Bilbao travel guide
The industrial port city of Bilbao is the political capital of the nationalistic Basque people, who inhabit Spain's three northern provinces (an area known collectively as Euskadi). The city is not exactly beautiful - the buildings are soot-stained and the Nervion River running through it is one of Spain's most polluted waterways - but Bilbao does have some wonderful surprises to offer visitors, and there are plenty of attractions in the surrounding countryside and around the coast on the Bay of Biscay, which can be easily reached on excursions by rail or road.
The main attraction in the city is the controversial Guggenheim Museum, relatively new on the scene, having been opened in 1997. The city fathers regard this avant-garde building as the beginning of Bilbao's revitalisation, and the city has also recently acquired a new metro system and airport terminal. Bilbao has some good beaches and a few scenic spots - a favoured picnic site is on Monte Archanda, north of the old town, accessible by funicular. Of the beaches Getxo is the favourite, particularly with surfers, and features a 100-year-old suspension bridge and some lively bars and nightclubs. Bilbao is an interesting, industrial city which is steadily increasing in popularity with tourists and makes for a fantastic weekend getaway.
Locals in Bilbao are divided on whether it is a 'beauty' or a 'beast', but the bizarre multi-million dollar Guggenheim Museum, opened in 1997, has brought thousands of visitors flocking to the city to be awed or floored. The massive museum, designed by the famous Frank Gehry, has no right angles, resembles a metallic flower clad in shiny titanium, and is situated in the former dockyard alongside the Nervion River. There are also some huge, striking sculptures outside the museum and many visitors consider the exterior the highlight of a visit. Inside, apart from breathtaking and unusual spaces, the museum houses the works of some important 20th century artists, including Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Willem de Koonig and Clyfford Still. There are also sections displaying the work of young Basque and Spanish artists, and rotating exhibits lent by the Guggenheim museums in New York and Venice. There is a great cafe in the Guggenheim and a bookshop. It is a good idea to book your tickets in advance online to get a slight discount and to jump the queues at the entrance. The Guggenheim is undoubtedly one of Bilbao's greatest and most popular attractions and shouldn't be missed.
Address: 2 Abandoibarra Et.
Transport: Metro to Moyua station; streetcar to Guggenheim stop; a variety of buses also service the museum
Opening time: Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 8pm (open on Mondays between July and August).
Museo de Bellas Artes
For a more mainstream artistic experience than that offered by the astonishing Guggenheim Gallery, the Museo de Bellas Artes in the Plaza Museo fits the bill admirably, with some valuable works on display behind an unassuming façade. The museum's impressive collection spans art from the 12th to 20th centuries, highlights being some excellent Flemish works from between the 15th and 17th centuries. There are also works by masters like El Greco, Goya, Gauguin, Francis Bacon, Picasso and Velazquez. The museum hosts regular temporary exhibitions - check the official website below to see what is showing during your visit. To the rear of the building there is a pleasant sculpture garden. Audio guides are available in multiple languages for an extra €1 and the museum is very well curated and maintained. Bilbao's Museo de Bellas Artes is becoming increasingly renowned internationally and generally receives rave reviews from visitors; in fact, it is consistently one of the top rated attractions in the city. Entry to the museum is free on Wednesdays, which is a big bonus for those travelling on a budget. Prints and other merchandise can be bought via the online shop.
Address: 2 Museo Plaza
Transport: Metro to Moyua station; or bus 1, 10, 13 and 18 to Museum Plaza
Opening time: Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 8pm; closed Mondays.
The Museo Vasco, also known as the Euskal Museoa or Basque Museum, is in the heart of the old quarter of the city, housed in a lovely 17th-century Jesuit cloister. The museum, established in 1921, depicts Basque culture, history and ethnology, and its exhibits span a wide range of interests including weaving, the blacksmith trade, pastoral life and maritime matters. The displays offer the chance to dip into Basque political and social life, using everything from model ships to reconstructions of rooms and gravestones to guide the visitor along. The maps and the exhibition on traditional music and dancing are highlights. In an outdoor courtyard visitors can see a remarkable stone sculpture called Mikeldi, which is thought to date back to sometime between the 5th and 11th centuries BC. Although not all the information has been translated there are sufficient explanations in English. It is a simple, accessible museum, which children will probably enjoy. Budget at least three hours to take it all in. Conveniently located in the historic centre of town, the Museo Vasco is near a number of cafes and restaurants and a visit can be combined with a number of other attractions.
