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The ultimate guide to exploring Bilbao: Top Things to see and to do

Bilbao is a vibrant and culturally rich city located in the Basque Country region of northern Spain. The city has a fascinating history, and its unique Basque culture has greatly influenced its identity.

Originally known as an industrial hub, Bilbao has undergone a major transformation in recent years, emerging as a top tourist destination. This is evident in the city’s modern architecture, vibrant art scene, and delicious cuisine.

Visitors to Bilbao can expect to experience a blend of traditional and modern influences, making it a truly unique city to explore. Its strategic location between the mountains and the sea adds to its charm and provides opportunities for outdoor adventures.

Guggenheim Museum

Canadian architect Frank Gehry was inspired by the appearance of fish scales and the outlines of ships and designed a striking building, shimmering in the light, lined with sheets of titanium. The Guggenheim Museum was life-giving water for post-industrial Bilbao in the 1990s and instantly made it part of the world of contemporary art.

The Guggenheim Museum is Bilbao’s main attraction, contains a unique collection of 20th century art. The best of the best reign here: if surrealism – then Dali, if abstractionism – then Kandinsky, if cubism – then Picasso. They are accompanied by Andy Warhol, Richard Serra and, of course, dozens of young and talented artists and sculptors, whose creations amaze the imagination. Its unique architecture is a sight to behold, making it a popular attraction for tourists.

Casco Viejo

Getting to know a city should always begin where the first chapters of its history were written. Bilbao was born from Casco Viejo, 700 years have passed, but the cobbled streets still retain medieval charm. Once upon a time, very wealthy citizens lived on the right bank of the Nervion River, so the entire quarter is one continuous attraction: pompous mansions, palaces, churches and monuments replace each other, surprising with the variety of styles and ingenuity of architects. On 7 streets woven into a web, especially noteworthy are the Arriaga Theater, the John Palace, the churches of St. Anthony and St. John, the La Ribera market and other spectacular buildings. The shady Arenal gardens, numerous shops and restaurants await tourists who are tired of contemplation.

Bilbao Maritime Museum

This state-of-the-art waterfront maritime museum features vibrant and well-designed displays to immerse you in the region’s rich maritime history.

Start by watching a 10-minute video that offers an overview of Bilbao’s history from the 14th century to the present day, then wander through two galleries covering old shipbuilding techniques, horrific shipwrecks (and strategies for rescuing survivors) and pirate attacks. Pay attention to the ship models and especially to the replica of the 17th century Bilbao consular mission vessel.

Plaza Nueva Square

The main square of the old town, Plaza Nueva, is dotted with small tapas bars hidden between the columns of its houses. This neoclassical square was opened in 1851 after half a century of construction and is still Bilbao’s main gathering place for festivals and concerts.

On Sundays, there are markets selling used books, coins and various antiques.

Archaeological Museum

Not far from the New Square is the Bilbao Archaeological Museum, which can tell a lot about the rich history of the mysterious Basque Country. Here in the center of the old city in the Casco Viejo area it is convenient to start your journey to one of the 7 historical streets of Bilbao.

This two-story museum will take you back into the region’s deep past. Here you can view fossils found in the Sierra de Atapuercha region, which date back to 430,000 BC. On the 2nd floor you will see models of early fortified villages, Celtiberian carvings, and statues and fragments from the Roman era.

Next, you will move on to the period of Visigothic rule and, in the end, you will find yourself in a hall dedicated to the Middle Ages. Among the most interesting exhibits are catapult stones, a 20th-century skull and 13th-century women’s jewelry.

Alyondiga

Alhondiga, an ambitious project by the Basque Country government by iconic architect Philippe Starck, is a giant entertainment center and a work of art at the same time. The early 20th century building, which once served as a wine warehouse, has been transformed into a real city of pleasures, surprising both inside and out.

Even the sun in Allondiga is its own, its own: an artificial luminary constantly shines over the courtyard, so that in the kingdom of hedonism the weather is always good.

Behind the modernist facade lies a huge cinema, library, sports complex, exhibition and concert halls, restaurants, bars and shops. And above all this, on the roof, splashes a swimming pool with a transparent floor: tilting your head back, you can gaze at the bathers, who can clearly see the visitors scurrying around below.

The Cathedral of St. James

The Cathedral of St. James is an obligatory point on the pilgrimage route to the tomb of the apostle, supposedly located in the city of Santiago de Compostela. The temple in honor of the heavenly patron of Bilbao is a brilliant embodiment of the Gothic style: the facade is decorated with pointed arches, rosettes, and soaring pointed spiers.

The size of the cathedral is modest, there is only one bell tower, but inside you can admire chapels dedicated to 15 saints, wooden sculptures, an old organ and magnificent stained glass windows. Over the 7 centuries of its existence, the temple was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, but continued and continues to be the center of the religious life of the city.

Zubizuri Bridge

The Zubizuri Bridge is a modern architectural marvel that crosses over the Nervión River. It’s a great spot to take a stroll and enjoy stunning views of the city. The bridge was designed by the architect Santiago Calatrava and opened in 1997. It dates back to the city’s modern architecture era and stands out against the backdrop of Bilbao’s historic bridges.

