Cole Gabalis is a student at the University of Kentucky and an ISA Global Ambassador. Cole studied abroad with ISA in Bilbao, Spain.
1. Describe the place where you studied abroad in 150 words or less.
Bilbao is the big Spanish city that nobody has heard of. But once you come here, it will soon become home. Bilbao has a very rustic feel to it, but a mix of newly-added modern architecture, including bridges, the metro system, and most famously, the Guggenheim museum, brings new life into the beautiful city.
Bilbao has gorgeous beaches just 20 minutes away by metro, and mountains on all other sides. On the fortunate days with sunshine in the Basque Country, there are a lot of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors!
The people of Bilbao are very proud of their city. They have worked very hard to make this city what it is today, and you can feel that pride everywhere you go.
2. What was your day-to-day life like as a student?
Once I got dressed and had my very humble traditional Spanish breakfast consisting of crackers and coffee, I would take off on the 20 minute walk to my university. This was one of my favorite times of the day to take in the scenery of the city and the parks.
Most days I was able to run home to eat lunch in between classes. After class, I would often hang out with friends either at a park or in a café. When I got home, it was time for homework and dinner. And if there was any soccer match on TV at night, you could bet that you would find me on the couch with my host brothers and host dad watching it!
3. What was the “vibe” of your city?
Bilbao has what I would call a “small urban” feel to it. It definitely felt like a large city to me at first, but very soon Bilbao became a manageable and familiar place. Yes, there are some bustling streets with many cars going by, but a lot of the city is quiet, walkable, and open. By day, Bilbao seems somewhat traditional and conservative. At midday, many streets are filled with older businessmen in nice suits eating a pintxo (similar to an individual-sized tapa and unique to the Basque Country) and a glass of wine or a coffee. Bilbao is a working-class city, but as the day goes by and kids get out of classes, the city becomes filled with families, children, and many young adults. Overall though, Bilbao is more homogenous than international.
4. What types of activities did you do with your friends in your city?
My friends and I were often found in one of Bilbao’s parks relaxing or kicking a soccer ball around. Afterwards, we would wander into one of the infinite tiny bars in the city, and choose from the arsenal of pintxos set out on the bar counter. With fresh seafood, jamón, and a hundred other delicious choices, there’s no such thing as a bad option!
As the centerpiece of the city, the Guggenheim Museum was one of my favorite places. Located along the riverbank, I visited the Guggenheim often to admire the beautifully modern architecture, as well as the fascinating contemporary art inside.
More of my favorite activities included hiking, kayaking on the Nervión River, and supporting Athletic Bilbao at San Mamés stadium. If I couldn’t make it to the stadium, I’d at least make sure to cheer them on from Pozas, a popular street filled with soccer-supporting bars! Of course, after the games on weekends we would continue our fun through the night at more bars and discotecas throughout the city.
5. How much Spanish was spoken in your city (as opposed to Catalan, English, Arabic, Basque, Klingon, etc)?
Because Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country, mostly Spanish is spoken, as opposed to Basque. However, the Basque influence does not just disappear entirely. Some basic Basque vocabulary is occasionally thrown into conversation (hello, goodbye, goodnight, etc.). And that conversation between two old gentlemen outside of a café that you can hear but can’t understand a single word of? Yep, that’s Basque. But don’t worry, no one will try to strike up a conversation with you in Basque.
English is quite popular in Bilbao, as well. Although you won’t hear it spoken much on the streets, many natives know some level of English. Quite a few times when I was ordering from a café or restaurant, the worker recognized that I spoke English, and switched over to English as an opportunity to practice.
6. How many hipsters did you see in your city?
At first, when I arrived in Bilbao I thought I was seeing hipsters left and right. Later on, I realized that the Basque people, especially younger generations, definitely have a different type of style—you’re more likely to see guys with beards, gauges and tighter fitting clothes, and girls with shaved heads and random piercings. What might be head-turning to my American brain is just part of the norm in Bilbao. It was fun to see the differences in fashions and trends!
7. Did you visit other cities in Spain? If so, what would say made your city unique? Why should someone study there?
During my time in Spain, I visited many other Spanish cities, including Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastián, and Pamplona, just to name a few. Bilbao is unique because of its overall more modern feel to it. You can still find the traditional old Spanish vibes in Casco Viejo, the old district of the city, but beyond that, much of the city has a contemporary atmosphere.
Bilbao is a great city for someone who wants a little bit of everything. There’s the city, the beaches, the mountains. You can have it all! But really, it’s the culture of Bilbao and the Basque Country that I will always remember. The people, the atmosphere, the art, and the food are all unique and second-to-none.
I know that I made the best choice by picking Bilbao as my host city. There is a saying from Bilbao: Los de Bilbao, nacemos donde queremos, loosely translated to “People from Bilbao are born wherever they choose.” Although I am American, I made Bilbao my home, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.
Thanks for reading, and as they might say in Bilbao, Agur!
Have any questions about Bilbao? Let us know!
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