Some Great Things To Do In Bilbao, Spain – As Told By Lisa!
Exploring Northern Spain, are you? What about a stop in Bilbao? Bilbao is a city full of history, character, and Basque country culture with plenty of free, historic, and even weird things to do and check out!
Here at Penguin and Pia, Bilbao has a special place in Lisa’s heart. She lived and studied abroad there for a few months. While it’s not as well known as Barcelona, Málaga or Sevilla, it’s a beautiful Spanish city that she fell in love with – and we’ll try to show you why. She also really wants to take Eric there to see it and he’s totally fine with that.
So, whether you are staying in Bilbao for a few days or passing through from San Sebastián, you’re sure to find plenty of things do to – whatever month you visit. From the Casco Viejo (old town) to the Guggenheim Museum, just grab yourself a map, this article, and head out to explore Bilbao!
Also, if you are planning a trip to Spain – here are a few more posts that you may find helpful:
- Plan a Spain Itinerary – Anywhere from 5 to 14 Days!
- Put Some Beautiful Cities in Spain On Your Bucket List
- Do and See The Top Attractions In Spain
- Discover Things to Do in Cities Like Madrid or Barcelona
Things to Consider When Visiting Bilbao
If you are thinking about heading to Bilbao when you are in Spain, here are a few need-to-know trip planning details to help you out! We cover language, culture, getting around, where to stay, and more!
General Information About Bilbao
Bilbao is located in Northern Spain in a region called Basque country. This is an autonomous region from Spain – and the people are very proud to be Basque. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque country has its own language, culture, and identity that co-exists with the Spanish culture and language.
Lots of people speak Euskera in addition to Castellano (the “normal” Spanish) in Bilbao. If you learn a few words in Euskera people will be super happy. A few simple words are these two: Agur is “bye” and Eskerrik asko means “thank you”.
That said, the city has changed a lot over the last few decades. This is largely attributed to the “Guggenheim Effect” – and we will talk about this a little further down!
Best Time to Visit Bilbao
Like we said, Bilbao is a city in the Northern part of Spain. This means that it doesn’t usually get as hot as cities in the south of Spain such as Sevilla or the capital Madrid (which doesn’t have any ocean breeze close by). Bilbao’s location makes it nice to visit even during the hotter summer months.
If you can, we would recommend visiting at the end of August during the Semana Grande. Literally meaning “Big Week”, this celebration is over a week-long and basically one massive street party/festival with loads of different music and festivities happening!
Generally, you can visit Bilbao year round but it is nicest from March to September. It can rain quite a lot during the winter months so it would be the wisest choice to avoid that time. When Lisa lived there, it was actually one of the nicest winters in a very long time with very few rainy days. But locals often made it clear that this was an exception!
Getting Around in Bilbao
Since Bilbao isn’t a huge city you can walk pretty much anywhere if you want to. However, there is also a great metro and tram system that the inhabitants are quite proud of. A word of advice, though: don’t try to eat OR drink in the metro – people don’t like that.
If you are staying longer than a couple of days and plan on taking the public transport frequently, you can get a Barik Card at a ticket machine. This is just a reusable “tap” card which you use to pay for your journey. Here is the website for the metro to learn more.
Since there are quite a few hills, there are also lots of escalators in the city as well as a funicular. To be honest, these days it is more of a tourist attraction – and we’ll mention it further down.
Where to Stay in Bilbao
Bilbao isn’t a huge city, but it has a good number of accommodation options. A couple of Lisa’s friends have previously stayed at the Hotel NH Bilbao Deusto and had a good experience. However, it isn’t close to the Old Town so you might opt for another hotel closer such as Ercilla Hotela if you only have a limited amount of time in the city.
To make it easier for yourself, we would recommend that you don’t stay anywhere too high up since since walking up steep hills at the end of an exhausting day might not be the most fun. You can check here for Bilbao accommodations – and remember to try to stay close to the river or the Old Town!
Great Things To Do In Bilbao, Spain
Okay, so now that you have all the information – let’s get to checking out the things to do in Bilbao. This list is in no particular order, so don’t feel like you have to go top to bottom. However, okay, you should probably cross #1 off the “done” list early!
