Nestled in the heart of Basque Country, Bilbao is a vibrant and culturally rich city that offers a unique blend of history and innovation. Whether you’re a fan of art, history or food, there is no shortage of things to see and do in this northern Spanish city. In this blog post, we will take a closer look at some of the best things to do in Bilbao, from the iconic Guggenheim Museum to the charming Old Town, and beyond. This guide will help you make the most of your time in Bilbao and discover all that this city has to offer.
We’re starting this guide with our favorite thing to do in Bilbao: the Artxanda viewpoint. Bilbao is situated in between two mountain ranges and the Artxanda mountain range is the one that’s closest to the city center. You can hike up the mountain, but for those who want to save their energy to see as much of the city in a short period of time (yup, that’s us), there’s a funicular that connects the viewpoint to the city center. The funicular departs just north of the Zubizuri Bridge and takes you up to the viewpoint in 3 minutes.
Once at the top, you’re greeted with beautiful panoramic views of the city and the surrounding mountains. As you’re so close to the city, you can easily recognize many sightseeing spots in Bilbao, such as the Guggenheim Museum, the Nervión River and Teatro Arriaga. There’s a small park where you can walk around as well as a restaurant. The Artxanda viewpoint is also a great starting point for hiking trails that take you higher up the mountain. We bet it’s a perfect spot to watch the sunset. Unfortunately for us, it was a cloudy day.
Opening hours of the Artxanda funicular
Winter (October - May)
Monday - Saturday: from 7:15 until 22:00
Sunday & public holidays: from 8:15 until 22:00
Summer (June - September)
Monday - Thursday: from 7:15 until 22:00
Friday, Saturday & eves of public holidays: from 7:15 until 23:00
Sunday & public holidays: form 8:15 until 22:00
The funicular departs every 15 minutes.
A one-way ticket is €2,50 and a round-trip ticket is €4,30.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
One of the most iconic landmarks of Bilbao is the Guggenheim Museum. Designed by the renowned architect Frank Gehry, the museum is a masterpiece of contemporary architecture. The museum’s striking titanium-clad structure, with its curves and angles, has been described as both a work of art and a sculpture in its own right. The museum opened its doors in 1997 and quickly became one of the most visited tourist attractions in Spain. The Guggenheim Bilbao is part of the global network of Guggenheim museums, which includes locations in New York, Berlin, and Abu Dhabi (still under construction). The museum’s exhibitions showcase contemporary art from around the world, with a particular emphasis on art from Spain and the Basque Country.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to visit the museum so we can’t tell you about our experiences. We did check out the interesting architecture of the museum as well as the Puppy artwork in front of the building. The Puppy was created by the American artist Jeff Koons, who is known for his colorful, playful, and often controversial art. The artwork is a towering 12-meter-tall representation of a West Highland Terrier puppy, covered in 70.000 living flowers. There’s an irrigation system inside the structure to ensure that the flowers stay healthy and vibrant throughout the seasons. We think this is a very interesting work of art and a must-see in Bilbao!
Opening hours of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
June 19th until September 17th: daily from 10:00 until 20:00
The rest of the year: Tuesday - Sunday from 10:00 until 19:00 (closed on Mondays)
The entrance fee is €13 if you buy your ticket online and €15 if you buy your ticket at the door. Check this website for current opening hours and to buy tickets online.
Walk along the Nervión River
A pleasant and scenic way to explore Bilbao is by walking along the Nervión River. The river runs through the heart of the city, dividing it into two distinct areas - the Old Town on the east bank, and the modern city center on the west bank.
Starting from the Guggenheim Museum, a stroll along the river provides breathtaking views of the city’s modern architecture, including the iconic Zubizuri Bridge, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava and constructed between 1994 and 1997. The Zubizuri Bridge, which translates to “white bridge” in Basque, is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Bilbao. The bridge is characterized by its distinctive design, which features a white steel deck supported by steel cables and a curved arch that rises over the river.
Continuing along the river, you will pass the Bilbao City Hall, also known as the Ayuntamiento de Bilbao, the headquarters of the city’s government and the seat of its mayor. The building was designed by the Basque architect Joaquín Rucoba in 1892 in Baroque style.
