15 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Bilbao
When Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum appeared along the riverbank of Bilbao in 1997, the phenomenon of "architourism" was born. Visitors began to flock here to see the Guggenheim's astounding modern architecture and extensive contemporary art collection.
The Guggenheim is a highlight of Bilbao and also just the beginning of the cultural attractions. This happening city has several other interesting museums, a charming Old Town (Casco Viejo), and exceptional gourmet restaurants.
As the capital of the Vizcaya province in Spain's Basque Country, Bilbao delivers on the region's tradition of gastronomic excellence. Throughout the city are casual eateries that serve pintxos, the Basque twist on tapas. Tourists have fun sampling the local specialties as they explore the atmospheric pedestrian streets of the Casco Viejo.
Bilbao boasts six Michelin-starred restaurants, renowned for exquisite haute-cuisine. Several of these restaurants are found next to major tourist attractions: the Nerua restaurant within the Guggenheim Museum, the Ola Martín Berasategui restaurant and Restaurante Mina near the Mercado de la Ribera, and Restaurante Zortziko a short walk from the Museum of Fine Arts.
Discover the best places to visit in this vibrant city with our list of the top attractions and things to do in Bilbao.
See also: Where to Stay in Bilbao
1. Guggenheim Museum
Most tourists who visit Bilbao make a beeline to the Guggenheim Museum, the city's must-see sight. The building itself is a spectacular work of art, a groundbreaking example of 20th-century architecture designed by famous architect Frank Gehry. Constructed between 1993 and 1997, the sleek, swirling, sculpture-like structure sets the stage for a memorable experience of art appreciation.
Inside the building, 24,000 square meters of space is used to exhibit the artworks. In the Atrium, paintings are displayed along the walls of the curved walkway in a three-level staircase. Giant windows allow in natural light, showing the art to the best advantage. From the Atrium, the museum's 20 galleries exhibit the rest of the extensive collection in smaller rooms.
Highlights of the exhibitions include an abstract work by Mark Rothko; the colorful Villa Borghese painting by Willem de Kooning; Only with Wind, Time, and Sound and Sunflowers by Anselm Kiefer; the Humans photography assortment by Christian Boltanski; the group of 17 paintings in the Mother's Room by Francesco Clemente; Three Red Spanish Venuses sculptures by Jim Dine; and The Raft of the Medusa painting by José Manuel Ballester.
The most noteworthy of the museum's sculpture installations are the nine-meter-tall spider sculpture called Maman by Louise Bourgeois and the gigantic topiary dog full of flower blossoms called Puppy, the work of Jeff Koons.
To learn more about the museum's architecture and art collection, try a private tour of the Guggenheim Museum, which includes museum admission and a narrative that explains the stories behind many of the museum's most famous works of art.
A short walk from the Guggenheim Museum is the Michelin-starred Etxanobe Atelier. This elegant yet understated gastronomic restaurant serves modern Spanish cuisine with a focus on fresh seafood and high-quality seasonal ingredients.
Address: 2 Avenida Abandoibarra, Bilbao
Official site: https://www.guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en
2. Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao
The Museum of Fine Arts in Bilbao offers an outstanding collection housed in two separate buildings. The historic building displays works by the European masters of the 14th to 17th centuries.
Dutch and Flemish paintings of the 15th to 17th centuries are well represented, with masterpieces such as Money Changers by Quentin Matsys and Virgin and Child by Dirk Bouts, as well as works by Anthony van Dyck and Vos of the 17th-century Flemish school.
The Spanish paintings of the 14th and 15th centuries include paintings by Jaime Huguet, Bartolomé Bermejo, and Pedro Serra. The 16th- to 17th-century Spanish painting assortment features Annunciation by El Greco, Virgin and Child with Saint John by Zurbarán, as well as works by Velázquez and Jusepe de Ribera. Another highlight is the portrait of Fernández de Moratín by Francisco de Goya.
The collection also covers Italian paintings of the 16th to 17th centuries and 19th-century French paintings, including Gauguin's Washerwomen of Arles, as well as Romanesque and Gothic sculpture.
An entire floor is devoted to works by Basque artists, including 22 pictures by the landscape painter Darió de Regoyos (the largest collection of his works in any museum). The modern building of the museum mainly displays works by contemporary Spanish artists.
One of Bilbao's Michelin-starred restaurants is near the museum. Restaurante Zortziko (17 Calle Alameda Mazarredo) serves innovative haute cuisine featuring stunning presentations.
Address: 2 Plaza del Museo, Bilbao
Official site: http://www.museobilbao.com/in/
3. Explore Casco Viejo (Old Town)
Full of old-world charm, the Casco Viejo is on the right bank of the river extending between the San Antón Bridge and the Church of San Nicolás. The Old Town is linked by five bridges with the New Town (Ensanche).
