Top Things to Do in Bilbao Besides a Visit to the Guggenheim
Bilbao, the capital of Bizkaia and one of the most progressive industrial hubs in the whole of Spain, has more to offer than Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum. It has managed to transform itself from a drab and unattractive port town to a bustling and vibrant city that values forward-thinking, innovation, and sustainable urban development. Today, Bilbao is a curious mix of cosmopolitanism and rootedness, grunge and sophistication, old and new. If you’re on the lookout for your next trip, then consider exploring this understated gem of the north.
Many people would say that Bilbao is not the sort of place that can immediately blow you away. There are no monumental churches like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and the Mezquita in Cordoba, nor the massive Moorish palaces like the Alhambra in Granada. However, I think it’s just about any alternative traveller’s cup of tea — you’ll probably need some time to warm up to it, but you’re sure to be rewarded by the fine things that make the city one of the best places to live in my opinion.
Aside from the obligatory visit to the Guggenheim, here are other wonderful things to do in Bilbao to really get under its skin.
Wander through Casco Viejo’s labyrinthine streets
It goes without saying that getting lost in the labyrinth of streets in Bilbao’s Old Quarter, or Casco Viejo, is a must. It was the heart of medieval Bilbao and remains to be the locus of culture and action in the city. Today, it boasts of a wide array of bars, restaurants, al fresco cafés, artisanal shops, and markets selling locally sourced products.
For many tourists, Plaza Nueva is an obligatory stop. It is the town’s main square and offers a wide array of local drinks (like txakoli, a variation of white wine that hails from the neighbouring province Gipuzkoa) and pintxos the Basque version of tapas. La Olla and Gure Toki are my go-to places for elaborately prepared pintxos.
On Thursday nights, Somera also comes alive as students and cuadrillas (basically a ‘gang’ or group of friends from childhood) get together for a night of cheap drinks (Eurokaña, or 1 glass of beer for 1 euro, is offered by many bars on this strip), a lot of chatter, drunken singing, and comfort food. Local favorites to soften the blow of an impending hangover include noodles or ricebox from Mr. Wok, a generous slice of thin crust pizza from Pizza Via, Motrikes’ famous grilled mushrooms, and a hefty-sized bacon and cheese roll from any of the bars.
For a genuinely local experience, head over to Bodega Joserá in a hidden alley along Alejandro de la Sota. Being one of the oldest bars in Bilbao, it’s claim to fame is its sumptuous bocadillo de bonito (bonito tastes a lot like tuna, but these two MUST not be confused unless you want to get into a heated argument with your newfound Basque friend!). If you’re lucky, you may even come across a group of txikiteros. They’re made up of a cuadrilla of men who go from bar to bar drinking wine and singing songs about a Bilbao, or bilbainadas. This tradition has been going on for decades and I always find myself stopping by if I come across a group of txikiteros to hear them sing... they sure can carry a tune!
When craving for a sweet snack, go over to the pastry shop Jardines tucked away in Calle Victor for a sumptuous bollo de mantequilla (butter roll) or a palmera de chocolate rellena de nata. This is a local hotspot and you might find yourself queueing up in busy hours. You can also enjoy a heavenly slice of cheese cake (and free WiFi!) over at Charamel Gozotegia. If you’re keen on trying unique local flavors, head over to Gelati Gelati and get yourself an idiazabal cheese-flavored ice cream. Idiazabal is a traditional product from the Basque Country and Navarre made from sheep’s milk. It’s one of my favorites and a must-try when in Bilbao!
Experience Basque gastronomy
If there’s anything that the Basque Country does well, it’s food. In Bilbao, you’ll get the chance to experience the region’s culinary artistry by sampling their famed pintxos. As opposed to the typical Spanish tapas ranging from a slice of cheese or jamón to a good portion of piping hot patatas bravas, the Basque pintxos (from the Spanish word pinchar meaning to prick) are prepared by adding meat, seafood, vegetables, and/or sauce, held together nicely with a toothpick atop a slice of bread, hence the name. While Plaza Nueva is a great option, there are other pintxo zones scattered across the city. Head out to the oldest of the seven streets, Calle Somera (Goienkale in Basque, which literally means ‘the street above’), and try Ada Aska’s pintxo de tortilla (Spanish omelette) with onions, morcilla (blood sausage) or tuna. While vegan food is hard to come by in this part of the world, Tirauki offers delicious and non-meat options for breakfast and snacks. For those who are willing to splurge for elaborately prepared pintxos, head out to any of the bars along Calle Colón de Larreategui (the strip in front of Jardines de Albia), Calle Ledesma, Calle Diputación, and Calle Juan Ajuriaguerra.
