Why Visit Bilbao?
Bilbao, or the Botxo (Hole) as it has been affectionately nicknamed by its inhabitants, is a city being reborn. Gone are the symbols of its heavy industry past, to be replaced by one of Europe’s newest major art centres crowned by its shimmering silver fish, the Guggenheim. The architecture of Bilbao is a riot of styles, and the new blends with the old, as each neighbourhood proudly portrays its own character and history. The old town in particular, is a charming warren of bar-filled medieval streets. Furthermore, Bilbao is also the spiritual home of Basque culture with a wonderful array of monuments and sights. All in all, a pretty happening place.
Bilbao: the facts
Founded by the then lord of Biscay, Diego López V of Haro in the 14th century, the city eventually rose to become the capital of Biscay in 1602, an event that was followed by centuries of economic growth, fuelled by trade in Iron Ore with England and the Netherlands.
During the Carlist War it became one of the prominent battlegrounds as Carlist besiegers where thrice thrown back from the walls of the city. It was during this period that Bilbao underwent a dramatic period of industrialisation, making it one of the eminent economic powerhouses of Spain.
At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the Nationalist uprising was initially resisted, but an intense bombing campaign, augmented by German and Italian aircraft eventually broke its resistance and it fell to Nationalist forces in May 1937. What followed was a period of brutal repression against those that had taken up arms against the coup.
The Francoist period witnessed the birth in the city of the now infamous Basque separatist group ETA in response to the stifled calls for self-rule and Basque independence.
Since the transition to democracy, Bilbao has undertaken a project of de-industrialisation and the transition to a service economy as evidenced by investment in infrastructure and urban renewal. This is most notably seen in the construction of the Guggenheim Museum and the so-called ‘Bilbao Effect’.
Due to its proximity to the Bay of Biscay, Bilbao endures and Oceanic climate with rain falling throughout the year. Summers and winters are both mild with average maximum temperatures in the summer of 12°C – 26°C and in the winter 4°C – 14°C.
Weather in Bilbao now
After the economic crisis of the 1980’s, Bilbao has relaunched itself as a service economy and is now home to a plethora of international companies and banking institutions. It is one of the richest areas of Spain and enjoys unemployment at a level vastly below the national average. The growth in tourism, particularly drawn by the new Guggenheim Museum, has also helped to expand the city’s finances.
Bilbao plays host to several theatre and concert halls and an opera season championed by the ABAO (Bilbao Association of Opera Lovers). The Bilbao Symphony Orchestra was established in the early 20th century and is one of Spain’s most important. Amongst the city’s art gallery, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao of contemporary art and the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum and probably the most famous. The Bilbao BBK Live, rock & pop music festival, is an annual event exceeding 100,000 visitors and takes place on the slopes of Mount Cobetas to the south-west of the city.
Semana Grande (Big Week) is Bilbao’s principal city festival and begins on the 3rd Saturday in August and lasts for 9 days. Celebrations include strongman games, free music performances, street entertainment, bullfighting and nightly firework displays which attract over 100,000 people to the festivities.
Casco Viejo, or old town, sits on the east side of the city, to the east of the Ría de Bilbao (also known as the Río Nervión), which makes a sort of upturned “U” as it runs through the city. The Casco Viejo contains the Cathedral and siete calles (the original seven streets of Bilbao), and has the highest concentration of bars and accommodation options. Across the river from the Casco Viejo are the neighbourhoods of Abando to the north (home of the majority of museums), Indautxu further south (where the night-life is after 2 a.m.), Basurtu to the southwest (location of the bus terminal), and Deusto west, across the river.
Bilbao is a wonderful town, best enjoyed on foot, so here is our Hitch-Hikers Handbook approved Bilbao free walking tour.
