Up until the 1980s tourists had hardly heard of Bilbao, the capital of Spain’s Basque region. It was a port and industrial area, with a long history but little to attract visitors. However, all of that has changed, and Bilbao is now a thriving tourist destination, with lots of things to see and do, from history to modern architecture, from museums and art galleries to distinctive local cuisine.
Visit the old town
Bilbao has an extensive and unspoilt old town (Casco Viejo). Originally a fishing port, the town was founded in 1300. It was based around seven main streets (the “Siete Calle”) in an area between the mountains and the Nervión river. Today you can wander the narrow streets with their distinctive wooden balconies, and enjoy the numerous shops, bars and restaurants.
The hub of the Casco Viejo is the Plaza Nueva, a smart square surrounded by bars. More modern, but not to be missed, is the Ribera Market, an Art Deco style hall with massive stained glass windows, built in 1929. Opposite the market look out for the painted arcades of the Calle Erribera. And, although most of the medieval city walls have now disappeared, you can see fragments built into the cathedral and into a house on the Calle Ronda.
Camino de Santiago
As you walk around the Casco Viejo you may notice the bright yellow shells painted onto the floor: these mark the route of the Camino de Santiago. And at the centre of the old town is the Cathedral of Santiago, where pilgrims would once have stayed the night as they passed through the city. Look carefully above the main cathedral door and you will see a stone scallop – pilgrims were using the same symbol for navigation as far back as the Middle Ages (as our tour guide put it, it was a “kind of medieval GPS”).
If you want to follow a bit of the Camino for yourself you can climb the 330 steps of the Mallona Stairs towards the Basilica de Begoña, originally built to connect the town with the Basilica. As well as the yellow scallops the route is marked by a series of concrete crosses.
Admire the Architecture
There is much more to the architecture of Bilbao than just the buildings of the Casco Viejo. Pick up the “Bilbao… on foot” leaflet from the Tourist Office. This details five architectural routes around the city and its environs, including The Seven Streets and The Estuary.
I went on an excellent tour of the so-called “Expansions of the City”, the area around the Gran Via that became fashionable when the old town could no longer contain the growing population. Here you can see grand palaces, squares and gardens. But the architecture also comes right up to date. Look out for the Azjuna Zentroa Cultural Centre (an old wine warehouse redesigned as an arts space) and for ultra-modern constructions such as the Basque Health Department on Poza Lizentziatuaren Kalea.
The architecture is not just the buildings. There are several modern bridges, most notably the Zubizuri Footbridge, built to resemble a sailboat. And even the metro stations are worthy of attention, their exteriors having been designed by the British architect Norman Foster (the stations are known locally as “fosteritos”).
Enjoy the Food
For many people a visit to Bilbao means gastronomy. Based on fresh local ingredients – meat, vegetables and lots of fish – you will find regional specialities like beans with bacon and chorizo, or Biscay style cod (with peppers, onions and garlic). And you will find pintxos everywhere. These are the local version of tapas, and can be anything from olives or pickles on sticks, to bread with different toppings, or more elaborate snacks. The best selection of pintxos I saw was on the stalls of the Ribera Market in the old town.
Vegetarians may struggle in many of the restaurants. However, there is a list of vegetarian restaurants here. I can also report that the vegan pintxos at Tirauki on Goienkale in the old town were excellent. And you can find a good choice of vegetarian and vegan food at the Ribera Market.
Then there is the wine. You are likely to be familiar with the local Rioja but less well known is Txakoli, a very dry, slightly sparkling, white wine that is a speciality of the region.
Discover the Museums
For many visitors Bilbao is synonymous with the Guggenhein Museum. However, this is a whole city of museums. The “Route of the Museums” is a triangle of modern establishments, including the Guggenheim. The other two are the Museum of Fine Arts, covering Basque and European Art from the Middle Ages to the current day, and the Maritime Museum, based in a former shipyard. And when you step into the old town you will find several small, specialist museums.
It was the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 that really established Bilbao as a tourist and cultural destination. The building itself is an artwork, with its curving lines, irregular shapes and mixture of materials. The interior is as remarkable for its design as for its exhibits, a massive glass construction with curved walkways and variously shaped rooms.
There are small permanent exhibitions but most of the space is devoted to temporary displays of contemporary art. As you leave look for the outdoor sculptures including an outsized steel spider. And for the fog sculpture, which appears at varying intervals, creating a visual interaction with the museum building.
Museums of the Casco Viejo
Many of the museums of the Casco Viejo focus on art, history or religion. However there is also an Athletic Club Museum and a Bullfighting Museum.
The Museum of Archaeology is on the hillside beside the Mallona Stairs. It covers the history of Bilbao since the earliest times, and includes a virtual reality exploration of one of the ancient’s ancient cave systems with neolithic paintings on the walls. I also enjoyed the Basque Museum, as much for the building (it is built around the cloisters of a former Jesuit college) as for the exhibitions of Basque history and culture.
Explore the Region
If you have a car you will have access to all the attractions of the region, including vineyards, villages and prehistoric sites. But even without a car there are plenty of places to explore using the excellent regional transport system.
The metro trains travel along both sides of the river estuary towards the sea. This allows you to visit small towns like Plentzia, with its harbour and historic centre, or Portugalete (another chance to walk some of the Camino de Santiago). The main sight on the estuary is the massive iron structure of the Bizkaia Bridge, the world’s first transporter bridge. Built in 1893 to connect the two sides of the river, the bridge is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Away from the estuary, trains and buses travel extensively around the Basque region. If I had had more time I would definitely have taken a trip to Gernika, the scene of Civil War destruction that was immortalised by Picasso. Or inland to discover a bit of the countryside.
Most of the local and regional transport (and much else) is free if you purchase a Bilbao Card. My tours of the Casco Viejo and the Expansions of the City also came free with the card (read more about the benefits of a Bilbao Card).