Bilbao is the biggest city in the Basque Country and the perfect starting point for a tour of Northern Spain. This former industrial metropolis has transformed into an architectural paradise, dazzling visitors with its iconic buildings. From the Neo-baroque theatre and Art nouveau train station to the eye-catching Guggenheim museum and its modern displays. Creative and unusual structures are also seen throughout the Basque region in wineries like the Marqués de Riscal or the Bodegas Ysios.
Beyond its artistic vein, Bilbao is famous for its lively dining scene with traditional pintxo bars standing alongside Michelin-star restaurants, and its stunning natural landscape with mountains and beaches surrounding the city’s outskirts.
This three-day itinerary features the best things to do in Bilbao, including what to do, where to stay and the best places to eat, so you can make the most of your stay.
Start your day in Bilbao with a walk around the City Hall. Established in 1892, this Baroque-style building occupies the site of a former convent. Architect Joaquín Rucoba designed this local institution which sits just steps away from the Nervión river and the Puente del Ayuntamiento.
Classic sculptures decorate the outside, while inside there are exquisite rooms like the Arab Hall with its Neo-Mudéjar decor. To visit the City Hall, make sure to schedule a tour in advance.
From the City Hall, make your way to the Artxanda funicular stop. The red cable car has been whisking locals and visitors up the hill since 1915. At the top is Mount Artxanda, one of the many mountains that border the city. Here you can enjoy the best panoramic views of Bilbao and its surroundings.
Once you’ve explored Artxanda, head back down and follow the road towards the Zubizuri Bridge. Completed in 1997, this bridge is among Bilbao’s contemporary structures and stands out against the city’s older crossings. Santiago Calatrava designed this iconic footbridge which features a glass-brick walkway and a sleek white arch, hence the name Zubizuri which translates as “White Bridge “ in Basque.
Another famous bridge in Bilbao, La Salve leads you straight onto the Guggenheim Museum. Built in the 1970s, the bridge crosses the river and merges with the museum building on the other end, making it a popular photo spot. You can see it from a distance thanks to its bright red arch, a feature designed by French artist Daniel Buren in 2007 to celebrate the museum’s tenth anniversary.
Once you cross the bridge, you’ll end up at the front of the Guggenheim Museum. Inspired by fish scales and ship shapes, Canadian Frank Gehry designed this striking shimmering building made of titanium tiles. Guggenheim revitalized Bilbao’s postindustrial image and propelled into the modern art world. Since its opening in the 90s, the museum has become one of the city’s most famous attractions, partially due to its iconic design.
Outside there are a few contemporary installations worth capturing like the flowery puppy created by Jeff Koons or the giant spider by Louise Bourgeois.
Still, it’s worth going inside, where you’ll find artworks by Mark Rothko, Yves Klein and many others. Besides the permanent collection, there are also temporary exhibitions, so make sure to keep an eye on the calendar. To avoid standing in line, you can pre-book your ticket with a time slot online.
Even if you’re not catching a train, it’s worth stepping inside the Bilbao-Abando railway station to marvel at its stunning stained glass windows. The panel features motives related to the city’s history and customs, with references to the Basilica of Begoña and the old steel and fishing industry.
Continue your tour of the city with a visit to the Azkuna Zentroa, also known as Alhóndiga Bilbao. French designer Philippe Starck repurposed this former oil and wine warehouse and turned it into a modernist cultural centre. The building is home to an art gallery, a cinema, a swimming pool and several dining areas. Capture the unusual tubby columns on the ground floor and pay a visit to the DendAZ shop for a gift made by local designers.
Next stop is the Museo Bellas Artes. Open since 1914, this museum has one of the best fine art collections in the Basque Country, with pieces ranging from Gothic sculptures to pop art. The work is divided into three sections: classical art, contemporary art and Basque art. Artists on display include Paul Gaugin, Francisco de Goya, El Greco, Francis Bacon and Eduardo Chillida. Beyond the permanent collection, it’s worth checking the temporary exhibitions which change throughout the season.
A few steps away from the museum is the Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park. After a busy day of sightseeing, you’ll enjoy a relaxing break here amid the trees. Completed in 1920, it’s named after Casilda Iturrizar, a local philanthropist who donated the land. It has a Romantic and French-style structure, with tree-lined paths, sculptures and fountains. Other features were added later on like the children’s carousel and the pergola.
After the park, take a final wander to the Euskalduna Palace, stopping to admire the golden statue atop the Plaza del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús. Set right along the river, the palace is used as a conference and concert hall. The building has a flashy design resembling the giant shipyards that once occupied this area. Euskalduna is home to the Basque Symphony Orchestra and the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, who perform here throughout the year. If you want to catch a performance, make sure to check the calendar ahead.
