Sitting in the far north of Spain, in the heart of Basque Country, you’ll find Bilbao, a wildly interesting, diverse, and entertaining city, to say the least.
Bilbao is full of colorful architecture, bustling avenues, and lush, green surroundings, making it an exquisite place to visit if you’re making your way through this part of Spain.
You’ll find modern museums, sprawling parks, and tiny streets just waiting to be explored…
Here are the best things to do in Bilbao on any kind of Spanish holiday!
- 1 Take a Guided Tour of Bilbao
- 2 Stroll through the Seven Streets
- 3 Visit the Cathedral de Bilbao
- 4 People-watch at Plaza Nueva
- 5 Gaze at the Guggenheim Museum
- 6 Marvel at the Museo Bellas Artes
- 7 Cross the Puente de Vizcaya
- 8 Check Out Unique Art at Azkuna Zentroa
- 9 Get Cultured at the Arriaga Theater
- 10 Feast on Pintxos
- 11 Munch at Mercado de la Ribera
- 12 Indulge in a Basque Cooking Lesson
- 13 Snap a Pic on Puente Zubizuri
- 14 Shop ‘till You Drop at Gran Via & Plaza Moyua
- 15 Lounge Around Dona Casilda Iturrizar Park
- 16 Relax by the Nervion River
- 17 Travel to the Top of Mount Artxanda
- 18 Paraglide Over the Bay of Biscay
- 19 Go Wild During Aste Nagusia
- 20 Take a Day Trip to Gaztelugatxe
- 21 Explore the Rest of Basque Country
Take a Guided Tour of Bilbao
There’s no better way to see a city than through a local’s eyes, which is why taking a guided tour of Bilbao is one of the best things you can do!
Instead of being a boring, drag of a tour, this Bilbao excursion is fully customizable, from the amount of time you want the tour to last, right down to the sites that you’re dying to see. Your local guide will walk you through the city and through the history of the place, all while creating a fun but informative day on the streets!
After a guided tour of Bilbao, you’ll be so much more ready to conquer the city on your own. Sometimes all you need is a little help getting your bearings, ya know? No better way to do that than with this awesome tour.
Stroll through the Seven Streets
Casco Viejo is the oldest part of Bilbao and is made up of seven original streets. It’s what gives the vibrant Old Town area its nickname, Siete Calles.
This is without a doubt one of the best places to stroll in Bilbao as you’ll quickly find yourself mesmerized by the colorful architecture and lost in the quaint, winding streets. The area is filled with tons of shops, boutiques, local eateries and bars too, making it the perfect place to spend an afternoon exploring the medieval section of the city.
On a gander through the Seven Streets, you’ll even run into some of Bilbao’s most famous sites like the Bilbao Cathedral, Plaza Nueva, and the Archaeological Museum!
Visit the Cathedral de Bilbao
As mentioned, the Cathedral de Bilbao can be found deep in Casco Viejo. It’s a cathedral that has many different names, so don’t be surprised if you hear it referred to as Santiago Cathedral, St. James Cathedral, and of course, the Bilbao Cathedral.
Built in the 14th and 15th centuries, the Cathedral is Bilbao’s oldest monument. It holds a strong historical significance for all of the Biscay region, making it a worthy place to visit on a trip to this city.
Besides its great age, this Cathedral is also of particular importance because it’s a stop for pilgrims (and eager, active travelers) on the Camino de Santiago.
People-watch at Plaza Nueva
Right in the heart of Old Town, you’ll find the exquisite Plaza Nueva, a stunning architectural square built in Neoclassical style in 1851. Around the entire square are arches leading to arcades full of restaurants and pubs serving up the best Basque fare.
There are always people in this area but on Sunday mornings, you can really see the square come to life as there’s a massive market where antiques, records, and books are bought and sold. Treasure hunting, anyone?
Gaze at the Guggenheim Museum
A centerpiece of Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum is a true showstopper in terms of art and architecture.
The museum itself is the most iconic buildings in all of Basque Country, instantly recognizable from its wildly curving metal facade. This Frank Gehry building is a true masterpiece, which is why it’s so fitting that the best modern art collections in Europe are housed within its walls.
The Guggenheim is absolutely bursting with some of the most famous modern art in the world, from global artists both new and old. The most stand-out pieces are by Jeff Koons (namely the 12-meter-tall puppy crafted from flowers), but the Guggenheim is also sure to curate exhibitions from local Basque artists as well.
As this is one of the most popular attractions in Bilbao, consider purchasing a guided tour with a skip-the-line ticket so you can go right in when you arrive!
Marvel at the Museo Bellas Artes
In stark contrast to the Guggenheim, the Museo Bellas Artes is home to the most important collection of fine arts in all of Basque Country. The museum has been open since 1914, and since then, the collection has grown remarkably.
On a visit to the Fine Arts Museum, you’ll find works of art by famed Spanish painters Goya and El Greco, as well as plenty by Gauguin, Bacon and Chillida. Any art lover will feel right at home in the traditional walls of this museum.
