Things to Do in Bilbao, the Most Avant-Garde Medieval City

Discover the best things to do in Bilbao, strolling through the Old Part of the city to the newest and most avant-garde area on the Nervión estuary.

We know the Bilbao of today, so when someone tells us what this town in the Basque Country was like in the 1970s and the decadence into which it was plunged in the decades that followed, we can’t believe it. But the city is like that, it rises from its ashes and what was once an abandoned, dreary and somewhat dangerous port area has now become an unmissable place to visit in Bilbao.

I am talking about the town of Bilbao and not the city, because “town” is the title it has held since 1475, granted by the Catholic Monarchs. Although you will also hear it called Bilbo (its name in Basque) or “El Botxo” (hole in Basque) because it is surrounded by mountains.

If you are thinking of visiting Bilbao, don’t forget to take a Car Road trip through the Basque Country following our recommendations of places to visit. You will love it!

Map of Things to do in Bilbao

If you take a look at the map, you will see that Bilbao can be divided into 3 specific areas to visit. One is the Old Part, the other is the Nervión estuary that crosses it and the other is the Cantabrian coast. To this, we must add the surrounding areas such as Guernica, Bermeo or San Juan de Gaztelugatxe.

So you have two options, either you dedicate 4 days to this northern Spanish village, or 2 full days non-stop with a rented car.

🔝 Our visits to Bilbao were part of weekend getaways or visits to friends who live there. See more articles about travel to the Basque Country here.

– Things to do in Bilbao on the Nervión Estuary

We will make a route from the Artxanda viewpoint to the San Mamés Stadium, bordering the Nervión Estuary and passing by the Guggenheim Museum.

📷 Get to know Bilbao and the Bizkaia Bridge, a World Heritage Site, from the Nervión estuary on this boat trip. Check the details and book your place.

1) Guggenheim Museum

The walk along the Nervión Estuary can start perfectly well at one of the essential places to see in Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum, which made the town a before and after. This contemporary art museum designed by the Canadian architect Frank O. Gehry was inaugurated in 1997 and has transformed the estuary into a place that is both pleasant to visit and avant-garde.

From the outside, you will be amazed by the museum’s design, which is silver, shiny and irregularly shaped, with waves, where nothing seems to make sense. As you get closer, there are some curious works to visit in the vicinity. Most of them are on the estuary:

  • Mum of Louise Bourgeois, a giant spider capable of intimidating any arachnophobe.
  • Yves Klein’s Fountain of Fire.
Fire Fountain by Yves Klein Guggenheim Bilbao
  • Fujiko Nakaya’s FOG Sculpture.
  • The Great Tree and the Eye by Anish Kapoor.
  • The Tulips of Jeff Koons.
The Tulips Jeff Koons Guggenheim Bilbao
  • And Puppy, also by Jeff Koons, but at the front of the museum, defending the entrance door. It is a giant, colourful flower dog that makes a peculiar contrast with the museum in the background and is a symbol if you are visiting Bilbao.
Puppy de Jeff Koons Guggenheim Bilbao

If the outside of the museum surprised you, the inside will surprise you too, because just as it has strange shapes on the outside, so does the inside. In its permanent exhibition you can see works by contemporary Basque artists such as Eduardo Chillida (of the Peine del Viento, one of the places to visit in San Sebastian) and Jorge Oteiza, as well as Yoko Ono.

📌 General admission to visit the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao: 13 € online / 15 € at the ticket office. If you want to buy it online, check the Museum’s website. The audio guide is included in the ticket price.

📷 If you prefer to take a guided tour of the museum and get the most out of the exhibits, we recommend this guided tour of the Guggenheim Museum, which also includes admission..

2) La Salve Bridge and Iberdrola Tower

Yes, they have nothing to do with each other, but they are the two buildings that stand on either side of the Guggenheim Museum and which can be found in any photo of the Guggenheim Museum as a backdrop.

