Bilbao was an industrial giant for much of the 20th century, but following a couple of decades of decline the city decided to change its image in the 1990s.
Celebrity architects and designers, like Frank Gehry, Norman Foster and Philippe Starck were drafted in to breathe new life into Bilbao’s skyline and infrastructure.
Now it’s a city with world-famous modern landmarks like Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, complemented by sophisticated cultural attractions like the Museum of Fine Arts and a picturesque old centre.
And when it comes to food Bilbao’s pintxos bars have become an international sensation.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bilbao:
1. Guggenheim Museum
Where better to start than this iconic building on the Nervión.
Half of your visit will be spent outside in awe of the flowing lines and titanium and glass cladding.
In case you didn’t know, it was designed by Frank Gehry and completed in 1997, as part of an ambitious regeneration scheme to put Bilbao on the world map.
Inside are nineteen galleries with temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, giving precedence to Basque artists, but also including shows by David Hockney, Richard Serra, as well as curated, themed exhibitions of art from around the world.
2. Fine Arts Museum
This attraction has a more traditional museum setting and is also a heavyweight, seen as one of the finest art galleries in Spain.
Particularly notable is the large time-span covered by the collection, with the oldest work dating to the 1100s and the newest from the present day.
Renaissance and baroque masters like van Dyck, El Greco and Murillo are all here, as well as Goya, Gauguin, Sorolla and Francis Bacon.
Among the many masterpieces are Sorolla’s “Kissing the Relic”, Gauguin’s “Laveuses à Arles “, Goya’s portait of Martín Zapater and Bacon’s “Lying Figure in Mirror”.
3. Casco Viejo
The old core of Bilbao on the right bank of the Nervión was originally defended by city walls.
These were removed in the late-1800s and now the district is made up of seven pedestrianised streets and two plazas with boutiques, bars and restaurants.
If you’re heading out for meal or pintxos in the evening then this will be your destination.
The rest of the time you can come for a gentle sightseeing tour, taking in the cathedral and the churches of San Anton , San Nicolás and Santos Juanes, the central market and the Arriaga Theatre.
4. Plaza Nueva
The nerve centre of the Caso Viejo, Bilbao’s main plaza is a typically Spanish monumental square and a grand place to meet up with friends in the evening.
The square as we see it now was completed in 1851 and has an arcade running along all four sides, beneath imposing four storey buildings.
Euskaltzaindia is on the north side: It’s the institution that governs the Basque language.
On Sunday mornings there’s a collectors’ market on Plaza Nueva selling antique stamps and coins, as well as artisan arts and crafts, and for the rest of the week it’s a good destination for pintxos.
5. The two theatres
The Arriaga theatre on the western edge of the Casco Viejo is named after Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga, a prodigious turn-of-the-century composer who died from tubrculosis at just 20. The building is a regal neo-baroque palace from the late-19th century, and is one of the places to go for a spot of high culture during your visit to Bilbao.
Just cross the river is the Campos Eliseos Theatre, that looks from the outside like it could be a Moorish palace in Andalusia.
The large portal on the facade of this building from 1902 is a stunning blend of neo- Mudéjar and art nouveau design.
Go inside for a free guided tour to see the main hall, liberally adorned with gold leaf.
6. El Ensanche
The other side of the Puente Arenal from the Arriaga Theatre is this upscale neighbourhood that was a completely different town to Bilbao until it was assimilated in 1870. Bilbao’s flagship branch of El Corte Inglés is located here among broad streets with refined early 20th-century townhouses.
Gran Vía here is where to come for high-street brands like Sephora, Zara and Benetton, or simply a wander below the lime trees.
Further west are some more of the city’s highlights, like the Museum of Fine Arts and the Doña Casilda de Iurrizar Park.
7. Azkuna Zentroa
Another of Bilbao’s wonderful modern projects, this multi-use cultural centre opened in 2010. Up to the 70s it had been the city’s huge wine warehouse that covered more than 40,000 square metres.
At the start of this century it was revamped according to the design of Philippe Starck, who oversaw every detail of the project that changed everything except the outer structure.
It’s not just a marvellous building but a venue for exhibitions and concerts, movie-screenings, conferences and sports activities.
One of the many cool attractions is the swimming pool on the upper floor, with glass-panels along its floor.