Monument & Sights Guide
Museo Guggenheim Bilbao
(Guggenheim Museum Bilbao)
Georgia, ‘Bitstream Charter';”>Monument Type:Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
Address: Abandoibarra Hiribidea, 2
Opening Times: Sept – Jun: Tues – Sun: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.Jul & Aug: Mon – Sun: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Price: General Admission: 8 € Students & Senior citizens: 5€ Children: Free
Information: Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Bilbao is a mass of twisted titanium and is one of the most celebrated buildings of the 20th century. It resembles a space age boat covered in glittering metal squares which evoke images of the scales of a fish whilst the huge skylights are made to look like fins. Whilst inside the collection is not the most impressive, there are regular temporary exhibitions frequently comprising some of the very best masterpieces from other Guggenheim branches.
Museo de Bellas Artes
(Museum of Fine Art)
Monument Type: Art Gallery
Address: Museo Plaza, 2
Opening Times:Tues – Sun: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Price: General Admission: 6 € Students, Senior citizens, Groups: 4.50 € Children: Free: Wednesdays; children under 12, the disabled and unemployed; Sundays 2-8 p.m for under 25’s
Information: Founded from a merger of two galleries in the early 20th century. The museum’s collection covers from the 12th century to the present day and contains an extraordinary variety of art works. In total there are over six thousand pieces including paintings, sculptures, drawings, engravings and objects from the decorative arts.
Monument Type: Museum
Address: Plaza de Miguel de Unamuno, 4
Opening Times: Tues – Sat: 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. Sun: 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Price:General Admission: 3 € Students & Groups: 1.50 € Senior citizens & Children: Free
Information: Established in 1921 with a brief to focus upon the roots, archaeology, ethnography and history of Euskadi, the Basque homeland. The museum is not the best organised but might have interest for those wishing to learn more about Basque culture.
Monument Type: Opera House
Address: Plaza Arriaga, 1
Opening Times: -
Information: Originally built in the Neo-baroque style in 1890 by architect Joaquín Rucoba on the sight of several previous theatres. The current incarnation of the Arriaga Theatre is its 2nd, after severe flooding that destroyed Rucoba’s work in 1983. Today the theatre is owned by the local municipality and is still a working space.
Monument Type: Multi-purpose venue
Address: Plaza Arriquibar, 4
Opening Times: -
Information: The building, originally a wine cellar, was renovated by French designer Philippe Starck in collaboration with Thibaut Mathieu in the modernist style. Today, the building is a “Culture and Leisure Centre” and consists of an auditorium, a cinema multiplex, a library, a fitness centre, showrooms, shops, and a restaurant. What makes this building great is the creative design including 43 pillars and a swimming pool with a glass floor.
Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao
(La Ría Maritime Museum)
Monument Type: Maritime Museum
Address: Muelle Ramón de la Sota, 1
Opening Times: Tues – Fri: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.Sat & Sun: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Price:General Admission: 6 € Students, Senior citizens, Groups: 1.50 € Children: Free Thurs: Free
Information: Housed in the former Euskalduna shipyard, next to the current Euskalduna Performing Arts Centre, the La Ría Maritime Museum is set across 27,000 m2 and is a must for all boat lovers, I guess.
What is it? Seven streets, and many alleyways, forming the medieval neighbourhood of Bilbao
Where is it? Located along the eastern bank of the River Nervión, south west of Parque de Etxebarría
Information: Probably the most colourful and definitely the most interesting part of the city. The old town contains several historical churches (San Antón, Santos Juanes, the Cathedral, San Nicolás), the Arriaga Theatre and many of the city’s bars and restaurants. The Zazpikaleak or Las Siete Calles (The Seven Streets) are: Somera, “upper”, Artekale “middle street”, Tendería “shopkeeper’s”, Belostikale, Carnicería Vieja “old butchery”, Barrenkale “lower street” and Barrenkale Barrena, “lower lower street”.
(Euskalduna Conference Centre and Concert Hall)
Monument Type: Concert hall, Theatre, Conference Centre
Address: Avda.Abandoibarra 4
Opening Times: -
Information: Designed by architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios as part of the redevelopment of the Euskalduna shipyards. It was created to look like a vessel permanently under construction standing in the former docks. It is an interesting building and in 2003 it was declared by the International Congress Palace Association as the world’s best congress centre.