Visit The Guggenheim Museum
Let’s begin with the most popular tourist attraction. The Guggenheim museum is difficult to miss with its impressive exterior. It is a museum of Modern and Contemporary Art which was inaugurated in 1997. Since then, it has played a very important role in shaping the city.
Some people even talk about the “Guggenheim effect”, which refers to how the museum helped to transform the city. By attracting lots of visitors to Bilbao, the city’s economy was fueled and shifted away from declining industries such as iron, steel, and shipbuilding to a more service-industry focused city.
Lisa has been in there a couple of time and would recommend it to anyone who has more than one day in the city. There are some interesting exhibitions in the museum which you might enjoy even when you are usually not a big fan of art museums.
If you are usually not a big fan of art, then maybe go when there is an event happening. When Lisa lived there, the Guggenheim offered museum “parties” quite frequently which were a unique way to explore the exhibitions. We’d recommend checking out the website to see what events are happening when you visit Bilbao. You can find the website here!
Address: Abandoibarra Etorb., 2, 48009 Bilbao
Walk Through The Old Town (Casco Viejo)
The old town of Bilbao is beautiful – and admittedly, it is quite easy to get lost in. Even at the end of her time in Bilbao, Lisa still sometimes got disoriented when wandering through the old town.
The old town is centered around Las Siete Calles, Spanish for “The Seven Streets”, which have existed since the 15th century. We would recommend to just wander through the small, charming streets and see what you can find. It is a pedestrian-only area so you don’t have to worry about cars.
There are some chain clothing stores but also quite a few interesting independent shops. You can also find lots of nice cafes and ice cream places in this part of town which are perfect for taking a rest in the afternoon. We’d recommend one or two by Lisa honestly can’t remember where exactly they were – so that’s our challenge for you!
You can’t be in Bilbao without trying their pintxos, the basque version of tapas. You can find pintxos bars all over the city, but if you are exploring the old town, you should stop at the Plaza Nueva, which is sometimes also called Plaza Berria.
Around this plaza, there are lots of small bars with delicious pintxos. Lisa has been to a few different ones and has never had a bad experience. Just wander around and see what you like. You can also just grab one at one bar and then go to another one to try something else. Make sure to grab a glass of wine and enjoy the atmosphere in the plaza, as well.
Take The Funicular Up To Artxanda Lookout
If you want to experience the views in Bilbao, then you should head up to Artxanda Lookout. Located at the top of Mount Artxanda, the lookout offers you a very different perspective compared to street level. To get up there, you get to take the famous Funicular. The cable car ride is only a few minutes but it’s still fun to see the city get smaller and smaller the higher you go.
Once you get off, you turn left after you leave the building and the view point is right there. Lisa went up there once and got some amazing photos at sunset. Now that Eric is seeing them, he really wants to go up, too! You can also walk around up there since there are a few trails, restaurants, and more to see besides just the lookout.
Oh, and fun fact: If you purchase a Barik Transport Card, you can use it for the funicular which is always handy.
Address for the Funicular: 27, Carretera Artxanda-Santo Domingo Errepidea, 48015 Bilbao
Stroll Along La Ría
One of Lisa’s favourite parts of the city is probably the river that runs through it. The river, La Ría, played (and continues to play) a huge role in shaping Bilbao as the main artery out to the open ocean. You can see people go for walks or run along the river pretty much any time of the day. In fact, you can often see rowing clubs out there for a paddle. You can even rent a kayak and hit the water yourself!
If you want to stay more on land but enjoy the river, there are also lots of benches along the way. This way, you can just walk a bit and then have a sit down and enjoy the sunshine.
Learn About The Cathedral of St. James
As one of Bilbao’s oldest monuments, the Cathedral of St. James is something that you shouldn’t miss! Built sometime between the 14th and 15th centuries, the church was likely to have been founded even before the year 1300. For those keeping track, Bilbao wasn’t even a city then! Saint James was pretty important back in the day – and this church served as a stopping point for those making pilgrimages.
Inside and out, you’ll see a unique mix of architectural styles like Gothic and Gothic Revival. Lisa walked by often and always marveled at how pretty and detailed the outside was. There are a few churches, cathedrals, and places of worship in Bilbao – but The Cathedral of St. James is a special one! You can learn more about the Cathedral at the official website.
