48 hours in Bilbao

In the heart of the Basque country, tradition and contemporary style have combined to create a truly inspiring city.



May and June are the best months for a trip to the Basque city of Bilbao: although the weather is sunny, the sweltering temperatures of the Spanish summer have not yet taken hold, and the quality of light can be mesmeric. On most weekends you'll find a local festival, be it a celebration of cheese, music or handicrafts. Apart from its large and intriguing pockets of old-world charm, Bilbao is characterised by some of Europe's most challenging and inspiring contemporary architecture - from Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum to Sir Norman Foster's metro stations.


I flew with easyJet (0871 750 0100, www.easyjet.com), which offers return fares from Stansted, Gatwick and Bristol from around £50. British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) and Iberia (0845 6012854, www.iberia.com) operate codeshare flights from Heathrow from around £100 return. Bilbao's Sondica International Airport - known locally as La Paloma or "the dove", owing to its elegant structure by Santiago Calatrava - is about 13km north-east of the city. From here a taxi to the centre of town costs around €15 (£10.70). The airport bus costs €1.05/75p per adult, one-way, departing every 30 minutes daily between 6.30am and 10.30pm. Arrival by sea is also possible: P&O Ferries (0870 242 4999, www.poportsmouth.com) leaves for two-night trips on Saturday and Tuesday with overnight returns on Monday and Thursday. A mini cruise for two sharing a cabin costs from £68 return.


Bilbao is about 13km from the coast and is sliced in two by the River Nervion. It is further divided into a series of districts or "barrios", the most atmospheric of which is the old town or "Casco Viejo", with its honey-coloured, tightly packed streets. In striking contrast, across the river lies El Ensanche, the 19th-century part of the city. Here, the airport bus drops off passengers, at the central Plaza Moyua, a grand fountain-strewn square, where eight streets converge.

Most of Bilbao is easily navigated on foot, although, the new metro system is a pleasure to ride. The city has a well-integrated public transport network, the focal point of which is Abando station, close to the river Those planning to use the trams, metros, buses and funicular could invest in a €5 (£3.60), €10 (£7.15) or €15 (£10.70) "Creditrans" ticket, allowing unlimited travel for one or more people until the credit expires.

Bilbao's main tourist office is at Calle Rodriguez Arias 3 (00 34 94 479 5760, www.bilbao.net), open Monday to Friday, 9am-2pm and 4pm-7.30pm. Several more tourist offices are dotted around the city including one conveniently near the Guggenheim Museum at Avenida Abandoibarra 2. This office opens Tuesday-Friday from 11am-2.30pm and 4pm-7pm. Saturdays from 11am to 3pm and Sundays from 11am-2pm.


Head for Plaza de Funicular in the Uribarri barrio, north-east of the river, and take the scarlet Artxanda Funicular to the summit of Monte Artxanda for a bird's-eye view of the city backed by a crescent of velvety green hills. The funicular departs every 15 minutes, costs 76 cents (50p) one-way and opens Monday-Friday 7.15am-10pm and 8.15am-10pm at weekends (11pm in June, July and August).


Start outside the Guggenheim Museum and stroll along Bilbao's rejuvenated riverside. Walk down the promenade Paseo Uribitare, passing Santiago Calatrava's spectacular twisting footbridge, the Zubizuri, on your left. Continue up to Puente Arenal, pausing to look at the 19th-century Teatro Arriaga on your right. Cross the bridge and you are in Casco Viejo. Cross the arcaded Plaza Nueva, with its buzzing cafés and bars, and continue down Calle La Cruz until you arrive at the Calle Somera - the first of the seven original streets or "Siete Calles" of the old town. Walk towards the river as far as the Church of Saint Anthony, where Diego Lopez de Haro read out the founding charter of Bilbao on 15 June, 1300. Turn down the Calle Ribera, past the Mercado de la Ribera and cross the Puente Arenal. Continue down the gracious shop-lined Gran Via Don Diego Lopez de Haro until you reach Plaza Moyua.


The pintxo is the Basque version of tapas, but considered by many to be far superior. Either stand at the bar of Victor Montes in the Plaza Nueva (00 34 94 415 5603, www.victormontes.com) and graze the large array of pintxos laid out before you or nip next door to the Café Bar Bilbao (00 34 94 415 1671) and order a plate of calamari hot from the deep fat fryer and costing €5.90 (£4.20).


The Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao (00 34 94 439 6060, www.museobilbao.com) is well worth a visit for its collection spanning the 13th century to the present day, including paintings by Van Dyck and modern works from the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida (open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 8pm; Sundays from 10am to 2pm. Admission: €4.50/£3.20). For a greater understanding of the region's heritage, take a stroll around the Basque Museum, Plaza Unamuno 4 (00 34 94 415 5423, www.euskal-museoa.org), open Tuesday to Saturday (11am to 5pm), and Sunday (11am to 2pm), €3 (£2.10).


Join the throng of well-heeled locals at the brass-and-wood bar of La Viña del Ensanche, at Diputacion 10 (00 34 94 415 5670) and order a glass of the local white wine "txakoli", and a pintxo or two of tomato, olive oil and "jamon", the house speciality.


El Perro Chico at Aretaxaga 2 (00 34 94 415 05 19) overlooking the river and decorated with pretty blue, white and terracotta tiles, is the place for traditional Basque dishes and seafood, including steamed anchovies in olive oil and the freshest of hake. Expect to pay around €40(£28) per person for two courses.


