I lived, worked, and studied in Bilbao for an entire semester, and I can say that I have definitely explored this city and its neighbouring towns many times over. Lacking internet in my apartment and money in my pocket, my favourite activity of studying abroad was wandering the streets of this lesser-known but deserving-of-a-visit city in Pais Vasco. Here we go!
(I can’t give any recommendations of places to stay since I had an apartment here, but I do know there are a few close to the university I studied at [La Universidad Deusto], which also happens to be right across from Bilbao’s most famous landmark, the Guggenheim.)
If You’re Looking For..
Embarrassingly enough, I never actually went into the attraction that put my beloved city on the map, the Guggenheim Museum, but it’s more of an art piece on the outside than on the inside, I’ve heard. The restaurant, though, is a Michelin five-star and if you do want to go, it’s not very expensive. The closest metro stop to get to it is Moyua or Deusto. The Fine Arts Museum is another cool place to see, also at Moyua.
If you’re into football (soccer), Bilbao has a team in the Spanish league and they play at San Mames Stadium which is located, of course, at metro stop San Mames. If conveniently timed, you could see Bilbao take on heavyweights like FC Barcelona or Real Madrid for less than you would in their home stadiums.
Bilbao’s Old Town, or Casco Viejo, is located on the eponymous Casco Viejo metro stop. You can find just about everything here— charming cafes, souvenirs, clothing stores, restaurants, and great sites. It always reminded me of the narrow streets of Venice. There’s also a KFC here….and many of the best cafes and bars can be found in the centre of the maze-like streets. The square is called Plaza Nueva.
The Funicular of Artxanda is a hidden gem that costs only 90 cents ride up the steep hillside, where you can enjoy 360 views of the city of Bilbao, as well as a quaint park. It’s slightly hidden, but coming from Metro stop Deusto or Moyua and taking the University street up Mugica y Butron will eventually lead you to the square where you can take the ride.
Bilbao’s bridges are really beautiful to see along the main river, especially the zubizuri (white bridge in Basque). Each bridge is unique!
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a seaside ruin not exactly in Bilbao, but relatively close. You can take a bus or the Euskotren to the city of Bermeo, but after that, you’ll have to hike a little bit to reach the actual sight. Worth the trip!
(This photo above was taken by my good friend and fellow traveler Ryan Brockhoff, who runs a travel collective called Istumbl with his friends. He also has his own blog, which you can find here. Thanks Ryan!)
Portugalete, a town of its own but still connected to Bilbao, is charming and cute to wander around, and has a cool bridge called Vizcaya that goes from one side of the river to another for 25 cents. It’s an odd structure, as it takes a bunch of people on a cable-car-like ride across the river, instead of having them walk.
Like San Sebastian, Bilbao’s specialties revolve around the Basque taste for pintxos (the colder Basque version of tapas, featuring many different delicious combinations including egg, bread, cheese, ham, olives, anchovies, peppers, or bacon), tortilla de patata (omelette cooked with potatos and olive oil and served in pie-shaped slices) and kalimotxo (an odd but excellent combo of equal parts cheap red wine and Coca-Cola). There are several Michelin star restaurants, including the one at the Guggenheim.
Bilbao’s huge student population combined with the Spanish love of bars and nightlife mean that you can find the food you want to eat anywhere! The Zubiarte Mall has all your fast food favourites plus an Italian restaurant and a Chinese buffet. For a more Basque feel, my favourite bar was Covent Garden, huge with the students and well-known for its Thursday night 2 for 1 drinks. It’s sometimes a bit crowded inside, so just sit outside on the ground and drink… that’s what everyone else is doing anyways! Bar Poza 42 and Bar Kikuyu are both ones I’ve been to, the latter with a cool Rastafarian vibe and both located near Indautxu metro stop. However, if you’re in that metro area or the Casco Viejo area, you can easily find a bar, and almost all of them serve pintxos. A pintxo crawl is a fun activity where–you guessed it–you bar-hop to try different pintxos.
Is there any nightlife better than Spain’s? Since living there, I haven’t yet gone anywhere to make me say anything but NO! Bilbao is no exception, with fewer clubs than Barcelona or Madrid, but just as fun. Often the night begins around 9 or 10pm with a botellon, the Spanish habit of street-drinking with open bottles of wine, vodka, or 2L coke bottles with mysterious mixes inside. At only 1 euro for a cheap tetra box of wine, it’s easy to pre-drink here (and make sure you do it, because drinks are expensive inside). Oddly enough, Friday nights tend to be dead downtown, but Thursday and Saturday nights don’t stop!
My favourite club was, without a doubt, Fever. Located a sketchy walk from Bolueta metro station, the first 300 people on Saturday nights get in free, and it opens at midnight. After that it’s 12 euros to enter, but it’s an amazingly fun club with 4 different rooms playing different styles of music: house/EDM/whatever it’s called, reggaeton/current, classic, and hiphop/rap. There are lockers to put your purses into and it’s so much fun, with Spanish clubs not even getting to full flare until around 4am, and ending around 7am!
