12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Bilbao
Bilbao is not a natural beauty but makes up for it in fine arts and haute cuisine. This once unglamorous industrial port town was put on the tourist map by the Guggenheim Museum. Visitors flock to Bilbao just to see this famous contemporary art museum, which dazzles with its innovative modern architecture and extensive collection. Rivaling the Guggenheim in terms of artistic importance, Bilbao's Museum of Fine Arts has an exceptional collection of paintings by the European masters. Two other excellent museums are dedicated to the culture and seafaring of the Basque region. The Basque Country is famous for its gastronomic tradition and Bilbao is no exception. The city boasts five Michelin-starred restaurants that 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.
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 that's considered a groundbreaking example of 20th-century architecture. It was designed by famous architect Frank Gehry using advanced aerospace industry software and 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 art works 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.
This world-class collection includes modern and contemporary art created since the 1950s until the present day. Highlights 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. Several art installations on the exterior delight and surprise visitors; the most noteworthy 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. The museum features a rotating permanent collection and hosts temporary special exhibitions throughout the year. Visitors can learn about the museum at the orientation room, Zero Espazioa; shop for souvenirs at the museum store; and stop for a snack or light meal at the caféteria. The museum also has a bistro for hearty meals as well as the one-star Michelin restaurant Nerua for those seeking a fine dining experience and haute cuisine.
Address: 2 Avenida Abandoibarra, Bilbao
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
3 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. These quaint historic streets are lined with enticing shops 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. 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. Continuing south of San Nicolás Church, tourists will enjoy a stop at the Plaza Nueva. The square is enclosed by elegant arcaded buildings featuring many restaurants and cafés with outdoor terraces. The Plaza Nueva is also used for town festivals and farmers markets when stalls are set up to sell local fruits and vegetables.
4 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 daily Tuesday-Sunday for an admission fee. Guided tours are available by reservation.
Address: 4 Plaza Miguel Unamuno, Bilbao
5 Archaeology Museum
Opened in 2008, the Archaeological Museum allows visitors to discover the region's ancient history and learn about the differences between the past and the 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 that reveal insights into the unique Basque culture.
Address: 2 Calzadas de Mallona, Bilbao
6 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. 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) that 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
7 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
8 Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao
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
9 Catedral de Santiago
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. 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
10 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. 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
11 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
12 Funicular 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 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).
Where to Stay in Bilbao for Sightseeing
We recommend these wonderful Bilbao hotels, close to top attractions like the Guggenheim Museum:
- Gran Hotel Domine Bilbao: modern luxury, opposite the Guggenheim, sleek design, scenic roof terrace, glass-walled bathrooms.
- NH Collection Villa de Bilbao: affordable 4-star hotel, near great restaurants, contemporary decor, excellent breakfast.
- Hotel Miro: mid-range pricing, light-filled rooms, lounge with complimentary coffee, steam room and Jacuzzi.
- Casual Bilbao Gurea: budget-friendly bed-and-breakfast, great old town location, friendly staff.