The Salve Bridge is practically integrated with the museum thanks to a lift that descends from it and leaves you almost at the door. It is characterised by a red fork at the top.

🔝 Want to take a tour of the city? Check out these recommendations for the best free tours in Bilbao.

La Salve Bridge in Bilbao

For its part, the Iberdrola Tower is the tallest building in Bilbao (and in the north of Spain) and its architect is the Argentinean César Pelli, which has made the Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur, the Cristal Tower in Madrid (one of the 4 towers of the new financial centre) and so many other buildings around the world.

💯 Enjoy 360º views of Bilbao by going up to the 25th floor of the Iberdrola Tower (adult entrance 9 €). You will also be able to see an exhibition of photographs of what Bilbao was like before deindustrialisation.

3) Doña Casilda Park and the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

Turning away from the Nervión Estuary, we go to the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum with a collection of more than 10,000 objects from the 13th century to the present day. The main building is neoclassical in style (inspired by the Prado Museum) with red brick and stone, but also has slightly more modern extensions. Expectations are high for the extension to be carried out in the coming years with the participation of the famous architect Norman Foster.

📌 General admission to visit the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum: 7€ (under 25s free – check their website for other discounts).

The next stop is Doña Casilda Park, another place to visit in Bilbao. The land for its use was donated by Casilda Iturrizar, hence the name of the park. Strolling along its paths, watching the fountains and duck ponds, we enter one of the main green lungs of the city, ideal for a rest after a long walk.

In the vicinity of the Museum of Fine Arts and the park is the Euskalduna Palace, which is Bilbao’s Conference and Music Centre, a venue for various plays, concerts and private events.

4) Itsasmuseum (former Ría de Bilbao Maritime Museum)

Itsas means sea in Basque and this museum explains Bilbao’s relationship with the sea. You will find the museum on the Nervión estuary, next to a red crane nicknamed “Carola”, and it is made up of several buildings on the same land that once belonged to the Euskalduna Shipyards.

The permanent collection is made up of various types of boats, including the trawlers that are often seen in the estuary and the Gabarra, the boat used by Athletic Bilbao for the La Liga championship celebrations in 1983 and 1984.

📌 General admission to visit the Itsasmuseum: 6 € adults (there are many additional discounts for families, students, senior citizens, etc.).

Bilbao San Mames

5) San Mamés Stadium

And while we’re on the subject of Athletic Bilbao, they went out to celebrate along the estuary because the stadium is just a few metres from the Itsasmuseum.

Today, this stadium, nicknamed The Cathedral, is one of the most avant-garde stadiums in Europe, winning awards at various festivals and hosting the most select sporting events. Although you can visit the museum during the day, be sure to stop by at night, when the façade is illuminated with red LED lights.

Bilbao0064San Mames

6) Artxanda viewpoint

If you visit Bilbao you will see that it is surrounded by mountains, which has earned it the nickname of Botxo, in Basque hole. One place to check this out is Mount Artxanda, as from its viewpoint we can see how the town is in a deep well. But that’s not all this viewpoint will leave us with.

  • The views of Bilbao, especially the historic centre and how the Nervión estuary meanders. And if you happen to have a nice day in Bilbao, which is not uncommon, it is even better to see the sea in the distance.
  • Two sculptures by Juan José Novella in the viewpoint called “El Engranaje” (an original piece from the first funicular railway in Bilbao) and “Huella Dactilar” (in honour of the soldiers who fell in the Civil War).
  • The Grotto of the Virgin of Lourdes.
  • The Funicular, one of the ways to climb Mount Artxanda.

And yes, one of the ways to climb the 770 metres of the mountain, apart from by car, bicycle or on foot, is its 3-minute funicular.

Visiting Bilbao from the heights at the Artxanda Viewpoint

– Things to do in Bilbao in the Old Town

Before visiting the Old Part of Bilbao, we can first take a walk around the Plaza Moyuá, where one of the fosteritos (metro accesses, I talk about it in detail below) and the Chavarri palace are located.