Address: 4 Plaza Miguel de Unamuno
Opening time: Tuesday to Saturday from 11am to 5pm, Sundays from 11am to 2pm
Bilbao City Hall
Located on the right bank of the Estuary of Bilbao, across from the Puente del Ayuntamiento bridge, Bilbao's elegant city hall, in the Plaza Erkoreka Ernesto, dates from 1892 and was designed by Joaquin Rucoba. The Baroque building includes a spire and a magnificent façade featuring balconies, columns, numerous sculptures and a sweeping staircase. The highlight of the interior is the 'Arab Room', an opulently decorated chamber used for civil marriage ceremonies. The city hall was built on the site of a former convent. Guided tours, lasting about an hour, are available, though these need to be booked in advance by phone. A brand new city hall building was recently completed, situated right next to the historic old building, and the unique, modern design of the new contrasts very interestingly with the old. The two buildings now share the functions of the city hall and visitors will probably be divided over which building they find more interesting and aesthetically satisfying: the aggressively modern, which has colourful contemporary decor; or the ornate old, which is distinctly Baroque in its decor. The city is now well served by a combination of functional modern space and historic charm.
A trip to the culturally prolific city of Bilbao may not be the most exciting destination to take the family, but upon closer inspection one will find there is plenty to do and see that will hold the attention of young minds. Take the kids to the city's top attraction, the Guggenheim museum, where entry is free for kids under 12 and they will be awed or floored by its design which resembles a gigantic metal flower. The artwork may not appeal to very young visitors, but if cleverly disguised, children will be sure to find their favourite picture inside - maybe even a Picasso! Take the kids on a ride up the Artxanda Funicular to the top of Artxanda Mountain, where the little ones can let of some steam in the park, enjoy the sports complex or simply be swept away by the incredible views over the city. Pack a picnic, some sunscreen and plenty of delicious treats and head off the to the Doña Casilda Iturrizar park where children can feed the resident ducks in the pond, take a stroll over the architecturally interesting Zubizuri bridge, or if you're there during July, watch the annual Running of the Bulls festival in safety high above the bustling streets.
Bilbao is a fabulous city for travellers wanting to take in the sights, especially during the summer months between May and September when the weather is warm and perfect for spending days outdoors. From cultural and historic attractions to good old-fashioned fine dining and entertainment, Bilbao has plenty to offer.
Start at the world-famous Guggenheim Museum, if only to marvel at the exterior of the building's innovative architecture with its titanium twists and curves. Art lovers also shouldn't miss the Museo de Bellas Artes, which boasts more than 6,000 works dating back to the 12th century, while the Basque Museum focuses on the history and archaeology of the region. For the perfect holiday snaps, climb the Mallona stairs from the Plaza Unamuno to Parque Etxebarria for breathtaking views over the city. History buffs should check out the Cathedral de Santiago, the oldest building in Bilbao, or the beautiful Gothic Basílica de Begoña which dates back to the early 1600s and whose spires can be seen throughout the city. A very popular and worthwhile excursion from Bilbao is Pamplona, the scene of the famous running of the bulls which takes place in July each year. The nearby resort of San Sebastian makes the perfect summer beach getaway.
Travellers in Bilbao who plan on doing lots of sightseeing should look into buying the Bilbao Tourist Card, which is available from all tourist offices around Bilbao and can be used for discounts on public transportation fares, admissions for museums , shows, shops and restaurants.
The Basque region's most popular beach, La Concha, is to be found in the genteel resort city of San Sebastian, 62 miles (100km) east of Bilbao. The town became fashionable as a summer getaway during the reign of Queen Isabel when she took to holidaying there in 1845. Today the town hums with boutiques, surf-shops and nightclubs, but the elaborate boardwalk and grandiose historic mansions lend an air of sophistication, as is appropriate for a resort endorsed by bygone royalty. For a spectacular view of the sea and countryside, ride the funicular to the top of Monte Igueldo, or opt for the opposite side of the bay where it is possible to stroll through shady woods to the summit of Monte Urgull, topped with a statue of Jesus blessing the city. The town's Museo de San Telmo, housed in a Dominican monastery, displays some interesting prehistoric Basque artefacts, and a few dinosaur skeletons. The house where Victor Hugo once lived is in the nearby charming fishing village of Pasajes de San Juan, which can be reached by ferry from San Sebastian. The main attraction, however, is definitely the lovely beach, which is wide, spacious and sandy. Various boat tours can be arranged from the pier.
