Travel Ninja

Is Bilbao Worth Visiting? Here’s What You Need to Know

Exploring Bilbao is like uncovering a hidden gem in Spain. Nestled in the Basque Region, this city boasts a rich history that intertwines with its spectacular architecture and wondrous museums. For anyone seeking a destination with tantalizing cuisine and stunning views, Bilbao is undeniably worth a look.

There are countless things to do here, starting with exploring architecture that seamlessly blends the old with the new. Visiting museums, particularly the iconic Guggenheim Museum, offers an awe-inspiring experience with its modern art and unique design. Walking through the pedestrian-friendly streets and along the banks of the River Nervión provides a peaceful yet vibrant atmosphere.

For those wanting to venture further, renting a car opens up the northern coast of Spain and other cities nearby, making Bilbao an ideal base for broader exploration.

Is Bilbao Worth Visiting?

For history buffs, exploring the old quarter with its ornate churches is a journey back in time. Art lovers will find the world-famous Guggenheim Museum irresistible, with its stunning titanium exterior and impressive modern art collection. Foodies can indulge in delicious pinchos at pinxtos bars, enjoying small plates and tapas paired with a local beverage as the order of the day.

For those who prefer to be active, Bilbao offers plenty of outdoor activities like hiking and river kayaking, making it a versatile destination that caters to all interests.

13 Reasons Why Bilbao Is Worth Visiting (2024)

Given the unique history of Bilbao, combined with its stunning architecture, world-renowned museums, delectable food, thrilling outdoor activities, and amazing day trips, this city is a must-see for any traveler exploring Spain. From the Guggenheim Museum’s iconic design to the charming Casco Viejo and its rich historical roots, Bilbao offers a blend of the old and new that is simply captivating.

Enjoy the vibrant pintxos culture, with delicious small plates that highlight the city’s culinary delights. Whether you’re exploring the scenic River Nervión or embarking on a day trip to the nearby northern coast, Bilbao’s charm and allure make it a worthy addition to your travel itinerary.

Marvel At The Historical Architecture

When it comes to architecture, Bilbao truly shines, combining old and new in a way that transforms an economically depressed city into a vibrant cultural hub. Known for the Bilbao effect, this transformation is fueled by significant cultural investment and eye-popping architecture that attracts visitors from around the world.

is bilbao worth visiting

As you wander through the streets, you’ll witness firsthand how Bilbao’s innovative designs and historical charm create a unique and compelling atmosphere, making it a must-visit destination.

Wander through Casco Viejo (Old Quarter)

Wandering through the medieval neighborhood of Casco Viejo, also known as Alde Zaharra, you’ll find yourself immersed in history and charm. Located along the River Nervión on its right bank to the west, this quarter was once the epicenter of port activities and commerce.

is bilbao worth visiting

The walls that enclosed the area until the 19th century now reveal the seven streets, or Las Siete Calles, which form the original layout with three streets parallel to the river and four streets perpendicular. This unique configuration makes exploring Casco Viejo a delightful experience, blending Bilbao’s rich past with its vibrant present.

Catedral de Santiago

Visiting Bilbao isn’t complete without exploring one of its oldest buildings, the Catedral de Santiago. Originally built as the main parish church in the 14th century and 15th century, it was elevated to a cathedral in 1950. Dedicated to Saint James, one of the apostles of Jesus, this iconic site was a significant stopping point on the northern route of the Camino de Santiago.

The Gothic architecture, inspired by styles from France between the 12th century and 16th century, features a main vault, cloisters, pointed arches, and exterior flying buttresses. The stained glass, spires, and ribbed vaults further enhance its beauty. The main entrance and facade showcase a stunning spire reflecting the Gothic Revival style popularized in the 18th century and 19th century, where architects rediscovered and improved upon the original Gothic designs.

Parroquia de San Antón

Exploring Bilbao, one cannot miss the Parish of Saint Anthony the Great, a smaller church situated along the River Nervión, just 300 yards or 275 meters southeast of the Catedral de Santiago. Its construction began in the late 15th century on a plot of land that had served as a warehouse for 300 years, and it was consecrated in 1433.