The core of the Casco Viejo lies around the Siete Calles (Seven Streets): Somera, Artecalle, Tendería, Belosticalle, Carnicería Vieja, Barrencalle, and Barrencalle Barena. It's a delightful experience to explore these quaint historic streets that are lined with small boutiques and cafés.
In the northern section of the Old Town around the Puente del Arenal is the Paseo del Arenal, the main thoroughfare of this part of Bilbao.
Near the Paseo del Arenal, on the Plaza de Arriaga, is the Teatro Arriaga, an elegant Neo-Baroque theater that was inspired by the Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris. Built in 1890 and later renovated, the Arriaga Theater is the cultural hub of the city, where classical music concerts, opera, dance and theater performances are staged.
Another important landmark in the Casco Viejo is the Iglesia de San Nicolás de Bari. This lovely church has a Baroque facade and a unique octagonally shaped interior; the church dates from the 14th century but was completely rebuilt in 1756. The beautiful carved altar and some of the paintings are the work of Juan de Mena.
Just next to St. Nicholas Church sits Plaza Nueva (also known as Plaza Barria), a lively space which is an attraction in its own right. A guided walking tour of Bilbao's Old Town (Casco Viejo) is an excellent way to get an overview of the area's layout and history.
4. Get a New Perspective from the Bridges of Bilbao
The distinctive La Salve Bridge offers some of the most breathtaking vistas of Bilbao. Crossing the estuary next to the Guggenheim Museum, this architectural masterpiece features "Arcos Rojos" ("Red Arches") designed by French artist Daniel Buren in honor of the Guggenheim's 10th anniversary. The bridge's viewing platforms overlook the Guggenheim Museum.
Just a few blocks down, tourists will find the Zubizuri Bridge, which provides pedestrian access to the Calle Campo de Volantín, an area where locals like to stroll. This sleek ultra-modern monument is also sometimes called the Calatrava Bridge, named for its designer Santiego Calatrava. The bridge has become an icon of the city, stretching across the estuary in an arched, sweeping motion, and features a glass deck.
North of the city at the entrance to the estuary, Vizcaya Bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in 1893 during the industrial revolution, designed by Alberto Palacio. It is famous for its engineering and historical architecture, being the first bridge to use a combination of steel cables and iron.
5. Sample Pintxos in the Plaza Nueva
In the Casco Viejo, the Plaza Nueva (also known as Plaza Barria) is a Neoclassical city square built in the mid-19th century. The square is enclosed by elegant arcaded buildings that house restaurants, cafés, and cozy tapas bars at the street level. Outdoor seating spills out onto the square in warm weather.
The Plaza Nueva is a favorite meeting place for locals. On sunny days, the square becomes a center of social life, a sort of open-air living room. In the evenings, groups of friends socialize at the tapas bars. This lively square is also a perfect place for tourists to begin a pintxos sampling experience.
Pintxos are a uniquely Basque version of tapas, named for their presentation. These bite-sized appetizers or small-portioned dishes are traditionally served on a toothpick or skewer. They are also referred to as pinchos, the Spanish word for "spike."
Tourists who want to sample a wide range of the specialties can hop from one pintxos joint to another, ordering one snack, then moving on. For travelers, pintxos-hopping is a unique opportunity to participate in the local culture and enjoy the convivial ambience of an authentic Bilbao hangout spot.
The Plaza Nueva was the site of a unique albeit bizarre historic event; in 1872, when the Duke of Savoy visited the city, the plaza was barricaded by sandbags and filled with water, so that gondolas could be floated inside in his honor. A painting depicting the unusual event can be found at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao.
Throughout the year, the Plaza Nueva hosts festivals and cultural events. On Sundays, a flea market is held on the square.
6. Euskal Museoa Bilbao (Museo Vasco)
At the Euskal Museoa Bilbao (Bilbao Basque Museum), also called the Museo Vasco in Spanish, visitors can discover the unique culture and history of the Basque region. Housed in a beautiful Baroque building in the heart of the Casco Viejo (Old Town), the museum has three different departments that document the Basque way of life: archeology, ethnography, and history.
The archeology section displays prehistoric finds from sites in the Basque country, such as memorial stones and pieces of sculpture. One of the most prized objects of the collection is a mysterious idol of Mikeldi. The ethnography department displays Basque crafts and folk art. One of the rooms features an interesting relief model depicting the Basque provinces.
The history department is mainly devoted to the history of Bilbao and its seafaring activities from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Various exhibits illustrate the world of fishing, shipping, navigation, and other commerce of the region.
The museum is open every day except Tuesdays for an admission fee. Guided tours are available by reservation.
