Discovering Bilbao, the story of a successful transformation

Bilbao is one of the most important cities in Spain. A lively city, with a great cultural and leisure offering and an exquisite gastronomy. Nonetheless, it would have probably passed under your “must visit” radar without the Guggenheim Museum. That mistake has been there for decades even among Spaniards. Thirty years ago Bilbao was known to be industrial and ugly, quite far from being a tourist asset of Basque Country. However, recently, Bilbao has undergone a transformation that has led it to become a modern city, but without losing its unique essence. Keep reading and discovering Bilbao!

  • Discovering Bilbao at the Estuary of Bilbao
  • Discovering Bilbao at The Zubizuri (Basque for "white bridge")
  • Discovering Bilbao
  • Discovering Bilbao
  • Discovering Bilbao

In this article we will let you know what to do in Bilbao, why to go to Bilbao and the best way to enjoy this amazing city in the Basc Country. 

Why to go to Bilbao?

Traditionally, the city has always been closely linked to the industrial, naval and iron and steel sectors. Those heavy industries produced a considerable environmental and urban impact on the city especially during the 80`s. Locals overcame that thanks to a series of measures that today are a clear example of urban excellence. The Bilbao estuary was dirty and the buildings were gray. Nevertheless, today Bilbao is a modern and avant-garde city known for its cultural projects, efficient buildings and urban plans integrated into an environment where large pedestrian spaces predominate.

Currently, there are two things that have turned Bilbao into a very interesting city to live and to enjoy as a visitor. One of them is the cleaning up of the Nervión estuary and the recovery of its banks. Where there was a crazy amount of industrial dirt now you can promenade along estuary sightseeing around emblematic monuments such as the Arriaga Theatre, the Town Hall or the University of Deusto, and, of course, the ever-imposing Guggenheim Museum by Frank Ghery. 

On the other hand, the regeneration of the whole transport system in Bilbao. The new metro built by the architect Norman Foster, the new tram, the port, and the airport designed by the famous Santiago Calatrava. 

Besides its transformation, the visitor is able to catch up with the very local vibe of Bilbao, an urban expression of the very traditional basc way of doing. Bars, restaurants and viewpoints will complete the odds of a wonderful visit. Don’t miss the chance of dicover Bilbao!

What to do in Bilbao?

Stroll in the Old Town

The Old Town of Bilbao, Casco Viejo in Spanish, also known as Siete Calles (En; Seven Streets) is the best place to catch the classic essence of the city. This name comes from the seven main streets that originally formed the quartier and that intersect with each other. These streets are: Somera, Artecalle, Tendería, Belosticalle, Carnicería Vieja, Barrencalle and Barrencalle Barrena. Walking through them, you can eat some pintxos, drink some local cheap cocktails and recall the punk period when leather jackets and bold piercings crowded its streets.

  • Discovering Bilbao at Casco Viejo
  • Las Siete Calles (En: Seven Streets) of Bilbao

Guggenheim Museum

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is a museum of modern and contemporary art. The building was a work of the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. The museum opened on 18 October 1997, with an exhibition of 250 contemporary works of art. It is one of several museums belonging to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. It features permanent and visiting exhibits of works by Spanish and international artists. Discovering Bilbao without Guggenhein is nowadays a failure.

  • Guggenheim Bilbao
  • Guggenheim Bilbao
  • Guggenheim Bilbao
  • Guggenheim Bilbao
  • Guggenheim Bilbao

Cathedral of Santiago

This is the oldest church in Bilbao. Catedral de Santiago was built in 1379 and it is dedicated to Santiago, the Patron of Spain. It is located in the heart of Casco Viejo and it is very visible from many points of the city. The church is Gothic in style, although its tower and façade are Neo-Gothic. It took many renovations, the last one in 2000. The small Gothic cloister inside, the Puerta del Ángel and its tower stand out for their beauty.

Plaza Nueva

This is one of the nerve centers of the city and one of the best places to see in Bilbao. It can remind you of ¡some other old central squares in Spain because of its arches. Probably, Plaza Nueva is the best place in the city to taste the best pintxos, the basc version of the Spanish tapas, or to have a drink. It is always crowded since it is very popular into locals. If you want a table just go early. 

