A big part of the Bilbao experience is food and drink, and the people around the food and drink.
Here’s a quick beginner’s guide to eating and drinking in Bilbao:
Drinking: Spain’s bar tabs look about the same as those in the United States. According to the World Health Organization’s study on alcohol use, half of Spain’s drinkers prefer beer (same as the U.S.), while a third choose spirits (again same as the U.S.). The rest of the drinkers in both countries take wine.
San Miguel is the main beer of choice in Bilbao, and most bars and restaurants serve San Miguel in bottles. San Miguel is a sponsor of Atletico de Bilbao (the local football a.k.a. soccer team) as well as other big name sports teams throughout Spain. San Miguel is sort of the Budweiser of Spain, but with higher alcohol content.
You won’t find many crazy drunks in Bilbao, as Spain generally does a great job of holding their alcohol. Alcohol disorders in Spain, which has a legal drinking age of 18, occur in just 2% of males. In the U.S., that percentage is five times higher. Spain also holds their alcohol better than most of the European Union. Most Spanish beer brands offer non-alcoholic beers alongside the regular beer, which helps keep people under control.
Note that in Bilbao, drinking at the bar doesn’t really kick in until about 11:00 PM. You can go to the bar before that, but expect to be lonely until later.
Dining: Seafood is everywhere in Bilbao, thanks to the nearby coastlines. You’ll find plenty of seafood on display at most restaurants, sort of like Red Lobster does with lobsters in their locations. The seafood in Bilbao is affordable, as the supply is plentiful. Clams, lobsters, oysters, and crabs and fish of all kinds are on the menu.
Meat selection in Bilbao is also favorable, thanks to plenty of cattle in the surrounding area. Again, you’ll find cuts of meat on display in many restaurants as you enter, often behind the bar area.
Above all, Bilbao is famous for a delicacy known as a pintxo. A pintxo (also known as “pincho” outside of the Basque region) is a small bite size morsel similar to a Spanish tapa. Pintxos are as common, and as important, to the Basque culture as popcorn is to a movie theater. Pintxos are usually served alongside a beer, and in some cases are provided automatically – sort of like beer nuts in the United States, but more tasty.
A pintxo uses a small slice of bread as the base, and then piles on the good stuff. Typical Pintxo toppings include various seafoods, bites of meat, and vegetables, but can really include anything edible. Everything on a pintxo is usually held together by a toothpick, and is often crafted into a small work of art.
A couple of important administrative notes on dining in Bilbao: 1) Be sure to clear your plate in Bilbao, as taking home leftovers is frowned upon. 2) There is no need to tip after dinner, as Spain generally does not observe tipping. Go ahead and get an extra San Miguel instead.