Address: 4 Plaza Miguel de Unamuno, Bilbao
7. Catedral de Santiago
In the center of the Casco Viejo, the Cathedral of Santiago exemplifies Basque Gothic architecture in a perfect form. The cathedral dates to the 15th century; however, the facade and tower were rebuilt in the 19th century in Gothic Revival style.
The cathedral has a majestic interior, with three naves and rib-vaulted ceilings. The main nave soars to a height of 22 meters, giving an awe-inspiring impression of spaciousness and grandeur. Artistic highlights of the interior are the choir stalls and cloister featuring fanciful Gothic details.
The cathedral is open to the public for visits on Fridays and Saturdays. Mass is celebrated at the cathedral every day at 7pm. On Sundays, there is an additional Mass (which is bilingual) at noon.
Address: 1 Plaza de Santiago, Bilbao
8. Bizkaia Archaeological Museum
Opened in 2008, the Bizkaia Archaeological Museum (Arkeologi Museoa) allows visitors to discover the region's ancient history and learn about the differences between the past and present. Located in the Casco Viejo, the museum illustrates the evolution of Basque culture, from the prehistoric era to recent times, featuring historical highlights throughout the centuries.
The exhibits display fascinating archaeological objects from local excavations, which reveal insights into the unique Basque culture, including pottery, ceramics, and other items. Other exhibits include fossils and other remains of prehistoric animals that once roamed the area including the lion of Arrikrutz, an animal far larger than its present-day African cousins.
The museum is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday. Free guided tours are available. Temporary exhibits and lectures take place at the museum throughout the year.
Address: 2 Calzada de Mallona, Bilbao
9. Relax at Parque Doña Casilda de Iturrizar
Filled with leafy palm trees and a splendid variety of trees and colorful flowers, the Doña Casilda Park offers a welcome respite from the city's urban bustle. This expansive green space is beautifully landscaped in the Romantic style and adorned with Neoclassical statues and fountains.
Winding pathways encourage leisurely walks, and park benches are well placed in shady spots to take in the scenery. The park's large lake is home to many little ducks and provides a charming spot for rowing boats. Other special features of the park are the old-fashioned merry-go-round, the outdoor theater, and a botanical garden.
The Museum of Fine Arts is at the edge of the park beyond the street of Artetxe Kondearen Zumarkalea.
Also nearby is the gourmet restaurant Aizian (29 Lehendakari Leizaola), which serves exquisite Basque cuisine with a modern flair. The restaurant's stylish dining room offers wonderful views of the park.
Location: Between Gran Vía and Paseo de Abandoibarra, Bilbao
10. Basilica de Begoña
The district of Begoña lies on a higher level above the Old Town. This picturesque hilltop is home to an important pilgrimage church, the Basilica de Begoña. Built in the 16th century, the church has an image of the Virgin of Begoña, patroness of the city, and a lovely painting of The Pilgrimage of Begoña.
The easiest way to arrive at the church is by taking the lift from behind the Church of San Nicolás. Another option is the footpath, which requires a 20-minute walk to the top of the hill. From this vantage point, visitors can take in an exceptional view of the city.
Address: 38 Virgen de Begoña, Bilbao
11. Museo Marítimo Itsasmuseum Bilbao
The Bilbao Maritime Museum is near a dock of the Bilbao Estuary on the site that was formerly the outbuildings of the Euskalduna shipyard. This unique museum immerses visitors into the world of seafaring. The museum has an outdoor exhibition area that includes the docks, as well as restored vessels.
Inside the museum, exhibits educate visitors about the environment of the Bilbao Estuary, the history of the maritime industry, and the traditions of the people who have made their living from the estuary.
The museum is open daily except Mondays. Well designed to welcome visitors, the museum has a cafeteria and a gift shop.
Address: 1 Muelle Ramón de la Sota, Bilbao
12. Palacio Euskalduna (Conference and Music Center)
The Euskalduna Music and Conference Hall is a stunning modern structure built in 1999 and is considered one of the most important examples of contemporary architecture in Spain. The building's shape was designed to mimic a ship, and symbolizes the last vessel built at the Euskalduna shipyard.
Boasting 53,000 square meters of space, the building draws crowds to the theater for symphony, ballet, and opera performances. Renowned for its exceptional acoustics, the theater's auditorium is the largest stage in Spain and the second largest in Europe.
Just a 10-minute walk from the Palacio Euskalduna is one of Bilbao's renowned Michelin-starred restaurants, Zarate Jatetxea. This chic fine-dining restaurant specializes in traditional Basque cuisine, and its menu features locally caught seafood.
Address: 4 Avenida de Abandoibarra, Bilbao
13. Mercado de la Ribera
Built in 1929, this marketplace is a great place to experience the everyday life of Bilbao. The Ribera Market is found in the heart of the Casco Viejo, where it draws local shoppers and restaurant chefs. The 10,000-square-meter space is Europe's largest indoor marketplace.