Looming over Bilbao’s old town and surrounded by mountains is the Basílica de Begoña. This 16th-century church is mostly Gothic in style, but it also has some Renaissance elements like the arched entrance. Inside you’ll encounter vaulted ceilings and a golden altarpiece featuring the statue of the Virgin Begoña, the patron saint of the Biscay region. You can get here on foot or take the lift from the Casco Viejo metro station.
After visiting the basilica, spend the rest of your morning exploring
the old town, also known as Casco Viejo or Siete Calles. First stop is
the Plaza Unamuno, a colourful square named after the philosopher and
writer Miguel de Unamuno.
The square is home to the city’s Archaeological Museum, where you can learn more about the region’s history and its residents throughout the centuries.
There are many more streets and squares to explore within the Casco Viejo. Some of the most important sights located here include the Catedral de Bilbao, the Plaza Nueva and the churches of San Antón and San Nicolás. Established around the 14th century, Bilbao’s cathedral has an eclectic style combining gothic, renaissance and neoclassical elements. Just above the main entrance, you’ll see scallop shells, an iconic reference for those following the Camino de Santiago. After covering the main attractions, take some time to wander through the old town’s winding streets and visit local shops and cafés.
Cross over the San Antón Bridge, and you’ll end up at the La Vieja district. Also known as Bilbi, it’s one of the city’s trendiest districts, home to independent boutique shops, art galleries and stylish restaurants. It’s also a great spot for street art, featuring several murals painted by Basque artists. You can find a couple of them around Cortés Kalea, but here’s a map of the murals, so you don’t miss a thing. Another highlight in this area is the horno de calcinación, a large brick furnace that was once part of a local mine.
When you’re done exploring the La Vieja neighbourhood, head over to the nearby Museo de Reproducciones. Open since 1927, this museum is home to a series of classical reproductions. Most of these are first copies of the originals, allowing you to admire exact replicas of artworks such as the Slaves and the Moses of Michelangelo, the Parthenon Frieze and the Diana of Gabbi. These sculptures were brought here to help grow the city’s cultural offer and aid the local Fine Art students in their learning process. The building itself is also worth admiring, as it occupies a former Neo-Gothic church.
Take a lunch break at the Mercado de la Ribera. Set on the edge of the old town and the river, this is the perfect place to sample Bilbao’s cuisine. The building you see today is from the 20th century, but it occupies the site of the old city market which dates back to the 14th century. It’s one of the largest indoor covered markets in Europe, stretching for over 10,000m2. Inside, you’ll find numerous stalls selling local produce, alongside bars and restaurants where you can order some pintxos (Basque tapas).
From the market, head over to the Plaza Nueva. Completed in 1851, this large square stands out with its neoclassical buildings. Underneath the arcades are several cafés and restaurants with outdoor terraces. The square and the adjoining Arenal park are local meeting points and are often used as a stage for festivals and concerts. Among these celebrations is the Santo Tomás Fair, a local food fair that takes place around Christmas. If you visit on a Sunday, you might catch the weekly market where you can buy used items and antiques.
Just a few minutes from Plaza Nueva is the Teatro Arriaga. After capturing its stunning neo-baroque façade, you can end the day by attending a show here. The program changes with the season and usually includes a mix of classical concerts and theatre performances. There are also guided tours during the weekend which take visitors behind the scenes, passing through the theatre’s stunning halls and showcasing its costume collection.
It’s time to explore beyond the city centre. Hop on the metro and jump off at the Neguri station. This coastal district is famous for its waterfront promenades and quiet beaches. Its narrow streets are lined with small shops and seafood restaurants. Don’t miss the pintxo bars around Las Arenas and the marina, where you can book sailing tours.
Head north to visit the fishing village of Algorta and the Puerto Viejo. The area is surrounded by whitewashed houses and narrow streets that overlook the water. Nearby is the Playa de Ereaga, a wide beach stretching from the Puerto Viejo to the Galerías de Punta Begoña. You can also venture further out to visit the Playa de Arrigunaga and the neoclassical church San Nicolás de Bari. If you don’t fancy walking up the hill, there’s a lift that connects Playa de Ereaga to the Algorta neighbourhood.
After relaxing by the beach, take a walk along Getxo’s seafront. Its nickname Paseo de las Grandes Villas comes from the luxurious mansions that you’ll find on route, mostly dating from the 20th century.
Keep an eye out for the Casa Cisco, the Palacio Lezama-Leguizamón and the Galerías de Punta Begoña. This last building was once part of Getxo’s defensive wall. It’s slowly being restored, but occasionally there are guided tours of the site. Facing the galleries is the Faro del Muelle de Arriluze, one of the first lighthouses in Bilbao.
Follow the promenade until the end and you’ll soon end up at the Puente
Colgante. Also known as Vizcaya Bridge, this Unesco World-Heritage site
was designed by Alberto Palacio, a student of Gustave Eiffel. It is the
oldest transporter bridge in the world running since 1893.
