There seem to be two things the people of Bilbao have a shared love for: Athletic Bilbao and pintxos. The first is their football club and the second is a Basque food tradition that is a little like tapas but more creative and often lots more fun too.
On a visit to Bilbao, I asked a few locals what they loved about living in Bilbao. They all told me they loved pintxos and now so do I.
So what’s a pintxo?
A pintxo (pronounced pincho) is a Basque food tradition that is basically a snack that comes in many different varieties. Indeed, the wonderful thing about pintxos is that virtually anything edible can be a pintxo. And chefs can get super creative and experimental with them. So as well more familiar Spanish dishes like tortilla and Iberico ham, you’ll find pintxos featuring marinated anchovies, pickled peppers, braised veal cheeks, salt cod and fried quail’s eggs. They pretty much showcase the best of the produce in the region.
The word ‘pintxo’ comes from the verb ‘pinchar’, which means to pierce. And traditionally, pintxos were served on a piece of bread with a toothpick piercing through it to hold it in place. Like tapas, they’re a snack-like dish. But they’re probably closer to the concept of appetisers or finger food. Pintxos also tend to be served throughout the day. I went to a lovely old cafe in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo for breakfast and found pintxos with morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo, fried onions and a fried quail’s egg (see picture above). I had one of these and churros for breakfast at Café Iruña, a beautiful café, who’s decor is inspired by Spain’s moorish history. It’s one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had!
A word of warning… Although pintxos aren’t meant to replace an actual meal, it’s quite easy to forget that. There’s just too much amazing variety!
How to eat pintxos
In Bilbao and the rest of the Basque Country, there are pintxo bars where this is essentially the only food they serve. They’re easy to spot too as the counters will be lined with platters of all sorts of pintxos. You’ll even find them on counters in more traditional restaurants and cafés. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as your belly.
The pintxos available on display are usually served cold but some can be heated up. Many places also have a menu of warm pintxos, which are cooked after the order’s been put through. Some places have plates on the sides so you can help yourself. You then just need to tell the bar staff how many you’ve had. In others, you order the ones you like the look of with the staff and they’ll serve you them. It really depends on the bar. On the odd occasion we served ourselves, I was amazed how well the staff kept on top of who had what!
As well as being a fun way to eat, pintxos are also very reasonably priced. In most cases, you won’t pay more than a couple of euros for one.
Pintxo bars in Bilbao
Pinxto bars in Bilbao are like the pintxos themselves. There are older, more traditional ones alongside modern and contemporary ones. Because there is so much variety, the best way to enjoy them and to enjoy Bilbao is to go on a pintxo bar crawl.
The region also boasts some fantastic tipples to help you wash down your pintxos. As well as beer, txakoli (pronounced ‘chakoli’), a sparkling white wine from the region is very popular. The Rioja region is also not very far away and most places will have a good selection of riojas along with other wines on the menu.
In Bilbao, I went pintxo crazy around Casco Viejo and was enjoying myself so much that I failed to write down names of places. But it’s worth asking recommendations from locals. You could also try one or more of the places mentioned in this list by Eusko Guide.
Go ahead and be bold…
One word of warning though… Whilst some places will have signs or labels to say what the pintxos are, others don’t. So if you’re unsure (especially if you have an allergy), do just ask. And maybe have a mini dictionary (or your phone) handy in case you need to translate something. Sometimes, especially on a weekend, pintxo bars can be rammed so it’ll be hard to get the attention needed for an explanation of each so unless you have allergies, my advice is to be brave and have fun. They look so tasty, it’s likely you won’t be able to help yourself!
And if you’re feeling inspired, you could stock up on yummy produce from the wonderful Mercado de la Ribera and make your own pintxos. Mercado de la Ribera is one of the largest covered markets in Europe. As well as incredible produce on sale and a number of pintxo bars and cafes, it’s worth a look in for its huge art deco windows.
Topa is the Basque equivalent for cheers and really savour your stay.