Very Noble, Very Loyal and Unbeaten
It’s been a long time since I did not return to Bilbao, the city I used to be at least once a year when I was a kid because part of my family used to live there. The last time was in 2009 already! True that a year ago we flew to Bilbao, but to go to Vitoria instead. It was really about time to be back at one of my favourite cities in Spain without any doubt, and see how much it has changed from the already better that was, to great that is now. Although this time the visit was quite explicit since the main reason for this weekend was getting to San Sebastian the day before, we actually had enough time to walk the entire city because I am very familiar with it and know how to move fast without the need to look for a map.
I do still remember many years ago how industrial the city once was. And I do still briefly recall in my memory the Euskalduna ship building complex in what is today the Guggenheim Museum and Euskalduna Concert Hall. It was all so grey and dark, smokey and run down, yet still back then I was only starting to appreciate architecture, and knew how beautiful the late 19th century extension was with the elegant buildings along the perfect orthogonal urbanism. Nowadays who could even imagine how a city can re-invent itself that dramatically to become a hot spot worldwide known for its architecture, cultural heritage and art!
Just a building changed it all. Almost 20 years old and still as striking as the first day. 1997, the Guggenheim Museum kicked off what is been described the best ever redevelopment of a city within budget and with clear views to the future. Ever since, almost every world renown architect have left a work in the city, with many more to come. Frank O’Gehry, Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava, Arata Isozaki, Cesar Pelli, Alvaro Siza, Zaha Hadid, Juan Coll-Barreu and many more. Bilbao is known for its “signature architecture”, something few cities of its size can be proud of.
And not only it’s the new architecture, but the more traditional and historic old town. So incredibly well preserved and restored on every corner, paying attention to the most minimal detail. The original city of Bilbao, only 7 streets, known as Siete Calles, and Casco Viejo are as thriving during the day as in the night. Enjoying the beautiful buildings and views, the many museums, churches, the cathedral, river and its bridges, while having the most wonderful “pintxos” (Basque tapas) at any time with great Basque wines is always worth to come for. There is nothing that can beat “pintxos”, wherever in the Basque Country city or village you might be, or even across the rest of Spain at the many Basque restaurants. They are really unique and such a vast choice! Your stomach is too small for that many you wish to eat.
For more information about Bilbao check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. The currency in Italy is the Euro. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Bilbao
- Casco Viejo The Old Town, on the east side of the River Nervion is the origin of the city. To the north it limits with the Arriaga Theatre and Arenal Park, and to the south limits with the Ribera Market.
-San Antón Church Built in 1422 in Gothic style with mixture of renaissance portico and baroque tower added later. It’s located at the southernmost point of the Old Town, right by the river.
-San Antón Bridge Next to the Iglesia de San Antón is one of the most emblematic bridges in the city.
-La Ribera Market Next to San Antón Church. Built in 1929 in a blend of art-nouveau and art-deco is one of the largest covered markets in Europe. Recently refurbished and revamped restoring many of the original fittings.
-Siete Calles The original 7 streets that once were the core of Bilbao, with beautiful buildings and a thriving area with bars, restaurants and nightlife.
-Saint James’ Square Right by the very centre of the Casco Viejo. The fountain in the middle was created during the reign of Carlos III.
-Cathedral of Saint James Built in the 14th century in Gothic style with Neogothic tower and façade designed later by Severino de Achúcarro in the 1800s. It is named after Bilbao’s patron saint and was designated cathedral in 1949.
-Archaeological Museum Just north of the Cathedral, has a large and good collection of artefacts from the region covering thousands of years.
-Miguel de Unamuno Square The second largest square in the old town after Plaza Nueva. Beautiful buildings with the typical glass terraces surround it. Here you can find the metro station Casco Viejo.
-Miguel de Unamuno birthplace He was one of the most influential Spanish author, born on the 29th of September 1864, famous for the novels “Niebla” and “San Manuel Bueno”.
-Plaza Nueva This is the main and largest square in the Old Town, and follows the traditional main square of any Spanish city, with buildings of the same design enclosing at the four sides, and arcade gallery on the lower level.
