In 2018, Spain was the second most visited country in the world, raking in an impressive 82.2 million tourists. Of those 82.2 million, only 3.8 million visited the Basque Country to the north of Spain and let me tell you – those who skipped it were missing out! The city of Bilbao has been listed as one of the best places to live in all of Europe, one of the most livable cities in Spain, and an up-and-coming hotspot for digital nomads worldwide. It is also a national culinary capitol, a fine arts mecca, and home to a plethora of beautiful beaches. If you are one of the many travelers putting Bilbao on your bucket list for the coming year, consider this your one-stop travel guide for all things Bilbao!
I moved to this artistic city in the summer of 2017 and made it my home for a year and three months, which means I am more than familiar with the best places to chow down, the most popular party zones, and the absolute most important, must-do activities for every tourist. I developed this guide with more than fifteen months of experience living in the heart of Basque Country and have outlined everything you need to know to plan your stay in Bilbao.
Although it is not the capitol, Bilbao resides square in the middle of Basque Country. The official language is Spanish and the majority of people in Bilbao speak Spanish regularly. However, you will notice the presence of the Basque language (Euskerra) nearly everywhere. Most signs will have both Spanish and Basque translations and a great many bars will provide menus only in Basque. Be forewarned that the farther you travel outside of the city center, the more likely you are to encounter the Basque language.
Basque people are extremely proud of their culture and heritage, so much so that the region has been petitioning independence for several years. As you walk around Bilbao, you are likely to notice graffiti all over the city that declares “This is not Spain!” Despite this distaste for the mother country and the occasional protest, Bilbao is a safe area for tourists. In the year that I spent living in central Bilbao, I walked home alone at all hours of the night and never once felt uncomfortable. You will notice both men and women out running until 1 or 2 am. Concerts and city fiestas are well staffed with security and police.
Tipping is not required in Bilbao nor will it likely be warmly welcomed. When ordering food or drinks at a bar, err on the side of demanding your order rather than meekly asking. Waiting quietly for your turn will probably get you ignored by the bar tender. This was uncomfortable for me to learn at first, but I noticed that the servers were friendlier with me when I was direct rather than pandering. Obviously, there’s never any reason to be rude – just make sure you are loud and firm.
Bilbao is not a place where you should assume that people will speak English. While hotel staff and hotel waiters will have some fluency in English, bar tenders and restaurant staff probably will not, so it’s a good idea to brush up on whatever you remember of your high school Spanish studies! Though tourism in Bilbao has grown substantially in the last decade, it is not (and probably will never be) at the tourism capacity of Barcelona or Madrid, which means the average bar or restaurant doesn’t necessarily cater to tourists.
Food and Drink
One amenity you will never find yourself short of in Bilbao is bars. There are more bars on a block in Bilbao than I have seen anywhere in my two years of travel. Every cafe is a bar and every bar is a cafe. It’s perfectly normal to go to a bar for breakfast for your morning coffee and pastry. If you end up in a bar you don’t like, just walk a few meters and you’ll find another.
The traditional drink of Bilbao is called kalimoxto (kalimocho) which is a combination of red wine and Coca Cola. You can order kalimoxto at any bar and they will have it on tap at festivals. You will see many young people bring their own wine and Coke to festivals and pour their own kalimoxto all night long. It’s a cheap way to go out for the night!
People from home were always asking me how the tapas were in Spain, and I never had an answer for them because in Basque Country, we eat pintxos! (pronounced pinchos) Similar to tapas, pintxos could be loosely defined as a small portion of food served on a piece of bread and usually with a toothpick through the middle. The most popular pintxos consist of Iberic ham and a cheese served on bread. Other pinxtos you can try are seafood salad, croquettas, salmon, sausage and pepper, anchovies, and many more all served over bread.