British visitors are reassured by the presence of a statue of Wellington, the 'Iron Duke', standing on the Plaza de la Virgen Blanca in the city of Vitoria-Gasteiz, 41 miles (66km) south of Bilbao. The statue commemorates Wellington's victory in battle here against Napoleon's forces. The main reason for visiting this Basque city, however, is to enjoy the impressive new contemporary art museum, and soak up some of the charm of this green urban enclave, packed with avenues and parks. There is also an old quarter, full of Renaissance palaces, most of which are now art galleries and museums. The Plaza de la Virgen Blanca is the tourist hub of the old town, surrounded by old mansions, and is a good place to start explorations of the city. Vitoria-Gasteiz also has two Gothic cathedrals: one dating from the 14th century, the beautiful Cathedral of Santa Maria, with a 17th-century tower and paintings by Rubens and van Dyck; and one 20th-century Neo-Gothic creation, the Cathedral of Mary Immaculate, which is also definitely worth a visit. It is a city with many churches, and also two 17th-century nunneries. Vitoria-Gasteiz hosts a number of popular music festivals and attracts many music lovers.
Hordes of tourists flock to this town in Navarre, northern Spain, in early July each year for the Running of the Bulls, officially called La Fiesta del Fermin. The festival, in honour of the city's patron saint, was made famous by Ernest Hemingway's novel The Sun Also Rises, and it has become one of Spain's most popular events. A bust of Hemingway stands outside Pamplona's bullring, where the 8-day extravaganza of dancing, dashing through the streets ahead of rampaging bulls, and drinking, begins. The practice of driving bulls through the centre of Pamplona started in the 19th century as the most practical way to get them to the ring, and for many years the city authorities tried to prevent the practice of running with the bulls. Aside from the festival, though, Pamplona is worth a visit any time of year, boasting lush parks, a splendid Gothic cathedral, a huge citadel and a quaint old quarter. Pamplona is the capital of the province of Navarre, but its roots are Basque and a large percentage of its population are Basque nationalists. Those joining the throng of travellers who arrive especially to run with the bulls should note that the adrenalin-pumping activity is genuinely dangerous and every year there are serious injuries.
Santillana del Mar
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called Santillana del Mar "the prettiest village in Spain", and to this day, it remains one of the undisputed highlights of Spain's northern coastline. Santillana del Mar is tiny - only six blocks long, and home to just 4,000 permanent inhabitants - and makes a wonderful base for exploring the alluring Cantabrian coastline. In the village, which is full of gorgeous Romanesque architecture lining ironstone streets, locals still sell fresh milk from open stable doors, and well-heeled visitors have the chance to spend the night in one of Spain's grandest paradores (the Parador de Santillana), a converted 17th-century mansion offering luxurious and unforgettable accommodation. Santillana del Mar is also the closest urban area to the Cuevas de Altamira (Altamira Caves), featuring amazing Upper Paleolithic cave paintings, and often dubbed 'the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art'. Because Spain's northern coastline doesn't see nearly as much annual tourist activity as its southern coastline, independent travellers keen to avoid the crush of sun-seekers on the Costa del Sol are strongly encouraged to visit Santillana del Mar, which offers a relaxing seaside atmosphere as well as the chance to feel as though you've truly 'escaped' the hustle and bustle of the modern world.
San Fermin (Running of the Bulls)
San Fermin is also celebrated with bull fights (the only bull fights held in Pamplona during the year take place during the festival). The Procession of San Fermin, a giant parade, takes place on the 7th of July.
