Bilbao is a hidden gem in the Basque Country and has long left its industrial past behind to reinvent itself as an up and coming, artistic port city. Bilbao lies on either side of the river Ría de Bilbao and the old shipyard area known as Abandoibarra, is now a modern riverbank lined with iconic buildings with its most staggering feature being the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry, a rippling and undulating metallic structure and buildings like the Azkuna Zentroa, redesigned by Philippe Starck.
Bilbao was once an industrial mining city until the Ria de Bilbao flooded in 1983 and submerged most of the medieval buildings in the Old Town, also called El Casco Viejo. A few years after the Basque government decided to repossess the former industrial areas and reconstruct a new waterfront. This later became modernised to the riverside area you say today.
The city is famed for its contemporary architecture and pintxo bars, serving small morsels of food skewered on slices of bread that is famous all over the Basque Country; Bilbao also won European City of the Year in 2018! The city has something for everyone, offering Basque culture and food, architecture and nature just a short metro ride away: Bilbao is surrounded by mountains and is close to several beaches.
For gourmet travellers, Bilbao boasts over 40 Michelin starred restaurants and the varied Basque cuisine and excellent seafood means that a short 48 hours is not long enough for serious foodies to savour all the city has to offer.
This guide is perfect for those who only have 48 Hours in Bilbao – A 2 Day Itinerary. We will show you what to do in Bilbao, where to stay, what to eat and how to get around, whether its a weekend in Bilbao Spain or just a quick trip.
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The best time to visit Bilbao
Bilbao is in the North of Spain and weather in the North is less consistent than in other parts of Spain and weather is often cooler than other parts of Spain as well as significantly more rainfall especially outside of summer months. The best time to visit is in May, June, July and September where you have the least rainfall.
August is also a dry month but is the peak tourist season, which is usually best avoided due to crowded beaches, expensive hotel rates and crowds. If you want to experience the vibrant spirit of Bilbao you may well want to consider travel in August for their annual festival called Aste Nagusia or Great Week in Basque. This is Bilbao’s biggest festival and lasts a whopping 9 days! In 2019 the festival will be held from Saturday August 17th to August 25th.
A rocket is launched into the air to open the festival and all the revelry begins with lively parades, food fights, fireworks, Basque dancing and traditional Basque sports competitions such as wood chopping. Be aware that this is a busy and crowded period and prices for hotels will be at their highest.
How to get around Bilbao
Bilbao is a city that is built for cycling. As it is relatively flat it is easy to traverse by bicycle and some hotels have bicycle rental services. Bicycles will allow you to cycle down the river and visit some areas just outside of the city centre.
For public transport including bus and metro you can buy a transport card, which can be topped up at any station called the Bilbao Bizkaia Card. A 24-hour card costs only €10, whilst a 48 hour card is only €15. You can also purchase your card online www.bilbaobizkaicard.com.
Bilbao’s metro service with only two lines, which will take you to the nearby beaches and also charming villages within metropolitan Bilbao. Sir Norman Foster, the famous architect, created the iconic styling of the metro station entrances. The metro runs from 6am to around 11pm from Mondays to Fridays and open all weekend until 11pm on Sunday.
Bilbobus is the urban bus network in the city, running daily from 6am to 11pm with a frequency between 10 to 30 minutes between buses. There are also night buses known as Gautxoris, running until 2am on Fridays and all night long in the weekends. You can find out more on the Bilbobus website.
Where to stay in Bilbao
Bilbao has attracted a lot of tourism since its revamp and prices for hotels are not as cheap as they once were. There are still many budget options from around €50 upwards per night.
Hotel Bilbao Jardines – This hotel is a short stroll from the Santiago Cathedral and an excellent choice for budget conscious travellers. Prices range from €59 per night for a double room which are clean and contemporary. The hotel also offers bicycle rental for free.
Casual Bilbao Gurea – This centrally located hotel is situated in the Casco Viejo and a few minutes walk from the Santiago Cathedral. Rooms have large windows that allow sunlight in; there is also parking on site for an additional cost as well as an airport pickup service that can be organized by reception. Prices start from €48 per night.
Hotel Photo Zabalburu – The hotel is situated in the South of Bilbao has a photography theme, with each room decorated with a large image of different parts of the city. There is a bicycle rental service, library and a photography exhibition. Prices start from €47 per night.
Basque Boutique – This hotel can hold its own against some of the more expensive hotels in Bilbao. Situated in the centre of the Casco Viejo, the eight themed rooms are decorated with handmade wooden furniture and the rooms have gorgeous wooden beams and exposed brick walls. Themes include the Txakoli room, the Gernika room and Basque language room. Prices start from €44 per night.