In the heart of the Casco Viejo you'll find the city's oldest church, the Gothic Cathedral de Santiago (00 34 94 432 0125). Mass is at 10.30am and 12pm.


Generally, the Spanish have not yet embraced the concept of brunch but the Miro Hotel Alameda Mazarredo 77 (00 34 94 66 11 880, www.mirohotelbilbao.com) offers a Sunday buffet from 12.30pm to 3.30pm - €21 (£15) per person - of salads, breads, charcuterie, cheeses and dishes cooked to order.


One of the most popular of Bilbao's few green spaces is the small Arenal complete with bandstand, dog walkers and outdoor cafés. Alternatively cross the road and take a stroll around the larger Parque Etxebarria, beside the foothills of Monte Arxanda.


Bilbao's trams made a welcome return to the city centre in 2002. The initial route was extended in July 2003 and now links Atxuri station in the east with San Mames in the west. It's an effortless way to take in many of the principal sights. Single fares cost €1 (70p). Those wanting to venture further afield could catch the metro Line 1 as far as Neguri station and take a short walk to the pretty seaside town of Gexto.


Buy a postcard of the Guggenheim with Jeff Koons' colourful giant "Puppy" standing guard outside and sit with a cafe con leche €1.25 (85p) at Cafe Iruna (00 34 94 423 7021), at Jardines de Albia.


This has to be Frank Gehry's masterful titanium, glass and stone Guggenheim Museum, at Abandoibarra Et. 2 (00 34 944 35 90 80, www.guggenheim-bilbao.es; open daily from 10am-8pm; closed on Monday except in July and August; €10/£7.10). The star of the show is the building itself.


By and large, it's best to book accommodation in advance, but the tourist office can help if you arrive without any reservations. One of Bilbao's most conveniently located and newest hotels is the small Miró Hotel, at Alameda Mazarredo 77 (00 34 94 66 11 880, www.mirohotelbilbao.com). Just steps from the Guggenheim, it boasts a sleek interior by local fashion designer Antonio Miró. Doubles start from €155 (£110), room only.

For more traditional surroundings, head for the Hotel Carlton (00 34 94 416 2200, www.aranzazu-hoteles.com) at Plaza Moyua. Dating from 1919, and famously a favourite of Ernest Hemingway, the Carlton was recently declared a National Monument. Doubles start at €100 (£70), room only.

In the heart of the old town the Petit Palace Hotel Arana (00 34 94 415 6411, www.hthotels.com), at Calle Bidebarrieta 2, offers double bedrooms from around €90 (£65). If you want breakfast, you'll pay an extra €12 (£8.60).

At the budget end of the market, The Hotel Ripa (00 34 94423 9677, www.hotel-ripa.com), at Ripa 3, is conveniently located close to the river, the old town and Abando station. It offers doubles from €60 (£42) room only.


Shops in Bilbao are generally open from 10.30am to 1.30pm and reopen at around 4.30pm until 8pm. Most are closed on Sundays.

Casco Viejo is the place to go for small, interesting outlets selling everything from lingerie and shoes to hats and umbrellas. Bilbao, like most other Spanish cities, has several branches of the phenomenally successful Zara chain (with the main outlet at Gran Via 15-16), although you will probably find that prices are similar to those in the UK.

The ubiquitous Spanish department store El Corte Ingles (00 34 94 425 3500, www.elcorteingles.es) occupies a large site on the Gran Via Don Lopez de Haro. For upmarket boutiques and Spanish leather goods from companies such as Loewe and Gucci, stroll down the pedestrianised Avenida Elcano and its surrounding streets, just off the Plaza Moyua.

For local colour, don't miss the food market in the Mercado de Ribera on the river bank. With two floors of fish, vegetables and meat, it opens 8am to 2pm from Monday to Saturday.

The best time to go shopping is between 6pm and 8pm when locals take an evening stroll, chatting, looking in the windows and eventually retiring to a local pintxos bar for a quick aperitif.


Bilbao is something of a foodie heaven, so whether you're in one of the city's growing number of new-wave restaurants, in a cider house or in a simple pintxos bar you will almost inevitably eat extremely well here. Perhaps most prominent among the city's chefs is Martin Berasategui, who oversees the restaurant in the Guggenheim (00 34 944 239 333; www.martinberasategui.com). Here a set lunch menu of three courses (€15/£10.70 weekdays, €20/£14.25 weekends) might typically include such dishes as pumpkin with cod confit; lacquered leg of lamb with a port sauce; and honey and lemon verbena ice cream.

At the other end of the scale, the best pintxos bars are located in the Casco Viejo - try Xukela (00 34 94 415 97 72) on El Perro 2 and the Plaza Nueva. In Calle Diputation in the newer part of the city, make for Bar Los Candiles (00 34 94 424 1479). You can't come to Bilbao without trying traditional Basque dishes such as "pil-pil" containing salt cod, and "kokotxas", or hakes' cheeks. Goizeko Kabi (00 34 94 442 1129, www.goizekogaztelupe.com), at Particular de Extraunza, serves superior versions of both these classic dishes. If you see "txangurro al horno" on the menu, be sure to try this local favourite, a dish of spider crab with tomatoes, baked in its own shell.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?