Before I say anything else, let me clarify one thing: San Sebastian is an integral part of any trip to northern Spain’s Basque Country. It’s a city whose allure exceeds its relatively small size, powered by surfable Atlantic waves that lap the shores of some of Europe’s finest beaches and a legendary food culture that includes one of the highest densities of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita of anywhere in the world.
Like many travelers who visit San Sebastian, I went this past July primarily to eat. Coveted eating experiences in San Sebastian can broadly be divided into two categories: First, there’s the pintxos, which are small bites similar to Spanish tapas or Portuguese petiscos that are typically enjoyed with drinks before lunch or dinner. Then there’s the star-worthy restaurants that have helped earn San Sebastian the distinction of being one of the world’s foodiest cities.
My travel companion was determined to experience both. If nothing else, she figured, we’d probably be able to find a cheaper tasting menu in Spain than in our native Bay Area (although there are a surprising number of affordable Michelin-starred restaurants in California). What we failed to account for was our timing. With just three days in San Sebastian and no advance reservation, we quickly realized that snagging a table at one of the world’s most coveted restaurants on a peak-season evening would be next to impossible.
Then, we had an idea. Instead of settling for whatever a la carte lunchtime reservation we could muster at the last minute, what if we looked for a Michelin-starred restaurant in Bilbao, the next and final stop on our Basque Country itinerary.
Bilbao is the biggest city in the Basque region, located a little over an hour west of San Sebastian. We found out that it has 10 one-star Michelin restaurants, one three-star Michelin restaurant, and four Bib Gourmand restaurants, a designation that denotes excellent food at an affordable price point. With two days’ notice, several had dinner seatings available.
We booked a table at a one-star restaurant called Garena that specializes in refined Basque fare. Helmed by the young and innovative Chef Julen Baz, Garena offers a 16-course tasting menu for $140 per person, excluding wine, which fell within our budget. (The restaurant also serves an eight-course meal for $63 per person and a six-course meal for $52 per person.) What intrigued us most, however, was the restaurant’s setting.
Bilbao is situated slightly more inland than San Sebastian where the majority of the Michelin-starred restaurants are located near the busy areas facing the sea. Many of Bilbao’s Michelin-starred restaurants capitalize on the surrounding countryside, occupying traditional basseris (Basque farmhouses) on secluded properties with space for vineyards and gardens.
Garena is housed in a 16th-century basseri in the Dima municipality that’s hugged by the rolling hills of the Gorbea mountains and, farther afield, the Urkiola Natural Park. The sustainably-minded restaurant also has a vineyard that produces two versions of txakoli, Basque’s famous white wine, as well as keeps chickens and grows other ingredients on site.
After an amuse-bouche of Betizu beef tartar that was hand-delivered by Chef Baz, my friend and I enjoyed our first taste of the estate’s wine alongside a bite of white-clawed crayfish wrapped in a thin and crisp leather made from dehydrated peppers. The dish is an homage to a species of crab that was enjoyed in the region for centuries before becoming overfished.
Most of Garena’s menu has ties to its land and the Basque region at large. Anecdotes about each course are shared as the plates are served. One course, a savory macaron filled with an “old chicken” cream, is served in a box lined with feathers. The hake with green sauce, a dish you’ll see on menus throughout the Basque region, comes with the explanation that the cod-like fish is traditionally eaten on two occasions: when you’re sick or when the hake is sick, meaning a few days old and needing to be consumed. The herbaceous salsa verde that accompanies it is intended to uplift both the dish and its diners. Elsewhere during the meal, laurel branches are burned as part of an ancestral practice to ward off evil spirits.
Aesthetic plating and a touch of molecular gastronomy (think foams and smoke) add drama to the meal without detracting from the coziness of the cuisine. Garena itself means “what we are” in Euskara, the Basque language, and many of the preparations are designed to be eaten with your hands as you would in the comfort of your home.
