There are so many wonderful things to do in Bilbao. Whether you want to explore the museums, watch a top-quality La Liga football match, or eat to your heart’s content, there is something for everyone in the Basque capital.
Once a small port town, Bilbao is now a beautiful Spanish city that is well worth adding to your Spain itinerary.
If you are headed further along the coast to the stunning town of San Sebastian or you are perhaps planning to walk some of the Camino del Norte, then you’ll want to add at least a day or two onto your trip for a stop in Bilbao.
How Many Days in Bilbao?
A minimum of three days is a good amount of time to start with. This will allow you to see the main attractions, sample some different bars and restaurants, and get to know the Casco Viejo neighborhood.
I spent a wonderful five days in Bilbao and didn’t run out of things to do. In fact, I could have happily stayed a few more days enjoying the different pintxos at the bars around the city and seen a few more of the museums, there are tons!
How to Get to Bilbao
There are a few ways to get to Bilbao, depending on where you are traveling from.
The Bilbao Airport is a smaller airport, so you won’t be able to fly into and out of it from places like the USA or Canada. However, you can fly directly to Bilbao Airport from Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga, and Valencia.
You can also reach Bilbao Airport from Paris, London, Munich, Frankfurt, and a few times a week to other smaller European cities.
If you are traveling from Madrid, you can reach Bilbao in about 4.5 hours. There are three trains a day between Bilbao and Madrid, so be sure to check the times and book well in advance to get the best price. Check times and book on the Renfe official website.
Where to Stay in Bilbao
There are so many different hotels for every budget in Bilbao. If you are only staying for a few days, I highly recommend setting yourself up in the Casco Viejo, which is the old town area of the city.
This is where you’ll find tons of great bars and restaurants as well as a few of the main attractions in the city. It’s a safe area to stay and is often nice and quiet at night, despite being at the center of the nightlife scene.
The Casco Viejo is also an easy walk to other places to visit in Bilbao like the Guggenheim.
These are my top picks for where to stay in Bilbao’s Casco Viejo neighborhood.
- NYX Hotel – This is a fantastic option whether you are traveling solo, as a couple, or with a friend. The location couldn’t be better, right on the edge of the old town with easy access to the entire city by foot. The rooms are clean and comfortable and it’s nice and quiet at night. Rooms start at €120 per night. Book a stay at NYX Hotel here.
- Petit Palace Arana – A great midrange hotel with clean rooms, incredibly helpful staff, and a fantastic location. Rooms start at €89 per night. Book a stay at Petit Palace Arana here.
- 7 Kale Bed and Breakfast – The perfect option for those who like a smaller hotel with a more personal touch. This B&B has exquisitely decorated rooms that can sleep up to 3 people. Rooms start at €127. Book a stay at 7 Kale B&B here.
Best Things to Do in Bilbao
The list of Bilbao things to do is seemingly endless for such a small city. There are quite a few Bilbao tourist attractions, but it doesn’t feel like a touristy city the way that Barcelona or Malaga sometimes do.
1. Guggenheim Museum
No trip to Bilbao would be complete without a visit to the museum that put Bilbao on the tourist map.
Designed by Canadian-American architect, Frank Gehry, this is a building that you simply can’t miss getting up close to. For the best photos, stay on the opposite side of the river and walk from the Old Town towards the Guggenheim. That way you can get a full view of the entire building.
As you get closer, you’ll notice that there is art outside as well as inside the museum. There are sculptures like Maman, the 9-meter-tall (30ft) spider that stands between the Nervion River and the museum. On the other side is Puppy, a gigantic puppy dog made entirely of garden flowers.
Inside the museum is a combination of modern and contemporary art with both permanent and temporary exhibitions.
Tickets to the museum can be purchased at the door or online beforehand. I highly recommend pre-booking your ticket, especially if you are only visiting the city for a few days. The line can be very long during peak season and with an online ticket, you will skip the ticket line and go straight inside.
2. Athletic Club Bilbao Stadium Tour
Whether you love football (soccer) or not, the tour of the Athletic Club Bilbao Stadium is well worth visiting. It is as much about the history and passion of the city of Bilbao and the Basque Country as it is about the football team.
The ticket for the tour includes a free audioguide which can be put into several languages, English being one of them. You can then explore the museum and learn about the history of the club and its dedication to fostering football within the Basque Country.
The tour ticket also includes a visit through the team’s changing rooms, the press room, the VIP box areas, the President’s seat, and finally a stroll along the very pitch itself (just around the edges, of course).