The Spanish tortilla is extremely popular in Bilbao and makes for an excellent breakfast. A cross between an omelette and a quiche, a tortilla is usually loaded with potatoes, onions, ham, and cheese (though you can order them with just potatoes and onions) and will be served in a slice like a pie. Tortillas can be served over bread or with bread alongside.
A tortilla and cafe con leche at my neighborhood bar in Campo Volantín
Pintxos are food for bar hopping, and it took me a while to understand the culture of pintxo eating. I was always used to going to a bar or restaurant and ordering dinner before starting my evening of drinking. But pintxos are finger food, small-bite type of cuisine. A typical evening out consists of stopping at many different bars (often all in the same plaza) and ordering a drink and a pintxo from each.
Bars in Bilbao operate on the honor system. You can either pay as your order, or close out your tab before moving to the next bar. If you choose the latter option, remember what you have ordered as you will probably have to remind the bar tender.
Best Places for Pinxtos and Drinks:
Jardines de Albia: The Gardens of Albia are located in the Abando district of Bilbao, an upscale neighborhood known for its high street shops, the Gran Via, and the Guggenheim museum. You can marvel at the beautiful architecture and the fountains while sitting on the outside terraces at the Jardines Bar or Cafe Iruña, one of the oldest and most famous bars in the city.
Calle Ledesma: Also located in Abando and right off the Gran Vía, Calle Ledesma is an entire two blocks of nothing but bars on either side. On the weekends, go early if you want to find an outdoor seating option, but it’s a great place to be if you love a high energy zone.
Casco Viejo: The old city of Bilbao is always a popular spot for tourists to go in search of food and drink and offers picturesque views of the historic cobblestone neighborhood. My favorite spot in Casco Viejo is Plaza Nueva – a gorgeous square plaza lined on all sides with traditional Basque bars with a wide pinxto selection and generous outdoor seating. In the summertime, you might catch a concert taking place here as well. Make sure your Google maps are downloaded before heading into Casco Viejo. It’s quite easy to get lost!
Calle Pozas: A long, wide avenue in the San Mames neighborhood, Calle Pozas is a great place to go before or after visiting the San Mames stadium for a soccer match. Calle Pozas is a nice opportunity to see a less touristy side of the city while trying tasty pinxtos.
Bilbao is one of the ten smallest cities in the world to have a subway system, which means that it is extremely easy to get around. I never owned a car there and never felt the need for one. Bilbao is a very walkable city. To be honest, to walk across all of central Bilbao would probably talk about an hour and a half! But if you don’t fancy walking, pick up a Barik card in any metro station (you have to go to the attendant at the window to get one), put about 10 euro on it, and you’re good to go. You can also use your Barik card to travel on the red city buses (not the tour buses) which is cheaper and you get to see more of the city. If you plan to travel by bus, make sure to download the Bilbobus App on your phone. Do NOT use Google Maps! It does not have the red city buses on its public transport options.
You could rent a car for your trip to Bilbao, but I honestly wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a city best seen on foot, with beautiful bridges, luscious parks, and a river that runs right through the middle of town. Your hotel or hostel is sure to have a city map which should be all you need for navigating all the sights of the city.
With rainy winters and warm summers, Bilbao boasts a rather mild climate year-round. Summer is my absolute favorite time in Bilbao and is also the season with the most heavy tourist traffic. Autumns are beautiful – cool to cold weather with a few drizzly days a week and spring is quite similar. It’s never a bad idea to bring an umbrella along in Bilbao, famous for its misty, rainy weather.
Art and Museums
Transitioning out of its heavily industrial past, Bilbao has transformed itself into a modern art scene in the last century. The construction of the illustrious Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in 1939 was a huge win for the city’s push towards its status as a cultural hotspot and greatly increased tourist traffic for decades to come. These days, Bilbao houses several well-known art museums. You will not have to look far to find a world renown exhibit on display.