This casual intimacy is what I appreciated most about dining at Garena, from the woodsy locale, to the homey farmhouse, to the fact that Bilbao’s Michelin-starred restaurants suffer less from the level of international renown that suffocates their counterparts in San Sebastian. Between the ease of getting a last-minute reservation and the reasonable price point, I left Garena convinced that Bilbao should be nobody’s second choice for Basque fine dining.
Here’s where to go to experience Bilbao’s Michelin-starred restaurants.
Three-star Michelin restaurants in Bilbao
Twenty minutes from Bilbao, hilltop Azurmendi occupies an all-glass bioclimatic building topped with a rooftop garden that offers a first indication of the restaurant’s rigid commitment to sustainability. Chef Eneko Atxa’s Adarrak tasting menu honors the region’s culinary heritage, displays reverence for local ingredients, and delights all of the senses, moving through courses such as the “Welcome Picnic,” “Truffle’s Table,” and “Garden.” Wine is also produced on site.
How much the tasting menu costs: $330 per person, with optional wine pairings for an additional $165 or $330 per person
Where it’s located: Barrio Leguina, s/n, 48195 Larrabetzu, Biscay, Spain
One-star Michelin restaurants in Bilbao
In 1964, a sibling trio opened a tavern in their family’s charming farmhouse as a place for locals and pilgrims visiting the nearby Andra Mari church to meet, dine, and rest. The Andra Mari restaurant has since garnered acclaim (and a Michelin star) for its hyper-local fare inspired by both land and sea. In addition to a la carte options, Andra Mari serves two tasting menus: the nine-course Elexalde menu and 12-course Andra Mari menu. Prices are quite reasonable — although the restaurant’s exceptional wine cellar might tempt you toward a bigger bill.
How much the tasting menu costs: $70 per person for the Elexalde menu, $100 per person for the Andra Mari menu
Where it’s located: Barrio Elexalde 22, Galdakao, 48960, Spain
Boroa is another Michelin-starred restaurant in Bilbao that’s located outside of the city in a farmhouse dating back to the 15th century. The grounds are lovely and large, providing plenty of terrace space for diners to enjoy the nine-course Mugarra, 17-course Txindoki, and nine-course Vegetarian tasting menus. The rustic-chic dining rooms inside nod to Boroa’s traditional bent, although the food itself blends Basque staples with global flavors and techniques such as kimchi and ceviche. Boroa has a winery on site, as well as a collection of fine international wines.
How much the tasting menu costs: $80 per person for the Mugarra menu ($30 optional wine pairing), $165 for the Txindoki menu ($55 optional wine pairing), and $70 for the vegetarian menu
Where it’s located: San Pedro de Boroa, 11, 48340 Boroa, Bizkaia, Spain
Azurmendi’s sister restaurant, Eneko opened on the same property in 2017 and has since expanded with outposts in Tokyo and Lisbon. The restaurant’s 12-course Sutan menu adheres even more closely to local techniques and traditions, featuring simple yet finely prepared dishes centered around ingredients such as cow’s tail, pigeon, wheat stew, and Idiazabal cheese. The two restaurants share both their executive chef and the property’s on-site vineyard.
How much the tasting menu costs: $85 without wine
Where it’s located: Barrio Leguina, s/n, 48195 Larrabetzu, Biscay, Spain
Raw ingredients and fresh seafood take center stage at Etxanobe Atelier, which is located in a former glass factory near Bilbao’s city center. Chef Fernando Canales takes seriously the idea that you eat with your eyes first, creating striking presentations of dishes such as scampi carpaccio, anchovy lasagna, and wagyu tenderloin. There are two tasting menus at Etxanobe Atelier, the 12-course Chef Atelier menu and 14-course Chef Atelier Plus menu, both of which come with the option of either a wine pairing or great wine pairing.
