On Spain’s wild north coast, Bilbao is a dynamic hub of inspiring architecture, culture, and gastronomy, surrounded by some of the country’s most dramatic scenery.
Things to do in Bilbao include sipping on fine wines, admiring contemporary art, and savoring the gourmet highlights of the Basque Country.
From the city’s jaw-dropping Guggenheim Museum and skyline-defining Iberdrola Tower to the ancient streets and churches of the Old Quarter, Bilbao boasts an eclectic mix of old and new landmarks for travelers to discover.
Here are 12 of the best things to do in Bilbao on your next Spanish vacation.
Trawl the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
One of the most famous landmarks in Spain, the groundbreaking Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum’s titanium exterior has become synonymous with Bilbao’s modern landscape.
For some of the best views of the Guggenheim, cross La Salve Bridge—officially known as the Prince and Princess of Spain Bridge—and gaze back across the river to the museum.
One of the first works you’ll notice is the vibrant Puppy by Jeff Koons, a colossal flowering canine sculpture guarding Museum Square outside the Guggenheim.
Inside, you’ll see more works by Koons, plus pieces by Anish Kapoor, Mark Rothko, Eduardo Chillida, and Yves Klein.
Once you’ve admired the artwork, make a reservation for one of the best seats in Bilbao at the museum’s Nerua restaurant, helmed by chef Josean Alija. Nerua’s menu is led by the seasons and the flavors of the Basque Country, with Alija’s artistic touch creating plates of art worthy of the Guggenheim’s walls.
Read: Best Museums in Spain
Explore the World-Famous La Ribera Market
Cuisine forms a big part of the Basque Country’s identity, with Bilbao’s dining scene world-beating for its extraordinary collection of pintxos bars and the thrilling La Ribera Market.
The city’s market is a natural starting point to explore Bilbao’s myriad gourmet produce. The riverside market is set in a grand Art Deco building on the edge of the Old Quarter, one of the most beautiful places in Spain.
One of the largest indoor markets in Europe, it features a cookery school and gastro bars and offers an abundance of produce.
Breathe in the heady sights, sounds, and scents of the market. Some of the region’s finest ingredients are sold here, from fresh fish, vegetables, herbs, and meats to artisan bread, mushrooms, pickles, and preserves.
Wine, olive oil, chocolate, jelly, and candy are popular picks if you’re looking for a gourmet souvenir in Spain.
You could even get hands-on culinary experience at La Ribera’s second-floor cookery school. First, you’ll tour the market with the chef to pick up a selection of ingredients to create a Basque Country dish. The best part is that you’ll get to sample a delectable pintxos tasting menu afterward.
Marvel at Bilbao’s Bridges
With the Nervión River, which leads to the Estuary of Bilbao that meanders through the city, several bridges connect either side of the waterway. The eye-catching Vizcaya Bridge has straddled the mouth of the Nervión River since 1893.
Designed by Basque architect Alberto de Palacio y Elissague, a student of Gustave Eiffel, the Vizcaya Bridge is a masterclass in ironwork featuring lightweight twisted steel cables.
A UNESCO-listed landmark, Vizcaya was the first bridge in the world to carry people and traffic on a high suspended gondola and has since been used as a blueprint across the globe for similar structures.
Visit Vizcaya and its 148-foot walkway to learn about the bridge’s construction before making your way to another famous Bilbao bridge, Campo Volantin, also known as the Zubizuri Bridge. Located in the center of Bilbao, this 1997-built modernist overpass is an arched pedestrian footbridge.
The striking Campo Volantin was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the designer behind New York City’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub and Tenerife’s Auditorio de Tenerife. Wander across the 246-foot bridge on a walking tour of the city.
Discover the Old Town of Bilbao
Travelers to Bilbao often make a beeline for the city’s Old Town for its swoon-worthy Seven Streets. Located on the right bank of the river, this is the beating heart of Bilbao.
The slender streets are filled with colorful and atmospheric centuries-old buildings and an array of shops and pintxos bars.
Explore the 14th-and-15th-century-built Bilbao Cathedral, defined by its Basque Gothic spire towering over the Old Town. Take a photo of the church’s gleaming exterior, with its elaborate architecture featuring a renaissance and neoclassical portico.
