The Basque capital, Bilbao, has much more to offer than the famous Guggenheim Museum. The former industrial town is packed with both ancient and modern architecture, exciting art and beautiful views. And there’s plenty of opportunity to fill up on delicious pintxos.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the northern Spanish city of Bilbao in the Basque Country. The former industrial town is at its best from the River Nervión, which runs through the town.
Along the river you’ll find everything from historic, colourful residential buildings and raw industrial buildings to futuristic architecture. The bridges over the river are equally diverse, the historic district is an atmospheric walk into the past and the modern district is lively and filled with contemporary art and design.
Lose yourself in Bilbao, and rest assured that one visit is not enough to finish the city.
1. The Guggenheim Museum
The Guggenheim Museum didn’t just turn Bilbao from a rundown industrial city into a modern, hip design town after it opened in 1997. It’s also definitely the biggest and most interesting attraction in the city.
Standing on the other side of the Nervion River, which runs next to the museum, you are already overwhelmed by the architecture created by architect Frank Gehry. The organically shaped building, said to be inspired by the scales of a fish tail, clad in sandstone, glass and titanium plates, certainly attracts attention when it glistens in the city lights. That’s true whether it’s sunny, rainy, night or day.
Outside the museum you are welcomed by a committee of interesting artworks. Louise Bourgeois’ giant mother spider, Maman, facing the river, and Jeff Koons’ flower dog, Puppy, facing the city, are particularly impressive.
It’s easy to spend a really, really long time walking around the building, studying its many shapes and nooks, as well as studying it from the nearby bridges and the other side of the river. But don’t forget to look inside. Here you will find a permanent art collection with works by both local and international artists, including. Jorge Oteiza, Antonio Saura, Miquel Barceló, Joeeph Beuys, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as ongoing exhibitions. Here are both visual arts, sculpture, installations and photo and video art.
Read more about the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao here
Guggenheim Bilbao, Abandoibarra Etorb. 2
2. See Bilbao from the top
On the riverbank, on the opposite side of the Guggenheim, you’ll find the historic Artxanda cable car, which runs up to a large green park area at the top of Artxanda Mountain. Here you’ll enjoy magnificent panoramic views of the city, the river and the beautiful mountain landscape in the background.
At the cable car station you’ll find the main viewpoint, but there are also several hiking trails to other viewpoints, as well as restaurants and a sports complex.
The mountain railway ride takes three minutes and you can buy tickets at the station.
Funicular Artxanda, Carretera Artxanda-Santo Domingo Errepidea 27
3. Phillipe Starck Cultural Centre
Renowned French architect Phillipe Starck has been given free rein to modernise Bilbao’s cultural centre, housed in a 1909 Modernista building that used to be a wine and oil warehouse.
Starck has created a different, cinematic universe in the 43,000 m² multicultural centre with library, cinema, art gallery, shop, bar, restaurant and fitness centre. Starck’s magical universe is divided into creatively crafted sections of state-of-the-art design that blend beautifully with the old building. Although the area is huge, Starck has created an intimate and cosy atmosphere with lots of quirky features like a glass-bottomed swimming pool.
During modernisation, the load-bearing interior walls were raised from the ground. Now the building rests on 43 colourful columns in creative designs by Italian photographer Lorenzo Baraldi.
Azkuna Zentroa, Arriquíbar Plaza 4
4. Calatrava’s pedestrian bridge
Crossing the Nervión River, near the Guggenheim Museum, is a 75-metre-long, white, sculptural walkway that resembles a sailing ship in its slender, curved shape. Zubizuri (Basque for white bridge) is also called the Calatrava Bridge after the Spanish architect Santiago Caltrava who designed it. The bridge was built in 1997 and has become a symbol of the city.
The many slender, white-painted steel wires from which Zubizuri is formed float 10 metres above the river, and the walkway itself is created from transparent glass stones. Be sure to both walk across the bridge and see it from a distance, you can sense the sculptural shape.
5. See modern art
Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park is home to the Museo de Bellas Artes, the second largest art museum in the Basque Country after the Guggenheim Museum. Here you can see works from the Middle Ages to the present by Spanish and international artists such as El Greco, Goya, Francis Bacon, Goya and Gaugin, as well as changing avant-garde exhibitions.
Mueso de Bellas Artes stands out from other art museums because the exhibitions are arranged thematically rather than chronologically/stylistically. It is very inspiring to explore art when works from different periods and by different artists are put together in unconventional ways.
Museo de Bellas Artes, Museo Plaza 2
6. Enjoy the view from the Arenal Bridge
The Arenal Bridge is located in the centre of Bilbao, connecting the neighbourhoods of Casco Viejo and Abando, and offering stunning views of the river and its many beautiful buildings, as well as Arenal Park.
Parallel to the river, behind the market stalls, notice the facade of the city’s old station, La Concordia, which has linked Bilbao to Santander for many years. Inaugurated in 1902, the station’s beautiful glass, ceramic and wrought iron façade in the traditional Modernista style added a touch of romance to the industrial city for many years.
Estación de La Concordia, Bailén 2
7. Eat pintxos at the modernista market
Bilbao’s Mercado de la Ribera food market is an architectural must see. It is set in a 1929 Modernista building, which from the outside looks like a boat moored on the river in Bilbao’s Old Town.
Inside, the stalls are full of vegetables, fruit, fish, meat and delicacies. The food market also has a nice selection of gastro stalls, where you should try the popular Basque pintxos (tapas on bread) and enjoy a glass of wine with a river view.
The bars are a popular place for locals to end their shopping trip at the market with a few pintxos. More people come here just for the good bars.
