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215 215 9814

Bilbao Travel Guide: Discover the Basque Jewel

May 28, 2024 9 min read.

Bilbao, the largest city in the Basque Country of Spain, offers a unique blend of modernity and tradition.

This guide provides comprehensive information on the city's attractions, cultural practices, travel tips, and an itinerary of 3 days to help you make the most of your visit to this destination.

General Information about Bilbao

Bilbao, located in northern Spain, is a city known for its rich history, cultural diversity, and architectural marvels. It has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past few decades, evolving from an industrial center to a hub of art and innovation.

The city is home to over 345,000 residents and serves as the capital of the province of Biscay.

Founded in the early 14th century, Bilbao's strategic location near the Bay of Biscay has historically made it a significant port and commercial center.

Currency, Language, and Cultural Customs

The official currency in Bilbao is the Euro (EUR), which is widely used across the European Union.

While Spanish (Castilian) is the predominant language, Basque, a unique and ancient language, is also widely spoken and holds official status. Visitors will notice bilingual signs and a strong presence of Basque culture, reflecting the region's pride in its heritage.

Bilbao's cultural customs emphasize socializing and community. One of the most cherished traditions is "txikiteo," which involves moving from bar to bar, enjoying small glasses of wine or beer, and sampling "pintxos" (Basque-style tapas).

This practice highlights the local appreciation for good food and company. In August, festivals such as Aste Nagusia (Great Week) showcase the city's spirit with parades, concerts, and traditional Basque sports.

Top Attractions in Bilbao

Bilbao offers a variety of attractions that cater to diverse interests. Here are some of the must-visit spots:

Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum is an architectural masterpiece designed by Frank Gehry. Its titanium curves and innovative design have made it an iconic symbol of contemporary art.

Inside, the museum houses a significant collection of modern and contemporary art, featuring works by artists such as Jeff Koons, Richard Serra, and Mark Rothko. The museum's impact on the city has been profound, spurring Bilbao's cultural and economic revival.

Casco Viejo (Old Town)

Casco Viejo, Bilbao's historic old town, is a labyrinth of narrow streets and charming squares. This area is home to many of the city's oldest buildings, including the Santiago Cathedral, a Gothic church dating back to the 14th century.

Visitors can explore the "Seven Streets" (Zazpikaleak), which form the heart of Casco Viejo, and discover traditional shops, cafes, and bars that offer a taste of authentic Basque life.

Azkuna Zentroa

Azkuna Zentroa, formerly known as Alhóndiga Bilbao, is a cultural center housed in a former wine warehouse. Renovated by French designer Philippe Starck, this multifunctional space hosts art exhibitions, concerts, film screenings, and workshops.

The center also features a rooftop swimming pool with a transparent floor, offering a unique view of the atrium below.

Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum boasts an extensive collection spanning from the Middle Ages to contemporary works. The museum's collection includes pieces by Spanish masters such as El Greco, Goya, and Velázquez, as well as international artists like Gauguin and Bacon.

It is a must-visit for art enthusiasts looking to explore a diverse range of artistic styles and periods.

Zubizuri Bridge

Designed by renowned architect Santiago Calatrava, the Zubizuri Bridge is a white arch bridge that spans the Nervión River.

Its sleek design and glass walkway provide stunning views of the city and the river, making it a popular spot for photography and leisurely walks.

Top Activities in Bilbao

Bilbao offers a range of activities that allow visitors to experience the city's culture, cuisine, and natural beauty:

1. Stroll Along the Nervión River

The Nervión River runs through the heart of Bilbao, and the promenades along its banks are perfect for a leisurely stroll.

The revitalized riverfront area, known as the Abandoibarra district, features modern architecture, public art installations, and green spaces, creating a scenic route for walking or cycling.

2. Explore Mercado de la Ribera

The Mercado de la Ribera, located in the old town, is one of Europe's largest covered markets.

It offers a vibrant atmosphere with stalls selling fresh produce, meats, seafood, and traditional Basque products. Visitors can sample local delicacies, such as "bacalao" (salted cod) and "queso Idiazabal" (smoked cheese), while experiencing the lively market culture.

3. Visit Mount Artxanda

Mount Artxanda provides a natural escape with hiking trails and panoramic views of Bilbao.

Accessible by a funicular railway, the summit offers spectacular vistas of the city and surrounding mountains. It is an ideal spot for picnics, leisurely walks, and capturing memorable photographs.

4. Enjoy Pintxos and Txikiteo

No visit to Bilbao is complete without experiencing the local food scene. "Pintxos" are small, flavorful snacks typically served on bread, topped with a variety of ingredients such as seafood, cured meats, and vegetables.

Engaging in "txikiteo" involves hopping from bar to bar, sampling different pintxos and drinks. Popular pintxo bars include La Vina del Ensanche and Café Bar Bilbao.

