Bilbao, the largest city of the Spanish Basque country, bordered by the Bay of Biscay to the North and sitting on the banks of the delightful river Nervion, is a location with many faces. Until you have actually stepped foot into the city, as I did last week, you won’t even realize that you could easily spend a week there and just have scratched the surface.
A sin fin of awesome buildings and romantic streets, art, fashion, theatre, bars, restaurants, boat tours, green mountains, and street artists will entice you away from any pre-planned city tour because something new and unexpected lurks just around the next corner. There are so many things to do in Bilbao, I am focusing on my two favorite topics: Art & Food. So if you love art museums, beautiful architecture, and delicious food, this Bilbao guide is for you!
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Having said that, there is however one highlight that you absolutely cannot miss and that is Bilbao’s most famous landmark, the Guggenheim Museum. The museum celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Frank Gehry, the famous Canadian/American architect designed it. It represents one of the world’s most outstanding modern art museums, and covers a surface of 24.000 m2 plus two towers, leaning towards each other. It sits on a river bend and water is an integral part of the design.
The museum is huge, inside and out, with two main entrances, big glass facades, a soaring atrium that rises three stories and that is the central part of the building and 20 galleries that house the different collections. In the summer months, there can be long lines to get admission tickets, so you can save time by buying online. All entrances are wheelchair accessible and the floors and exhibitions are connected by glass elevators and walkways. A great way to see it is by booking a guided tour, or you risk missing some of the best parts of the museum.
If you climb a few steps in front of the main façade and use the entrance to make your way through the cafeteria (one of three) you can make a short coffee or snack stop before you start to indulge in all the awesome art. Depending on the season and the individual taste of the visitors, some works of art can be more crowded than others, but the design of the atrium, the floors, and galleries makes sure that you will never be in a ‘Mona Lisa’ situation. Plenty of daylight also streams in. Just think brick, cement, titanium, and glass, and you have a truly pleasing design.
The emphasis of the collection is on modern art and one of my favorites, a Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol which is over 2 m long and has a wall all to its own. There are works by Koons, Kiefer, and Jean Dubuffet in gallery 105 on the first floor. Dubuffet was the private collector who started the famous Musee de l’art brut in Lausanne. The 3rd gallery is dedicated to surrealism and Fauvism.
A sense of humor isn’t missing either, as represented by Jeff Koon’s Puppy, a huge Scottish Highland Terrier made from 35.000 wild and other flowers that stand at the entrance and guard the museum’s treasures. The Museum replaces the flowers twice a year.
The Guggenheim is not the only museum in Bilbao. In fact, there are a total of 11 and several theatres and art galleries.
How to get to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Before you set out for your museum visit, make sure you wear your most comfortable walking shoes because you have a lot of walking to do. This applies to getting to the museum from the center of town as well as exploring the exhibition spaces.
There are several ways to reach the Guggenheim. The nicest is to walk along the river bank on either bank. You can’t get lost, just follow the water under several bridges and you will already see the towers in the distance. Behind it stands the museum itself, a unique, rounded shape, totally integrated with the landscape. It’s glittering in the sun because the building is entirely covered with titanium with huge glass panels in between.
If you don’t want to walk all the way to the museum, you can also get there by the green tram, several red buses, or the metro.
Bilbao Boat Tour
Walking along the river gives you the chance for a new adventure. You come past a pier with two moored riverboats. They take you on a 1-hour and a 3-hour boat tour, the longer one running all the way to the Bay of Biscay, giving you a different perspective of the museum and the city. The tours are run by the company Bilboats. You can buy tickets on the boat, online, or in the office across the street. This tour here includes a historic overview of the city. Book it here>>
Here is an insider tip for a pretty and meaningful souvenir. It is a silver pendant or a wood carved one in the shape of the national flower, a thistle. Basque country is a place of legends, superstitions, and witchcraft, and the thistle has a special meaning. Wear it around your neck or hang it over your door and it will (supposedly) protect you from illness and evil spirits. The tiny craft shop that makes these little treasures is just around the corner from the hotel and is called BasqLore.
Where to Find the Best Pintxos in Bilbao
What are Pintxos?
Now it’s time to talk about the other Bilbao highlight: Pintxos. In the rest of Spain, the little snacks known as tapas, are just a slice of bread topped with a piece of tortilla, cheese, sausage, or a sardine. In the Basque country and especially in Bilbao, they are a whole different proposition. They are works of art and an integral part of the local food culture. The little delicacies are called pintxos because whatever is heaped on the bread, is pinched on with a toothpick, then eaten with the fingers and bitten off. As soon as you have eaten your first pintxo, you will never feel the need for a three-course meal as long as you are in Bilbao because the temptations are just too great to taste them all.
There are of course pintxos bars at nearly every street corner, but the Queen of Pintxos Bar is to be found in the middle of Old Town, the delightful Plaza Nueva which is surrounded by arcades. Under one of the arches, your eye will be caught by the most elegant, historical, and beautiful bar/restaurant of them all, Victor Montes.
The bar is running for over 100 years and features the most splendid art deco decoration together with marble tables, sparkling glassware, and the most delicious pintxos you can imagine. One of the best is chunks of creamed lobster with a dollop of caviar on top. Exquisite drinks are taken care of too. Victor Montes prides itself on its collection of fine wines as well as spirits, whiskeys, and, the latest novelty; Italian vodka, presented in a bottle designed by Italian fashion designer Roberto Cavalli. At Victor Montes, there is no doubt that great food not only pleases the palate but also the eyes.
Where to Stay in Bilbao
My favorite hotel in Bilbao, the Petit Palace. Art Deco from the outside, modern from the inside, and super conveniently located, the only drawback is a meager €11 continental breakfast. We skipped that and went to the lovely café El Trello right next door for a fraction of the price.
If you love art and food, you should add Bilboa to your bucket list!
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte wrote Things to do in Bilbao for Art Lovers & Foodies for EuropeUpClose.com. Of note: Common to the travel industry, the destination hosted some of the hotels and activities mentioned in this post. However, this does not influence Inka’s review.