If you are there during the season (roughly early September-June), then you might even be able to grab a ticket to a game and see the passion this city has for its team up close. You can find tickets on their website here.
You don’t need to pre-book your tickets for a tour of the stadium. You can simply pay for the ticket at the door and go straight into the museum.
3. ITSAS Museum
This is a fantastic museum and one of the best things to do in Bilbao with kids. The ITSAS Museum is the Maritime Museum of Bilbao and has exhibits both inside and outside.
My personal favorite part of the museum is all of the boats and ships that are outside. With your ticket, you can climb on board several of the boats.
If you went on the San Mames Stadium tour, this is where you’ll come to find the team’s blue boat that they sail through the city on when they win the league.
Inside the museum, you’ll find reproductions of historical ships and stories of the city’s past as a port. I particularly loved the area about sea rescue and how different operations used to take place before technology was as advanced as it is now.
You can prebook your tickets on their website, but it’s not necessary unless you plan to visit on a Tuesday. The museum is free on a Tuesday and booking your slot in advance is highly recommended because it usually sells out on these days. Grab your tickets in advance on their website here.
4. Bilbao Abando Train Station
While it’s not a huge Bilbao attraction, making a stop at the Bilbao Abando Train Station is a fun Bilbao thing to do while visiting.
The main reason to stop at the station is to have a look at the beautiful stained glass windows that are near the railway tracks. The first station opened here on March 1, 1863. At the time, this station wasn’t technically in Bilbao, but in the town of Abando (hence the name).
The original station fell to ruin and a new one was commissioned in 1948. The stained glass window which you can see once inside has representations of life in Bilbao. If you know your monuments, you’ll be able to spot the Basilica of Begoña, the bridge of San Antón, Basque farmhouses, and the steel and fishing industries.
5. Walk Along Nervion River
A good way to get to know the city a little bit better is to simply get out and explore by foot. There is a wide and long bike and walking path (or jogging if you would prefer) along the Nervion River.
The river separates the Casco Viejo from the newer part of the city. The path is a nice way to walk from the old town to the Guggenheim Museum.
There are bridges every few hundred meters along the river so that you can cross over to the other side of the river. On the other side, there is also a nice walking path starting near the Abando Train Station towards the Guggenheim.
If you want to walk in the opposite direction from Casco Viejo, you can almost make a full circle of the old town along the river. The La Ribera Market is a nice stop along the way to refuel, otherwise pop across the river to the colorful Las Cortes neighborhood.
6. Explore the Casco Viejo
The Casco Viejo or the historic center of the city is a wonderful place to get lost. You can explore the cobbled side streets, stop into a bar for a coffee or a pintxo (pronounced pincho), or wander into the Santiago Cathedral.
Back in the 13th century, the Casco Viejo was simply a small fishing village on the edges of the Nervion River.
Several of the best things to do in Bilbao are located right in the center of the Casco Viejo. Most of them are on this list of course, but make sure not to miss eating a pintxo or two from Plaza Nueva and strolling under the porticos of the Arcos de la Ribera.
7. Arcos de la Ribera
Located along the Nervion River, just across the road from La Ribera Market are the Arcos de la Ribera.
This covered walkway looks like any normal porticos might, but when you look up, you’ll spot murals that run the entire length of the arched walkway.
In the late 1980s, the city had the idea to invite several artists to create murals along these porticos as a way to revitalize the city while also restoring the buildings that would be their home for years to come.
The artists were given free rein to create whatever they felt would best represent the city. Each paid homage in one way or another to the old town and what it had been through over the years.
It took roughly 10 years, but by the end of the 1990s, the five artists completed their murals. As you walk you can now see:
- Tribute to the Arts by Justo San Felices
- The Legend of Kixmi by Roberto Zalbidea
- Yesterday and Today of the Bilbao Philharmonic by Ángel Cañada
- Allegory about an imaginary Bilbao by Alejandro Quincoces
- Making Country by Ambrosio Ortega
8. La Ribera Market
La Ribera Market is a gem of the old town and one of the best things to do in Bilbao. Whether you are staying in an apartment and want to self-cater or you are looking for a place to sample tons of different pintxos in one place, this market has you covered.
Built in 1929 and covering over 10,000 square meters (almost 108,000 square feet), this market is one of the largest covered markets in Europe.
There are several different areas of the market to explore. You can wander the meat section, the fish area, the cured meats and cheeses, or my personal favorite, the gourmet market.
