As part of our road trip through the Basque Country we knew we wanted to visit Bilbao but to be completely honest, at first, we knew very little about it. Working with Bilbao Tourism gave us great insight into what has shaped this once industrialised city into the art & culinary magnet that is today, the Guggenheim Museum alone attracting over 1 million visitors per year.
Note from the author: This article has been written by me from my travel experience. I may recommend & provide links to products & services that I have used & may make commission from such links. This commission helps cover the costs of running this website & will be at no extra cost to you. Anything that I recommend is from my personal experience & belief that it is worth using. Happy reading! To visit Bilbao we feel gaining an understanding of the city, like we did, will really help you to grasp not only its story but a little of the Basque people too. Through our highlights we hope to bring all of this to you, to make your visit to Basque Country’s biggest city as memorable as ours.
Visit Bilbao For History
First up let’s take you all the way back to when Bilbao started out, with just seven streets. This was when the Basque people were independent from the Spanish & each region was governed by lords. In this time it was the Lord of Biscay that ruled this area & Diego López V de Haro who founded Bilbao & quickly transformed it into the commercial hub of the Basque Country. Bilbao’s port was formed, not out near the sea but 14km along the river Arenal & right next to the area that is now Bilbao Old Town. This strategic positioning of a port that was difficult to attack meant that Bilbao started to flourish from the very start of its time. In fact it continued to flourish so much that at one point champagne became known as the ‘water of Bilbao’ due to the amount that was consumed in the city by its many wealthy traders. From there so much more has happened to this city, which is home to almost half the Basque population. We’ll start by telling you a little more about those seven streets…
Visit Bilbao Old Town
Following our fabulous guide Mirren we took a walk through exactly where it all started for Bilbao. What we found the most fascinating was the way we were able to walk down the first seven streets & really understand how the city grew from there. Once surrounded by a thick wall, of which only a small part now remains, Bilbao Old Town packs plenty of charm. Due to the lack of space within the walls its residents were forced to build vertically meaning looking up is essential here. Not to be missed is the Santiago Cathedral or the Bilbao Cathedral as it is also known which is an important stop on the infamous Camino de Santiago. Plaza Nueva is also a must & is one of the best places in the city to try some Pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, Pintxos is a way in which to really partake in the Basque way of life. For more on Basque history, within the old town you will also find the Euskal Museo Vasco which covers important events as well as the people’s relationship with their land.
El Ensanche & Abandoibarra
Once the city of Bilbao started to grow, past the 7 streets, outside of the city walls & over the river Arenal both of these areas were formed. Following the fabulous Mirren again we learnt of the rich traders who built the very first apartment blocks of the city, passed the Ayuntamiento de Bilbao which as we were told is the centre for all Basque going’s on & marvelled at the mix of architectural styles in Place Moyua, which is known as the heart of the city.
The blend of the old & the new is what really blew us away in these parts of the city. Gleaming skyscrapers have been built in a way to compliment their surrounding old buildings, being assembled at such angles that they reflect their neighbours beauty with their polished glass rather than towering over them like some seemingly new & better shiny thing. The Iberdrola building, which is the cities tallest is made to look like a ship entering Bilbao, from the ground this makes it seem not at all imposing but more like a welcome friend returning home after months at sea. All of this has been achieved because of the vision that certain people had for this city, when they believed that it was possible for people to want to visit Bilbao. Before this, the city was heavily industrialised & most of the population just didn’t know what this new & innovative way of thinking would do for them. The opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 was a pivotal point for the city of Bilbao but understandably people had their reservations about how exactly a modern art museum would help Bilbao.For both Bilbao Old Town, El Ensanche & Abandoibarra we’d highly recommend taking a guided tour through Bilbao tourism, with the latter combined that would be two tours lasting each 90 minutes, they are very reasonably priced with full details being found here.
A must when you visit, The Guggenheim Bilbao ranks at approximately 51 of the world’s most visited museums. Designed by Canadian born architect Frank Gehry this striking building was created to stand out. The architect’s vision of a heart which pumps visitors around the museum has been achieved by a beautiful blend of angles & curves. The Guggenheim is stunning; inside, where the collections are housed in such a way for you to explore art & draw your own conclusions & the outside with its paved boulevards allowing you to truly take in this magnificent structure. Outside there’s the ‘Puppy’ by artist Jeff Koons, a giant West Highland terrier carpeted in flowers, which the city decided to keep hold of after it proving so popular at the opening of the museum. Also much-loved by the city is ‘Maman’ by artist Louise Bourgeois, a giant spider which is an ode to her mother who was her best friend & a weaver. We would recommend spending a few hours at The Guggenheim to truly take everything in & give yourself time to process the emotion that your visit will invoke.
More Art & Architecture
Art continues throughout the city in many different forms. Taking the time to interpret this as much as you can if you visit Bilbao will help you, like it did us to really feel the city from the present day right down to its original roots. The Museum of Fine Arts is another great museum to add to your list, as you have the opportunity to draw what you wish from their works which are displayed in alphabetical order. The museum is said to be a place where art & literature mutually enhance each other. Modern buildings as mentioned above are everywhere but as well as aiming to look pleasing to the eye a lot of these buildings are designed to be as eco-friendly as possible, which in our book, always gets a tick. Glass outer edges using materials that reflect to keep buildings warm in winter & cool in summer & well as other features all to help in reducing environmental impact.