Although the building was designed for functionality, the market hall is a bright and cheerful space with skylights that provide natural light. The exterior features whimsical Art Deco designs, floral decorations, and lattice windows.
This is the best place in the city to find high-quality Basque culinary products, fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, and other gourmet food products used to prepare the regional cuisine.
For those who'd rather leave the cooking to the experts, two of Bilbao's renowned gastronomic restaurants are found nearby. The Michelin-starred Restaurante Mina is on the Muelle Marzana, a short walk across the river from the market, and the Ola Martín Berasategui restaurant is found within the Hotel Takyo on Calle Ribera, which is just steps away from the market.
Address: Mercado de la Ribera, 22 bis Ribera, Bilbao
14. Funicular de Artxanda and Mount Artxanda
Opened in 1915, this cableway, affectionately known as the "Funi," offers a wonderful way to take in the scenery of Bilbao. The Artxanda Funicular takes only three minutes to travel through the hillside of the Arangoiti neighborhood to the top of Mount Artxanda, a truly rewarding destination.
From the summit, tourists are awed by the sensational panoramas of Bilbao's urban landscape. Around the Mount Artxanda summit are lovely areas for taking a walk and admiring the views.
The funicular runs daily, and trains depart every 15 minutes from the Plaza del Funicular (a 10-minute walk from the City Hall).
Official site: https://funicularartxanda.bilbao.eus/en/home/
15. Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro
More commonly referred to simply as the "Gran Vía," this is Bilbao's main thoroughfare, home to commercial and government buildings, as well as a bustling neighborhood.
The Gran Vía stretches for 1.5 kilometers from the Plaza Circular (near the Maritime Museum) to the Plaza del Sagrado Corazón. On the way, it runs adjacent to Don Casilda Park, and then through the Ensanche district's Plaza de Federico Moyúa, home of the Chávarri Palace.
This attractive and lively area is an excellent place to admire more of the city's architecture while perusing high-end boutiques and then stopping at one of the many gourmet restaurants, cafés, or fancy pastry shops.
Where to Stay in Bilbao for Sightseeing
- Sitting just across the street from the Guggenheim, guests at the Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao can admire Jeff Koons' Puppy topiary day and night. This trendy five-star hotel offers the best in modern luxury, with a sleek design, a scenic roof terrace, and glass-walled bathrooms. Hotel amenities include a restaurant, fitness center, and spa.
- The Hotel Carlton is another luxury five-star hotel, housed in a Historic Monument on the centrally located Plaza de Federico Moyúa within easy walking distance of the Guggenheim Museum and the Museo de Bellas Artes. Guest rooms and suites are both classic and modern, and hotel services include an on-site restaurant, room service, and concierge.
- The NH Collection Villa de Bilbao is an affordable four-star hotel on Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro, adjacent to Don Casilda Park and within a few minutes' walk to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Guggenheim. The hotel is popular with families, offering large suites and in-room conveniences like mini-fridges and microwaves. Décor is contemporary and sleek, with modern amenities and an excellent restaurant.
- Another four-star hotel with mid-range pricing is Hotel Miró, a boutique hotel centrally located between the Guggenheim and the Museum of Fine Arts and within easy walking distance to the Casco Viejo. The hotel displays an excellent collection of contemporary art. Amenities include a spa, fitness center, and complimentary tea and coffee in the lounge.
- Casual Bilbao Gurea is a budget-friendly bed-and-breakfast with a central and picturesque Old Town location and friendly staff, offering spotless rooms that are updated and bright, with private bathrooms. This is an ideal place for those traveling with children, offering family rooms, a dedicated "playground room," and even free kids' seats with bicycle rentals.
- Bilbao City Rooms is a small budget hotel in a central location near the Guggenheim and the Museum of Fine Arts. The guest rooms are compact but feature cheerful modern decor and include conveniences like mini-fridges and microwaves.
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Sunny Santander: For those who are visiting northern Spain and seeking relaxation on golden-sand beaches, Santander is a delightful holiday destination during the summer months. The small city sits just over an hour's drive from Bilbao, and has many historic and cultural attractions, including the Museum of Prehistory and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.
Exploring Oviedo: Farther west along the coast, Oviedo is best known for the architecture and historic significance of its churches, including the Catedral de Oviedo, as well as several beautiful examples of 9th-century buildings at the Iglesia de Santa Maria del Naranco, Iglesia de San Julián de los Prados, and Iglesia San Tirso, among others.
Beautiful Biarritz: Those who want to venture east and across the French border will find many things to see and do in Biarritz, within a 90-minute drive from Bilbao.