The WORST of Bilbao (with silver linings)

The Worst of Bilbao

Pesadilla. /ˈði.ʎa/ n. Language: Spanish. Meaning: Nightmare. Like being outrun by an ax-murderer, or 27 consecutive days of rain in November.

I’m not going to sugar coat it here. I didn’t fall head over heels with Bilbao the way I did for Granada when I studied abroad. Part of that was I was working, not merely “studying” (er, if you can call it that). Part of that was that Bilbao is tougher on foreigners, in my opinion, because its a tight-knit community that doesn’t see a whole lot of outsiders. Here is the worst of Bilbao, though with silver linings, because who needs more depressing reads? (See: Global Warming Offs Another Polar Cub.)

Before the haters come out here, please reference my previous post, the Best of Bilbao!

Worst of Bilbao

1. Rain

This is not my opinion. This is fact. THE very worst of Bilbao, and northern Spain in general, is its unrelenting rain. How do people live like this? I got seasonal affect disorder two months in! November through April sort of went like this:

Let’s all hike on Sunday! In cascading mud.

Picnic in the park after work? Nope, lawns are drenched.

I’d love to bike to work today! Except I’d skid out.

Friday night bar-hopping? Only if rainboots are acceptable disco-wear.

As a California native, I know I have a weather handicap anywhere else in the world. It’s my skewed, twisted fate, punishment for the privilege of growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area. But seriously, Basque Country might have well been Scotland. Actually, even my Scottish friends were on the verge of tears in November….

(Silver lining: All that rain means incredible greenery. Also, when the sun does come out, you get out of the apartment NO MATTER WHAT. When the sun is out in California, it’s sort of like, what else is new? Back to watching Amy Poehler interviews on Youtube.)

2. Euskera/Basque

So you applied to be an Auxiliar de Conversación with the hope of practicing your Spanish? Here’s a little secret: they speak Euskera (Basque) in Basque Country. It’s not ubiquitous—there’s hope for you yet—but it’s definitely present and unavoidable. You’ll see it on signs, you’ll hear students speaking it (hopefully not behind your back), and your colleagues in the break room will be cracking up over some hilarious story that you won’t understand. Not to mention you’ll trash important documents when your school computer’s menu options are all in Basque. Better study up on your basics!

(Silver lining: Being exposed to another language is an additional peek into a unique culture. Hooray for linguistic diversity!)

3. Difficult Social Scene

There’s a (very true) stereotype of Basques: They’re hard to get close to, but once you do, you’ll be friends for life.

Through my travels, I’ve become incredibly close, and stayed in touch, with people I met for two days. In Bilbao, however, where I spent 9 months and had a high level of Spanish, I couldn’t crack ‘em. The (in)famous cuadrillas, or tight-knit social groups, are nearly impenetrable.

This isn’t to say that Basques are unfriendly or antisocial. I met plenty of people who were extremely outgoing and willing to chat. But the thing is, after meeting them and spending hours mingling with Basque friend groups, it was rare to ever hear from them again. It’s just an entirely different social structure than I’m used to.

And as a gregarious extravert always eager to make new friends, I wasn’t in to it.

As an added kick to the face, there’s another (true) stereotype: Basques don’t flirt. Even the Basques know this one and laugh about it, acknowledging there’s some truth to it. What’s a girl gotta do to meet a guy in that place?? (Join Tinder, apparently.)

(Silver lining: I guess once you’re in, you’re in for life. BUT WHEN DO YOU GET “IN???”)

4. Expensive

Bilbao and San Sebastian are right up there with Madrid and Barcelona for cost of living. Rent is sky-high for Spain standards. Pintxos are bite-sized and 2 euros a pop—which, to fill up, would be rather expensive. Remember that posh elegance I mentioned in the list of Best of Bilbao? Ya, you pay for that. A breakfast is nearly twice as expensive as it was in Granada. (Here’s my Budget Breakdown for Bilbao.) 

Are we talking insurmountable prices? No, it’s still Spain. Compared to San Francisco, France, or—I shudder to think of it—London, Bilbao is nearly free. I’m just saying, spend some time in Galicia or Andalucia, and coming up to Basque Country can be a rude awakening.

(Silver lining: More expensive cost of living—and a more affluent populace—means you can charge more for private English lessons. And public transportation and wine—two very necessary things—are still comparable to the rest of Spain.)