Officially, the bridge is called Campo Volantin (Puente del Campo Volantin), and its popular name, meaning “white bridge,” comes from the appearance of the bridge: a deck of glass blocks combined with a curving white arch.

It’s especially beautiful here in the evening: the illuminated bridge seems to float in weightlessness. And it’s okay that beauty requires sacrifice: significant sums from the city budget are spent annually on replacing fragile glass tiles, and in winter, careless pedestrians continually break their noses on a surface that is slippery, like an ice skating rink.

San Mames Stadium

Temperamental Spaniards love football. So the authorities of the Basque Country decided in 2006: there is no point in the Athletic Bilbao players huddling in the old (by the way, built in 1913) stadium, it’s time to give them a new, big and beautiful one. They demolished the unnecessary exhibition center, invited the architect Cesar Azcarate and approved his bold idea.

The new home arena brings good luck to Athletic Bilbao: since the opening of San Mamés, the club has far more victories than defeats.

Azcarate came up with an impressive structure for 56 thousand seats, consisting of glass “scales”, transparent during the day and flashing with multi-colored lights at night. The global financial crisis delayed construction for several years, but in 2013 Nuevo San Mames on the street. Rafael Moreno Pichichi finally opened its doors to the waiting spectators.

Catedral de Santiago de Bilbao

In Bilbao, as well as in other Spanish cities, there are quite a lot of ancient religious buildings that are of great interest to a huge army of tourists. The Temple of Santiago, despite its very advanced age (built in the 14th century), is very well preserved and looks like a perfect remake, although the last reconstruction took place only in 1833. At this time, the architect Severino de Achucarro was once again rebuilding the bell tower with a height of 64 meters. The temple was built in the Gothic style, very popular in those distant times. The interior decoration of the temple is very modest; there are no unique paintings by world-famous painters, as well as jewelry and ornaments. If you wish, you can look at the very original stained glass windows, and the sculpture of the Immaculate Virgin Mary is of interest. Entrance to the cathedral is free

Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

Another place you should definitely go to is a Fine Arts Museum, here that recently celebrated its centenary. Due to the regularly replenished exhibits, the museum changed its premises three times. There is a very large collection (about 7 thousand copies) of masterpieces by outstanding artists. To admire the immortal works of art of the great Spanish painters, you will have to pay an entrance ticket for an adult – 6 euros, children (under 7 years old) are free. The museum exhibits paintings from different eras, from the 15th century to the present day. If you are a fan of Goya, Romero de Torres, El Greco and Gauguin and many other famous Basque artists, then you will be immensely happy to see paintings by your favorite masters in one place.

Abando train station

Even if you don’t plan to go anywhere, be sure to stop by the Abando Station (Estación de Abando Indalecio Prieto) to see the magnificent stained glass window telling about the history and culture of Bilbao. It features references to the Basilica of Our Lady of Begoña and the city’s industrial past in fishing and steel processing.

Beaches

Another attraction of Bilbao is its luxurious beaches. The best ones:

  • Las Arenas in Getxo (13 km from Bilbao). In addition to the purest golden sand, it stands out because it is within walking distance of the famous Biscay “flying bridge”;
  • Arrigunaga is a picturesque beach at the foot of the La Galea cliff in the town of Arrigunaga. Due to the rocks, the water on the beach is very calm;
  • Plentzia-Gorliz is a beautiful and calm beach at the mouth of the Plentzia River, 26 km from Bilbao.

 

Bilbao food - Do Eat Better Experience

Cuisine of the Basque Country: long-standing traditions

Basque cuisine is legendary, the region’s chefs are included in the world’s top rankings, and its restaurants sparkle with Michelin stars.

Bilbao is the best place to discover Basque cuisine, which is reminiscent of French and Spanish, but has many characteristics. Basques have a passion for fish and seafood; they prefer beef (most often in the form of grilled steaks) and chicken, but rarely eat pork. Herbs and seasonings are not overused, trying to maximize the natural taste of products and paying special attention to their freshness.

A signature snack from Basque chefs is “pintxos”: similar to “tapas”, but more cunning in preparation, sandwiches with fish, seafood, omelet and other, sometimes the most unexpected ingredients.

The best fish dishes are glass eel “angulas”, cod in jelly “bacalao al pil pil”, white tuna “bonito”, cuttlefish in ink sauce, fish “al horno”. Meat eaters will enjoy peppered chorizo sausages (especially those cooked in cider), beef chops and sukalki stew with chorizo pepper. For starters you can take marmitaco or porrusalda, and as a side dish – piperrada omelette or ratatouille pisto.

For dessert, you should treat yourself to cuajada made from goat’s milk or goshua pudding with cream and caramel.

The most famous drink of the Basque region is the young white wine txakoli, which goes well with seafood, as well as pintxos. Apple cider is traditionally popular. Stop by Promenade bilbao, a bar where you can have a glass of wine and refresh yourself.