What is it? Neo-classical public square enclosed by arcade buildings
Where is it? In north Casco Viejo
Information: Home of the Euskaltzaindia, the Basque Language Royal Academy. This wonderful square was built in 1821 as the main site of the Biscay Government. The square itself is accessed under arches known as cuevas (caves). Every Sunday there is a flea market to be enjoyed on the square.
Catedral de Santiago de Bilbao
(St. James’ Cathedral of Bilbao)
Address: Plaza de Santiago, 1
Opening Times: 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. & 5 p.m. – 7.30 p.m.
Price: General Admission: 6 € Students & Children:2 € Senior citizens: 1 €
Information: St. James’ Cathedral or Donejakue Katedrala, to give it its Basque name, dates back to 1300 when Bilbao was still just a fishermen’s enclave. Architecturally, the present building is a blend of styles: from the 15th century Gothic of the cloister and the main vault, to the overly lavish Gothic Revival façade and spire. Special interest within the Cathedral are the cloister, the beautiful Puerta del Angel, the portal that gives access to C./Correo and the stone carvings of local merchants running along the buttresses of the main vault.
Iglesia de San Antón
(Church of St. Antón)
Monument Type: Church
Address: Ribera, 24
Opening Times: Mon – Fri: 6.30 p.m. – 8.30 p.m
Information: Originally built on the foundations of the city’s original Alcázar (Fortress) in the Gothic style, the Church of San Antón has three chapels: Chapel of Provost, Chapel of Piety and the Chapel of San Roque. A notable feature of the church is the Renaissance façade testament to the amount of work that has been done on the church over the passage of time. The Belfry, built in the Baroque Dieciochesco style one of the best examples of its kind in the whole Basque Country.
Iglesia de San Nicolás
(Church of St. Nicolas)
Monument Type: Church
Address: Plazuela San Nicolás, 1
Opening Times: Mon – Sat: 10.30 a.m. – 1 p.m. & 5.30 p.m. – 7.30 p.m.
Information: One of the most striking examples of Baroque architecture in the Basque Country, the Church of St. Nicolas opposite the Arriaga Theatre and is a stunning building. In the interior the Church is designed in a octagonal shape with notable features inside the church being the Altarpiece and statue of Juan de Mena.
Puente de San Antón
(St. Antón Bridge)
What is it? An arched bridge that is one of the emblems of the city
Where is it? Spans the Estuary of Bilbao and links the neighbourhoods of Bilbao La Vieja and Casco Viejo, next to the Church of San Antón.
Information: Constructed originally in 1381 it is the oldest bridge in the city and appears on the city’s crest of arms. It has been reconstructed many times with the most recent destruction befalling it during the Spanish Civil War.
Estación de Abando Indalecio Prieto RENFE
(Bilbao-Abando Train Station)
Monument Type: Train station
Address: Plaza Circular nº2
Opening Times: -
Information: OK, it is a train station but it does have one feature that is worth checking out. The impressive stained glass atrium is a real sight and depicts typical Basque jobs and workers in action.
Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro
(Museum of Sacred Art)
Monument Type:Art Museum
Address: Plaza de La Encarnación 9B
Opening Times: Tues – Sat: 10.30 a.m. – 1.30 p.m. & 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. Sun: 10.30 a.m. – 1.30 p.m.
Price: General Admission: 2 € Students, Senior citizens & Children:1 € Thurs: Free
Information: Established in 1961, the museum is housed in Encarnación Church, an old Dominican convent, and contains over 2000 pieces with 500 on display at any one time. It is divided into three sections: escultura-pintura (sculpture & painting) orfebrería (jewellery) & ornamentos (ornaments) spanning from the 12th century to the modern age.
Iglesia de San Vicente Martir
(Church of St. Vicente Matir)
Monument Type: Church
Address: Ibáñez de Bilbao 18
Opening Times: 10.30 a.m. – 1 p.m. & 5.30 p.m. – 7.30 p.m.
Information: Constructed in the 16th & 17th centuries in the Gothic style, the Church of St. Vicente Matir is a three nave church and the final resting place of the poet Antonio de Trueba. Notable features include the Renaissance façade with Triumphal Arch and a spectacular altarpiece.