5. Geographic Isolation

Basque coastline

Basque coastline

Basque Country is in the extreme north of Spain, and while it’s neat that it’s close to France, it’s not a huge central transportation hub like Madrid or Barcelona. It does, fortunately, have an international airport (where you can keep your shoes and liquids intact while passing through security!) but flight prices are higher, with fewer destinations. And due to being so far north, it will take you longer to bus or train to other parts of Spain.

(Silver lining: It’s easier to explore the gorgeous northern coast of Spain, since you’re already IN the north—now there’s a shocker!)


Bilbao is a wonderful city in Spain. But like the best box of chocolates, or a damn good cocktail, it’s bittersweet at times.

Have you been to Bilbao? What did you NOT like about it?  And if you’re feeling a bit down after this post, head on over to the Best of Bilbao :) 

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  • becky

    Hi Jenny, I am currently on my year abroad working as an auxiliar in Bilbao and I have been reading your blog which I think is fab!! It ‘s so true :P I just wanted to ask you how you went about learning more Spanish while you were here? How did you meet people etc to go out with? thank you

    • So sorry I’m just seeing this comment, Becky! To improve my Spanish I spoke a lot with my roommates and coworkers, read books in Spanish, and yes, went out. It was a bit harder in Basque country since many people speak in Basque, but everyone is bilingual and the good news is the Spanish spoken in the north is really clear. Good luck!

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  • lindsaypunk

    Oh, I’d definitely be out after #1 – CANNOT. HANDLE. RAIN. Right there with ya, you spoiled Californian! Props to you for sticking out all that rain in Bilbao. Barcelona should be a vast improvement, weather-wise. I went to the beach there in March and it was glorious! (Maybe not warm enough to swim, but definitely warm enough to hang out in a t-shirt!)

    • Yep I’m DEFINITELY looking forward to Barcelona weather. California’s in a drought right now and while it’s totally worrisome, I secretly LOVE having not seen rain in over two months.

  • Thanh Binh Hoang

    The worst thing is rain.

    I guess you are not used to it.

    From what you said, I bet it is really not over there.

    You are from California so it is quite cold and dry.

    I bet you don’t have a car over there so it is really hard for transportation.

    In hot country with rain, OMG.

    Try your best.

    Good luck.

    Oh, maybe drinking in Spain is different from USA so try it.

    You learn heaps

  • I haven’t been to Bilbao (how’s that even possible?), but to San Sebastian and Comillas. I spent a lovely long weekend with my then-boyfriend which pretty much consisted of eating our way through the menu of a restaurant each night. You see – it was raining when we arrived, and didn’t stop until we left! Again, I don’t blame the weather… after all, it was really a great weekend despite the downpour – and there’s something quite cool to just spend your day having pinchos :)

    • I love Comillas!! Such fond memories. And I agree, sometimes the rain was a nice excuse to stay indoors and stuff our faces on wine and pintxos. But it can get old fast!
      p.s. you should make it to Bilbao if you get the chance! It’s really a lovely place, despite what I mentioned in this post, haha

  • I have a soft spot for Northern Spain (particularly the west), and maybe it’s because we get next to no rain in Seville. For a Chicago gal, it’s torturous to have the same weather all year long (hell, even the whole day long!). But you’re right – for every not-so-great part, there’s something wonderful! You have pintxos! And awesome hiking! And trees with knitted scarves! I’ve been aching to get back to Bilbao…

    • Don’t get me wrong, I love northern Spain! In fact, I think it’s overall my favorite part of the country (and I love Basque Country in particular, of course). Just parts of it grew waring after a while. (The pintxos usually helped assuage those feelings :) knitted scarves on trees?? Am I missing something here???

  • …Well, I was only in Bilbao for a [*very*] small part of the day last year, but to me, it just seemed rather gray and dreary–the complete opposite of San Sebastían!!…

    Weird–from what I’m reading about my future city (Zaragoza), it doesn’t seem to rain as much as it does in the rest of Northern Spain!!…

    • Yep, Zaragoza’s not on the Atlantic coast, I think that might have something to do with it. But definitely less rainy, you’re lucky! Although I LOVE LOVE LOVE San Sebastian, I think you may have hit it at the perfect time—it’s actually slightly MORE rainy than Bilbao, if that’s possible!

      • …Wow–and here I thought that Bilbao was positively DICKENSIAN compared to S.S.!!…