Mercado de la Ribera, Erribera Kalea, s/n
8. Stroll the seven streets
Bilbao’s old town, Casco Viejo, also known as “Las Siete Calles” (The Seven Streets) is one of the city’s great experiences. The seven atmospheric streets, Barrenkale Barrena, Barrenkale, Carnicería Vieja, Belostikale, Tendería, Artekale and Somera streets are the city’s oldest, as the city was born around the 1400s.
The area was then the commercial centre and port of the city. Today, the seven streets and the streets and squares around them are filled with pintxo bars, cafés, restaurants and shops.
It’s pleasant to wander the pedestrian streets with colourful architectural gems of old houses with fine balconies, small squares and sights like the 15th-century Gothic Santiago Cathedral
Catedral de Santiago, Done Jakue Plazatxoa 1
9. Coffee break in the old town
A good place for a pit stop in the old town is the café, Baster, which is close to the cathedral and belongs to one of the modern bars/cafés.
The decor of the small bar is funky, but you can also sit outside on the terrace and breathe in the street life while enjoying a few of Baster’s organic tapas or pintxos and a craft beer. The menu includes seafood, vegetarian and vegan tapas such as an almond and pesto filled roll with onions, mushrooms and courgette. Baster also serves good coffee.
Baster, Posta Kalea 22
10. Shop berets
The Casco Viejo district is dotted with small shops specialising in everything from umbrellas (it often rains in Bilbao), shoes and hats to souvenirs.
Many of the small shops have a long history, just as they have been family-run for generations. One of them, the hat shop Gorostiaga, is worth a visit.
The hat shop specialises in classic beret hats made from local wool. The shop has been run by the same family for 160 years, and it feels like stepping into a time warp.
The wooden shelves are packed with hats and hat boxes, and the walls are hung with vintage hat advertisements. The owner, Emilio, offers expert advice on hat selection and is happy to tell the story of the historic beret.
Sombreros Gorostiaga, VIktor Kalea, 9
11. The Basque Museum
In a pleasant and lively square in Bilbao’s Old Town, the Eskula Museoa is a Basque museum where you can learn about the history, life and work of the Basque people through a collection of over 20,000 objects.
The museum is divided into themes such as sea and fishing, sheep breeding, trade and crafts, and here you can see traditional tools, work utensils, clothing, ceramics, porcelain and photographs. The museum is a truly interesting study in the history, archaeology and ethnology of the Basque Country.
The museum is housed in an 18th-century building originally constructed for the Jesuit Church. In the old monastery courtyard, notice the zoomorphic sculpture known as the Mikeldi Idol, which dates back to the Iron Age.
Eskual Museoa, Unamuno Miguel Plaza 4
12. Pitstop at Plaza Nueva
Plaza Nueva is Bilbao’s central square in the old town. The square dates from 1851 and is the venue for concerts, festivals and a flea market with books and coins on Sundays.
Plaza Nueva, however, is best known for its many pinxtos bars, under the arcades, where you have plenty of opportunity to go on a pintxos crawl and taste pintxos in both traditional and modern versions.
A visit to Victor Montes, formerly a delicatessen, is a must. The elegant bar with chequered floors and beautifully decorated ceilings serves a good selection of really good pintxos, including truffle and caviar, as well as good wines.
Many great personalities are and have been regular customers of Victor Mondes. These include. Frank Gehry, who lived here during the construction of the Guggenheim Museum.
Victor Montes, Plaza Nueva 8
13. See the opera house
Close to the Arenal Bridge is Bilbao’s beautiful neo-baroque opera house, Teatro Arriaga, inaugurated in 1890. It was designed by local architect Joaquín Rocoba and inspired by the Paris Opera House. The theatre, like many other buildings in Bilbao’s Old Town, was damaged by a flood in 1983 and then renovated.
Teatro Arriaga hosts a number of the city’s concerts, ballets and theatre performances. You can go on a guided tour. Buy tickets on the website.
Teatro Arriaga, Arriaga Plaza 1
14. Eating cakes at El Tilo
A stone’s throw from the Opera House, El Tilo de Mami Lou is the place to go if you want to indulge your sweet tooth.
The historic rooms are romantically decorated with a modern touch. There are white subway tiles and wood panelling on the walls, wooden tables and chairs and a big, light blue wooden counter with a cake stand with all the sweet delights. The owner Alain makes the most delicious cakes, inspired by the cakes his grandmother used to bake. Choose from a variety of cupcakes and pies to go with the great coffee and tea.
El Tilo de Mami Lou, Areatza Kalea 1
15. Go to the flower market
Not far from the Town Hall is Arenal Park, where a flower market is held every Sunday. A multitude of stalls are filled with fragrant flowers of all colours and plants, all grown locally. Join the locals on a shopping trip to the market, where they buy flowers both to fill their own living rooms and for hostess gifts.
Mercado de las Flores, Tinglados del Arenal
Transport in Bilbao
Architect Norman Foster designed Bilbao’s distinctive metro stations, whose covered glass staircases rise up throughout the city. Popularly known as fosteritos, the metro stations have become the symbol of the city.
The metro has three lines, which will get you around the city quickly and easily.
You can ride the metro with the Bilbao Bizkaia card, which can be bought at tourist offices. They are available with a validity of 24, 48 and 72 hours.
More tips for Bilbao
Read also the guide to Bilbao’s hip bohemian district, La Vieja
The journey to Bilbao
You can’t fly direct to Bilbao from Denmark, but you can fly from Copenhagen to Bilbao with a stopover with, among others. Air France and KLM. The shortest journey time with a stopover is 4-5 hours. Alternatively, you can fly to Madrid and then on to Bilbao.
Check flights and prices to Bilbao here