Mercado de la Ribera
Address: Ribera, 22 bis
Opening Times: Mon – Fri: 8 a.m. – 2 p.m. & 4.30 p.m. – 7 p.m. Sat: 11.30 a.m. – 2.30 p.m.
Information: Specialising in fish & seafood, the Riverbank Market was built in 1921 and is the largest indoor market in the world. The building itself is a columnless open space which has a unique, translucent material floor that enables natural light throughout the buildings. Outside, the Market is adorned with some interesting art-deco pieces including windows, lattice windows, floral decorations and other decorative elements.
Palacio de la Diputación Foral de Vizcaya
(Biscay Foral Delegation Palace)
Monument Type: Palace
Address: Calle Gran Vía Diego López de Haro, 25
Opening Times: Mon – Fri: 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 5 p.m., 6 p.m. Jul & Aug: only in the mornings
Information: Today the seat of the executive branch of the Government of Biscay, the palace was built between 1890 and 1900 by architect Luis Aladren. It is probably the best example of eclecticism in the whole of the Basque Country. The interior of the palace is noted for its grand staircase and decoration, with lavish use of marble, wood, stucco, mirrors, plaster, vases, ceramics, stained glass and paintings by important artists of the late nineteenth century.
What is it? A public park with lovely views over the city
Where is it? In the district of Begoña, north of Casco Viejo
Information: Etxebarria Park is a municipal park constructed on the site of a former steel foundry in the 1980s. Due to its position on the side of a hill the park has great views over the Abando and Casco Viejo districts. To reach the park from the Old Town, one can either climb the stairs on Plaza Unamuno or pay 0.40 € to use the Begoña lift (in the picture) from next to the entrance of Metro Casco Viejo.
Ayuntamiento de Bilbao
(Bilbao Town Hall)
Monument Type: Town Hall
Address: Plaza de Ernesto Erkoreka, 1
Opening Times: Mon – Fri: 9 a.m., 9.30 a.m. & 10 a.m., (tour 1 hr, Spanish / Euskera language only)
Information: Built in 1892 on the site of the former Convent of St. Agustín by the architect Joaquín Rucoba, the Town Hall contains an elegant spire and façade punctured by balconies and colonnades. Inside the impressive Salón Árabe (Arabic Hall) designed by Jose del Solar is perhaps the highlight.
Funicular de Artxanda
What is it? A funicular railway that goes to the summit of the nearby Artxanda Mountain
Where is it? Plaza del Funicular, s/n
Information: For unmissable views over Bilbao take the funicular railway for 0,92 € up Artxanda Mountain. Constructed in 1915, the railway links Bilbao centre with the recreational area at the summit of the nearby mountain, which contains a park, several restaurants, a hotel, and even a sports complex. To catch it, the station of the funicular is just north of Zubizuri bridge, within walking distance of the Guggenheim Museum and runs from 7.15 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Puente de La Salve
(La Salve Bridge)
What is it? Suspension bridge providing access to the north of the city
Where is it? Right next to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Information: Built in the 1970’s under the guidance of engineer Juan Batanero to solve the traffic problems in the north of the city the quirky bridge was given a new lease of life when the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao was built underneath it, literally merging its structure into the museum’s.
17 things to do for free in Bilbao
Whilst the Basque Country is slightly more expensive than the rest of Spain with a little bit of planning, and some useful advice from your friends here at hitchhikershandbook, you can leave Bilbao having seen lots of sights and still with some money in your pocket.
1. The Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Art) contains over six thousand pieces including paintings, sculptures, drawings, engravings and objects from the decorative arts and is Free on Wednesdays for everybody; always for children younger than 12, the disabled and unemployed; also on Sundays between 2-8 p.m. for under 25’s.
2. Casco Viejo (Old Town) is based around Seven streets, and many alleyways which form the medieval neighbourhood of Bilbao. Walking around it is a pleasure in itself.
2. Casco Viejo (Old Town) is based around Seven streets, and many alleyways which form the medieval neighbourhood of Bilbao. Walking around it is a pleasure in itself.
