All our hotels in Bilbao
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Much of Bilbao's renaissance was down to the construction of the silvery Guggenheim Museum Bilbao by architect Frank Gehry. Its opening in 1997 led to the city becoming an overnight star, placed firmly on the tourist map for the first time, and this was swiftly followed by a flurried repurposing of majestic old buildings and the opening up of a lively cultural scene. The visitors started pouring into the city and are still pouring in to this day.
What to Do in Bilbao
So where to start an exploration of this energetic, cultured and gourmet city? Get the lie of the land with a ride on the red-and-white funicular – which dates from 1915 – to the top of Mount Artxanda. Once there, take in glorious views of the city in miniature as well as the elegant half-timbered mansions (called baserriin Basque)clinging to the hillsides.
You can't visit Bilbao without paying homage to the Guggenheim, so once back down at street level, make it your first stop. This riverside museum is clad in an undulating titanium carapace and filled with some of the greatest modern-art treasures in the world. Works by legendary names including Rothko, De Kooning and Basquiat are presented in gleaming white galleries, while Jeff Koons' iconic, flower-covered Puppy stands guard outside, along with Maman, a looming, outsized spider by sculptor Louise Bourgeois.
Close by is another Bilbao museum with a collection almost as prestigious as the Guggenheim: the Museum of Fine Arts of Bilbao is dedicated to European art since the Middle Ages, and features standout pieces by Spanish masters including Goya, Zubarán and El Greco, as well as works by prominent Basque artists.
Take a breather after ingesting all that art and walk south along the river promenade to the Zubizuri district, where you'll find another of Bilbao's contemporary icons, Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava's controversial Zubizuri pedestrian bridge, with arched steel cables spanning the Nervión – it's beautiful when lit up at night. If you're on a family trip to Bilbao, you'll find the embarkation point for boat cruises a little way upstream along the river. Cross the river and stroll down tree-lined Campo Volantín for a wander around the charming Casco Viejo (Old Town), where life centres on the neoclassical Plaza Nueva, with elegant colonnaded townhouses lined by enticing terrace bars and cafés; it's the perfect place to rest your feet with a glass of slightly sparkling Txakolina Basque wine after browsing the Sunday antiques market.
Nearby is the old-world Las Siete Calles(Seven Streets) district , a warren of medieval lanes that are the beating heart of Bilbao, overflowing as they are with bars and indie shops. Presiding over all this teeming life is the 14th-century Santiago Cathedral; with its rather austere façade and ornate spire, it's dedicated to St James and was once an important stopover on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
Other suggestions for things to do in Bilbao include having a peek into the Spanish Gothic Iglesia San Antón, a short walk from the cathedral and a revered symbol of Bilbao that appears on the city's coat of arms. There is a great vantage point on the neighbouring Puente de San Antónbridge.
If it's time for a refuelling stop, head for the waterfront Erribera Merkatua food market – an art deco attraction in its own right with ornate-stained glass windows – to conjure up a picnic from the loaded market stalls. The best place to eat al fresco is the Bilbao park Etxebarria, once the grounds of a steel mill and now a rolling green space with mountain views, watched over by a spindly brick chimney, all that remains of the old foundry.
Cultural visits to Bilbao will keep everybody busy too, with a heady mix of theatre, cinema and concert halls on offer. Philippe Starck had a hand in the renovation of the Azkuna Zentroa (formerly known as Alhóndiga Bilbao) – a sleek cultural centre in a former wine warehouse, with a landmark glass-bottomed swimming pool – now home to concerts and off-beat exhibitions, while there are opera performances at the stately, neo-Baroque Arriaga Theatre, a building as beautifully ornate outside as it is within.
Best Restaurants in Bilbao
While Bilbao is undisputedly haute-cuisine central, plundering the rich bounty of the Bay of Biscay for seafood and the Navarre plains for its tasty beef, you don't have to dine in Michelin-starred restaurants to sample the intense flavours and gourmet heritage of Basque dishes.
Instead, turn to street-food stalls and try chistorra, a spicy coiled sausage with hints of paprika and garlic, delicious grilled and served in toasted bread. Look to the lively bars lining Plaza Nueva, where you can graze on pintxos – a snack of bread with a multitude of toppings from cured Iberian ham to smoky Idiazabal sheep's cheese and roasted piquillo peppers. The Basque answer to tapas, pintxos are secured by a cocktail stick and lined neatly along bar counters as free snacks – accompany them with regional tipples like bone-dry sagardoa cider or Izarra herbal liqueur.
And of course as any gourmand knows, an hour's drive down the coast turns up San Sebastián, another serious contender for foodie capital of the world.
The Best Hotels in Bilbao
Whether you're visiting on a weekend in Bilbao or staying for longer to explore the Basque Country, Accor has some of the best accommodation in Bilbao. Our 4-star Mercure is one of the best hotels in Bilbao, with an ultra-modern design, a cocktail bar and an elegant spa; it's also very close to the Guggenheim Museum. Other hotelsin Bilbao city centre include stylish budget options with bed-and-breakfast deals and quiet, comfortable rooms, and our Bilbao hotels also include ibis airport hotels in Bilbao, just off the motorway on the northern outskirts of the city, and also close to the ferry port.
How to Get to Bilbao
Bilbao Airport is 12 kilometres north of the city and services flights from across Spain, Europe and the UK. Take a taxi or hire a car for the short journey into the city, or use the bus service that departs every 30 minutes.
Daily high-speed ALVIA trains from Estación del Norte railway station connect with Madrid in 5 hours, and Barcelona in 7 hours. Local rail services are run by Euskotren and are useful for trips to nearby cities including San Sebastián and Santander.
A network of fast roads connects Bilbao with the rest of the Basque Country, Spain and France. Driving time to Madrid is around 4 hours and to Barcelona 6 hours, while Biarritz across the border in France is 1 hour 45 minutes.
Bilbao's ferry port is at Zierbena, some 20 kilometres north of the city on the Cantabrian Sea coastline. Its routes include an overnight service to Portsmouth in the UK, with some ferries stopping at Roscoff in France.
Once you are in Bilbao, there is a handy integrated transport system, featuring two metro lines, buses and trams. The hub for both methods of transport is at San Mamés, right next door to the smart, subterranean Estación de Bilbao Intermodal bus station. Moyua is the metro stop for the Guggenheim.
When to Visit Bilbao
The weather in Bilbao is wetter and cooler than in the south of Spain, with April having the most rainfall. Pleasant and sunny, May, June and September are the best times weather-wise to book a hotel in Bilbao for sightseeing breaks.
Visitor numbers shoot up in August when the biggest festival of the year takes place. Semana Grande is a 9-day celebration of Basque culture featuring street dancing, outdoor concerts and firework competitions. Other major events include indie rock at BBK Live in July, farmers' markets and livestock parades during Feria de Santo Tomás in the run-up to Christmas, and Basque Fest, showcasing all things Basque, in Holy Week.