Another favourite club is Sonora, similar to Fever and located at Astrabudua metro station. My roommates really enjoyed Budha, located near San Mames, and the Back&Stage Grupo is also popular, hosting events on Thursday and Saturday nights. This is where you’ll meet the most students, local and Erasmus, and it’s close to Moyua near the Zubizuri bridge. If you wander around the Moyua area there are a lot of smaller clubs too, most playing reggaeton and salsa music, but some feature live shows. In the summer, Bilbao hosts BBK Live and features a lot of well known international music acts.
If you told me a year ago that there was a festival where people tried to pull a (fake) goose’s head off by grabbing its greased neck while it was being lowered and raised into a river on a cable, I would have thought you were out of your mind. But that is exactly what happens in the summer’s Day of the Goose festival in Lekeito, a short distance from Bilbao. The goose used to be real, but animal rights activists intervened and it is now fake.
Santo Tomas is a near-Christmas festival celebrated in Bilbao with delicious cider and taco-like talos being the main attractions. It’s basically one big botellon in Casco Viejo, where you can also see the Christmas markets.
Cultural note: in the Basque country, children wait for Olentzero, not Santa, to deliver them presents!
Plenty of surrounding Basque towns do their own smaller scale version of the Running of the Bulls, but you can head to Pamplona (roughly 2 hours or so from Bilbao, by bus) to see the big one first hand. Just don’t be an idiot and get yourself killed.
Beaches: Bilbao is a blessing in that its beaches are only a short metro ride away, and there are many to choose from in the small outskirts of the city. You can find surfing lessons at some of them, such as Sopelana, which also has its own nude beach. Plenty of women in Spain go topless at the beach and nobody thinks its a big deal, as with Italy or France. No photos please!
Metro stations Neguri, Bidezabal, Larrabasterra, Sopela, and Plentzia all link to areas within short walks that contain beaches, taking no more than 45 minutes to get to the furthest one on the metro from the city centre. Most are located near restaurants and bars as well, and some are more private than others (I personally liked Neguri for its lack of people).
Shopping: The Zubiarte mall has favourites like Desigual, H&M, and Zara, and is pretty much where I spent half my days because it’s right by the school. Ballonti mall in Portugalete has some cool stores like NYC and Primark. My favourite place for shopping is Casco Viejo and the surrounding area, as you can find neat second hand shops, book stores, shoes stores, souvenirs… a cool shop to check out is Arizona, a gem I discovered that sells cowboy boots and hats, USA college cheerleading uniforms, and too much flannel.
Bilbao is famous for being a reinvented city, and its massive transportation network reflects that. There are so many ways to get around, I’m going to separate it.
By bus: Red buses (Bilbobus) take you all around main city Bilbao while the green buses (Bizkaibus) journey to smaller towns near Bilbao like Portugalete, or further little towns like Bermeo or Ermua. Rides range anywhere from 1 euro to 5 euros. It’s cheap! Ride the bus! Out of town buses to other major cities arrive at Termibus station, located in San Mames. There is also a red Bilbobus that runs every 20 minutes or so to and from the Bilbao Airport for 1.30 euro.
By train: The metro of Bilbao consists of only two lines, and it’s very easy to use. It’s also quiet, clean, and frequent. It costs 1.50-1.70 per ride depending on how far you’re going, but if you’ll be here for a while, invest in a Barik Card, which virtually cuts the price of a ride in half and can be used on any bus or train. Keep your metro ticket even once you get on the train, because you have to use it to get out as well!
Bilbao’s Euskotren network runs a light-rail system from San Mames area to Casco Viejo, stopping at places like the hospital, the Guggenheim, and downtown. It’s really easy to hop onto the light rail without paying, but it’s at your own risk. The Euskotren also extended to a rail service that runs trains to smaller towns in the Basque country, all the way to San Sebastian. This is a super cheap way to get around the Basque region, never costing more than like 5 euros for the furthest ride. It’s comfortable and even has bathrooms! The out of town train station is Abando in the city centre, accessible by metro, bus, or walking.
A taxi is by far the priciest way to get around Bilbao, but if you need to be somewhere quickly, it can be a good idea. You can find them pretty much anywhere.
Bilbao’s airport has domestic flights to places like Barcelona, Valencia, and Madrid, and international flights to places like Paris, London, Amsterdam, and Frankfurt.
A note on language and politeness: Like San Sebastian, Bilbao is a part of the Basque country, a continually oppressed autonomous community that wishes to separate from the country of Spain. This is a touchy history that involved bombings and loss, so try not to bring it up. The Basque people are very proud of their culture and speak Basque, which you’ll also see practically everywhere on signs. Most people understand Spanish, but few understand English, so brush up on your rolled r’s! (Also, it’s nearly impossible to find anything here with the Spanish flag on it besides the airport. You will, however, find countless Basque flags)
I lived here in Bilbao, so maybe it doesn’t sound as exciting to you as it was for me, but this is a great city that deserves a day or two stop. Party like a local!