Dotted around the city are outdoor works of art which further tell the story of Bilbao. If street art is your thing, there are some powerful pieces, a few of which we spotted with further information being found on The Culture Trip.
Delivering an unexpected twist, a must-visit building is the Azkuna Zentroa, formerly the Alhondiga this once wine cellar (ok very big wine cellar!) is now a modern culture & leisure centre. We were particularly impressed by its forty-three pillars each with its own unique design & by the first floor swimming pool of which you can see the moving swimmers by looking right up through the ground floor ceiling. You really do have to go see this place for yourselves!!
The River Arenal
A walk along the backbone of Bilbao is a must. This can be done by incorporating some or all of the above attractions or as a separate thing to do altogether. Nowadays the river boasts a spectacular backdrop of Bilbao’s superb blend of architectural styles along with the dramatic green surrounding mountains. Just over twenty years ago though it was a hub for boats loading & unloading goods of mainly Iron, which was the cities main export. It was all industry & although the old architecture remained in the city, so did a thick cloud of smog making Bilbao not so inviting at all. We took a stroll along the river after visiting all of the main sights which brought to light how much of a transformation Bilbao has undergone.
Further along river is Bizkaia Bridge, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO the bridge is made up of four iron towers 61 metres high, linked by a cross beam 160 feet in length. It’s possible to cross the ‘hanging bridge’ as it is otherwise known, by foot or car or if you are feeling extra daring you can take a guided walk across the top.
For a further understanding into its industrial past, when you visit Bilbao its Maritime Museum is a must. Explaining the importance of the port of Bilbao & the life it brings to the city, here you will find a little more about how trade was & still is carried out. As our guide Mirren told us, the sailors from our own country, England used to come with coal in exchange for Iron. The football playing English apparently taught the Bilbaon’s how to play & now the best team in the whole world exists in the form of Athletic Bilbao – hey not our words, just what the guide told us! To get a further glimpse into Bilbao’s trading the Maritime Museum also highlights the current use of the port which is now located in the area of Abra Bay as well as detailing future plans & sustainability for the port.
Visit Bilbao For Food
We all know that good food makes a trip even better & we can assure you that Bilbao will not disappoint on the culinary front. From 5 star cuisine to more simple dining options, food is taken very seriously here. Being on the coast means a fabulous range of seafood is on offer & like everywhere in Basque Country there’s Pintxos almost everywhere you look! The best we found was at El Figon with each yummy little bite at only €1.20 & wine starting from around €1.40 your pocket will not only be thanking you but the atmosphere is spot on too. A must try Basque wine is Txakoli (pronounced chac-o-lee) which holds its own uniqueness in flavour, is slightly sparkling & very dry.
For more on pintxos including the etiquette behind sampling these little Basque bites check out our PINTXOS BLOG POST
La Ribera Market is also a great place if you love food – the largest undercover market in Europe, located just outside of the Old Town on the banks of the Arenal this place has a whole floor dedicated to seafood, another to deli products & a third to vegetables. There’s also another section filled with bars, serving a great mix of Pintxos & a jazz bar/restaurant which serves brunch, lunch & dinner with some live music.
Shop Til You Drop
Ok, we’ve got to admit this is not really our thing but if its yours there are plenty of places to do so in Bilbao. El Ensanche & The Old Town is where you’ll find all of your international designer gear but what struck us & this is the very reason we have mentioned shopping, are the amount of flea markets in Bilbao. If second-hand & thrifty is your thing then Bilbao has you covered, we’re all for re-using as much as we can & loved taking a stroll around Plaza Nueva’s Sunday market. You can find more details for markets on Culture Trip’s website.
So, do we have you wanting to book a trip to Bilbao yet, we hope so & we hope you get as much from your visit as we did. As some of you may know we travel a little differently to some as we live full-time in our campervan, if you happen to have a campervan or motorhome be sure to check out the autocaravanning area which has spectacular views across the city & costs just €15 per night, all services included. It’s an easy 20 minute bus ride down into the city from there & the sunsets looking out in the opposite direction of Bilbao, we can assure you, will not disappoint. When we are not travelling in our campervan our booking partners of choice are… Booking.com (click here for the latest Bilbao deals)Airbnb (click this link for $33 USD / £25 off your first booking)Hostelworld (click here for the best hostels in Bilbao) More details on getting there & around can be found on here through Bilbao Tourism’s website who we’d like to express our thanks to for making our visit to Bilbao so memorable. We hope that all we have gained will help to make your visit to Bilbao one to remember too. All points of view in this blog are our own & have been put together to help you, our awesome readers. As always we also highly recommend the app Maps.me for making your way around any new place.
We hope you’ve found all of this useful & we have passed some inspiration on.
Do you have anything to add, or any questions or comments? Please add them below…
Kelly & Adam x