Dedicated to Saint Anthony the Great, also known as the Father of all Monks, this church reflects the saint’s hermit life in the desert and wilderness of Egypt. Born into a wealthy Egyptian family, Saint Anthony followed the teachings of the Bible after his parents’ death, selling his possessions to donate to the poor in search of heavenly treasures.

is bilbao worth visiting

His discipline in a solitary life, where he abstained from meat and alcohol, living on bread, salt, and water, is immortalized in the Life of Anthony by Athanasius of Alexandria. As the parishioners increased, a larger church was constructed starting in 1478, featuring renovations in Gothic architecture with spires and ribbed vaults completed by the early 16th century.

Bilbao City Hall

A visit to Bilbao would be incomplete without marveling at the Bilbao City Hall, a splendid example of Baroque architecture. Built in 1892 on the site of the former San Agustín convent that was destroyed during the First Carlist War, this structure is a testament to the city’s resilience through civil wars and a succession of power struggles after King Ferdinand VII died in 1833.

Reflecting Italy’s late 16th-century styles, the grandiose and intricate details of the building are an expansion of Renaissance architecture, featuring domes, columns, and an interior adorned with Neo-Renaissance design elements.

is bilbao worth visiting

The staircase and assembly hall highlight the elaborate design, while the Neo-Mudéjar, with its Spanish Arab or Moorish design including horseshoe arches and Arab tiles, is epitomized in the Arab Hall, often used for official receptions and weddings.

Explore The Iconic Guggenheim Museum

A highlight of any trip to Bilbao is the Guggenheim Museum, an iconic feature of the Bilbao skyline and one of the largest museums in Spain. Boasting international prestige thanks to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the innovative architectural design by Frank Gehry, this cultural destination has captivated visitors since its opening in October 1997.

The building itself is a work of art, crafted from titanium, glass, and limestone, with its surfaces acting as a mirror to reflect the city. These materials and the museum’s construction evoke an industrial feel. Inside, the exhibits feature both international and Spanish artists, enhanced by the natural light flooding the atrium through the glass windows.

is bilbao worth visiting

The exterior design integrates views of the hillsides and river, creating a cohesive visual experience. Outside, visitors are greeted by captivating sculptures, including a large spider and a whimsical floral dog.

Take In The Bilbao Museum Of Fine Arts

For art enthusiasts, the Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts, or Museo de Bellas Artes, is an essential stop. Originally composed of two museums, the Fine Arts Museum established in 1908 and the Modern Art Museum opened in 1924, this institution houses rich collections that survived the Spanish Civil War and were unified in a new building in 1939.

The museum’s galleries span works by European artists and Spanish artists from the 12th century to modern times, featuring masterpieces by El Greco, who moved from Italy to Spain in the 17th century and played a pivotal role in the Spanish Renaissance. Also notable is Francisco de Zubaran, dubbed the Spanish Caravaggio for his use of chiaroscuro to masterfully contrast light and shadow.

The collection includes works by Francisco Goya, who vividly captured the politics of the 18th century and 19th century, and Paul Gauguin, a key figure in Post-Impressionism known for his friendships with Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh, and his influence on Pablo Picasso.

Taste Your Way Through Tapas (Pintxos)

One of the most compelling reasons to visit Bilbao is its food scene, especially the small plates known as tapas or pintxos in the Basque language. Reflecting its origins as a fisherman’s village, the city offers a variety of seafood options.

For an exceptional dining experience, head to Serantes III on Alameda de Mazarredo near the Guggenheim Museum, where you can savor delicious seafood dishes and Iberian meats.

is bilbao worth visiting

Another great choice is Agavero Restaurante Mexicano, located nearby, which serves authentic Mexican cuisine including chilaquiles, nachos, tacos, quesadillas, burritos, and Mexican beers. For more details, you can check the restaurant’s website for their location, menu, and reservations.

Roll Around Town On A Bicycle Tour

For an active way to explore Bilbao, consider joining one of the bicycle tours offered by Tourné Bilbao. Whether you prefer guided or self-guided options, these tours provide a fantastic way to see the city. The routes cover major sites, including parks, bridges, and plazas, ensuring both comfort and safety with designated bike lanes.

A typical tour lasts 3 hours and costs 35€, accommodating 2-12 people. For those interested in more touristy sites or the city’s industrial and cultural history, there are specialized tours available.

You can also opt for private bicycle tours that include visits to the football stadium, various art and architecture highlights, and other cultural centers. These private tours vary in tour length and can start at 195€.

