28 Best Sights in Bilbao, Bilbao and the Basque Country

Mercado de la Ribera

Casco Viejo Fodor's choice
Mercado de la Ribera
leonardo2011 / Shutterstock

This renovated triple-decker ocean liner, with its prow facing down the estuary toward the open sea, houses one of the best markets of its kind in Europe—and one of the biggest, with some 400 retail stands that run the gamut from fish markets to pintxo bars to wine shops. This is a good place to stock up on culinary souvenirs while indulging in a pintxo or three.

Museo Guggenheim Bilbao

El Ensanche Fodor's choice
Museo Guggenheim Bilbao
Karol Kozlowski / Shutterstock

It's hard to overstate the importance of the Guggenheim museum, Frank Gehry’s architectural masterpiece of undulating titanium and chaotic, nature-inspired forms built on the riverfront. It all began when Guggenheim director Thomas Krens set out to find a venue for a major European museum and came up dry in Paris, Madrid, and other major cities. Having glumly accepted an invitation to Bilbao, Krens was out for a morning jog when he found what he was looking for—an empty riverside lot once occupied by shipyards and warehouses. He had a vision of a building that would symbolize Bilbao's macro-reconversion from steel to titanium, from heavy industry to art—and one that would be a nexus between the early-14th-century Casco Viejo and the 19th-century Ensanche, between the wealthy right bank and working-class left bank of the Nervión.

Frank Gehry's gleaming brainchild opened in 1997 and was hailed as "the greatest building of our time" by architect Philip Johnson and "a miracle" by Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times. At once suggestive of a silver-scaled fish and a mechanical heart, Gehry's sculpture in titanium, limestone, and glass echoes the Contemporary and Postmodern artworks it contains. The smoothly rounded jumble of surfaces and cylindrical shapes recalls Bilbao's shipbuilding and steel-manufacturing past, while transparent and reflective materials create a shimmering, futuristic luminosity. With the final section of La Salve Bridge over the Nervión folded into the structure, the Guggenheim is both a doorway to Bilbao and an urban forum: the atrium looks up into the center of town and across the river to the old quarter and the tranquil green hillsides of Artxanda, where livestock graze. Gehry achieved his goal of building a structure in which "you [could] feel your soul rise up."

The free audio guide offers an excellent synopsis of modern art, contemporary art, and the Guggenheim.

The collection, described by Krens as "a daring history of the art of the 20th century," consists of more than 250 works, most from the New York Guggenheim and the rest acquired by the Basque government. The second and third floors reprise the original Guggenheim collection of abstract expressionist, cubist, surrealist, and geometrical works. Legendary artists of the 20th century (including Kandinsky, Picasso, Ernst, Tàpies, Pollock, and Calder) are joined by more contemporary figures (Bruce Nauman, Txomin Badiola, Miquel Barceló, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and others). The ground floor is dedicated to large-format and installation work, some of which—like Richard Serra's Snake—was created specifically for the space. Claes Oldenburg's Knife Ship, Robert Morris's walk-in Labyrinth, and pieces by Joseph Beuys, Christian Boltanski, Richard Long, Jenny Holzer, and others round out the heavyweight division in one of the largest galleries in the world.

Expect lines on holidays and weekends, especially late morning through early afternoon. Cut the wait time by buying tickets ahead of time online or around closing time for the following day.

Buy Tickets Now

Vizcaya Bridge

Las Arenas Fodor's choice

This extraordinary 19th-century transporter bridge suspended by cables ferries cars and passengers across the Nervión, uniting the bourgeois Arenas and working-class Portugalete districts.  Portugalete is a 15-minute walk from Santurce, where the quayside Hogar del Pescador Mandanga serves simple fish specialties like besugo and grilled sardines.

