Wauw Bilbao! 12 things to do in this Basque beauty
Admitted, the Guggenheim Museum was the only thing I really knew about Bilbao before my partner and I decided to take the trip north from Madrid earlier this year. But I guess that’s the case for many first-time visitors to this Basque beauty, as it’s a city that generally seems to fly under the mass-tourism radar. Especially if you compare it to more famous Spanish cities like Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada and Malaga – not to mention Bilbao’s glitzy regional brother of San Sebastián.
After a few days of wandering all over the city and exploring as much as our time allowed us, I was left wishing I had discovered Bilbao a long time ago. For me, it just ticks a lot of the boxes when it comes to falling in love with a city. After just a few days, I could even see myself living there one day.
From simply admiring the cityscape to sampling some addictive pintxos and txakoli wines – here are 12 things to do that should make you fall in love with Bilbao too.
Admire the curves of Guggenheim
Art-lover or not, you can’t miss the extraordinary and controversial architecture of the Guggenheim Museum. A titanium-clad rollercoaster of impressions that everyone can agree on is eye-catching if nothing else.
Personally, I love this in-your-face type of building and it seems to sit surprisingly well on the banks of the Nervión River where it’s offering different architectural experiences by day and by night. This spectacular museum was created by the American architect Frank Gehry and opened to the public in 1997. More than anything, this project was what kick-started Bilbao’s urban renewal that is still going on today.
We happened to be in town for the museum’s 22-year anniversary that gave us free entrance. It is always interesting with a behind-the-facade-look of a building like this, but honestly, the exterior is the greatest experience.
Meet and greet with Puppy and Maman
The Guggenheim Museum is guarded by two unique yet very different creatures. Near the main entrance at street level, the giant, flower-clad Puppy seems like a good-natured guard dog. It’s a “living sculpture” by American artists Jeff Koons, also known for his bright coloured balloon dog sculptures.
On the river-side of the museum, a less-fluffy and scarier creature stands more than 9 meters tall. This giant black widow spider by Louise Bourgeois has become an icon of Bilbao, just like Puppy. Maman is her name, and she’s not surprisingly posing for an endless stream of Instagrammers daily – and so she did for me.
Both animals are part of a series of permanent sculptures to be found around the Guggenheim building.
Take a stroll along the river
Right next to Guggenheim and the giant spider, the Nervión river flows gently through Bilbao and splits the oldest quarter from the younger neighbourhoods. The river and the promenades add a ton of atmosphere to the city, and they offer some entertaining walks surrounded by beautiful architecture and public art.
Numerous bridges are crossing Nervión in the city centre and most of them are distinct features in the cityscape – from the historic Deustuko Zubia to the rather futuristic and harp-looking Zubizuri.
Get a different perspective with Bilboats
While crossing the bridges will give you some nice perspectives on the city, you’ll get slightly different views if you take a river cruise with Bilboats. Their 1-hour tour focuses entirely on the central part of the city, while the 2-hour tour takes you further out to where the river meets the Bay of Biscay.
From the top of the boat, you’ll have a clear view of the skyline sliding by, while you can find cover from the wind downstairs and inside. Along the way, the audioguide will tell you interesting details about buildings and city transformation projects. Try to plan your trip, so you will see the city before and after sunset (which depends on the time of the year).
Surround yourself with beautiful architecture
Bilbao offers a web of public transport. They have buses, a light railway network and it’s also one of the smallest cities in the World to have a metro-system. But in such a beautiful city, it would be a shame to spend too much time below the surface.
If you don’t mind walking, you’ll be treated with a ton of architectural details and colourful facades all over the city centre. It’s really hard to choose a favourite part. We had three whole days to explore the city and not once did we use public transport. Well, except for the one below…
Travel by funicular to Artxanda
It would be pretty tough to reach the Artxanda neighbourhood by foot from downtown. But taking the bright red funicular up there is a nice little “escape” from the city centre. It only takes about 3 minutes to reach the top, and once there, you will find a viewing area just around the corner from the tiny station.
The giant fingerprint-sculpture up here is another excellent piece of public art. And then you have the wide-open view to realise what a beautiful location Bilbao is blessed with. A city nestled between soft green mountains near the northern coast of Spain.
