Last Updated on April 27, 2023

Bilbao is a vibrant city located in the Basque Country region of northern Spain renowned for its unique blend of old-world charm and modernity.  Situated on the banks of the Nervion River, Bilbao is best known for its impressive Guggenheim Museum, a striking work of contemporary architecture designed by Frank Gehry.

Beyond the museum, Bilbao is a bustling city with a rich history, culture, and cuisine attracting visitors from all over the world.

With its lively streets, colorful markets, and delicious pintxos (Basque tapas), the city offers a truly authentic Spanish experience. Whether those who visit are interested in art, history, sports or simply soaking up the local atmosphere, Bilbao is a city that delivers.

Some visitors glaze over Bilbao, seeing as a gray, decaying, smokestack city. But that’s a mistake, as Bilbao offers some fascinating sites, museums and a fascinating old town.

Let’s look at some suggestions to make your visit even more enjoyable.

Guggenheim Museum

No visit to Bilbao is complete without seeing the Guggenheim Museum. The stunning building is a work of art in itself, housing a collection of contemporary pieces from around the world.

The unique, alien-like exterior structure has been described as ‘gargantuan parts from a titanium-clad fish.’ But it has become as iconic as Paris’ Eiffel Tower with than one million people each year visiting the museum.

First-time guests should take advantage of the free audio guide which explains how to navigate through this often-disorienting structure.

The Guggenheim Foundation has traditionally focused on major post-1950 artists, including Picasso, Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, and Antoni Tàpies. The Bilbao branch has increasingly gone its own way, collecting and showing contemporary Basque art and favoring sculptors, painters, performance artists, and video artists who are still living and working.

Casco Viejo

The old town of Bilbao, known as Casco Viejo, is a charming area of narrow streets, historic buildings, and traditional Basque bars and restaurants. It’s the perfect place to explore and soak up the lively local culture.

One of the main attractions is its Gothic-style Santiago Cathedral dating back to the 14th century. Another prominent landmark is the Plaza Nueva, a bustling, vibrant square surrounded by cafes and restaurants that serves as a gathering place for locals and tourists alike.

The area is home to a variety of shops selling traditional Basque handicrafts, as well as modern boutiques and galleries.

Bilbao Fine Arts Museum

The museum, founded in 1908, has grown to become one of the leading museums in Spain. Its collection consists of over 10,000 works of art spanning from the Middle Ages to contemporary art. The repository includes works by some of the most important Basque artists, such as Ignacio Zuloaga and Eduardo Chillida, as well as items from international artists like Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse.

One of the museum highlights is its collection of Spanish art from the 19th and 20th centuries, highlighting paintings by some of the most important Spanish artists of the time, including Francisco de Goya, Joaquín Sorolla, and Pablo Picasso.

The museum also has an extensive collection of broadly European art, with objects by Rembrandt, Rubens, and Van Dyck.

Plaza Nueva

This beautiful “New Square” is located in the heart of Bilbao’s Old Town (Casco Viejo).  

The square is surrounded by a series of arcaded buildings with colorful facades which are home to a variety of shops, cafes, and restaurants. The architecture of the buildings is a mix of different styles, including Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque.

One of the highlights of Plaza Nueva is its fun and lively atmosphere. The square is a popular gathering place for locals and tourists alike, and is particularly busy in the evenings. Renowned for its pintxos bars, this is where visitors can sample the traditional tasty Basque tapas.

Plaza Nueva is also home to a number of events and celebrations throughout the year. During the Christmas season, the square is decorated with lights and a large nativity scene, while in the summer, it hosts a variety of outdoor concerts and festivals.

Artxanda Funicular

The Bilbao Funicular, also known as the Artxanda Funicular, is a funicular railway connecting the neighborhood of Casco Viejo in the city center to the top of Mount Artxanda.

Originally built in 1915, the funicular has undergone several renovations and upgrades since its inception. Two cars run on parallel tracks, each with a capacity of up to 75 passengers. The journey from bottom to top takes approximately three minutes and covers a distance of 770 meters.

Operating year-round, the funicular is a popular tourist attraction, especially during the summer months. Visitors enjoy stunning panoramic views of Bilbao and the surrounding hills from the observation deck. There are also several restaurants and cafes in the area, making it a great place to spend an afternoon or evening.

In addition to its tourist appeal, the funicular is an important transportation link for locals. It provides a convenient way to travel between the city center and the Artxanda neighborhood, home to several parks and recreational areas.

San Mames Athletic Stadium

San Mames Stadium, also known as Estadio San Mames, is the home ‘fútbol’ stadium of Athletic Club Bilbao, one of the oldest and most successful football clubs in Spain.

The stadium, originally built in 1913, has undergone several renovations and upgrades over the years, the most recent completed in 2013. It has a seating capacity of 53,289 spectators, making it the third-largest of Spain’s football stadiums.

San Mames is renowned for its lively and passionate atmosphere during football matches. Fans of the Athletic Club, known as ‘Los Leones’ (The Lions), are known for their unwavering support of the team and their loud cheers and chants during matches.

The stadium has also hosted several other sporting events and concerts over the years including the 1982 FIFA World Cup, 2018 European Rugby Champions Cup Final and the 2019 Copa del Rey Final.

Because it’s easily accessible by public transportation, with several bus and metro lines serving the area and its location in the heart of Bilbao, visitors find it convenient to catch a football match or experience the atmosphere of one of Spain’s most iconic stadiums.

Mercado de la Ribera

Mercado de la Ribera, also known as the Ribera Market, is a covered market located in the historic quarter of Bilbao, and one of the largest indoor markets in Europe, covering an area of 10,000-square-meters.

The market dates back to the 14th century. Renovated in 2010, the new market includes over 300 stalls, restaurants, and bars.

Ribera is divided into three sections: fresh produce, fish, and meat. Visitors can find a wide variety of local and seasonal products, including fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, seafood, and pastries. The market also sells a wide range of prepared foods, such as pintxos (a type of Basque tapa), sandwiches, cooked dishes, and wines.

In addition, the market offers a cooking school where visitors can take classes and learn how to prepare local dishes.

Author

  • Noreen Kompanik

    Noreen Kompanik is a retired registered nurse, legal nurse consultant, and military spouse turned travel writer. She launched her travel writing career in 2014 and has over 600 articles in both digital and print publications.

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