A space-aged museum and hip hotels sit next to Gothic churches, old bars and 19th-century plazas in the capital of Basque in Spain. Spain’s 10th-largest city is big on culture and creativity. With sensational architecture, both modern and classical, and rich culinary traditions, there are plenty of wonderful things to do in Bilbao.
- 20 Incredible Things To Do In Bilbao
- 1- Visit the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum
- 2- Explore Bilbao’s Historic Quarter (Casco Viejo)
- 3- Marvel At The Puente Colgante Hanging Bridge
- 4- Ride The Monte Archanda Funicular
- 5- Discover Basque Sports
- 6- Have Fun At A Festival
- 7- Admire Bilbao’s Gothic Cathedral
- 8- Visit The Basque Museum
- 9- Explore Plaza Nueva
- 10- Go To The Beach
- 11- Explore Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao
- 12- Explore The Arriaga Theatre
- 13- Azkuna Zentroa
- 14- Moyua Square (Plaza Moyua)
- 15- Shop at Mercado de la Ribera
- 16- Admire the Basilica of Begoña
- 17- Relax at Parque Etxebarria
- 18- Explore Gaztelugatxe
- 19- Stroll along the Nervión
- 20- Go Wine Tasting At The Underwater Winery
- 20 Incredible Things To Do In Bilbao
20 Incredible Things To Do In Bilbao
1- Visit the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum
When historians compile a list of this centuries top 10 architectural wonders, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum is likely to be high up on that list.
This shrine to contemporary art is a collaboration between the Basque government and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation of New York.
Designed by world-renowned architect, Frank O. Gehry, the building is a spectacular avant-garde titanium sculpture, which is an artistic masterpiece in itself.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao’s most distinctive feature is a glass-enclosed 50-meter atrium with a metal flower skylight that lights up the interior space.
The museum displays exhibitions as well as a permanent collection of artworks and is a famous landmark in Spain.
Walking through the building unfolds attention-grabbing angles that are at times more compelling than some of the artworks on display.
The Guggenheim and the dog Puppy (a giant floral sculpture beside the museum) are the symbols of Bilbao.
Stay at the newly opened and very contemporary Gran Hotel Domine for a panoramic close-up view of the museum from your room.
Guggenheim Museum is at Abandoibarra Etorb., 2, 48009 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain
2- Explore Bilbao’s Historic Quarter (Casco Viejo)
Wander through Bilbao’s Casco Viejo (old quarter) where Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassic and Modernist buildings house shops and traditional Basque eateries.
You could spend hours browsing for antiques, shoes, ceramics and fashionable clothing.
The pastry shops are pretty good too.
In the evenings, the custom is to hop from bar to bar ordering very small glasses of beer or wine while you pick on bite-sized tapas canapés known as pintxos.
The evening atmosphere around Casco Viejo is vibrant and bar-hopping is a good way to experience a slice of local life.
The pick of the pintxos bars are Los Fueros (6 Calle Fueros) which is famous for its prawn dishes, Victor Montes (8 Plaza Nueva) and Victor (2 Plaza Nueva).
As gastronomy is considered an art in Bilbao, besides the traditional pintxos bars, the Basque capital has a wide variety of restaurants that offer culinary delights ranging from traditional cooking to creative contemporary cuisine.
3- Marvel At The Puente Colgante Hanging Bridge
Built in 1893 and the first of its kind, Puente Colgante is a hanging car ferry that is suspended from a steel bridge that stretches across the river.
Attached to wheels on tracks above it, it ferries cars from one side of the River Nervion at Getxo to Portugalete on the other side.
For great river views, take the elevator to the top of the bridge or stroll along the river bank to the mouth of the estuary where you’ll find lots of restaurants.
4- Ride The Monte Archanda Funicular
Take the Monte Archanda funicular, which is located just across the river from the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to the top of the mountain for a panoramic view of the city.
Better still, bring along a bottle of Rioja wine and a few pintxos for a picnic with a view.
From high above, you’ll appreciate Bilbao’s architectural dichotomy of old and new, where gleaming steel structures sit next to charming old buildings.
5- Discover Basque Sports
Basque sports and popular games are closely related to the daily chores performed by Basque men during olden times.
They occupied their time playing games that involved tasks such as grass cutting, logging and rowing.
Basque men have a reputation for strength, which they measure by lifting huge rocks, holding weight-carrying races and tugs-of-war.
