What is Bilbao known for?
Bilbao is famous for its iconic Guggenheim Museum, which is renowned for its architecture and contemporary art collection. The city is also known for its delicious Basque cuisine, with a range of traditional dishes such as pintxos and bacalao al pil-pil. Finally, Bilbao is famous for its industrial heritage, which has been transformed in recent years into a hub of innovation and sustainability.
History of Bilbao
Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque Country of northern Spain and has a rich and varied history. The area where Bilbao now stands was first settled by the Romans in the 2nd century, but it was not until the Middle Ages that the city began to take shape.
The industry has played a crucial role in the history and development of Bilbao. The city’s location on the Nervion River, close to the Bay of Biscay, made it an ideal location for trade and commerce. From the Middle Ages, Bilbao was a key center for the export of wool and iron ore to other parts of Europe, and the city quickly became a major commercial hub. By the 16th century, Bilbao was one of the most important ports in Spain, and the city’s shipbuilding industry thrived, producing vessels for both trade and warfare.
During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, Bilbao became a major center for iron and steel production. The city’s iron mines, which were located in the nearby mountains, provided a steady supply of raw materials, and Bilbao soon became one of the most important industrial centers in Europe. The city’s steel industry continued to grow throughout the 20th century, and by the 1960s, Bilbao was producing over a million tons of steel per year.
While the decline of heavy industry in the late 20th century led to economic difficulties in Bilbao, the city has managed to reinvent itself in recent years, becoming a hub for technology and innovation. However, the city’s industrial heritage remains an important part of its identity, and many of Bilbao’s most iconic buildings and landmarks, such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, were built on the foundations of its industrial past.
But still, Bilbao remains the economic capital of the Basque Country, due to its strong industrial and commercial heritage, as well as its recent transformation into a hub for technology and innovation. The city is home to many important businesses and institutions and has a thriving economy that contributes significantly to the overall prosperity of the region.
Bilbao has a rich architectural heritage that reflects the city’s history and culture. The city has undergone significant transformations over the past few decades, with the most notable being the revitalization of the city center through the construction of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which opened in 1997. The museum, designed by Frank Gehry, is a striking example of contemporary architecture and has become an iconic landmark of Bilbao.
In addition to the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao has many other notable buildings and landmarks, including:
- The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum, designed by Francisco de Urcola and completed in 1945;
- The Zubizuri Bridge, designed by Santiago Calatrava and completed in 1997;
- The Isozaki Atea Tower, designed by Arata Isozaki and completed in 2019;
- The Iberdrola Tower, a 165-meter-tall skyscraper designed by César Pelli and completed in 2012.
Bilbao’s architecture also includes many historic buildings that showcase the city’s rich cultural heritage, such as the Gothic-style Santiago Cathedral, the neo-baroque Arriaga Theatre, and the ornate City Hall.
In recent years, Bilbao has also become a hub for innovative and sustainable architecture, with many new developments incorporating environmentally friendly materials and designs. This is exemplified by the Zorrozaurre Masterplan designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, which aims to transform a former industrial area into a vibrant and sustainable new district of Bilbao. Located where the iconic red crane is, the project includes the construction of new residential, commercial, and cultural buildings, as well as the restoration of historic industrial buildings. The masterplan was designed by Zaha Hadid Architects in collaboration with local architects and urban planners.
Overall, Bilbao’s architecture is a fascinating blend of old and new, with a range of styles and influences that reflect the city’s diverse history and culture.
What is that red crane we mentioned above? The crane is an iconic landmark of Bilbao, and it has become a symbol of the city’s industrial heritage. The popular name of the red crane in Bilbao is “La Carola”, it was used in the past for loading and unloading ships and transporting materials, and it is now preserved as a monument to Bilbao’s industrial past.
10 Cool Things to Do in Bilbao
1.Discover the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is an incredibly important landmark for the Basque region, and no visit to Bilbao is complete without seeing it. It transformed the city of Bilbao into a modern, forward-looking metropolis and we even speak about The Guggenheim Effect.
