Big Love for Bilbao Spain: Must See Sites in the Basque City
Updated: Jan 13, 2020
Jeff Koons, Tulips, 1995–2004, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao -- part of Koons' Celebration series
Some people snobbishly brush off Bilbao as an "industrial city." My travel partner did. But it's not really. Bilbao has left most of its industrial past behind and is now a must see city in the Basque region of northern Spain.
Bilbao's a surprising and avant garde place, casually combining historic Spanish flair with modern starchitecture. It's a great place to explore if you fancy art, culture, and ancient cobbled lanes.
Bilbao's also alive with local energy. It's a hip haven for foodies, overflowing with fantastic restaurants, many of the Michelin variety. It makes a fantastic base for touring the Basque and Cantabria regions of northern Spain.
La Salve Bridge in Bilbao, also known as the Prince and Princess of Spain Bridge
General Information and Tips for Visiting Bilbao
Bilbao's the largest city in the Basque region of northern Spain. But it still retains a small city vibe. Bilbao is beautifully situated amid rolling green hills, tucked between mountain ranges. It's near the Bay of Biscay, so the weather is temperate, though more rainy in the winter.
Getting around the compact city is easy. It has a spanking new metro system, which I didn't use, because Bilbao's also eminently walkable.
Casco Viejo, Old Town, Bilbao
20 years ago, Bilbao wasn't as beautiful. It was scarred by political conflict, the failing shipbuilding industry, and a polluted Nervion River. In the face of adversity, Bilbao took a risk on the Guggenheim Museum. It created a glistening landmark that sparked tourism and helped revitalize the city.
Known as the "Guggenheim effect," the museum made Bilbao one of Europe's trendiest weekend breaks virtually overnight. The old town and river were renovated and redeveloped. Now, Bilbao's studded with dazzling modern architecture and nicely cleaned up Art Deco and Art Nouveau facades with wrought iron balconies.
Bilbao's also an haute cuisine foodie town. Its full of Michelin restaurants, charming Basque eateries and bars, and scores of talented chefs.
the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain
Best Things To Do and See In Bilbao Spain
Here's my guide to the best things to do in the underrated city of Bilbao, pronounced Bil-Bow. That is, if you can fit in these sights amidst gorging on pintxos and strolling the atmospheric Seven Streets in Bilbao's historic core.
1. The Guggenheim Museum
Who can argue with the emblematic Guggenheim Museum? Inaugurated in 1997, Frank Gehry's twisting shimmering museum is the star of Bilbao. The space age building, an ode to post-industrial optimism, itself is dramatic.
Both inside and out, it's an awe-inspiring blend of titanium, glass, and limestone. The scaly exterior evokes a silvery fish and the wings of the building the wind-filled sails of a ship.
Richard, Serra, A Matter of Time, 1994-2005
Outside the museum lie some of its most interesting pieces of art, including: Jeff Koon's 42 foot beflowered Puppy, Louise Bourgeois' 30 foot Maman spider, Anish Kapoor's Tall Tree and the Eye, and the newest piece Fujiko Nakaya The Fog Sculpture. My favorite was Maman, the symbol of maternal sacrifice, which I've written about previously.
On the inside, the architecture continues to amaze. There's a glass enclosed 50 meter atrium with a floral skylight. Light suffuses the place.
Louise Bourgeois, Maman,
The Guggenheim's modern art collection is on par with Europe's best modern art museums. You'll find works by Robert Motherwell, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Eduardo Chillada, and Anselm Kiefer.
My favorite piece was the massive undulating A Matter of Time by Richard Serra. This minimalist sculpture takes up an entire chunk of the museum and is meant to encourage viewers to move around -- and sometimes on, in, and through -- the work and encounter it from multiple perspectives, creating an unforgettable, dizzying feeling of space in motion.
Marc Chagall, The Birthday, 1887
me enjoying the Guggenheim
Among other things, the museum also owns one of my favorite Chagall paintings, The Birthday, and a luminous Rothko, Untitled, from 1952-53. Because the museum is part of the Guggenheim "family" of museums, the collection rotates among the museums.
Address: Abandoibarra Etorb., 2, 48009 Bilbao
Hours: July & Aug: Daily 10:00 am to 8:00 pm, Sept to June: Tues to Sun (closed Monday) 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Same day reentry permitted.
Entry fee: 13 euros, an audioguide is included in your entry fee.
beautiful facades in Casco Viejo Bilbao
2. Explore Bilbao's Old Town, Casco Viejo, and Eat Pintxos
Casco Viejo is the atmospheric old town of Bilbao. At is heart, are its original "seven streets," las siete calles, which are pedestrianized streets dating from the 15th century.
