We drove from Barcelona to Bilbao via Pamplona. You could just as easily fly, but the road was easy and the views were beautiful.
We rented a Hertz - Compact 4/5-Door Car Manual. and picked it up at Calle Viriat 45, Barcelona, It was $167 with $88 in additional comprehensive insurance. Barcelona to Pamplona took about 5 hours and we arrived @1 pm. We had lunch and a walkabout. We left Pamplona around 3 pm and arrived in Bilbao @ 5pm. The terrain changes dramatically when you head over the mountains into Bilbao. It is green and lush and beautiful. Down down you head into the City of Bilbao along The Nervión river (Basque: Nerbioi) which runs through the city of Bilbao into the Cantabrian Sea (Bay of Biscay).
We stayed at the Hotel Miro 4* Alameda Mazarredo 77 Bilbao Vizcaya 1-866-599-6674. $99.85. It was a simple room, with modern furnishings in a delightful hotel. Complimentary coffee, sodas, nuts and candy in the lounge and walkable to the Guggenheim Museum where we headed at 5:30 on arrival.
The Essential Museum Visit
You could spend a day at the Guggenheim, coined "the titanium flower that grew out of an industrial wasteland and sparked this city’s regeneration" in what is now known as the Bilbao Effect. Never mind getting lost in Richard Serra’s maze of rusty steel, “The Matter of Time”; a world of modern and contemporary art awaits (such as Motherwell, Anish Kapoor, Jenny Holzer). Make use of the excellent, audio guide that comes with admission. Even if, say, fog as a sculptural medium is not your thing, there’s people-watching to rival Times Square.
Euskotren Tranbia is a cute lime-green and silver caterpillar of a tram that runs on only one line, in two directions. For a flat fare of 1.5 euros (about $1.60), it’s a great way to see this small city (and its people) along the left bank of the Nervión River, past the Guggenheim, and then over to the edge of the compact medieval Casco Viejo, or old quarter, on the right bank. You can catch it right below the Hotel Miro, which we did as we headed to the Old Quarter for dinner.
Also known as the Old Town, Casco Viejo is the medieval neighbourhood of Bilbao and is made up of seven streets, lined with an abundance of shops and restaurants to choose from for a nice culinary experience. Bilbao is home to a lively night-life scene that is born of a culture of late night eating and drinking. There is always something happening at night in Bilbao!
We dined at Ittintzi, at a teeny-tiny table. Old Quarter ‘pintxo tavern’ is bustling and popular among the young and artistic crowd. Here the pintxos are presented as masterpieces and the social vibe of this trendy bar make it a fun stop in the Casco Viejo.
Do as the Bilbainos do and bar hop, sampling small plates as you roam. On a residential street, by the enchanted Jardines de Albia where women walk their terriers along brick paths, the classic tile-covered Café Iruña holds onto traditions, some of them very tasty. Look in the dining room with its murals, then return to the front bar for a 2.50-euro lamb sandwich (pintxo morano) made on the grill. At La Viña del Ensanche, there are tables on a pedestrian plaza opposite a glass cube of a building that’s a stark contrast to the grander Beaux-Arts and neo-Classical facades. Inside, young well-heeled professionals choose from an array of pintxos (try a seared foie gras and some fine Iberian ham) and many fantastic Spanish wines.
Nightcaps and views
No evening in Spain is complete without a nightcap. Make it a “gin-tonic” on a rooftop terrace overlooking the river and city lights. The bar on the top of Silken Gran Hotel Domine feels a bit like an exclusive club. Undiscovered by tourists, it is the province of dealmakers, sexy couples and maybe the odd boldface name. Drinks from 4 euros.
OPTIONAL SIDE TRIPS: San Sebastian, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, Segovia
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (DragonStone in Game of Thrones)
It's 45 minutes to San Juan Guagaztexle from Bilbao over small coastal roads.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (DragonStone) is located between the towns of Bakio and Bermeo in the Biscayan coast, and is 35 km east from Bilbao. It is possible to get there by car or bus. To get there from Bilbao by car, you need to take the road BI-631. Once you arrive at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, there is a free parking area next to the main road. From San Sebastian, it takes about 1 hour 45 minutes (120 km). http://www.euskoguide.com/places-basque-country/spain/san-juan-de-gaztelugatxe/
It takes about 1:45 hrs from Bilbao to San Sebastian. We couldn't make it on this trip, but I've been before and it is a lovely small town on the Pyrenees border with France. As soon as you arrive in the city or leave your hotel room, make La Concha beach your first port of call. Take a stroll along the beach towards the El Antiguo neighbourhood and Ondarreta Beach. La Concha is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Spain, perhaps even the world, and takes its name from the from its conch shell shaped bay.
Side Trip to Segovia on route to Madrid
The thrill of visiting the most spectacularly sited city in Spain is to view its Alcázar, which rises starkly above the plain like a fairy-tale castle created by Disney. You can also view the Cabildo Catedral de Segovia and the town's architectural marvel, Acueducto Romano. After lunch in Segovia, head 11km (7 miles) southeast to view the Palacio Real de La Granja, the summer palace of the Bourbon kings.