Bilbao, up north in Spain in the Basque Country, might not be your first pick for a city trip to Spain. Should you include Bilbao in your Spain travel itinerary? Or your tour around the Basque Country? Is Bilbao worth visiting? I myself didn’t really know what else there is to see in Bilbao, besides the famous Guggenheim museum. Would it be worth traveling to Bilbao for a weekend?
I visited Bilbao on a short weekend break in February. But I didn’t know much about Bilbao or the things I could do. I really went without any expectations. And I absolutely loved it and was surprised by the diversity of the city and the region. But what makes Bilbao worth a visit?
Besides the famous Guggenheim museum, top quality food and wine, a historic old town that you can explore on foot, and a great rough urban vibe. Bilbao also offers amazing day trips to explore the Basque Country and is easy to explore, safe and really different from other Spanish cities. You can read below my experiences on my weekend trip and my reasons why I think you should visit Bilbao. Let me show you.
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Bilbao Spain in Basque Country
Located in the North of Spain, Bilbao is easily overlooked when searching for a fun short city trip in Spain. Popular places to go are Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla and Granada. And rightfully so.
Each of these cities makes for fun weekend trips. But what if you’re looking for something different? Or you’ve been to all the other places (like I did). Or you want to explore the North of Spain and you wonder if you should include Bilbao in your itinerary.
Bilbao is not the capital, but it is the largest city in the Biscay region and the Basque Country. The former industry city underwent a 180-degree transformation with the arrival of the Guggenheim museum.
Now tourists from all over the world flock to the museum and wonder what else there is to do in Bilbao. As it turns out: a lot!
Why choose Bilbao for a city trip?
I wanted a quick getaway in February and hoped Spain would offer me some sunshine. Conveniently connected with major airports in Spain and the rest of Europe, I booked a short-haul flight from Eindhoven to Bilbao with Transavia.
The flight was cheap and the times were very convenient for a weekend break. I flew on Friday morning to Bilbao and arrived at 9 am in the city. On Sunday, my return flight wasn’t until 4.30 pm which gave me almost 3 full days to explore the city.
I was hoping Bilbao would be a nice change of scenery, compared to other Spanish cities that are swarming with pensionados escaping the European winter, like in Alicante or Malaga.
Some nice museums, some nice food, people watching, and a break from everything that is familiar!
6 Compelling reasons why Bilbao is worth visiting
When I booked my flight, I didn’t know if Bilbao was worth visiting or if I could fill my 3 days in Bilbao. But as it turned out, I’m already contemplating going back to Bilbao as there is still so much to see and do and explore more of the Basque country.
But if you need some reasons to visit Bilbao, here are my top 6 reasons to visit Bilbao, Spain!
1. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Obviously, the number 1 reason why Bilbao is even on the map! If it wasn’t for the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, the city would not be on the tourist radar and you probably wouldn’t even have heard about Bilbao!
But you have heard, and that is mainly thanks to this modern, excentric building that is the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
As soon as you come from the airport by airport bus and you cross the bridge over the Nervion river, into the city of Bilbao, you’ll see the museum.
Even if you’ve never seen pictures of the museum and don’t even know what it looks like, you’ll recognize it. And that is all thanks to Frank Gehry who is responsible for this interesting building.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is home to a whole range of international artists displaying their modern and contemporary art installations. But its main attraction must be the design of the building, both the interior to suit the art installations as well as the exterior.
How to explore the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao
The Bilbao Guggenheim opened in 1997 on the banks of the river Nervion, where once the ramshackle crumbling port area of Bilbao was. The area got a major overhaul and now consists of a green park, bridges over the river, wide walkways and bike lanes and the peculiar shapes and artworks of the Guggenheim.
In all honesty, I didn’t really know anything about the artworks inside the Guggenheim. I briefly googled some things and saw some vaguely familiar pictures. But the Guggenheim doesn’t have a famous collection like The Louvre or the Gallery Uffizi in Florence.
You might even wonder if the Guggenheim is worth visiting. Well, I liked it. Regular tickets are €13 and they want you to book a time slot via their website.
I browsed through the museum, and listened to their free audio guide on my phone on some occasions, but also walked past a lot of art that wasn’t my thing. Some pieces of art really were too kooky or too unconventional for me.
But other’s I loved. I roamed around the Matter of Time for quite some time and absolutely loved the black box from Yayoi Kasuma and the Tulips by Jeff Koons.
I skipped some things, rushed through others, and took my time for things that interested me. In total, I think I spent around 2 hours inside the museum.