Recommended Fodor's Video

Azkuna Zentroa

El Ensanche

In the early 20th century, this was a municipal alhóndiga, or storage facility, used by Bilbao's Rioja wine barons. Now, the city-block-size, Philippe Starck–designed civic center has shops, cafés, restaurants, movie theaters, and nightlife venues. The complex regularly hosts film festivals and art exhibitions, and it's a cozy place to take refuge on a rainy afternoon.

Begoñako Basilika

Begoñalde

Bilbao's most cherished religious sanctuary, dedicated to Bizkaia's patron saint, can be reached via 313 stairs from Plaza de Unamuno or by the gigantic elevator (Ascensor de Begoña) looming over Calle Esperanza 6. The Gothic nave was begun in 1519 and was completed in 1620 with the economic support of dozens of shipbuilders and merchants, whose businesses are commemorated on the inner walls. The high ground the basilica occupies was strategically important during the Carlist Wars of 1836 and 1873, and as a result La Begoña suffered significant damage that was not restored until the beginning of the 20th century.

Calle Virgen de Begoña 38, Bilbao, 48006, Spain
94-412--7091
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free

Biblioteca de Bidebarrieta

Casco Viejo

This historic library and intellectual club was originally called El Sitio (The Siege) in memory of Bilbao's successful resistance to the Carlist siege of 1876. (Carlists were supporters of Fernando VII's brother, Don Carlos, over his daughter Isabella II as rightful heir to the Spanish throne.) Now a municipal library, the Bidebarrieta has a music auditorium that is one of Bilbao's most beautiful venues and a spot to check for the infrequent performances held there. The reading rooms are open to the public and are a good place to read newspapers, make notes, or just enjoy the historical echoes of the place.

Calle Bidebarrieta 4, Bilbao, 48005, Spain
94-415–0915
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free, Closed Sun.

Catedral de Santiago de Bilbao

Casco Viejo

Bilbao's oldest church was a pilgrimage stop on the coastal route to Santiago de Compostela. Work began in 1379, but fire delayed completion until the early 16th century. The florid Gothic style with Isabelline elements features a nave in the form of a Greek cross, with ribbed vaulting resting on cylindrical columns. The notable outdoor arcade was used for public meetings of early governing bodies. In 2023, this cathedral garnered headlines as the first in Spain to hold a service apologizing to victims of pedophilia on behalf of the Catholic Church.

Convento de la Encarnación

Casco Viejo

The Basque Gothic architecture of this early-16th-century convent, church, and museum gives way to Renaissance and baroque ornamentation high on the main facade. The Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro (Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art) occupies a carefully restored 16th-century cloister and turns into a bake sale come Christmastime. The inner patio, ancient and intimate, is alone worth the visit. On display are religious silverwork, liturgical garments, sculptures, and paintings dating back to the 12th century. The convent is across from the Atxuri station just upstream from the Puente de San Antón.

Pl. de la Encarnación, Bilbao, 48006, Spain
94-432–0125
Sights Details
Rate Includes: €3, Closed Mon.

Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park

El Ensanche

Bilbao's main park, stretching east toward the river from the Museo de Bellas Artes, is a lush collection of tree-shaded paths, duck ponds, fountains, and wide lawns. It's a sanctuary from the hard-edged Ensanche, Bilbao's modern, post-1876 expansion. Doña Casilda de Iturrizar was a well-to-do 19th-century Bilbao matron who married a powerful banker and used his wealth to support various cultural and beneficent institutions in the city, including this grassy refuge.

Estación de la Concordia

El Ensanche

Designed by the engineer Valentín Gorbeña in 1893 and finished by architect Severino Achúcarro in 1898, this colorful train station looks across the Nervión River to the Paris Opéra–inspired Teatro Arriaga, responding with its own references to the colonnaded Parisian Louvre. The peacock-fan-shape, yellow-and-green-tiled entrance is spectacular, along with the immense stained-glass window over the access to the tracks in which facets of Bizkaian life and work are represented, from farmers and fishermen to factory workers and jai alai players. Meanwhile, the graceful arch of the hangar over the tracks is typical of traditional railroad terminals around Europe. 

