Bilbao is a port city in the north of Spain famous for its museums and art centers and its natural scenery. Though it was founded in the fourteenth century, Bilbao has a metropolitan downtown punctuated by tall, modern buildings, a feature that sets the city apart from many others in Spain.
When To Visit Bilbao And How Long To Stay
Avoid peak tourist season in summer and come just before or after, in May and June or September and October.
Two to three days is enough for most visitors; if you’re combining your trip with San Sebastian, four days between the two cities is sufficient.
Transportation To And Within Bilbao
The BizkaiBus A3247 goes from the airport to Bilbao every 30 minutes between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. A single trip takes 25 minutes and costs 3 euros.
It’s also possible to travel to Bilbao from other cities by bus or train. RENFE trains, for example, operate from Madrid and Barcelona. One interesting alternative is to take the ferry from the south of England, a popular option for British tourists.
Within Bilbao, the bus and metro services are extensive. A reloadable Barik card is a good investment if you will be traveling frequently via public transportation. Bilbao is easy to travel on foot as well, especially along the river and in the Casco Viejo neighborhood.
Bilbao’s Must-See Sights
Thanks to its expansive collection of modern and contemporary art, the Bilbao sister to one of New York’s most celebrated museums attracts over one million visitors a year. The building itself, a Frank Gehry masterpiece of undulating titanium waves, is also a work of art.
This pedestrian bridge suspended across the Nervion River not only provides easy access to both river banks but is also a main attraction. Its unique silhouette has become an icon of Bilbao.
A nineteenth-century public square built in Neoclassical style, the Plaza Nueva has a range of restaurants where visitors can dine. This is a good place to start if you want a taste of tapas. On Sundays, the Plaza plays host to a flea market.
Bilbao Fine Arts Museum
The Bilbao Fine Arts museum features over 10,000 pieces on display, including works by artists as diverse as Cranach the Elder, Goya, and Mary Cassatt. After your visit, take some time to walk around the surrounding Doña Casilda Iturrizar park.
Bilbao’s Must-Eat Food And Drink
Azurmendi may be a family-run affair in a small village close to Bilbao, but comparing it to a mom-and-pop diner couldn’t be more inaccurate. At this three-Michelin-starred restaurant serving modern Basque cuisine, guests start their meal in the rooftop vegetable garden and continue to an indoor greenhouse to enjoy a selection of snacks before they finally enter the dining room. Azurmendi is also known for its commitment to sustainability, recycling waste, harvesting rains, and using geothermal energy for cooling.
Michelin-starred Asador Etxebarri is exceptional, largely because so many of its ingredients come right from the backyard. Located in a sleepy mountain town about half an hour’s drive away from San Sebastian, Chef Victor Arguinzoniz’s restaurant is focused on barbecue: succulent smoked meats and fish. Order the tasting menu to sample the full range of Arguinzoniz's repertoire, from caramelized baby octopus to homemade chorizo. The best thing on the menu? It’s hard to pick a stand-out, but the crunchy corn and sea urchin is the current winner.
La Viña Del Ensanche
Make your way to La Viña del Ensanche for a Michelin Guide-recommended meal. Filled with a palpable mix of history and tradition, the restaurant has been serving delicious tapas since it opened its doors in 1927. While the food appears to be simple at first glance, you won’t be disappointed by the flavorful specialties. If you’re feeling indulgent, order the open-faced Iberian ham sandwich with cheese and foie gras on “crystal” bread. Otherwise, opt for lighter bites like grilled cod, crispy croquettes, and crema catalana for dessert. Advance booking is recommended.
A local institution adjacent to the Los Jardines de Albia park, Café Iruña serves up hip flair and a sexy, fashionable crowd. You’ll be taken by the restaurant’s Moorish-inspired interior, replete with patterned ceilings, colorful tiled floors, and stunning murals splayed across the walls. Ask to be seated at a table overlooking the square underneath the restaurant, and enjoy the view with something from the traditional Basque menu. Make sure to save room for a cup of coffee at the end of your meal; it’s won awards for being the best coffee in Spain.
Bilbao’s Must-Visit Neighborhoods
Bilbao’s medieval neighborhood, also known as Zazpikaleak or Alde Zaharra in Basque, has transformed over the centuries from a humble center consisting of seven streets to a bustling area filled with shops and pintxo bars. Check out the Plaza Nueva and the Mercado de la Ribera while you’re here.
By day, Indautxu offers premier world-class shopping and designer lables. By night, it transforms into a neighborhood well-loved for its nightlife. One building worth visiting is Azkuna Zentroa, a multi-purpose venue with a cinema, fitness center, restaurant, auditorium, and library, among others.