This post may contain affiliate links, and I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
Our recent trip through the Basque Country started off with five days in the city of Bilbao. Admittedly, I knew very little about this port city before our trip, and wasn’t sure how we’d fill our time outside of visiting the famous Guggenheim Museum.
With outstanding architecture & art, mouthwatering pintxos, and a plethora of easy day trips at our disposal, five days hardly felt like enough to even scratch the surface of this dynamic city. By the end of our stay, I found myself wishing for more time (and more croquettes).
Getting to and around Bilbao couldn’t be easier. The Bilbao Airport is only about 15 minutes from the city center, and there’s an airport bus that frequently runs to and from the city.
Bilbao is super walkable and I highly recommend strolling from one neighborhood to the next, taking in all the striking architecture and scenery that the city has to offer. If your legs get tired, no worries; the city is also very well connected by an efficient tram, subway and bus system that runs throughout Bilbao and the surrounding areas.
Bilbao Bizkaia Card- One of your first activities upon arriving in Bilbao should be to purchase one of these cards! It grants you unlimited use of most public transportation, guided visits, fast passes to several museums, and an array of discounts. We used it constantly, including for funicular rides, airport transport, and day trips.
Bilbao has a number of different neighborhoods, each with its own unique character. Regardless of where you choose to stay, definitely spend time walking through the neighboring areas. All of the central areas have a variety of hotels and rentals to choose from, that cover various budgets. With so many options, you’re bound to find the perfect fit for your needs.
Casco Viejo (the Old Town)- We stayed here and couldn’t recommend it enough. This is the medieval old quarter, which is made up of absolutely stunning architecture, and places you in the middle of all the action. I loved waking up for my morning coffee to wander the charming cobblestone streets before they filled up for the day.
Ensanche (Indautxu-Abando)- Another very central choice, this is where you’ll find top tourist sites like the Guggenheim and Fine Arts Museum, as well as tons of shops and restaurants. Even if you don’t choose to stay here, you’ll certainly find yourself passing through this pristine area.
Bilbao (and the Basque Country in general) may be our most food-motivated trip to date. Pintxos, the Basque version of tapas, are literally everywhere, and bar hopping from one pintxo bar to the next is how we often filled our time (and bellies). More often than not, we paired our delectable morsels with a glass of txakoli- a young, dry white wine produced in the Basque Country.
Café Bar Bilbao- You’ll probably find this one on any list of recommendations in Bilbao, but for good reason. If I had to choose, this would be our favorite bar in Casco Viejo. It was originally opened in 1911, and restored in 1992. Inside, you’ll find a mix of regulars and tourists enjoying mouthwatering pintxos in a timeless setting.
Baster-Another great pintxo spot in the heart of Casco Viejo, with tables lining the exterior, perfect for people watching while sipping on a glass of txakoli.
Los Fueros- Possibly the only non-pintxo dinner we had our whole time in Bilbao! Another popular choice, we apparently got lucky by walking in, but reservations are highly recommended. Most of the tables around us had ordered the fixed menu, which looked pretty amazing.
Inakiren Taberna- We have a soft spot in our hearts for wine-filled, two hour lunches at hole in the wall restaurants. From our jubilant waiter to some incredible people watching, and of course, outstanding food- the menu del dia at this unassuming tavern checked all our boxes for a perfect meal.
Café Iruna- Come here for pintxos or sit down for raciones, either way the food will be delicious. The décor is just as impressive as the cuisine, even if you’re not very hungry- stop in for a pintxo just to marvel at the interior design.
Singular– We stopped here for lunch after the Guggenheim, and had possibly the best tortilla of the trip! I also recommend ordering the anchovies.
Explore Casco Viejo- Meandering through the narrow streets of this medieval quarter is simply enchanting. From lively squares, to museums, shops, bars and restaurants, there’s no shortage of ways to spend your days (or nights) in Casco Viejo.
Visit the Guggenheim– Of course, a trip to Bilbao isn’t complete without a visit to the Guggenheim (use your Bizkaia card to skip to the front of the line). Be sure to spend time outside the museum as well, as the building is a work of art in itself, as are the sculptures that surround it. The Puppy, which I learned is the world’s largest flower sculpture, was my personal favorite.
The Museum of Fine Arts & Casilda Iturrizar Park– The Guggenheim is far from the only notable museum in Bilbao. Thanks to a very rainy first day, we ended up with an unplanned visit to the Museum of Fine Arts and absolutely loved it. The museum is also next to Casilda Iturrizar Parkea, a beautiful, 21- acre park, making for a perfect afternoon combo.
Walk along the riverfront- Easily combined with your Guggenheim visit, walking along the river is another wonderful way to pass the time in Bilbao, while taking in its impressive architecture.
Take the Funicular de Artxanda- For the best views of the city (and a bit of the sea), this is the way to go. There’s a large park at the top that you can explore, as well as a restaurant. The views at sunset were especially magical!
Go to a festival– We were lucky enough to be in Bilbao during Semana Grande (Aste Nagusia in Basque), an incredible, week long festival filled with art, music, culture (and lots of partying). Bilbao has a number of festivals throughout the year, and if your trip lines up, I highly recommend taking part. The energy and enthusiasm of the locals can be felt throughout the city.
Not only does Bilbao offer plenty to do within the city, it’s also a convenient base for several day trips. Even without a car, the train and bus system give you easy access to tons of nearby towns, beaches and landscapes to explore.
Getxo– Only a 20 minute subway ride from Casco Viejo, this charming seaside town has a variety of neighborhoods to explore, all of which feel like a world away from the city. We took the train to Algorta, where we wandered through its Old Port and incredibly charming fishing village. If you go, I highly recommend stopping for a pintxo and txakoli at Txomin Taberna.
Afterwards, we took the train a few stops south to Las Arenas and visited Portugalete via the Bizkaia Bridge- the first transporter bridge in the world. Portugalete has a stunning medieval old quarter that is lovely to explore.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe – In full transparency, we drove here after we had left Bilbao. However, you can take the bus (as we saw many other visitors had done), which is about an hour from Bilbao. The island, connected by a man-made stone bridge and 241 steps, is breathtaking and should not be missed during your Basque Country trip. It’s free to visit, but reserving tickets is required during the high season.
From impeccable food to wonderfully friendly people, I couldn’t imagine a better introduction to The Basque Country. While it’s easy to pop in for a quick weekend stay before venturing off to the next stop of your trip, I highly recommend taking your time in Bilbao. Meander through the various neighborhoods, sit at a local haunt with a txakoli in hand as you people watch, and enjoy the daily guessing game of what was in that delicious pintxo you just ate.
Thank you to the Bilbao Tourism Board for providing us with a Bilbao Bizkaia Card during our stay. As always, all opinions are my own.