Funicular de Artxanda

Matiko

Take a five-minute spin on the Artxanda Funicular, the railway up to the top of Artxanda Mountain, for some of the best views over Bilbao. At the summit, there's a park, hotel, sports complex, and a couple of good asadores

Iglesia de San Nicolás

Casco Viejo

Honoring the patron saint of mariners, San Nicolás de Bari, the city's early waterfront church was built over an earlier hermitage and consecrated in 1756. With a striking baroque facade over the Arenal, originally a sandy beach, the church weathered significant damage at the hands of French and Carlist troops in the 19th century. Sculptures by Juan Pascual de Mena adorn the interior. Look for the oval plaque to the left of the door marking the high-water mark of the flood of 1983.

Pl. de San Nicolás 1, Bilbao, 48005, Spain
94-416--3424
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free

Itsasmuseum

San Mamés

This carefully researched nautical museum on the left bank of the Ría de Bilbao reconstructs the history of the Bilbao waterfront and shipbuilding industry beginning from medieval times. Temporary exhibits range from visits by extraordinary seacraft such as tall ships or traditional fishing vessels to thematic displays on 17th- and 18th-century clipper ships or the sinking of the Titanic.

Kaitxo

A 20-minute drive southwest to the village of Balmaseda is in fact a one-way ticket to chocolate-and-coffee heaven. On an hourlong factory tour, learn firsthand what goes into making some of Spain's finest "bean-to-bar" chocolate and award-winning single-origin coffees—and how both delicacies tie into Spain's rich food history—during a tour that culminates in a heady tasting. 

Avda. Encartaciones 72, Bilbao, 48800, Spain
94-680--0679
Sights Details
Rate Includes: From €12

La Casa de la Villa (City Hall)

El Arenal

Architect Joaquín de Rucoba built this city hall in 1892, on the site of the San Agustín convent destroyed during the 1836 Carlist War. It shares the Belle Époque style of de Rucoba's Teatro Arriaga. The Salón Árabe, the highlight of the interior, was designed by the same architect who built Bilbao's Café Iruña, as their neo-Mudejar motifs suggest. 

Pl. de Ernesto Erkoreka 1, Bilbao, 48007, Spain
94-420–4200
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free

Los Jardines de Albia

El Ensanche

Bilbaínos wax poetic about this welcoming town green surrounded by concrete jungle. Overlooking the square is the Basque Gothic Iglesia de San Vicente Mártir, whose amply robed sculpture of the Virgin—located on the main facade—had to be sculpted a second time after the original version was deemed too scantily clad, according to local legend. The Jardines de Albia are centered on the bronze effigy of writer Antonio de Trueba, by the famous Spanish sculptor Mariano Benlliure (1866–1947).

Calle Colón de Larreátegui, Bilbao, 48001, Spain

Metro Bilbao

El Ensanche

The city's much-cherished subway system opened in 1995 and was designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, winner of the 1999 Pritzker Architecture Prize and architect of Barcelona's 1992 Collserola Communications tower and, more recently, the international terminal at Beijing Airport. The construction project was a necessity when Bilbao began to spread up and down the Nervión estuary. It connects Bolueta, upstream from the Casco Viejo, with Plentzia, a run of 30 km (19 miles), and, in the other direction, with Basauri. The metro is nearly spotless, graffiti is scarce, and most of its passengers ride in a respectful silence. 

Winner of the railway architecture Brunel Prize of 1996, the metro in general and the Sarriko station in particular were designated as the prizewinning elements. The Sarriko station, the largest of all of the 23 stops, is popularly known as El Fosterazo (the Big Foster); the others are Fosteritos (Little Fosters). The most spectacular are segmented glass tubes curving up from underground, such as those at Plaza Circular and Plaza Moyúa, widely thought to resemble transparent snails.