Are you a real museum-holic? Or just L*O*V*E* modern art? Do you need some more guidance on what the Guggenheim Bilbao has to offer? Consider booking a guided tour of the museum. It comes with convenient skip-the-line tickets, a live guide and after the tour of 2 hours, you can stay as long as you want (or until closing time).
Should you really visit the inside of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao?
If the entrance price is too steep for you, or you don’t like contemporary art. Or you have little time to explore Bilbao, then I have good news for you:
You don’t actually have to go inside the Guggenheim Bilbao.
That is right, some of the most interesting views, art sculptures, and installations are outside the museum. And free to visit, at any moment of the day.
The exterior of the museum is fascinating and at every moment of the day, it looks different. Depending on the direction of the sunlight, you’ll see new shapes, patterns and forms emerge from the buildings of the Guggenheim Bilbao.
Some of the museum’s most famous pieces of art are displayed outside. The puppy is located right in front of the entrance, the giant spider (Maman) you’ll find at the back of the building on the walkway. Here you’ll also find the best views of the river and the museum.
All in all, if you like fascinating architecture, and seeing something new, definitely visit the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. But some of the best views are from the outside, so you don’t need a ticket to see them.
Do pop into the museum’s Bistro cafe for a drink or some delicious food.
2. Amazing Food Culture: Pintxos for the win
I never visited a place in Spain where the food wasn’t absolutely delicious, so I expected Bilbao to be the same. I looked forward to eating my way around Bilbao and finding some new drinks.
And Bilbao did not disappoint.
Where Granada is home to their tapas, Bilbao is home to Pintxos or Pinchos. These bite-sized snacks are usually served on a slice of bread, with some culinary goodness pinched on top.
Hopping from one pintxos bar to the next, having a drink and a pintxo, before moving on, seems to be the national sport in Bilbao. You can do it for lunch, pre-dinner snacks or as a whole evening-filled program.
Finding the right bar, the right kind of pintxo to your taste and squeezing yourself into a crowded bar, proved to be a bit of a challenge. That is why I loved my food tour in Bilbao and I highly recommend it!
Read all about my evening of pintxos eating in Bilbao in this post.
3. Bilbao in a day
Besides the fact Bilbao is only a 1.5-hour flight away, the city can be easily reached by a cheap airport bus. Everywhere in the city, you can walk or take the tram or metro.
Bilbao is really compact and you can walk from the Guggenheim museum to the old part of town in 20 minutes. With huge pedestrian lanes, separate bike lanes and easy public transport, the city feels extremely safe to move around.
No wonder, you can easily explore Bilbao city center in a day.
Things to see in Bilbao that are worth your time
Walk around the Guggenheim (or twice!), and continue along the banks of the Nervion river towards the old town. Marvel at the Zubizuri bridge and take the Artxanda funicular up the hills of Bilbao for the best views of the city.
Walk town (or take the funicular back) and continue towards the old town (Casca Viejo). Pop your head into the Bilbao train station, where you’ll find amazing stained glass windows showing the history of Bilbao.
Cross the Nervion river again, now you’re in the historic city of Bilbao. Here you’ll find the first 5 streets of ancient Bilbao, the amazing market Ribera, and some little churches, water fountains and the old Bilbao Theatre.
It seems all streets in the old town lead up to the cathedral of Bilbao. Roam further and you’ll hit the Plaza Nueva, a nice square with covered walkways lined with pintxos bars for your convenience.
If you’re into churches and more views, you can visit the Basilica of Begoña, up the hill. Or laze at one of Bilbao’s many green parks. Or hit up the ‘new’ part of town for fusion pintxos bars, high-end shopping, and eclectic art and furniture stores.
Do you hear the locals talk about “la catedral”? Don’t be confused, this isn’t another cathedral or church, it is the famous football stadium San Mames, home to local soccer team Athletic Club Bilbao. If you want to witness a match, check for tickets here.
Is there no match during your visit? You can still visit the stadium and explore the rich soccer history. Book your tour here.
4. Explore Urban Bilbao
If you want to see more of Bilbao than the highlights of the city in one day, then you’d be interested to know Bilbao has a very hip and urban vibe to it.
The city of Bilbao is founded with the riches of seamen and miners of minerals along the river bank. This made the city both wealthy and a tad rough around the edges. And it shows.
Explore the former harbor area or venture off into the maze of streets with vibrant street art bursting from the buildings. Or go beyond Bilbao’s city’s borders to explore Getxo and the Unesco World Heritage Vizcaya Bridge.
