The Basque city of Bilbao sits on the coast in northern Spain and makes for a great city break, filled with art, design, architecture and food. Here’s how to spend 48 hours in Bilbao.
The one place you’ve probably been aching to see when planning your trip to Bilbao is its most famous sight: the Guggenheim Museum. Make sure you begin your trip here. The celebrated modern art museum, designed by the architect Frank Gehry, resembles a huge metal ship, covered in shiny wavy patterns and quirky structures, and is just as impressive from the outside as it is from the inside. Surrounding the museum you’ll find Bilbao’s Art District, home to world-famous artworks such as Louise Bourgeois’ Mamen spider sculpture, Jeff Koons’ Puppy and Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree and the Eye.
If you can, splash out on lunch at Nerua, the Guggenheim’s Michelin-starred restaurant, where the dishes are artworks in their own right and the menu is full of creative takes on fresh local ingredients. Those on a budget, meanwhile, can check out the city’s best local restaurants, where they can sample typical Basque dishes such as bacalao pil-pil (fried cod with olive oil and garlic), spider crab or squid cooked in its own ink. After lunch, head across the river to the Funicular de Artxanda, where you can ride up to the top of the hill and enjoy one of the best views over the city.
Evening says one thing in Bilbao, and that’s pintxos. The Basque Country’s answer to tapas, pintxos are traditionally small pieces of bread topped with ingredients such as ham, cheese, fried peppers or anchovies. However, today they have morphed into something so much more – almost like a meal in a mouthful. There are excellent pintxos bars all over the city, but if you want to go to a destination that’s packed with them, head to Plaza Nueva in the Casco Viejo or Old Town. When you’ve had your fill, why not check out some of the city’s best nightlife venues with live music?
You may have seen a bit of the Casco Viejo the night before, but it’s well worth a look in the daytime too. The Old Town is more than 700 years old, and was once surrounded by an old city wall. At the time, its inhabitants survived mainly by fishing and trading. Today you’ll find a number of small quaint streets, filled with interesting bars, shops and cafes. One of the area’s most important sights is the Cathedral of Santiago de Bilbao, a magnificent structure built during the 14th and 15th centuries and protected by UNESCO.
At the edge of the Casco Viejo, next to the River Nervión, you will find one of the city’s best food markets: La Ribera. The original market here dates back to the 14th century, but what stands today was designed by the architect Pedro Ispizua in 1929. Inside, it has a factory or warehouse feel, while the outside is a stunning Art Deco piece of architecture featuring everything from stained-glass windows to lattice work and decorative plaster elements. Although the market has undergone many renovations over the years, it retains its original look from 1929, and is in fact the largest undercover market in Europe. Pick up some fresh local produce here for lunch, or head to one of the cafes nearby. Afterwards, head back to the Casco Viejo to spend the rest of the afternoon looking around the Archaeological Museum, detailing the history of the area around Bilbao from prehistoric times.
Head over the river to marvel at the elegant Campos Elíseos Theatre and Abando train station, where you can see a huge stained-glass window depicting typical Basque life and rural sports. From the station, walk up to the Museo de Bellas Artes, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, one of the most important fine-art collections in the Basque Country, showcasing works from the 12th century to the modern day. Some of the artists whose work is displayed here include Francisco de Goya, El Greco, Paul Gauguin, Francis Bacon and Eduardo Chillida. The museum doesn’t close until 8pm, so you have plenty of time to look around before your evening meal, which in Spain is typically eaten around 9pm. For dinner, check out our list to the top fine dining restaurants in Bilbao, as the Basque Country is particularly known for its gourmet cuisine.