At the end of a whirlwind week in Spain, I had just two days left before my flight home to England. Having visited the city briefly once before, I was excited to have the chance to discover more of the city this time around, but I honestly had no idea what to do in Bilbao. It probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of Spain; in a country with breathtaking and exciting tourist destinations in every corner, Bilbao, unfortunately, tends to slip under the radar.
But the industrial port city has a lot more to discover than you first realise. And, although it’s the largest city in the Basque Country, Bilbao actually feels quite small and cosy; all this makes Bilbao the perfect location for a weekend city break in Spain. It’s also great for a quick stopover while exploring the Bay of Biscay, the north of Spain, or even southwest France. After my visit to this uncommon destination, I put this itinerary together, which you can use to plan your own weekend city break; read on to find out what to do in Bilbao on your next trip!
Day one: Bilbao and beyond
A waterside walk
After arriving in Bilbao, the first thing I wanted to do was to go straight into the city centre. I wanted to get a feel for the atmosphere of the city and what better way to do that than on foot? So, we walked along the Ría de Bilbao from the Palacio Euskalduna, which took us past the Guggenheim Museum and all the way to the Old Town. On a map, this looks like a really long walk, since it’s basically from one side of the city to the other. But in reality, it only took about thirty minutes – and that’s with me stopping every five minutes to take pictures.
Exploring the Casco Viejo
My favourite place in any city is always the Old Town and Bilbao is no exception. Bilbao’s Casco Viejo is a medieval network of narrow streets bordered by compact, tall, colourful buildings; with a church around every corner and hidden treasures dotted all over, this is a great place for leisurely exploration. However, an important thing to note is that the streets, squares, and bridges usually go by two names in Bilbao – one in Spanish and one in Basque – and they often look completely different. Because of this, navigating the Casco Viejo can be confusing. (Read: I got lost thinking I was in the wrong street, but actually the street name was just in a different language on the sign to what I was reading on the map!)
The Vizcaya Bridge
This suggestion of what to do in Bilbao is slightly atypical; it actually involves leaving the city, but trust me – venturing outside Bilbao for this is totally worth it! A short metro ride brought us to a town called Portugalete, which boasts an impressive and unusual bridge. The first transporter bridge ever built, it was constructed in 1893, only a few years after the completion of the Eiffel Tower, and was actually designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel, Alberto Palacio.
His design was groundbreaking; this bridge uses a sort of “flying ferry” to transport cars and pedestrians across the water, a gondola suspended from the footbridge high above. This is one of the rarest types of bridge in the world; there are only twelve still in use today and fewer than two dozen were ever built. The journey takes 90 seconds and tickets are inexpensive, so why not visit Getxo’s beach on the other side of the estuary?
Day two: modern art and Basque culture
The Guggenheim Museum
Ask anyone about what to do in Bilbao and you can guarantee they’ll suggest visiting the Guggenheim Museum. Bilbao’s most popular tourist spot is a definite must-see. If modern art doesn’t particularly interest you, you can see the best bits under two hours. However, if you like to examine art in great detail, like I do, you should put at least three hours aside in order to fully appreciate everything. There’s also a lot of contextual information on the audio guide, which I really enjoyed listening to; because of this, I actually spent almost five hours in the Guggenheim (and I didn’t even finish seeing everything)!
I recommend arriving at the Guggenheim in the morning; it tends to get very busy later on in the day. I arrived not long after opening time and found a long, slow-moving queue that was already trailing out of the door. Thankfully, my friend discovered a simple trick to get around this; joining the Guggenheim community for free online as a “follower” allows you to skip the queue and go straight to the ticket desk. Amazing!
The galleries were quiet when we went inside, so there was plenty of space to explore and interact with the installations. If you choose to visit in the afternoon, you might be fooled by the absence of queues at the entrance. In fact, at this time, you’ll see queues inside the museum instead, particularly for smaller galleries with a maximum capacity limit.
It’s important to note that photography of the artwork inside the museum is not allowed; I saw many people breaking this rule, and a lot of them were told to stop by the gallery security. I know it’s tempting to take pictures of such interesting, innovative sculptures and paintings, but there are many reasons that museums and galleries ask visitors not to photograph the artwork – please respect that!
Of course, when visiting the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, don’t forget to appreciate the building’s exterior (which you can photograph to your heart’s content!). The iconic architecture and outdoor sculptures are what makes this art gallery a landmark of Bilbao and the Basque Country.
Immerse yourself in the local culture
If you’re looking for more ideas of what to do in Bilbao (and if you still have some time left after visiting the Guggenheim), I recommend making time to discover the Basque culture. Explore bookshops, visit Basque museums, or sit in cafés and listen to locals speaking in Euskara. If you’re visiting at the right time of year, you could also attend a street party or festival.
The best encounter with Basque culture that I had in Bilbao happened completely by chance. At a café in the Casco Viejo, I found myself surrounded by Basque people chatting away in their native tongue. The conversations got louder and louder until they suddenly burst into song! Listening to their wonderful language in harmony all around me was something I’ll never forget. After the song ended, they told us that they were singing an old Basque folk song – which explains how they all knew the lyrics and timing so well! The most authentic experiences happen spontaneously, but you can increase your chances by spending time in smaller cafés frequented by locals, rather than the tourist hotspots.
Bilbao truly exceeded my expectations – I was pleasantly surprised that there was so much to see and do, and even more so by the rich local culture, which was definitely my favourite thing about the Basque Country. If you’re going to Bilbao, I hope you enjoy your trip – and let me know what else you get up to!
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