3. La Alhóndiga (Alhóndiga Bilbao) is a “Culture and Leisure Centre” with wonderfully creative design including 43 pillars and a swimming pool with a glass floor. Walk through the foyer and enjoy.
4. Iglesia de San Vicente Martir (Church of St. Vicente Matir) constructed in the 16th & 17th centuries in the Gothic style; its features include a Renaissance façade with Triumphal Arch and a spectacular altarpiece, it is Free to visit.
5. Why not walk around the Mercado de la Ribera (Riverbank Market), the largest indoor market in Europe, and soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the Basque Country.
6. Take a trip to the Estación de Abando Indalecio Prieto (Bilbao-Abando Train Station) and marvel at the stained glass atrium depicting typical Basque jobs.
7. Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao (La Ría Maritime Museum) is housed in the former Euskalduna shipyard and is Free on Thursday.
8. Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro (Museum of Sacred Art) contains over 2000 pieces divided into three sections: escultura-pintura (sculpture & painting) orfebrería (jewellery) & ornamentos (ornaments) spanning from the 12th century to the modern age. It is Free on Thursday.
9. Although it does cost to enter, simply walking around the Marvel at the Museo Guggenheim Bilbao (Guggenheim Museum Bilbao) is an unmissable treat.
10. For an escape from the noise and for some wonderful views over the city head to Parque Etxebarria (Etxebarria Park).
11. Iglesia de San Antón (Church of St. Antón) was built on the foundations of the city’s original Alcázar (Fortress) in the Gothic style. The Belfry, built in the Baroque dieciochesco style, is one of the best examples of its kind in the whole Basque Country and is Free to visit.
12. Sit and have a sandwich on the Neo-classical public square of Plaza Nueva (New Square), lean against an arch or take a coffee and wath the world go by.
13. Euskal Museoa (Basque Museum) is the first stop for those wanting to learn about all things Euskala. It is Free for Senior citizens & Children and Free on Thursday.
14. Ayuntamiento de Bilbao (Bilbao Town Hall) is Free to visit but make sure to come on Monday – Friday: 9 a.m., 9.30 a.m. or 10 a.m for a guided tour.
15. Take a stroll along the Rio Nervion and admire the quirky architecture of Bilbao, it is at times both weird and wonderful.
16. Palacio de la Diputación Foral de Vizcaya (Biscay Foral Delegation Palace) is probably the best example of eclecticism in the whole of the Basque Country. It is Free but make sure to come on Monday – Friday: 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. for a guided tour.
17. Walk across the Puente de San Antón (St. Antón Bridge) an arched bridge that it one of the emblems of the city.
Finding cheap accommodation in Bilbao need not be difficult as there are a variety of hostels and hotels to choose from. HitchHikersHandbook is here to help so below we list a selection of the cheapest budget options for your convenience.
Moon Hostel (Calle Luzarra 7) is located outside the city centre on the opposite bank to the Guggenheim Museum and offers 4 bed dorms (14.95 €), 6 bed dorms (8,95 €) and privates from (20 €). Facilities include a bathroom with each room, a communal living and dining rooms and free WiFi.
Ganbara Hostel (Prim Kalea, 13, bis) is situated in the heart of the old town and offers 4 bed dorms (17,50/19 €), 6 bed dorms (17/18 €) and 8 bed dorms (16/17,50 €). Please note that prices are higher on Friday, Saturday and festival days. The price includes free breakfast and WiFi and the hostel offers a common room in which to relax.
Bilbao Central Hostel (Fernandez del Campo 24) is, as the name would suggest, centrally located and is very close to the RENFE station. The hostel offers 6 bed dorms (20/21 €) with prices higher on Friday and Saturday. Breakfast is included n the price and there is also free WiFi and a kitchen to use at the guest’s disposal.
The nightlife in Bilbao is lively and fun and the Basques certainly know how to party until the small hours. Bar crawling is a national pastime here with young people moving quickly between the pubs raking up the alcohol points as they go. So, whether it is enjoying some of the world’s finest cuisine, drinking beer on the street or dancing the night away, there is something for all tastes.
