Bilbao was our first stop in our northern Spain trip. We only gave ourselves two days in the city before heading off to our next stop. The city is fairly small and very walkable. Two full days is enough time to see the major highlights and have time to wander the city without feeling rushed. That being said we really enjoyed Bilbao and would recommend giving yourself more time if you can. The city is beautiful and there are plenty of areas nearby that make great day trips.
Getting around: From the airport there is a bus that will take you directly into the city. The Bilbao airport is quite small which makes finding the bus very easy. When you leave baggage claim there is literally just a door that says bus, you walk through and will immediately see the ticket counter and the bus stop. Don’t waste your money on a taxi, the city is just a short bus ride away, approx. 20 minutes.
As we said, the city itself is very walkable and the best way to see it is on foot. There is also a subway/metro which is easy to use. This will take you around the city and out of the city for a low cost. You will see most locals using a card/pass to pay for their routes (barik card). If you happen to get one of these cards it will cost you less for each route. We were lucky enough to have a wonderful Airbnb host who left us her extra card so we could load money on it and then travel on the metro for cheaper. We took the metro from the city center to the Las Arenas area which is on the bay of Biscay. This was approx. 20-30 minute ride and only cost us less than one Euro per person with the barik card. You can load money onto the card using an machine similar to an ATM at any metro station.
What to See and Do:
Old town (Casco Viejo): This is a beautiful part of the city and it is where you will get the best pintxos. This area is full of cobblestone streets, old churches and other beautiful buildings. We recommend you wander around and eat at any pintxo bar you pass that is full of people; the best pintxo bars are the crowded ones! For more information on how to order pintxos check out our blog post here: Ordering Pintxos in Basque Country
Guggenheim Museum: We stayed near the museum and we really liked that area. It was not a far walk to any of the areas of the city listed in this post. Staying in this area or staying in old town would both be great options. We are not big museum people and we were only in the city for two days so we did not go into the museum. We had read that the entrance fee is a bit expensive. The big draw to the museum is the building itself. The architecture is very cool and surrounding the museum there are several sculptures which are worth seeing.
Funicular up Mount Artxanda: If you are staying in old town or near the Guggenheim you will need to cross the river to get to the funicular. From the top of Mount Artxanda you have the best views of the city. There is a look out point great for taking pictures, a small park area and several restaurants. We highly recommend doing this during your stay! The funicular leaves every 15 minutes during the day.
Zubizuri Bridge: beautiful white foot-bridge over the river. If you walk along the river you can’t miss it! This is the bridge you will take to get across the river if you are heading to the funicular.
Mercado de la Ribera: This is the largest covered market in Europe. Here you will find venders selling local fruits and vegetables, meats, fresh seafood and local cheeses. We wandered through and were not hassled or pressured at all to buy anything. On the other half of the building there is a large sitting area with venders selling pintxos, coffee and drinks. You will find a good variety of pintxos here. Different from the pintxos bars in old town here you can order you pintxos and then go sit down at a table to enjoy them. Although normally pintxos are eaten standing up, in a crowded bar this setting can be more comfortable if traveling from somewhere where you are used to sitting down for all your meals. You will see a mix of locals and tourists eating here.
Las Arenas: This area was recommended to us by our air b and b host. It was about 20-30 minutes ride out of town on the metro. There is a small beach area as well as a beautiful walkway along the port. You can also see the Vizcaya bridge which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2006. For a small fee you can take the bridge across the river to the other side of the city. The bridge hangs over the water, unlike anything we had seen before. We spent an afternoon in this area, first wandering the city and then heading to the beach. It’s a great place to visit, especially if you aren’t planning on spending a lot of time on your trip along the coast. This area will give you the coastal city feel and some beach time without having to travel too far outside the city.
Bilbao really took us by surprise! We expected to like it but it wasn’t the place we were most excited about on our trip. We found it to be an absolutely beautiful city which we would love to get back to. The people are kind and helpful and the city is not overrun by tourists yet so go soon!