The Guggenheim effect is a term that refers to the economic and cultural revitalization of the city of Bilbao, Spain, following the opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997. The museum, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, was part of a larger urban renewal project that aimed to transform Bilbao from a declining industrial city into a vibrant cultural and tourist destination.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao quickly became a sensation, attracting visitors from all over the world with its striking architecture and world-class art collections. The museum helped put Bilbao on the map as a destination for cultural tourism and generated significant revenue for the city’s economy. In the years following its opening, Bilbao experienced a surge in tourism, which in turn led to the creation of new hotels, restaurants, and other businesses.
The Guggenheim Effect is often cited as an example of how investment in cultural institutions and infrastructure can help revitalize struggling cities and regions. The success of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao has inspired other cities around the world (another good example is Malaga) to invest in similar cultural projects, with the hope of achieving similar economic and cultural benefits.
2.Hang Out at Azkuna Zentroa
Azkuna Zentroa is a cultural and leisure center located in the heart of Bilbao, Spain. It is housed in a former wine warehouse that has been transformed into a modern and vibrant space for art, culture, and entertainment. The center spans over 43,000 square meters and has a wide range of areas dedicated to different activities and programs. Some of the areas of Azkuna Zentroa include:
- Plaza: A spacious outdoor square in front of the center that serves as a meeting place and venue for events.
- Exhibition Hall: A large gallery space for contemporary art exhibitions.
- Theatre: A performance space with seating for up to 700 people, used for concerts, theater productions, and other performances.
- Cinema: A cinema with three screens showing a diverse range of films, including independent and international films.
- Library: A public library with a large collection of books and multimedia resources.
- Rooftop Terrace: A rooftop terrace with stunning views of Bilbao, a bar, and seating for visitors to relax and enjoy the scenery.
- Fitness Center: A gym and fitness center with a variety of exercise equipment and classes.
- Restaurant: A restaurant serving traditional Basque cuisine and other international dishes.
Philippe Starck, the French designer who has worked on several projects around the world, was responsible for the interior design of the center’s fitness center, which features a sleek and modern design with bright colors and clean lines.
Why is it named after Azkuna? Iñaki Azkuna (1943-2014) was a Spanish politician and businessman who served as the mayor of Bilbao from 1999 until he died in 2014. During his tenure as mayor, Azkuna played a key role in the transformation of Bilbao into a vibrant cultural and tourist destination, spearheading numerous urban renewal and development projects, including the creation of Azkuna Zentroa.
Azkuna was widely respected for his leadership and vision in promoting Bilbao’s cultural and economic growth, and he received numerous awards and accolades throughout his career.
3.Take a Ride on the Funicular de Artxanda
The Funicular de Artxanda is a funicular railway that connects the city center to the top of Mount Artxanda, offering stunning panoramic views of Bilbao and the surrounding areas.
The Artxanda funicular was opened in 1915 and has been a popular attraction ever since. The ride takes approximately three minutes and covers a distance of 770 meters. At the top, there is a park and several restaurants where you can enjoy traditional Basque cuisine.
If you’re planning to visit Bilbao, taking a ride on the Artxanda funicular is definitely worth it for the breathtaking views and unique experience.
4.Visit Bilbao City Hall
Bilbao City Council, is the seat of government for the city of Bilbao in the Basque Country of Spain. The building is located in the city’s historic district and is considered one of the most important landmarks in Bilbao.
The City Hall was built between 1892 and 1897 in a neoclassical style by architect Joaquín Rucoba. It features a central tower with a clock, as well as two side wings with arched windows and balconies.
Inside the City Hall, there are various rooms and halls for meetings, events, and official ceremonies. Visitors can also take a guided tour of the building to learn more about its history and architecture.
5. Visit the Ribera Food Market
Ribera Market (Mercado de la Ribera) is a historic food market located in the heart of Bilbao, in the Basque Country of Spain. The market is housed in a beautiful Art Deco building that dates back to 1929 and is considered one of the largest covered markets in Europe.
It has three floors and over 10,000 square meters of space, offering a wide variety of local and international produce, including fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, meat, cheeses, and pastries. The market also features several bars and restaurants where visitors can sample traditional Basque cuisine, such as pintxos, a type of snack or appetizer that is popular in the region. With its bustling atmosphere and delicious food offerings, Ribera Market is a must-visit destination for foodies and anyone looking to experience the authentic flavors of Bilbao.
