Once a run down port city, today Bilbao is a hub of art, culture and incredible food. Perfect for a 48 hour trip…
We arrive in Bilbao on the ‘dia de la constitución’, which as it turns out is a major holiday in Spain. And we were wondering why so many hotels were sold out… Still, the buzzing vibe makes a great start to a 48 hour visit to the Basque regions biggest city.
Nestled on the Spanish Atlantic coast, a short drive from France, Bilbao is a city that is often overlooked in favour of more glamorous Barcelona or Seville. But actually, Bilbao offers plenty of temptations to rival either of those cities for a long weekend. If you’re doing the Camino de Santiago through the region then Bilbao will be a welcome stop for you…
Orientation and where to stay
The main city of Bilbao ‘proper’ sits on the south bank of the Nervion river, which winds its way to the Bay of Biscay.
On arrival from the airport, the bus meanders through countryside, into a tunnel and then pops you out right in the heart of the city, right next to the Guggenheim Museum. Quite a welcome.
Following the river towards the sea you come to subruban satellite towns like Deusto, Barakaldo, Portugalete (the port) and Getxo.
We stayed in the old town (Casco Viejo) in an Airbnb. But we spotted similar priced hotel and apartment stays across the city. Prices for hotels and apartments were around €50-60 per night, but you can find places for closer to €40 if you search. Those looking for a budget hostel will find places around the €12 mark, mostly in the city centre.
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The city sprawls along the valley, but the main downtown and tourist area of Bilbao is very walkable. If you’re just in town for a 48 hour whistle stop tour then you’ll likely only use the metro a couple of times, if at all. But, the metro is cheap and efficient, with a trip costing from €1.60 if you pay as you go, or less than an euro if you use the local metro card (barik card).
The metro serves the old town (Casco Viejo), San Mames stadium and continues out into some of the outlying suburbs. So if you’re staying closer to the beach in Getxo, or in sleepier (and cheaper) Portugalete then you might find yourself zipping in an out.
Walking from Guggenheim to Old Town (Casco Viejo) along the river would take around 20 minutes.
The Guggenheim Museum
Opened in 1997, the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim museum has become the symbol of Bilbao and the city’s biggest draw. The building is a work of art in itself, and is surrounded by sculptures by well known artists including a giant floral puppy by Jeff Koons and a spider named after Louise Bourgeois’s mum.
Although standing outside is great, it gets better inside, with works of art by Warhol, Basquiat , Picasso and de Kooning (among loads of others). If you only do one ‘touristy’ thing in Bilbao, this should be it. Unless you hate art for some reason.
Entry is €13 for adults, although there is a free entry day once a month. Check the website for more details.
The old town, or the 7 streets (siete calles) of Bilbao is nestled on the far west of the city, just across the bridge from the main Bilbao ‘Abando’ train station. As the name suggests, the Casco Viejo is a warren of vintage buildings housing countless pintxos bars, restaurants and boutique shops.
As we were here on a national holiday, the whole of Casco Viejo was heaving with revellers enjoying a drink outside. Even though it was December, the weather was actually quite mild, and even in the shade it was possible to sit and enjoy a coffee and pintxo without feeling the cold.
However in the summer months, it would likely be the perfect spot to hide from the midday sun and refuel before walking along the river. Plaza Berria (aka Plaza Nueva – or New Plaza) is a central spot, just a short walk from the metro station and a perfect place to find your bearings before invariably getting lost.
Some of our favourite pintxos bars were around the Plaza Berria . Cafe Bar Bilbao served up some particularly fantastic morsels, as did Gure Toki and Culmen Bilbao.
Furnicular de Artxanda
We actually missed this trip up the hill to check out the view, but its definitely high on the list of best things to do in Bilbao. It’s €1.75 each way to catch the furnicular and it’s just a short walk across the river from Guggenheim.
Once at the top, many people enjoy a picnic or a walk around the gardens if the weather is good.
La Ribera Market
On the edge of Casco Viejo, overlooking a bend in the river, this revamped market now houses a selection of street food stalls, a premium restaurant, some bars and local delicatessans. We passed through for a coffee and to soak up the sun on a nice day, but there are also regular events here too.
Bilbao’s most famous museum, the Guggenheim, definitely gets all the limelight. If you’re after more art, the Museum of Fine Art features a more classical collection, a short walk from it’s more famous sister.
If art doesn’t float your boat, a short walk along the river is the Maritime Museum. Featuring a lot of interesting history about shipbuilding, Bilbao’s modern history and the cities relationship with the sea.
And down in Casco Viejo, you’ll find the Basque History Museum (site only in Spanish and Basque), featuring trinkets, archeological finds and displays about the local Basque culture.
San Mames Stadium
This huge stadium right in the heart of the city is quite a source of Basque pride (unless you’re a supporter of Real Sociedad). Athletic Bilbao actually have a proud history in the league, having won the title 8 times prior to the domination of Real Madrid and Barcelona. They also recruit only local talent, so no Brazilians or Germans here.
If you’re in town on match day, tickets start from a very reasonable €30.
In theory Bilbao isn’t on the coast, but it’s easily reachable via the very efficient metro in around 40-50 minutes from the city centre. We headed to Algorta, which wasn’t the best beach on the coast, but is sandy and accessible. The beach is a ten-15 minute walk from Bidezebal metro down a steep hill and is flanked by huge limestone cliffs.
Sopelana and Plentzia are both better placed to access the beach, although you’ll need to walk or get a bus or local taxi to the actual seashore. From Larrabesterra metro stop in Sopelana, you can walk to the beach in around 15 minutes. There are surf hire shops on most of the beaches if you want to hit the waves…
Plentzia is the end of the line, but wander across the bridge to the little town of San Jose Auzoa and you can be on the beach in around 20 minutes.
I briefly mentioned the food under the Casco Viejo section, but for foodies and gastro tourism, Bilbao and nearby San Sebastian are seriously good. The local version of tapas is called pintxos (pin-tchos) and they’re pretty much a work of art.
Every bar will be decorated with a variety of these exquisite mini snacks and it can be tempting getting into going on a bar crawl just to try another pintxo. They cost anything from around €1-2 and upwards and go well with a coffee, beer or the local apple wine, txakoli (cha-ko-lee).
Aside from pintxos, the Basque region is renown for it’s quality cuisine. As we were travelling with a toddler, we didn’t quite get to experience the incredible restaurant experience like we did in San Sebastian, so much as grab what we could. Our Airbnb host recommended Victor Montes in the Plaza Nueva, and Zortziko (calle Alameda Mazarredo). We’ll have to check them out when we’re next in town!
Getting to Bilbao
Bilbao airport is a short ride from the city centre by regular shuttle bus. Tickets cost €3.00 one way and the bus drops you in the Plaza Moyua (a short walk from Casco Viejo and Guggenheim) and then continues to the main bus station by San Mames Stadium.
Bilbao airport is connected to many cities in the UK and Europe including London Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, Bristol and Manchester.
Trains to Bilbao Abando station connect to many cities across Spain including Barcelona and Madrid. If you’re coming from France, you’ll need to change at Irun/San Sebastian.
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