Bilbao at the heart of Basque Country makes for a wonderful city trip destination. The spectacular Guggenheim museum put it on the map — and it’s worth visiting for this museum alone — but Bilbao has much more to offer.

Many Bilbao travel guides speak of its industrial past, having once been a major hub for shipping and mining, but this didn’t prepare me for just how inviting it is today.

Not only does it have a small historical center that’s fun to explore, but the newer areas feature some amazing architecture.

Despite having around 350,000 inhabitants (and one million in its metropolitan area), the city is spread out across a long valley and follows the Nervion River, making it feel smaller than it actually is and ensuring it is highly walkable.

What I really enjoyed about Bilbao’s character is that it has a slightly grungy or Berlin-like vibe in places, with cool street art and creative bars and restaurants. It’s a worker’s city that reinvented itself over the past decades and acquired a somewhat bohemian style.

Visit Bilbao over a long weekend or use it as the perfect starting point for a trip through Basque Country.

Where to stay in Bilbao

We stayed in the Sercotel Arenal Bilbao which is in a heritage building in the old center of Bilbao. I’m usually a fan of hotels that are a bit smaller-scale and charming and this one really fit the bill.

You can book this hotel at Expedia, Hotels.com or Booking.

If you’re a budget traveller, I suggest the Latroupe La Granja, which is a premium type of hostel that’s very well-located. Or check out the All Iron Hostel, which is more of a backpacker place.

Hotel deals in Bilbao

Things to do in Bilbao

Sit down at pintxos bar

Spain is of course known for its tapas: small plates of local food that go well with a cold beer. In the Basque Country, they’ve got their own version called pintxos.

Pintxos are essentially a slice of baguette with food on the top. They were named pintxos as they typically have a toothpick stuck through the middle which you can use to lift the pintxo as you bite into it.

The toppings are varied, but some of the best are local hams, tortilla, cheese, and seafood. Simple and delicious, you have to spend a night in Bilbao eating pintxos and drinking txikiteo (small glasses of wine).

Although the costs are higher than in the south of Spain, I must say the quality of pintxos is also a lot higher than I’m used to from tapas in Andalucia. If you’re a foodie, you’re going to have a great time!

Some of the best pintxo bars in town are Gure Toki, Café Iruña, El Globo, and Bacaicoa.

Visit the Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim is a renowned museum that mostly features modern art collections from across Europe.

But no matter what exhibitions are on, a big part of the attraction is just moving through the building itself, which is a work of art in its own right. The exterior of the museum seems to twist and contort itself in every direction, giving it the appearance of a sort of metal pirate ship.

It was inaugurated in 1997 and designed by Frank Gehry. The main collection features works by prominent artists like Anish Kappor, Eduardo Chillida, and Yves Klein. There are several art pieces outside the building too, in what they call the “Art District”, like the Tulips and the enormous flower puppy by Jeff Koons.

Tip: get the most out of the Guggenheim and avoid queuing with this skip-the-line guided tour. A local English-speaking guide will give you deeper context and explanation about the outside and inside of the museum.

Stroll through the Casco Viejo

The oldest neighborhood in the city, Casco Viejo, is made up of winding narrow streets, boutique shops, lively local bars, and colorful buildings, giving it an old-age charm.

There are just seven streets left that were a part of Bilbao back when it was a quaint Medieval town, so it’s not a large area, but it’s nevertheless a great part of the city to explore or to have some coffee at a terrace and do some people-watching.

Make sure you don’t miss the cathedral, the churches of San Nicolas and San Anton, and the Plaza Nueva.

There are also two small local museums here: the Euskal Museoa Bilbao devoted to Basque history, and the Arkeologi Museoa dedicated to paleolithic and neolithic times as well as more recent finds from the Middle Ages.

Step inside the cathedral

In the center of Bilbao’s enchanting Casco Viejo neighborhood, you’ll find the stunning Cathedral de Bilbao. It was built sometime during the 15th century and dedicated to the Apostle of St James, who was a religious figure of great importance in the area at the time.

There’s a world-famous pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago, that has many routes in the north of Spain, one of which passes through Bilbao. Though most pilgrims no longer take on the challenge for religious reasons, don’t be surprised if you see hikers with big backpacks and sore feet walking around the cathedral.

Go on a bike tour

While the key sights are within walkable distance, Bilbao is quite stretched out across the valley, so you’ll be able to cover more ground with this fun bike tour.

You’ll ride through the prettiest neighborhoods of the city and past the most iconic sights, with a stop at the Euskalduna Palace and the Arriaga Theater along the way. Your guide will tell you all about the history of Bilbao.

Check out La Ribera market

On the outskirts of the Casco Viejo neighborhood, right by the river, the La Ribera market follows a familiar formula for reinvented market in Europe, combining grocery stalls on the second level with bars and food stalls on the lower level.

This very spot has been a marketplace since the 14th century. The current market is within the walls of a historic building that dates back to 1929.

Visit the Museo Bellas Artes

Forever overshadowed by the Guggenheim, the Museo Bellas Artes is nevertheless highly worth a visit.

This beautiful art museum has been around since before the Civil War, welcoming curious visitors and art fanatics through its doors since 1914, though the structure you now see wasn’t inaugurated until 1945. It has a mix of modern and neoclassical architecture which gives it an intriguing twist.

