro Chico is a trendy spot in which to enjoy an array of fusion dishes. Seafood rice with baked pear mayonnaise, Korean cutlets with sweet potato hummus, and vegetable, orange and coconut curry are all must-orders. The restaurant was such a hit with architect Frank Gehry while he was working on the Guggenheim that it’s rumoured he painted the Guggenheim museum offices in the same shade of blue as the restaurant’s tiles.
La Viña del Ensanche – for cooking your own Basque dishes
Part shop, part restaurant and part cookery school, Viña del Ensanche is a great all-rounder. It’s housed in a 1920s bar, complete with original wooden panelling, where you can graze on Iberian cured ham and sip sherry all day long. In the shiny chrome kitchen workshop, guests can learn how to make typical Basque dishes such as creamy Begihaundi rice with squid and pâté with apple vinaigrette. For dessert, you’ll make hazelnut biscuits with chocolate cream and speculoos ice cream.
Basquery – for baked goods and craft beer
Beer and pastries might not be a classic combination, but it works well at this hip Basque café. Beers are brewed on site, and fresh crusty breads and flaky pastries are delivered straight from the oven. Amid industrial brick walls, metal chairs and wooden tables, try one of the homemade focaccias (roast ham is a favourite) with a cold glass of mango-passion IPA – you can learn how to make your own organic bread at one of Basquery’s artisan workshops. Pop in at breakfast for a baked-that-morning almond croissant, or take your time over a lunch of smoked sardines, fried artichokes, and txipirones (squid cooked in white wine) with smoked romesco sauce and lima salt.
La Ribera – for market nibbles
La Ribera dates back to the 14th century and is one of the largest undercover markets in Europe, home to more than 100,000 square metres of food stalls. That means plenty of wild mushrooms, homemade bread, local fruit, fish straight from Bilbao’s ports, organic vegetables and even smoked grasshoppers to stock up on – handy if you’re self-catering. Look out for the stalls selling homemade croquetas (try the prawn and mushroom filling, from Lautxo on the second floor), as well as those serving gildas – a typical Basque snack consisting of a cocktail stick with an olive, an anchovy and a pickled chilli pepper.
Victor Montes – for traditional Basque fare
At Victor Montes you can dine at white-marble tables, with views over the historic Plaza Nueva and a backdrop of whiskies and cognacs from a collection dating back to 1846. One of the oldest restaurants in the city, it’s a great place to try regional dishes such as bacalao pil-pil (fried cod with herbs and garlic) or acorn-fed pork fillet. If you’re staying at Pension Luxury Lo Bilbao (a stylish guesthouse, less than a minute’s walk away), your booking will include a voucher for breakfast at Victor Montes (think fried eggs with Basque chorizo or toast and butter with homemade marmalade).
Where to stay in Bilbao – Iturrienea Ostatua
This simple yet charming bed and breakfast is located right in the centre of the Old Town, housed in a property built in 1906 for a countess. Originally designed to look like a typical Basque country house, inside the largely modern décor is modest (simple white bedlinen, colourful quilted headboards, practical en-suite shower rooms) but homely. The nine bedrooms nod to the building’s history, with stone floors and wooden-beamed ceilings, and some have small private balconies. Breakfast is served in a country-style kitchen and stretches to local cheeses, charcuterie, sticky pastries and toast.
Words by Esme Fox
Photographs by Getty Images