Things to do in Bilbao
Wander the seven streets of Casco Viejo
Casco Viejo is the historical old city, established in the 14th century. Siete Calles or Seven Streets in English is full of small shops, haberdasheries, boutiques and cut bakeries. There are also a lot of bars where you can enjoy a nice cool glass of white sparkling wine known as Txakoli or enjoy a small beer also known as a “zurito”.
Float down the River Nervión
The Nervion river is lined with promenades, impressive bridges such as the Zubizuri Bridge and can be explored by kayak, paddleboard or by river cruises. For kayak and paddleboard rental you can visit Bilbao Kayak, and organize guided tours included a night paddleboard tour.
Basque country is famed for its pintxos, their answer to Spanish tapas. Pintxos are small pieces of bread topped with delicious ingredients that can include meat, blood sausage or morcilla, fish and more. The best place to experience pintxos is at the various pintxo bars situated in the Neoclassical Square of Plaza Nueva. Here you can find many bars with counter tops laden with delicious pintxos for you to graze on as you barhop from one bar to another. Head to Gure Toki, in your bar crawl to try out their inventive and creative pintxos.
Visit the Mercado de la Ribiera
A visit to Bilbao’s art deco market is a must, to see the local produce on offer and sample different bites. There is also a bar called La Ribera Bar, which is a great venue for live music in the evenings.
Take a trip on the funicular
Visit the Artxanda Mountain with the funicular railway, which has been in operation since 1915. The three-minute ride only costs less than a euro and at the top you will find excellent panoramic views of the city and cafes and a swimming pool
Ride the Hanging Bridge gondola
The Puente Colgante was built in 1893 and has a gondola that was suspended form the 61m high towers on cables to connect Getxo suburb with Portugalete port whilst making way for the passage of tall ships. You can pay for an individual trip for 40 cents or enjoy a tour for €9, which includes walk along the 45m-high walkway. Not for those who have a fear of heights!
Explore Bilbao’s street art paradise
Bilbao has a burgeoning street art scene and you can find interesting graffiti, political messages and vibrant colourful art all around the city, especially along the Ibaizabal River. The best way to explore the street art scene is to take a bike tour with Tourne Bilbao, offers guided tours for street art enthusiasts.
Go wine tasting
The Basques produce excellent fine wine, you can visit the Bodegas Ados Basarte in Bakio, just outside the city, to enjoy a wine tasting experience whilst being surrounded by countryside. The owners host guided tours of their home and vineyard and explain (in Spanish) the wine making process of Txakoli, the Basque signature white wine.
Places to visit in Bilbao
The jewel in the crown of Bilbao’s art scene is the Guggenheim museum on the riverside. You can explore open air sculptures such as Jeff Koon’s flower adorned “Puppy” and Louise Bourgeois’ “Maman”, a giant looming spider. The Guggenheim makes for great instagram photos. King Juan Carlos I of Spain inaugurated the museum in 1997 and the gleaming titanium clad museum was built on a site of an old port that exported raw materials such as iron ore and coal to European cities. Aside from art, there is also music at the Guggenheim and you can listen to live music and dancing one Friday a month.
Visit the Azkuna Zentroa
This cultural and creative space was designed by Philippe Starck, whose signature style is evident in the 43 unique columns supporting the first floor. This structure was a refurbished old wine warehouse. Here you will find a cinema, rooftop pool, café and shops. You can enjoy a city view whilst taking a swim and the pool has a glass bottom, which means that passers-by below can see the swimmers overhead.
Take a walk in the Casco Viejo
The old town is known as the Casco Viejo and is full of narrow undulating streets and colourful buildings as well as countless bars and shops. Here you can visit the Catedral de Santiago de Bilbao, sample pintxos in the numerous bars in Plaza Nueva and visit the churches of San Nicolás and San Antón.
Tours to do in Bilbao
If you want a tour with a difference you can join a running tour of Bilbao and visit the city whilst keeping up your exercise routine. You can choose between city and country routes.
For foodies, you can go on the Basque Taste tour where an expert guide will take you around for the best pintxos in Bilbao on a three-hour tour through the most picturesque neighbourhoods in the city. The price includes all food and wine as well as a guide. They also offer a cycling culinary tour.
Mikel, a University professor, will take you on a tour about Basque history and culture. There is an undiscovered Bilbao AND Guggenheim tour and a real pintxos experience or bike tour.
