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Though it isn't the political capital of the Pais Vasco, Bilbao is its cultural and economic heart, a city of almost a million that stretches from the beautiful Bay of Biscay to the foot of the mighty Pyrenees. Fine Basque cuisine reaches its tasty apex in Bilbao's elegant eateries and cute cafés, the city's nightlife rolls well past dawn, and its fabulous festivals offer something for visitors all year round.
Bilbao is both ancient and modern, with buildings that probably date to well before its official founding in the 1300s, such as gloriously Gothic Santiago Cathedral (most recently revamped in the 1500s), as well as modern masterpieces like the famed Guggenheim Museum, its wending ribbons of steel reflected in the Nervión River, and every tourist brochure for the city.
There is no end to the appeal of bustling Bilbao, with enough to keep travelers busy for a weekend or a lifetime.
Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry and opened in 1997, is hailed as one of the most important architectural works of its time. Within its undulating and reflecting walls on the banks of the Nervión River, you’ll find a rotating artistic wonderland of both modern and contemporary art.
One of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the medieval Bilbao Old Quarter (Casco Viejo) is best known for its 15th-century Siete Calles (Seven Streets), now lined with pintxo bars and cafés. Here, visit the Santiago Cathedral, stop by one of the largest covered markets in Europe, and catch a show at the lavish Arriaga Theater.
Built atop a shrine in the 14th-century, Bilbao's Santiago Cathedral now towers over the original Seven Streets of the city’s Old Quarter. Follow in the footsteps of Camino de Santiago pilgrims and admire the Gothic Revival facade; elaborate portal—known as the Angel Door—on Correo Street; and the 15th-century Gothic cloister.
Inspired by the Paris Opera House and named after the "Mozart of Spain"—Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga—the 19th-century Arriaga Theater (Teatro Arriaga) is a lavish neo-baroque building. Here, catch a play, opera, or dance recital in the 1,200-seat theater, which is dominated by plush red velvet seating, elaborate crown molding, and gold detailing.
Straddling the Nervión River and connecting two of the city’s most popular attractions—the Guggenheim and Artxanda Funicular—the futuristic, steel cable–suspended Zubizuri Bridge is an architecturally notable landmark. Visit after dark to see the Santiago Calatrava–designed footbridge light up.
A bustling Bilbao transport hub, Moyua Square (Plaza Moyúa) combines manicured flowerbeds with ample seating to turn a simple roundabout into a much-loved meeting point. Admire the surrounding buildings, such as the 20th-century Palacio Chávarri and Hotel Carlton, or use the square as a jumping-off point for further exploration of the city and beyond.
Culture and leisure combine at the multipurpose Azkuna Zentroa, Bilbao’s former wine warehouse-turned-cultural center. Behind its 20th-century facade you’ll now find a glut of artistic, literary, and educational offerings including an arthouse cinema, on-site restaurant, library, fitness center, and more. Meanwhile, the 43 pillars, each one with a different design, are notable highlights of the Philippe Starck–designed interior.
With over 10,000 works of Spanish, European, and Basque art spanning from the Middle Ages to present day, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao) is one of the most-visited museums in the Basque Country. Highlights include masterpieces from El Greco, Francisco de Goya, and Mary Cassatt, plus regular temporary exhibits.
For some of the best panoramic views over Bilbao, ride the century-old Artxanda Funicular (Funicular de Artxanda) to the summit of Mount Artxanda. There, from the mountaintop viewpoint, you can admire the valley-circled city from above, try to spot the emblematic Guggenheim building, and dine at one of the many nearby restaurants.
For over a century, the tranquil Doña Casilda Park has been among Bilbao’s most important green spaces and its Romantic- and French-style gardens remain a focal point of the Indautxu neighborhood. Stroll the palm-lined pathways, enjoy views over the Nervión River, or stop by the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum which calls Doña Casilda Park home.
One of Bilbao’s largest and most impressive cultural centers, the Euskalduna Palace (Palacio Euskalduna) has been a city mainstay since it opened in 1999. Designed to resemble a ship, it houses an auditorium, theater, exhibition hall, and other gathering spaces. The ABAO Bilbao Opera and the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra regularly perform there.
Billed as “a shipyard turned into a museum,” Bilbao’s Itsasmuseum is located right on the Bilbao Estuary, under the Euskalduna Bridge. Dedicated to Basque maritime history and tradition, the museum’s collection includes a number of historic vessels (many of which are displayed outside) and temporary and permanent exhibitions within.
At the entrance to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a colorful floral puppy sits in perennial bloom. Designed by American artist Jeff Koons, this 43-foot-high (13-meter-high) sculpture—known simply asPuppy—features more than 70,000 live flowers. View it for free before heading inside to explore the permanent collection.
Consecrated in 1890, the Church of the Sacred Heart (Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón) is one of Bilbao’s most striking churches, and one of its newest, as well. Designed by architect José María de Basterra, this place of worship is instantly recognizable for its red-brick, neo-Gothic exterior and its rose window.
Travel back in time at the Basque Museum (Museo Vasco de Bilbao), where photographic exhibits and cultural artefacts—from textiles to ceramics—bring Basque culture and history to life. Housed in an understated 17th-century convent at the heart of Bilbao’s Old Town, don’t miss the regularly rotated temporary exhibits and topographical map of Bilbao and beyond.
Behind an understated Renaissance facade and triumphal arch entrance, Bilbao’s 16th-century San Vicente Mártir de Abando Church (Parroquia de San Vicente Mártir de Abando) hides a surprisingly ornate baroque altar. Other highlights of this Basque Gothic building include the whitewashed vaulted ceilings, gilded detailing, and carved statue of the crucifixion.
A small gem of a museum in Bilbao’s Old Town, the Bizkaia Museum of Archaeology chronicles the region’s past, from murky prehistory to the modern day. Housed in a former train station, the museum’s collection consists of thousands of ancient artifacts, ranging from household items to the 15th-century Urbieta wreck.