Basque berets, bridges, Egyptian teas and 140 year old cafés in Bilbao

We didn’t find any ‘specialist’, artisan or ‘third wave’ coffee in Bilbao, but the café that’s been going since 1871 more than made up for that, and the Egyptian tea room was full of oriental delights.

I first came to Bilbao in 1982, not long after the city had been devastated by a horrendous flood, which left brown stains up the walls of many buildings long after the event.

Bilbao River

My next visit was for work some time in the 1990s, by which time the beautiful Norman Foster airport had been built, as had the extraordinary Guggenheim Museum. As usual on work trips, there was little time for tourism or even managing more than a cursory look at the town, but I remember being pleasantly surprised by the beauty of these new builds and loving the lines and curves of both the museum and airport (how often do you get to admire an airport, for goodness sake).

Bridge and spider by the Guggenheim in Bilbao

I often wonder how some planners and architects manage to make the modern sit comfortably alongside the older, whether mediaeval or industrial (when others so patently don’t). In Bilbao, the Guggenheim along with the curving lines of the equally modern footbridge over the river really look stunning in what must once have been just a busy industrial port.

Footbridge in Bilbao

We love the dog sculpture covered in flowers outside the Guggenheim and the giant spiders, one of which still stands imposingly by the museum.

Guggenheim dog flower bed sculpture

A google search before we left the UK had suggested we might like coffee at the oldest café in Bilbao: the Café Boulevard.

This place opened in 1871 and is still there today on the Calle Arenal. Only trouble is, if you’re looking for it, you may have the same problem we did: it’s changed its name and is now known as the Gran Café el Mercante!

Entrance to el Gran Café Mercante in Bilbao

The place has been partially modernised inside and some of the ambient music didn’t quite fit with its olde worlde look, but this café can’t help having style, with its fantastic brass fittings and stained glass windows.

Stained glass at the Gran Cafe Mercante in Bilbao

And of course the coffee and pastries are pretty good, too. From our brief stay, the Gran Café el Mercante is our top tip for coffee in Bilbao (though, as always, we’d love to hear from locals who think there’s better coffee to be had elsewhere, especially if there’s cake involved, too!)

Coffee and croissants at gran cafe mercante in Bilbao

For tea, we were bowled over by the wonderful Teteria La Canela, an Egyptian tea room in Calle Gordoniz.

Canela Egyptian tea room in Bilbao

Ahmed, the owner, came to Spain 33 years ago (so just before my first visit to Bilbao), but is originally from Egypt, so knows a bit about creating a genuine Egyptian-style tea room. And he has some beautiful tea pots, with long handles and elegant spouts, which apparently came from Syria.

Tea pots from Syria in the Teteria Canela in Bilbao

Ah, that’s yet another country we’ll have to visit one day, though maybe we’ll leave that till things have calmed down a bit!

From the lengthy tea menu, we picked the exotic sounding 1001 Nights blend, a puer blended with cinnamon. If we’d had more time, we’d have been more adventurous and tried the offer of four teas to taste with six pastries for just 10 euros, the Egyptian equivalent I guess of a classic English afternoon tea.

Mind you, even in an Egyptian tea room in Spain, we Brits make our mark, with a quote from William Gladstone (about tea, of course) on the Teteria Canela menu!

This was a great introduction to tea in Spain, though we were to find even more tea temptations as we continued to Pamplona and San Sebastian – our next instalments…

Cafe Cappuccino in Bilbao

Oh, and by the way, Canela is right next door to a coffee shop called Café Cappuccino, which is also owned by Ahmed and his wife, and may well be the best place for coffee in Bilbao, but by this time we had a bus to catch and no time to find out if their coffee quality could match their fabulous tea.

On the way back through Bilbao on our way home, we also found by chance a fantastic old bar for pinchos (tapas) and coffee that has walls covered in pictures of ocean liners and builders’ helmets hanging from the ceiling, suggesting this was the place workers building the Guggenheim had their coffee. If you’re in Bilbao check out the Bar Zuretzat in calle Iparraguirre – great spot.

And just in case you wondered why I put berets in the title of this post, it’s because we were struck immediately by just how many (older) guys wear the things. And we in Britain always associate this headwear with the French…

The beret basque in Bilbao


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2 Responses to Basque berets, bridges, Egyptian teas and 140 year old cafés in Bilbao

  1. Noelia says:

    Next time you come to Spain I will tell you some good places on the third wave to visit (:
    Kind regards from a Spanish coffee lover (:

    • admin says:

      Thanks – that’d be great. Might have to wait a while because we’re now on a big overland trip to Australia! But next time, yes please

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