Hemmed between green mountains and coastline in Northern Spain, Bilbao beckons with a magnetic charm. This Basque gem is a canvas of creativity, where the Guggenheim Museum stands as a beacon of modern art and the city’s historic quarters pulse with the heartbeat of a dynamic, evolving culture. Meander through lively streets adorned with cutting-edge architecture and sample the gastronomic delights that define Basque cuisine as you discover the eclectic spirit of this Basque beauty with this guide to top things to do in Bilbao, Spain!
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Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Embark on an art odyssey at Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, an architectural marvel gracing the heart of the city with its avant-garde allure. Set on the banks of the Nervión River, this contemporary masterpiece is a testament to Bilbao’s cultural renaissance and a must-see, even if you only have one day in Bilbao.
Designed by renowned Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, this iconic structure is a masterpiece, resembling a futuristic ship with its undulating curves and reflective surfaces. The museum’s titanium curves redefine the city skyline.
The iconic Puppy sculpture, a floral canine creation by Jeff Koons, welcomes you to a realm where innovation meets tradition. Explore contemporary exhibitions featuring works by luminaries like Yves Klein and interactive installations where you can engage hands-on with the art.
Frank Gehry’s design incorporates optical illusions that play with perspective. Certain angles and viewpoints reveal surprising architectural twists, challenging your perception of space. Take your time navigating the exterior to discover these hidden visual delights.
Venture to the Guggenheim Museum terrace for a unique Bilbao perspective. While many visitors focus on the riverfront, the deck offers a panoramic view of the city and the nearby hills.
INSIDER TIP: Time your visit during the late afternoon. As the sun begins its descent, the Guggenheim transforms into a luminous spectacle, casting mesmerizing reflections on the river. It’s a magical moment to capture the essence of this architectural gem.
Cathedral de Santiago de Bilbao
Explore Bilbao’s cultural and religious heritage at the magnificent Cathedral de Santiago (Bilboko Donejakue katedrala). Standing tall in the heart of the Casco Viejo district, this Gothic masterpiece dates back to the 14th century and is one of the city’s most beautiful structures.
As you approach the Cathedral de Santiago, the intricate façade and imposing spires captivate, inviting you into its sacred interiors. The tranquil ambiance inside contrasts the lively streets outside. It offers a peaceful retreat for contemplation.
Venture into the crypt beneath the cathedral to discover a lesser-known collection of relics and cryptic tales. The dimly lit chambers harbor centuries-old mysteries waiting to be unveiled. Take a closer look at the intricate carvings in the cathedral’s cloister. Each stone tells a story, and some bear hidden symbols and messages, providing a glimpse into the beliefs and culture of the time.
Climb the cathedral tower for breathtaking views of Bilbao. While any time offers a unique perspective, the late afternoon bathes the city in golden hues, creating a moment of serene beauty.
INSIDER TIP: While many visitors ascend the central tower, ask about the lesser-known hidden staircase. This narrow path provides a more intimate ascent, avoiding crowds and offering a unique perspective of the cathedral’s architecture.
La Ribera Market
Indulge your senses at Bilbao’s vibrant La Ribera Market (Erribera Merkatua). Overlooking the Nervión River in the lively Casco Viejo, this bustling market is a culinary hotspot brimming with history.
Dating back to the early 20th century, La Ribera Market, also known as Mercado de la Ribera, stands as one of Europe’s largest covered markets, showcasing Basque flavors and traditions. Expect a sensory feast of stalls brimming with fresh produce, aromatic spices, and an array of local delicacies. From artisanal cheeses to freshly caught seafood, the market showcases the best of Basque cuisine.
Delve into the market’s rich history as you wander its labyrinthine alleys. A fascinating tidbit: During the Spanish Civil War, the market served as a meeting point for locals, symbolizing resilience in challenging times.
Plan your visit in the morning when the market buzzes with activity and the stalls unveil their freshest offerings. Immerse yourself in the lively atmosphere as vendors engage in friendly banter and share their passion for Basque cuisine.
Head to the market’s upper floor and observation deck with panoramic views of the bustling market below. Grab a coffee, savor local pastries, and enjoy a unique perspective on Bilbao’s culinary heartbeat.
INSIDER TIP: Amidst the culinary delights, seek out the lesser-known corner stall near the river-facing windows. Here, you’ll find a hidden gem – a local chef offering personalized cooking tips and exclusive tastings. It’s a chance to savor Bilbao’s flavors with an expert touch!
Funicular de Artxanda
Experience Bilbao from above with a scenic ride on the Funicular de Artxanda. Situated near the iconic Guggenheim Museum, this charming cable car is a must to get a unique perspective of the city.