The Old Town’s Plaza Nueva is a relaxing spot for people-watching. Tall palm trees add a splash of green tranquility to each corner of the immaculate square, with neoclassical portico arches and arcades providing shade. Enjoy a coffee, a glass of wine, or Basque beer in one of the square’s many cafés or bars.
Once you’ve refueled, dive into the fascinating Archaeological Museum (Arkeologi Museoa) to explore the two-story exhibition revealing the history of the city, from prehistoric through to recent times.
Other Old Town highlights include the riverside Church of San Anton, its striking bell tower, and the many independent shops selling everything from vintage wear to leather goods and books.
Ride the Cable Car to Mount Artxanda Viewpoint
Mount Artxanda looms some 800 feet above Bilbao, offering sweeping views of the city from the summit.
You could enjoy a breezy walk to the top or opt for the more leisurely red-and-white cable car from Plaza del Funicular, just a 10-minute walk from City Hall. The cable car takes around three minutes to reach the top.
Take in Mount Artxanda’s peak, admiring the city views from the leafy park and gardens, with several restaurants and a sculpture at the top.
Relax on Bilbao’s Beaches
The frothy north shore of mainland Spain boasts a string of phenomenal beaches, several within a short drive from the center of Bilbao.
Playa de Sopelana is a gorgeous golden sweep 20 minutes from the city center. Look out for paragliders flying from the cliffs above the beach.
Neighboring Arrietara Beach is a buzzing stretch that’s popular with surfers. If you don’t fancy hiring a surfboard, try the superb El Peñón de Sopelana restaurant, where you’ll be treated to wonderful sea views and delectable dishes of tuna, octopus, turbot, and Iberian ham.
Gorliz Beach, a 30-minute drive from Bilbao, is a blissful seaside spot with a pretty promenade, surf lessons, and board rental.
Northwest of the city, Playa de la Arena is a picturesque beach where the Cantabrian Sea lashes at the shore. Enjoy a walk on the satiny sand and a coffee from one of the beachfront cafes.
Sip Exquisite Wines in La Rioja
Two hours south of Bilbao, via the scenic Parque Natural de Gorbeia, travelers could experience one of the world’s most prized wine regions, La Rioja.
La Rioja is home to rolling green hills, ancient settlements, and hundreds of wineries in the foothills of the verdant Sierra de Cantabria.
Visiting the area on a vineyard tour and sipping on a selection of barrel-fermented bold red and creamy white wines is among the best things to do in Bilbao.
Taste the region’s grapes at sun-dappled bodegas in the town of Laguardia, the capital of Rioja Alavesa, where subterranean tunnels are used to age wines in oak barrels.
Bodegas Carlos San Pedro Pérez de Viñaspre sits on a 600-year-old cave, which has been used as a winery for over 300 years. Here you could sample a range of the producer’s wines following a tour of the underground wine caves.
At Dorretxe, you could experience a more unconventional vineyard tour—on a Segway—paired with a visit to the estate’s wine cave and a tasting.
Laguardia’s showpiece is Bodegas Ysios. The Sierra Cantabria frames this state-of-the-art winery with a wavy roof designed by Santiago Calatrava to mirror the mountainous landscape. Try Bodegas Ysios’ refreshing Ysios Rosé—just the antidote to a balmy summer’s day.
Stroll Around the Medieval Town of Castro Urdiales
Digging deep into Basque Country history is one of the best things to do in Bilbao. Culture-hungry travelers can do this on a stroll around the medieval town of Castro Urdiales, also known as Flavióbriga.
Around 20 miles northwest of Bilbao, picturesque Castro Urdiales is surrounded by glorious Spanish beaches— including Urdiales, El Fraile, and Brazomar—and easy to reach via a local taxi or bus.
In the Old Town, marvel at the 13th-century Santa Maria de la Asunción, a sprawling Gothic church next to the 12th-century Castle of Santa Ana, which features a lighthouse on top.
Wander the castle’s grounds, soaking up the spectacular views of Castro Urdiales’ sweeping harbor.
From the castle, cross the single-arched Roman Bridge and enjoy the short walk to Plaza del Ayuntamiento with its attractive porticoed Town Hall for a coffee or refreshing drink.
La Goleta, La Cierbanata, and Restaurante Marisquería Alfredo are popular restaurants within the square serving tasty pintxos, the name for Basque Country tapas.
