Looking back on the four weeks I spent getting to know and falling in love with Bilbao in northern Spain, I find it hard to compartmentalise this great city.
Everything is interlinked: culture and history; dining and relaxation; shopping and culture etc. One thing is certain though — this former industrial centre/now cultural hub has many hidden gems to uncover. You’ll soon see what I mean as you start to explore.
Enjoy this Bilbao travel guide.
Bilbao for history lovers
A wall once surrounded the seven parallel streets of the medieval old town — now called Casco Viejo.
Get wonderfully lost wandering up and down these Siete Calles, as they are known locally. In the arched passageway opposite the Mercado de la Ribera (Ribera Market) look up. The beautifully painted ceilings will surprise you.
Bilbao is in Pais Vasco — also known as Basque Country — and a visit to the Basque Museum is a must, if only to see the beautifully constructed model of the Basque province and gain some understanding of why the Basque people consider their territory to be a very different Spain.
The only way to see inside the historic Neo-baroque Teatro Arriaga is to book tickets to a show. Needs must. I enjoyed Mamma Mia and seeing the theatre’s ornate interior.
The Nervion River passing through Bilbao was the lifeblood of the city for many years. Explore that port history with a cruise on Bilboats. While the city has been through a strong period of renewal, there are still signs of its industrial past and it’s well worth getting an audio guide on board. The two-hour trip, which takes you under Puente Colgante (a heritage-listed hanging bridge), is well worth the time and cost.
Top cultural experiences in Bilbao
This city encourages and supports artistic design and expression on many different levels.
The titanium-lined Guggenheim Museum Bilbao glitters in the sun, and before entering you are greeted by beautiful Puppy (by Jeff Koons) standing tall at the entrance. On the river side, a nine-metre-high spider (Maman by Louise Bourgeois) fascinates young and old. As with most museums these days, pre-purchase your tickets online to reduce your waiting time. Do get an audio guide, if only to listen to the first couple of sections describing the design of this amazing building.
Locals tell me they prefer the Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum) to the Guggenheim. While the temporary exhibitions are very popular, I particularly liked the permanent collection portraying early Basque life and culture. Entry to the museum is free on Wednesdays, but go during siesta time (from about 1:30) to avoid the crowds.
Take a stroll through the Azkuna Zentroa cultural centre. Behind the old façade is an incredible architectural feat, best seen rather than described. There is an exhibition space below and a rooftop bar. In one section, if you look up, you can see swimmers in the glass-bottomed pool above you.
Large street art murals have been commissioned as a way of beautifying the city. Search ‘Ruta de los murales de Bilbao’ at www.bilbaomola.com to find their locations. This blog also has some great local tips. Use Google Translate as needed.
Ways to relax in Bilbao
Spend an afternoon relaxing at a table outside a bar with a café con leche (coffee with milk), a txakoli (local white wine), or a cerveza (beer), and perhaps a couple of pintxos (similar to tapas).
For two different experiences visit Cafe Bar Bilbao or Bar Charly in the buzzing Plaza Nueva, and then cross the river opposite the Mercado and sit outside Txinpum or Zubiburu for pleasant water views.
Next, take the funicular up to the Mirador de Artxanda lookout for panoramic views of the city. The park is an ideal place for a picnic, but otherwise you’ll need to walk a way down the road to a couple of restaurants if you want to buy lunch or water.
While you may not get tickets to see the local Athletic Bilbao football team in action, you can still have a drink and pintxos at La Campa de los Ingleses next to their home stadium, San Mamés. The tavern has a clear view of the stadium and field.
In the evening nothing beats a cocktail at a rooftop bar. Gran Hotel Domine’s rooftop terrace offers great views of the Guggenheim. A selection of their raciones (bite-sized appetisers) could pass for an evening meal.
Great places to eat in Bilbao
Basque Country is renowned for its distinctive cuisine, which focusses heavily on seafood.
I love oysters. So I was thrilled to discover El Puertito — an oyster bar which supplies oysters all over Spain. Spoil yourself with a mixed half dozen, washed down with a glass of cava (local sparkling wine).
The Mercado de la Ribero is the largest covered fresh produce market in Europe. Buy ingredients for a picnic or home cooked meal, and admire the beautiful stained glass windows.
If you prefer to eat out, La Ribera, the restaurant under the market, has window tables looking out across the river. As a bonus, they often have live jazz.
Foodies, you can’t go past Restaurante Mina. Ask to sit at the counter overlooking the kitchen and choose a set menu of 7, 10 or 14 delicious courses.
Where to shop in Bilbao
Many stores in Casco Viejo sell the usual souvenirs, but if you are looking for something different, visit the museum shops at the Guggenheim or Museo de Bellas Artes.
They are packed with beautiful books, paper goods, homewares and more.
For the latest designer fashions, go window shopping in Gran Via — or even venture inside if you have the budget to blow! Alameda de Gregorio de la Revilla is full of shops offering delightful outfits for young children.
If you love rummaging through stalls at a flea market, check out one of the following options.
On the first Saturday of the month Calle Dos de Mayo closes to traffic to allow emerging designers and secondhand sellers to display their treasures. It can be tricky to find so ask for assistance.
Every Sunday morning Plaza Nueva becomes a market place for vendors of coins, books, vinyl records and more.
Flowers are sold on Sundays at Arenal along the river, and lastly, if you feel like a good walk, the Old Biscuit Factory of Bilbao on Ribera de Deusto 70B is home to the Open Your Ganbara flea market on selected Sundays — an initiative aimed at revitalising this once heavily industrial zone. Check the website for dates.
Do you have any tips to add to our Bilbao travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Joanne Karcz is a Sydney-based writer and blogger. She published a blog when she walked the Camino de Santiago some years ago and has been writing about her travels ever since. She is also an aspiring travel photographer and takes her camera wherever she goes. Joanne has travelled through Europe, South America and Southern Africa. She loves discovering new things to see and do in her own Sydney backyard, and blogs regularly about the city’s suburbs.