Cafe Bar Bilbao

The Viewpoints 

In Bilbao there are 8 viewpoints from which to enjoy fantastic views of the city. The best is Artxanda. The visit to this viewpoint can be even better while discovering Bilbao at sunset, when the sunlight turns orange, coloring the entire city. We recommend that you go up using the funicular that since 1915 connects Bilbao with the top of the mountain in a journey of only 3 minutes.

The other seven are the Iberdrola Tower, Cobetas, Etxebarria Park, La Salve Bridge, Solokoetxe Stairs, Pagasarri and Miribilla viewpoints. From any of  them you will enjoy one of the best panoramic views of Bilbao from the heights. 

The Estuary of Bilbao

The Bilbao estuary is one of the most important axes of the city. On its banks you can find several of the most important and representative monuments to see in Bilbao. So you can enjoy walking along its promenades to get to know the Arriaga Theater, the Town Hall or the University of Deusto.

  • The estuary of Bilbao
  • The estuary of Bilbao
  • The estuary of Bilbao
  • The estuary of Bilbao
  • The estuary of Bilbao

San Mamés

San Mamés Stadium, where the city’s team, Athletic Bilbao, plays its matches and is known as the Cathedral. The vibe on a match day is spectacular and the latest renovation of the stadium is awesome. Athletic de Bilbao is an icon of the city, you will see many flags on the balconies while discovering Bilbao, even if the league is not on going at the moment.  

Mercado de la Rivera

This market is located on the bank of the Bilbao estuary and it is the commercial reference of the city. Mercado de la Rivera was recognized in 1990 as the most complete municipal food market by The Guinness World Records official book. In addition, it is the largest covered market in Europe. Discovering Bilbao is also enjoying of its lifestyle!

Basílica de Begoña

The Basilica of the Virgin of Begoña was built in the same place where the virgin appeared at the beginning of the 16th century. The basilica is in the late Gothic style, and the main doorway is a beautiful Renaissance example with a triumphal arch. The baroque altarpiece that the church disappeared during the First Carlist War, and the priests replaced by the current one, in the Elizabethan style. It is presided over by a Gothic carving in polychrome wood of the Virgin of Begoña. The bell tower, for its part, is from the beginning of the 20th century.

Basilica of the Virgin of Begoña

How to get to Bilbao?

By car

Bilbao is located in the north of Spain and is easily accessible from all parts of the country. The motorway that reaches Bilbao is the AP8 which, depending on the section you use, is toll-free. The AP8 borders the Bay of Biscay and is the best option for touring the Basque coast by car. To get there from other cities, the most common road is the A-68.

If you plan discovering Bilbao when driving or renting a car, you must bear in mind that it is practically impossible to find free parking in the city center. There are underground car parking lots and designated parking areas throughout Bilbao, but they require a fee.

By bus

The cheapest option is to travel to Bilbao by bus. Although depending on your city of origin it can be quite a long journey. We recommend choosing the direct route, since many companies offer long routes with stops in dozens of towns in Biscay.

These are the main bus companies that offer trips to Bilbao: Alsa, Flixbus, Eurolines.

By train

A more comfortable alternative to the bus is the train. Bilbao does not have a High Speed ​​Train (AVE), so traveling to Bilbao by train will not help you save much time. Among the most common destinations are Madrid (5 hours), Barcelona (6 hours and 40 minutes), San Sebastián (3 hours and 40 minutes), Valladolid (3 hours and 50 minutes) and Paris (11 hours). The Bilbao train station is located next to the Nervión River, just a few meters from the old town. Renfe is the main company in Spain.

By plane

The fastest option to get to Bilbao is by plane. Bilbao airport connects the capital of Vizcaya with national destinations such as Santiago de Compostela, Seville, Barcelona or Madrid; and with international cities such as Rome, Amsterdam or Munich. Some of the airlines that offer flights to Bilbao are Iberia, Air Europa, Vueling, Ryanair, Air Nostrum or Lufthansa.

Dear Traveller, hope you liked the latest article from Besides the Obvious! If you would not like to miss any of our travel stories, destination ideas, vacation plans, holiday inspirations, do not forget to subscribe here!

2 Replies to “Discovering Bilbao, the story of a successful transformation”

  1. I went to Bilbao just for a short stopover so I just saw the museum and surrounds. I guess will have to visit it again sometime as there’s still so much to see! 👍

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