From there, we can go to La Alhondiga (with an h, not a b) whose official name is Azkuna Zentroa, which is an old wine warehouse that has been transformed into a modern leisure and cultural centre. The outside of the building is impressive, so be sure to take a closer look.

7) Arriaga Theatre

One of the most beautiful buildings to see in Bilbao is the Arriaga Theatre, named after the Bilbao composer Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, known as the Spanish Mozart. Together with the Euskalduna Palace, it brings together most of the performances that take place in the city, except that the former is used for massive shows where a more complex technical deployment is required, while the theatre exhibits plays, musicals, dance, zarzuela, among others.

If you already have the feeling of having travelled back in time from the outside, let alone entering it, with its curved hall and its decoration full of details. For its part, in the guided tour will take you inside the theatre and tell you about the history of some of its boxes such as the Orient Express lounge, or the undecorated box for widows who wanted to look discreet after their loss (but did not want to miss a play).

📌 General admission to visit the Arriaga Theatre: 5€.

Arriaga Theatre, a things to do in Bilbao

8) Plaza Nueva in Bilbao

An essential stop among the things to see in Bilbao is a visit to its Plaza Nueva, which is somewhat reminiscent of the main squares found in the rest of Spain. This square is rectangular in shape and neoclassical in style, with semicircular arches surrounding it at its base.

Today it houses the headquarters of Euskaltzaindia, the Royal Academy of the Basque Language, and is also one of the meeting points for locals looking for something to eat or drink with family or friends in one of the restaurants specialising in pintxos.

💯 If you’re in Bilbao on a Sunday, we recommend that you go and see the antiques market, which is ideal for collectors.

Things to do in Bilbao, Plaza nueva

9) Euskal Museoa Bilbao

The Basque Museum occupies the building that was once the old San Andrés College of the Society of Jesus, built in the 17th century, which belonged to the Jesuits until they were expelled from Spain. The main entrance is on the Plaza Miguel de Unamuno and consists of 3 floors of exhibitions dedicated to ethnography, ceramics and ironworks and history (map lovers will love this floor as there are several old ones here).

📌 General admission to visit the Basque Museum: 3 €.

Plaza Unamuno in Bilbao

10) Santiago Cathedral in Bilbao

Although what we first see of the Cathedral is its façade and tower, built in the 19th century in the neo-Gothic style, in reality the religious temple has existed here since before the 14th century.

The apostle Santiago is the patron saint of the town and that is why the Cathedral is named after him. In addition, the Camino de Santiago del Norte, which runs along the entire Cantabrian coast, passes through here and some of its most representative images can be found in the church, such as a shell on the Angel’s Door and the cross of Santiago in the rose window.

💯 The entrance ticket to visit the Cathedral also includes the entrance ticket to the Church of San Antón, and an audio guide if you want to do it on your own.

🔝 Take a look at these tips if you would like to do the Camino de Santiago one day.

Bilbao, Santiago Cathedral a things to do in Bilbao

11) Yhon Palace

From the Cathedral we approach the banks of the Bilbao estuary, passing first by the Stock Exchange Building, also known as the Yhon or John Palace. This large house covers an entire end of a block in the Old Town, which means that it is surrounded by 3 different streets, the central one, on Pelota Street and facing Santa María Street, being the most important one.

If you think, as I do, that it is a building housing “La Bolsa”, a kind of Bilbao Wall Street, then no. It is not. Not today, not before. The origin of this building is unknown, and it is assumed that the name, which has transcended the centuries, is due to the suspicion that a possible merchant trading exchange operated there. Today, this beautiful palace is used as a cultural centre.

12) The Seven Streets to do in Bilbao and the city walls

When we reach the riverbank, we can see that the facades on this street have arches to shelter from the rain (and also from the sun, which doesn’t always rain). However, as well as the Ribera market, we should also pay attention to the streets that start off from it and go back into the Old Quarter. One of the peculiarities of Bilbao is that its old quarter still maintains the layout of streets that it acquired seven centuries ago when it was founded in the Middle Ages.

