Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Bilbao
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.
Wandering the narrow medieval streets of Bilbao's Casco Viejo, you'll stumble upon the towering exterior walls of Santiago Cathedral. It is believed that the church, which serves as a stop for pilgrims trekking the northern Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), dates back over 600 years, when it was built on the site of two previous even older churches.
Today's cathedral – which shouldn't be confused with the much larger one of the same name located in Santiago de Compostela, at the end of the Camino de Santiago – has expanded over the course of time, growing to the cathedral that you see now. During a visit, you can peruse its many chapels, wander the peaceful 15th-century gothic-style cloister, or just take in the exterior with its 19th-century gothic-revival facade and spire.
Inaugurated in 1997, Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, which was designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, is hailed as one of the most important architectural works of its time. Within its undulating and reflecting walls, you’ll find a rotating artistic wonderland of both modern and contemporary art.
The conception of this iconic museum was born out of a grand mission to revitalize Spain’s fourth-largest city, considered one of the nation’s most critical ports. Traditionally an industrial metropolis, the creation of Bilbao’s cutting-edge museum generated -- in its first three years -- over four million tourist visits and enough economic activity and taxes to more than pay for its cost.
During a trip to the riverside museum, you can wander its over 100 exhibitions, all interconnected and arranged around the central light-filled atrium.
Get to know Bilbao beyond just its artsy image by taking a trip to the city's Casco Viejo. Dating back to Medieval times, this – the Old Quarter – and its original seven streets still retain an almost untouched charm, free of the touristy trappings you might find in other big cities.
This once walled-in neighborhood originally consisted of exactly seven streets and, for that reason, is sometimes still called Los Siete Calles (“seven streets” in Spanish). Each of these original avenues still exist, with names such as Tendería Kalea (Shoekeeper's Street) and Carnicería Vieja Kalea (Old Butchery Street). Since Medieval times, the barrio has expanded to include still more streets beyond those seven originals, and also squares like Plaza Berria and Plaze Nueva.
The Casco Viejo draws a crowd for more than just its historical appeal, too. Head to the old-world district to fulfill your culinary cravings by popping from one bar to the next for pintxos.
If your visit to Bilbao has gotten you into an artistic mood, then embrace that notion with a little theater at the city's Teatro Arriaga. The 19th-century Neo-baroque theater goes easy on the traveler's eyes with an elaborate facade that overlooks the east bank of the Nervión River, and a fancy interior of plush red chairs, golden balconies and ornate crown molding.
This may sound like theater-viewing perfection, but Teatro Arraiga's past hasn't been quite as flawless. Designed by Joaquín Rucoba, the theater was opened in 1890, and dedicated to Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, considered the Mozart of Spain. Flash forward to 1914, when a fire essentially demolished it, followed by other setbacks, such as its closing for a time during the Civil War. Then came threatening floods in 1983, which inundated the structure to the second floor, closing it once more.
Just a few blocks off Bilbao’s main Plaza Moyúa is one of the city’s most unique and surprising structures: the Alhóndiga Bilbao. The multi-purpose venue marries culture and leisure, the past and the present, and is a free-to-enter stop you should definitely add to your list of things to do during your visit.
Indeed, the Alhóndiga Bilbao didn’t start out as such an innovative concept, but instead as a wine warehouse. Inaugurated in 1909, it was designed by Ricardo Bastida, and, come the 1970s, had an uncertain future, with proposals to turn it into public housing, a museum of modern art, and even to simply demolish it. But the structure had a more promising future in store: the Basque Government decided to declare it a “Public Property of Cultural Interest,” and henceforth it has become the center that you find today.
Wandering Bilbao's streets, you'll inevitably end up crossing Plaza Moyúa. Also known as Plaza Elíptica, due to its oblong shape, this main “square” is more than just a central crossroads, but a garden- and fountain-filled roundabout worth checking out and even stopping in (especially given its central area accessible to pedestrians).
Originally designed back in 1873, Plaza Moyúa sits in one of Bilbao's most exclusive neighborhoods, where it bisects the bustling shopping street Gran Vía. The plaza itself is dotted by various noteworthy buildings, such as the 20th-century Flemish-style Palacio Chávarri, the headquarters of the Civil Government since 1943, and the Hotel Carlton, the city's most famous hotel, which stands alone on its own spoke-like corner of the square.
The plaza is also a convenient location to catch the city's Metro – the third-busiest in Spain -- which rises out of Moyúa with its glass-domed entrance.
Just south of the Guggenheim Museum resides Bilbao's White Bridge, yet another inventive structure in this city so known for pushing the artistic envelope. Also called Campo Volantin Bridge or Calatrava Bridge, the unmistakable Bilbao silhouette is more often referred to as Zubizuri Bridge, which means “white bridge” in Basque.
The Zubizuri Bridge was designed by Santiago Calatrava, who also claims the Bilbao airport as another of his works. The tied arch footbridge is made of an intriguing curved walkway suspended by steel cables. Since its opening in 1997, it has become a beloved part of the Bilbao skyline, for the most part anyway: its deck, which is made of translucent glass bricks, turns into a slippery hazard on the city's often rainy days. As such, for safety reasons the bridge walkway has now been covered in black mats (much to the dismay of the original artist).
You may think that the Guggenheim has satiated your appetite for art, but Bilbao has another museum up its sleeve: The Museo de Bellas Artes, or the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum.