6. San Mamés Football Stadium and Museum
San Mamés Football Stadium and Museum is a world-renowned sports venue located in Bilbao, in the Basque Country of Spain. It is the home of Athletic Club Bilbao, one of the oldest and most successful football clubs in Spain. The stadium, which was inaugurated in 2013, has a seating capacity of over 53,000 spectators and features state-of-the-art facilities, including a retractable roof and a cutting-edge sound and lighting system. The museum, which is located inside the stadium, offers visitors a chance to explore the rich history of Athletic Club Bilbao and the game of football in general. It features interactive exhibits, video installations, and a vast collection of memorabilia, including jerseys, trophies, and photographs. Whether you’re a football fan or just interested in sports history, a visit to San Mamés Football Stadium and Museum is an unforgettable experience.
Players from Athletic Club Bilbao are called “Lions” because of the club’s logo, which features a stylized lion. The lion is a symbol of strength, courage, and loyalty, all of which are qualities that Athletic Club Bilbao has embodied throughout its history.
In addition to its logo, the club’s nickname is also closely tied to the city of Bilbao and the Basque Country of Spain. Bilbao is known as the “Lion City” due to the presence of two stone lions in the city’s emblem, which date back to the 13th century. The Basque Country is also home to the Basque lion, a mythical creature that appears in many Basque legends and symbolizes Basque identity and pride.
Athletic Club Bilbao has a unique policy of only signing players who are either born in the Basque Country or have Basque ancestry. This policy, known as “Cantera,” which means “quarry” in Spanish, has helped the club maintain its strong ties to the region and its cultural identity. As a result, the players who wear the Athletic Club Bilbao jersey are seen as representatives of Basque culture and are often referred to as “Lions” by the club’s passionate fans.
7. Take a day trip to Gaztelugatxe
Get away from the hustle and bustle of life and enjoy a nice view of the stunning beaches of San Juan Gaztelugatxe. It’s about 50 minutes from Bilbao’s center but is a worthwhile tour to see this breathtaking bay. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a small, picturesque island located off the coast of Biscay in the Basque Country of Spain. The island is known for its stunning natural beauty and its historic chapel, which dates back to the 10th century. Visitors can reach the island by walking up a steep and winding path that offers breathtaking views of the surrounding cliffs and ocean. Once on the island, visitors can explore the chapel and ring the bell three times, a tradition that is said to bring good luck. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike and is a must-see for anyone visiting the Basque Country.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe gained worldwide fame after being featured in the hit television series “Game of Thrones” as the setting for Dragonstone, the ancestral home of the Targaryen family. Fans of the show flock to the island to experience the magic of the fictional world brought to life in this stunning location.
8. Take a day trip to the Rioja wine region
A day tour to Rioja from Bilbao is a popular excursion for wine lovers and those interested in exploring the picturesque countryside of the Basque Country. The Rioja region is located about 90 minutes south of Bilbao and is known for producing some of the finest wines in Spain.
In addition to visiting wineries and sampling wine, a day tour to Rioja from Bilbao can also include stops at other cultural and historic sites in the region. For example, visitors can explore the town of Haro, which is known for its impressive wine cellars and is home to the historic Wine Battle festival, where locals engage in a playful wine fight. The tour can also include a visit to the monasteries of San Millan de la Cogolla, which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and home to some of the oldest written documents in the Spanish language.
You can also include a visit to the charming town of Laguardia, which is located in the heart of the Rioja wine region. This medieval town is surrounded by vineyards and is famous for its underground wine cellars, where wine has been stored and aged for centuries. Visitors can stroll through the narrow streets of the town, admiring the beautiful architecture and historic buildings, including the 13th-century Gothic-style Santa Maria de los Reyes Church. In Laguardia, visitors can also sample some of the local wines and delicious traditional food, such as suckling lamb ribs and pintxos.
