Things to Do in Bilbao
Though it isn't the political capital of the Pais Vasco, Bilbao is its cultural and economic heart, a city of almost a million that stretches from the beautiful Bay of Biscay to the foot of the mighty Pyrenees. Fine Basque cuisine reaches its tasty apex in Bilbao's elegant eateries and cute cafés, the city's nightlife rolls well past dawn, and its fabulous festivals offer something for visitors all year round.
Bilbao is both ancient and modern, with buildings that probably date to well before its official founding in the 1300s, such as gloriously Gothic Santiago Cathedral (most recently revamped in the 1500s), as well as modern masterpieces like the famed Guggenheim Museum, its wending ribbons of steel reflected in the Nervión River, and every tourist brochure for the city.
There is no end to the appeal of bustling Bilbao, with enough to keep travelers busy for a weekend or a lifetime.
Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry and opened in 1997, is hailed as one of the most important architectural works of its time. Within its undulating and reflecting walls on the banks of the Nervión River, you’ll find a rotating artistic wonderland of both modern and contemporary art.
Built atop a shrine in the 14th-century, Bilbao's Santiago Cathedral now towers over the original Seven Streets of the city’s Old Quarter. Follow in the footsteps of Camino de Santiago pilgrims and admire the Gothic Revival facade; elaborate portal—known as the Angel Door—on Correo Street; and the 15th-century Gothic cloister.
One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the medieval Bilbao Old Quarter (Casco Viejo) is best known for its 15th-century Siete Calles (Seven Streets), now lined with pintxo bars and cafés. Here, visit the Santiago Cathedral, stop by one of the largest covered markets in Europe, and catch a show at the lavish Arriaga Theater.
At the entrance to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a colorful floral puppy sits in perennial bloom. Designed by American artist Jeff Koons, this 43-foot-high (13-meter-high) sculpture—known simply asPuppy—features more than 70,000 live flowers. View it for free before heading inside to explore the permanent collection.
Bilbao’s growth and its maritime history go hand in hand given the city’s 20th-century growth as one of Europe’s prominent port cities. The River Maritime Museum dives into this history, going deeper than just Bilbao’s seafaring past to also reveal the background of the port, the people that lived along the estuary, and how it all impacted the city’s evolution.
The museum is appropriately located along the dry docks of the old Euskalduna shipyard (built in 1900 and closed in 1984), a kid-friendly space that features both indoor and outdoor exhibitions. Inside, visitors can watch an intriguing video on Bilbao’s history, and spy model ships and boats, along with life-sized ones too, including a reproduction of the fancy wooden Consulate’s felucca. Then, outside, you can explore the dry docks, other exhibits, and walk along the estuary.
Inspired by the Paris Opera House and named after the "Mozart of Spain"—Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga—the 19th-century Arriaga Theater (Teatro Arriaga) is a lavish neo-baroque building. Here, catch a play, opera, or dance recital in the 1,200-seat theater, which is dominated by plush red velvet seating, elaborate crown molding, and gold detailing.
A bustling Bilbao transport hub, Moyua Square (Plaza Moyúa) combines manicured flowerbeds with ample seating to turn a simple roundabout into a much-loved meeting point. Admire the surrounding buildings, such as the 20th-century Palacio Chávarri and Hotel Carlton, or use the square as a jumping-off point for further exploration of the city and beyond.
Straddling the Nervión River and connecting two of the city’s most popular attractions—the Guggenheim and Artxanda Funicular—the futuristic, steel cable–suspended Zubizuri Bridge is an architecturally notable landmark. Visit after dark to see the Santiago Calatrava–designed footbridge light up.
The Guggenheim isn’t the only waterside architectural wonder in Bilbao; just up the river sits another impressive construction, the Euskalduna Palace. The building, which was inaugurated in 1999, features mosaic-style windows, and massive exterior walls of rusty looking corten steel. The inspiration behind the look: to stand symbolically as the last vessel built in the dry dock of the former Euskalduna Shipyard, which played an important role in the city’s growth and history.
The architecturally acclaimed Euskalduna Palace houses over 50,000 square meters of space, and boasts both the largest and second largest stages in Spain. The multipurpose venue serves as an opera house, concert hall and conference center, and therefore hosts a range of events from cultural to corporate. Temporary exhibitions are held here as well.
For over a century, the tranquil Doña Casilda Park has been among Bilbao’s most important green spaces and its Romantic- and French-style gardens remain a focal point of the Indautxu neighborhood. Stroll the palm-lined pathways, enjoy views over the Nervión River, or stop by the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum which calls Doña Casilda Park home.
More Things to Do in Bilbao
Culture and leisure combine at the multipurpose Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao’s former wine warehouse-turned-cultural center. Behind its 20th-century facade you’ll now find a glut of artistic, literary, and educational offerings including an arthouse cinema, on-site restaurant, library, fitness center, and more. Meanwhile, the 43 pillars, each one with a different design, are notable highlights of the Philippe Starck–designed interior.
With over 10,000 works of Spanish, European, and Basque art spanning from the Middle Ages to present day, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao) is one of the most-visited museums in the Basque Country. Highlights include masterpieces from El Greco, Francisco de Goya, and Mary Cassatt, plus regular temporary exhibits.
For some of the best panoramic views over Bilbao, ride the century-old Artxanda Funicular (Funicular de Artxanda) to the summit of Mount Artxanda. There, from the mountaintop viewpoint, you can admire the valley-circled city from above, try to spot the emblematic Guggenheim building, and dine at one of the many nearby restaurants.
In the middle of Bilbao’s modern downtown stands this large Neo-Gothic monument, fortified with brick and stone and topped with a five-foot-tall bronze statue of Jesus. The structure—Church of the Sacred Heart (Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón)—was built as the new home of the Jesuits, who constructed the residence along with a church in the early 19th century. The building was designed by architect José María Basterra in his own modernist style. The two original pinnacle towers of the church were dismantled in the 20th century, but this monument’s facade was restored.
The bright colors and intricate decoration of the interior were unique to the architectural style at the time it was built. With a combination of traditional elements such as stained glass and a main altar dedicated to the Sacred Heart, and a distinct modernist style, the monument stands as a decorative representation of Bilbao’s past and present.
Behind an understated Renaissance facade and triumphal arch entrance, Bilbao’s 16th-century San Vicente Mártir de Abando Church (Parroquia de San Vicente Mártir de Abando) hides a surprisingly ornate baroque altar. Other highlights of this Basque Gothic building include the whitewashed vaulted ceilings, gilded detailing, and carved statue of the crucifixion.
Travel back in time at the Basque Museum (Museo Vasco de Bilbao), where photographic exhibits and cultural artefacts—from textiles to ceramics—bring Basque culture and history to life. Housed in an understated 17th-century convent at the heart of Bilbao’s Old Town, don’t miss the regularly rotated temporary exhibits and topographical map of Bilbao and beyond.
This chronological collection showcases the history of Bizkaia with archaeological artifacts ranging from pre-historic times to the modern world. The permanent collection contains the materials collected from several excavations in the area, including ancient tools, ceramics and pottery. The two floors display pieces of history from periods as diverse as the Iron Age, the Middle Ages, and even the Stone Age. Many of the items originated at the nearby excavation site at Santimamiñe cave, in Kortezubi.
The museum houses modern conservation and restoration facilities and doubles as a center for research and classification. Audio and video in the exhibits explains prehistory, early rituals, the history of Bilbao, and the processes of archaeology. Educational presentations work to connect the artifacts of the past and the historical and cultural heritage of this area with the awareness of modern society.