The connection between Getxo and the Portugalete district is made via a suspended platform that carries passengers and cars over the Ría del Nervión. You can also take a lift up the pillars for incredible views of both districts.
You can explore most of the sites above on foot, but you’ll need a car to reach the Playa de Azkorri. Whether you’re driving yourself or hopping on a taxi, it’s worth the trek to see the stunning coastal landscape. Also known as Playa Gorrondatxe, this beach stands out with its tall rocky cliffs and black sandy stretch. It’s also famous for its “golden nail”, an award given for its remarkable stratigraphic properties. Even if you don’t make it down, you should take a walk along the cliffs.
Spend the afternoon exploring Portugalete and its quaint medieval centre. Start with a visit to the Plaza del Solar. Surrounded by 19th-century buildings, this cobbled square is the ideal spot for a picture of the Vizcaya bridge. There’s a monument dedicated to Víctor Chávarri, a local businessman and a charming bandstand that welcomes outdoor performances in the summer.
Next stop is the Torre de Salazar. Dating back to the 15th century, this tower was erected during a baronial fighting by a local family called Salazar, hence its name. Today it houses a restaurant and a small museum with displays about the family’s history and the region of Portugalete. Among the exhibits is a model of the village in the 17th century with its former defensive walls. Make sure to head up to the top floor for splendid views of the river.
Close to the tower, you’ll find the Basílica de Santa Maria with its striking bell tower. The main building was erected around 1580, but the tower was added later on in the 18th century. Outside you can admire the church’s Gothic features with gargoyles and flying buttresses, while inside there are vaulted ceilings and an impressive wood-carved altarpiece.
Continue along the river and you’ll soon spot the Rialia Museo. The tall redbrick building stands out immediately as it juts out into the water. Inside the museum are a series of displays about Portugalete’s industrial background and its development through the years. Paintings, machinery parts and short films featuring this industrial era are all part of the exhibit. On your way to the museum keep an eye out for the tourism office building and its striking blue and yellow facade.
Before returning to Bilbao, take some time to wander through one of the town’s riverside parks. From the museum, you can head right towards the Azeta Parkea and the Benedicta Park or turn left towards the Doctor Areilza Park. This last one features some quirky animal sculptures amidst exotic trees.
Bilbao has many family-friendly sights. Even if you don’t go inside the infamous Guggenheim, the kids will enjoy playing around the giant outdoor sculptures. Other museums you can visit as a family include the Museo Maritimo, the Basque Museum and the Fine Arts Museum.
Near the Fine Arts Museum is the striking Torre Iberdrola, the tallest building in Bilbao. Gather the family and head up to the viewpoint on the 25th floor to admire the 360º city views.
The city’s riverside location also provides the perfect opportunity for a bike ride or a boat trip. These can be an alternative to a walking tour as you can cover most of Bilbao’s landmarks a lot faster.
More fun activities include the funicular ride to Mount Artxanda and the Vizcaya Bridge crossing.
When you get tired of sightseeing, there are plenty of parks in Bilbao with playgrounds where you can have a rest like the Doña Casilda Park. Further out in Getxo there are beaches and an aquarium ready to welcome you.
Kids will enjoy visits to Basondo and the Karpín Fauna refuge for threatened wildlife. These wildlife centres are located around 40 mins and 1 hour drive respectively from Bilbao.
When visiting Bilbao you must try pintxos, the Basque twist on Spanish tapas. Pintxos are small pieces of bread topped with a variety of ingredients including cheese, meat and seafood. These local treats are available in pretty much every bar in the city and usually range from €1 to €3 per pintxo. Some of the best spots in Bilbao for pintxos are around the Plaza Nueva. From there you can go on a txikiteo, which basically means hopping from bar to bar and sampling different pintxos. For something sweet try the Canutillos de Bilbao, a puff pastry roll filled with cream and sprinkled with sugar. Below are some of the best places to eat in Bilbao:
Bilbao sits in the North of Spain where the weather is often cooler than in other parts of the country like Andalucia. You can expect more rain here, especially if you visit outside the summer season. With that in mind, the best time to visit Bilbao is between May and September, when there’s less chance of rain. You can also schedule your trip around one of the city’s festivals, like the Cabalgata de Reyes Magos in January or the Aste Nagusia in August.
There are several ways to reach Bilbao. You can fly here from most capital cities or if coming from the UK you can get on a ferry, which takes between 24 to 32 hours.
Once you’re in the city, you can explore most of it on foot or even rent a bike as Bilbao is mostly flat. Public transport is also available, including bus and metro. If exploring districts further out like Getxo or Portugalete, the metro is your best option. Depending on the number of days you’re staying, it might be worth purchasing the Bilbao Bizkaia card, which costs between €10-€15.
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