9. Fine Arts Museum Bilbao
The Fine Arts Museum of Bilbao is a world-renowned museum located in the heart of the city. It is one of the largest museums in Spain and features an extensive collection of art from the 12th to the 21st centuries. The museum’s permanent collection includes over 10,000 works of art, including paintings, sculptures, and installations, with a particular focus on Basque and Spanish artists. The Basque museum also hosts temporary exhibitions throughout the year, showcasing works from a range of international artists and movements.
The Fine Arts Museum of Bilbao was originally designed by architects Fernando Urrutia and Gonzalo Cárdenas and inaugurated in 1945. The Basque museum has undergone several expansions and renovations since then, with the most recent and notable being the addition of a new gallery space designed by renowned architect Norman Foster. The project is currently in progress and is expected to be completed in the coming years. Once completed, the new gallery space is expected to double the museum’s exhibition space and provide an even more immersive and engaging experience for visitors. The expansion is eagerly anticipated and will undoubtedly cement the museum’s status as one of the most important cultural institutions in the Basque Country.
10.Getxo & Vizcaya Bridge
Getxo is a charming coastal town located just outside of Bilbao. The town is known for its beautiful beaches, a picturesque marina, and traditional Basque architecture. Visitors can stroll along the lively promenade, where they will find a variety of shops, cafes, and restaurants, or explore the historic Old Port area, which is filled with charming fishing boats and traditional Basque houses.
The town also boasts a number of cultural attractions, including the iconic Puente Colgante (Hanging Bridge) and the striking neo-Gothic-style Monumento a la Sardina, which pays homage to the town’s fishing heritage.
The Vizcaya Bridge, also known as the Hanging Bridge of Portugalete, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an iconic landmark in Bilbao. The bridge, which was completed in 1893, was the first transporter bridge in the world and still operates today as a means of crossing the Nervion River. The bridge is a marvel of engineering, with a unique design that allows a gondola to transport passengers and vehicles across the river while suspended from a high-level structure. Visitors can take a ride on the gondola or explore the bridge’s walkways to enjoy stunning views of the river and the surrounding landscape. The Vizcaya Bridge is a testament to the innovative spirit and technical expertise of the people of Bilbao, and a must-see attraction for anyone visiting the city.
Pintxos in Bilbao
Bilbao is renowned for its mouth-watering pintxos, a vital part of Basque culinary culture that’s loved by all. From the classic pintxo de tortilla to creative seafood and foie gras varieties, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. To experience the best pintxos in Bilbao, take a tour of the many bars and restaurants, each with its unique twist on this beloved tradition. With a lively atmosphere and delicious food, this is a culinary adventure not to be missed!
Area of Plaza Nueva
Plaza Nueva is one of the most popular spots for pintxos in Bilbao, and it’s a must-visit destination for foodies visiting the city. Located in the heart of the Casco Viejo (Old Town), Plaza Nueva is a beautiful square that is surrounded by historic buildings and lively bars and restaurants.
Here, visitors can experience the unique atmosphere of Bilbao’s pintxo bars, where locals and tourists gather to enjoy small plates of food and drinks. Some of the most famous pintxo bars in Plaza Nueva include Victor Montes, Gure Toki, Sorginzulo, and Irrintzi.
If you’re looking for a more contemporary and modern atmosphere for your pintxo experience in Bilbao, then the Ensanche neighborhood is a great option to explore. With its elegant architecture and lively atmosphere, Ensanche offers a vibrant and dynamic setting that is perfect for foodies looking to experience the cutting-edge of Bilbao’s culinary scene.
Licenciado Poza and García Rivero are two streets in the lively Ensanche district of Bilbao, renowned for their wide selection of bars and restaurants that offer an exciting variety of pintxos. One of the most famous pintxo bars in Ensanche is El Globo, which is known for its creative and innovative dishes that combine traditional Basque flavors with modern techniques and presentation. Other popular pintxo bars in the area include Mugi -on business for over 40 years – and Cork, each of which has its own specialties and unique atmosphere. At Cork Wine Bar, wine is not just a drink, it’s an experience, and the staff is dedicated to providing exceptional service and expertise to help customers find the perfect bottle. With an impressive selection of over 80 wine references and an emphasis on sherry wines, Cork Wine Bar is a true mecca for wine lovers.