Museo de Bellas Artes

El Ensanche

Spain's number-three fine arts museum, bested only by Madrid's Prado and Seville's Museo de Bellas Artes, features works from every Spanish school and movement from the 12th through the 20th centuries. The collection of Flemish, French, Italian, and Spanish paintings includes works by El Greco, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Diego Velázquez, José Ribera, Paul Gauguin, and Antoni Tàpies. One large and excellent section traces developments in 20th-century Spanish and Basque art alongside works by better-known European contemporaries, such as Fernand Léger and Francis Bacon. Look for Zuloaga's famous portrait of La Condesa Mathieu de Moailles and Joaquín Sorolla's portrait of Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. Expect to spend at least three hours here.

Palacio de Ibaigane

El Ensanche

This graceful manor-house design is the only one of its kind left in Bilbao—an elegant and sweeping country estate with classic caserío (farmhouse) details amid the generally hard-edged Ensanche district. Now the official seat of the Athletic Bilbao soccer club, the house was originally the residence of the de la Sota family, whose most outstanding member, Ramón de la Sota, founded the company Euskalduna and became one of the most important shipbuilders in Europe. His company specialized in ship repair and opened shipyards in New York, London, Rotterdam, and Paris. Knighted, with the title "Sir," by Great Britain for his services to the Allied cause in World War I, de la Sota went on to found the Euskalerria Basque rights organization, which later joined forces with the Basque Nationalist Party. Because of his affiliation with Basque nationalism, Sir Ramón de la Sota's properties and businesses were seized by the Franco regime in 1939 and not returned to the family until 1973. You can step inside the lobby, but the house is no longer open to the public for tours. It's nevertheless still worthwhile to view from the outside.

Alameda de Mazarredo 23, Bilbao, 48009, Spain
94-424--0877

Palacio de la Diputación Foral

El Ensanche

Architect Luis Aladrén created this intensely decorated facade, just two blocks from Plaza Moyúa, for the seat of the Diputación (provincial government) in 1900. A manifestation of the bullish economic moment Bilbao was experiencing as the 20th century kicked off, the building was much criticized for its combination of overwrought aesthetic excess on the outside and minimally practical use of the interior space. The 19th-century Venetian motifs of its halls and salons, the chapel, and the important collection of paintings and sculptures are the best reasons to see the inside of the building.

Gran Vía de Bilbao 25, Bilbao, 48009, Spain
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free, Guided tours weekdays from 10:30 am

Plaza Miguel de Unamuno

Casco Viejo

This roomy square at the upper edge of the Casco Viejo honors Bilbao's greatest intellectual, Miguel de Unamuno (1864–1936), the philosopher, novelist, professor, and public figure. Unamuno wrote some of Spain's most seminal works including Del sentimiento trágico de la vida en los hombres y los pueblos (The Tragic Sense of Life in Men and Nations). His Niebla (Mist) is generally accepted as the first existentialist novel, published in 1914 when Jean-Paul Sartre was but nine years old.

Plaza Nueva

Casco Viejo

This 64-arch neoclassical plaza, built in 1851, is known for its Sunday-morning flea market, December 21 Santo Tomás festivities, and tapas bars and restaurants. Note the size of the houses' balconies (the bigger the balcony, the richer the original proprietor) and the tiny windows near the top of the facades, where servants' quarters would've been. The building behind the coat of arms at the head of the square was once a government office but is now the Euskaltzaindia (Academy of the Basque Language). The coat of arms shows the tree of Gernika, a symbol of Basque autonomy. The bars and shops around the arcades include two Victor Montes establishments, one for pintxos at Plaza Nueva 8 and the other for sit-down dining at No. 2. Café Bar Bilbao (No. 6), aka Casa Pedro, has Belle Époque interiors accented by photos of early Bilbao, while Argoitia (No. 15), across the square, has a nice angle on the midday sun.

