Complete guide to Bilbao, Basque Country: what to do and where to go there

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Bilbao is a large industrial city in the north of the Basque Country, located between high mountains on the banks of the Nervion River and 30 years ago, little known. For centuries, ore was mined here, ships were built and fish were fished. Today, millions of people travel to Bilbao for its artistic masterpieces and magnificent architecture, and urban planning and economics textbooks study the Bilbao effect.

Tourist season in Bilbao

When to go to Bilbao

Author: terrahispania

Summer in the Basque Country means the high season is coming. In mid-June, the beach season begins in San Sebastian; Bilbao is also preparing for the arrival of tourists.

The hottest month of the year is August, the coldest is January. The rainy season begins in November and ends in February but you may get caught in the rain in summer too.

In winter in the Basque Country, temperatures rarely drop below 7-10C (44-50F). San Sebastian is usually warmer, and Bilbao is cooler.

If the goal of your visit to the Basque Country is a perfect tan, come in May, summer, or September. If comfortable walks and the absence of heat are more important to you, come at the end of March-April-May, as well as in September and October. At this time there are not as many tourists as in summer, and prices in hotels and cafes are much lower.

How to get to Bilbao

Plane. You can buy a direct ticket to Bilbao, but such a flight will likely be costly. Budget-friendly flights usually fly from Barcelona or other Spanish cities.

Plane+bus. There is a budget-friendly flight option, for example, to French Bordeaux, where even low-cost airlines fly, and there you can take an Alsa bus or Flixbus and get to Bilbao in 6 hours. If you are coming from Bordeaux, be sure to relax for a couple of days in the unique city called Biarritz enjoying high palms, ocean waves, and French coast chic.

Bus. The easiest way to get to Bilbao is by bus from San Sebastian; the journey takes only an hour and a half along a very picturesque route.

Car rental in Bilbao

Car rental in Bilbao

Author: Alberto Frías on Unsplash

A car allows you to keep your trip under control while allowing yourself liberties changing the route and stopping at a neighboring city or stopping in a random place with a gorgeous view and admiring it as much as you want. This is a luxury that cannot be afforded on a bus. You will find a car rental in Spain in any major city, such as Barcelona or Malaga, and in all airports.

A budget-friendly Opel Corsa will cost you 40 euros for three days, a cozy Mini Cooper Cabrio can be rented for 200 euros for three days, and a fashionable Mercedes C-Class will cost 280 euros for the same period. Impressions are priceless.

Where to stay in Bilbao

Best hotels in Bilbao

Author: Isaac Quesada on Unsplash

Bilbao is not the cheapest city, but here you can find options for different tastes and budgets. If you come for sightseeing, stay closer to the city center and the Guggenheim Museum. This way you won’t spend extra time and money during your visit.

Inexpensive Ibis Budget is the best option for those who do not want to spend extra money on accommodation, but love classic hotel service. The hotel is close to the city center, and the rooms have the minimum necessary for a comfortable stay.

The stylish NYX Hotel is located a 10-minute walk from the Guggenheim Museum. They offer modern rooms with beautiful views, delicious breakfasts, and caring staff.

The Hotel Mercure, situated a short walk from the Guggenheim Museum, offers sophisticated classic style, fluffy croissants for breakfast, and amazing service.

The luxurious Vincci Consulado de Bilbao is located in the heart of the city, with some rooms overlooking the incredible Guggenheim Museum. This hotel should be chosen by those who want to fully enjoy the best views in this city.

Public transport in Bilbao

Bilbao's public transport is represented by buses, which are called Bilbobus, metro, trams, and funiculars.

One trip around the city costs 1.20-1.70 euros, depending on your route. You can buy a one-time ticket from a ticket machine. You may not even need public transport If you live in the city center, because all the most popular attractions are located close to each other. If you are planning two or more trips, buy a Barik travel card.

The Barik Card is valid for all types of transport, including cable cars. The card costs 3 euros plus the money that you deposit into your account to pay for the trip. The minimum amount you can put on the card is 5 euros. If you decide to return the card at the end of your trip, you can get back 3 euros and the money remaining in your account. Up to 10 people can travel with one card; you just need to remember to attach the card to the reader when entering the transport the required number of times, because fines for unpaid travel are no joke. The card is valid for 7 years from the date of purchase. You can buy the card at vending machines, newspaper kiosks, or at official sales points at bus or train stations, as well as at special sales points in the metro.

Best attractions and things to do

Bilbao museum view

Bilbao Guggenheim

Author: terrahispania

The Guggenheim Museum is the main architectural and art treasure of Bilbao. The building was erected by architect Frank Gehry, the same one who built the famous Dancing House in Prague and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The architect is loved for his bold play with lines, shadows, and light. Even if you are not a fan of modern art, it is worth coming and admiring this building. Moreover, it is better to do this at different times of the day, because the building changes color depending on how the sun shines. Acquaintance with the exhibition begins with a huge spider by the American sculptor Louise Bourgeois and a giant flower puppy by Jeff Koons, for the decoration of which 70 thousand fresh flowers were used. Inside the building, you will see other masterpieces of this artist, such as huge multi-colored tulips made of metal. The museum's collection also includes masterpieces of Picasso, Chagall, and Kandinsky, as well as Rothko, Klein, Basquiat, and many others. Also, the museum constantly hosts temporary exhibitions from the best museums in the world.

