Bilbao mixes traditional Basque culture with innovative development. Travellers often overlook Bilbao, yet it’s one of the best destinations in Spain for Basque cuisine and culture.
This modern city has a lot to offer visitors, creating a challenge when you only have one day in Bilbao. The newly revamped areas along the river cater to tourists, offering savoury cuisine and an always busy nightlife.
The older parts of the city should appeal to history lovers. The buildings showcase a timeline of the European architectural styles of the past several centuries.
Need help getting started? Plan your tour with this wide-ranging 1-day Bilbao itinerary…
Table of Contents
- What to do in Bilbao in 24 hours: A complete one-day itinerary
- Get lost in the narrow streets of the Old Quarter
- Test the acoustics inside Teatro Arriaga
- Examine historic architecture and artwork at Bilbao Cathedral
- Fill your stomach at La Ribera Market
- Enjoy beautiful foliage at Arenal Gardens
- Cross La Salve Bridge to find interesting graffiti
- Explore the Art District outside of the Guggenheim Bilbao
- Ride the funicular to the lookout points on Mount Artxanda
- Enjoy a beer or a meal at bars or restaurants around Plaza Moraza
- Where to stay: The best hotels for 24 hours in Bilbao
What to do in Bilbao in 24 hours: A complete one-day itinerary
With 24 hours in Bilbao, you’ll still have the chance to check out most of the city.
The constantly-evolving cityscape is always full of surprises, but it helps to have a plan for getting around. As with all our travel itineraries, this trip to Bilbao includes stops in as many different parts of the city as possible in just 24 hours.
The Old Quarter contains seven main streets connected via narrow alleys, making it easy to get around.
From the central Old Town streets, you can easily travel to the neighbouring districts to hit the rest of the sites.
Get lost in the narrow streets of the Old Quarter
The Old Quarter, or Old Town, is the heart of the city and the typical place to start a Bilbao itinerary. The area includes several large public squares, each with its own selection of cafes, bakeries, and eateries offering fresh breakfast and hot coffee.
Get your grub on and fill up before exploring the Old Quarter.
Take a walk around the winding streets and don’t worry about getting lost. No matter where you go, you’ll eventually hit one of the main streets.
As many of the historical landmarks are in Old Town, you’ll take care of the sightseeing first thing in the morning. This is the best time to explore the older streets before the area fills up with other tourists and locals going about their days.
Test the acoustics inside Teatro Arriaga
The opera house is the first site that you’ll explore within the Old Quarter. You may even see it on your way in, as it’s near the bridge that you take into the medieval district.
Teatro Arriaga is a grand opera house, built in 1890 and featuring the Neo-baroque style. It’s got great acoustics, but before you go inside, you need to find out if a performance is going on.
During performances, tours of the opera house are closed. Luckily, taking photos and walking around the exterior of the building is just as fun.
The opera house is an imposing building with a large, open courtyard in front. The immediate area also has a few sites worth exploring, including shops and Plaza Nueva – the main public square.
Examine historic architecture and artwork at Bilbao Cathedral
From the opera house, it’s just a short walk to the cathedral. Towering over nearby buildings, you should see its spire from several blocks away.
Bilbao Cathedral is one of the most-visited sites in Bilbao and a common destination for any itinerary for Spain. The building features a mixture of architectural styles, including the original Gothic architecture and more recent renovations adding Neoclassical designs and Baroque influences.
The interior is lavish, but doesn’t contain as many artistic elements as a typical medieval European cathedral. It’s an extremely beautiful, well-preserved temple and an important landmark.
Tours of the cathedral are available, depending on the time of the day. While the tours require a small fee, admission inside the church is free. Keep in mind that donations are recommended and appreciated.
Fill your stomach at La Ribera Market
After leaving the Cathedral, follow any of the Seven Streets to La Ribera. This is the bank that overlooks the river and where you’ll find La Ribera Market.
The market is one of the top things to do & see in Bilbao. The busy covered market is always a crowded spot, but don’t let that stop you from working your way through the food stalls.
The market is near the banks of the river and covers over 10,000 square metres. The massive structure is the biggest of its kind in Europe. The stalls sell various local products, including fresh produce, meat, and dairy.
Along with the food stalls, there are many restaurants and pintxos bars in the market. Pintxos are small bread rolls with a savoury filling, commonly served as appetizers with drinks or coffee.
This is a good spot to grab another bite before continuing your tour of the city. There are over 60 merchants inside the market, not counting the surrounding restaurants and bars.
