This is the moment I fell in love with Bilbao: at 9:00 in the morning, standing at the counter of one of Bilbao’s oldest pintxo bars, devouring a slice of pan con tomate topped with a thick jamón and extra virgin olive oil. Everything about this experience, eating local food surrounded by locals, made me see the Basque city in a new light.
What Are Pintxos?
The Basque Country – of which Bilbao and San Sebastián are the main cities – is one of the most gastronomically blessed regions of the world. It is universally praised for its local cuisine and fine dining with nearly 40 Michelin-starred restaurants, the highest concentration per capita.
Pintxos, the small morsels of savoury food often served on slices of baguette bread or pierced on sticks, play a fundamental role in the everyday life of the Bilbaínos. It’s more than just the food. It’s about the convivial experience of sharing food and drinks with friends and having a good time.
Pintxos are similar to tapas, but not quite the same thing. They are unique to the Basque country so you won’t find them anywhere else. The most famous pintxo? The ‘gilda’ which consists of green olives, gherkins, pickled green chillies and anchovies stacked up together on a cocktail stick. Fun fact, it was named after Rita Hayworth’s character in the 1940’s film Gilda.
I have passed through Bilbao three times in as many years, en route to San Sebastián or to the nearby Rioja region, only once entering the city to make a quick stop at the architectural marvel that is the Guggenheim Museum.
Aside from the museum, the city of Bilbao was completely new to me when I arrived in town for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants last month. I was attending the awards ceremony as a guest of one of the sponsors, Miele, together with selected journalists from UK, Europe and US.
Most of my time was spent attending press events, but on the last day I was free to explore Bilbao at my own pace. It was fantastic to wander around the newer and older parts of the city, stopping in traditional bars for a bite to eat and a zurito (a small glass of beer), getting tips from the locals and hearing them complain about the brand new Starbucks, and generally enjoying the Basque life. I was even lucky enough to get a sunny and hot day, a rarity around here.
You cannot (and should not) visit Bilbao without getting a taste of the pintxos. They are best eaten for a light snack around 6-8pm before a late dinner around 9-10pm. You would need to order too many pintxos, racking up a high bill in the process, to make it a full meal, so my tour guide tells me.
Personally I found the food reasonably priced and affordable and so I was happy to try as many different pintxos as I could. Some restaurants are famous for a particular dish so it’s worth hopping around bars and making a “pintxos crawl” out of it.
The locals don’t really go hopping from bar to bar and instead prefer to spend their time and money at just one place. My guide said he has two favourite restaurants he likes to goes back to regularly with his family and friends. The only exception is during anchovies’ season when they goes to a different bar that specialised in pintxos with anchovies.
The old town, known as Casco Viejo, is where most of the good pintxos bar are to be found. The area is also known as “las siete calles” as a reference to the seven streets that formed the original medieval town around Santiago Cathedral.
Plaza Nueva is the centre of Bilbao’s Casco Viejo Under the galleries that surround the square you will find many bars and restaurant which come alive in the evenings and at weekends. The parents sit at one of the outdoor tables eating pintxos, while their kids play together in the square.
Many of the city’s hotels are located in the modern part of town, around the Gran Via (Bilbao’s main shopping avenue) and the Guggenheim, so you’ll probably want to know about good places to eat around there too. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of nice bars, especially on Calle Ledesma which is closed to traffic and lined up with restaurants.
A Guide To The Best Pintxos Bars in Bilbao
I will start by saying that this is not a comprehensive guide of Bilbao’s restaurants, but rather a list of the best places I tried in the city, all of which were recommended to me by Bilbainos. This guide provides a good starting point to sampling Basque cuisine in Bilbao.
The first time I walked into Café Iruña, I found myself surrounded by the world’s top chefs in town for the World’s Best 50 Restaurants Awards, proof that this restaurant is the number one food destination in Bilbao. Maybe because of the spectacular interiors, or the location by the Jardines de Albia, or the simple and delicious pintxos, but this café has become my personal favourite in Bilbao.
