I remember the first time I heard about Bilbao. It was 2010, and a friend of mine was planning to do her study abroad there. It wasn’t a “sexy” place to go…why go to Bilbao when you could go to Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, or even Pamplona? At least, that’s what crossed my mind back then.
I don’t think many people have strong urges to visit Bilbao, to be honest. Oftentimes, people haven’t heard of it. If they have, they only know it as the city with one of the Guggenheim museums.
I get it. Of all the cities I visited in Spain, Bilbao wasn’t one of my favorites or anything. However, I argue that it’s still worth visiting, especially if you’re already planning on spending time in any of the other cities in Northeastern Spain (San Sebastian, anyone?). Bilbao is an architectural beauty and is home to every type of building, from old Gothic cathedrals to ultra modern pieces of art.
Frankly, I only spent a weekend in Bilbao, and while I skimmed the surface, I have a feeling that there’s much more to this Basque city than I was able to discover. Either way, if you only have a weekend to spare like I did, this is a budget guide to Bilbao.
The Must Do’s:
Meander through Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo, Bilbao’s old town, is quite small, but that only adds to its quirky charm. Its colored buildings, small balconies, and adorable shops make it a great place for people watching. It is also where you can find Plaza Nueva, a giant square that serves as a perfect stop for some pintxos and people watching. Since Bilbao is a stop on the famous Camino de Santiago route, you’re bound to run into hikers and backpackers. If you like old architecture, the Gothic Santiago Cathedral is an excellent church to explore. Casco Viejo is quite the lively quarter on weekends, with people drinking, eating, and shopping all throughout town.
Spend the day at the Guggenheim
The majority of people that visit Bilbao do so for the Guggenheim, the famous modern and contemporary art museum. Although I was tired of museums by the time I’d made it to Bilbao, people seem to love the Guggenheim, so you should definitely go if you get the chance. The outside of the museum is a work of art in and of itself. The architecture is stunning, and despite its obscure shape, it doesn’t feel out of place amongst the other architectural works of art in Bilbao. Don’t forget to walk all around the outside of the museum – you’ll run into the giant creepy spider in the front and the famous puppy made of flowers in the back, plus it’s free, which is a bonus on any budget guide to Bilbao.
Ride the Funicular de Artxanda
The funicular is more or less a glorified cable car, but for one euro, you’re rewarded with a five-minute ride and stunning views of the city. Not only do you get to enjoy the views on your way up, but the scene at the top of Mount Artxanda is far from shabby. The whole experience feels like you’re escaping the city a bit, even though you’re just a quick ride up the mountain. If you’re lucky enough to catch some good weather, this is an excellent place to have a scenic park picnic. I got caught in a downpour, so I ended up walking with my umbrella and singin’ in the rain instead. If you’re looking for a good workout, you can even walk up or down the mountain rather than take the funicular, but I was too lazy for that (I blame the weather).
Cross the Zubizuri
In case the photos don’t make it super clear, Bilbao is an architecture lover’s dream. If the buildings don’t astonish you, then the bridges definitely will – especially the famous Zubizuri (great name, right?). Zubizuri translates to “white bridge” in Basque, and is a footbridge that crosses the Nervion River. It offers spectacular photo opportunities for the museum and the river, and is the easiest way to get to the Guggenheim. This picture perfect spot is a must on the budget guide to Bilbao.
Stroll down Gran Via
No matter which city you visit in Spain, the sign for Gran Via can only mean one thing – shopping! While I’m not much of a shopper, window-shopping and people watching are always a good time, and, as I said, being free is a plus on any budget guide to Bilbao. You’ll run into tons of cute plazas, cafes, and stores on Gran Via in Bilbao. Veer slightly off the main road and you’ll find parks, churches, and small independent shops. Bilbao is a very easy city to “get lost in” and stumble upon some hidden gems.
Other cool things:
Take an hour-long Bilboat boat tour along the River Nervion.
Visit the Alhondiga for a lazy cultural afternoon indoors.
Go to the Museum of Fine Arts for paintings and sculptures by famous Spanish artists.
What to Eat:
If there’s one recommendation I have about Bilbao, it would be to visit it before you go to San Sebastian. Otherwise, the food will feel underwhelming. In Bilbao, people eat pintxos for dinner at around 9pm or so. Unlike San Sebastian, most of your food options will be out on the counter, and you’ll pay at the end of your meal based on the number of skewer sticks you have. For a full etiquette guide on ordering pintxos, check out this post. The rules are pretty similar in San Sebastian and Bilbao. On that note, here are a couple of recommendations:
Mercado de La Ribera:
Food markets are quickly becoming popular in Europe, and you can find at least one in most major cities. Mercado de La Ribera is part gastronomic marketplace and part upscale food court. It’s a must on a budget guide to Bilbao, as no matter how picky you are, you’re guaranteed to find something good to eat here.
Irrintzi was swarmed with both locals and tourists alike when we went, so it’s clearly quite popular. They offer some unique pintxos such as monkfish with gazpacho, beef with spinach mousse, and garlic with watermelon jelly and shrimp. Definitely a change from the usual bread with meat version found at your average pintxo bar. It’s a great place to start your pintxo bar-hopping for the night, as there are plenty of food options nearby.
Where to Stay:
Barceló Bilbao Nervión (affiliate link): I have to be honest; this was an upgrade from the budget hotels I stayed at during the rest of my time in Spain, so may be a bit of a surprise to find on a budget guide to Bilbao. However, I was splitting the cost with a friend, and the accommodation was stellar. It was clean and sleek, with excellent customer service, and we were able to walk everywhere easily. That being said, there are lots of good options for half the price if you’re looking to save some money.
Other things to note:
- Bilbao is easily accessible from most major cities in Spain. You can fly here (airport code BIO) or take the bus or train.
- The weather is much cooler here than the rest of Spain, and it rains a lot, so be prepared. It’s great to visit during the summer!
- Walk! Bilbao really isn’t that big, and the different areas are better explored on foot.
- Everyone speaks Spanish here, but Basque is also a primary language. Luckily, they’re much better about having menus in multiple languages than other cities (especially compared to San Sebastian)!
Despite the fact that Bilbao is often overlooked, it’s a great city to spend a weekend (or more) visiting. Not only is the architecture inspiring, but its offbeat quirkiness offers a completely different vibe than the rest of Spain. It’s also much more budget friendly than most of Spain’s largest cities – who doesn’t like that?
Have you ever been to Bilbao? Did I miss any of your favorite places in this budget guide to Bilbao? Share in the comments below!