Venue: The town of Pamplona in the northeastern part of the country; Date:6 - 14 July 2016; Website: www.sanfermin.com
O Grove Seafood Festival
Come October, Spain's northwestern coastline of Galicia becomes the best place to sample seafood in Europe. Hundreds of thousands flock to the seaside village of O Grove to enjoy the succulent flavours and delights available in the Fiesta de Exultacion de Marisco Seafood Festival. During the festival seafood is on sale for special prices at a giant gastronomic-cultural fair with hundreds of stalls, and local restaurants and chefs compete to produce the most popular seafood meals. While delicious seafood of all kinds is the centre of attention, the festival also offers live music, traditional dance, cookery competitions and workshops, sporting events, art and culinary exhibitions, some big parades and much more to enjoy. O Grove has earned a reputation as 'seafood paradise' in Spain, partly due to the popularity of this festival, which was first organised in 1963 to encourage tourism and appreciation for the fisheries industry that traditionally dominates the region. An estimated 200,000 people now attend, and the seafood markets seem to grow every year. The festival will delight foodies and culture-vultures alike, and timing holidays in the region with the event is worthwhile.
Venue: O Grove Town Hall, Galicia; Date:6 - 16 October 2016;
Arguably the best place in Spain to enjoy Basque cuisine, Bilbao has a reputation as a culinary centre and eating out in the city is rewarding. Bilbao has many Michelin-starred restaurants, as does nearby San Sebastian, and these two cities jointly showcase the best in Basque cookery. Seafood is the highlight in this port city, although there are also some delicious meat dishes available. Cod, squid, sardines, anchovies, hake, sea bream and clams are all staple ingredients, and veal and pork are popularly used meats.
The local word for tapas is pintxos, and bar hopping is the ideal way to sample a variety of these yummy, bite-sized treats. The Old Quarter (Casco Viejo) is the best place to indulge in a pintxos meander, as it is largely pedestrianised and bursting with great bars. The Plaza Nueva is a good place to start. If the tapas don't fill you up make your way to one of the city's many quality restaurants, some of which are listed below. Bilbao has restaurants enough to suit all tastes and budgets, with all the usual fast food chains for those who need a cheap and familiar snack, and some fantastic upmarket restaurants with famous chefs for special occasions.
The Guggenheim Restaurant is located inside the world-class Guggenheim Museum, and it prides itself on being one of the city's very best eateries. Serving traditional Basque cuisine using the freshest local produce, diners can enjoy innovative dishes that have been expertly prepared by chef Josean Martínez, such as the mouth-watering perfumed 'euskal oiloa' chicken (Basque breed organic chicken) with rosemary and lime leaves, or the decadent pure chocolate with coffee ice cream and a hot marzipan sand. Bookings recommended. Open Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and Wednesday to Saturday for dinner.
Address: Avda. Abandoibarra 2; Website: www.restauranteguggenheim.com
For a break from traditional Spanish and European food, this superb sushi restaurant is ideal. The friendly staff will help you select what you want to build your own take-away sushi box, or will make what you want if it is not available. There is no seating in the restaurant, but the glorious food can be enjoyed on the many benches outside or in a park nearby. Sumo also offers other traditional Japanese fare, like noodle dishes, but the sushi is definitely the highlight. Sumo is a good option for vegetarians.
Address: Calle Ledesma 5; Website: sumo.com.es/
Located in a quaint and charming country house just outside the city centre, Bilbao's Aretxondo Restaurant has a unique and distinctive character with modern and inventive twists on traditional cuisine. A popular venue for events, weddings and other special occasions, it boasts and extensive wine list, knowledgeable waiters, and simply heavenly food. Try the sautéed prawns with potato guacamole, tomato and condensed grapefruit, or the log on entrecote in fine herbs and black pepper, and end off with the mango cheesecake with mango ice cream and spices - deliciously light and decadent! Open daily for dinner, lunch on Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Mondays, the first two weeks in January, Easter week and the first two weeks in August.
Address: Bo Elexalde, 20. (Galdakao); Website: www.restaurante-aretxondo.com
Clean white linen tablecloths juxtaposed by the colourful and almost garish artwork on one of the walls creates a somewhat classic meets contemporary feel to this popular Bilbao eatery. Run by owner and chef, Fernando Canales, Etxanobe is located on the top floor of the Palacio Euskalduna and delivers innovative and intelligent dishes that tantalise and haunt the taste buds. Try the boneless suckling lamb with sweetbread or the Muscavado pudding with cinnamon and rice. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Bookings recommended.