The next sightseeing spot along the river is Teatro Arriaga. The theatre is named after the Basque composer Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, who was known as the Spanish Mozart. The neo-Baroque theater was built in the late 1890 and was designed by Joaquín Rucoba, the same architect who built the Bilbao City Hall. The theater was destroyed by severe flooding in 1983 and was rebuilt in 1985. It’s possible to visit the theater on a guided tour on the weekends. During the tour you visit the Hall and the Foyer, as well as several rooms that are not generally accessible by the public, such as the Orient Express room or the Elizabethan room. As the guided tours are dependent on the performance schedule, they don’t take place every weekend. The price for the guided tour is €5. Check this website for more information.
Continuing strolling along the east bank of the river will take you to Mercado de la Ribera, or Ribera Market. With a surface area of 10.000 square meters spread over three floors, it’s the biggest covered market in Europe. The market building dates back to 1929 and was designed by architect Pedro Izpizua, featuring lots of Art Deco elements. Inside the market there are over 60 vendors selling fresh produce, seafood, and local delicacies. There is also a bar area where you can enjoy pintxos (Basque tapas) and drinks.
Opening hours of Mercado de la Ribera
Monday: from 8:00 until 14:30
Tuesday - Friday: from 8:00 until 14:30 and from 17:00 until 20:00
Saturday: from 8:00 until 15:00
Stroll through the Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo, or old town, is the historic heart of Bilbao and its colorful buildings make for a charming stroll. The maze of narrow streets and alleys in the old town are lined with historic buildings, traditional shops (such as bakeries and butchers), souvenir shops and plenty of bars and restaurants. Many of the buildings have been beautifully preserved, giving you a glimpse into Bilbao’s past.
The Santiago Cathedral, also known as the Bilbao Cathedral, is a stunning gothic-style cathedral located in the heart of Casco Viejo and is dedicated to Saint James the Great, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. The construction of the cathedral took place from the 14th century to the beginning of the 15th century. The exterior of the cathedral shows neo-Gothic influences as a result of an extensive reconstruction of the facade and the tower in the 19th century.
Opening hours for visits of the Santiago Cathedral
Monday - Saturday: from 10:00 until 18:30
An entrance ticket is €6 and includes an audio guide as well as entrance to the nearby San Antón Church. It’s not possible to buy tickets online. Check this website for more information.
One of the most iconic landmarks in the Casco Viejo is the Plaza Nueva, or New Square, a picturesque square surrounded by neoclassical buildings with arcades that house traditional cafes and restaurants as well as some souvenir shops. The square is built in Neoclassical style and dates back to 1821. The square is often used for festivals and concerts. Every Sunday, there’s a weekly flea market where ancient books, coins, stamps, birds and flowers are sold.
We love visiting traditional cafés and we were happy to stumble upon Café Iruña. This historic café was founded in 1903 and is one of the oldest and most famous cafes in the city. The interior is Mudejar-inspired with a lot of tiles, chandeliers and intricate woodwork. We had breakfast here but the café is also open for lunch and dinner.
Something we loved a lot in Bilbao was the shopping area in the Gran Vía district. There, you will find a wide range of shops and department stores, such as Zara, H&M and El Corte Inglès. Did you know that Zara in Spain is cheaper compared to other countries? For us, that’s definitely a reason to stop by Zara in every Spanish city we are in. The shopping area of Bilbao isn’t too big, which we like, and is great for a few hours of shopping. Please note that the stores in Bilbao are closed on Sundays.
How long to stay in Bilbao
We think Bilbao is a perfect destination for a weekend trip. In two days, you can see all the highlights of the city, including strolling along the river and through the old town as well as visiting the Artxanda viewpoint by funicular. The only thing we were unable to visit was the Guggenheim Museum. If you’re not into shopping much, you could of course visit the museum instead.
Where to stay in Bilbao
We stayed at the Ibis Bilbao Centro, which is located in the modern city center. All sightseeing spots are at walking distance from the hotel, it’s only 10 minutes to reach the Gran Vía as well as the Casco Viejo. The Guggenheim Museum is a 15-minute walk from the hotel. The hotel offers a covered parking garage on-site, which was very convenient for us as we were traveling by car. The rooms are modest, yet tidy and come equipped with all the necessary amenities. If you’re looking for a comfortable yet reasonably priced hotel that is within walking distance from all sightseeing spots, we can highly recommend Ibis Bilbao Centro.
We hope that this guide has inspired you to explore all that Bilbao has to offer. Have you been to Bilbao or is it still on your travel bucket list? Let us know in the comments below!
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