The Guggenheim is the most popular destination for tourists. While I highly recommend snapping some Instaworthy shots of the magnificent, sculpted exterior, I would only suggest buying an entry ticket if you are a big fan of modern art. Viewing the exhibits will probably only take half a day (at most) and the pintxos at the Guggenheim Cafe are very overpriced. My favorite way to see the Guggenheim was attending “Guggenheim After Dark” which was an evening event with a DJ or a live band inside the museum, complete with full-service bars. After Dark takes place at least once a month (usually towards the beginning). Tickets are around $30 and several exhibits are available for viewing during the event!
I highly recommend visiting the lesser known Museo de Bellas Artes (The Museum of Beautiful Art) during your stay in Bilbao. The collection is larger, the artwork is older, and the museum itself is located in on of the most beautiful parks in the city. The entry fee is also much cheaper than the Guggenheim. We spent an entire afternoon wandering the collections and didn’t even scratch the surface of what was available to see.
Activities in Bilbao
Casco Viejo is the oldest part of the city, and definitely worth a few hours of your time. With several historic cathedrals, cobblestone streets, and beautiful plazas, Casco Viejo is a lovely place for exploring and snapping photos. There are many affordable Airbnb options for staying within Casco Viejo as well. Free Walking Tours has an excellent 2 hour tour of Casco Viejo that I highly recommend.
The Lookout at Arxtanda (pronounced Archanda) is a lesser known but very essential activity for your stay in Bilbao. From Plaza Funicular, take the cable car straight up the mountains surrounding the city. The journey itself is a fun way to see the city spread out beneath you as you summit to the little neighborhood of Arxtanda. The views at the top of the mirador are spectacular. You can see all of Casco Viejo, Plaza Arenal, the Guggenheim Museum, and the river. Cable car tickets are roughly two Euro one way per person. There are several cute Basque restaurants and cafes near the cable car station if you’re feeling hungry!
If you’re any kind of Game of Thrones fan, you’ll want to hike San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (pronounced Gasta-lu-gah-chay). Take a half hour bus to Bakio and let the bus driver know you are going to Gaztelugatxe and they will direct you accordingly. Once you arrive at the trailhead, the hike is only about thirty minutes but provides incredible views of the coastline and a picturesque cathedral at the end of a rocky peninsula. The stone stairway and hill were the filming location for Dragonstone in Season 7 of Game of Thrones. You’ll find the cathedral of San Juan in place of the CGI castle of Dragonstone, but it’s impressive nonetheless! Ring the cathedral bell three times for good luck and enjoy the bracing breezes from the ocean. On your way back to the bus stop, grab some pintxos at the restaurant. They are some of the best I’ve had in Bilbao!
Take the river walk from the Euskalduna Bridge all the way to Plaza Arenal
Hop on the Metro and visit one of the many beautiful beaches! My favorite and the easiest to access is at the Bidezabal stop.
Hop on the Metro and visit Portugalete – a beautiful port town with a gorgeous old city center. Lots to explore!
Take a bus from Bilbao to San Sebastian for a day of gastro tours and great architecture shots! San Sebastian is just an hour and a half from Bilbao and is famous for its beauty and great food.
Have an ice cream at the duck park just behind the Iberdrola Tower. There are gorgeous open lawns, picturesque gazebos, fountains, public art pieces, a duck pond, and ping pong tables!
Visit El Corte Ingles – a seven story mammoth of a department store. There is a cafe and a restaurant on the seventh floor and a grocery store on the sixth floor where you are most likely to find American staples.
Take a BilBoats tour down the central river from Plaza Arenal all the way to Portugalete! There are evening party boat tours available complete with dance music and drinks.
Shoot pool and enjoy a beer at Eastlife Bar.
Visit the maritime museum to learn all about Bilbao’s industrial past.
Take the elevator to the penthouse bar of Bilbao’s only skyscraper, the Iberdrola Tower, for the best aerial views of the city! Cover charge is 7€.
