Some Great Things To Do In Bilbao, Spain – As Told By Lisa!
Exploring Northern Spain, are you? 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. She also really wants to take Eric there to see it (he’s totally fine with that).
So, whether you are staying in Bilbao for a few days or passing through from San Sebastián, our guide covers plenty of things do to, see, and eat.
From the Casco Viejo (old town) to the world-famous Guggenheim Museum, let’s explore Bilbao!
Bilbao Quick Guide
Best Time to Visit: Late summer (August/September) for fewer crowds, still warm weather, but to avoid the winter cold and rain!
Getting Around: The centre (along the river) is flat and walkable, other areas can be hilly. Bilbao transit consists of metro, buses, tram, and cable cars. This Bilbao Bike Tour might be a great idea!
Table of Contents
Great Things To Do In Bilbao, Spain
Let’s start with the good stuff – here are some top things to do in Bilbao.
This list is in no particular order, so don’t feel like you have to go from top to bottom. However, okay, you should probably cross #1 off the “done” list early!
Visit The Guggenheim Museum
Address: Abandoibarra Etorb., 2, 48009 Bilbao
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 that 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 there a couple of times and would recommend it to anyone who has more than one day in the city.
Our Tip: Get a Guggenheim Museum Line Skip Ticket w/ Guided Tour!
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 Guggenheim website to see what events are happening when you visit 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 just wandering through the small, charming streets and seeing what you can find. It is a pedestrian-only area so you don’t have to worry about cars.
Explore Bilbao’s Old Town and Modern Downtown on this Small-Group Walking Tour
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!
Location for Plaza Nueva/Barria: https://goo.gl/maps/f3Cku2KBpRaTgLeWA
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.
You should definitely indulge in deliciousness on a guided pintxos and wine tour if this all sounds tasty to you! We did a tapas tour in Madrid and found it to be a great way to get introduced to many foods in many local locations!
Take The Funicular Up To Artxanda Lookout
Address for the Funicular: 27, Carretera Artxanda-Santo Domingo Errepidea, 48015 Bilbao
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 viewpoint 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.
Tip: If you purchase a Barik Transport Card, you can use it for the funicular which is always handy.
Stroll Along La Ría
One of Lisa’s favourite parts of the city is probably the river that runs through it. The river, River Nervión, played (and continues to play) a huge role in shaping Bilbao as the main artery out to the estuary and open ocean.
The locals refer to the river as ” La Ría,”. This means “the river” – which makes sense!
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!
You can also experience the river from the water by hopping on a boat cruise. There are a few to choose from – some have audio guides in different languages, while others focus on explaining the famous bridges that span the city’s banks.
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 sit down and enjoy the sunshine.
Learn About The Cathedral of St. James
Address: Plaza de Santiago, 1, 48005 Bilbao
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!
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 the 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.
Our Tip: Take to the River on a Boat Cruise to see all these famous bridges of Bilbao!
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
Address: Rafael Moreno Pitxitxi, s/n, 48013
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.
Hop on a San Mamés Stadium and Museum Tour if you’re interested in learning about the city’s sports and culture side.
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.
Feel Fine at the Museum Of Fine Arts
Address: Museo Plaza, 2, 48009 Bilbao
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!
Check Out the Azkuna Zentroa
Address: Arriquíbar Plaza, 4, 48010 Bilbao
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 are 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.
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 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 of 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 fewer tourists than many beaches in the southern part of the country.
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, the best time to visit, 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!
Where to Stay in Bilbao
Bilbao isn’t a huge city, but it has a good number of accommodation options to suit all different types of travellers.
A couple of Lisa’s friends have previously stayed at the Hotel NH Bilbao Deusto and had a good experience. It’s located across the river from the Guggenheim so the short walk between the two is a lovely experience.
However, since that isn’t right close to the Old Town, you might opt for a hotel closer to this area such as Ercilla Hotela.
A more central location is always a good choice 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 walking up steep hills at the end of an exhausting day might not be the most fun.
Best Time to Visit Bilbao
Unlike other destinations which might be great to visit in any season, Bilbao actually has a “better” time to visit.
As 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.
Yes, the crowds might be bigger but the warmer weather ensures that the beaches along the Atlantic Ocean are warmer for swimming. Otherwise, the water – and thus the air temp – can be quite cold in the spring, late fall, and over the winter.
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!
Another point: due to its position in Spain, it can rain a lot in the late fall and all through the winter. So, while you can visit in these months, we’d suggest late summer (August/September) as the best time to plan a visit.
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 Bilbao
Getting around is quite easy since the centre is relatively compact, the attractions are in close proximity, and you can walk to lots of places.
In general, it’s pretty flat in the center of town and along La Ría (that’s what the river is called) but it can be quite hilly in parts of the city.
In this case, like in Barcelona, they have a few outdoor escalators to get you up and down.
In terms of transit options, Bilbao is very proud of its good, modern metro system. A ride is worth your time even if you don’t need to get anywhere in particular.
There are also buses, trams, and cable cars depending on where you’re going. As a visitor, a Bilbao Transit Card might be worth looking into. There are two options: Bizkaia or Barik.
- Bizkaia is for unlimited transit rides within a timed period (24-72 hours)
- Barik is more of a generic “tap card” which can be used for various modes of transit and reloaded as it’s used.
Renting a bike might also be a good option to get around. This allows you to ride along the river for a greater distance to experience more of the city than just the centre.
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!
- Beautiful Cities in Spain For Your Bucket List
- Do and See The Top Attractions In Spain
- Discover Other: Cities Like Madrid or Barcelona
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 Waddlin’,