They teem with lively and quirky cafes, pintxos bars, shops, and tiny squares. Locals mix with tourists and there's definitely Basque energy flowing. Even in a touristy square like the 1821 arcaded neoclassical Plaza Nuevo, you can find locals sipping wine and eating pintxos.
The local pintxos can feature cod, baby eel, anchovies, shrimp, Iberian ham, peppers. The tasty combinations are endless.
the Neoclassical Plaza Nuevo in Bilbao's old town
terrace decoration in old town Bilbao
ornate doorway of the 14th century Santiago Cathedral in old town Bilbao
The centerpiece of old town is Santiago Cathedral, a 14th century Gothic church. It's free to enter and 2 euros to peak into the cloister. It's been cleaned and renovated, the last time in 2000.
Connected to Casco Viejo is nearby La Vieja, nicknamed Bilbi, another ancient part of the city. But Bilbi has a hipster vibe and is Bilbao's trendiest district. Full of funky bars, art galleries, and boutique, it will keep you entertained and busy.
the Arriaga Theater in Bilbao
3. The Arriaga Theater
Standing at the entrance of the old town, this Neo-Baroque theater is named after the "Spanish Mozart," Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga. It was built in 1890 by architect Joaquín Rucoba, the same architect that built the nearby City Hall.
With a lovely sandstone exterior, the Arriaga was vaguely modeled after the Opera Garnier in Paris. It's the oldest theater in Bilbao and serves as the opera house. It retains its original 19th century furnishings.
The theater was mostly destroyed by a flood in 1983. It was renovated and reopened in 1986. The theater's next to the bridge that links Casco Viejo to the El Ensache neighborhood. If you're lucky, you can peak in a door or window and spy the dramatic marble staircase.
Beautiful stage in the theater auditorium. Image source: Wikimedia, Andreas Praefcke
Bilbao City Hall with a sculpture by Jorge Oteiza on the right
Address: Arriaga Plaza, 1, 48005 Bilbao
Pro tip: You can only see the interior on a guided tour or by purchasing a ticket to a performance.
colorful facade in the El Ensache neighborhood of Bilbao
4. The El Ensanche Neighborhood
The main boulevard of this tony neighborhood, known as the Gun Via, is Gran Via Don Diego Lopez de Haro. It's the most cosmopolitan area of the city. There are lots of shops, restaurants, and bars.
And it contains some of Bilbao's most important renovated buildings, including La Equativo, by Manuel Galíndez, the Banco de Bilbao, by Pedro Guimón, and the Naviera de la Sota y Aznar building, by Manuel María Smith Ibarra.
The Ribera market perched on the Nervion River in Bilbao
5. The Ribera Market
La Ribera is Europe's largest indoor food hall, in the southern part of Bilbao. There's been a market on this site since the 14th century. Today's beautiful Art Deco building was built in 1929. As part of Bilbao's urban renewal, the market was restored and reopened in 2011 to acclaim.
You'll see goat carcasses and pig heads. But you can also check out the beautiful stained glass panels. Bilbao's wolfish coat of arms is in the largest panel.
Address: Erribera Kalea, s/n, 48005 Bilbao
Hours: Mon & Sat: 8:00 am to 3:00 pm, Tues thru Fri: 8:00 am to 2:30 pm & 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm, Closed Sundays
art deco stained glass in the Ribera Market
mural along the Nervion River near the Mercado de la Ribeira
6. Azkuna Zentroa
Down the street from Hotel Silken is the award-winning Azkuna Zentroa, formerly known as La Alhóndiga. It's the Bilbao Society and Contemporary Culture Center. It's one of Bilbao's most iconic buildings and affectionately known as "Bilbao’s Living Room."
The former wine warehouse was abandoned in the 1970s. In 2006, French designer, Philippe Stark was commissioned to rebuild and redesigna cutting edge complex in a cinemotographic fashion. It's now a multidisciplinary cultural space suited for both locals and tourists.
the columns of the Phillippe Stark designed Azkuna Zentroa
a colorful column in Bilbao's the colum of the Phillippe Stark designed Azkuna Zentroa
Inside the hub, you’ll find cafes, shops, bars, exhibitions, a rooftop cafe, library and more. There are 43 columns supporting the building, broadly representing the history of man. You can look up and watch people swimming laps in the glass-floored pool. If you're a swimmer like me, be forewarned that it's mostly missing lane lines.
Overshadowed by the world class Guggenheim Museum, the Museo de Bellas Artes is one of Spain's best museums. If you're an art lover, you should also head here. If you don't love modern art, skip the Guggenheim and come here.
