Bilbao is my city, so I’m pretty well qualified when it comes to recommending pintxo bars. What a city it is too. It’s perfect for wandering around and discovering delicious local delicacies, just follow your nose. Alternatively, you could take this walking tour which takes in ten of my favourite pintxo bars. Before we start, let’s have a little bit of context.
Neighbour city of San Sebastien, Bilbao is in the heart of the Basque Country in northern Spain. From the moment you set foot in the city, it becomes immediately apparent that there’s a lively dining scene. Choices span from casual corner pintxo bars to highly respected Michelin-starred restaurants.
Bilbao is blessed with a host of museums and galleries from Frank Gehry’s ground-breaking Guggenheim Museum in the Arts District to the Museum of Fine Arts and Maritime Museum. There is also the striking Azkuna Zentroa, which is the city’s premiere culture and leisure centre designed by Philippe Starck which contrasts with Bilbao old town and its art deco-style La Ribera Market – Europe’s largest indoor market which is packed with stalls and restaurants offering incredible traditional food and drink.
Pintxos are the Basque country’s equivalent of tapas and bar hopping is in the blood of most Bilbainos. It’s easy to see why as enjoying these small plates is not only highly sociable, great fun and tremendously rewarding – you get to sample a huge diversity of local specialities for just a few euros. Many pintxo bars also offer a menú del día which is usually astounding value.
For our pintxo bar walking tour, we start in Calle and Kalea Licenciado Poza area, Bilbao’s Mecca of pintxo culture. We then work our way east, over the Bilbao estuary and down into Santa Maria in the old town. Walking, it takes just 35 minutes, but that’s without stopping, so add a good few hours if you want to sample the best pintxo on offer at your leisure. Please note that these bars are numbered in sequential walking order and not their top 10 ranking – we’ll let you decide which is best.
If you’re a fan of fine cheese and wine, this is very much your place. Behind its traditional wooden façade, their specialities include melted cheese pintxos and their signature cheese and mushroom pancakes with piquillo pepper sauce are to die for.
Location: García Rivero Maisuaren Kalea, 10
Established in 1927, this is one of the oldest bars in Bilbao. Here you’ll see whole hams hanging from the bar – not just any hams, but the very best Jamon Ibérico in Bilbao. You must try their hot pintxo plates such as their foie, wild mushroom and potato foam pan or their hake and piquillo peppers that can be served in larger portions. Don’t leave without trying their cheese ice cream. Excellent draft beers and top wines by the glass, plus a kitchen workshop and store.
This is a small but seriously busy bar at lunch and dinner times, so do get in early. This Michelin-recommended pintxo bar is famed for its sensational ‘txangurro gratinado’ spider crab gratin. Also highly recommended are their spicy morcilla balls crusted in peanuts and their artichoke tempura with crispy ham and sesame seeds. All delicious.
The pintxos at Café Iruña are as impressive as the Mudéjar inspired interior décor of this bar that dates back to 1903. Fabulous wall tiles, wooden carved ceilings and stained glass windows are the perfect backdrop to the stunning dishes. For me, their highlight is their ‘pintxos morunos’, lamb skewers barbecued to order and served in a spicy lemony sauce. There’s a great value for money menu del día, too.
Location: Colón de Larreátegui Kalea, 13
Pintxo bars don’t come more highly decorated than the multi award-winning Gure Toki in the old quarter’s Plaza Nueva. Taste the traditional and innovative mix of pintxos and it’s easy to understand why it’s Michelin recommended. Don’t leave Bilbao without trying their oxtail croquettes, idiazabal cheese soup with quail egg and wild mushrooms, grilled foie with apples and Pedro Ximénez.
Tucked away in the top corner of Plaza Miguel de Unamuno in the old quarter, Bacaicoa is a real gem. This buzzing pintxo bar is specialises in dishes using mushrooms, croquetas and chorizo. In fact, their txori al infierno – aka hells’ chorizo – is particularly delicious and fiery. There is also a good selection of wines, draught beers and Vermouths.
Location: Plaza Miguel Unamuno, 2
I love this family run bar and restaurant which was founded in 1969 and specialises in seafood and authentic traditional Basque pintxo. It’s famous throughout Bilbao for its ‘tigres’ – a stuffed mussel shell filled with thick bechamel, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried until golden brown. They’re sold singularly and they’re very popular, so catch them if you can!
Location: Muñoz María Kalea, 6
Now it’s not that easy to find vegetarian pintxos, but if you are a vegetarian of fancy a break from eat or fish, head to this cool little pintxo bar located in the 7 streets, old quarter. This is where you’ll find the best spicy mushrooms on toast in Bilbao. The staff are wonderfully friendly, the wine is great, too.
Location: Goienkale, 41
Just a 2-minute walk from the fabulous Ribera Market in the old quarter, his unassuming pintxo bar gives fast and friendly service and specialises in Cantábrico anchovies. These are served on sliced bread with a thin strip of a spicy pepper called ‘alegria riojana’. They’re also renowned for their tortilla de patatas and their choice of quality wines.
Finally, our walking tour ends at what is the catalyst of modern pintxos in Bilbao… Irrintzi. There’s always something new, colourful and intriguing. I’d recommend that you feast on falafel with shitake mushrooms, pork knuckle with vegetables, black bread with calamari and mini steak tacos. You won’t regret it.