Ordering my glass of Rioja red, gazing out from the rooftop terrace on which I was stationed, it was hard to think of anything bad going on in the world. I’d forgotten about Hurricane Matthew bearing down on my newly purchased home in South Florida. I’d forgotten about the election and I’d forgotten about every person who’d asked me if I would be safe when I told them I was spending a month in Europe. In the last location of my epic trip adventure, I had found my “Ah, ha” moment in Bilbao.
Earlier in the day, after spending only two wonderful days in Barcelona, my husband – who had joined me on the latter half of my travels – had questioned my decision to tack on a 3-night stay in Bilbao. I assured him it would be great as I had done my research and there was “a reason the New York Times put it on their list of the top places to visit in 2016.” I crossed my fingers that I wasn’t going to let him down on our hour long flight north west towards the Basque Country. From the airport to the Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao in the city center, it took us less than 20 minutes door-to-door in a taxi. Easily accessible. Check. Good start.
Several doormen and reception staff pleasantly greeted us upon arrival at the luxury hotel. Design elements were evident in the form of a giant rock sculpture stacked seven floors high, a multi-tiered water element, and bright artwork on the walls.
Arriving before the 2 pm guaranteed check-in found us leaving our baggage with the hotel as we went off in search of lunch. We had plans to enjoy the celebrated Basque cuisine (four restaurants on the San Pellegrino Worlds’ Best list and nearly 40 restaurants with Michelin stars) later in our trip, so we took the reception staffs’ suggestion to head to the Casco Viejo (Old Town) and the Plaza Nueva for some pinchos.
Right outside of our hotel was the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao. We had scheduled a visit later in the day, so we passed the metallic structure and giant dog of flowers and headed to the river. After about five minutes of strolling – a technique I had to teach my brisk walking companion, my husband looked at me and reaffirmed my executive decision to experience Bilbao.
Every way we turned and looked, the city was picture perfect. As we strolled along the Ibaizabal Ibaia River, passing the Zubizuri white pedestrian bridge, we observed modern design and architecture on our right and the Ayuntamiento de Bilbao and historic architecture and elements on our left. Unlike Barcelona, the city was only sprinkled with other visitors and locals; there were no hordes of tourists here. Everything was clean and green! The crisp weather – solid low 70s – was exactly what we wanted. And while the modern tram went passed us a few times, we skipped it. We wanted to go nowhere fast. If there is ever a town to employ the stroll, it’s Bilbao.
After savoring every last taste of our jamon croquettes at Café Bilbao in the Old Town, we meandered back to the Guggenheim for our 2 pm entrance slot. We had pre-selected our entrance time so we breezed right in, but there wasn’t anyone in line as we entered. We had just come from Madrid’s Prado Museum and Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, where pre-booking is a necessity if you don’t want to wait a couple hours. We didn’t want to take any chances, however, it doesn’t appear to be necessary here in Bilbao.
After spending a few hours exploring the museum, we crossed the street back to the Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao and settled into our spacious and well-appointed room. The bathroom was quite large for space, and a Philippe Starck soaking tub was calling my name. The bath – and its view of the Guggenheim – would have to wait as my husband buzzed in my other ear that it was time for a drink on the rooftop terrace. I mean, ok, how could I resist?
Two floors up, an expansive terrace with an immaculate view of the Guggenheim and Bilbao awaited us in all its glory. We cuddled up at a modern white high top table at the edge of the terrace and sat in silence. There were no words. After a few moments, a server came over and we ordered a bottle of Reserva wine from the Rioja valley. Rioja, the capital of Spanish wine, is just an hour south and we had plans to visit the next day.
Later that evening we opted to dine at the Bistrot Metropol on the street-level of the hotel, with even different views of the Guggenheim. With half and full size portions available, we were able to try several dishes without waste. Our favorite was the Mushroom Risotto with mascarpone and herb oil.
The next day we took the bus from Bilbao to Haro, the capital of Rioja, and it was extremely easy. There were options for private and group wine tours, but we wanted the flexibility to explore at our own pace. The bodegas were a short, peaceful walk away from where the coach let us off. Our favorite was the C.V.N.E. Bodega. During the time it took us to enjoy the four tastings, about a handful of people had come in to inquire about one of their award-winning bottles. A hot commodity, it sadly was out of stock.
Our final day in Bilbao we had plans to rent a car and head to San Sebastian. However on the terrace the next morning while enjoying the hotel’s fantastic buffet breakfast, we decided to stay around Bilbao. We sat for a while nibbling on pastries and fruit, Spanish tortillas, and Iberian ham spicy sausages, before venturing to the Mercado de la Ribera. Definitely visit this market – the largest indoor market in Spain – when you’re hungry and not when you’re full. Rookie mistake on our part. The bustling market was stocked with fresh fish, vegetables, aged meat, and more. Locals gathered ingredients for their family’s meals while pinchos were displayed at other stalls; residents and visitors alike enjoyed the company of each other over wine and beer.
As we casually strolled back along the river toward the hotel, our trip was coming to a close; we knew we had to head back up to the terrace for one last view. We sipped a bottle of the same Rioja wine we tasted earlier in our stay and enjoyed the view.