The entrance ticket costs 18 euros. It can be purchased online or at the box office. You can also buy a museum tour or join a city tour, during which a guide will tell you all the fascinating things about the fantastic museum building, as well as about other popular and interesting attractions.

If you are a true connoisseur of art and modern architecture, consider Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao and Vincci Consulado de Bilbao. This is an incredible choice for those who want to admire the wonder of architecture right from their room window.

The Guggenheim Museum is not the only art museum in Bilbao. The city also invites guests to the art museum Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, the archeology museum Arkeologi Museo, and the museum of the Basque Culture Museo Vasco de Bilbao.

Bilbao architecture

Author: terrahispania

The futuristic twin towers of Isozaki Atea, built by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, stand right at the entrance to the Campo Volantin bridge or, as it is also called Zubizuri. This bridge was built by the master of mirage, architect Santiago Calatrava. This way you can simultaneously admire two architectural prides of Bilbao. The arched bridge is painted white - the signature of the architect. According to rumors, the operation and regular repairs of the bridge are very expensive for the city, but this is art, and art is expensive.

Connoisseurs of modern architecture should also definitely take a ride on the Bilbao metro, the design of which was created by the architect Norman Foster, the same one who built, for example, the Mary Axe Tower in London, which is popularly called the “Gherkin”, and Wembley Stadium.

Bilboko Udala Town Hall was built in Art Nouveau style by the architect Joaquín Rucoba at the end of the 19th century. Here the eye can take a break from modern architecture and relax by looking at the columns, balustrades, and statues.

The Teatro Arriago is another creation of Joaquín Rucoba, built in a refined French-Moorish style. More of the French spirit can be seen in the outlines of the Champs-Elysees Theater or Teatro Campos Eliseos, which impresses with the luxury of its decor.

If you are interested in Basque Gothic architecture, walk through the cathedrals of Bilbao, somewhere you can even go inside. The most beautiful of them is the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Begona, built in the 17th century, the Iglesia de San Vicento de Abando, built in 1549, the Catedral de Santiago de Bilbao, which since the 14th century has welcomed pilgrims on the Way of St. James or Camino de Santiago, as well as the small but the impressive Iglesia de San Anton, depicted on the city's coat of arms.

Ribeira market

Author: terrahispania

A couple of minutes walk from the Iglesia de San Anton church, which we talked about just above, there is a beautiful Erribera merkatua market, where you can buy fresh locally produced products, and in the gastro bars on the territory of the market, you can taste pintxos and other snacks. And for those who want a larger scale, a couple of minutes walk from the market there is Plaza Nueva, where pintxos bars and cafes serving local cuisine are concentrated. Here you will certainly find something to suit your taste and mood.

Funicular and observation deck Mirador de Artxanda. If you take the funicular from Plaza del Funicular or Funikularreko Plaza, it will take you up to Mount Artxanda for beautiful views of Bilbao. There you can also go to the Basque restaurant Txakoli Jatexea and try traditional local dishes.

Best day-trips from Bilbao

San sebastian coastline

Author: terrahispania

The exquisite Basque resort of San Sebastian is one of Spain's most picturesque coastal cities. It gained its popularity thanks to Emperor Napoleon III's wife Eugenie. In this city, blue ocean waves roll onto yellow sand, the shores are framed by high mountains and hills, and spreading palm trees grow at their feet.
San Sebastian attracts guests with its incredible nature, wonderful landscapes, gorgeous beaches, unusual cuisine, and quality service.

Plan your trip with our article Complete guide to San Sebastian.

Mysterious Cape San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. One of the most popular coastal areas of the Basque Country gained great fame after an episode of Game of Thrones was filmed here. This is a small but extremely picturesque cape, crowned with a church, which is connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. There are steps carved into the stone isthmus. You walk to the edge of the cape, and on both sides of you, the ocean waves hit the rocks. From the top of the cape, there is a marvelous view of the coast, your face is salty from the ocean splashes, and seagulls are circling overhead. To get such an experience you need to drive 40 minutes from Bilbao, get to the coastal city of Bermeo, and buy a boat ticket to Gaztelugatxe or a day tour to Gaztelugatxe.

The bar capital of Logrono. If this is not your first time in Spain and you come back here for the roar of cheerful voices that come from the local bars every evening, welcome to Logrono. People come here to stroll through local wineries, for example, Bodegas Franco Españolas, and perfectly taste wine, have evening pintxo walks to bars on Calle Laurel, and of course, admire the Gothic and modern architecture, get acquainted with the culture, which is authentic and unique in each city. You may plan a walk by yourself or join a perfect Wine-tour, during which you will dive deep in the wine history of the region and visit the two best local wineries. Logrono is an hour and a half away by car or 2.5 hours by Alsa bus from Bilbao.

