Things to do in Bilbao

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    Iberdrola Tower: One of many architectural attractions in Bilbao

    Photo courtesy of repistu/iStock

Get Your Bearings in Bilbao

By Sally Walker Davies
Bilbao Expert

Stay
Eat
See & Do
Party
Shop

Where to Stay

Try to book a hotel near the city center in Bilbao, along the river and within easy walking distance to the museums and Casco Viejo neighborhood, where many of the city's traditional Basque restaurants are found. The beautiful Carlton Hotel Bilbao in Abando features elegant architecture as well as an excellent location to pick up the metro and explore the further reaches of the city. 

Take It or Leave It:

Pensiones and hostels are plentiful in Bilbao, if you prefer a less expensive, more casual style of accommodation.

What to Eat

Bilbao is a delicious destination, home to traditional Basque cuisine including pintxos; more of a finger food than tapas, and served earlier in restaurants usually between 7-9 pm, the latter hour being the time the dinner hour really ramps up. Making a round of Bilbao's best restaurants is often like a sport, with groups of friends bar-hopping for the pinxtos. The Casco Viejo, or Old Town, neighborhood is full of some of the best options for such an evening.

Take It or Leave It:

Expect to pay from €1.20 to €3 for pintxos, and enjoy with a vino tinto.

Be Sure to Sample:

Bacalao (salt cod) al pin-pil - little bites of fish finished with brozned garlic, at Gatz on Calle Santa Maria in Casco Viejo.

Things to See

This once heavily industrial and gritty city now shines with culture, thanks to the Museo Guggenheim, designed by Frank Gehry as a monument to art of the mid-20th century through present day; be sure to check out the "Puppy"- a giant dog that is transformed seasonally through flowers. The lesser-known Bilbao Fine Arts Museum is not to be missed. The historic Casco Viejo neighborhood teems with architectural interest and excellent restaurants and small shops, and gorgeous old churches pepper every district in the city.

Caution:

Brush up on your Spanish before visiting Bilbao. As a newer destination for tourists (especially Americans), English speakers are not as readily found.

Take It or Leave It:

Semana Grande, in late August, is the festival of large dolls and includes concerts, fireworks, and bullfighting.

Places to Party

Wander through Casco Viejo's narrow alleyways, and you'll find a wide selection of bodegas and bars, most featuring pinxtos and fantastic Spanish wines. Discos are big here, including the Disco-Pub Crystal in Plaza Venezuela or El Garden on Calle Lehendakari Aguirre. If you're a gambler, the Gran Casino Nervion, right on the river, is a sure bet - it's an upscale spot to try your luck.

Avoid:

The area behind the railway station at night; it can be a bit seedy and filled with those looking to score drugs or a pay-by-the-hour date.

Hot Tips:

Casino-goers need to know that the dress code is strictly enforced - dressy attire only.

Where to Shop

Mercado de la Riberais, hailed as the largest covered food market in the world and housed in a gorgeous old building, is a sight to behold. Spain is a joy for shoe shopping and there are dozens of stores along the main plaza to peruse. Zara, in the city center, is a fun department-style clothing store catering to the young and hip, and higher-end designer stores are popping up around town including Lacoste.

Hot Tips:

Shops do close from 2-4 pm for lunch and siesta, although that practice may be waning a bit.

Best Local Souvenir:

A titanium hair clip from the Guggenheim gift shop - a shiny accessory made from scraps left over from the construction of the building.

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