Words + Photography by Luke Alland, using Leica's Q2 Reporter and SL2.
The best way to describe Bilbao, is as if the city planners got together with some Lego, Duplo, Playmobil and Meccano, to build anything they wanted with absolutely no consistency. Every street is different, and none of it really makes any sense as you can’t get into the rhythm as to what each area actually feels like. The Old Town aside, everything is a strange juxtaposition of decades, with some areas like San Francisco, and others feeling more like Colombia or Brazil than Spain. On the flip side, from an architectural standpoint, it offers something I don’t think I've ever seen in a city before: the freedom of design. You won't see many of the sterile new builds being thrown up around London here, which is incredibly refreshing.
Bilbao is a sort of lost child of an estranged relationship between Budapest, Paris and Barcelona. The vast and expansive spaces are distinctly former Soviet block, but with palm trees, tapas bars and the occasional protest, just to remind you are actually in Spain. It’s almost too big for the people that live here, although you can't say that the city isn’t devoid of life, it's just devoid of a few more people.
Its huge open spaces and lack of any real gridlock traffic means that it could be an ideal place for those looking to flee to a quieter city to work remotely on the continent, but don't want to lose any of the amenities the countryside would invariably bring, nor be hit by outrageous short-term rental prices in other capitals. There's enough art and a decent restaurant scene to see you through, and if you're into literally any form of outdoor activity, it's pretty much perfect to get out and do them.
I was in Bilbao for around two days in total (it was the bookend for a trip to La Rioja) and it felt as if I had seen it all, yet not quite experienced everything. I ticked off most of the neighbourhoods and major sights, but I felt as if there were many stones left unturned, and could definitely be a place you'd spend a long weekend. I more than likely wouldn't visit for a week though, unless there was a plan to pop to San Sebastian.
One of the drawbacks of Bilbao is that it's on the Atlantic coast of Spain, and not the sun-kissed South facing the Mediterranean. Therefore naturally it's a bit cloudier than you'd maybe like when visiting (or moving, if I've inspired you...). It's warm enough to justify it if you're looking to escape the unpredictability of London's summer, but not if you're looking to be the envy of your colleagues with a beautiful tan.
You might start to see what I mean through the photo above, it having that former Eastern-block feel. The orange tinted rooftops, the odd Church steeple poking through. The way the Nervión could pass for the Danube if you weren't looking hard enough. If you were on the ground, you could also mistake it with the prices. On my last night, I treated myself to a few (read: five) glasses of red wine. When I went to pay I got a €50 note out of my wallet, expecting it to be past the 20 mark. The total was €9,50, and even though I'd been chatting a little with the Colombian waiter about the prices back home, I had no idea he was holding this trick up his sleeve.
It's also a surprisingly stylish city, which will always help elevate the people watching. Perhaps aided by the weather and not being a flip-flop destination, you can actually find some style wandering about the streets and more often than not, it's the older generation who are setting the bar. With the passion that the people in the Basque Country feel towards their autonomous state, naturally the easiest representation is an Athletic Club shirt which adorns a large proportion of the younger lads, with the odd other shirt thrown in here and there. Mostly however, people take pride in their appearance and a darn sight better than the style in Barcelona.
All in all, I suppose it comes down to what you want from a city break. With the chaos at airports so far this summer, and the bucket-hat-gurn-gang chasing cheap seaside breaks and festivals, Bilbao could be an option for a more 'adult' holiday. It's got culture, nice food and it's cheap. Your flight is more than likely not going to be full, and you won't be slamming into umbrella-chasing hordes as you wander around town.
It's perhaps not the best city break, being more of a deeper cut European city, but if you've done the regulars and fancy branching out, there's enough trees here to shake a stick at.
Yes, I know that was dreadful...