Authentic Zaragoza. People come to Zaragoza to see the life of a classic Spanish city with its ancient Roman ruins and Gothic basilicas, Flemish tapestries, and Goya's masterpieces, delicious tapas and aromatic wine, huge shady parks and narrow streets with noisy bars and join one of the unique city tours for example Kayaking along the main city river - Ebro. Zaragoza is 2.5 hours by car or 3.5 hours by Alsa bus from Bilbao.

Biarritz from Bilbao

Author: terrahispania

The fashionable Biarritz is located in the French part of the Basque Country. Biarritz is the hidden gem of the region. People come here to get acquainted with the French interpretation of what it means to be Basque. At this leisurely resort, you will find spacious beaches with fine golden sand, hotels located in luxurious villas, haute cuisine with a Basque flavor, beautiful nature, and French-style service. You can get from Bilbao to Biarritz in 3 hours by Alsa bus or Flixbus.

Complete guide to Biarritz will help you organize your trip.

Basque cuisine

basque food in Bilbao

Author: terrahispania

The three pillars of the Basque cuisine are seafood, vegetables, and spices. If desired, you can add legumes, beef, pork, and poultry.

Locals usually have coffee with cocoa and pastries for breakfast. Coffee and a bun will cost 4-5 euros.

Desserts in the Basque Country are a special kind of pleasure, whatever you choose, it will be delicious:

  • pastel vasco - shortcrust pastry pie filled with jam or custard;
  • goxua - sponge cake with custard, caramel, and cream. It may be reminiscent of creme brûlée, but with a Basque character;
  • pantxineta - a crispy puff pastry filled with delicate custard, decorated with powdered sugar and almond flakes;

Basque cheesecake is a Basque must-eat. It would seem like an ordinary cheesecake, but with the help of a local chef, it is extremely tender on the inside and extremely burnt on the outside. And all together it is fabulously tasty and very unusual.

Suppose you want something more satisfying for breakfast than just a bun, although the buns here are not so simple. You can order eggs in any form or piperrada - a lush omelette with tomatoes, sweet peppers, and onions.

A lunch of meat, a side dish and a drink will cost you 13-17 euros. For lunch in local cafes and restaurants you will be served the following dishes:

  • porrusalda - a light but satisfying soup based on leeks;
  • pisto - stewed eggplants and zucchini, seasoned with paprika and tomato sauce;
  • chuleta - grilled veal;
  • sukalki - a stew of meat and vegetables, seasoned with local spices and special choricero pepper;
  • chorizo a la sidra - chorizo sausages cooked in local cider;
  • bacalao a la vizkaina - tender cod in a delicious sauce based on onions, garlic, and pepper;
  • bacalao a la pil-pil - cod in its own juice;
  • kokotxas - cod cheeks or necks cooked in wine sauce, seasoned with garlic, and fried in olive oil.

Bilbao drinks

Author: terrahispania

Evening Bilbao is a city of cocktails and pintxos. Rarely does anyone here dine in the usual way. Locals love to meet at pintxos bars, order snacks and cocktails, and party until the night ends. The kitchens of local restaurants open at best after 20.00 and their menu is often very limited; it’s good if you are offered French fries and steak. Therefore, try to have a hearty lunch, and for dinner, arrange a pintxos promenade around the local bars.

Pinchos is a small sandwich that is most often made from anchovies, shrimp, mussels, olives, sausages, and vegetables. One pintxo costs 1.5-3 euros. You can order a large set of pintxos in one pintxo bar, or you can walk around Bilbao, stop at nice bars, choose pintxos, and move on. Another good option that will allow you to combine a delicious dinner and a cultural program is a pintxo tour with a local guide, who will not only show you the best pintxo bars but also tell you about the local cuisine, traditions, and cultural characteristics.

Michelin-starred restaurants are another reason to visit the Basque Country in general and Bilbao in particular. Local chefs are known for their love of reinterpreting traditional dishes, so you'll find more than 20 restaurants from a Michelin guide in Bilbao and another 20 in San Sebastian. Some of the Michelin-starred restaurants in the Basque Country have three stars, meaning that the city is worth a visit just for one.

Best gifts from Basque Country

souvenirs from the Basque Country

Author: terrahispania

Cider and wine. In almost any grocery store you will find local wines such as Txakoli, Rioja, and Rioja Alavesa, as well as delicious cider from the brands Larraldea, Eula, and Petritegi.

Anchovies. Small but tasty canned fish is sold in markets, supermarkets, tapas bars, and souvenir stores. You can buy exquisite anchovies in glass jars, or you can take them in classic tin ones. Don't forget to also buy olives and shrimp and have a Basque-style pintxos evening when you get home.

Pepper. Piment d'Espellet and Guindillas peppers are one of the most popular products of the Basque Country. They are bought in large bundles at markets or supermarkets and added to sandwiches, soups, salads, side dishes, and sauces.

Clothing, shoes, and accessories from local brands. Everyone knows about Cristobal Balenciaga and Paco Rabanne, who was born in the Basque Country, but there are also more affordable brands, such as SKFK, Mercedes de Miguel, Ion Fiz, Ailanto, in whose stores you can buy a scarf, bag, or dress as a souvenir of this amazing journey.

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