At the gourmet section of the market, you’ll find stalls with bar tops brimming over with slices of bread and morsels of goodness on top. Goats cheese with tomato jam, jamon Iberico with manchego thickly sliced, and pickled chilies and anchovies with toothpicks speared through them.
There are sandwiches, piping hot croquetas, and of course, a bar where you can grab a beer or a glass of rioja to enjoy with your snacks. It is a large market area with plenty of tables, so you can sample pintxos from different stands while still keeping the same seat.
It’s open every day from 8 am until midnight, so you can come for lunch, dinner, late-night drinks, or just a midday snack. On Sundays, they don’t open until 11 am, but you can still hang around until midnight.
9. Plaza Nueva
Perhaps the city’s most famous spot for pintxos, this lively plaza is home to over 20 bars serving up every possible local snack you can think of.
Thanks to its popularity, it is also one of the most touristy places to visit in Bilbao. But that doesn’t stop it being a fun night out. It is especially wonderful during the warm summer nights when the sun doesn’t set until after 9 pm and you can sit out in the plaza with a beer and a few pintxos.
There are so many places to choose from so it can be hard to decide which place is worth fighting for bar space. These are a few that I tried during my most recent trip there that I would return to again.
- Víctor Montes Jatetxea: One of the longest-standing restaurants in this plaza, you’ll need to book a table in advance if you want to enjoy their food. But it is perhaps the best place for pintxos in Plaza Nueva. They also have a full menu that you can enjoy if you want something more substantial.
- Sorgínzulo: I walked past this one when I was visiting the plaza for the first time and people were spilling out of it’s small entryway, so I knew I needed to see what was making this particular place so busy. The patatas bravas here are the best I had in Bilbao and the seafood dishes are also spectacular. Try the Basque classic, bacalao al pil pil (cod in pil pil sauce).
- Bertoko Berria: This is a great option if you want to have a few shared plates. While you can order some of the dishes that are on the bar, I recommend ordering off of their menu for some of their hot food like the grilled Iberico pork ribs (costilleta Ibérica asada) or the Spanish tortilla with salted cod (tortilla con bacalao).
10. Take a Food Tour
If you are only visiting Bilbao for a short period of time, I recommend taking a food tour so that you can explore several of the best places to eat in Bilbao. Food tours are such a great way to visit a lot of places and try a lot of dishes in a short period of time.
The beauty of a tour is that the places that are chosen have been curated to ensure you get the best of Bilbao.
- Basque Food Tour: This three-hour tour will take you on a culinary journey around the Basque Country. You will learn about the history of pintxos and sample nearly a dozen different dishes as well as drinks along the way. Book the Basque Food Tour here.
- Pintxos and Wine Tasting: This tour includes stops at several bars around Bilbao as well as a stop at the La Ribera Market. You’ll try four different dishes and four different wines or beers along the way. Book the Pintxos and Wine Tasting Tour here.
- Food Tour with Wine Pairings: This tour is one of the original food tours of Bilbao. You’ll visit five different bars and learn how to order the best pintxos (the ones that aren’t sitting atop the bar). Each pintxo is paired with a wine from the region for you to enjoy with your nibbles. You’ll learn about the food you are trying and you’ll leave the tour with tips for enjoying pintxo bars for the rest of your trip. Book the Food Tour with Wine Pairings here.
11. Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao
The Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao is the second most visited museum in the city after the Guggenheim. It has the largest fine arts collection outside of Madrid. So art lovers won’t want to miss a stop at this stunning museum.
The museum is home to Basque, Spanish, and European art from the Middle Ages to the contemporary period. You’ll find paintings from El Greco, Goya, and Gauguin among many others.
As of my most recent trip to the city (2023), the museum was undergoing huge renovations to create an even larger space to house the collection. It remains open in a smaller space and is currently free to visit. Check the website for updates.
12. Lampposts Museum
Just outside of the Museum of Fine Arts, you’ll find a smaller, perhaps slightly more obscure type of museum. Aptly named the Museo Farolas or the Lampposts Museum, this is an outdoor collection of lampposts from around Bilbao over the generations.
Museum may be a bit of a grand name for this outdoor collection of lampposts, but the tongue-in-cheek name does make it all the more enjoyable.
It’s completely free and without knowing it was there, you would probably just walk straight past it. While it may not sound particularly riveting, history or architecture buffs may find it quite interesting.
I thought it was well worth a look. If you want to see how much modern lampposts have changed over the last few decades you can enjoy this quirky little display.