Other popular sports like rock-dragging using oxen, ram fighting, or sheepdog trials involve working animals.
However, the most popular sport is Basque pelota, a ball sport played against a wall either barehanded, with a bat or with a racket.
There are pelota courts all over Bilbao and the local bookmaker is a popular figure at many games.
Visit the Bilbao Tourist office at Plaza Ensanche, 11, to find out more.
For more places in Spain read:
- 10 Things To Do In Bilbao
- 12 Things To Do In San Sebastian
- 10 Things To Do In Oviedo
- Storybook Village of Santillana del Mar
- An Amazing Andalusia Road Trip
6- Have Fun At A Festival
July is a good month for festivals.
Soak in the atmosphere at the Bilbao Live Festival, where top international bands such as Guns N’Roses and The Pretenders perform alongside a host of new bands.
There’s also the International Folklore Festival across the river at Portugalete, where a three-night folk dancing marathon takes place.
The event of the year is the Semana Grande, held in August, with dancing in the streets, bullfights and floats.
7- Admire Bilbao’s Gothic Cathedral
Bilbao’s oldest building, Catedral de Santiago, is a Gothic church that was built on top of an old hermitage and is a recognisable religious monument in Spain.
Dating back to the Santiago pilgrimages, the cathedral was once Bilbao’s central hub, where all the city’s main streets converged.
Today the stately cathedral is dedicated to the city’s patron saint and boasts the region’s most beautiful Neo-Gothic tower.
The cathedral’s interior is simply majestic, with three naves, vaulted ceilings, choir stalls and the cloister featuring lovely Gothic detailing.
The original shrine is part of the crypt. The cathedral is open every day, and it’s worth booking a guided tour.
Bilbao Cathedral is at Done Jakue Plazatxoa, 1, 48005 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain.
8- Visit The Basque Museum
The Museo Arqueológico, Etnográfico e Histórico Vasco (commonly known as the Basque Museum) is located in a baroque building which was originally constructed to house a church.
It has displays of Basque art, folk artefacts and photographs depicting Basque life through the centuries.
The Pre-History section focuses on the ancient world of trade, old tools, early fabric-weaving, ceramics, weapon making and furniture.
The Basque Sea hall has fun sound effects such as shrieking seagulls and crashing waves.
The Pastoral Culture hall is a step back into time, with bleating sheep and clanging cowbells while the Consulate hall has an enormous model of the entire region.
The Basque Museum is at Plaza Miguel Unamuno, 4 48006 Bilbao.
9- Explore Plaza Nueva
Every Sunday, Plaza Nueva is the venue for a lively street market where people gather to buy coins and stamps, old manuscripts, books, plants and birds.
The football card section is the most interesting, with hordes of football fans buying and swapping football cards of their favourite teams.
Construction on Plaza Nueva began in 1829 and it has been the weekend meeting point for the people of Bilbao for centuries.
Each December, there’s a traditional country market festival with hundreds of stalls selling rural produce such as sausages, black pudding, txakoli (white wine) and cider.
This festive event dates back to the end of the 19th century when the villagers, who used to come into town to pay the landlords their rent, would take advantage of the opportunity of being in the city to sell their home-produced goods.
10- Go To The Beach
There are a number of beaches within easy striking distance of Bilbao.
Larrabasterra and Sopelana, both a 30-minute ride on the metro, are popular for water sports.
Plentzia, a peaceful estuary town with a marina, has a quiet beach that hasn’t yet made it onto the tourist trail.
Lekeitio is a fishing port with old Basque buildings and a long beach that’s great for swimming.
The stretch of coast after Lekeitio is more rugged and suitable for walking; there are coastal path along the sandstone cliff tops from Mutriku to Zumaia.
Surfers will need to introduction to Mundaka Beach, the famous surf beach that boasts the longest left break in the world.
Other places to explore while visiting Bilbao are Cantabria and the storybook village of Santillana Del Mar.
11- Explore Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao
Bilbao’s Museum of Fine Arts houses an impressive collection of artworks in two buildings and is right up there with Madrid’s Prado Museum.
The collection includes works by 14th to 17th-century European masters with a strong representation of Dutch and Flemish paintings created between the 15th and 17th centuries.
Highlights include ‘Money Changers’ by Quentin Matsys, ‘Virgin and Child’ by Dirk Bouts and works from the 17th-century Flemish school of artists.