Buy Tickets Now

Puente de la Ribera

Casco Viejo

This footbridge just downriver from the prow of the Mercado de la Ribera was traditionally known as the Puente del Perro Chico for the 25-cent coin once charged as a toll for crossing. Until Calatrava's Zubizuri was built, this was the only pedestrian bridge of Bilbao's nine river crossings. The bridge is officially named the Puente-Pasarela Conde Mirasol for the street it leads into.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

A recent Game of Thrones filming location, this solitary stone hermitage clings to a rocky promontory over the Bay of Biscay. A narrow, 231-step passageway connects the 10th-century chapel (perched on what would otherwise be an island) to the mainland, forming one of the region's most dramatic—and photogenic—landscapes. Bilbaínos visit the hermitage on holidays for good luck. A walk around San Juan de Gaztelugatxe's chapel bell tower is said to cure nightmares and insomnia—and to make wishes come true.

Santos Juanes

Casco Viejo

Distinguished for accumulating the deepest water of any building in the casco viejo during the disastrous 1983 flood, as can be witnessed by the water mark more than 14 feet above the floor in the back of the church (to the left as you come in), this simple baroque church was the first Jesuit building in Bilbao, built in 1604. Originally the home of the Colegio de San Andrés de la Compañía de Jesús (St. Andrew's School of the Order of Jesuits), the original school is now divided between the Museo Vasco and the church dedicated to both St. Johns—the Evangelist and the Baptist. The church's most important relic is the Relicario de la Vera Cruz (Relic of the True Cross), a silver-plated cross containing what is widely believed to be the largest existing fragment of the cross used at Calvary to execute Jesus in AD 33.

Calle de la Cruz 2, Bilbao, 48005, Spain
94-415–3997
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Closed Wed. and weekends, Mon., Tues., Thurs., and Fri. 11:30–12:30 and 6–7

Teatro Arriaga Antzokia

Casco Viejo

A century ago, this 1,500-seat theater was as exciting a source of Bilbao pride as the Guggenheim is today. Built between 1886 and 1890, when Bilbao's population was a mere 35,000, the Teatro Arriaga represented a gigantic per-capita cultural investment. Always a symbol of Bilbao's industrial might and cultural vibrancy, the original "Nuevo Teatro" (New Theater) was a lavish Belle Époque, neo-baroque spectacle modeled after the Paris Opéra by architect Joaquín Rucoba (1844–1909). The theater was renamed in 1902 for the Bilbaíno musician considered "the Spanish Mozart," Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga (1806–26).

After a 1914 fire, the new version of the theater opened in 1919. Following years of splendor, the Teatro Arriaga (along with Bilbao's economy) gradually lost vigor; it closed in 1978 for restoration work that was finally concluded in 1986. Now largely eclipsed by the splendid and more spacious Palacio de Euskalduna, the Arriaga stages opera, theater, concerts, and dance events September through June. Walk around the building to see the stained glass on its rear facade and the exuberant caryatids holding up the arches facing the river.

Buy Tickets Now

Teatro Campos Elíseos Antzokia

El Ensanche

If you've come from Barcelona, this extraordinary facade built in 1901 by architects Alfredo Acebal and Jean Baptiste Darroquy may look familiar. The wild Moderniste excitement of the intensely ornate circular arch is a marked contrast to the more sober Bilbao interpretation of the turn-of-the-20th-century Art Nouveau euphoria. The theater is called Campos Elíseos after Paris's Champs-Élysées (a brief spasm of Francophilia in a town of Anglophiles), as this area of town was a favorite for early-20th-century promenades. During most of the 20th century, Bilbao's theatrical life had two poles: the Casco Viejo's Teatro Arriaga and El Ensanche's Campos Elíseos. The elegant venue offers varied programs of theater, dance, and more.

Zubizuri Bridge

El Ensanche

Santiago Calatrava's seagull-shaped bridge (the name means "white bridge" in Euskera) is a few minutes from the Guggenheim. Other creations by the cult architect include Bilbao Airport and Ondarroa's Puerto Bridge.