-Bidebarrieta Library Built by local architect Severino de Achucarro in the 19th century. Not far from Plaza Nueva and behind Arriaga Theatre.
-El Arenal Park and square This area is the northern boundary of the Old Town, and already showcases the elegant early 20th century buildings of the new Bilbao.
-Banco Bilbao former headquarter The nowadays worldwide bank BBVA was having its original offices based in this 1862 building by French architect Lavallé. It’s meters to the north of Plaza Nueva across San Nicholas Church.
-San Nicholas Church Completed in the 19th century in Baroque style is dedicated to the patron saint of the sailors.
-Arriaga Theatre Although the original theatre was opened in 1890, the current one dates from 1914 with a superb facade and elegant interiors. It’s the largest theatre in the Basque Country, and without doubt one of the most impressive.
-El Arenal Park Just across the road from the Arriaga Theatre and aligning parallel to the Nervion River. The beautiful art-nouveau “Kiosko del Arenal” music box from 1923 is one of the famous monuments.
-El Arenal Bridge Links the Old Town with the New Town across the Nervion River. The best views towards the old and new towns are from this bridge.
-Basílica de Begoña Built in the 16th Century, overlook Bilbao as it sits on top of a hill. It is the most symbolic religious building in the city. Quite far from the Old Town in general, but you can see it from the distance.
- El Ensanche-Gran Via To the west of the Old Town across the Nervion River is the new town of Bilbao, built in the late 19th century and early 20th, with elegant avenues and great urbanism design where all the streets follow a grid pattern with 2 main diagonals that meet at the Moyua Square, the heart of the Ensanche.
-Santander Station Also known as La Concordia serves the narrow gauge railways FEVE. Located right by the Nervion River and side to side with the Abando Station was built by architect Valentín Gorbeña between 1898-1902, with its façade designed by the architect Severino Achúcarro in art-nouveau.
-Abando Station It’s the main train station serving the Spanish National Railways (RENFE). Inside the main hall towards the platforms there is a huge stained glass atrium depicting traditional Basque jobs.
-La Bilbaina Building Right at the head end of the Santander Station. Built in 1913 in eclectic style.
-Stock Exchange Building In between both train stations. Built in 1890.
-Campos Eliseos Theatre Just 3 streets south from Gran Via and by the side of Abando Station is the most impressive modernist building in the city, recently restored with an amazing extension fitting perfectly with the superb facade.
-Gran Via de Don Diego Lopez Haro Is the main artery through the Ensanche, one of the most elegant avenues in Bilbao with plenty of historic buildings, heart of the commercial and finance area. In a northwest direction, the sights are:
-Plaza Circular Marks the end of Gran Via as it meets with Calle Buenos Aires. One of the corners is the main entrance to the Abando train station.
-BBVA Bank Headquarters The tallest buildings in the city from 1969 until the Cesar Pelli Tower was built in 2009. At its base it is the sculpture by Chillida “Elogio del Hierro”.
-Banco Santander Housed in a beautiful classical style building.
-Banco de Espana The regional offices of the main Bank of Spain.
-Former Banco de Comercio Nowadays another of the BBVA buildings since this bank fusion with Banco Bilbao.
-Diputacion Foral de Bizkaia One of the key works of eclecticism not only in the city but across the Basque Country, designed by Luis Aladrén in 1897.
-Biblioteca Foral Right behind the Diputacion, it has a new glass extension perfectly blending with the old building.
-Plaza de Moyua Is the absolute heart of El Ensanche where 8 streets meet on this oval square. Most of the buildings at each of the sides are of importance architecturally talking. A nice fountain and English and French gardens complete the inner space.
-Hotel Carlton Built between 1919 and 1926 by architect Manuel María Smith in Second Empire style, traditional for hotels of the era.
-Chavarri Palace Built in 1888 in eclectic and neo-flamenco style, is the headquarters of the Civil Government.
-La Aurora Designed by Manuel I. Galindez in 1931, clearly influence by art-deco lines.
-Hacienda The tallest building in the square, also from the 1930’s with art-deco lines.
-Casa Montero One of the finest examples of modernist architecture in the city, just behind one of the buildings in the square.