Dating back to 1915, the Funicular de Artxanda has been ferrying locals and visitors alike to the summit of Mount Artxanda for over a century. It played a discreet role during the Spanish Civil War, shuttling people up the hill to escape potential danger.
The lower station is in Plaza del Funicular, a short walk from the City Hall. The upper station leads to the summit of Mount Artxanda, offering panoramic views of Bilbao and its surrounding landscapes. The upper station has a small exhibition space showcasing local artists.
As you ascend, marvel at the breathtaking views of Bilbao’s skyline, the Nervión River, and the picturesque city landscapes. When you reach the top, take a short stroll to the Mirador de Artxanda for an even more expansive view. This vantage point unveils the city’s charm in all its glory.
INSIDER TIP: Upon reaching the summit, explore the local eateries. Venture beyond the obvious spots for a taste of authentic Bilbao cuisine enjoyed by locals.
Soak up some local culture and history at the bustling Plaza Nueva. Located within the ancient Casco Viejo quarter, this historic square resonates with the echoes of centuries, surrounded by buildings that have witnessed Bilbao’s transformation.
Framed by neoclassical architecture, Plaza Nueva exudes a stately elegance. The encircled arcades house various shops, cafés, and pintxos bars. Enjoy a stroll beneath the arcades while admiring the architectural symphony.
The square is a hub of activity, with locals and tourists gathering to enjoy outdoor cafés, eclectic shops, and the energy of street performers. It’s an excellent spot to soak in the local culture and witness the dynamic pulse of Bilbao.
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As dusk descends, Plaza Nueva transforms into a gastronomic haven. Venture into the hidden corners of Plaza Nueva’s surrounding streets to discover eateries that offer Basque dishes beyond the pintxos culture, providing a more nuanced taste of the local cuisine.
Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao
Discover the world of European and Spanish art at the Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao. Situated near the picturesque Doña Casilda Park, this treasure trove of art is home to an impressive collection spanning the 12th to the 20th centuries.
Housed in a spectacular neoclassical building, the Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao is a masterpiece of architectural elegance. Designed by Fernando Urrutia and Gonzalo Cárdenas, the grand façade exudes timeless sophistication.
The Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao boasts exhibits that take you on a visual journey through the evolution of art. The collections seamlessly bridge diverse art forms, featuring paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, and more. Explore European and Spanish art movements, from Goya’s haunting portraits to contemporary Basque art.
Beyond its artistic treasures, the museum is a masterpiece of architectural elegance. Designed by Fernando Urrutia and Gonzalo Cárdenas, the neoclassical façade exudes timeless sophistication. The building’s grandeur enhances the museum experience, creating a harmonious blend of art and architecture.
INSIDER TIP: Visit during off-peak hours for a more serene experience. The early morning or late afternoon offers a quieter ambiance, allowing you to immerse yourself in the art without the hustle of crowds, fostering a more intimate connection with the exhibits.
Nestled in the vibrant Casco Viejo district, Teatro Arriaga beckons you into a world of artistic splendor. Art, culture, and history converge in this late 19th century architectural masterpiece that exudes a timeless charm.
Named after the renowned composer Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, Teatro Arriaga is a testament to Bilbao’s rich cultural heritage. Marvel at the theater’s architectural finesse, adorned with ornate detailing and a majestic façade. The interior boasts a harmonious blend of luxury and historic allure, setting the stage for an unforgettable experience.
From classical concerts to contemporary theater productions, the theater hosts a dynamic repertoire, ensuring there’s something enchanting for everyone. Catch a performance during the evening for an atmosphere steeped in magic as the dimmed lights and the hushed anticipation create a perfect backdrop.
INSIDER TIP: Delve into the catacombs beneath the stage on a special guided tour. Originally storage rooms, these underground chambers now hold remnants of past productions and reveal a fascinating backstage history.
Dive into the region’s maritime history at the Itsasmuseum Bilbao. Situated at the waterfront, this maritime treasure trove celebrates the city’s rich naval history.
Itsasmuseum showcases an impressive collection of vessels, navigational instruments, and artifacts, narrating the story of Bilbao’s evolution from a humble fishing village to a maritime powerhouse. Wander through interactive exhibits that bring to life the challenges faced by sailors of yore, providing a hands-on understanding of nautical exploration.
Discover the incredible fleet of historic vessels, each with its own story. Explore meticulously restored ships, getting a firsthand look at the craftsmanship and design defining different maritime exploration eras. Try your hand at navigating virtual oceans on interactive displays.
Venture into the world of maritime craftsmanship with Itsasmuseum’s exclusive nautical workshops. From knot tying to ship model building, these hands-on sessions provide a unique, interactive experience for visitors of all ages, allowing you to connect with maritime skills firsthand.
