Located near France in the Western Pyrenees, Bilbao is the largest city of the Basque Country, an autonomous community in Northern Spain. Fiercely proud of their heritage, Basque people have their own traditions, culture, and even language, which are quite distinct from those of the rest of Spain.
Lying on the Nervion River a mere 7 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, Bilbao has a long history as a trading port and is largely an industrial city. While that may sound off-putting, it shouldn’t be. The city has a stunning Old Town, the Casco Viejo; amazing historic and contemporary architecture; fabulous food and drink; plenty of culture and art; and some rather good shopping, too.
Bilbao hit the tourist radar after the Guggenheim Bilbao was built by the river, and while the museum and its art are superb, Bilbao has so much more to offer than the Guggenheim.
Easily explored on foot, Bilbao is worth a visit, and you can spend a few days exploring, soaking up the atmosphere, and enjoying the beaches.
What To Do In Bilbao
Climb Mount Artxanda
When you arrive in a new city, it is always a good idea to climb to the highest viewpoint to get your bearings.
From the top of Mount Artxanda, you can truly appreciate Bilbao’s location nestled in the mountains and straddling the river. You can ascend by bright red funicular, and then leisurely meander down the hill with the city in front of you. Don’t forget to pose in front of the large Bilbao sign.
Pro Tip: Purchase a Bilbao Bizkaia Card for 24 hours up to 3 days, and you can use the funicular as part of the public transportation system.
Visit The Guggenheim Bilbao
Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao put Bilbao on the tourist map. The large silver building was inaugurated in October of 1997, and immediately visitors started to pour into the city.
Without even going into the world-class temporary exhibits, you can see the floral Puppy by Jeff Koons and the gigantic arachnid Maman by Louise Bourgeois outside. Once inside, you’ll see the stunning metal installation by Richard Serra. Take in the current exhibits as well, and you could easily spend up to a day in and around the museum.
Pro Tip: For the best pictures, go up to the bridge and across the river at night. The reflections are incredible.
Explore The Casco Viejo
The Old Town of Bilbao, Casco Viejo, is a maze of tiny lanes, steep hills, arcades, plazas, shops, and cafes. Some of its best sights include the numerous lovely churches, most notably the Catedral de Santiago, part of the northern route of the Camino de Santiago; the Euskal Museum, which offers archaeological insights into the region; and the Teatro Arriaga, which is stunning day and night.
Pro Tip: Make use of the various elevators around Casco Viejo to get up the hills and enjoy the views across the higgledy-piggledy rooftops of the Old Town.
Appreciate The Art At The Museo De Bellas Artes De Bilbao
The Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao is one of the country’s best museums outside of Madrid. The museum houses an extensive collection of Basque, Spanish, and European art, including masterpieces by El Greco, Goya, van Dyck, Cezanne, Gaugin, Francis Bacon, and Richard Serra. You could easily spend a morning at this lovely museum and its garden.
Pro Tip: Plan your visit around breakfast or lunchtime, since the little museum cafe is superb.
Learn About The Area’s Trading History At The Bilbao Maritime Museum
The Bilbao Maritime Museum, located in the city’s old shipyard, tells of Bilbao’s history as a seafaring and trading center. Interesting inside and out, the space is dotted with exhibits along the riverside outside the main building. You can learn about the Bilbao of the Middles Ages and of the Industrial Revolution and marvel at all sorts of seafaring vessels.
The museum is a treat for the whole family and a nice walk from Casco Viejo along the river. Allow at least 2 or 3 hours to explore the area.
Pro Tip: Keep an eye out for the fun street art.
Walk Across The Bizkaia Bridge
Even if you are not an engineer or bridge aficionado, this one is worth hopping on the metro for. Dating back to 1893 and built by a Gustave Eiffel disciple, the Bizkaia Bridge is the world’s oldest transporter bridge and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is unusual in that it has a beam at the top that you can reach by lift and walk across, and suspended from it is a gondola, essentially a piece of road, which moves along carrying cars from one side to the other. In addition to being an engineering marvel, it offers great views across the river toward the estuary.
Pro Tip: Sit on the left of the metro carriage on the way out and on the right on the way back for the best views
Stroll The Banks Of The Nervion River
One of the loveliest things to enjoy in Bilbao is a simple walk along the river. Start at the Abando Train Station just opposite Casco Viejo. The old train station is in a lovely building with a superb stained glass window inside. Walk down the riverbank, passing the town hall, enjoying the reflections of the colorful house facades along the side, and note the mix of historic and hypermodern architecture. You’ll walk under -- and maybe across -- the interesting Zubizuri Bridge, past the Guggenheim, and through parkland to the Maritime Museum. Then return through the town past the Bullfighting Museum and back through the shopping area and Plaza Moyua for a perfect circuit.
Where To Eat In Bilbao
Food is an institution in Bilbao. If you only try two things, make them seafood and pintxos. Pintxos are the Basque equivalent of Spanish tapas; they come on small plates and are always accompanied by a good glass of red wine. There is nothing better than a pintxos crawl along Plaza Barria, the old enclosed plaza in Casco Viejo, eating your way through the pintxos restaurants lining the square.
Zaharra is my personal favorite of the Plaza Barria pintxos restaurants; it’s tiny and cozy. You sit along a small bar and just point to the delicious little morsels in front of you. The staff is friendly, the wine good, and the pintxos are to die for.
Bocadero is a great space just behind the main drag. This restaurant’s decor is just as pleasing as the food. From salads, pasta, and rice dishes to fresh fish, meat, and even pizza, there is something for everybody, and everything I tried, I would order again. And if you are even vaguely interested in interior design, you’ll love the bathrooms!
Just opposite the theater, on the other side of the bridge next to the bus stops, is a churro stand. Churros are essentially long donuts sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon and often served with dipping chocolate -- really bad for you, but so good. Grab a bag of them to nibble on while you walk along the river. You won’t regret it.
If you’d rather sit down, find the Cafeteria de Arenal, which also offers excellent churros.
Where To Shop In Bilbao
Bilbao has some seriously good shopping. The Casco Viejo boasts smaller, quirkier boutiques; the grand avenue of Via de Don Diego Lopez de Haro is home to chains such as Zara and the old department store El Corte Ingles Gran Via; and the Plaza Moyua has all the luxury stores. Plenty of pedestrianized streets lead off of the main drag and off of Plaza Moyua.
For something a little different, there are the markets. The flower market takes over the area around Arenal Park every Sunday morning, and in the same location you’ll find an organic local produce market between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
If you like markets, the Mercado de la Ribera is a must-see, not just for the fresh produce on sale over three floors, but also for the art deco building dating to 1930. Right by the side of the river nearby, you’ll find plenty of smaller stores and cafes below an arcade.
Where To Stay In Bilbao
Petit Palace Arana
The Petit Palace Arana is a small hotel on the edge of Casco Viejo. It's by the river, next to the theater, and within walking distance of all the sights, restaurants, and shopping mentioned here. You can get a room for a reasonable price, too.
Penthouse With Cathedral Views
This is one of the nicest apartments I have ever stayed in -- a fabulous open space full of art and great views of the Old Town. It’s located right in Casco Viejo, but it is not noisy. The only downside is that there is no elevator.
For a grander luxury option, consider the elegant Hotel Carlton, a Second Empire-style hotel on Plaza Moyua. It would not look out of place in Paris, and it’s right in the middle of the best shopping area.