Founded in 1908, the Fine Arts Museum that you see today didn't come into being until 1945, when it merged with the Modern Art Museum, moving to its current location in the corner of Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park. Home to more than 10,000 works, the museum is the perfect compliment to the Guggenheim: The Fine Arts Museum is intimate and traditional, focused primarily on local artists, while the Guggenheim is grand, abstract and largely features international pieces. Indeed, among the Museo de Bellas Arte's galleries, you will find a more conventional museum collection (compared to the Guggenheim), ranging from paintings to sculptures, engravings, drawings and more.
The shimmering panels of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum may capture visitors’ oohs, but it’s the giant Puppy that draws all the awes. Standing at 43 feet tall, the flower-covered topiary stands out as a colorful symbol of Spain’s fifth-largest city, and will undoubtedly capture both your heart and the attention of your camera lens.
This cuddly canine giant was created by Jeff Koons, the American artist who found fame during the 80s, particularly for his pieces that hover between pop and pure kitsch. The life of this flowery man’s best friend didn’t start in Spain, though, but rather in Germany, where it was originally commissioned for a castle. Not done with traveling, the West Highland White Terrier puppy relocated to Sydney Harbour’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and ultimately to the grounds of Bilbao’s museum, where it is now part of its permanent collection. Since then, its journey has continued, making a temporary appearance in New York’s Rockefeller Center.
More Things to Do in Bilbao
The Guggenheim isn’t the only waterside architectural wonder in Bilbao; just up the river sits another impressive construction, the Euskalduna Palace. The building, which was inaugurated in 1999, features mosaic-style windows, and massive exterior walls of rusty looking corten steel. The inspiration behind the look: to stand symbolically as the last vessel built in the dry dock of the former Euskalduna Shipyard, which played an important role in the city’s growth and history. The architecturally acclaimed Euskalduna Palace houses over 50,000 square meters of space, and boasts both the largest and second largest stages in Spain. The multipurpose venue serves as an opera house, concert hall and conference center, and therefore hosts a range of events from cultural to corporate. Temporary exhibitions are held here as well.
This chronological collection showcases the history of Bizkaia with archaeological artifacts ranging from pre-historic times to the modern world. The permanent collection contains the materials collected from several excavations in the area, including ancient tools, ceramics and pottery. The two floors display pieces of history from periods as diverse as the Iron Age, the Middle Ages, and even the Stone Age. Many of the items originated at the nearby excavation site at Santimamiñe cave, in Kortezubi.
The museum houses modern conservation and restoration facilities and doubles as a center for research and classification. Audio and video in the exhibits explains prehistory, early rituals, the history of Bilbao, and the processes of archaeology. Educational presentations work to connect the artifacts of the past and the historical and cultural heritage of this area with the awareness of modern society.
Basque Country is more than just home to idyllic fishing villages, mossy green mountainsides and some of the world's best cuisine: it also boasts a rich culture, unique language, and a proud history worth getting to know. Immerse yourself in this “country” within a country by making a trip to the Museo Vasco, located in the region's largest city, Bilbao.
The Museo Vasco, or Basque Museum, occupies what used to be a 16th century convent. Within its walls, you can peruse its comprehensive collection, which covers Basque ethnography and history, and delves into their history as shepherds and fishermen. Visit its galleries, browse photos, ceramics, textiles, and even the gigantic figurines that are typically used in parades (common in other parts of Spain as well). Get to know the lay of the land better too – literally – while studying a three-dimensional map that covers both the city and its surrounding region.
Set off the Gran Vía shopping district, and amidst a park of towering trees and manicured lawns, you'll stumble upon one of Bilbao's most worthy, albeit lesser known sights, San Vicente Martír de Abando Church.
The church, constructed back in the mid-1500s, sits sandwiched between other neighborhood buildings that line the Albia Gardens, a park-like square of tree-shadowed patches of flowers and plush lawns. From a bench, you can spy and admire the San Vicente Martír's rather modest Renaissance facade, which is decorated with a triple-slotted bell tower and a soaring arch entrance.
Unlike the exterior, the interior is really anything but basic, with many people even hailing it as more alluring than its more famous Bilbao counterpart, the Santiago Cathedral. Indeed, within its relatively humble outer walls, you'll find a sparkling baroque altar that glows under towering white-washed ceilings and stone-vaulted arches.
Once Bilbao’s only central green space, Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park, with its tree-lined paths, bubbling fountains and duck-filled pond, remains the city’s favorite outdoor destination.
This almost 100-year-old park was named after former Bilbao resident Casilda Iturrizar. Much to future Bilbaínos’ fortune, she had married a wealthy businessman and, after his death, dedicated her life to charity. Without any heirs, when she finally passed she decided to leave the Bilbao space to the public. Eventually, it was turned into a park with French- and Romantic-style gardens in 1907, and has been a central getaway for locals ever since. Nowadays, Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park (or, as it is affectionately called by the locals, Duck’s Park, due to the pond) is a bit smaller than it used to be, with the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum occupying one of its corners since the 1940s.
In the middle of Bilbao’s modern downtown stands this large Neo-Gothic monument, fortified with brick and stone and topped with a five-foot-tall bronze statue of Jesus. It was built as the new home of the Jesuits, who constructed the residence along with a church in the early 19th century. The structure was designed by architect José María Basterra in his own modernist style. The two original pinnacle towers of the church were dismantled in the 20th century, but this monument’s facade was restored.
The bright colors and intricate decoration of the interior were unique to the architectural style at the time it was built. With a combination of traditional elements such as stained glass and a main altar dedicated to the Sacred Heart, and a distinct modernist style, the monument stands as a decorative representation of Bilbao’s past and present.
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