Located in the Abando neighborhood, the museum boasts over 10,000 art works, arranged chronologically from the 12th century to the present. It has works by Spanish artists Picasso, Goya, El Greco, Zurbaran, and Chillada.
If you're a nature lover, you can stroll in the adjacent Dona Casilda Iturrizar Park after your visit.
Address: Museo Plaza, 2, 48009 Bilbao
Hours: Closed Tuesday, Open Wed-Mon 10:00 am to 8:00 pm
Entry fee: Adults: 9 €, free from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. You can purchase a combined ticket for the Guggenheim and Fine Arts Museum for 16 €
Pro tip: If you can handle doubling up on museums, this museum is near the Guggenheim.
the new town of Bilbao Spain with the Basilica de Begona in the background
8. The Basilica of Begona
It took 100 years to build this church. Construction began in 1511. The mainly late Gothic basilica has a Renaissance facade and a monumental arched entryway. The vaulted interior is quite austere, but does feature a gold altarpiece with a statue of the Virgin Begoña, the virgin and patron saint of Biscay.
The church was built by Sancho Martínez de Arego, in the exact spot where the Virgin of Begona allegedly appeared in the 16th century.
Address: Begoñako Andra Maria Kalea, 38, 48006 Bilbo
Hours: 10:30 am to 1:30 pm & 5:30 pm to 8:00 pm
Pro tip: Take the elevator located inside of the Casco Viejo metro stop. Alternatively, climb the stairs from Plaza Unamuno.
the UNESCO-listed Vizcaya Bridge
9. Vizcaya Bridge
Outside of old town lies Bilbao's UNESCO site, the 19th century Vizcaya Bridge. It's known as the "hanging bridge" and one of 12 bridges spanning the Nervion River in Bilbao. The blood red bridge was built by a student of Gustav Eiffel, Alberto Palacio.
Vizcaya was the first transporter bridge to carry people and traffic on a high suspended gondola. It's one of the most iconic architectural constructions of the industrial age. You can even drive or walk on it in a suspended gondola supported by steel suspension cables.
Address: Puente de Vizcaya Zubia, Getxo, Bizkaia, Spain
Hours: Gondola open 24/7. Walkway 10:00 am to dusk
Entry fee: Walkway € 8, Audio guide €2
Metro: Areeta station, get off and walk 5 minutes
the 1997 glass bottomed Zubizuri Bridge in Bilbao
10. The Zubizuri Bridge
Along with the Guggenheim Museum, this bridge is one of the symbols of new Bilbao. Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, it was inaugurated in 1997.
"Zubi" means bridge and "zuri" means white. It's most astonishing feature is a glass brick floor. Unfortunately, it's now carpeted, after people slipped on the glass floor when it rained, so the effect is not quite the same as the architect intended.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, about 50 minutes from Bilbao
11. Day Trip to Gaztelugatxe, a Natural Wonder
If you want a break from city life, one of the best day trips from Bilbao is to the stunning and wild San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. There, you can hike over an ancient man made stone bridge to a hermitage church and bask in unfiltered natural beauty of the Bay of Biscay.
Gaztelugatxe is also a famous Game of Thrones filming location in Spain. If you are a GOT superfan or Khaleesi in Training, you'll recognize Gaztelugatxe as Daenerys Targaryen's ancestral home, Dragonstone. You can go and bend the knee.
For nature lovers, San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is easily the best day trip from Bilbao. Because of its remote location, it's most easily accessed by car. From Bilbao, take the B1-631 highway. Follow the signs and park on top of a hill off the main road and walk 1 kilometer down to the site.
Gaztelugatxe dressed up as Dragonstone on Game of Thrones. Image source: HBO
wearing very inappropriate flip flops in Gaztelugatxe
12. Other Day Trips From Bilbao
Bilbao is a fantastic base for exploring the Basque and Cantabria regions of northern Spain. Other than Gaztelugatxe, you can easily day trip to Sopalena Beach, Lekeitio, Castro Urdiales, Guernica, Santander, San Sebastian, Santillana del Mar, the Altamira Caves, or Burgos and the Rioja wine region. The options are endless.
Sopalena Beach, just a 25 minute drive from Bilbao, where I passed a few hours.
Bilbao is now one of the great treasures of the Basque region and all of northern Spain. At least for now, it's still an under-appreciated city, overflowing with staggering architecture. Don't skip it on your sojourn in northern Spain.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting Bilbao
Main Tourist Office: Plaza Circular or near the main entrance of the Guggenheim Museum. The Bilbao Card covers the main museums and provides unlimited use of public transport.
Pro tip: Try not to visit on a Monday. Everything's closed.