Once a dilapidated industrial hub, it only took one world-class museum for Bilbao to skyrocket into modernity—the so-called “Guggenheim effect” has ripped through the city like a wildfire and spending two days here offers plenty to do and see. Former wine warehouses became cultural centers. Gothic cathedrals were converted into theaters. Bridges, train stations, and metro systems sprang up to join the museum that put Bilbao on the map. That isn’t to say Bilbao has lost touch with its roots. As capital of the province of Biscay, Bilbao boasts a Basque culture alongside with the Spanish language and customs. The historic Casco Viejo (Old Town) showcases Basque heritage through 1000 year-old churches, ancient alleys, and museums like the Euskal Museoa (Basque Museum). When in Bilbao, dining out means pintxo bars. Pintxos—like Spain’s more familiar tapas—are small bites meant to be eaten with your hands. Prepared in advance and stacked neatly behind glass display cases, you just point at what you want and begin a night of nibbling, often covering a handful of eateries throughout the night. For more traditional dining, many restaurants—from holes-in-the-wall to Michelin-stars—offer menus del día, a collection of choose-your-own-adventure options usually involving a starter, main, dessert, bread, drink, and dessert. A fabulous clash between glamour and raw grit, Spanish and Basque, modern and ancient, the city is an international jewel. Its abundance of architectural, cultural, and gastronomic offerings borders on overwhelming. If you have 48 hours to spend here in Bilbao, this itinerary can help you get the most out of your stay.
Explore the world-famous museum and soak in the views from the city’s scenic park.
Morning: See the crown jewel of Bilbao: the Guggenheim
The magnetism of Bilbao’s greatest architectural feat is inescapable—the whole city seems to revolve around the audacious Museo Guggenheim Bilbao. Svelte and dramatic, the $89 million, 260,000-square foot masterpiece of modern design was dreamed up by American architect Frank Gehry after the city, transforming a ramshackle part of town into the glamorous destination it has now become. The museum’s interior is just as stunning as the view from outside—cavernous spaces host thematic exhibitions and “monumental collections,” with a specific lean towards avant-garde modern art. Look for works by Rothko, de Kooning, Kiefer, and Warhol, and amble through the museum’s only permanent installation: The Matter of Time, a series of weathering steel sculptures by Richard Serra, displayed in a gallery longer than a football field. We can’t promise a connection that “forges a new relationship with the spectator,” but it’s hard to feel nothing in this behemoth of world culture. Plan to spend at least two hours inside—a private tour will offer a behind-the-scenes look that you can’t get from wandering around alone.
Lunchtime: Discover local hangouts on a food tour
Skip the touristy hotspots and check out where the locals love to eat. There’s no better way to familiarize yourself with Bilbao’s local culture than with a walking food tour. Your expert guide will take you lesser-known local gems serving up delicious pintxos and local wine.
Afternoon: Cool off at el Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar
The park unfolds like a fairytale garden, and its lush greenery, romantic ponds, and a large resident duck population (eighteen varieties!) make it one of Bilbao’s most serene spots. There’s a rose-studded pergola at the westernmost edge of the park, complete with its own fountain and a boulevard lined with floral trestles. Views from here look out over the rest of the park, as well north to the Nervión River, making it a lovely spot for an afternoon walk or picnic.
Evening: Visit la Basilica de Begoña
Sitting smack in the middle of the Camino de Santiago, this gothic basilica is especially popular amongst pilgrims who are en route to northwestern Spain. It honors the Virgin of Begoña, patron saint of the region of Biscay, who appeared to the architect Sancho Martínez in a dream at the very spot he would later build it. The façade has a copper depiction of The Last Supper surrounded by an inscription inviting visitors to gain “plenary indulgences” within the basilica’s sacred walls. A bit cryptic, but the gothic script sure is photogenic. Pro tip: visit at night, when the basilica is lit up to truly divine effect. To get there, climb the endless stairs of Mallona from the Plaza Unamuno.
Take a stroll across the city’s famed bridge and sip some coffee while people watching.
Morning: Grab a coffee in Plaza Nueva
The heart of Casco Viejo is undoubtedly the Plaza Nueva, a Neoclassical courtyard enclosed by arcaded walls and lined with pintxos joints and cafés. Completed in 1851, it used to house the Bizkaia government (called “Biscay” in English), but ever since 1890 the plaza’s tallest building has been home to the Basque language Royal Academy. The best time to visit is on Sunday morning, when a flea market brings booksellers and antique collectors to the arched entryways.
Lunchtime: Grab lunch in the Old Quarter
This pedestrian-friendly area of town is lined with bars, restaurants, and shops. We recommend finding a spot with outdoor seating so you can people watch as you nosh on a plate of pintxos. If you’re looking for an in-depth look at this area’s foodie scene, an Old Quarter food tour is a great way to sip and sample your way through the streets.
Afternoon: Admire some fine art
After a quick walk across the Zubizuri Bridge, spend a few hours at el Museo de Bellas Artes. Although it’s often is upstaged by a certain Frank Gehry-designed museum nearby (you know which one we mean), this museum has a stellar collection of artwork spanning from Medieval times to the end of the twentieth century. It was founded in 1908 but moved to its current location in Bilbao’s new town in 1945, undergoing several alterations since then. Today, the building meshes the original architects’ neoclassical vision with elements of modernism. The real sights lie within, however, in the collection of portraits, landscapes, sketches, and sculpture through the ages. Visitors should keep an eye out for artists like Zurbarán, Gauguin, and Chillida, although the museum’s crown possession is arguably Martin de Vos’s The Rape of Europa, a fabulous oil painting depicting the god Jupiter (transformed into a bull) abducting a young Europa to the island of Crete.
Evening: Whip up a gourmet meal in a cooking class
End your stay by learning how to prepare all of Bilbao’s most well-known dishes in a Basque cooking class. A well-known chef will show you how to prepare four pintxos and one dessert, all washed down with all-you-can-drink wine and beer.