Find all the information you need about what to see and do in Bilbao. We give you recommendations, advice and much more to make your visit the best. For a long time, Bilbao carried the reputation of being an industrial city in decline, gray and dangerous, to which tourism did not come close. But that began to change radically in recent decades, with the triumphant arrival of the imposing Guggenheim Museum that opened the city to an era of profound renewal that allowed it to bury its old stigma. Twenty years after its inauguration, Bilbao is one of the most visited destinations in Spain and an example of urban transformation.
In this article, we are going to help you plan your visit with our recommendations of what to see and do in Bilbao. Avant-garde architecture, Basque gastronomy, the natural beauty that surrounds it, and much more …
The before and after of Bilbao summarized in one of the most striking and acclaimed buildings in the world. More than twenty years after its inauguration, the work of the architect Frank Gehry remains the maximum symbol of deconstructive architecture, with its exterior of curved forms completely covered in titanium plates that imitate the scales of a fish. Seen from the estuary, the Guggenheim Museum appears to be in the shape of a ship, paying homage to the port history of Bilbao. They claim that there is not a single flat surface in the entire structure.
The artistic marvel of the Guggenheim does not end with the museum building, but there are also fantastic works of art around it, such as Mama, the giant bronze and stainless steel chandelier that is part of the permanent collection. Another work of the most photographed and that you can see without paying the entrance is Puppy, the Terrier puppy covered in flowers that change according to the time of year and that is at the entrance of the museum.
You will also find other works that follow the line of stainless steel such as the bright and colorful Tulips by the controversial Jeff Koons and the tower of spheres The Great Tree and the Eye. And if when you are passing you find yourself covered by a cloud of mist, do not panic, it is the intervention of a Japanese artist.
La Salve Bridge
The best place to appreciate the grandeur of the Guggenheim is from the La Salve Bridge. It was created to connect the Bilbao suburbs with the city center and became a tourist attraction in its own right when a huge red arch was installed for the museum’s 10th anniversary. Pay attention that under the bridge there is a huge and beautiful mural.
“His works are very beautiful to look at, but they always end up being a scam”, is what the majority of Bilbaoans say when asked about Calatrava. The Zubizuri is a modern and photogenic curved bridge that crosses the Nervión, but with a huge flaw: no matter how beautiful the glass floor is, Bilbao is a very rainy city, which generated a large number of slipping accidents. Seeing this, they had to put a non-aesthetic rubber mat on it, but it saved people from more broken bones. The work cost the city a lot of money and the Valencian continued to gain a bad reputation in his country.
What to see in Bilbao: Bilbao La Vieja
Walking along the riverbank you will reach the Bilbao La Vieja neighborhood, the oldest in the city. Originally it was the neighborhood of the mining workers (the calcination furnace of the San Luis mine is preserved in the center of the neighborhood), but today it is one of the most artistic areas of Bilbao. The murals, art galleries, and new bars quickly changed the bad press that it had for a long time to turn it into what many call the “hipster neighborhood of Bilbao”.
Bridge and San Antón Church
After walking through the narrow streets of Bilbao La Vieja, you can cross the Santón Bridge, which if you thought it was one more that crosses the Nervión, you are very wrong. Not only is it the oldest, but it is believed that it was built before the first settlements that would form Bilbao (the current one is a reconstruction from 1937). It is so important to the city that it even appears on its shield.
On the other bank of the estuary, as you enter the Old Quarter, you will pass by the San Antón Church, from the 15th century. This church, the most important for the history of Bilbao, also appears next to the bridge on the city’s coat of arms. If you like Spanish football, you may have seen it on the Athletic Club crest.
What to see in Bilbao: Old Town
Seven narrow parallel streets, that is all that comprises the Old Quarter of Bilbao, but in this area, there is much more movement than its size appears.
The original nucleus of the town of Bilbao is today one of the hearts of the city’s nightlife, full of traditional pintxo bars and beer gardens where grandparents mingle with punks, anarchists, and tourists. Walking through these alleys at night is a completely different experience than during the day, where nothing makes you think about what will happen hours later.