E-Bike Along The Riverside

A unique way to experience Bilbao is through the e-bike tours offered by Tourné Bilbao. Riding along the River Nervión and its waterways, these tours provide an expansive experience of the Bilbao metro area.

They delve into the history and culture of the region, including routes like Tourne-Portu Zaharra and Tourne Gold Coast, which highlight the area’s iron extraction, industrialization, and prominence. Another intriguing option is the Tourne-Muskiz or Tourne All Iron routes. These tours can accommodate 2-15 people and cost 68€.

For those preferring a bit more freedom, a self-guided e-bike tour is available with a downloadable map, printed guide, and GPS for navigation.

Explore On Foot While Enjoying Food And Drink

One of the best ways to soak in the charm of Bilbao is by taking a walking city tour with Tourné Bilbao. These tours blend the enjoyment of local cuisine and beverages with the pleasure of strolling through the city. On a typical walking tour, you can savor pintxos and wine in Casco Viejo over 3 hours for 69€, accommodating 2-12 people.

is bilbao worth visiting

If you’re into artistic elements, another tour focuses on street art and craft beer. For a customizable experience, opt for a private walking city tour that can be tailored to your specific preferences, including insights into the city’s architecture.

Hit The Water On A Kayak, Sup, Or Step Board

For those who love water activities, Bilbao offers an exhilarating experience on the River Nervión. You can join a tour with Bilbobentura and explore the water on a kayak, stand up paddle board, or step boards. These watercraft options provide a unique way to see the city from the river.

For a change of pace, you can switch to a bicycle and explore the city’s paths. With various tour options available, including day and night excursions, you can enjoy the flexibility and excitement of discovering Bilbao by both personal watercraft and bikes.

Sail The Nervión River

For a relaxed experience, touring the water with Bilboats offers delightful sailing options on the River Nervión. You can choose between Sailing Bilbao, an hour-long tour of the city of Bilbao, or Sailing to Sea, a two-hour tour extending to the sea.

is bilbao worth visiting

Operating from March to December with varying hours for day and evening tours, these excursions provide a serene way to see the city. Check the pricing, schedule, and purchase tickets on their website for an unforgettable journey.

Escape To The Mountains

For those who enjoy hiking, the surrounding mountains of Bilbao offer an excellent escape. You can venture to Pagassari, located south of the city, or Artxanda, situated to the north of the city.

is bilbao worth visiting

Both mountains provide easy to intermediate trails, with Pagassari offering a 10-mile round trip hike and Artxanda a shorter 5-mile round trip. For a quicker ascent, the funicular to Artxanda takes just 3 minutes, with trains departing every 15 minutes.

Relax On The Beach In San Sebastian

When visiting Bilbao, taking a day trip to San Sebastian is highly recommended. Known as Donostia in the Basque language, this coastal city on the northern coast of Spain, just 20 miles from France, is the capital of the Gipuzkoa region. Surrounded by the hills of Mount Urgull, Mount Ulia, Mount Adarra, and Mount Igueldo, San Sebastian boasts beautiful beaches like La Concha, Ondarreta, and Zurriola.

Whether you’re into hiking these picturesque hills or taking the funicular for stunning views of La Concha Bay, there’s something for everyone. The city features a classic amusement park with a historic rollercoaster and numerous attractions. The Old Town district, nestled between the River Urumea and La Concha Bay, offers winding streets filled with shops, pintxos restaurants, and vibrant street art.

is bilbao worth visiting

Explore the rich history through the ancient paths and fortresses like La Mota Castle, dating back to the mid-12th century, when the city was protected by walls under the Kingdom of Navarre. Don’t miss the Aquarium at sea level, which showcases local fish and naval history.

Enjoy the soft white sand of La Concha Beach, the grandeur of the Miramar Palace built in 1893, or partake in sports like volleyball, beach tennis, and soccer on Ondarreta Beach, and surfing on Zurriola Beach, all while admiring the open air sculptures scattered throughout.

Get Outdoors In Santander

Another exciting excursion while visiting Bilbao is to get outdoors in Santander. Located on the northern coast of Spain, Santander is the capital of the Cantabria region. Nestled between the Cantabrian Mountains and the Cantabrian Sea, this city, known as the bride of the sea, has been a significant port city since 1068. It gained prominence under the Crown of Castile and flourished through trade with the New World.