① During the weekends Casco Viejo (Old Town) young people fill the bars around Barrenkale and Barrenkale Barrena streets. On close-by c/Perro, a mixed crowd practise one of the most popular customs in the city: “poteo” or “txikiteo” (bar hopping). There are also numerous bars offering live music with everything from rock to Spanish-style cheese.
② On c/ Mazarredo (near the Guggenheim) can be found late-night Bilbao with numerous clubs and disco’s playing a range of electronic and other genres of music.
③ c/ Licenciado Poza, more simply known as “Pozas”, is located in Indautxu and is swamped with revellers nearly every day. On the whole, Indautxu is a little bit more upmarket than the old town, and the drinks are also a little more expensive.
④ c/ Ledesma contains many cafés and bars, and is popular with the 30 something crowd.
⑤ Across the San Antón bridge, on the south bank to the old town lies Bilbao la Vieja home to the gay scene in Bilbao. It attracts a good mix of people and is famed for its gay bars and clubs.
Things to try & buy
Bilbao is a food lover’s paradise with the locals holding a near religious reverence for all things culinary. As an introduction to Basque food, head to La Ribera Market and check out the sheer variety of seafood, meat, vegetables, and fruit, spread out over three levels. For something a bit more immediate, Basques love to partake in the txikiteo, a white wine, or zurito, small beer, tapas bar crawl, where along with every drink a pintxo (tapa) is eaten with every bar offering its own speciality. Including, but not exhaustively, sausage, fish, cheese, and elvers (baby eels).
Local food specialities include Bacalao al pil-pil, a delicious and emblematic dish consisting of cooking previously desalted pieces of cod on a slow heat in a clay pot with olive oil and garlic, and Chipirones, squid cooked in their own ink. For desert make sure to try canutillo, a sort of puff patty filled with custard.
Ideas for things to buy in Bilbao include Basque handicrafts such as linens and Basque dolls, a Basque beret (txapelas) or even a souvenir art book from the Guggenheim.
There are numerous cafés, restaurants and bars that offer Wi-Fi all around the city but particularly in the Casco Viejo and Indautxu districts. In addition to private Wi-Fi, there is a free public hotspot system with citywide coverage. Here is the map of the areas covered:
Bilbao airport is 12 km north of the city and offers international flights to Paris, London, Frankfurt and a host of other places.
There are three main train stations in Bilbao. The RENFE Abando station (Calle Hurtado de Amézaga 1) is a short walk across the river from Bilbao’s Casco Viejo (old town). From here there are twice daily trains to Madrid (€32.80, 6¼ hours) and Barcelona (€38, nine hours). Next door is the FEVE Concordia station (Calle Bailén 2) which runs services to Cantabria and Asturias. A mile up river is the Euskotren Atxuri station (Calle Atxuri, 6-8) with trains to Mundaka (€2.25, 70 minutes) and hourly to San Sebastián (€6, 2¾ hours).
Bilbao Bus Terminal (Gurtubay Kalea, 1) is located to the west of the city centre near the San Memes train and metro stations, There are regular bus services which run to Barcelona, Madrid, Pamplona and San Sebastian.
Bilbao lies on the coastal A-8 motorway connecting it with Santander to the west. To the east the E-70 provides a road border to France. The southerly E-804 runs to Logrono and beyond.
West towards Santander & Oviedo
With this one we did have a little help if we are honest as the dad of the person with whom we were couchsurfing, gave us a ride to the Petronor petrol station on the A-8 Autovía de Cantabría. From here it took us around 45 mins to get a ride. For those with no such luck you can take the A3335 to Muskiz from the main bus station, alighting in the village of Abanto y Ciérvana. From here you can walk to the petrol station. Be warned though it doesn’t look like a quick bus ride.
East towards San Sebastian
From the bus station take a bus towards Lekeitio getting off at the Boroa stop (it takes around 20 mins). From here follow the direction of the bus and then take the next left and at the roundabout take another left and walk down to the petrol station. The bus schedule is pre-programmed into google maps here.
In the summertime this spot can be quite popular due to its central location. We wouldn’t think it would work ourselves but others seem to have had some success.
written by: Jon