INSIDER TIP: Itsasmuseum’s Maritime Film Nights are a must! Held in the museum’s auditorium, these screenings feature classic and contemporary maritime films, providing a cozy and culturally enriching evening for film and seafaring fundis.
Casilda Iturrizar Parkea
Escape the urban hustle and find some tranquility in Casilda Iturrizar Parkea. Located near the iconic Guggenheim Museum, this park is the perfect spot for unwinding and enjoying a relaxing afternoon surrounded by nature.
Established in the early 20th century, Casilda Iturrizar Parkea has well-maintained lawns, meandering paths, and charming water features that create a peaceful atmosphere for gentle walks or quiet contemplation.
Wander through Casilda Iturrizar Parkea and discover a delightful blend of botanical wonders. Uncover the park’s historical legacy with the commemorative plaques scattered throughout. Each plaque tells a unique story, from wartime gatherings to the park’s role in Bilbao’s cultural evolution. Keep an eye out for vibrant art installations around the park.
Instead of settling for the main picnic areas, venture towards the western part of the park. You’ll discover less crowded spots with unobstructed views of the Guggenheim Museum—a perfect setting for a quiet picnic with a panoramic backdrop.
INSIDER TIP: Want to escape the crowds? Navigate to the northeastern corner of the park, where a discreet gate leads to a secluded retreat surrounded by fragrant blooms known to locals as the ‘Secret Garden.’
Another beautiful urban sanctuary offering tranquility and breathtaking views is Etxebarria Parkea. Located atop Mount Etxebarria, this park provides a serene escape on your Spain travel itinerary just a stone’s throw from the city center.
Once an industrial area, Etxebarria Parkea was transformed in the early 21st century, evolving into a green expanse with nods to its industrial past. Wander through remnants of old factories, now integrated seamlessly with lush greenery. Soak up panoramic views of the cityscape, the Nervión River, and beyond.
Expect charming pathways adorned with vibrant flowers and thought-provoking art installations. The park’s design harmoniously incorporates remnants of its industrial history, creating an aesthetically intriguing landscape. Don’t miss the colossal iron sculpture, a testament to Bilbao’s industrial roots.
For a magical experience, visit Etxebarria Parkea in the late afternoon. As the sun descends, the park transforms into a tranquil haven. The warm hues of sunset reflect off the city’s skyline, casting a golden glow over the surroundings.
INSIDER TIP: For an intimate picnic with a view, head to the park’s eastern edge during sunset. A secluded bench offers a perfect vantage point, providing a serene setting to unwind as the city lights start to twinkle. It’s a local secret for an enchanting evening in Bilbao’s green embrace.
Explore Bilbao’s rich culinary heritage and indulge in a range of mouthwatering Basque flavors at Gure Toki. This vibrant pintxo (tapas) bar in the lively Plaza Nueva is a hotspot for some of the best tapas in town.
Boasting a cozy dining room with a traditional tiled bar, Gure Toki has a vibrant atmosphere, blending warm Basque hospitality with contemporary flair. The star of the show is undoubtedly the pintxos – bite-sized masterpieces that marry traditional Basque flavors with modern flair. Expect culinary delights like grilled octopus, Iberian ham, and creative flavor pairings that showcase the culinary prowess of the Basque region.
Grab a seat at the bar and witness the artistry of pintxos creation, where skilled chefs assemble these edible works of art with precision and care. Complement your pintxos journey with an extensive selection of local wines, ciders, and beverages.
Head out of town for the day and venture down to the rugged Basque coastline and the beautiful hamlet of Gaztelugatxe. Set on a small islet crowned by a picturesque hermitage, this iconic landmark promises an enchanting blend of natural beauty and historical intrigue.
Located just 35 kilometers from Bilbao, Gaztelugatxe’s history dates back to the 9th century when a hermitage was built atop the islet. Connected to the mainland by a stone bridge, this jewel atop a rocky outcrop is dedicated to John the Baptist. Over the centuries, it has witnessed the ebb and flow of maritime tales and local legends, creating an atmosphere steeped in mystique.
Gaztelugatxe promises a journey steeped in natural beauty and historical resonance. As you climb the 241 stone steps, panoramic views of the coastline and the vast expanse of the Bay of Biscay unfold with each step. According to tradition, the hermitage itself holds a bell that should be rung three times for good luck.
The hermitage gained international fame as Dragonstone, the ancestral seat of House Targaryen, in the television series Game of Thrones. Beyond its role in popular culture, Gaztelugatxe is entwined with maritime lore. The islet has witnessed the comings and goings of sailors, and local tales speak of its connection to the sea’s mystical forces.
INSIDER TIP: Explore the nearby coastal towns for fresh seafood and Basque delicacies after your ascent. The region’s culinary offerings provide a perfect way to cap off your Gaztelugatxe adventure.