Restaurants offering set menus and a-la-carte options are also not lacking in Bilbao. We highly recommend the local favourite Mandoya and the exquisite Txapela (both in Casco Viejo) to sample delectable fish and meat dishes. For affordable lunch options, check out the restaurant Gorbea along Jardines Kalea and sample their menu del día that includes an appetizer, a main course, dessert, bread, and a bottle of wine for 12 euros. For the daring, head out to Dando La Brasa to try the savoury fusion of Basque and Peruvian flavours.
Head out to the weekend markets
There are several bazaars happening around Bilbao on weekends. On Saturdays, head over to the Arenal Pavilion for the weekly Gure Lurreko Merkatua (literally ‘our land’s market’) that showcases home-grown produce and artisanal pastries and to Bilbao la Vieja’s Dos de Mayo street for vintage finds, second hand items, and open air concerts. On Sundays, do as the locals do by visiting the flower market also in the Arenal Pavilion as well as the flea market in Plaza Nueva with second hand books, jewelry, and rare collector’s items on offer.
When you find your plans being ruined by the infamous and temperamental Bilbaíno weather, don’t fret — there’s the Mercado de La Ribera. Aside from housing a wet market offering fresh and local meat and produce, it also has an indoor gourmet food section a la Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid. Enjoy a wide variety of pintxos (the Basque version of tapas) and wine with artsy interiors and cozy seating.
STAY AT A PENSION HOUSE IN THE OLD QUARTER.
Pension houses are usually small family-run businesses and are a great accommodation option when traveling around Europe. With its cobblestone paths and historic buildings, staying at a pension house in Casco Viejo can really give you an authentic experience and allows you to give back and support the local economy.
Iturrienea Ostatua. This charming pension house will surely catch your attention with its beautiful white and blue palette. It is located in a historic building in the very heart of the city and will surely make for an unforgettable and comfortable stay. Reviews | Book here
Old Town by Bilbao Living. This charming three-bedroom apartment is perfect for families and bigger groups. For guests with private vehicles, you can also arrange for paid parking nearby. Book here
Take a stroll along the river Nervión
Like the Thames in London, the Seine in Paris, and the Danube in Budapest, the Nervión river has shaped the history and character of Bilbao. It has allowed the city’s trade and shipbuilding industry to grow, turning it one of the most progressive cities in the whole of Spain. Following the footpath that runs along both sides of the river is a perfectly slow way to witness the mundaneness of local living as well as the beauty of some of Bilbao’s landmarks. It traverses the whole strip from Bilbao’s city hall to the more residential parts of Deusto and Zorrotzaure.
You’ll see people doing their early morning jog, elderly people enjoying the sun, commuters mounted on public electric bikes cruising along the Bidegorri (bike lane), and five of Bilbao’s several bridges: the white Zubizuri bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava, the red and green La Salve bridge where the annual Red Bull cliff diving finals are held, the Pedro Arrupe footbridge in front of the University of Deusto, the Deusto bascule bridge that used to be raised and lowered to accommodate the passage of bigger ships along the river, and the emblematic Euskalduna bridge.
During this walk, you will also be able to see the Guggenheim Museum, the University of Deusto (the oldest Jesuit university in Spain — after all, the founder of the Jesuit order St. Ignatius of Loyola is himself Basque), the Euskalduna Palace, and the Maritime Museum of Bilbao. A short walk from the Guggenheim further from the river is the Museum of Fine Arts, which houses a good collection of paintings from both local and international artists.
Take the funicular to Mt. Artxanda
Bilbao’s moniker is ‘botxo’ (or hole) and so it comes as no surprise that Bilbainos love and revere the mountains that have shaped it to the city it is today. Mount Artxanda is one of the seven mountains of the Anillo Verde, or ‘green ring’, that cradle the valley. Its relatively easy access makes it a favorite foolproof outdoor plan for Bilbainos, thanks to its many walking paths and spectacular city views. The funicular runs regular trips and leaves Bilbao center from the Plaza del Funicular along Calle Ccastaños. There’s a park right as you step out of the funicular station, offering magnificent views of Bilbao on one side and Loiu, a town where the Bilbao airport is located, on the other. Aside from the scenery, Artxanda is a good jump off point for many accessible walking routes that connect it with the other mountains or lead back to Bilbao center. After a day of walking and exploring, head over to Artxanda’s amazing steakhouses such as Txakoli Simón and Asador Artetxe for a hearty meal.
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