What are the best things to do in Bilbao Spain?
Chances are that you’ve heard of Bilbao in Spain but have you considered all the things to do there? You may think of Bilbao as just somewhere to arrive by ferry and then drive straight out of on your journey south. But stop a minute because Bilbao’s actually a great place to spend a bit more time. Allocate a day or two during your Spanish itinerary to explore Bilbao and you’ll be surprised at how much it has to offer.
A brief history of Bilbao
Before I list the top things to do in Bilbao, what do you know about Bilbao? Bilbao, the capital of Spain’s Vizcaya province, is in the autonomous community of the Basque country. The Basque country is actually spread across both Spain and France, separated by the Pyrenees. Specifically, Bilbao is in the Spanish part of it.
Records show that Bilbao became a town in 1300 and there may even have been a settlement there before that date. Since then, it has survived a number of sieges and assaults and prospered as a port city. During the 20th century, Bilbao became notorious as the city in which the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) was formed. Basically, the ETA was a Basque separatist organisation which was responsible for a sustained terrorist campaign over a period of approximately 40 years. Their terror campaign killed over 800 people, among them more than 300 civilians. Overall, it was a dark time in the Basque country. Fortunately, those days are at an end and the Basque country is a peaceful place once more. Today, Bilbao is a modern, vibrant city which is perfectly safe for the many tourists it welcomes annually.
Top things to do in Bilbao Spain
- Guggenheim Museum
- Bilbao Fine Art Museum
- La Ribera Market
- Plaza Nueva
- Casco Viejo
- Playa de Plentzia
- Euskal Museoa Bilbao Basque Museum
- Museo Maritimo Ria de Bilbao
- Bilbao Cathedral
Did you know that Bilbao has its own Guggenheim museum? It’s a fabulous place and should be top of your list of things to do during your visit. As soon as you approach this amazing building, you’ll be mesmerised by its presentation of modern and contemporary art. Don’t be put off even if you wouldn’t normally plan to visit a modern art museum. You don’t need to know anything about art at all to appreciate the style and impact of this gallery.
One of the things I love about the Guggenheim in Bilbao is its larger than life exhibits which are outside. For those on a really tight budget, this means you can still experience the fantastic art for free. You can easily view them from across the river and also from the bridge, or in some cases close up.
If you plan to head inside, and you should, the museum is closed on Mondays but otherwise is open 10 am to 8 pm. Tickets cost 17 Euros for adults while seniors and students get a hefty discount at 7.50 Euros. Children under 12 enter free but only if accompanied by an adult. You also get a great audio guide included with your admission ticket which will really help you get the most out of your visit.
If you also plan on visiting the Fine Arts Museum while you’re in Bilbao you should ask for the combined ticket. It’s also 17 Euros so, in fact, you’ll get entry to the Fine Arts Museum for free.
Bilbao Fine Art Museum
Afterwards, for a different perspective on art, head to the Bilbao Fine Art Museum which celebrated its centenary in 2008 with the slogan “100 Years of History, 10 Centuries of Art”. You’ll find the museum in Bilbao’s Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park which also makes for a pleasant walk. The gallery has an innovative approach to displaying its exhibit so that pieces are displayed in alphabetic themes rather than chronologically. It thus creates a new perspective for viewing art which in itself is an interesting piece of representation. The museum showcases headline masterpieces by famous artists such as Goya, Ribera and Gauguin, to name just a few. Additionally, it has a collection of local Basque exhibits which may be less well known but are similarly impressive.
The museum is closed on Tuesdays. Wednesday to Monday it is open from 10 am to 8 pm. If you’re looking for somewhere to visit later in the day, the museum is FREE from 6 pm to 8 pm every date. It makes it the perfect place to visit before dinner. Even more impressive, under 25s, are free at all times. Otherwise, tickets are 10 Euros for adults, 8 Euros for seniors. Note that if you are visiting both the Guggenheim and the Fine Arts Museum you should buy the combined ticket which is 17 Euros. This means you basically get entry to the Fine Arts Museum for free.
La Ribera Market
La Ribera market is a great place to shop or grab an early lunch. You’ll find the market in a picturesque location on the river in central Bilbao. Head downstairs for a choice of food and drink outlets. The market has quite complicated opening hours so check first. Basically, it opens from 8 am to 2.30pm Monday to Thursday. On Tuesdays to Fridays, it also opens in the evenings, from 5 pm to 8 pm. Then on Saturday, it opens from 8 am to 3 pm.
Find your way to Plaza Nueva and you’re in the heart of Bilbao. Come here for the Roman neoclassical architecture or simply eat tapas while you watch the world go by. It’s at the centre of the old town and thus the perfect starting point for exploring Bilbao’s historical sights. It’s also at the centre of Basque heritage since the Euskaltzaindia, the Basque Royal Language Academy is located here.
Bilbao is a fantastic city for walking. Stroll along the river and find your way into the Casco Viejo or Old Town. Enjoy the atmosphere as you wander through colourful streets. You can pick up a walking tour leaflet at the information centre or just start walking and see where it takes you. It’s a city to get lost in – in a good way. If you visit at night you’ll find a lively dining scene with plenty of pavement restaurants and bars.
Playa de Plentzia
If you’re visiting Bilbao in the summer and are looking for a beach day to relax and recuperate from all that sightseeing, then head to Playa de Plentzia. It’s just a short drive or a quick metro ride from the centre of Bilbao. There’s a lovely sheltered beach here and you can take a picnic or dine out at one of the pleasant restaurants.
You’ll find this fascinating museum in the Old Quarter of Bilbao. If you’re interested in finding out more about the history of the Basque Country then you’ll find plenty to absorb you here. Unfortunately, the displays are in Spanish and Basque only but you’ll find it’s mainly a visual experience anyway.
It’s quite reasonably priced at just 3 Euros for adults. Students are half price and Seniors and children under 12 are free.
It’s another place with complicated opening hours. The museum is closed on Tuesdays. It’s open from 10 am to 7 pm on Monday and Wednesday to Friday. On Saturdays, it is closed between 1.30pm and 3 pm. On Sundays, it is only open from 10 am to 2 pm.
Take a walk, or a tram, down to the docks to visit Bilbao’s Maritime Museum. In fact, the museum is on the former Euskalduna shipyard which is on the banks of the Bilbao Estuary. Ships were built here until the shipyard closed in 1984.
You can view exhibits both inside and outside. Inside is divided thematically with displays which attempt to convey the diversity of the Estuary. The themes included are the Estuary as a seaport, as a market and factory, and also as a shipyard.
Outside the site of the Euskalduna shipyard is itself of historic value. Look out for the red crane, you can’t miss it! The Carola Crane is something of an icon for the museum and the city.
The museum is open from 10 am to 6 pm, Tuesday to Friday and 10 am to 8 pm on Saturday and Sunday. Closed on Tuesday. In summer it is open to 8 pm in the week as well. Tickets cost 6 Euros for adults. Seniors and students pay 3.5 Euros. Children under 6 years old are free.
Bilbao’s Cathedral, The Cathedral of Señor Santiago de Bilbao was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2015. Originally built in the 15th century, the cathedral has been extensively rebuilt and restored since then. Highlights are the ornately carved door, the cloisters and the altar. The cathedral is open for tourist when no services are on every day from 10 am to 8 pm. You have to pay an entry fee of 5 Euros although there is quite a long list of people who can get in for free, including children under 13 and pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. There are also discounts for seniors, students, the unemployed and large families.
Have a fabulous time and make sure to visit some of our top things to do in Bilbao Spain.
If you’re planning a longer trip in Spain then take a look at some of our other Spanish travel articles.