Cross the Puente de Vizcaya
While we’re on the topic of art, let’s talk about the fantastic bridges in Bilbao that are just artistic as they are functional.
The Puente de Vizcaya is also known as the Hanging Bridge as it transports passengers using a conveyor system utilizing 36 wheels and a hanging gondola.
The bridge moves people, cars, motorcycles, bikes and more, and is a great way to get from one side of the inlet to the other. Constructed in 1893, the Puente de Vizcaya is still going strong! In 2006, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, spring for a ticket that grants you access to the upper platform which sits at a sprawling 45 meters.
Cross the 160-meter-long wooden platform and feel like your walking on the clouds…Just so long as you’re not afraid of heights!
Check Out Unique Art at Azkuna Zentroa
Surround yourself with some unbelievable architecture with a visit to Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao’s cultural and leisure center.
Once serving as Bilbao’s wine exchange, this giant warehouse was completely revamped by French designer Philippe Starck. Today, it’s one of the most popular places in the city.
Azkuna Zentroa is a sight to behold as the giant warehouse sits on an astounding 43 pillars, each one uniquely designed and decorated to serve as its own piece of artwork. Besides the stunning columns, this area puts on exhibitions, shows movies., and is a great place to grab a bite to eat at the marvellous cafe.
During the warmest months of the year, make your way to the rooftop pool to swim with some unbeatable views of the entire city. The pool even has a glass bottom which offers a treat to anyone walking below!
Get Cultured at the Arriaga Theater
Another show-stopping building in Bilbao is the Arriaga Theater. It’s worth paying a visit if you’re even remotely interested in architecture.
This is the oldest theater in Bilbao and is named for a local composer who was thought to be the Spanish Mozart, even after his untimely death at age 19. The 19th-century building is a true treat for the eyes with its ornamental details, stacked layers, and rounded rooftop and facade.
It’s a gorgeous place to view from the outside, and even better if you pop in for a peek of the interior!
Feast on Pintxos
While there are many great things about Basque Country, the best has to be pintxos.
Pintxos are the Basque version of tapas and are basically small bites of something delicious on toast. These bites can range from local meat to seafood to cheese and beyond, but no matter which pintxos you choose, you’re in for a treat.
Bilbao is one of the best places for pintxos in all of Spain, with bar counters lined with these delicious treats, day and night. Perfect for lunch, dinner, or a snack throughout the day, feasting on pintxos is an absolute must during any trip to Bilbao.
This gastronomic tour of Bilbao is a MUST for foodies!
Learn more about Spanish cuisine in
our What to Eat in Spain guide!
Munch at Mercado de la Ribera
It wouldn’t be a Spanish city without a poppin’ market packed with stalls selling local goods. Bilbao’s marketplace Mercado de la Ribera is the best place to feast your eyes (and belly) on local delicacies.
The coolest thing about this market is that although it’s in a building constructed in 1929, it stands on the original market site, which dates back to the 14th century! How’s that for a bite outta history?
Today, La Ribera is the largest indoor-covered market in all of Europe, taking up more than 10,000 square meters!
Besides stalls selling impossibly fresh ingredients, La Ribera also has restaurants for dining, bars for drinking, and spaces for live music. Whether you want to grab a meal or have a wild night out, La Ribera is the place to hit.
Indulge in a Basque Cooking Lesson
After wandering through La Ribera, you must be wondering the best way to cook all these local ingredients. While you may have inspiration on your own, there’s no better way to learn about Basque cooking than by taking a cooking lesson yourself!
During this Basque cooking lesson, you’ll learn how to make four special pintxos and a traditional dessert that’s sure to wow. The entire time, you’ll be sipping on txakoli and crianza, Basque drink specialities, and immersing yourself in the love of Spanish cooking.
Not only will this be one of the most fun afternoon activities, but it allows you to take home a little bit of Bilbao with you.
Snap a Pic on Puente Zubizuri
Another famous bridge in Bilbao is the Puente Zubizuri, or the White Bridge, which was constructed to complement the Guggenheim Museum. Modern in style as well, the Zubizuri is a footbridge that crosses the Nervion River, a quick 10-minute walk from the museum.
The White Bridge has a totally futuristic look to it, with the curving structure, long tethers and artistic features. It’s the ideal place to snap a few pics for the #gram or enjoy views of Bilbao from the Nervion!
Shop ‘till You Drop at Gran Via & Plaza Moyua
Spain is renowned for its massive shopping boulevards, and Bilbao is very much on trend with its Gran Via.
Bilbao’s Gran Via is the place to find it all: department stores, luxury brands, fast fashion, and Spanish designers. So no matter what you’re looking for, you’re sure to find it here.
Around the mid-zone of the Gran Via area sits Plaza Moyua, a square built in the 1940s and revamped in the late 1990s.