At the beginning there were only 3 streets (the first 3 mentioned below), but it didn’t take long for it to become 7 as the town grew in importance. Then it is necessary to walk along the Seven Streets of the Old Part of Bilbao, parallel to each other. These are:

  • Goienkale or Somera, the street above. And since we spoke of him before, we should mention that Juan Crisostómo Arriaga was born at number 12 Juan Crisostómo Arriaga Street.
  • Artekale, the middle street.
  • de la Tendería Street, where the shops and businesses were located.
  • Belostikale Street, street of the fishmongers.
  • Carnicería Vieja street, where Bilbao’s first slaughterhouse was located.
  • Barrenkale, here you should look for the Arana palace, which is one of the oldest in Bilbao.
  • Barrenkale Barrena was the street most affected by the flooding of the estuary.

The streets at each end of the seven streets, which are Pelota and Ronda, are where the walls of Bilbao used to be located (this is why Somera has a curved part of its layout). Ronda is so called because it was the place where the guard tour took place.

📷 As you can see, there are a thousand and one stories to tell about this area of Bilbao, which is why we recommend do a Free Tour or a more personalised guided tour (which includes entry to the Cathedral of Santiago, which can also be used in the church of San Antón).

seven streets, a things to do in Bilbao

13) La Ribera Market

The art-deco Mercado de la Ribera is the largest covered market in Europe and one of the places to see in Bilbao where you can get fresh produce and also delve into the wonderful world of pintxos. So this is the place to stop for a drink and a break after a stroll through the Old Town.

Mercado de la Ribera, one things to do in Bilbao

14) San Antón Church, one things to do in Bilbao

Together with the bridge of the same name that crosses the Nervión estuary, this church is present in the coat of arms of the town of Bilbao. It is a much-loved and popular building from the 15th century.

In previous centuries, the Bridge of San Antón was the access to the town and on the other side you were greeted by a defensive fortress behind the walls. This fortress did not last long and was transformed into a church dedicated to San Antonio Abad. Different architectural styles can be observed in it, built in Gothic style, but with a Renaissance entrance portico and a Baroque bell tower. Its interior is simple, as a result of the floods and fires that have led to the loss of its heritage.

Old Town. Bilbao

15) Basilica of Begoña

It is not one of the most popular places for visitors to Bilbao, but it is well worth a visit as it is one of the most loved by the locals themselves. The Amatxu, as the Virgin is called, is the patron saint of Biscay. Moreover, as Bilbao was a seafaring town, those who entered the fierceness of the Cantabrian Sea daily asked for its protection. And when they returned safe and sound, at the height of the Salve bridge, when they saw the tower of the Basilica for the first time, they sang the Salve in gratitude.

If you are strolling through Bilbao’s Old Town and want to visit the Amatxu, be prepared to climb 326 steps to reach this Gothic building.

Our Lady of Begoña

– Things to do in Bilbao on the Cantabrian Coast

Bilbao as such does not have a beach, but with the metro (more about it below) plus a short walk you can get there. Red line 1 takes you to the nearest beaches such as Plentzia, Sopelana and Azcorri. Given the rough seas in this area, these beaches are ideal for surfing. If your idea is to visit Bilbao and you are more of a land-based visitor, there are several bars and restaurants along the seafront promenade where you can enjoy a beer or a meal.

📷 Take a look at this tour of the Basque Coast and book your place.

Beaches near Bilbao

The black line 2 is the one that takes you to the Bizkaia Bridge, which links Portugalete with Getxo. This bridge is a Unesco World Heritage Site because it was the first ferry bridge in the world to have a metal structure (there is also a later one in the La Boca neighbourhood of Buenos Aires). Today it is in use and can be crossed by car. It is also possible to climb to the top of the bridge.

🔘 Check out the rest of the World Heritage Sites we have visited.