The Banco de Santander, founded in 1857, is now the country’s largest bank. Santander’s appealing geography and pleasant climate make it perfect for outdoor activities. The city is interwoven with bike paths and home to numerous beaches with soft golden sand on its eastern and southern coasts.

El Sardinero and Los Peligros are among the most accessible beaches where you can sunbathe, relax, and swim, while beginner surfers might prefer Matalenas Beach, a more secluded cove reached via a staircase from the cliffs in Parque de Matalenas. Magdalena Park, located on a peninsula, features a tourist train, the Palacio Magdalena (a former royal summer residence), a marine zoo with seals and sea lions, and additional beaches.

is bilbao worth visiting

Nearby, the Maritime Museum showcases the role of the sea in the region’s history, from life at sea to fishermen and fisheries. Old Town, or Puertochico, was once the heart of the city’s fishing piers before they moved to Barrio Pesquero. Although a fire in 1941 destroyed many buildings, 18th and 19th-century structures still stand.

Enjoy walking through these areas, sampling local cuisine and pintxos, and visiting the Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion Cathedral on Somorrostro Hill, with sections dating back to the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries.

Best Time Of Year To Visit Bilbao

The charm of Bilbao lies not only in its vibrant culture but also in its favorable climate, making it a great destination year-round. The average temperature ranges from the mid 60s to upper 80s, providing a comfortable environment. During the winter months, the weather is temperate and it rarely snows, with temperatures in the mid 40s. However, the wind coming off the water can make it feel cool after sunset.

Best Time Of Year To Visit Bilbao

In the spring months, it gets warmer with some periods of rain due to the city’s proximity to the Bay of Biscay and the river, leading to higher humidity, which some travelers might find less appealing. The summer months are the best time to visit, especially for enjoying the nearby beaches and outdoor activities.

The warmth during these months is perfect for staying hydrated while exploring. The autumn months are also a lovely time to visit, with warm days lasting until mid-October and cool evenings from late October to early November.

Getting To And Around Bilbao

Bilbao Airport

Getting to Bilbao is a breeze, thanks to Bilbao Airport located approximately 6 miles north of the city. Upon arrival, taxis are readily available to transport passengers into the city. The official taxi service, Asociación Auto Taxis Femade, offers rides with an approximate fare of €24-30 to downtown Bilbao. For those who prefer ride-sharing, Uber is also available and can be used for travel both from the airport and within the city.

Bilbao Airport

Bilbao Metro

Navigating Bilbao is effortless with the Bilbao Metro, which covers both the city and the greater Bilbao region. For getting around within the city, Zone 1 is sufficient, while Zones 2-5 extend to the rest of the region and areas outside Bilbao. Ticket purchases are based on the Zones utilized during the trips. The metro system operates as a closed system, meaning each ride’s ticket must be validated upon entering and exiting the station.

is bilbao worth visiting

What Makes Bilbao Special (aka the History of the Region)

Understanding the history of Bilbao is key to appreciating its unique charm. Located in the Basque Country or Euskadi in the native language, this autonomous region spans northeast Spain and southwest France, nestled between the western Pyrenees Mountains and the Bay of Biscay. The region consists of three provinces: Alava, Biscay, and Gipuzkoa, with Bilbao as the capital of Biscay.

The language, Euskara, is older than the Romance languages like Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese, with origins that remain a mystery. Neanderthal cave paintings suggest humans lived here since the middle Paleolithic period (250,000-30,000 years ago). The Basque tribes were documented as early as the 1st century AD. Bilbao was founded in 1300 by Diego López V de Haro, the Lord of Biscay, who modernized a fishing village into a thriving town.

Excavations have revealed an old city wall dating back to the 11th century. By the 16th century, the Port of Bilbao had gained prominence as a vital port for the Spanish Empire, facilitating trade of wool to Flanders (now Belgium) and iron. The region’s wealth and prestige from exports influenced its industrial and financial sectors, including the founding of Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA), originally Banco de Bilbao in 1857. Over centuries, Bilbao aligned with rulers who supported its autonomy.

During the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Biscay sided with the Republicans against Nationalist military general Francisco Franco. After Franco’s victory in 1939, Biscay’s autonomy was revoked as punishment for its opposition. With Franco’s death in 1975 and the return of democracy, autonomy was restored in 1979, forming the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country with its own parliament.

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