Today, the entire renovated area is open to the public and is one of the best places to hang out in Bilbao. Full of colorful and artfully designed gardens, fountains, and trees, Plaza Moyua is a popular meeting place in the city and is the perfect place to rest your feet before continuing to shop ‘till you drop!
Lounge Around Dona Casilda Iturrizar Park
Another awesome place to hang out in Bilbao is Don Casilda Iturrizar Park, the largest green space in Bilbao. The lush greenery of the park is surrounded by the city’s tall architecture, giving you something to look at while relaxing in this emerald oasis.
When you’re not sprawled out on the massive lawns, take a stroll along the tree-lined paths, past the spurting fountains and pond filled with ducks. This is a favorite city escape for locals and tourists alike so be sure to pack a picnic and enjoy the space to your heart’s content!
Relax by the Nervion River
For another taste of nature while in Bilbao, the ever popular Nervion River runs through the city. Whether you’re sitting on the promenade looking out at the water or walking along the banks, this is a great place to chill out in between busy sightseeing activities.
If you’re feeling more active, there are plenty of places where you can rent kayaks to actually sit on the river instead of the banks. Keep your eyes peeled during warmer weather and join in for an afternoon of fun!
Travel to the Top of Mount Artxanda
While we’re on the topic of nature in Bilbao, a trip to Mount Artxanda simply cannot be missed. Since 1915, a funicular has been running up and down the mountain, offering people the most breathtaking views of Bilbao possible.
From the lookout up top, you’ll be able to see the entire city completely surrounded by mountains, creating the illusion of a “hole,” which locals refer to as “the botxo.”
Besides the lookout, there’s plenty to do on top of Mount Artxanda like wandering through the gardens or having a bite to eat at one of the restaurants, making it a fun afternoon activity away from the city.
Paraglide Over the Bay of Biscay
If you’re looking for a crazy way to enjoy the natural surroundings of Bilbao, take to the air and soar like a bird while paragliding!
During this experience, you’ll ride tandem with an experienced paragliding professional, weaving high in the Basque Country skies.
While you can’t paraglide directly in Bilbao, you can make your way to nearby Sopelana for the excursion. You’ll have the ultimate bird’s eye view of the Bay of Biscay, surrounding beaches and more, as well as the adrenaline rush of a lifetime.
Pick from four different kinds of flights: a classic flight, piloting flight, aerobatic flight, or a sunset flight Whichever you choose, you’ll have the blood-pumping experience that you’re truly craving!
At the risk of sounding like your parents, make sure you get travel insurance before hitting the road. Trust us, it’s one of those things you don’t want to leave home without. We recommend either World Nomads or Safety Wing, depending on the type of traveler you are.
Go Wild During Aste Nagusia
Besides tapas and shopping, Spain is well-known for annual festivals held throughout the country.
One of the most wild festivals that can’t be missed is Aste Nagusia in Bilbao, meaning the Big Week Festival. It lasts an entire nine days at the end of August and during that time, you see the best of Basque Country.
The festival officially starts with a rocket being shot from the balcony of the Teatro Arriaga so keep your eyes feel to know that the festivities are underway. People dress up in these huge costumes and parade around the city, and there are fireworks and concerts, events and more. It’s definitely the most exciting time to be in the city!
Take a Day Trip to Gaztelugatxe
Once you’ve seen all that Bilbao has to offer (and even if you haven’t), make your way to Gaztelugatxe for the views of a lifetime. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a quick 50 minutes from the center of Bilbao, and is the exact opposite of the city.
Instead of tall buildings and funky-shaped museums, this area is nothing but the pure Bay of Biscay. Waves crashing on the rocky islands, stone walkway with arches looking out over the open water… Seriously, it doesn’t get any closer to heaven than here!
To get to the island, you have to walk across the stone bridge and up 241 stone steps. It’s a long climb but well worth it once you reach the top. At the end of your climb, you’ll come to a church is a bell. Be sure to ring the bell three times and make a wish, because as legend goes, it’s supposed to come true!
Explore the Rest of Basque Country
After spending time in Bilbao, there’s a high possibility that you’ve fallen madly in love with Basque Country and never want to return home again. If that’s the case, there’s plenty of exploring left to do.
There are even parts of Basque Country where you can walk right over to France (like Hondarribia, for example)! The coast makes for an excellent road trip route, and the plentiful vineyards give you more than a good reason to stop along the way.
No matter where you end up, you’ll have stunning sea views, interesting surrounding landscapes — and yes, all the pintxos you could ever dream of.
With such an interesting blend of old and new, modern and classic, it’s amazing that Bilbao isn’t absolutely crawling with tourists in a way similar to Barcelona, or even Madrid.
Instead, Bilbao is a fairly quiet city with interesting museums, a thought-provoking Old Town, and the most stunning scenery imaginable. With plenty to see and do, Bilbao should be at the top of your list of places to visit in Spain!
Need help figuring out where to stay? Check out our guide to the best places to stay in Bilbao for our recommendations.
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