Bilbao is a very underrated city, located in Basque Country in Spain. Though it gained some traction when the Guggenheim museum opened in 1997, it is still nowhere near as popular as it’s Basque brother San Sebastian or the very touristy Barcelona. The Guggenheim museum itself should be enough of a reason to visit Bilbao, but the city itself is also the perfect example of how excellent urban planning can create a very interesting tourist destination. We visited Bilbao during the high season of 2021 and were surprised of how easy going it was. I would even dare to say that Bilbao is your must visit summer destination of 2022 and in this blog I will tell you all about it!
Bilbao has about 350,000 inhabitants, making it comparable to the Dutch city Utrecht. The advantage of medium-sized cities is that the city center is not that large, so you can do your sightseeing by foot. Yet, it is big enough to have some interesting sights. Bilbao is not overrun by tourists yet. We visited during the summer COVID season and we did not see masses of people in the streets, but we did find that there were just enough people to create a lively atmosphere. Popular restaurants filled up quickly for lunch, but it was not impossible to find a seat and you did not need reservations. I love how that adds flexibility and spontaneity to your day, compared to popular destinations where you need restaurant reservations if you want to have a good meal.
One of the most important reasons you should visit Bilbao is the amazing Guggenheim museum. I love everything by the modern architect Frank Gehry and the Guggenheim is one of his best creations. Even if you do not visit the Guggenheim inside, you can still enjoy the building and the many art pieces that are free on display outside the museum. Another architectural highlight is the Zubuzuri footbridge by the architect Calatrava. The many bridges in Bilbao are a sight itself, some feature beautiful street art. Within walking distance of these highlights you will find the historical city center, that is full of colorful houses, art nouveau buildings and affordable tapas bars.
No trip to Bilbao is complete without a visit to the Guggenheim museum. The opening of the Guggenheim museum in 1997 was one of the accelerators of tourism for Bilbao. The building itself is worth a visit alone, but there were many interesting exhibitions as well. I found the information on the internet on visiting with kids a bit confusing, but we ended up finding our visit very kid friendly. There are elevators throughout the building and you are allowed to visit with a stroller. Hugo actually found the colorful art very interesting and ended up enjoying the visit as well. On the website of the Guggenheim you can buy a ticket and book a timeslot. A regular ticket costs € 13. When we visited in August it was not crowded at all. Outside, the spider statue and Jeff Koons’ Puppy are very beautiful, though boastful art pieces.When it comes to museums, architecture and art, I think pictures tell a better story than words, so enjoy my pics below!
The historical part of the city center is located within 10 minutes of the Guggenheim. What makes this part of the city very atmospheric is the river Nervion that flows right through it and all the charming bridges that cover it. The area surrounding the food market (Erribera merkatua) is one of the most colorful of Bilbao. We visited in the weekend and the market part was closed, but we really enjoyed the restaurant stalls with lots of choice of pinxtos (little tapas dishes). In this part you will find many art nouveau buildings, with the old train station and the food market good examples of this style. The shopping streets are very cute alleyways as well, most of the buildings feature wooden covered balconies, which I found very quintessentially Bilbao.
This might not be a highlight to all of you, but I loved the colorful windows of the Hesperia Hotel. Such a fun idea to decorate a hotel, so I had to snap a few pics. You will find the Hesperia Hotel close to the Guggenheim, at the other side of the river (a good reason to cross the Calatrava bridge).
Basque Country is known for its delicious food, with pinxtos being the typical dish. Pinxtos are little tapas dishes, which are usually displayed on a bar, so you can see what the food looks like before you order. Because the dishes are so little, you can try many different dishes, which I personally love. Cafe Iruna is one of the oldest restaurants in Bilbao and was recommended to us. Even though it is a very big restaurant, it was very charming as it was decorated with colorful tiles. They only have a few dishes, but these were delicious and priced reasonably. One of Hielke’s colleagues has lived in Bilbao and happened to be in Bilbao when we visited. He took us to Plaza Nueva, which is a super lovely square with little restaurants. It kind of reminded me of Plaza Reial in Barcelona and I would definitely recommend visiting this square for lunch or dinner. Because of its popularity it might be a little more difficult to find a good spot.
When you venture away from the city center, you will find many interesting sights as well. Hielke’s colleague took us to the football stadium (nice spot for lunch as well) and a more modern area with the cultural center of Bilbao (Azkuna Zentroa).
Camping in Bilbao
Our visit to Bilbao was part of our South-European road trip. We actually found it very difficult to find a good campsite near Bilbao. We ended up parking at “Area de autocaravanas de Zamudio”, which was a free campsite without facilities in the village Zamudio. From Zamudio you could take a train into Bilbao’s city center, which took about 20 minutes and only cost a few euros. There was plenty of space in this parking and we experienced no issues.