Stroll through the museum and admire works of art that span from the 12th century to the modern day. Some of the biggest names on display include artists like Francisco de Goya, El Freco, Francis Bacon, Eduardo Chillida, and Paul Gauguin.

Drift down the Ría de Bilbao

Many of the tourist attractions and grandest buildings in Bilbao are situated along the bank of the river that runs through the heart of the city, the Ría de Bilbao. Luckily, that means you can hop on a boat and leisurely drift downstream as you take in the best sites.

Amongst the most iconic buildings, you’ll catch glimpses of along the way are the Hotel Arenal Bilbao, the Town Hall, the Ribera Market, and the Guggenheim Museum.

We did this cheap and cheerful boat tour and found it a very enjoyable way to see the city (especially since we had a baby in tow) and great value too.

Take a trip to Getxo district

Getxo is a neighborhood about 10 kilometers further upriver from the center. Located closer to the port, it was originally a fisher’s community, and today it’s a lively and local part of Bilbao. Getting to Getxo is quite easy by taking the metro and getting off at Portugalete, one of the final stations.

This is a nice little excursion if you’re the sort of traveler that simply enjoys being in a local neighborhood, not necessarily one with typical tourist sights. However, there is one very interesting thing to see here, which is the Ponte da Biscaia.

This unique bridge was the first ever in the world to carry people and traffic on a high-suspended gondola. It was designed by one of Gustave Eiffel’s disciples and completed in 1893. Built using iron and, for one of the first times, twisted steel cables, it’s recognized by UNESCO as one of the outstanding architectural iron constructions of the Industrial Revolution.

The bridge takes pedestrians but two cars as well. If you’re by car, be sure to get a ticket from the machine before lining up. The gondola goes back and forth every 5 minutes or so.

Get to the top of Mount Artxanda

Jump on board the old funicular cable railway that has been running since 1915 and make your way to the top of Mount Artxanda. There are some unbeatable panoramic views of the city.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much to do at the top (there’s not even a cafe or terrace), but the funicular itself and the views make it a fun diversion on your way to or from the Guggenheim.

Have a beer at Plaza Nueva

The square was built in 1851, decorated by elegant neoclassical arches and arcades that have been well preserved to this day. It’s a lively place to stop for a drink, and there are several cafes, bars, and restaurants around the plaza to choose from.

If you come on a Sunday you’ll find a cluster of stalls selling unique collectibles and peculiar antiques.

Take a day trip to Gaztelugatxe

When you start to tire of the city, make your way to the stunning coastline of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Possibly the most picturesque spot of all is the Bay of Biscay, which is about an hour away from Bilbao.

Unless you’ve rented a car it can be a bit of a hassle figuring out how to get there. You can save yourself some trouble and book this epic tour which includes a visit to Bermeo and Gernika too. You’ll be picked up from your hotel in Bilbao.

If you’re a Game of Thrones fan then seeing this stretch of coast is a must. If you want to see where the beaches, caves, and footbridges of Dragonstone Beach were filmed in the seventh season then make your way to Itzurun Beach in Zumaia and Muriola Beach near Barrika.

Tour the Arriaga Theatre

The Arriaga Theatre is the most extravagant piece of classic architecture in Bilbao. It was built in 1890 in a neo-baroque style and named after the famous local composer, also known as the “Spanish Mozart”, Juan Crisostomo Arriaga who passed away when he was just 19 years old.

It’s worth going inside the theater as it’s decorated with the original furnishings that were installed here in the 19th century.

You can go on a tour of the theater too, which will give you loads of insight into the building’s past and get you into rooms like “The Orient Express” which are usually closed to guests.

The Arriaga Theatre is a stop on the aforementioned bicycle tour, but you can find information on the official site as well.

Bilbao itinerary

If your time in Bilbao is limited, I suggest the following activities:

1 day in Bilbao: visit the Guggenheim Museum, explore the Casco Viejo and Ribera market, try the pintxos

2 days in Bilbao: the above plus Museo Bellas Artes, a boat tour, and a visit to the Getxo area

3 days in Bilbao: all the above plus a day trip to Gaztelugatxe

Renting a car in Bilbao

To explore Bilbao itself you don’t need your own transportation. Two metro lines connect the major areas of the city and rapid bus transport is also available, for instance to take you from the old city to the Guggenheim Museum.

But to see the surrounding region and coast you do ideally need to have a car. It will help you explore San Juan de Gaztelugatxe at your own pace and you can do a road trip through Basque Country or neighboring Cantabria. There are some great coastal drives in Basque Country and we found the mountainous areas in Cantabria extremely scenic.

Most car rentals in Bilbao are located near the airport which is about a 20-minute drive from the center.

One word of caution: avoid renting with Goldcar as this rental seemed very unprofessional and pushy. We had a very bad experience and then saw negative reviews from many other customers.

You can use DiscoverCars to find a rental car deal in Bilbao (with a provider other than Goldcar). Thrifty and Alamo have parking lots adjacent to the airport terminal, while other providers offer a shuttle service to a commercial park about 5 minutes away.

Bellas Artes museum photo: vampy1/Depositphotos.com

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