Gaizka Zuazo, director of the city’s school of design, knows where to find the best steaks, late-night bars and post-industrial cool
Bilbao is probably not the ideal city for vegetarians as we do eat an awful lot of meat, especially the famous chuletón or T-bone steak. The meat is dry-cured for 40-60 days and then served with your own mini-barbecue on the table, so you can cook it to your taste. For an particularly good chuletón, go to Asador Sugarra in the old city. Those who prefer fish should head for La Lonja de Olabeaga on the banks of the Nervión River.
But for something a bit special, take a short taxi ride out of the centre to Restaurante Kate Zaharra, on the slopes of Mount Artxanda, for great food and a fabulous view of the city. Be sure to order the delicious zamburiñas (small scallops) – they’re speciality of the house.
Bilbao has undergone a huge transformation: from an industrial city built on the iron trade to one where art and culture – and tourism too – have come to the fore. The inauguration of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 made a huge impact, but as well as more mainstream centres, alternative art and cultural bodies are now being established in old industrial buildings, where owners are charging low rents rather than see their properties decay. For example, IED Kunsthal Bilbao, the school where I teach, is a former paint factory. Plus, there are some cool new galleries in the San Francisco area, such as SC Gallery and Espacio Marzana.
Years of neglect left the San Francisco neighbourhood very at down at heel, but now thanks to the low rents for premises, young entrepreneurs, artists and designers are able to set up shop there. Be warned, though: the gentrification has only just begun, and at night the area may feel a little too edgy for some people.
I grew up on the opposite side of the river, in the old quarter of the city, Casco Viejo, and for my money it’s still the most attractive and stimulating part, with its cobbled streets and innumerable bars. The temptation to eat is everywhere, from the restaurants and pintxo bars to delicatessens such as Ultramarinos Gregorio Martín and La Queseria. When you feel the need for a bit of breathing space in the narrow, busy streets, stop for coffee or a beer in sunlit Plaza Nueva, which has bars on all four sides.
The Nervión River is the heart of the city. Bilbao has gone from being industrial and grey, albeit with a certain charm, to a place where people enjoy walking and cycling, with a series of linked green spaces. There are parks – such as the Doña Casilda Iturrizar, opened in 1907 in the more modern Ensanche district, which until recently was the only green space in the city. But Bilbao is surrounded by mountains, and there is open countryside just a 20-minute walk from the city centre. Some slopes are rather a steep climb, but Artxanda has a funicular.
In summertime and at weekends many of the bars in the Casco Viejo stay open until 3am. Café Bar Bilbao in Plaza Nueva is a classic while a younger crowd might prefer Café Nervión. For dancing and live music, the theatre bar Kafe Antzokia is a cool place to hang out. Bilbaínos are passionate about their football club, Athletic Bilbao, which, despite a policy of signing only Basque players, maintains its place as one of Spain’s top clubs. When Athletic play at home, go and join the fans in Calle Poza to watch the match in one of the bars.
For something a little more stylish than the chain establishments, Hotel Miró, with rooms designed by fashion designer Antonio Miró, is five minutes’ walk from the Guggenheim (doubles from €156). Or, across the river, try the more modest Pension H30 Bilbao (€76).
Gaizka Zuazo is a landscape painter and director of IED Kunsthal Bilbao, which offers courses in commercial, graphic and interior design
This article was amended on 24 August 2022 to clarify the details, including the correct web link, for the Asador Sugarra restaurant.

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