Visit the Beautiful Fishing Port of Bermeo
Take off on a dopamine-sparking road trip to the charming fishing port of Bermeo, tucked into the jagged Basque Country coastline in Biscay, just a 35-minute drive from Bilbao.
Bermeo is built around a bustling harbor, where row upon row of hard-working fishing boats are moored.
Focus your time in Bermeo on visiting some of the town’s remarkable landmarks, including the 14th-century cloisters of the convent of San Francisco and the Fisherman’s Museum at the Gothic Ercilla Tower.
Call into Santa Eufemia, the oldest church in Bermeo, built in the 13th century before being reconstructed in the 15th century, where mass is still held every day at noon.
Roam the narrow streets of Bermeo’s historic center, Casco Viejo, near the waterfront. The lanes here are oriented from east to west, crossed with inclining winding lanes filled with tiny seafood restaurants and pintxos bars.
Find a local spot to dine on some of Bermeo’s specialties, including straight-from-the-water grilled sea bream, garlic-infused shrimp, and even sweet-tasting barnacles.
The capital of the Basque Country is the postcard-worthy Vitoria-Gasteiz, a one-hour journey southeast of Bilbao. Based around a medieval center, much of which was built in the 12th century, Vitoria-Gasteiz was once a fortified town.
Visit the unmistakable Cathedral of Santa María to see its elaborate entrance, built in the 14th century, and an octagonal tower containing a bell tower from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Tour the Gothic Church of San Miguel, home to the image of the White Virgin, the city’s patron saint, bordering Plaza de la Virgen Blanca (White Virgin Square).
In contrast to Vitoria’s ancient Old Town, the city’s modern Artium is a contemporary art museum. Pieces focus on Basque Country and Spanish artists, with works by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Begoña Ameztoy, and Nestor Basterretxea on display.
You could also step inside Museo Bibat—set within the 16th-century Bendaña Palace—combining the city’s Archeological Museum and the more offbeat Playing Card Museum.
Vitoria-Gasteiz has no shortage of top-drawer restaurants, too. Make a lunch reservation at El Clarete for its intimate setting and modern Basque cuisine.
Wander Around the Hamlet of Hondarribia
On the Spanish-French border, Hondarribia is an alluring seaside town roughly an 80-minute drive east of Bilbao.
Explore Hondarribia’s majestic walled Old Town. Enter through the Santa Maria atea—the ancient gate—to wander the maze of sloped cobbled streets.
The Castle of Emperor Carlos V and the 16th-century Church of Santa María are two of Hondarribia’s most stirring landmarks, conveniently positioned next to each other.
Away from the bustling Old Town, Hondarribia offers an expansive sandy beach at the mouth of the Bidasoa River. Spot the neighboring French beach, Plage d’Hendaye, on the opposite side of the river.
Quaint cafés with bags of old-world charm and intimate restaurants are scattered around Hondarribia. Try La Hermandad de Pescadores, translating as The Fishermen’s Brotherhood, on Zuloaga Kalea, for soul-warming fish soup, fried-cod tacos, and clams in a Basque sauce.
Enjoy a Day Trip to San Sebastián
If you’re on your second trip to Bilbao, consider heading out of town to visit San Sebastián on a whistlestop tour.
San Sebastian is around 63 miles east of Bilbao, making for a breezy 60-minute journey by road.
This sophisticated resort is set around a delightful crescent bay featuring two beaches, Ondarreta and La Concha, facing the small, green-covered Santa Clara Island. Bronzed vacationers enjoy swimming the short distance to the island from the mainland during summer.
Stroll around San Sebastián’s iconic promenade, known as La Concha Walk for its shell shape, making your way to the Old Town.
San Sebastián is a joy for food lovers, with some of the most celebrated restaurants in the Basque Country clustered around the city’s photogenic Old Quarter.
San Sebastian’s oldest neighborhood offers back-to-back pintxos bars, peppered with fine-dining restaurants, traditional cafés, and ice-cream parlors. Relax with small plates of expertly-crafted Basque Country cuisine in one of the quarter’s lively bars before returning to Bilbao.
Bilbao is one of Spain’s most sensational cities. Explore our luxury cruises to Bilbao to discover this historical region of the Basque Country.