What are the most famous pintxos from Bilbao?
The options are endless, and each bar and restaurant has its unique specialties, making the pintxos experience in Bilbao one of a kind, but some of the most famous and tradtional pintxos in Bilbao include:
- “Grillo” is a simple pintxo made with green lettuce, boiled potato, onion, olive oil, and salt. This pintxo is indeed one of the oldest and most traditional in Bilbao, and it is believed to have originated in the 19th century. Grillo is a simple yet flavorful pintxo that showcases the freshness and quality of the ingredients used, and has become a staple of the Basque Country’s culinary culture. The name “Grillo” comes from the Basque word “grillot,” which means “cricket” in English. This is likely because of the crunchiness of the lettuce leaves used in the pintxo, which resemble the wings of a cricket.
- “Txalupa“: This pintxo is a combination of crab, shrimp, and mayonnaise, and it’s served on a slice of bread. It’s a refreshing and light option that is perfect for summertime snacking. The name “Txalupa” means “small boat” in Basque, and it’s a nod to the shape of the bread used for the pintxo, which resembles a small boat.
- “Talo con Chistorra“: Talo is a type of corn tortilla that is cooked on a griddle and served warm. This pintxo is topped with chistorra, a type of Basque sausage that is spicy and flavorful. It’s a hearty and satisfying option that is perfect for meat lovers.
- “Txangurro“: This pintxo is made with crab meat, which is mixed with breadcrumbs, onion, and a spicy tomato sauce. It’s served in a crab shell, and it’s a true delicacy that is beloved by locals and tourists alike.
- Bacalao al Pil-Pil: This is another classic Basque pintxo that has been enjoyed for generations. It consists of salt cod cooked in garlic and olive oil until it forms a creamy sauce with a mayonnaise-like texture and then served in pintxo form, with a small piece of bread topped with the creamy, garlicky sauce and a piece of salt cod. (But it’s also a common main course in Basque restaurants, and it’s a dish that many Basque families enjoy cooking at home).
- “Pintxo de tortilla“: yes, as simple as that, a pintxo of potato Spanish omelet made to perfection.
These pintxos are just a few examples of the many famous options that you can find in Bilbao’s bars and restaurants.
TIP: Being proactive is crucial for a successful experience, so it’s essential to keep in mind that shyness isn’t necessary. Take the initiative to request what you want and don’t hesitate to seek recommendations or advice from the bartenders..
Festivals in Bilbao
Bilbao, Spain, is a vibrant city that hosts many festivals throughout the year, celebrating its rich culture, traditions, and history. Some of the main festivals in Bilbao include:
- Aste Nagusia (Semana Grande): This is Bilbao’s biggest and most popular festival, which takes place in August and lasts for nine days. It features live music, traditional Basque dancing, street performances, and a variety of cultural activities.
- Bilbao BBK Live: This is an annual music festival that takes place in July, featuring popular international and local artists performing across multiple stages.
- Santo Tomas: This is a traditional Basque festival that takes place in December, featuring local food and drink stalls, live music, and traditional dances.
- Zinegoak: This is Bilbao’s international LGBTQ+ film and performing arts festival, which takes place in February and showcases a diverse range of films, performances, and exhibitions.
These festivals offer a great opportunity to experience the vibrant culture and traditions of Bilbao, and are a must-see for anyone visiting the city.
Bilbao is a truly unique and attractive destination for visitors from all over the world. The city’s stunning architecture, rich cultural heritage, and beautiful natural surroundings make it an ideal place to explore and enjoy. From the iconic Guggenheim Museum and the historic Casco Viejo to the delicious Basque cuisine and the charming coastal towns of Getxo and San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, there is something for everyone in Bilbao. Whether you’re interested in art and culture, history and architecture, or outdoor adventure and natural beauty, Bilbao is a city that never fails to captivate and inspire.
With its warm and welcoming locals, world-renowned attractions, and vibrant energy, it’s no wonder that Bilbao, Spain, continues to be one of the most popular destinations in Spain and it’s a must on any Basque Country journey.