La Viña del Ensanche
La Viña del Ensanche is a beautiful bar still featuring the original furniture from 1927. The menu offers a range of dishes and pintxos, though they are famous mostly for their Iberian Bellota products. Book in advance to sit at one of the beautiful marble tables in the old style dining room.
I stopped at Victor Jatetxea at the end of my 5-stop pintxos tour around Bilbao, so I only had time and space for a quick snack. I decided to try the tortilla de patatas of which they had a wide selection on the counter: plain, onions, ham and cheese, or peppers. The slice of tortilla (a Spanish egg and potatoes omelette) is served with a side of bread (carbs on carbs…you gotta love the Spanish!). It was delicious, with a gooey centre and a crispy top.
Cafe Bar Bilbao
Victor Montes is one of Bilbao’s landmarks and one of the best restaurants to savour traditional dishes from the Bay of Biscay. Located in Plaza Nueva, it is a great destination for lunch and dinner. Book a table in advance and sit down in the small dining room (downstairs or upstairs) surrounded by bottles of the world’s best whisky.
Taverna Txiriboga in Calle Santa Maria is specialised in croquetas (ham, chicken, cod or mushrooms). Indeed, they were pretty good and cheap: a plate of five croquettes and two small beers cost me less than 10 euros. If you can, wait for a batch of croquettes coming out from kitchen: they are so much better when they are hot and crunchy.
Baster is a young and modern bar in Casco Viejo, great for a coffee break, for drinks, for pintxos, all in one Instagrammable setting. Try the pulled pork burgers or the tortillas which are made to order. The coffee is the best I’ve had in Bilbao, so I think Baster would make a great spot for breakfast.
Mercado de la Ribera
Mercado de la Ribera, one of the largest covered food markets in Bilbao and in Europe, is located on the southern side of Casco Viejo, beside the river estuary. It’s a spacious market spread over several floors, clean and easy to explore, though the large structure somewhat lacks charm (despite being an art deco building from 1920’s). Nevertheless, Ribera Market is a great place to shop local products and to grab a quick bite in the new food hall.
Other popular spots for pintxos in Bilbao are: Sorginzulo, Gure Toki, Taberna Basaras, Gaztandegui, La Olla and El Huevo Frito. I didn’t have time to visit them, but they came highly rated by locals I spoke to.
The Best Pastelerias and Desserts in Bilbao
Although this is blog post is about pintxos, I want to end it with a bonus track! I love discovering local biscuits and cakes wherever I go, so I spent some time looking for the best bakeries and pastry shops in Bilbao. Here are my recommendations:
Arrese have a couple of branches scattered around town (including one at Bilbao airport that’s perfect for last minute gifts). The most famous is a small corner shop situated on the Gran Via, near Corte Inglés department store. Apparently you should try the chocolate truffles, but I didn’t…instead I tried and loved the Pastel Vasco, a traditional Basque pie made with wheat flour and filled with almond cream and anise.
The most traditional dessert in Bilbao is the Carolina, a small puff pastry filled with custard cream and topped with soft meringue. It’s too sweet for me and very difficult to eat without making a sticky mess!
Pasteleria Martina de Zuricalday
Pastelerías Martina de Zuricalday is a cake shop in the main shopping area of Bilbao. Next to cupcakes and beautiful three-layered cakes, they showcases many different pastries and biscuits. My favourite was the palmera al chocolate, a palmier pastry coated in dark chocolate.
Pasteleria Don Manuel
A typical sweet of Bilbao is the bollo de mantequilla, a sweet yeasted bun filled with a thick layer of butter that reminded me of the maritozzo in Rome. All the bakeries I have been to had trays filled with these buns, sometimes smothered with custard cream or whipped cream instead of the butter. I tried the bollo de mantequilla with a delicious mug of hot chocolate to warm up on a rainy afternoon at Pasteleria Don Manuel. I’ve been told that a great place to try these buns is Pastelería New York in calle Buenos Aires.
I hope you enjoyed this post and will make you want to visit Bilbao soon! If you are from Bilbao or have been there and want to share some of your favourite food spots, please leave a comment below!