Need some guidance on the best places, hidden spots and the best street art? Join one of these fun tours to explore the urbex side of Bilbao:
- Alternative and Urban art bike tour
- Street art walking tour with local beer tasting
- Getxo and Biscaya Bridge bike tour
5. Basque Country Day Trips from Bilbao
What might have surprised me the most is how AMAZING the Basque Country is.
I took a full-day tour around the Basque Country, from Bilbao. The first stop was early morning at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. Now, the name might not sound familiar (because it is a mouthful). But “dragon stone” might ring a bell. And the inlet and shape of the island with the monastery on top are known to everyone who ever watched Game of Thrones.
We had plenty of time to descend down the stone bridge and zig-zag back up to the little church. I was severely out of breath by the time I got up there, but the whole journey was epic.
The sweeping views of the bay, the crashing waves on the rocks below, and that mixture of sea mist, sweat, and sun on your face. I absolutely loved it.
Through Basque Country to San Sebastian
After our visit, the bus tour continued through Basque Country. On our way to San Sebastian, we passed many cute little towns, seaside walkways, stunning bays, and some good surfing spots. the whole journey was breathtaking.
I knew this tour didn’t include any stops at Bermeo or Guernica, but other tours go there. I really want to go back and explore more of these villages.
Once in San Sebastian, I was in for a shock. Wow. What a nice, decadent, breezy city!
Of course, the wonderful sunny weather made the pastel-colored building even more charming, but the city oozed a regal vibe.
San Sebastian is a huge contrast to the rough and rugged Bilbao, but I can see the Basque character shining through. The maze of the old town, the broad avenues, and the jaw-dropping beach with views to match form a stark contrast but ticked all the boxes for a diverse city.
Bilbao as a base to explore the Basque Country
What I’m trying to say is: Bilbao makes for an excellent base to discover the Basque Country. You might not be able to see everything on one trip, but Bilbao is a convenient base.
There are many tour operators and tours leaving for the Basque Country from Bilbao. Check out some of the best options below:
- San Sebastian & San Juan de Gaztelugatxe guided tour – this is the above-described tour that I took and can highly recommend if you want to have time to climb to the church at San Juan and have a lot of time to discover San Sebastian.
- Half-day Tour to Gaztelugatxe and Guernica. This tour also includes a stop at Bermeo.
- Half-Day Basque Country Tour. This tour stops briefly at Gatelugatxe to see the viewing point (you don’t have time to climb to the hermitage) but it does include stops at Bermeo and Guernica.
- Biarritz, San Jean de Luz and San Sebastian tour. Bring your passport for these multi-country border-hopping cities of the Basque Country tour!
6. Bilbao is really easy to visit
If you think cities should be gigantic and have millions of inhabitants to be worth your time, then this argument might not be for you.
But if you’re like me, and can appreciate the charm of a smaller city, that still flies under the radar of many tourists, then you might concur with me.
- Bilbao is well-connected. It has a small airport with many flights to other Spanish and European cities. And the railway station is also well-served
- Bilbao is easy to reach. The airport is only a 20-minute bus ride from the center of the city. The railway station brings you smack bang in the center of town too.
- Bilbao is not expensive. Spanish people might think Bilbao is expensive. The hotels might be on the pricier side than other Spanish cities, but the rest was really affordable. €3 for a bus ticket from the airport to town. €2 for a beer and max. €4 for a really good pintxo. The tours can rack up your budget, but overall, I found it very affordable.
- Bilbao is ready for tourists. Although Bilbao is bi-lingual, I had no problem finding my way or understanding how things work. Locals under 60 all seem to speak English to some degree and all websites, tours, and information is readily available.
- Bilbao is accessible. Now, I don’t have a disability so I can’t 100% give Bilbao the seal of approval, but I felt there were a lot of ramps for wheelchairs, handicapped toilets, guardrails, braille information, etc available. A little less in the old town with its cobblestones, but all streets, sidewalks and pedestrian areas were really wide.
Is Bilbao worth visiting? Heck YES!
If it isn’t obvious from my story, I loved Bilbao. I wasn’t sure if the city was worth visiting but the diversity, quality of food, and things to see really surprised me.
And I loved to go back to spend more time in the city and explore the Basque Country.
So if you’re doubting if you should include Bilbao in your Spanish travel itinerary. Or you’re not sure if you should book that weekend trip to Bilbao. I’d say: do it! You will not regret it!
I hope I was able to help you make the decision to go to Bilbao and give you some inspiration on what your trip could look like. Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions or to share how you feel about Bilbao! I’d love to hear from you.