As I mentioned, summer is a magical season in Bilbao – not just for it’s temperate weather, sidewalk ice cream stalls, or the general energy of a city excited to enjoy the sun. Every summer on the third week of August, the whole of Bilbao becomes a wild summer festival called Semana Grande (Big Week). For ten incredible days and nights, the streets are aglow with makeshift street bars, stages and concerts of all sizes, and thousands and thousands of people!
Fireworks start promptly every evening at 10:30 pm and are best seen from Plaza Arenal or Zubizuri Bridge. There is a carnival high on the hill top of Parque Extebarria, complete with rollercoasters, bumper cars, and carnival games. Semana Grande is a huge tourist draw for the city, but honestly it’s worth the hype – especially if you love drinks and dancing. The city-wide party usually shuts down around 7 am and starts back up again at 6 pm the next day. Don’t miss the great food, great music, and wild times you’re sure to have during Semana Grande!
Another big summer event is the BBK Live Music Festival. Usually taking place in June or July, BBK Live draws a lot of big names in reggaetón, Spanish reggae, and Spanish rock music. It’s a three day weekend event in the mountains and is so loud that you can hear the crowds from down in the city! While I haven’t attended this event, I always meant to and might even go back to Bilbao this coming summer to catch the show!
Winter is undeniably a much quieter season in Bilbao, but Christmastime is a beautiful time to visit this charming city. The Fiesta of San Tomás takes place on December 21st and is a great time to drink kalimoxto and view the Christmas lights. There is an artisan craft fair in Plaza Arenal, a pop-up art gallery, street vendors and performers, an ice skating rink, and kiddie rides for families. Because winters are also quite mild, the weather isn’t a huge factor in enjoying the Christmas festivities.
Where to Eat
Casa Rufo $$
Cafetería Swansea $ (voted best tortilla in Bilbao)
Oceanico Sushi Bar $$$
Ura Sushi $$
Udon $$ (my personal favorite for ramen) pictured
Santos Taquería $$ pictured
Totopo $ (my personal favorite)
Old Shanghai $$ (the lunch special is amazing here!)
Punjabi $ (my personal favorite)
Restaurante India Town $
Ribs $$ (great fajitas here)
You will also find kebab places all over town and they are your best bet for anything open 24 hours. If you love food delivery as much as I do, download the JustEat, Deliveroo, and Glovo apps for access to many of these options delivered right to your door!
Where to Stay
Alkelarre Hostel Bilbao $
Located a bit outside of the center, but with cozy facilities and a quiet neighborhood, Alkelarre is a great option for budget travelers. They are close to two metro stations and several bus stops. I stayed here directly after moving to Bilbao while apartment hunting and found it very accommodating.
Bilbao Metropolitan Hostel $
This hostel is in a sector of Abando called Zabalburu and has a large immigrant population. It not one of the fancier neighborhoods in Bilbao, but you will be surrounded by cheap, delicious, and authentic food options and get a real feel for the city. Metropolitan Hostel was remodeled in February of 2019 and has an updated common room which is a great work space for digital nomads. Overall the hostel has a light, airy, and clean feel which is always a plus!
Barceló Bilbao Nervión $$
I am always a big fan of Barceló Hotels and have been a guest at several across Spain. The customer service is always fantastic and the rooms are beautiful. Barceló Nervión has an excellent location in Campo Volantín which is within walking distance of all the major attractions without any of the noise and rowdiness. I lived in this neighborhood for over a year and absolutely loved the location. It is perfect for sight seeing, partying, and relaxing.
Hotel Carlton $$$
You don’t get more central or historic than this! Located in Bilbao’s central Plaza Moyua, Hotel Carlton used to be a state government building for the Basque Country. It has a very stately and majestic exterior and extremely plush rooms and suites. Around the corner from Hotel Carlton is the Gran Vía of Bilbao which is the biggest high end shopping district in the city.
There you have it – a complete travel guide to Bilbao! For more travel content, don’t forget to subscribe to International Nat and follow me on Insta!