🔝 See the following article for some recommendations of excursions to do from Bilbao if you do not have your own mobility. You’ll love them!

Bizkaia Bridge, not to be missed if you are visiting Bilbao

Pintxos Route in Bilbao

The Basque Country is popular for its pinchos (tapas) and that’s why taking a gastronomic route in search of the best flavours is one of the things to do if you’re visiting Bilbao.

You can’t leave without ordering a Gilda, which is a very typical pintxo that became popular in the 1950s and there are even competitions to see who can make it better.

For the Pintxos Route in Bilbao to be a success, the best thing to do is to walk through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter. Any of the bars in the area strive to offer the best pintxos and attract the attention of tourists and locals alike, so it’s almost a sure-fire hit.

Where to stay in Bilbao

– Hotels

There is a wide range of hotels in Bilbao and it is best to stay in the Abando area (the relatively new neighbourhood surrounding the Guggenheim Museum) or the Casco Viejo, in order to be able to walk to any of the attractions mentioned in this article. Some of our recommendations for different types of travellers are:

  • AliciaZzz Bed And Breakfast, is one of the ideal accommodations for travelling with children to Bilbao, given that the decoration of its rooms is inspired by the book Alice in Wonderland. In addition. its location is excellent, in the heart of the Old Town, so you can walk to all the places.
  • Quartier Bilbao Hostel, perfect if you are travelling alone or with friends and want to stay in a cool hostel in the heart of Bilbao’s Old Town, just a few steps away from the Cathedral. Common areas for socialising include a rooftop terrace, a kitchen and a lounge with a TV. Most of the rooms are shared.
  • Basque Boutique Hotel, a design hotel where each room will teleport you to a scene from the culture of Bilbao and the Basque Country, with handmade furniture and authentic details. A bonus? Its location, also in the Old Town. Perfect for couples looking for intimate corners.

🔝 We have an article with a series of recommendations of places and neighbourhoods where to stay in Bilbao. Don’t miss them!

– Rural houses

Another of our favourite options when travelling with the family for a more rural and nature-based experience. Here we don’t care if it’s a rustic room or a house for ourselves, what we care about is breathing fresh air and being close to other kinds of places.

🔝 Take a look at these recommendations for Rural Houses in the Basque Country.

Getting around Bilbao: the Metro

The modern Bilbao metro is almost an attraction in itself as it was designed by the team of architect Norman Foster (yes, the same one who will do the extensions of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum). So much so that the entrances/exits to the metro, which are made of steel, glass and concrete, are known as “fosteritos”.

Fosteritos to see in Bilbao

But as its importance lies above all in its connectivity, the good thing is that the metro brings you close to everywhere or, failing that, it drops you off at one of the main train, tram or bus lines so you can combine them perfectly.

There are two metro lines running from Bilbao to the sea, one on the Portugalete side and the other goes to Getxo and beyond, and the beaches can be reached after a short walk.

How to get to Bilbao

– By plane

Bilbao airport, located 12 km from the city and designed by Santiago Calatrava, connects the city with Spain and other European cities. To get to the city you can hire a private car transfer for your convenience or simply take the A3247 bus that goes to Termibus (Bilbao bus terminal), but not before making a couple of stops in the modern part of the city (it passes through Plaza Moyúa).

📷 Travel with peace of mind and book your transfer from Bilbao airport to the city (and vice versa).

– By train and bus

If you live in Madrid or elsewhere in Spain, you might consider coming to Bilbao by land. In this case, either the train or the bus are good options. It is well communicated and the services are of high quality.

🚊 Buy your Interrail and Eurail pass! This pass is a train ticket with which you can travel on almost all trains in Europe. With it you have access to 40 rail and ferry companies in 33 countries. Absolute freedom to discover Europe at your own rhythm. See our Interrail and Eurail Guide here.

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Things to do in Bilbao

I hope this complete article on things to do in Bilbao will help you plan your trip to this beautiful city. If you have any further recommendations or questions, please leave a comment below.

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