Bilbao was a pleasant surprise!
Spain is my ultimate escape haven and one of the perks of living in a French border town is that i easily get into Spain whenever I feel like it.
I love the colorful neighborhood festivals in Barcelona, the Pintxos bars in San Sebastian, and the night lights in Madrid.
When you think “vacation is Spain” you immediately think of the eastern and northeastern cities like Barcelona, Malaga, and Valencia for so many reasons. The Mediterranean Sea, exotic beaches, and the weather are among the top motivations.
But sometimes you want a mini vacay in a small city away from the flood of tourists that one is certain to find in big cities like Paris and Rome.
It takes a little more than 3 hours to get to Bilbao from Bordeaux where I live, but our trip lasted about 4 hours because we had a few stops and a toddler in tow.
If you’re going to Bilbao from France or any neighboring country, I suggest you go by car. The landscape from France to Bilbao is simply amazing. The route connecting Bayonne to San Sebastian is full of mountains and valleys and beautiful views.
If you’re flying in, you’ll land at the small Airport in Loiu, which is about 12 minutes drive to the heart of Bilbao. I advise you to pick a hotel in the heart of the city, so if you’re like me you can pop in and out of your hotel in-between visits.
Where we Stayed
We checked into the 5-star: Hotel Carlton, the most luxurious hotel in Bilbao with a top-rated restaurant. Our room was on the last floor with an oval window out looking at the Moyua square.
There are lots of hotels in Bilbao with great reviews and our choice to stay at a 5-star hotel was just a reflection of our state of mind at the moment with all the covid anxiety and stress.
Here are the best things to do in the biggest city of the Basque country in no particular order.
We had pre-booked places to visit the notorious Guggenheim Museum and that was our first port of call. From 1km away the museum announced its presence with a flood of tourists moving in and out, most stopping to take Instagram-worthy pictures in front of the building.
The building is everything you read about: an architectural masterpiece, unique and intimidating.
Inside the museum, there were several exhibitions partitioned into rooms.
The visits lasted us all of the morning..
I particularly loved the exhibition space dedicated to Ansel Keifer’s artwork.
Tip: Visit Guggenheim in the morning so you’ll be fresh off to take it all in. it is a lot to see and it’ll be a shame if you just skim through it because you’re tired.
Boat ride along the estuary (Nervion river):
Typical tourist behavior right here.
Bilbao happens to have river cruises that give you a tour of the city through its estuary and there are 2 types of these cruises if you use “Bilboats” as we did.
You have the 1-hour boat ride that departs from the City Hall right up to the Deusto canal entrance and back. The 2nd option is a 2 hour trip that takes you right up to the sea to visit the Handing bridge of Bizkaia, and back.
These boat trips are one of the best ways to see Bilbao from a privileged perspective. You will be able to see the city constructions, landscapes, anecdotes, and take beautiful pictures.
Tip: Book tickets online and get there early. It helps to get a place to sit down in the front for a better view.
Keeping the river estuary in mind, let’s talk about the Ribera market. This market is located beside the estuary, in an architectural design. It is also the biggest market in Bilbao.
Ribera market is an indoor food market the transparent colored windows sand the glass façade makes it stand out. Inside the buildings, there are no rooms nor columns, just a huge space of food and more food.
We came across this street accidentally while leaving the fashion stores at Gran Via.
It happens to be one of the trendiest streets in Bilbao because it is a pedestrian area and due to its location, being close to shopping areas and museums.
Ledesma street has a lot of bars that are full of locals, that’s how I knew we had to make a stop; the locals always know best.
Tip: Best place for nightlife and bar hopping
Casco Viejo quarters
Take your time, walk down the narrow streets, admire the colored windows, and nice doors, appreciate the architecture, and the flowered balconies, maybe stop at a bar? definitely stop at a bar.
Also referred to as the old town, Casco Viejo is easily the most beautiful neighborhood in Bilbao. The locals seemed very friendly too.
Tip: Visit in the evenings when the temperature is down and you’re in no hurry.
Top of Mount Artxanda
Walk or take a funicular to the top of Mount Artxanda and be rewarded with the most picturesque view of Bilbao. Here you’ll get a complete view of the city and observe its layout. You’ll see the city of Bilbao fitted in between mountains, and the valleys.
The old town, prominent monuments are neighborhoods can all be spotted from high up here. Move around and get a view of the city from different angles, take pictures from high up. Mount Amanda is not only a great photo spot, you can stroll around the mountain, have a picnic, get a drink at a nearby bar call it a day.
Tip: Do not buy 2 tickets when going up. Return tickets are sold only on your way down
Arriaga Theatre Opera house
Sometimes we travel to see monuments. This theater, named after one of Spain’s most celebrated composers is also one of the most important buildings in Bilbao. The building is modeled after the Parisian Opéra and stands out from afar. Even though this was a rather quick stop for us, it’s a must-see.
Tip: Great spot for photography.
Vizcaya Bridge (The Hanging Bridge)
When I got to this bridge, I thought to myself “so the world’s first transporter bridge is sitting here in Bilbao, still functional and I’m just finding out”? I need more history lessons.
The Vizcaya Bridge popularly known as the hanging bridge is named a world heritage site by UNESCO and it took them long enough.
About 6 million people use this bridge yearly to crossover between the Portugalete and Getxo municipalities.
Tip: if you like views from high up, you can cross the bridge hanging from a Gondola.
Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park
This is a must-stop park for families with children, animal owners, and nature lovers. Heck if you aren’t any of these but want a break from the summer sun, this is the place. It is cool, with shade, flowers, fountains, and greenery.
it also has old structures and some impressive sculptures.
Tip: This is a great place to meet locals and just relax.
The place Nueva is the “it” square in the old town, and historic center. On Sundays, there is a marker for collector items and second-hand valuables. Any other day, the place is surrounded by bars and restaurants.
It’s a perfect hangout for tourists and locals who want a taste of Bilbao’s social life in a convivial and festive atmosphere. There are also a lot of old bars and cafes with great pintxos.
Tip: Go very early in the evening as the bars and terraces get filled up very early.