Explore the cultural hub of Azkuna Zentroa
In a very unique mix of new and old – authentic and modern, Azkuna Zentroa is an exciting cultural complex in the heart of Bilbao. Originally the building was housing a corn exchange, but in 2010 it was opened to the public as a multi-purpose venue.
When you walk in from the outside, it feels like three buildings are standing on pillars inside an outer shell. Each pillar is adorned by a unique artistic style, and one of my favourites is the Asian-looking dragon tail snaking around its pillar.
In here, you will find an art & design shop, a library, a swimming pool, a fitness centre, a couple of restaurants, an auditorium, several showrooms, a cinema and a rooftop terrace with excellent views.
Let yourself get lost in Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo is the historic heart of Bilbao and the perfect quarter in which to let yourself get lost for a few hours. This area is also known as Las Siete Calles – The Seven Streets – because the towns original part consisted of just seven main streets surrounded by medieval walls.
This quarter is an atmospheric maze of shops, cosy restaurants and bars, and every time you walk through it seems like you discover something new – or should I say old. We walked through on a match-day for the local football club, Athletic Club Bilbao, and it was impressive to see the support for this team, as many bars and restaurants had flags proudly hanging outside.
Start your pintxos-crawl at Plaza Nueva
Plaza Nueva is actually named Plaza Berria, but it’s called the new square since it was an expansion to the original Casco Viejo’s seven streets. This is Bilbao’s “Plaza Mayor”, which is the common term for the main square in any Spanish city, and this rustic square is where you should start your evening with a pintxos-crawl (pintxos being the Basque version of tapas).
Plaza Nueva is lined with pintxos-style restaurants – both traditional and modern versions. You definitely shouldn’t miss a visit to the iconic Víctor Montes where you will find a ton of quality pintxos to choose from behind the stunning facade. You can also choose to sit down for a proper meal, just like many celebrities who have come here to eat.
A few steps from Víctor Montes, Bertoko Berria is a colourful and more modern pintxos-bar. This is an excellent place to grab a drink and sample some croquetas.
…and continue at Mercado de la Ribera
Mercado de la Ribera is the largest food market in Bilbao and some say it’s the largest indoor market in Europe, although it depends on where you check. One thing is certain though, this market is housed in one of the Bilbao’s most iconic buildings – a stunner that sits right on the riverbank next to Casco Viejo.
Inside this recently modernised food cathedral, you will find a large market of fresh produce with more than 60 stalls offering everything from fish to meat, cheeses, fruit and vegetables.
Still hungry? Then head for the street level “pintxos market” where small restaurants will be tempting you with ready-made bites and drinks. In here, I can highly recommend Arambarri, where you will find some relatively big and very delicious pintxos to enjoy at the bar.
Check out the classy Abando Station
I love old railway stations, so even though I arrived at Bilbao by bus, I couldn’t miss a visit to the city’s Abando station. The building itself looks spectacular from across the river near the Areatzako Bridge.
The original station was opened back in 1870 but was later rebuilt in 1948. This leaves it with this old-time feel of the classic railway stations, and its biggest attraction is a huge stained-glass panel at the upper hall. This alone is worth dropping by the station for.
The Abando Station is named after the neighbourhood in which it is located, and it has two daily services to both Madrid and Barcelona, as well as it connects to Bilbao’s own metro system and light railway network.
Chill out with the locals in the Doña Casilda Park
Bilbao is surrounded by green mountains and stunning natural scenery, and in the city centre itself, you will find some green areas too. The most important one, Bilbao’s own “Central Park”, is the over 100-years old Doña Casilda Park. It is found in the Indautxu neighbourhood between the San Mamés football stadium and the Guggenheim Museum.
In this low-lying park, you can feel hidden from the city around you for a while, as you stroll around like locals, who come here to relax and walk their dogs. Among several nice features, you will find a pond with ducks and other waterfowl, but I especially like the overgrown pergola-walkway.
Don’t miss a picnic in the park, if the weather allows for one.
Have you visited Bilbao? If yes, what is your best tip?
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