Bilbao has more to offer than the Guggenheim: architecture, parks, history, art, and food. The city is very walkable and doable in a few days if you have a plan. Our itinerary was a quick one, we had essentially 2.5 days to explore and sample some of what Bilbao has to offer. We saw just a bit, but we caught the highlights. It wouldn’t be hard to a week in Bilbao as your base with side trips out as desired. We chose to move around a bit and stay in multiple locations. Itineraries are built to fit your taste, you can mix and match activities and sights that fit your style of journey.
Day 1: Arrival and Check-in and Walk around Abondoibarra
Airport and Transport
If you want to tour the Basque region and Rioja, we highly recommend renting a car. It’s quite easy to drive around Bilbao-San Sebastian-Rioja. In Bilbao and San Sebastian, we parked our car and walked the cities, but getting to farther-flung sights or towns was much easier with a car. Additionally, we were headed to Rioja so we needed wheels for wine tasting and village hopping. The highways are very easy to navigate and well marked. It’s easy to drive there. You do not need an international license, your home driving license will most likely be quite sufficient - just check with the car rental company. We come from the US and that was all that was needed.
The Calatrava-designed airport in Bilbao is a mid-sized airport that is easy to get around. You won’t have any difficulty finding car rental and transport into the city. If you choose public transport, you obviously have a choice of taxi, private car or public transport. For easy information on options, please visit the Bilbao tourism site at this page.
We stayed at the Silken Gran Domine Hotel which was a good option for what we wanted to see and is an excellent value for a 5-star property. It’s located across the street from the Guggenheim Museum and near the Fine Arts museum. Everything was walkable from this location. We had some nice long walks and they were thoroughly enjoyable. Please note, it does rain more in Bilbao than other cities so plan for variable weather. We were there in May-June and the weather was cool and comfortable with rain in the evening and morning.
Walking around Abandoibarra and Dinner at Victor Montes
The Abandoibarra area where the Guggenheim and our hotel were located offers several things to walk to and look at in the afternoon after you check in to your hotel. You could spend the afternoon at the museum if you arrive Tues-Sun.
From there, it’s a simple walk to other architecture and culture sights:
Puente de la Salve and its red gate by artist Daniel Buren
Pasarela Pedro Arrupe by engineer José Antonio Fernández Ordóñez
Deusto Library by Rafael Moneo (note: it’s a university library, so you won’t get to walk around inside)
Bizkaia Aretoa by Álvaro Siza
Iberdrola Tower by César Pelli
Plaza Euskadi by Diana Balmori
Zubiarte shopping center by Robert AM Stern
Fine Arts Museum (although we recommend visiting that and touring its collections when you have time)
Bilbao Maritime Museum
All of the guides (online and in print) will tell you that Victor Montes is one of the best tapas (pintxos) stops and certainly a fixture in the city (it was the sight of the 1997 signing of the Guggenheim Museum start which indeed began the renaissance of Bilbao’s tourism). It’s bar, cafe, shop and decorative. The food was good, the restaurant had a balance of locals and tourists and the wine menu was certainly extensive and had plenty of deliciousness. We recommend it, and it’s one of the only places open when other restaurants are closed (Sundays and Mondays are frequently closed days for finer restaurants).
Wine at Victor Montes
We really loved the local Txakoli and this one is the most highly valued Txakoli of the “Bizkaiko Txakolina”. Txakoli is light, slightly effervescent and super refreshing. It pairs well with tapas.
Day 2: The Guggenheim, Lunch at Nerua, Walk to the Casco Viejo and Dinner at Zortziko
So much has been written about the Guggenheim, it’s hardly necessary for us to repeat all of it here. Suffice it to say it is a must. The Koons Puppy is worth it in and of itself, particularly if you catch it in full bloom. The museum’s permanent collection (including Richard Serra’s “Matter of Time) is impressive and the outdoor installations by Koons (Tulips; Puppy), by Anish Kapoor (The Big Tree and the Eye), by Louise Bourgeois (Maman) are wonderful.
Nerua at the Guggenheim
Nerua makes artful and delicious food. We had lunch and service was exactly what you’d expect of a world-class restaurant with wait staff and the space all very meticulous. The restaurant design is modern and minimal with famous Frank Gehry chairs and the building shape itself as the primary design elements. It is well worth a visit and you won’t regret the style and art of the meal.
Walking to Casco Viejo
After lunch at the Guggenheim, we walked to the Casco Viejo through the neighborhoods on the walking map above. There is much to see (as you can tell) but not everything requires more than a quick walk around and through. You can cover a lot of ground in an afternoon. We spent some time in Mercado, but since we were not staying several days and thus didn’t need to shop for foodstuffs for ourselves, the visit was more to ooh and ahh rather than buy. If you’re Air BnBing it and spending a few days, then the market will be a great place to buy local goodies.
Dinner at Zortziko
Zortziko’s chef-owner is Daniel Garcia and his take on food is modern Vizcayan. He captures that in the dining room as well as the flavors and dishes. We thought it was an excellent meal and the wine pairings we had were also excellent. Zortziko is a michelin-guide restaurant and definitely more upscale than a tapas environment like Victor Montes. Zortziko is closed on Sun/Mon. You will want to make reservations online ahead of time.
Day 3: Fine Arts Museum and good bye, Bilbao.
On our final morning and 1/2 day, we headed the opposite direction from Casco Viejo and walked around the Euskadi Plaza area and the Museum of Fine Arts. The museum had a fantastic exhibition while we were there, Dior in the 50s, which was a nice precursor to our visit to the Balenciaga museum a few days later. The Fine Arts museum may not get the same attention as the Guggenheim, but it is worth a visit in and of its own right (architecturally and exhibition-wise). There are several architectural sites of interest in the direction of the museum, so the walking tour map above is a good one to go by.
There are several worthwhile day trips depending on your interests: