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Hub of northern Spain's staunchly independent Basque region, Bilbao was a gay Mecca long before the Guggenheim Museum opened its doors says OutUK's Adrian Gillan.
There are many reasons to visit Bilbao. It's all eminently walkable and still not over-run with tourists; it's dead cheap; there's no need to struggle in vain with your crap Spanish - everyone speaks Basque; the Museo de Bellas Artes, arguably Spain's most important art collection after the Prado in Madrid; the Guggenheim Museum, one of the world's indisputably great buildings, both inside and out; the fine riverside walk from these two art treasures down toward the quaint Casco Viejo ("Old Town"). Bilbao is also very close to the equally gay St. Sebastian, home to the annual film festival, a mere hour away by bus near the French border and one of the world's most beautiful urban bays - quite a mini-Rio. From the cover of Coosje Van Bruggen's book about architect Frank O.Gehry and his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

GAY OLD TOWN

And then, of course, there's Bilbao's lovely little and highly local gay scene itself, mainly centred in the Old Town and the aptly-named San Francisco district just across the river and wrapped around the main train station. By no means everyone will speak English - or Spanish - so enjoy utterly losing yourself in a warren of intimate venues where even the music is largely native, move over Madonna!

Starting in the narrow streets of the old Casco Viejo, gain your strength at gay-friendly, slate-clad Kasko on Calle Santa Maria, offering classy set menus featuring local fodder for around £15 a head, including wine - although you can get good grub elsewhere for half that price. You might want to return here later, after hours when this posh eatery transforms into a highly respected and gay-frequented dance club.

Then stroll around the corner to the buzzing, wood-beamed Café Bizitza on Calle Torre, a daytime and late-night café-pub with mixed but gay-slanted crowd, both boys and girls. Note: hardly any gay venues in town have a public phone number - many open so late and play music so loud, what's the point?

Next, pop around the block to the sprawling Café Lamiak on Calle Pelota - a mixed, two-floor café with a mildly intellectual air or dumb-down a few doors along at the male-dominated Séptimo Cielo, a small but swish music bar where the boys get frantic. Then, as the night deepens, cross over the river south to the friendly weekend cabaret bar Badulake on Calle Hernani; or check out manly Mykonos around the corner - to reach the video lounge around the back you'll need to squeeze past an entire bar's-length of horny, leering, groping punters, beyond the little cabaret stage where said drunken patrons perform impromptu shows to great applause.

CLUBBING

Nearby New High on Calle Naja is a popular, medium-sized, brightly-lit joint, likewise catering to a mostly male crowd with a typically wide age range - as you find in many a "local" scene. Indigenous music is played in the main room, and there's a small scarce-used dance floor around the back: this is usually a "pit-stop" when gay men go out for the evening, so they save their jiving until later. Upstairs, you'll find a small adult movie theatre with rows of couches plus a small but active darkroom.

Around the corner from High, Heaven is often the next stop in a gay night out. The music is louder, the crowd (very slightly) younger and there are next to no women - at best, boys in drag. In the room behind the main bar, there's a small dance area with seats next to screens showing porn. And in the rear of the bar is a cavernous maze for cruising - but watch your step since it's pitch black and there could be anything lurking in here, as you'll doubtless discover to your cost in the half-light near doorway on exit.

Heaven stays busy into the wee small hours and - since there aren't really any exclusively gay discos in Bilbao - guys who want to move it generally end up dancing the night away here. Other options include trendy but expensive mixed clubs like Conjunto Vacio a few meters away and busy after 2am; or - ten minute walk beyond the station - there's Congresso or house club Distrito 9.

HOT STUFF

The most reliable and popular sauna in town is Ego, located in a complex off Plaza de Zabalburu, in a seedy - though hardly dangerous - neighbourhood just south of the main station. Ego is clean and well maintained with a sauna, steam room and plunge pool, plus a maze of private cabins, some showing porn. Guys also chat and relax in towels around the TV and bar area out front or in the small porn room out back. Busiest at evenings mid- week (until 11 pm) or from late afternoon onwards come weekends.

Ego is actually located in something like an adult entertainment complex called the Galeria Zabalburu, with several other sex venues. The most interesting of these for gay men is the American Sex Shop right next to the sauna, with porn-for-sale out front and rows of cruisy coin-slot viewing booths to the rear - easy to pull if you lose out in the sauna. Or failing that, the gents on Platform 8 of the main station nearby are a dead cert all round the clock, if you hang around on the benches outside for long enough. And there's always Plaza Venezuela a little north for one last bid as darkness falls.

MORE INFO

Easyjet and British Airways fly direct from the UK to Bilbao and you can also go by ferry from Portsmouth. For gay-friendly hotels at special rates book online with out hotel partners Bookings.

THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK
American Sex Shop (Nicolas Acorta 7; no phone)
Badulake (Calle Hernani 10; no phone)
Café Bizitza (Calle Torre 1; no phone)
Congresso (Muelle de Uribitarte 4; no phone)
Conjunto Vacio (Calle Muelle de la Mercad; no phone)
Distrito 9 (Alameda Rekalde 18; no phone)
Heaven (Calle Dos de Mayo 4; no phone)
Kasko (Calle Santa Maria 16; T: 0034 94 410 6231)
Café Lamiak (Calle Pelota 8; no phone)
Mykonos (Calle General Castillo 4; no phone)
New High (Calle Naja 5; no phone)
Séptimo Cielo (Calle Pelota 4; T: 0034 94 790 082)
Ego (Nicolas Acorta 3; T: 0034 94 470 0777)

Revised January 2015.

 

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