Enjoy beautiful foliage at Arenal Gardens
The market is near the outskirts of the Old Quarter. If you follow the outer parts of the older neighbourhood, you’ll eventually reach Arenal Gardens.
The gardens are among the many public parks found throughout the city. Several decades ago, the city was dealing with heavy pollution, traffic congestion, and other industrial problems.
Bilbao has worked hard to make the city more breathable and liveable. There are numerous green spaces, but Arenal Gardens is the largest and best. It’s also the gateway to the historic city centre.
The park is carefully landscaped with local foliage, walking paths, and benches for outdoor picnics. The gardens attract visitors from all over. It’s even a popular spot for local citizens to spend the afternoon.
The gardens also have a bandstand, with live performances during different parts of the year. Depending on when you visit, the open spaces may be full of activity, with musical acts, entertainers, and street performers.
Cross La Salve Bridge to find interesting graffiti
Eventually, you should work your way toward the bridge that takes you between Old Town and the neighbouring districts. La Salve Bridge takes you across to the other side of the city, but it’s also a sightseeing destination of its own.
The bridge is known for the unique graffiti that covers the lower portions. As you cross the bridge, peer around the sides to get a better look at the street art and the large painting.
When crossing the bridge, you may come across panhandlers. There are a lot of homeless people in the immediate area, but they aren’t too pushy.
It’s also possible to take a train or taxi across the bridge. Just keep in mind that the bridge is a short walk and you’ll be on the other side within minutes.
You can also see the next destination from the bridge, as the Guggenheim Museum was built under the structure on the other side of the river.
Explore the Art District outside of the Guggenheim Bilbao
As you work your way across the bridge, you’ll see the museum building. It’s designed to resemble a metal ship getting ready to set sail down the river.
The Guggenheim is the Bilbao branch of the Guggenheim Foundation. Besides the Bilbao museum, there are about a dozen other locations throughout the world.
The area outside the museum includes a wide variety of interesting sculptures and art installations. One of the most notable pieces is the large topiary of an animal outside the front of the museum.
If there is a long line to get inside the museum, spend time exploring the “Art District” that surrounds the Guggenheim. You can browse contemporary art without entering the building.
If you do get inside, there are thousands of priceless works to marvel at. Take your time analyzing and assessing the paintings, as this is one of the final stops.
Ride the funicular to the lookout points on Mount Artxanda
When you finish enjoying the artwork inside the Guggenheim, it’s time to see even more of the city.
Seeing all of Bilbao in 24 hours is easier if you have the right vantage point. To get a better view, ride the funicular to the top of Mount Artxanda. This is the mountain that flanks the northern side of the city. When you get to the top, you can see pretty much everything.
The top of the mountain includes a recreational area, with a park and several restaurants. There are also walking paths and various areas where you can stop and look out over Bilbao.
Enjoy a beer or a meal at bars or restaurants around Plaza Moraza
To finish off your trip around Bilbao in one day, take the funicular ride back down to the edge of the Old Quarter and head east one block. You’ll quickly reach Plaza Moraza, one of the many public squares found throughout the city.
This square resembles other squares in European cities. It features a large courtyard with benches, sculptures, and trees. It’s also surrounded by bars, clubs, and restaurants. You’ve got your pick of tapas bars and pintxos bars serving cold beer, cocktails, and small appetizers.
Plaza Moraza isn’t particularly interesting, but it’s just a short walk from the cable cars and main streets. When you finish your drink or meal, it shouldn’t take long to get back to your accommodations and call it a night.
Where to stay: The best hotels for 24 hours in Bilbao
Unlike other larger Spanish cities, choosing where to stay in Bilbao isn’t such a massive challenge. Most travellers will find their itinerary best served by staying in one of the central areas close to Old Town where many of the city’s top sightseeing opportunities await. Here are a few ideas…
- Casual Gurea: If you’re looking to save a little money without sacrificing location, this attractive Old Town guesthouse is a superb choice.
- Cosmov Bilbao Hotel: A modern hotel featuring a laid-back vibe and stylish decor just 300m from the Guggenheim Museum.
- Hotel Tayko Bilbao: You’ll love the industrial-inspired room designs and views at this beautiful riverside hotel in the heart of the city.
- Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao: For a dash of luxury, it’s a hard to beat this trendy design hotel. The rooms are lovely and modern, but it’s the vistas from the rooftop terrace that really sell this one.