13. Azkuna Zentroa (Alhóndiga Center)
The Azkuna Zentroa is a cultural center with a lot of history behind it. Originally built in 1908, the Alhóndiga Center was commissioned as a warehouse for wine, oil, and pickling. It was a bustling commercial center that befitted the growing city of Bilbao.
In the mid-70s business slowed as these industries went into decline. The building was basically left to ruin. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that the city came back to this building with a plan.
Designed by French architect Philippe Starck, the outer facade of the building has been restored to its former glory, but the interior of this cultural center couldn’t be more different from its former use.
As a visitor, simply strolling through this building is one of the best things to do in Bilbao. Take notice of the 43 columns that support the base of the atrium. Artist Lorenzo Baraldi designed them to represent the cultures, architectures, wars, and religions that humanity has seen.
If you want to learn more about the building and its design and history, you can take a guided tour. They take place once a week on Thursday evenings. You can find more information about tours here.
There are different events happening throughout the year, most are art and culture-related. Check their website to see what’s on during your visit.
14. Take a Walking Tour
There’s no better way to get to know a city than on foot. Explore the hidden laneways and learn about the history of the Casco Viejo and its seven streets.
There are tons of walking tours available in Bilbao depending on your budget. The cheapest option is always a free walking tour. While of course, they aren’t free, they are tips-based. So you can decide how much you pay at the end of the tour.
A midrange option would be a small group walking tour. This will allow you to explore the city in a group much smaller than the free walking tours. You will be able to spend more time asking questions and exploring the history of the city. You can book a small group walking tour here.
If you would prefer a private and personalized walking tour, you will pay for the guide, rather than per person. This is a great option if you have very specific interests or you are a larger group and want your own personal tour guide. You can check prices and availability with a private tour guide here.
15. Ruta de los Murales
Bilbao is home to tons of street art. If you enjoyed the murals under the Arcos de La Ribera, then you have to take a trip to the La Vieja area to explore the route of the murals (ruta de los murales).
All around the La Vieja neighborhood, you will find colorful street art. La Vieja is only a short walk from the Casco Vieja neighborhood, so you can easily visit it.
There is a full map available of all of the street art in Bilbao. It is a bit overwhelming to look at, but you can get a good idea of where the murals are in La Vieja (just across the river and to the south of Casco Viejo) as well as all of the other stunning street art in the city. Check out the map here.
16. Vizcaya Bridge
Located a short 25-minute metro ride away is the neighborhood of Getxo. It’s worth coming here for several reasons, but the main reason is to see the Vizcaya Bridge.
The Vizcaya Bridge is, in my humble opinion, one of the best things to do in Bilbao. It was first completed in 1893. It is 45 meters high (150 ft) and 160 meters long (525 ft).
When it was built it was the first bridge in the world to carry both passengers and vehicles on a high-suspended gondola. It has undergone several renovations over the years but is still a fully functioning passenger and car gondola.
For a small ticket fee, you can take an elevator to the top of the bridge and walk across it and back again. Your ticket also includes a round-trip ride on the gondola which I highly recommend.
On the other side of the bridge is the neighborhood of Portugalete. There are beautiful historical buildings and some great little bars (Batzoki is a great place to have a drink).
Come back across the bridge and enjoy a walk along the boardwalk that lines the coast here in Getxo.
17. Visit the Beaches
Bilbao is very well connected to the Basque coastline. If you are visiting Bilbao as part of a larger trip to places like San Sebastian, then you probably don’t need to make a trip to the city’s beaches.
However, if you aren’t going to be exploring more of the Basque coastline, then I highly recommend grabbing your bathing suit and a towel and getting yourself to the beach.
18. Walk the Camino del Norte
Have you ever considered walking the Camino de Santiago?
There are so many routes around Spain that take you through stunning countryside, beautiful towns and villages, and even into big cities like Bilbao.
The Camino del Norte is a route of the Camino de Santiago that starts at the border of Spain and France in the small town of Irun. After about 7 days of walking, you reach Bilbao.
If you are in Bilbao and interested in going on a walk that takes you out into the mountains and you want to explore some of the more rural areas of the coastline, you can take a walk back towards Irun or you can hop on a bus and simply follow the yellow arrows on a day walk.
You’ll see the yellow arrows all over the Casco Viejo and you can walk for a few hours following them. Just be sure to take note of your route so that you can get back to the start as well (the arrows only point towards Santiago de Compostela, not the other direction).