What to Eat and Drink

Bilbao's culinary scene is renowned for its emphasis on quality ingredients and traditional recipes. Here are some local specialties and recommended places to try them:

Traditional Dishes

  • Bacalao a la Vizcaína: This Basque-style cod dish is prepared with a rich red pepper sauce and is a staple in Bilbao's cuisine. Restaurante Victor Montes in Plaza Nueva offers an excellent rendition of this classic dish.
  • Marmitako: A hearty tuna stew made with potatoes, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. This dish is traditionally enjoyed by Basque fishermen. Try it at Batzoki Bilbo Zaharra in the old town.
  • Txuleta: Basque-style grilled steak, often from locally raised cattle, known for its tenderness and flavor. Asador Etxebarri, located a short drive from Bilbao, is famous for its expertly grilled meats.

Beverages

  • Txakoli: A slightly sparkling, dry white wine that is a regional specialty. It pairs perfectly with seafood and pintxos. Txakoli Gorka Izagirre, a local winery, offers tours and tastings.
  • Basque Cider: Known as "sagardoa," this traditional cider is less sweet than its commercial counterparts. Visit a "sagardotegi" (cider house) like Petritegi for a tasting experience.

Notable Establishments

  • Café Iruña: A historic café established in 1903, located near the Jardines de Albia. It is famous for its Moorish-inspired décor and traditional Basque dishes.
  • La Vina del Ensanche: A renowned pintxo bar and restaurant offering a variety of creative and classic pintxos, along with an impressive selection of Iberian ham.
  • Bistró Guggenheim Bilbao: Located within the Guggenheim Museum, this bistro offers contemporary Basque cuisine with a focus on seasonal ingredients.

Getting Around the City

Bilbao's public transportation system is efficient and user-friendly, making it easy to navigate the city:

Metro

The Bilbao Metro is an extensive network that connects various parts of the city and surrounding areas. With clean and modern trains, the metro is a convenient option for both locals and tourists.

The system is known for its distinctive Norman Foster-designed stations, characterized by their sleek and futuristic appearance.

Walking and Cycling

Many of Bilbao's attractions are within walking distance of each other, particularly in the city center.

The city also promotes cycling, with an extensive network of bike lanes and bike-sharing programs.

Buses and Trams

Bilbao's bus network is operated by Bilbobus, offering numerous routes that cover the city and its suburbs.

The tram system, known as Euskotren Tranbia, provides a scenic and leisurely way to travel, especially through the city center and along the riverfront.

Taxis and Ride-Sharing

Taxis are readily available throughout Bilbao and can be hailed on the street or booked via phone or mobile apps.

Ride-sharing services like Uber also operate in the city, providing another convenient option for getting around.

Regional Travel

For travel beyond Bilbao, the Abando Indalecio Prieto railway station offers connections to major Spanish cities like Madrid and Barcelona.

Long-distance buses operate from the Termibus station, providing routes to various destinations across Spain and Europe.

For more travel inspiration to plan your adventure in Spain, check out our guide to Barcelona at our blog section!

Three-Day Itinerary

To make the most of your visit, here is a suggested three-day itinerary:

Day 1: Cultural Immersion

  • Morning: Start your day at the Guggenheim Museum. Spend a few hours exploring its impressive collection and innovative architecture.
  • Afternoon: Head to the Casco Viejo. Wander through its narrow streets, visit the Santiago Cathedral, and enjoy lunch at a traditional eatery like Restaurante Victor Montes.
  • Evening: Stroll along the Nervión River, taking in the views of the Zubizuri Bridge and the modern skyline. End your day with dinner at Café Iruña, where you can sample classic Basque dishes in a historic setting.

Day 2: Local Flavors and Views

  • Morning: Visit the Mercado de la Ribera. Browse the stalls and sample local produce, cheeses, and cured meats.
  • Afternoon: Enjoy a leisurely pintxo lunch at La Vina del Ensanche. Spend the afternoon exploring the Azkuna Zentroa cultural center, attending an exhibition or relaxing in the rooftop pool.
  • Evening: Take the funicular to Mount Artxanda. Enjoy the panoramic views of Bilbao and the surrounding countryside, and have dinner at one of the restaurants on the mountain, such as Restaurante Txakoli Simón.

Day 3: Art and Relaxation

  • Morning: Explore the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. Admire the extensive collection of artworks spanning various periods and styles.
  • Afternoon: Relax at Azkuna Zentroa, where you can participate in a workshop, watch a film, or simply unwind in the unique setting. Alternatively, visit the nearby Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park for a peaceful stroll.
  • Evening: Experience the lively atmosphere of the local bars with a pintxo and txikiteo tour. Start at Café Bar Bilbao in Plaza Nueva and continue exploring different bars, savoring a variety of pintxos and local wines.

Check Our Personalized Travel Packages to Bilbao!

Bilbao's unique blend of history, culture, and modernity makes it an unforgettable destination. From its world-class museums and historic old town to its vibrant food scene and stunning natural surroundings, Bilbao has something for every traveler.

Explore the various travel packages to Bilbao available at our website and start planning your adventure today.

01
What is the best time to visit Bilbao?

The best time to visit Bilbao is from May to October, when the weather is pleasant and various festivals take place.

02
How do I get to Bilbao from the airport?

Bilbao Airport is connected to the city by bus, taxi, and car rental services, ensuring easy access.

03
Are there any local specialties to try in Bilbao?

Yes, local specialties include pintxos, bacalao a la vizcaína, marmitako, txakoli wine, and Basque cider.

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