Germany, Austria or the USA may spring to mind when you’re thinking of a great Christmas destination, but the northern part of Spain generally does not. Surprisingly, the Basque city of Bilbao is a great place to celebrate Christmas, filled with lights, festive markets and grand parades. Here’s how to celebrate Christmas in Bilbao.
Whether you’ve done all your Christmas shopping or not, you’ll want to go window shopping in Bilbao at Christmas to marvel at all the magical displays. Every year, Bilbao holds a shop window contest to see who can create the best and most enchanting scenes.
On the night of December 23, the mythical Basque Christmas character of Olentzero travels all the way down Gran Via towards the Arriaga Theatre. The Father Christmas-like figure is supposedly a Basque giant from the Pyrenees, dressed in peasants’ clothing, who brings gifts for children on Christmas Eve.
Bilbao goes all out with Christmas decorations, especially its Christmas light displays, which cover the city. The switching on of the Christmas lights is a big celebration, and it’s fun to wander around the streets marvelling at the twinkling lights.
Like most cities in Spain at Christmas time, Bilbao decorates with many Beléns – elaborate models of nativity scenes. Not only do they feature the baby Jesus and the stable, but typically a whole town filled with various houses, farmers working in their fields and lots of animals. Many important buildings in the city set up their own Beléns at Christmas time, so you can spend time searching out the best.
There are many excellent spots for Christmas shopping in Bilbao, but the best places are the Christmas fairs and stalls, set up all over the city. The biggest will be located in a grand marquee outside the Arriaga Theatre, while there will also be many stalls set up along Bailén Street where you can shop for unique handmade items.
One of the most important Christmas fairs in Bilbao is the Santo Tomás Fair, which takes place on December 21 and pays tribute to Basque farmers and local Basque produce. This is the place to stock up on Christmas treats – from traditional cheese and txakoli wine to spiced sausages. As well as the food stalls, which attract thousands each year, the fair also features entertainment such as music, traditional dancing and street theatre.
Christmas may be over on December 26 for most countries, but in Spain, it continues until January 6. On the night of January 5, the Three Kings, or Three Wise Men as they are sometimes referred to, parade into towns and cities throughout the country. Traditionally, children in Spain receive their gifts from the Three Kings on January 6 instead of from Santa Claus on Christmas Day, however they also receive presents from family on Christmas Eve, or Olentzero, in the case of the Basque Country. The Three Kings’ parades are huge affairs, which see Kings Gaspar, Baltasar and Melchoir enter the city on giant floats, accompanied by their entourage.