10 Things to Know Before Visiting Bilbao

Visit the Plaza Nueva in Bilbao
Visit the Plaza Nueva in Bilbao | © santiago lopez-pastor / Flickr
Photo of Esme Fox
26 March 2018

Bilbao is one of the main cities in Spain’s northern Basque region, along with San Sebastián and Vitoria-Gasteiz. It’s a fun, vibrant and artistic spot, packed with fascinating attractions. If you’re thinking of visiting, here are ten things you need to know before your trip.

There’s a lot more to see than just the Guggenheim

The Guggenheim contemporary art museum may be Bilbao’s most famous attraction, but there’s a lot more to see and do here than just that. The city is home a lively Old Town, lots of contemporary architecture and many other museums including the Fine Arts Museum, the Archeological Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Bullfighting Museum. Our list of the top 20 must-visit attractions in the city will help you plan your itinerary.

Teatro Arriaga Bilbao | © Andreas Praefcke / Wikimedia Commons

Don’t ask for tapas, they’re pintxos around here

In the Basque Country, particularly in big cities like Bilbao, it’s not all about tapas, instead it’s about pintxos. Pintxos are small pieces of bread, topped with a multitude of different ingredients, and are lined up along the bar so you can help yourself. Take a look at our round-up of the best pintxos bars in Bilbao, so you know exactly where to go when you arrive.

Visit Café Iruña when in Bilbao | ©Zarateman / WikiCommons

It’s a must for architecture lovers

Bilbao is a great destination for architecture lovers, whether they’re fans of old and historic or cutting-edge and modern. Some of the buildings that stand out are Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, the Azkuna Zentroa – redesigned by Philippe Starck– and the Bilbao Santiago Cathedral, built in the 15th century.

The architectural splendour of the Azkuna Zentroa in Bilbao | © Fred Romero / Flickr

Each neighbourhood of the city has its own personality

Like many big cities, each district of Bilbao is different and each has its own personality. Think carefully about where you want to stay when you visit, whether in trendy Bilbao La Vieja, the Casco Viejo (Old Town) or centrally located Abando and Indautxu, dotted with contemporary architecture and museums. Check out this guide to the coolest neighbourhoods in Bilbao to help you decide.

Visit the Plaza Nueva in Bilbao | © Jose Mario Pires / CC BY-SA 3.0 / WikiCommons

The weather isn’t always that great

This is northern Spain and the Basque Country, so don’t expect typical hot weather and sunshine everyday, even in summer. It can often be cloudy and rainy here, too. Despite this, the city has many attractions to keep you entertained in wet weather, including its many museums. Besides, all that rain ensures that the surrounding countryside and mountainous landscapes stay beautiful and green.

Discover the Museo Bellas Artes in Bilbao | ©MuseoBBAABilbao / WikiCommons

It’s accessible to both beaches and mountains

Bilbao sits surrounded by mountains and is also very close to the coast. You can go hiking around Artxanda hill in the morning, followed by a surf session at Sopelana Beach in the afternoon. Here you really have the best of the city, the countryside and the coast.

Visit Sopelana Beach when in Bilbao | © Javier Mediavilla Ezquibela / WikiCommons

It’s a city that suits everyone

Bilbao is not only a good place to visit as a couple. It can be a great city to visit with friends, given its variety of bars and lively nightlife, or as a family, with plenty of kid-friendly attractions. There’s really something for everyone here, including beaches and hiking just a 30-minute train ride away.

See Puppy by Jeff Koons at the Guggenheim Bilbao | © Georges Jansoone / WikiCommons

People here speak Basque as well as Spanish

Basque, as well as Castilian, is an official language here, so don’t be surprised if you here it on the streets or see signs and road names in a language you’re very unfamiliar with. Basque is actually the oldest European language and is completely unrelated to any other language on the planet currently spoken today. To earn yourself some bonus points with the locals, take a look at these Basque phrases and learn some before you go, or read our article on everything you need to know about the Basque language.

A map of the Basque Country in the colours of the flag | ©Eddo / WikiCommons

Basque culture has a strong presence

On that note, you should really inform yourself about Basque culture, too, and find out why this area is so unique. Not only does it have its own language, but also its own folk music and dances, sports, traditional costumes and festivals. Visit the Museo Vasco in Bilbao to learn all about the area’s history and culture.

Basque dancers | ©Kezka Dantza Taldea Eibar / Flickr

Seafood is the order of the day

Besides pintxos, here it’s all about seafood, particularly cod, so if you’re not a fan of fish or seafood, you’re missing out on most of the local dishes. These include things such as squid cooked in its own ink, cod or hake cheeks, or bacalao pil-pil (cod fried in garlic and olive oil) among other traditional dishes. Don’t worry if you don’t like seafood or are allergic though, since Bilbao is also home to a good handful of vegetarian restaurants, and you’ll always find some meat options on every menu.

Try some baked spider crabs (Txangurro) in the Basque Country | ©Larra Jungle Princess / WikiCommons