Notable Spanish art include works by Ribera, Velázquez and Goya.
Spanish works include El Greco’s ‘Annunciation’ and Zuebaran’s ‘Virgin and Child’.
There are also many important paintings by Italian and French artists, such as Gauguin’s ‘Washerwomen of Arles’.
Not surprisingly, there’s a floor dedicated to Basque artists that is well-worth visiting.
The Museum of Fine Arts is at 2 Plaza del Museo, Bilbao.
12- Explore The Arriaga Theatre
Named after composer Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, the Arriaga Theatre is a stunning 19th-century neo-baroque palace.
Located across the river from the Campos Eliseos Theatre, the Arriaga Theatre is architecturally impressive and a blend of art nouveau and neo-Mudéjar design.
Join a guided tour for free to admire the gold-leaf adorned the main hall and to learn a bit about Bilbao’s culture.
13- Azkuna Zentroa
The redesigned Alhóndiga Bilbao, which was originally a wine warehouse when it was built in 1909, is Bilbao’s Society and Contemporary Culture Centre.
The cultural centre puts on a busy programme with live music, shows, exhibitions, art, cinema and modern installations.
Famous Parisian architect Philippe Starck redesigned the building, which is an architectural marvel with 43 columns constructed in a variety of architectural styles, a roof-top swimming pool and Sun Terrace.
Azkuna Zentroa is at Arriquíbar Plaza, 4, 48010 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain.
14- Moyua Square (Plaza Moyua)
Plaza Moyúa is an oblong-shaped plaza with gardens, fountains and pedestrian walkways.
The plaza dates back to 1873 and is in an exclusive area of Bilbao, near famous shopping street Gran Vía.
Buildings to admire within the plaza include the 20th-century Flemish Palacio Chávarri, which has been the government headquarters since 1943, and the Hotel Carlton, which was the Basque government’s command centre during the Spanish Civil War.
You can get to Plaza Moyua on the metro.
15- Shop at Mercado de la Ribera
Mercado de la Ribera is the largest covered market in Europe, with a vast array of produce for sale, listed in the Guinness World Record in 1990.
Farmers sell fresh vegetables and meat and the fish is some of the freshest you can buy.
It’s a fantastic place to go to taste traditional Basque food while wandering around the stalls soaking up the local vibe.
Mercado de la Ribera is at Erribera Kalea, s/n, 48005 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain.
16- Admire the Basilica of Begoña
The 16th-century Basilica of Begona dedicated to the patron saint of Biscay, Virgin Begoña.
The Gothic/Renaissance basilica sits on a hill worth visiting to see impressive Basque paintings, relax in the garden and to enjoy some tranquillity.
Basilica of Begona is at Begoñako Andra Maria Kalea, 38, 48006 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain.
17- Relax at Parque Etxebarria
Parque Etxebarria is a green space on a hill in the city, with benches and walking tracks.
It’s a lovely place to escape for some quiet time, meet locals and to enjoy lovely views of the city.
Parque Etxebarria is at Etxebarria Parkea, 48005 Bilbo, Bizkaia, Spain.
18- Explore Gaztelugatxe
Get away from the city to the coastline of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, which is only a 50-minute drive from Bilbao’s CBD.
Enjoy the Bay of Biscay’s delights on the small islet connected to the mainland by a medieval bridge and 221 stone steps.
You’ll see why Gaztelugatxe starred as Dragonstone in Game of Thrones.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is 35 km (22 miles) from Bilbao.
19- Stroll along the Nervión
Bilbao’s Nervión River has played a big part in the city’s history.
Shipbuilding and trade have enabled Bilbao to become one of the top cities in Spain.
There are footpaths on both sides of the river and a stroll along the river is a great way to explore the city from Bilbao’s city hall to its residential areas.
Part of the trail passes the Guggenheim Museum, Euskalduna Palace and the University of Deusto (which is Spain’s oldest Jesuit University).
Look out for the Zubizuri (white) Bridge, which is a futuristic-looking footbridge that crosses the river not far from the Guggenheim Museum.
20- Go Wine Tasting At The Underwater Winery
20m beneath the water in the Bay of Biscay lies an underwater cellar.
Crusoe Treasure produces award-winning wines that are served at top Michelin-starred restaurants such as Arzak, Azurmendi and Elkano.
A wine-tasting experience starts at the Plentzia Harbour and includes a boat trip and delicious pintxos.