How much the tasting menu costs: $140 per person for the Chef Atelier menu ($190 with wine pairings and $230 per person with great wines), $175 per person for the Chef Atelier plus menu ($225 with wine pairings and $260 with great wines)
Where it’s located: Calle Juan Ajuriaguerra Kalea, 8, 48009 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain
Blending fine-dining techniques with traditional flavors, Garena honors its location in the countryside outside of Bilbao from its farmhouse setting, to the txakoli wines produced on site, to dishes that celebrate centuries of Basque culinary traditions. There are three tasting experiences: the 16-course Geroa menu, eight-course Gurea menu, and a six-course Seasonal Market Menu that celebrates the freshest produce of the day.
How much the tasting menu costs: $140 per person for the Geroa menu, $63 per person for the Gurea menu, and $52 per person for the Seasonal Market Menu
Where it’s located: Bº Iturriotz, 11, 48141 Lamindao, Biscay, Spain
A perfect day for food-focused travelers in Bilbao might start at the Ribera market and end at Mina located across the street. Inside the small and unassuming building, which stands where a former mine entrance once operated, there’s a paradoxically bright and cavern-like restaurant made of wood and stone with an open kitchen that whets the appetite for raw, seasonal ingredients. Diners can choose between the full 14-course tasting menu or a truncated 10-course tasting menu, with wine pairings from the refined on-site cellar.
How much the tasting menu costs: $165 per person for the tasting menu (plus $85 for wine pairings), $130 per person for the short tasting menu (plus $65 for wine pairings)
Where it’s located: Martzana Kaia, s/n, 48003 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain
Nerua Guggenheim Bilbao
Bilbao’s star cultural attraction, the Guggenheim museum, also has a restaurant that treats food like art. The vegetable- and seafood-forward menu changes three times a year to prioritize seasonal ingredients according to the spring, summer, and fall-winter bounty. Expect upscale classics with a Basque touch, such as anchovies, lobsters, beef loin, and Iberian pig belly. The tasting menu is eight courses, but you can also order a la carte.
How much the tasting menu costs: $95 dollars per person, plus $40 per person for optional wine pairings or $25 for non-alcoholic pairings
Where it’s located: Abandoibarra Etorb., 2, 48001 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain
Ola Martin Berastegui
Located in the Hotel Tayko Bilbao, Ola Martin Berastegui occupies a piece of prime real estate in Bilbao’s historic quarter along the Nervión river. The Michelin guide describes the dining experience as a “sensory” journey that’s reminiscent of the fresh, briny, and savory ingredients found in Basque pintxos, from marinated sardines to blood sausage. In addition to an 18-course tasting menu, there’s a slightly shorter “tradition and taste” menu that spans 15 courses.
How much the tasting menu costs: $165 per person for the full tasting menu ($245 with wine pairings), $190 for the shorter tasting menu ($130 with wine pairings)
Where it’s located: Erribera Kalea, 13, 48005 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain
Blink and you might miss Zarate on the edge of Bilbao’s city center. The small restaurant is unassuming from the street, with a simple awning bearing its name like any other casual restaurant, but inside, bold seafood-centric dishes await. The restaurant’s inspiration is firmly rooted in Basque cuisine but features the occasional pop of international flavors, such as wasabi and ponzu. Choose between an 11-course tasting menu or a la carte options.
How much the tasting menu costs: $115 per person
Where it’s located: Poza Lizentziatuaren Kalea, 65, 48013 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain
Zortziko has been a staple of Bilbao’s fine-dining scene since 1989. The restaurant offers a choose-your-own-adventure experience with various dining rooms, from wine-cellar seating to the elegant Versailles dining room, and three tasting menus: one with 11 courses, another with six courses, and an eight-course, meat-heavy Grill Menu.
How much the tasting menu costs: $100 per person for the short tasting menu ($155 for wine pairings), $155 per person for the long tasting menu ($225 for wine pairings), and $275 for the Grill Menu(
Where it’s located: Mazarredo Zumarkalea, 17, 48001 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain