15 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Bilbao

Written by Lisa Alexander
May 31, 2019

When Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum appeared along the riverbank of a down-at-the-heels provincial city in northern Spain, a place previously ignored by the tourism industry, a new phenomenon in tourism was born: architourism, describing the niche of travelers who choose destinations for their famous modern architectural works. A related term, "The Bilbao Effect," was born of this as well, as the city's economy flourished with the influx of visitors flocking to Bilbao just to see this famous contemporary art museum, which dazzles with its innovative modern architecture and extensive collection.

The Basque Country is famous for its gastronomic tradition, and Bilbao is no exception-this is the place to be if you want to experience pinxtos, a unique Basque twist on tapas. The city boasts five Michelin-starred restaurants, which serve the finest cuisine in exceptional dining rooms. Two of the restaurants are housed within major tourist attractions: Nerua Restaurant at the Guggenheim Museum and Etxanobe Restaurant at the Palacio Euskalduna.

Discover the best places to see and things to do in this vibrant city with our list of the top attractions in Bilbao.

See also: Where to Stay in Bilbao

1. Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

Jeff Koons' Puppy at the 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 and is considered a groundbreaking example of 20th-century architecture. It was designed by famous architect Frank Gehry, using advanced aerospace industry software, and was 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 exhibition space displays the artworks in inspiring surroundings. In the Atrium, the central interior hall that is a signature feature of Gehry's architecture, 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.

Those who want to explore the attraction with an expert can get a 1.5-hour private tour of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum, which includes museum admission and a narrative that explains the stories behind many of the museum's most famous works of art.

Address: 2 Avenida Abandoibarra, Bilbao

Official site: http://www.guggenheim-bilbao.es/en/

2. Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

Museum of Fine Arts in 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. Casco Viejo (Old Town)

Casco Viejo (Old Town)

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. Exploring the quaint historic streets lined with enticing shops and cafés is one of the most popular things to do in Bilbao.

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. Nearby, 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, 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. This guided walking tour of Bilbao's Old Quarter is an excellent way to get an overview of the area's layout and history, led by a professional guide.

4. Get a New Perspective from the Bridges of Bilbao

The Volantin Footbridge by Antonio Calatrave | Photo Copyright: Stillman Rodgers

Some of the most stunning views over Bilbao are from La Salve Bridge, an architectural and artistic masterpiece in itself which is home to "L'arc rouge" (the red arch), designed by French artist Daniel Buren in honor of the Guggenheim's 10th anniversary. It crosses the estuary just next to the museum complex, and pedestrians can gain access to the bridge's viewing platforms via elevator to look down over the building and its grounds for breathtaking, picture-perfect views of the Guggenheim.

Just a few blocks down, tourists will find the Zubizuri foot bridge, a stunning suspension bridge, which is also called the Campo Volantin Footbridge, 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 Pinxtos in the Plaza Nueva

A quiet corner in Plaza Nueva, Bilbao | Photo Copyright: Stillman Rodgers

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 housing shops and restaurants, a perfect place to experience pinxtos. Pinxtos are a uniquely Basque version of tapas, named for their presentation-each bite or snack-sized dish is served on a toothpick or skewer. They are also referred to as pinchos, the Spanish word for "spike." Like tapas, tourists who want to experience a wide range of local goodies can easily hop from café to café, ordering a sample and then moving on.

The Plaza Nueva is also where you can find town festivals and farmers markets, and is a popular hangout for tourists and locals alike. This is also 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 Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts.

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6. Euskal Museoa Bilbao (Museo Vasco)

Euskal Museoa Bilbao (Museo Vasco)

Euskal Museoa Bilbao (Museo Vasco) | Fernando Jiménez / photo modified

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 Tuesday through Sunday for an admission fee. Guided tours are available by reservation.

Address: 4 Plaza Miguel Unamuno, Bilbao

7. Catedral de Santiago

Cathedral of Santiago in Bilbao

In the center of the Old Town, the Cathedral of Santiago is a 19th-century church built on the site of a 14th-century pilgrimage shrine. Medieval Jacobean pilgrims on the Route of Saint James would stop at the chapel on their way to Santiago de Compostela. The original church was damaged in 1571 by a fire and rebuilt in the 19th century in Neo-Gothic style. Today, its melodic bells can be heard throughout the Casco Viejo.