Daytrips from Bilbao
Escape to the Painted Forest of Oma
This tour to the nearby town of Kortezubi, outside of Bilbao, will take you to the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, where the artist and sculptor, Agustín Ibarrola, created a magical painted forest, full of vibrant geometric shapes and figures with over 47 works painted across the forest for visitors to discover. This forest can be visited by car, being the easiest transport method to get there. You can also visit by Train on the Gernika service on Euskotren and then walking 7 km on foot. There is also a bus called the Bizkaibus with a service to Koretezubi followed by a 3 km walk.
For diehard Game of Thrones fans, a visit to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a must! This hermitage was built in the 11th century on the stone crag and the stone paths were said to have been established by the Knights Templar. The ancient bridge to the church and the hundreds of stairs attracts swarms of tourists every year who make the hike from the hill to the hermitage. The site has become more popular since it was used as a setting for Dragonstone. The best way to get there is by Bilbao bus line A3518 Bilbao (Moyúa)-Bakio or by car (the easiest method).
48 Hours in Bilbao
Here is a guide to 48 action packed hours in Bilbao:
Start your day off with a great breakfast in the sleek and stylish Sua San, just opposite the Guggenheim museum. They have excellent cakes, pastries and smoothies and on weekends they have a full brunch menu including eggs benedict or bagels for only €12.50 including a juice and a coffee.
From here you can head to the Guggenheim Museum, spend some time seeing the sculptures outside and spend some time wandering around taking in the art inside the museum. After taking in the art and culture you can go across the river to the Funicular de Artxanda, ride up to the top and take in the views of the river and the city.
After descending from the top of Artxanda you can explore the Casco Viejo, barhopping in Plaza Nueva from one bar to another to sample different types of pintxos and enjoying some good Basque wine.
You can spend some time wandering around the Casco Viejo and exploring the seven streets, taking in the sights of the Old Town which dates back over 700 years. Here you can visit the Cathedral of Santiago de Bilbao, the UNESCO heritage site dating back to the 14th and 15th century.
In the evening you can visit the La Ribera food market, designed in 1929 by the architect, Pedro Ispizua, which at night becomes a live music venue at La Ribera, if you want to catch some Jazz and take in the music scene of Bilbao.
Start the day with a trip to Azkuna Zentroa, the culture and leisure centre with a rooftop infinity swimming pool with a glass bottom, so you can see the swimmers from below. The visit should only take around 30 minutes to one hour.
From here you can hop on the metro and head to the beach at Getxo, just 20 minutes away by metro. Getxo is an area where the wealthiest people from Bilbao built their mansions and you can take a stroll on the “Camino de las Grandes Villas” to see some prime period architecture until you reach Marina El Abra, a marina with a promenade and plenty of cafes and restaurants. Here you can enjoy some grilled meat at El Abra Grill situated just on the marine, a popular restaurant.
From here you can also visit the Old Port of Algorta, a fishing port where sailors once lived. The streets are narrow and steep with charming little white houses and this old port is the perfect place where locals gather to catch the sunset.
On the way back you can head across the Vizcaya Bridge through the gondola that is suspended from the bridge itself, giving you an incredible view of the river. The bridge is a UNESCO world heritage site and was considered one of the most important constructions in Europe during the industrial revolution.
To end your evening, you can have some tapas in one of Bilbao’s most popular streets Calle Ledesma, lined with bar after bar, and then take a short three minute stroll to one of the trendiest bars of Bilbao called Kafe Antzokia, it has a restaurant, bars, concert stage and regularly hosts cultural events. The venue was once a cinema and the antique theatre atmosphere is one of the places to be seen in Bilbao. This will be the perfect goodbye to the vibrant city of Bilbao and leave you with the desire to return and explore more of this hidden gem in Spain.
Want to learn how to travel on a Budget? Check out our dedicated “Budget Conscious Travel Guide”
Recommend budget tours in Bilbao
- Private Tour: Guggenheim Bilbao Museum
- Private Pintxo Cooking Class (the basque way to tapas)
- 4×4 Route to discover Basque traditional gastronomy & Txakoli wine, from Bilbao
- Hop-On, Hop-Off Bilbao City Tour
- Bilbao Authentic Rioja and Ribero del Duero Wine Tasting
- Gaztelugatxe: Reach the top
- Full-day Basque Country tour from Bilbao
- San Sebastian and Basque Coast Day Trip from Bilbao
- Old Quarter of Bilbao Walking Tour
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