Bilbao is an attractive city set on the Nervion River. It’s the capital of the Biscay province and is the largest city in the Basque Country, an autonomous community in northern Spain.
Also see: Solo female travel in Bilbao, Spain.
Bilbao was built along the Nervion River, with the Casco Viejo (old town) in a bend of the river on the east side and the famous Guggenheim museum on the west bank, but about 3km away northwards. The winding of the river makes navigation by foot a little difficult, but there’s a good public transport system to help you get around. On the west side of the river, the Plaza Eliptica roundabout is a focal point for many of the parallel streets, which are mostly filled with shops.
Place: Largest city in the Basque Country, Northern Spain
Population: 350,000. 950,000 in Greater Bilbao
Languages: Euskera (Basque), Castellano (Spanish)
Known for: The Guggenheim Museum
Temperatures: Winter: 5-15, summer: 15-25
Airports: Bilbao Airport (BIO), 12km north of city. Ryanair flies to Santander (SDR), 100km west of Bilbao. See flights to Spain.
Price of a pint: €3.50
Price of a dorm bed: €13.50 in HI hostel, €50 double room
Price of a public transport ticket:€1.40 (metro)
Finding a hostel in Bilbao is little short of impossible. The major hostel-booking websites mainly list pensions and guesthouses, so it gets a bit expensive if you’re travelling alone. There are two Hostelling International (HI) hostels in Bilbao, but you can’t book them online – you have to phone or send an email and hope they have availability. That said, if you can get in touch with them, you’ll get a bed from €13.50 a night.
Budget hotel brands Formule 1 and Etap both have branches about 10km from the centre of Bilbao (in opposite directions). Formule 1 starts at €32 per night for a double, and Etap starts at €42 per night. Both are great choices for the budget if you’ve got a car, but a little inconvenient when using public transport.
in the mid-range there are a variety of character-filled pensions and guesthouses, and the high-end hotels like Carlton, Sheraton and Novotel all have a presence if you want to splurge.
Bilbao is known as the “cod capital” so if you’re partial to a bit of cod, make sure to sample some. The best way to eat, though, is to eat tapas, or pintxos (the Basque name) as they are known in Bilbao. Most bars will have a selection of snacks displayed on the counter, you can have just one as a snack or choose several you like the look of and combine them to make a full-sized meal.
The public transport system in Bilbao is quite extensive, though you might be left waiting for a while if you miss your train out to the suburbs. You can buy individual tickets from automated kiosks for single journeys on the metro or tram, but getting a CreditTrans card is a good investment if you’re going to be using the public transport network for more than just a couple of journeys. They’re basically a pre-paid card with stored value, and each journey made using one of the cards costs about half the cash fare. You can just buy one and share it with people you’re travelling with – you don’t need to have one each. You can get them from ticket machines, newsstands and train stations, and you can use them on all forms of public transport including metro, bus, train and tram. Plus, they’re valid on the Artxanda Funicular, which is a good way to see some spectacular views of Bilbao.
Attractions — free
Bilbao is a beautiful city to wander through, taking in the sights. Head to the Guggenheim first, and check out the gorgeous flower puppy outside. There are a myriad of churches to visit, and quite a few pleasant parks to picnic in. Stroll around Doña Casilda Iturriza Park, next to the fine arts museum, and visit the old town (Casco Viejo).
The Artxanda Funicular isn’t quite free, but it’s the price of public transport, and you can see some spectacular views.
Attractions — seasonal
There’s a festival of some description almost every month, either in the city itself or in nearby villages. In summer there’s a book fair, a jazz festival, open-air concerts and a food festival, as well as the city’s big party Aste Nagusia. This fiesta is also known as Semana Grande (big week) and it lasts for about ten days in mid-August. There are cultural events such as traditional music, concerts and dancing, bullfighting, boat races, and sporting events, and a big fireworks display at the end.
Spain’s national day is in autumn, as are festivals for story-telling and short films; and in winter there’s another book fair, Christmas markets and a festival of theatre and dance. There’s also a variety of religious celebrations and Carnaval is celebrated in February. Spain is a good place to be in spring, when Easter is marked in a huge way – and Bilbao is no exception. Plus there’s another film festival in May.
Attractions — paid
There’s a wide selection of museums to choose from, so take your pick. There’s the Museum of Fine Arts, the Basque Museum, the Maritime Museum, the Bullfighting Museum and a host of smaller ones. And of course, the Guggenheim museum is worth a visit.
Another thing to try is catching a performance at El Palacio Euskalduna. This beautiful modern theatre hosts the local orchestra and it’s styled to reflect the town’s industrial past.
As always, there’s a variety to choose from: Lonely Planet and Rough Guides don’t have city guides but feature Bilbao in larger offerings such as The Rough Guide to Spainor Lonely Planet’s
Spain Travel Guide.
For a guide to just the city, it depends if you want digital information or something more solid. For digital lovers, Offbeat Guides pull online resources to create a pdf. For people who prefer paper, the prettiest guide is definitely the Wallpaper City Guide– published in 2007 unfortunately so you might want to wait for a new edition. For a bit more info, try Bilbao & the Basque Lands.
Where to next?
Well, where have you just been? Make sure you see more of Spain before you leave – Barcelona or Madrid for city lovers, or you could just walk out of town along the Camino de Santiago. The lesser-known path, the Camino Norte, runs through Bilbao on its way to Santiago – it’s only about 600km. No worries.
Bilbao is a good jumping-off point for a tour of Europe or North Africa – start by heading north into France, or south to Morocco. You could hop on a ferry to Portsmouth, England; or catch a budget flight somewhere in Italy, Germany or further afield.
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