In the last 20 years or so, the Basque city of Bilbao has become a major hub for art, architecture and design and is home to many museums, galleries and architectural marvels. Here are a few of our favourite things to do in the city.
When it was inaugurated in 1997, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum definitely put the industrial northern Spanish city on the map. Housed in an interesting metal ship-like building designed by Frank Gehry, the museum showcases works by artists such as Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Eduardo Chillida, Yves Klein and Anslem Kiefer. Many of the larger artworks are also displayed outside, in what is known as the ‘Art District’.
The Basque Country is of course well known for its pintxos bites – small pieces of bread, topped with all manner of local ingredients, from meat and seafood to vegetables and cheese. Bilbao, along with San Sebastián and Vitoria-Gasteiz is home to some of the best pintxos bars in the country, so make sure you check them out while you’re here. Take a look at our guide for some of the top places to go.
Bilbao’s Old Town, known as the Casco Viejo, is an interesting spot to explore, full of narrow winding streets, colourful architecture and an interesting array of shops and bars. Some of the top sights in the Old Town include the Catedral de Santiago de Bilbao, the Archeological Museum, the Plaza Nueva, and the churches of San Nicolás and San Antón.
The city’s famous La Ribera market sits just on the edge of the Casco Viejo, next to the river, and is a good place to get acquainted with the Bilbao’s famous food scene, as well as to pick up some local products to take back home. The market is housed in an historic building, designed by Pedro Ispizua and built in 1929, on the site of the old market dating back to the 14th century. Not only will you find stalls here, but also bars, restaurants and live music spaces, making it great a place for a lively night out too. Covering over 10,000 m2, it is the biggest indoor covered market in Europe.
The Museo Bellas Artes or Fine Arts Museum is one of the most important fine-art collections in the Basque Country and has been open since 1914. The collection includes works from the 12th century to the modern day, and features artists such as Francisco de Goya, El Greco, Paul Gauguin, Francis Bacon and Eduardo Chillida.
One of the best ways to explore the city of Bilbao is by boat, down the Ría del Nervión or de Bilbao, as many of the major attractions are located along its banks. Take a ride with Bilboats to see places such as the Guggenheim Museum, the Ribera Market, the historic Hotel Arenal Bilbao and the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall).
If you’re a fan of spectacular city panoramas, then take a ride to the top of Mount Artxanda on the old funicular cable railway, dating back to 1915. At the top, you’ll not only find jaw-dropping vistas, but also beautiful walkways and a number of excellent restaurants.
The Cathedral de Santiago de Bilbao is located in the centre of the Casco Viejo district and is one of the city’s most famous sights. Dedicated to the Apostle St James, it was built during the 15th century and is gothic in style. The cathedral also has two porticoes – one renaissance and one neoclassical.
The Azkuna Zentroa, which used to be known as the Alhóndiga, is a cultural and leisure centre housed in the city’s old wine exchange. The modernist building was re-designed by the French designer Philippe Starck, and now rests upon 43 unique pillars or columns – each a stunning piece of artwork in its own right. Even if you’re not going to see an exhibition or show here, it’s worth going in for a guided tour just to look around.
The Plaza Nueva sits at the heart of the Casco Viejo and is home to a number of cafés, bars and restaurants. Built in the 19th century, it was completed in 1851 and is surrounded by elegant neoclassical portico arches and arcades. On Sundays, locals come here to buy and sell collectables and antiques.