Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is so recognizable it’s almost synonymous with the Basque city. It’s difficult to imagine today, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s Bilbao was suffering from severe decline due to dwindling industry, rising unemployment and ongoing Basque separatist conflict. The Guggenheim Museum was a last-ditch effort to save the city, and it paid off in spades. Gehry’s building was so successful in drawing in tourism dollars, that the “Bilbao Effect” is now used as a term for urban renewal and reinvention. The Guggenheim Museum is still a great reason to visit Bilbao, but the bustling Basque city has a lot more to offer. Here are some fun things to do in Bilbao:
Visit the Museum of Fine Arts
The Guggenheim Museum is a world-class institution, but Bilbao has other amazing art museums worth considering. One such institution, Bilbao’s Museum of Fine Arts, deserves recognition. Though museums are often on our itinerary during a visit to any location, it’s rare when we visit one that exceeds our expectations. Located in beautiful Doña Casilda Iturrizar park, the Museum of Fine Arts is sizable without feeling in the least bit overwhelming. It offers an array of art–from the classic to the contemporary–by Spanish, Basque and European artists. What really grabbed our attention, though, was the inspired, cleverly curated exhibits.
When we visited, we were lucky to catch ABC: The Alphabet of the Bilbao Museum which was the brainchild of famed Basque author and museum regular, Kirmen Uribe. The exhibit celebrated the museum’s 110th birthday with panache. 31 rooms are marked in order by one of the 26 letters of the alphabet, as well as the Spanish “ll” and “ñ” and the Basque “ts”, “tx” and “tz”. The curators picked a word for each letter, like M for Mom and R for Retrato (Portrait). They then grouped art in that room based on that theme.
We marveled at the selections in each room. Some were obvious choices, while others had connections that were more circuitous. The curation simply helped us discover new artists, many of whom were native to the area. We were introduced to the charming rainy day illustrations of San Sebastián son Juan Carlos Eguillor in the “ll” room for “lluvia” (rain). We find local artists give you an intimate glimpse into the culture. It was easily one of the most interesting uses of space, color, light, and media we’ve ever seen.
Pro Tip: The museum is closed Tuesdays, but offers free entry during its last couple of hours of operation from 6:00 pm – 8:00 pm on all other days. If you’re unable to visit during those hours, they also offer an Artean Pass which gives you admission to both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Guggenheim Bilbao at a reduced rate.
Take the Funicular de Artxanda for amazing views
Hiking really isn’t our strong suit, but we’ve been known to scale smaller inclines in search of a good view. Mount Artxanda offers great panoramic views of the city, but hiking up the mountain doesn’t really deliver enough payoff for the time, especially if you’re on a shorter trip. The easiest way to get there is by using the Funicular de Artxanda, and luckily, it’s also the most interesting way to scale the mountain.
A funicular is a cable car system that is commonly found on inclined slopes, where two passenger cars are attached to the same cable with a pulley. It allows the counterbalancing of the two moving cars, where one moves up while the other moves down. This is true of the Funicular de Artxanda, though supplemental power is provided by electricity. The cars travel approximately 2500 feet each way, with a maximum incline of close to 45%. If you’re fortunate enough to get a seat in the first car, you’re in for a great view of the steep climb (which only takes approximately 3 minutes). Cars run every 15 minutes from 7:15 am until 10:00 pm, with slightly extended hours in the summer.
How to get there
To get to the Funicular de Artxanda, simply make your way to the north bank of the Nervion River by crossing the Zubizuri Bridge. From there follow Múgica y Butrón Kalea for two short blocks, where you’ll run straight into the station. After your ride to the top, exit to the left of the station to head to the lookout. You’ll not only get prime views of Bilbao and the Nervion River, but also the mountains in the distance. Don’t miss the Fingerprint Sculpture called “Huella Dactilar” by Portuguese artist Juan José Novella, which honors the victims of the Spanish Civil War.
Pro Tip: If you plan on using public transportation around Bilbao (for trips within the city, to outer suburbs, or to and from the airport) then the Barik card is a worthwhile purchase. The card costs EU3 and up to 10 travelers can travel on the same card. You can load and reload the card as needed, but it discounts travel on the metro and buses significantly. You can use the Barik card at the Funicular.
Fall in love with architecture and design
Frank Gehry’s unmistakable style is found in every inch of the Guggenheim Bilbao. The building is constructed of titanium, limestone, and glass, and together the elements work in harmony to catch light and create his signature iridescent effect. The curves of the building were cutting edge at the time, designed using 3D software only a few years old. If you look at the Guggenheim Bilbao from above, the structure resembles a flower with steel petals unfolding around a bud. However, from the ground, Gehry’s creation evokes the shape of a boat which is said to be intentional, to honor Bilbao’s past as a port town.
We love finding connections to home when we travel. One of our favorite structures in New York City is the Oculus Transportation Hub designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Calatrava also has a strong presence in Bilbao: he’s behind both the Bilbao airport redesign and the Zubizuri Bridge. We could easily draw parallels across all his creations. The Zubizuri Bridge is an all-white steel structure meant to appear like a sailboat floating a few feet above the water, again referencing Bilbao’s history. It was designed with glass tiles at the base to allow a view of the Nervion River running below; however, the tiles were deemed too slippery and are now covered by a black rug.
