Bilbao has metamorphosed from an ugly industrial duckling into a beautiful design swan on the Nervión. Push scootering, biking, sailing, a medieval town and modern architecture? It is all there! Surrounded by sea and mountains. Here are 10 reasons to love the city, but there are many more.
Bilbao tips from locals
1. Artxanda Funicular
For the first of our Bilbao tips we take you to the Artxanda Funicular to get an overall idea of the layout of the city. The cable car connects mount Arantxa with Bilbao. Here you can find some good restaurants. It is a place where many Bilbaínos go for their traditional Sunday lunch. On clear days you can see the sea.
Down below you see the Nervión flowing underneath the Zubizuri bridge designed by Calatrava. The Guggenheim by Gehry and Jeff Koons’ puppy right next to it. And of course de old city that starts with the remarkable theatre Arriaga, named after the local Mozart. You will find the funicular on the right bank of the ricer, just past the Zubizuri bridge on Funikularreko Plaza. Leaves every 15 minutes and costs €1.
2. Swimming in the Alhóndiga
The Alhóndiga is a former wine warehouse in the Ensanche district. This district dates back from the 20th century and was a built as an extansion to the old city. Here you find the big fashion chains but also Palacio Chavarri, a Neo-Renaissance palace, built in Flemish style and designed by the Belgian Art Nouveau architect Paul Hankar.
Casa Montero by Luis Aladrén, who designed it in Gaudi-style also screams for attention. And don’t forget the Carlton Ambassador, where the Basque government had its headquarters during the Spanish Civil War.
The Alhóndiga has been completely redesigned by Phillippe Starck and actually it already starts outside in the street where standard lamps and steal chairs guide you inside the building, where you can have a seat on illuminated white benches. There are cultural exhibitions, a multimedia library and a sports centre.
One of our best Bilbao tips is that you can swim above the heads of the visitors if you go to the pool on the top floor. From the benches below you can enjoy the view of people swimming. A remarkable feature is formed by the 43 pillars that support the building, each designed in a different style. On the top floor terrace of bar-restaurant Yandiola you have a magnificent view over the city.
3. To Portugalete on the push scooter
Bilbao is situated on a ria, a tidal river. From the city centre you can follow the river all the way to the sea. For a large part of the route you can use the excellent bicycle lane, but once you are outside the city you have to be a bit more creative and zigzag along the river.
You pass the harbour with its cranes and warehouses, a reminder of Bilbao’s industrial past, and you have wonderful views of the mountains behind. In Portugalete you cross the famous “hanging bridge” to the other side of the river. It is a distance of about 14 kilometres to the sea.
4. Lunch in bistro Guggenheim
It goes without saying that you have to see the Guggenheim museum with its special architecture. But One of our other Bilbao tips is that you can also have wonderful meals at the museum? The bistro offers good food indoors or on their special terrace. We thought the food was a real highlight. For €35 they serve you a 3-course mail including wine. Or if you prefer a quick meal, they have a dish of the day for €18. Special diets or vegetarian food, everything is possible. Bistro Guggenheim.
5. Dining stars in Etxanobe
The Basque country and therefore Bilbao is well known for its excellent cuisine. So it’s not very surprising to find the most Michelin stars per square kilometre here. Fortunately, it is still affordable and you don’t have to make reservations years in advance.
A couple of weeks will usually do, for lunches even less. In Bilbao you can find Michelin star restaurant Etxanobe, on the top floor of the Euskalduna palace. They serve beautiful food and are not afraid to treating you to exciting molecular gastronomy. Paul Ibarra is the culinary hotshot.
They have a lovely terrace where you can eat and have spectacular views of the city. Reservations are also taken by WhatsApp. An eight-course menu starts from €69. Etxanobe
6. SUP on the Nervión
Bilbao has been hosting the World Stand Up Peddle (SUP) competitions for quite some years now. It is sponsored by the big water company known by tourists for its silver color tower, the Iberdrolatower.
You don’t have to be a world champion to enjoy peddling the Nervión river. It is a great way tot get to know the city. Bwaters offers courses and the possiblity for hire.
7. Café Iruña
Café Iruñia, situated directly opposite the Jardines de Albia, has been in existence for more 110 years. The café is known for its special Mudejar interior and the walls tiled with azulejos. In 2000 is won the award for best cafe in Spain. It is so nostalgic that you expect a writer in the corner writing a bestseller. Breakfast is still at pre-war prices, starting at € 2,60. A menu is € 14. Iruña is open every day.
8. Boat trip to sea
No bikes of any kind, no paddling? Just being lazy, chilling on the deck of a boat? Maybe complemented with a wine tasting of Rioja or the typical Txakolí from the region? No problem. Mardebien offers various options on their yacht, which you board near the maritime museum.
9. Hanging bridge Portugalete
Ok, Portugalete is not Bilbao, but whether you cycle, scooter or sail, sooner or later you will pass the ‘ hanging” bridge. A special bridge that is included on the Unesco World Heritage list. It is the oldest transporter bridge, built in 1893, and designed by Alberto Palacio, a student of Gustave Eiffel.
The aerial bridge consists of two frames on both sides of the river Nervión. In between, a gondola is slung that moves between the river banks. The gondola has room for cyclists, pedestrians and 6 cars. If you are not afraid of heights you can go to the top of the bridge and cross it on foot.
And whilst you are in Portugalete, a lovely town, you might just as well visit the 15th century Basílica Santa María and the Salazar tower.
10. Tapas tour in old town of Bilbao
The old center of Bilbao, Casco Viejo in Spanish is swarmimg with small bars, where you can enjoy wonderful tapas. ‘Tapa’ in Spanish means ‘cover’ or ‘lid’. According to old legends these ‘lids’ were used to keep the flies off their drinks or prevent drinks from spilling in a busy bar.
Some bars count the toothpicks, others serve you a tapa with each drink. One of our Bilbao tips is Plaza Nuevo, a Neo-classical square with bars and shops under the arcades you have plenty of choice. But the alleyways offer also many options.
And remember, although there are many nice design bars in Bilbao, you can still rely on the ugly little bars with fluorescent lights to serve good tapas.
Text: Anneke de Bundel – SUP images: Iker Basterretxea, Borja Dopico