-Alhondiga South of Moyua Square on Recalde Zumarkalea street by the small Arriquibar Square. This former wine warehouse designed by Ricardo Bastida in 1909 has a new live as Culture and Leisure centre redeveloped by French designer Philippe Starck and Thibaut Mathieu in 2010.
-Casa De Sota Continuing to the west along Gran Via right after the Moyua Square is this large luxurious apartment block in eclectic style occupying an entire city block.
-Casa Lezama-Leguizamon By architect Ricardo Bastida built in 1920 is another example of luxurious apartment block that is common in the western section of Gran Via. Just behind is the Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park.
-Sagrado Corazon Square Is the western end of Gran Via. Here is the monument Sagrado Corazon, perfectly aligning with the Gran Via, and far in the distance with the tower of the Basílica de Begoña.
-San Mames Stadium West of Sagrado Corazon is the football stadium for the Athletic of Bilbao. Recently reconstructed is a superb new architectural landmark in the city, specially when illuminated at night.
- El Ensanche-North of Gran Via-Abandoibarra Where apart from the rest of the elegant streets and buildings from the 19th century extension, you will find the striking new areas with constructions such as the Guggenheim museum and the new Pelli Tower among others.
-Museum of the River of Bilbao Just beyond the Sagrado Corazon Monument and the San Mames Stadium, occupies some former shipbuilding docks. You can see much of the collection from the Euskalduna Bridge.
-Euskalduna Concert Hall Built in the former Euskalduna Shipyards in 1999 as part of the regeneration project of Bilbao. A great architecture work.
-Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park Right across the road from the Euskalduna, and directly north from the Gran Via. They are the nicest gardens within the city centre, planned in conjunction with the extension of the city. A nice fountain and pergola embellish the English style gardens.
-Fine Arts Museum The second most visited museum after the Guggenheim and one of the richest museums after Madrid.
-Euskadi Square The heart of the most recent redeveloped area in the city. The new finantial and commercial centre of large dimensions.
-Artklass Building Quite a different construction from the rest. While absolutely new, it is a pastiche combining many different classical facades.
-Ferrater Building Another quite shocking apartment building for its extreme modern architecture. Easy to spot, the black and grey one.
-Iberdrola Tower The tallest building along the entire north of Spain, designed by world famous Argentinan architect Cesar Pelli.
-Deusto Bridge Across the Nervion River links the city of Bilbao with the neighboring district of Deusto right by the university. This cantilever bridge inaugurated in 1936 was designed based on that of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.
-Pedro Arrupe Bridge Of recent creation it links Bilbao with the University of Deusto across the Nervion River
-Guggenheim Museum Hard to say any other words that an icon, landmark and symbol of the city. Designed by Frank O’Gehry and opened in 1997 was the kick-off of the reinventing of the city from a former industrial city into a services, cultural, tourism and business which definitely succeeded. Built on the former ship building complex that once stood here, the design suggest the form of a vessel, very clever and appropriate for the are where it stands right by the river and former docks. Entrance costs 13 Euros, half price for students up to 26 years and senior people.
-Puppy Right by the main entrance to the museum, this large puppy entirely made of flowers was meant to be part of the inauguration ceremony of the museum, but due to extreme popular demand, it’s been kept ever since. The flowers are changed depending on the season.
-La Salve Bridge From 1972, was greatly “implemented” in the Guggenheim Museum, and further enhanced this in 2006 with the retrofitting of the top making it blend together as one piece both bridge and museum.
-Zubizuri Bridge By Santiago Calatrava linking Campo Volatin with Mazarredo. One of the accesses has been implemented with the Isozaki Atea complex.
-Isozaki Atea Literally meaning from Basque the Isozaki Gate. They are both the tallest residential buildings in Bilbao, designed by world famous Japanese architect Arata Isozaki and built in 2008.
-San Vicente and Albia Gardens Right behind the Isozaki complex. Quiet area with elegant buildings typical from El Ensanche.
-San Vicente Martir Church In Gothic style, from the 16th century.
-La Equitativa Insurance Built in 1932 by architect Manuel I. Galíndez, is the best example of art-deco in the city.
-Courts of Justice Located behind the Customs House, with its main facade overlooking the nice small Albia Gardens.