8. Bilbao Cathedral
The Cathedral of St. James was built in the 14th and 15th centuries, and is both Bilbao’s oldest monument and the most important gothic building in the Biscay Province.
The best way to enter is via the portal on the north side, the Puerta del Angel.
Above this doorway is a magnificent relief carved in the 1500s with a design that integrates the Basque lauburu, a traditional swastika.
Behind this door is the gothic cloister, one of only two in the province, and if you look down you’ll see the burial stones of various noblemen associated with the city, the oldest dating to the 1600s.
9. Athletic Bilbao
Students of the beautiful game have a lot of affection for Athletic Bilbao.
They were one of the first football clubs in the country, formed at the turn of the 20th century when a team of English expat workers combined with a team created by Basque students who had returned from England.
Athletic plays in La Liga at the brand new 53,289-seater San Mamés, replacing a ground that had stood for 100 years.
Come for a match from August to May.
Bilbao also stands out for its Basque-only recruitment policy, at a time when big money international transfers are the norm in football.
10. Zubizuri Bridge
Zubizuri means “white bridge” in Basque, and this futuristic structure was erected in 1997 to accompany Gehry’s Guggenheim as part of Bilbao’s transformation.
It was designed by Santiago Calatrava, who has produced landmarks across the world, including the City of the Arts and Sciences in Valencia.
The bridge hasn’t been without its controversies though, not least because the original glass tiles proved hazardous in Bilbao’s damp climate, earning it the unfortunate epithet “Bridge of Broken Legs”!. Don’t worry, the problem has been rectified with cladding, but this has covered up the glass and detracted a little from Calatrava’s design.
11. Artxanda Lookout
Just next to the Zubizuri Bridge is the Funicular Square where you can catch the train 224 metres up to this scenic viewpoint on the north side of the city.
The funicular has been here for more than a hundred years now, and once you get to the little park at the top you’ll see a big piece of the original train’s machinery, preserved now as a sculpture.
There are also a couple of restaurants up here, but the main reason to make the trip is for that sweeping view of the city encompassing all the main landmarks like the Guggenheim and the old town.
12. Aste Nagusia
From the first Saturday after the August 15 Bilbao cuts loose for its Semana Grande celebrations that last for one week.
It all kicks off at the “Txupinazo” from the exterior balcony of the Arriaga Theatre, when Marijaia is presented to the crowd and a rocket is fired into the sky.
Marijaia is a sculpture of a rather rotund lady with her hands raised above her head in a dancing posture, and she’ll be the mascot for the celebrations until she’s burned on the river on the last evening.
Responsible for the fun are the comparsas, festival groups that arrange events and activities in different parts of the city.
On the agenda will be firework competitions, great live music and a huge food fight.
Basque cuisine has been earning plaudits from abroad for decades now; you need only glance at the absurd number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the region.
But for the casual diner the easiest introduction is a “txikiteo” in Bilbao’s old-town.
This is the culinary equivalent of a bar crawl, only here you’ll be treated to ultra-creative pintxos.
These are bite-size dishes, normally laid on top of a slice of rustic bread and held together with a toothpick “pintxo”. Squid, txistorra (spicy Basque sausage), tempura prawns, fried egg, croquettes, grilled mushroom are just some of the ingredients used in these little dishes.
El Globo, La Olla and Gure Toki are three of the many bars to include in your outing.
14. Playa de Azkorri
Basque summers can be a bit unpredictable, but there are still many clear, sunny days from June to September.
When the sun is out you could get in the car for a 25-minute drive north to one of the best beaches in the region.
Azkorri holds the Blue Flag and is a sandy bay nearly a kilometre in length before a stunning bowl of grassy cliffs.
Naturally the Atlantic waters can be very fresh and the moderate waves may not suit youngsters, but the unspoiled beauty of the beach more than makes up for its brisk bathing condiitons!
15. Vizcaya Bridge
Further down the Nervión, near where it empties into the Bay of Biscay, is a staggering feat of late-19th-century engineering.
This transporter bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage site and when it was built it was the world’s first bridge with this purpose to be made of metal.
Vehicles and pedestrians are transported from one bank to the other via a hanging gondola suspended far beneath a trolley with 36 wheels.
Visitors can get up to the walkway, 45 metres above the sea and take a tour with an audio guide around the bridge’s mechanisms.