Three days is the perfect amount of time to see much of Bilbao. This large, port city may take a little warming too but you’ll be thankful that you took the time to take in the unique art and architecture, eat plenty of pintxos and learn what it really means to be Basque.
Main sights and much more Bilbao in 3 days!
See the art of the city
Art may not be the first thing you think of when you think of the industrial, urban city of Bilbao but it undoubtedly has plenty to offer.
Hailed for its architectural excellence, The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao should be your first artistic destination. Sitting along the Nervion River the design of the building is almost more important than what’s inside. It’s sleek yet bold lines run fluidly into the bridge and river it sits beside.
Frank Gehry, the museum's architect certainly knew what he was doing with this contemporary piece. If you make it past the exterior the inside features ever-changing exhibits with different themes but most remain focused on contemporary art. Admission is €10 per adult.
The Guggenheim is impressive without a word of explanation, but once you know what you’re looking at it really comes alive. Check out the 90 minute Viator tour which explains the architectural and artistic wonders
Bilbao Fine Arts Museum
With perhaps a more impressive art collection than the Guggenheim the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum is the next art priority. With works from the middle ages through contemporary times, the collection boasts artists from throughout Europe including the likes of Van Gogh, El Greco, and Picasso. General admission costs €9, the main exhibit can be viewed every day for free between 6:00-8:00 PM.
Explore Old Town Bilbao
Possibly Bilbao’s highest highlight, old town (Casco Viejo) is full to the brim with character. The people of Basque country, and specifically of Bilbao, are a bit edgier and grungier than your typical Spaniard. They have a unique style, you’ll notice more piercings, tattoos, dreadlocks, baggier, darker clothing and more chains. This is the way of Basque country that really shines through in industrial Bilbao.
Old Town is a wonderful area where the hardness of the Basque people, the urbaneness of Bilbao and the charm of a typical old town explode into each other. It’s a great area to explore, people watch, eat and drink.
Visit smaller neighborhoods
Uribarri - green and buzzing
While Casco Viejo is a great area you have the time with 3 days to go beyond it and explore some of the “real” Bilbao. Just next to old town sits the sprawling neighborhood of Uribarri. Perfectly well connected to almost everywhere in the city, Uribarri has an oddly high number of elevators and escalators dotted throughout as a basic means of getting around. Uribarri has a very high ratio of green space but doesn’t skimp on the bars, restaurants, and nightlife either.
Deusto - for student life
To rub elbows with the students of the city head to the Deusto area of the city where Deusto sits with possible one of the best classroom views around, across the river to the Guggenheim. The Jesuit Deusto University is a renowned learning institution. Still well located you have easy access to the rest of the city (via a bridge) as well as nature at your fingertips.
Watch Basque theatre
Arriaga Theatre, the Neo-Baroque Opera house built in the late 1800’s is exquisite in and of itself, but to see a show there is a different experience. These days the theatre is home to a number of different types of performances including opera but also circus, theatre, and dance amongst others. Tickets are quite affordable running around €13.
The Euskalduna Conference Center and Concert Hall, as its name implies, plays host to both conferences and concerts. It’s one of the biggest one of the biggest theatres in all of Europe and in it you can see such shows as the Symphonic Orchestra. Check the website for what’s on while you’re in town. Tickets range in cost depending on the seat you choose but can run around €15 up to €30+.
Go on a Pintxo tour
Home to Pintxos a foodie tour in Bilbao is a must. Most tours will bring you to a variety of pintxo bars where you’ll get a sample plate and a drink, the best tours will have a guide who can explain what you are eating as well as entertain you with fun anecdotal stories. Check out Bilbao Food Tours.
Go on a Bike tour of Bilbao
As a fairly large city with a beautiful river intersecting it, a bike is a great form of transportation. While you could rent one and find your way around, why not follow a leader who can guide you in the best direction and keep you informed as you go. Tourné offers three-hour tours over 6 or 7 km through the city for €32 per person.
Explore Basque culture deeper
Go shopping for souvenirs
You will certainly have plenty of time to browse for souvenirs during your 3 days stay in Bilbao. Quite similar to a French beret, you may notice txapelas sitting atop the head of many a Basque man. Buy your own, or one for grandpa, at Sombreros Gorostiaga.
Mercado de la Ribera, the largest indoor market in Europe is a great place to pick up any food items you’ve enjoyed so much you don’t want to leave them behind. Do be aware, however, of import laws before trying to bring any food products out of the E.U.
Eat beyond Pintxos
If you’re looking for excellent food with a flair and a Michellin star Zortziko is the spot for you. A combination of Basque and international dishes. You’ll definitely have to book in advance for a table.
Restaurante Mandoya, in old town, does not have a star but is still known for its excellence. They offer a great selection of seafood dishes as well as, surprisingly, a menu for vegetarians.
But truly the best way to eat in Bilbao is to delve deep into the pintxo bars, you’ll see a wide array of mouthwatering bite sized eats laird out in front of you along the bar. It’s best to go with your gut and start filling your plate, you’ll pay for what you’ve eaten later on. A few tips on what to try would be to go with a gilda which is a combination of olives, anchovies and chili, or a cazuelita which is a pig heavy fry up. For a great selection try El Huevo Frito, bright, clean without any pretense.
Experience Bilbao Nightlife
Your eating should continue well into the evening and it should slowly turn into drinking. Though in Spain drinking doesn’t mean what it does in, say, America. The Spanish drink slowly and for a long time. That’s not to say they don’t get drunk but that’s not the goal and you’ll see far fewer swaggering local men peeing in the streets than in other countries.
So go slow and enjoy the atmosphere and your drinks. A very typical after dinner drink is a gin & tonic, try Abadia del Gin & Tonic in new town.
If you’re looking for a good dance scene and some DJ’s head over to Fever, while a bit out of the city you’ll certainly have a good evening.
Here is a useful post on Bilbao nightlife.
Bilbao tips and advice for a long stay
Getting around Bilbao
A 3 day trip could see some need for public transport. Bilbao has a great metro line which runs promptly as well as urban buses which cover the city quite well. A single ride within zone 1 costs €1.60.
Advance booking - only Guggenheim
Bilbao does not have quite the number of tourists as other parts of Spain so advance booking is not absolutely necessary. If you do have a plan and you’d like not to take the risk of standing in any lines you could go ahead and book the Guggenheim in advance, which can be done online.
Stay beyond Bilbao centre
Bilbao has two ears, the left and right, left is new town, right is old. Both are great options but if you’re looking to get out of downtown check out the neighborhood of Uribarri, still providing ease of access to old town you’ll be surrounded by more of the locals.
Download useful apps
- Bilbao Travel Guide - Eusk Guide - offline maps, photos, recommendations
- Bilbao Travel Guide & Offline Map – tripwolf – offline maps, hotspots, attractions, restaurants
- I like Bilbao Guide – what’s on?
- Guggenhiem Bilbao –Guggenheim museum guide in your pocket
- Bilbobus – how to get around and schedule for city buses
Getxo Aquarium, just 30 minutes’ walk from downtown is full of fun fishy friends for your kids to make. It’s a nice day away from the city and educational to boot.
Are you a couple in Bilbao?
Go to any of Bilbao’s wonderful food markets or stores and fill up your picnic basket. Head to Abanoibarra with your partner, find a quiet spot along the river promenade for a perfect picnic. If you can get somewhere with a view from the leaves of the Guggenheim, even better.
Day trips from Bilbao
Yes, a great place to head for a day trip is San Sebastian, though, if you have the time it’s wise to give it more than just a day. Stay in Bilbao for the full three days then head east for some time on the beaches.