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Bilbao City Breaks

An artistic and architectural gem

Geographically speaking, Bilbao lies in the far north of Spain, on an estuary that flows out into the Bay of Biscay – but as the largest city in the Basque Country, it very much has a flavour of its own, reflecting the region’s proud and distinct identity. Formerly an industrial powerhouse whose economic growth was fuelled by the iron, steel and shipbuilding industries in the 19th and 20th centuries, it has morphed into one of Europe’s most culturally rich cities today, packed with eye catching sculptures, fascinating museums and an eclectic blend of ultra-modern and traditional architecture.

The Guggenheim Museum, designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, is an unmissable masterpiece, renowned for its futuristic titanium facade and contemporary art exhibitions inside. Right next to it, you’ll find a 12.4m-tall sculpture of a West Highland Terrier covered entirely in flowers – one of many weird and wonderful permanent art installations dotted throughout the city. When exploring the trendy La Vieja district, and when wandering the colourful streets of Casco Viejo (the old town), home to the 14th-century Gothic-style Santiago Cathedral, you’ll feel a totally different vibe. That’s the thing about Bilbao; each neighbourhood reveals a new and intriguing layer of the city’s unique character. 


A crucible of Basque cuisine

San Sebastian, around 100km to the east, may be Spain’s unofficial foodie capital and one of the world’s great culinary cities, but Bilbao isn’t far behind. It’s a gastronomic gem in its own right, particularly when it comes to sumptuous seafood. Bacalao pil-pil (salted cod with olive oil, garlic and chilli), kokotxas (a hearty hake or cod stew) and txipirones (squid in its own ink) are some of the speciality dishes you’ll come across in plenty of Bilbao restaurants.

Expect to eat lots of pintxos, too. Unlike tapas dishes, which are served on plates, these Basque snacks are typically pinned to a small bread base by a toothpick, and are almost exclusively ordered at the bar. As well as lots of rustic, low key eateries, there’s also a well established fine dining scene in Bilbao, including a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants showcasing some of the Basque Country’s most exquisite cuisine. For a full-spectrum foodie experience, be sure to visit La Ribera – the largest covered market in Europe.

Surrounded by spectacular nature

Part of the beauty of a city break in Bilbao is how easy it is to get out into the wild nature that surrounds it. The city occupies a narrow valley between rolling hills and forested mountains – prime hiking and cycling territory – and while you wouldn’t necessarily think you’re near the coast when strolling through the city centre, you’re actually only 20 minutes away from some of Spain’s finest beaches. For magnificent views overlooking the city, take a trip on the funicular to the observation deck at the summit of Mount Artxanda.

Your Bilbao questions, answered

It takes just under two hours to fly from London to Bilbao, just over two hours from Manchester and one hour and 45 minutes from Bristol. 
In a couple of days you could easily cover the main sights of Bilbao and get a good feel for the city’s character. However, if you fancy going hiking in the nearby mountains or you feel like heading to the coast to visit some of the region’s stunning beaches, it’s worth giving yourself an extra day or two to fit it all in without having to rush. 
As Bilbao is a fairly compact city, you can easily get to most places on foot. To walk from the Guggenheim Museum to La Ribera Market, for instance, takes just 25 minutes – and they’re at opposite ends of the city centre. Public transport is also excellent, with quick, cheap and regular metro, tram and bus services operating within the city and beyond. 
Certainly. From boat trips along the river to days out at the beach, there’s no shortage of family-friendly activities in and around Bilbao. Taking the funicular up Mount Artxanda is another great option, as is exploring Doña Casilda Park, which has lots of green space, fountains, several play areas and a lake with ducks. The Bilbao Maritime Museum, meanwhile, has plenty of interactive exhibits to keep kids entertained.
There isn’t necessarily a bad time of year to visit Bilbao, although it’s worth noting that this part of Spain is generally much wetter and cooler than the rest of the country. For warm, sunny weather, May to September is the best window to visit, with day time temperatures typically hovering around the mid-20s in the height of summer. In winter and autumn, it’s not uncommon for temperatures to fall into single figures – but that’s not to say you can’t still have a great time. Bilbao’s Christmas markets and lights festivals create a real festive charm, so don’t rule out visiting outside of peak season.

There’s a whole host of fantastic excursions you can take from Bilbao. It takes less than half an hour to get out to the coast by public transport, so a day at the beach is an easy option if you fancy a change of scene. Las Arenas and Eregea are two of the closest to the city centre, while Gorrondatxe, Barrika and Gorliz are all delightful spots a little further up the coast.

A day trip to San Sebastian is definitely worth considering so you can experience first hand why it’s regarded as one of the world’s most treasured foodie cities; you can get there in an hour and a half by train or bus.

The woodlands and wetlands of Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve are an idyllic environment for gentle hiking, while Ganekogorta offers more challenging mountain trails (and breathtaking views) just south of the city. 

There are two official languages in Bilbao: Spanish and Euskara (Basque). You’ll probably hear both being spoken, and street signs are bilingual. Euskara isn’t at all related to Spanish or any other Indo-European language, hence it looks and sounds completely different. 

Hotels in Bilbao City

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