Bilbao is a city packed with culture and boasts a diverse history. Once an important industrial hub, due to the iron quarries of the Biscay Bay area, it is only in recent years that the city has become the arts and culture centre that we know it as today.
Evidence of this gritty past can be seen when exploring the city's interesting architecture, but the surroundings are packed with natural beauty too. The city's urban centre is overlooked by two modest mountain ranges, and these are lined with fantastic walking and hiking routes.
The Guggenheim Museum
Perhaps the most well-known of Bilbao's attractions, the
Guggenheim museum was hailed as an important architectural feat when it was erected in 1997, and has developed since then to become a respected institution in the arts and culture scene. Its vast collection covers artworks from the mid-20th century to more modern pieces from today's art world, and it's known for having a great selection of post-war art from America and Europe.
The building itself is constructed from titanium, limestone, and glass, to create an amazing contemporary structure of seemingly random shapes. If you're travelling with kids, there are some fantastic activities for babies and young children, as well as live concerts held in the evenings.
Basilica of Begoña
When you're in Bilbao, check out the beautiful Gothic-style basilica to the east of Bilbao's centre. It took many years to build, starting in 1511, and over this time some Renaissance influences were added to the architecture, making it a particularly interesting structure. Set on top of a picturesque hill, the cathedral is surrounded by beautiful gardens and if you climb the tower, you'll get some stunning views of the city.
The contrast between new and old architecture can be enjoyed throughout the city.
Created in 1821, this Neoclassical square is a great place to stop for some lunch when exploring the city. The 'New Square' is lined with pillared archways, and is home to lots of different restaurants and traditional Basque tavernas, and if you visit on Sundays you'll find a great market, selling everything from books, to flowers and jewellery.
This part of Bilbao is a perfect example of the 18th century squares that are common in other places like San Sebastián and Seville, with large balconies overlooking the square. It's a lovely place to spend a sunny afternoon, and the whole family can enjoy perusing the tavernas, and buying some holiday gifts for loved ones back home.
Enjoy a coffee at Bilbao's scenic New Square.
Doña Casilda Iturrizar park
Bilbao is dotted with lovely urban parks that are great for games, picnics and soaking up the city sun, but one that stands out is Doña Casilda Iturrizar park. You'll find it in the pleasant neighbourhood of Indautxu, and it was the city's first large green space. Created in an English-style, it's a pretty, classical looking park which serves as a pleasant escape, away from the hustle and bustle of the city's streets.
Features of the park include a pergola and a fountain that lights up at night, to produce beautiful light and sound displays. There's also a large duck pond in the park which attracts lovely local wildlife, so you can take the kids to feed the ducks or enjoy a romantic stroll around the Parque de los Patos (Duck's Park).
In one corner of the park, you'll find the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, which contains a wonderful selection of both Basque and European art from the Middle Ages, to the present day. The building itself is stunning, and the classic design of the original building contrasts delightfully with the modern wing, which was added in the 1970s.
Take the kids to feed the ducks at 'Duck Park'.
Gran Vía District
When you visit a thriving city like Bilbao, you might want to do a spot of shopping. Bilbao's main avenue is Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro, a long stretch of shops, restaurants and tavernas, which run from east to west just south of Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar.
Stretching out for about a mile, the street is an important commercial hub in the city and has attracted world-class shops and designers, so whatever it is you need to purchase, you'll find it here! It's regarded as Bilbao's most iconic and recognisable street, and amongst the dazzling shops and restaurants, you'll see beautiful 19th century buildings and even works of art in the form of a large baby's head, created by sculptor and painter Antonio López García.
Spanish for 'old quarter', Casco Viejo is a wonderful part of historic Bilbao. The oldest part of this neighbourhood is made up of seven streets, which has given it the name Las Siete Calles (The Seven Streets). There's lots to see in this part of the city, from historical churches to the food market, Mercado de la Ribera. This huge covered market is a lovely place to pick up local delicacies, and you'll find everything you need from fresh meat to delicious locally grown vegetables.
The buildings around Casco Viejo are notable for being colourful and interesting, and they pop out against the other more industrial parts of the city. If you're exploring the old quarter, remember to head to Bilbao Cathedral. Built between the 14th and 15th centuries, this beautiful building is a mixture of architectural styles, predominantly Gothic, although the portico is in a Renaissance style.
The old quarter is a charming part of the city.
When visiting Bilbao you'll find that much of the city is made up of one-way streets, which are often quite narrow, and whilst a car is fantastic for day trips to the surrounding Basque Country, within the city itself, walking is a great way to get around to get a feel for the city. MetroBilbao is a smooth service that takes passengers down two main routes across the city, and it's a really convenient and reasonably priced way to get around.
If you're headed to the Guggenheim museum, take the EuskoTran from Atxuri Station. This green tram takes a scenic route along the river and it's a great way to get to the museum directly. A charming way to see the city is by taking the Artxanda Funicular. This cable railway takes you to the summit of Mount Artxanda, where you'll find beautiful views of the city, as well as a park and restaurants.
Getting there and around
Bilbao is about half a day's drive from Calais, and with
Eurotunnel Le Shuttle taking you from Folkestone to Calais in just 35 minutes, it's a really great trip to take with the whole family.
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