-Customs House Continuing from the Isozaki complex towards the City Hall Bridge along the riverside you will find this building. Just a block from the Courts of Justice.
-City Hall Bridge Once another of the cantilever bridges along the river, now not in operational state anymore.
- North of the River Most of the sights in this part of the city can be seen from the other side of the river, hence up to you if you want to get there near them or not.
-City Hall Designed by architect Jaquin Rucoba in neo-baroque style in 1892. The best views are from both the City Hall and Arenal bridges.
-Artxanda Funicular Behind the Zubizuri Bridge, from the viewing point at the top you can see the entire city.
-Olábarri Palace Built in the 19th century is the Port Authority of Bilbao. At the other side from La Salve Bridge.
-University of Deusto With the best views over the historical building from the Abandoibarra area, it is one of the most prestigious universities in Spain.
- Outside of the city There are many places around the metropolitan area of Bilbao, as the beaches of Arenal, Getxo, Plentzia.
-Portugalete and Vizcaya Bridge This city on the metropolitan area, north of Bilbao, hosts the first ever constructed and still in operation transporter bridge across a river. It’s been designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
-Bilbao Airport Designed by Santiago Calatrava, and nicknamed La Paloma, the Pigeon, because of its resemblance to this bird.
Bilbao International Airport is the largest in the Basque Country, and also the busiest along the entire northern coast of Spain. More and more routes and airlines keep adding to the choice of destinations, meaning connections across the main European cities is possible, with several frequencies between the main cities in Spain, and at some international destinations like London thrice or even more daily. It is located few kilometres to the north of the city and it’s easy to commute to/from downtown by bus, and in the near future commuter train (under construction as of March 2016). Other airports not far are Santander to the west with a good amount of flights both national and international, and San Sebastian to the east, serving mostly national routes.
Bizkaibus A3247 departs from outside the arrivals hall twice hourly, at 15 and 45 past the hour and takes 25 minutes to arrive at Bilbao bus terminal (Termibus) with stops along Gran Via, Plaza Moyua and Almeda Recalde. Tickets costs €1.45 per way.
From within Spain, frequent trains (high speed and conventional) covers the distance to the main cities Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Alicante and smaller cities in between the line. But the rest of Spain is also linked by rail to Bilbao on slower trains as those need to pass the mountain range to leave the Basque Country, or cross through the entire north Spain mountain range to reach La Coruna in Galicia. It is by all means the most scenic and comfortable way to get into Bilbao.
Long distance buses from anywhere in Spain are more frequent than trains, and likely to be faster since they use the motorway and cross the mountain ranges in tunnels.
International routes with southern France are also frequent, with both trains and buses directly covering the route. By train you will need to change at Hendaye right by the border between Spain and France.
Within the city, it is one of the best cities in Spain with public transport. There are 2 metro lines, trams, three different commuter railways companies, RENFE the national railways from Spain, EuskoTren, the railways from the Basque Country, and FEVE the narrow gauge railways that criss-cross the north of Spain. And of course buses everywhere. There is also a funicular, and the UNESCO listed transporter bridge at Portugalete. SO with such big choice, there is no need to worry on how to move around. You are never far from a transport, however, walking is still your best bet to enjoy the city. Distances are not very far and you can walk pretty much everywhere covering all the sights.
Being a city of such importance in ever field; business, finance, education and tourism; the hotel choice is really large comparing to the size of the city. Furthermore you can easily find any kind of level and comfort, from the very top luxurious properties to more modest. The availability is guaranteed to anyone, and finding a good deal was not hard at all but of course bearing in mind this was during low season. During high season months and festivities expect for a deal to be hard to be found and for paying way higher at any property.
As usual, a good point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engines such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
We stayed at one of the most famous and historic hotel, the Carlton, right by Moyua Square in the very heart of the Ensanche. While marketed as a 5* hotel, do not expect the level of a real 5*. This is to be honest, a 4* property. Very beautiful in and out, typical architecture of La Belle Epoch of the hotels, but already a bit dated on the inside; still, great for anyone to stay and enjoy, specially for the great location, nice and friendly stuff and larger than average bedroom, very clean, quiet and with comfortable bed.