48 hours with a solo female traveller: Bilbao

Destination: Bilbao

The Basque Country is one of the most astoundingly beautiful places I’ve ever been, and on the top of my fun list is Bilbao, situated in Northern Spain, also known as Southern Basque Country. On an overland journey from Bordeaux to Bilbao, I arrived there and found myself smack in the middle of Spanish time, meaning siesta at lunchtime, lunch at teatime, and dinner at midnight. Confusing? Not when the entire nation believes in the biological need for naps.

Once again I was fortunate to have found a couchsurfing host, who informed me immediately that we were heading to a Spanish fiesta that very night. Hooray! Walking leisurely through the old cobbled streets with J, we turned up at the party late, only to discover it had been busted by the police due to complaints from neighbours. Feeling slightly disappointed that the party seemed over even before it started, J seemed rather bemused by the turn of events and nonchalantly informed me we would be going to a ‘back-up’ party location.

After countless winding lanes, we stopped at a discreet building with a blue door. The sign read ‘Kultur-Exea’, and through the blue door was a roaring fiesta with around 50 people singing, dancing, and playing mandolins. Amongst the merry-making stood a giant paper-mache doll guarding a staircase which led up the rest of the building which reeked of abandonment. Other than this slightly disturbing ornament, I don’t remember too many names or details, which always means I had a really good time.

Note #1: Expect the unexpected in Spain! A good time can be had anywhere and anytime, alone or with new friends. The Spanish are the most fun-loving, party-embracing people I have met on my travels. Is it the cheap beer? Is it the delicious food?

There are a vast number of cultural sights and museums to see in the city, but as an architecture nerd, I had a mission – the Guggenheim of course. As my luck would have it, it was pouring with rain, yet again. However by this stage, armed with my best friend the umbrella, I made my way to the museum.

Despite the vastness of the building, the exhibits themselves are few, but excellent. Besides the galleries, one really needs to spend half a day just going through the museum, itself a splendid work of art by Frank Gehry. Although people were not allowed to take photos inside the building, I managed to take a few sneaky ones. Outside it was cold and wet, but still, I got some decent shots.

With other interesting giant sculptures in the museum’s immediate vicinity, as a solo female traveller, I easily spent the rest of the day wandering around the old streets, taking in the surroundings, popping into any corner tapas joint when it took my fancy, and hanging out in the laid-back atmosphere.

Note #2: No, you don’t need to speak Spanish to go there. Don’t worry if you fumble around relying on cryptic hand gestures to get by. I did exactly that, and the locals are just so helpful and friendly that actions will speak louder than words. Having fun is the same in every language!

Street signs are written in both Spanish and Basque, as are every tourist signage board. Bilbao is a city with two cultures merged into one identity, and I love how this is reflected in all parts of the city. The walks and views are magnificent, the food and drink superb. I think any solo traveller, male or female, will be able to find something to interest them.

A few fun things to do alone:

  • Visit the Viscaya Bridge aka Hanging Bridge. Once you get there, choose between three awesome ways to cross the river – the gondola, boat, or take the lift up the bridge and walk across. All methods are cool experiences.
  • Take a walking tour of Casco Viejo, Bilbao’s medieval town. So many little shops and streets to get lost in.
  • Stroll along the banks of the Nervion River and explore the variety of stunning bridges along its route. One of the highlights is the Zubizuri Bridge by Santiago Calatrava.

Note #3: It does rain a lot in the Basque Country, sometimes for days in a row, so remember to bring your trusty friend the umbrella to ensure you don’t have to get stuck in your room!

Bilbao is an excellent place to go for amateur or seasoned solo female travellers. There is plenty to do, it’s easy to make new friends, and it has a great eclectic atmosphere all around. I felt safe, entertained, and culturally enriched. One of the most memorable places I visited on my solo travels!

This article was originally published on Art of Solo Travel.

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2 Responses to “48 hours with a solo female traveller: Bilbao”

  1. Anis Salvesen March 21, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

    Bilbao sounds like such an exciting destination! The Guggenheim there has been on my must-see list for years. Note #2 about not having to speak Spanish was surprising, although I do know that the Basque Country is not known for a strong love of Spain and wonder if that factors into the inhabitants being just as happy to hear English as Spanish. In any case, it’s great the locals are so helpful and friendly; it makes a big difference, especially when traveling alone. As a quick note, if you like connecting with locals while traveling, you might also be interested in Tripping.com. Thanks for the tips on Bilbao! Casco Viejo is now on my list.

  2. Serena March 24, 2011 at 9:07 pm #

    First of all I want to say how excited I was to stumble across this post. I am currently studying the Basque Country because it has fascinated me for years. (The basque language is one my list of languages to learn!) Hearing of your experiences makes me long for a visit and shower in the rain so often spoken of in Bilbao. Their hospitality sounds nothing more than warm and welcoming. I always wonder if there are still signs such as graffiti on walls about ETA in the Basque Country? I know their activity has died down with the recent cease fire, but I’m curious to know if there is still dialogue of the group present in society or if it is just taboo.
    Thanks for sharing your insight into Bilbao and the Basque Country. They are truly an interesting people.

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