Address: Plaza de Santiago, 1, 48005 Bilbao
Admire The Vizcaya And Zubizuri Bridges
Because there’s a river that cuts through Bilbao and brings it to life, people also need bridges to get from one side to the other! There are a few bridges that span the river – some more famous than others – so here are two that are popular:
The Vizcaya Bridge is a very unique sight – there’s a reason why people come from far and wide to ride it. It is one of very few “hanging gondola suspension” bridges in the world! What this means is that people get on a hanging “car” and are shuttled across the river in the air as it suspends from higher supports. Because it’s so unique, it was actually declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Less interesting but still beautiful is the Zubizuri Bridge. This gorgeous bridge that spans the river is a pedestrian bridge near the Guggenheim Museum. It’s functional and makes for some pretty photos – as you can see above!
Get Sporty At The Stadion Of Athletic Bilbao
If you are a fan of sports, then The Stadion “San Mamés Stadium” of Athletic Bilbao might be interesting for you! If not, the building is still great to see from the outside. That said, remember to call it Athletic and not Athletico – you could offend big fans by saying that!
The people of Bilbao are generally big fans of soccer so the atmosphere on game days can be great. One of the reasons for this is that Athletic Bilbao only recruits Basque players which makes them feel very connected to their team. If you get the chance to be there during a game, try to get tickets to see it in the stadium or find a bar where you can watch it with other soccer fans. Here’s the website where you can learn more!
Address: Rafael Moreno Pitxitxi, s/n, 48013 Bilbao
Feel Fine at the Museum Of Fine Arts
If museums are more your style and you want to learn about Basque, Spanish, and European art, then head to the Museum of Fine Arts. Located entirely in Doña Casilda Iturrizar park, the museum is the second most visited museum in Basque Country. Can you guess the first most visited? Yup – it’s the Guggenheim! If you want to learn more about visiting the Museum of Fine Art, you can check out the official website.
Address: Museo Plaza, 2, 48009 Bilbao
Check Out the Azkuna Zentroa
Considered Bilbao’s cultural centre, the Azakuna Zentora is a great place to visit as you wander through the city. The building itself is quite cool to see. Admittedly, it can be a bit confusing when you first enter… the building doesn’t really help you understand what exactly it has in it. Turns out – there’s loads to do. Once you explore, you’ll actually find that there’s a gym, a library, exhibition spaces, a cinema, and many other things all under one rooftop!
Lisa went here for a free art exhibition once and enjoyed it! One of the highlights is the swimming pool with the glass bottom. Just wander around and see what is going. We would recommend a stop if you are in that part of the city anyway, but don’t go out of your way just to visit the Azkuna Zentroa. If you want to plan a visit, you can check out the website.
Address: Arriquíbar Plaza, 4, 48010 Bilbao
Take A Trip To Sopelana Beach
If you have a little more time in Bilbao and would like to spend some time at the beach, you should head to Sopelana Beach – Lisa’s favourite beach in the area. It is located just outside of Bilbao and easily accessible by metro. Just take the L1 towards Plentzia and get off at Larrabasterra or Sopela. From the city centre , this journey should take approx. 40 minutes.
From the metro station you can walk (or take a bus) to the beach. As you walk up the towards the water, you’ll find yourself suddenly standing on a cliff edge with the beach and the golden sand below you. Just look at the photo above!
The waves can be quite strong – which is amazing for surfing but also means that you have to be a little bit careful. Overall, the coast guards do a pretty good job with changing the flags when the current is getting too strong. In the summer, the beach can get busy but it is not too overrun with people. In fact, comparatively, the beach actually has a lot less tourists than many beaches in the southern part of the country.
And there you have it – some of the best things to do in Bilbao. Now, this isn’t everything – but it’s a pretty good list. Bilbao isn’t overly huge (like Barcelona) but we’d definitely suggest a stop in for some food and a slight change of pace and culture. We can’t wait to go back to discover the city together – and eat pintxos, let’s be serious! If you end up going, let us know how you liked the city!
As always, Happy Bilbao Waddlin’,