If Frank Gehry and Santiago Calatrava aren’t enough, designer Philippe Starck has also left his mark in Bilbao. The Azkuna Zentroa Cultural Center was once a wine warehouse, but the property was abandoned in the 1970s and sat neglected for over 30 years. The giant space was repurposed into a community center by the former mayor of Bilbao, who it’s currently named after. What makes the space worth visiting is its Atrium of Cultures, which Starck collaborated on with Italian designer Lorenzo Baraldi. In the atrium, 43 pillars sustain the weight of the three buildings. But Starck envisioned the columns going beyond function to symbolize the “infinity of cultures, architectures, wars and religions through which man has passed throughout history”. Each column features a unique design to represent diversity. A host of traditional as well as contemporary materials were used in their construction.
And just for next-level design nerds: the distinctive entrances to Metro Bilbao’s stations were designed by Norman Foster. The British architect is behind such signature structures as The Gherkin in London and the Reichstag Dome in Berlin.
Explore the Bizkaia (Vizcaya) Bridge and the northern suburb of Getxo
Similar to New York City, Bilbao has a city center but it also has outer suburbs that many locals call home. Visiting suburbs located further north along the Nervion River like Getxo offers a glimpse at Basque life with a slightly less harried pace. But there’s another great reason to visit Getxo: the Bizkaia Bridge, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Completed in 1893, the Bizkaia Bridge is the oldest shuttle bridge in the world. According to UNESCO, it was the first bridge to carry people and traffic in a gondola on lightweight twisted steel ropes. This innovation became the model for many similar bridges across the globe, but today only a few of them remain. The bridge was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006 because it is regarded as “one of the outstanding architectural iron constructions of the Industrial Revolution”.
Also called the Hanging Bridge, it connects the towns of Getxo and Portugalete along opposite banks of the Nervion River. You can cross the bridge via the pedestrian walkway or the gondola. Since one of us is deathly afraid of heights, we opted for the gondola. Even though the bridge is over 120 years old, thankfully the gondola is not! The current gondola only dates back to 1998. The gondola can accommodate 6 cars, 6 motorcycles or bicycles and 200 passengers, and the journey only lasts 90 seconds. Once you make your way across, you can explore Portugalete. We didn’t. We stopped into the cafe right by the gondola station and had some churros con chocolate before hopping on the next gondola back to Getxo 😉
How to get there
To make your way to Getxo, hop on the Bilbao Metro Line 1 (L1) heading towards Plentzia, and get off at the Areeta stop. The journey from Moyua is just a short 20 minutes. Trains run approximately every 10 minutes, but consult the Bilbao Metro for more specific schedules. Once you exit the train station, make your way towards the river. A 10-minute walk along Gobela Kalea will get you to the Bizkaia Bridge.
Pro Tip: As mentioned in a prior section, if you plan on using public transportation consider the Barik card. The card costs EU3 and up to 10 travelers can travel on the same card. You can load and reload the card as needed, but it discounts travel significantly. You can use the Barik card for the metro trip to and from Getxo, and for your gondola rides.
Wander around Casco Viejo (Old Quarter)
Bilbao’s Casco Viejo centers around the Siete Calles, or Seven Streets, and was once the real economic, commercial and political center of Bilbao. Markets, religious processions and even bullfights once took place here. But as the political and economic landscape of Bilbao changed, so did Casco Viejo.
La Turroneria Iveñez
The Old Quarter became pedestrian-only in 1979, and thanks to the large number of shops, boutiques and restaurants, it’s still a lovely area to wander around on foot. Be sure to stop in to La Turroneria Ivañez on Calle del Correo behind the Santiago Cathedral, a specialty nougat maker that has been around since 1855. The store is run by the fourth generation of the Ivañez family and offers an incredible variety of the confection. We devoured a bag of the Coconut Nougat with Dark Chocolate in record time!
Some of the other major highlights in the area include Plaza Berria or Plaza Nueva (New Square), which was the site of the Biscay government until 1890. Its Roman neoclassical architecture is still a showstopper, and the spaces around the square are now occupied by some of the best spots to enjoy pintxos in Bilbao. It’s home to Victor Montes, a restaurant with so much history that it’s a necessary stop for both royalty and celebrities visiting Bilbao. It’s also where Frank Gehry attended the official signing of the Guggenheim Bilbao project. If you favor something a little less touristy, another bar simply called Bar Victor is also located in Plaza Berria. It’s a little more modest and affordable, but still offers some top-notch pintxos options.
Mercado de la Ribera
Pace yourself though, because another necessary stop while you’re in Casco Viejo is Mercado de la Ribera. It’s the largest covered market in all of Europe according to Guinness World Records. Located on the bank of the Nervion River, it’s an active wet market that also houses numerous vendors hawking delicious prepared foods. You’ll find yet more pintxos and raciones, along with paella, smoked meats and specialty desserts. From Wednesday to Sunday, you can also visit the La Ribera Jazz Bar and Restaurant, whose dishes use fresh ingredients sourced from the market. While fresh produce, seafood and meats may not normally appeal to visitors, note that La Ribera Jazz Bar and Restaurant also offers a unique opportunity: they will cook anything you purchase at Mercado de la Ribera, any way you wish. It’s surprisingly affordable for a bespoke gastronomic experience.
Before we say agur (goodbye)
We hope this guide has adequately shown you why you need to visit Bilbao. If you’re considering a trip to this Basque city or already have one planned, we would be remiss if we didn’t recommend a short detour from Bilbao to San Sebastián. The beach town and foodie destination is located only 75 minutes away. Our guide on how to spend two days in San Sebastián includes a quick introduction to Basque culture (and pintxos!) that will also be useful during your stay in Bibao. So whether you’re spending two days or two weeks in Bilbao, we think you’ll fall in love with this Basque city and everything it has to offer.
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