The cathedral has a majestic interior, with three naves and rib-vaulted ceilings. Especially beautiful are the choir stalls and cloister featuring fanciful Gothic details. The crypt incorporates the remaining structure of the original shrine. The cathedral is open to the public daily. Guided tours are available by appointment.

Address: 1 Plazuela de Santiago, Bilbao

8. Bizkaia Museum of Archaeology

Archaeology Museum

Archaeology Museum | Fernando Jiménez / photo modified

Opened in 2008, the Bizkaia Museum of Archaeology allows visitors to discover the region's ancient history and learn about the differences between the past and present. Located in the Old Town, 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 also home to educational programs that teach about archeological research methods and conservation.

Address: 2 Calzadas de Mallona, Bilbao

9. Parque Doña Casilda de Iturrizar

Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park, Bilbao

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. Winding pathways encourage leisurely walks, and park benches are well placed in shady spots to take in the scenery. The park is adorned with Neoclassical statues and lovely fountains.

The park's large lake is home to many little ducks and provides a charming spot for rowing boats. Other highlights are the old-fashioned merry-go-round, the outdoor theater, and a cybernetic fountain.

The Fine Arts Museum is at the edge of the park beyond the street of Artetxe Kondearen Zumarkalea. Also nearby is the one-star Michelin restaurant Aizian (29 Lehendakari Leizaola), which serves exquisite Spanish and Italian cuisine. The restaurant's stylish, contemporary dining room offers wonderful views of the park.

Location: Between Gran Vía and Paseo de Abandoibarra, Bilbao

10. Basilica de Begoña

Basilica de Begoña

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 Ría de Bilbao

Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao

Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao | Daniel Lobo / photo modified

The Bilbao River 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. Guided tours are available.

Address: 1 Muelle Ramón de la Sota, Bilbao

12. Palacio Euskalduna (Conference and Music Center)

Euskalduna Music and Conference Hall

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.

The building's conference hall hosts many large conventions, cultural events, and business meetings. A highlight for gourmands is the Michelin-starred Etxanobe Restaurant, located within the Palacio Euskalduna complex. The restaurant serves traditional Spanish cuisine in its elegant dining room or on the outdoor terrace; both seating areas offer wonderful views of the city.

Address: 4 Avenida de Abandoibarra, Bilbao

13. Mercado de la Ribera

Mercado de la Ribera

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 Old Town, 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 architecture features an eclectic style with a feeling of openness. A bright and cheerful space, the market hall has skylights above and a floor made of clear, translucent material that allows light to flood into the building. 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, another of Bilbao's renowned gastronomic restaurants is found nearby. The Michelin-starred Mina Restaurant is on the Muelle Marzana along the river bank, a short walk from the market.

Address: Mercado de la Ribera, 22 bis Ribera, Bilbao

14. Funicular Artxanda and Mount Artxanda

Funicular de Artxanda on Mount Artxanda

Opened in 1915, this cableway, affectionately known as the "Funi," offers a wonderful way to take in the scenery of Bilbao. The funicular takes only three minutes to travel through the hillside of the Arangoiti district 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).

15. Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro

Plaza de Federico Moyua | Photo Copyright: Stillman Rodgers

More commonly referred to simply as the "Gran Vía," this is Bilbao's main thoroughfare, home to commercial and government buildings, as well as an abundance of restaurants and shops. It 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 shops and relaxing in a sidewalk café.

Where to Stay in Bilbao for Sightseeing

  • Luxury Hotels: 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 centrally located historic landmark on Plaza Moyua, just off the Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro, within easy walking distance of the Guggenheim, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Azkuna Zentora concert hall. Guest rooms and suites are both classic and modern, and hotel services include an on-site restaurant, room service, and concierge. The hotel also has pet-friendly rooms.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: 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. Hotel services include a small spa and an excellent restaurant featuring local products, and amenities include a fitness center and complimentary coffee in the lounge.
  • Budget Hotels: 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. This pet-friendly B&B welcomes four-footed kids, too.

    Bilbao City Rooms is a small budget hotel in a central location near the Guggenheim and the Museum of Fine Arts. Although there are fewer bells and whistles, guests will not be disappointed-rooms are bright and comfortable with a crisp, modern flair, and include conveniences like mini-fridges and microwaves.

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Sunny Santander: For those who are visiting Spain's northern coast and are hoping to soak up some sun, Santander is home to golden-sand beaches that are popular 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.

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