Address: Avda Abandoibarra, 4; Website: www.etxanobe.com
The Michelin-starred Zortziko boasts a formal atmosphere and an air of grandeur and is, deservedly, one of Bilbao's finest eateries. Three distinctive and classy dining rooms, each with its own theme, create the ultimate sophisticated yet contemporary dining experience. Try the Bisket of rock fish or the Fricadellede chicken with pistachios, and for those with a sweet tooth, the chocolate sponge, Malden salt and oil Hojiblanca is pure indulgence. Reservations recommended. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Closed Sunday and Mondays and the second fortnight in August and the first two weeks in September.
Address: Calle Alameda Mazarredo, 17; Website: www.zortziko.es
Most of Bilbao's shopping is centred round the Plaza Moyúa area, where the streets of Calle Rodriguez Arias and Calle Iparraguirre are lined with stores and boutiques. Head to Gran Via for department stores like Marks & Spencer and El Corte Inglés, or the Calle San Martin for high-end fashion stores and boutiques, while in the Ensanche and Old Town all the big Spanish and some famous international designers can be found. The beautiful, historic shopping district of Casco Viejo features a good selection of specialty stores, while a visit to the Ensanche Market and Riverside Market is a must for anyone looking for fresh meats, breads, vegetables and other local produce. The Old Town of Bilbao is home to the largest covered city market in Europe and makes for a great shopping venue for an afternoon.
Great souvenirs to pick up while in Bilbao include Basque handicrafts such as linens and Basque dolls. Also a basque beret, known locally as txapelas, and souvenir art books from the Guggenheim. Most shops in Bilbao are open from 10am, with many shops taking a long break for lunch during the siesta hours, and reopening round 4pm or 5pm until as late at 8pm. Shopping hours are shorter on Saturdays, while on Sundays many stores are closed.
Location: The airport is located five miles (9km) from Bilbao city centre.
Time: GMT +1 (GMT +2 between the last Sunday in March and the last Sunday in October).
Getting to the city: Buses are available to the city centre and cost €1.45 for a one-way ticket. Buses operate every 30 minutes between 5.25am and 9.55pm.
Car rental: Car rental companies represented at the airport include Avis, Enterprise, Europcar, Hertz and Sixt.
Airport Taxis: Taxis are available from the airport to the city centre. Taxis have a minimum charge and a waiting charge.
Facilities: Airport facilities include restaurants, a cafeteria, a children's play area, police services, ATMs, baggage wrapping and post boxes.
Parking: The airport offers long-term, general and short-term parking.
Bilbao has a comprehensive public transport network that consists of a two-line metro system, a city bus service and a single-line tram system. Those using public transport regularly should consider investing in a CreditTrans card which charges commuters at a reduced price. While it is possible to hire a car in Bilbao, it is not necessary as public transport covers much of the city. It is actually fairly difficult to drive in Bilbao due to the city's complex road network on hilly one-way streets and construction projects that contribute to heavy traffic congestion. Taxis in the city are run by a single operator, Taxi Bilbao. Vehicles are metered and reasonably priced for short journeys.
The climate of Bilbao is oceanic, rather humid and often rainy, but without extremes of temperature. Bilbao doesn't enjoy the hot, dry and well-defined summer common to Spain, and the city has quite fluid seasons. The average temperatures in summer, between June and August, range between 55°F (13°C) and 78°F (25°C), making the city unusually cool by Spanish standards. The winters are similarly mild, with temperatures between December and February averaging between 40°F (5°C) and 56°F (13°C). The average annual rainfall is high, but is spread fairly evenly throughout the year, with the most rain being experienced during spring and autumn. November and April are usually the rainiest months. Light snow is possible in winter, but sleet is far more common.
Summer is the most popular time to visit Bilbao, partly because it is by far the most popular time to visit Spain in general. During the warm summers the beaches around the city are at their best. The most festive month of the year is August, when fireworks and parades are common as the city celebrates Semana Grande, giving tourists another reason to travel to Bilbao in summer.
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