Is Bilbao worth visiting?

Is Bilbao worth visiting

Recently I spent a weekend in the Northern Spanish city of Bilbao and totally loved it! Bilbao is accessible from the UK and has gone through a massive cultural transformation that has really put this city on the map. What is Bilbao great for? Bilbao is great for food, art and architecture. There are also some beautiful coastal places to explore around Bilbao in the Basque region. So, is Bilbao worth visiting? I’m here to answer that very question!

How to get to Bilbao

The airport in Bilbao is just 20 minutes from the city centre. There is a connecting bus and you can also take a taxi for around €30. I flew into Bilbao with EasyJet from Manchester airport and the flight time was just 1h 50m. It was an easy and comfortable flight.

Bilbao airport itself is small, organised and easy to navigate. Everything is signposted including where to buy bus tickets and where to board the bus. There were also English speaking assistants near the queues for the bus tickets who were happy to help.

Buying bus tickets at Bilbao airport

Bilbao is also well connected by public transport and the train system. Flixbus connects Bilbao with other cities in Spain and France such as Madrid and Biarritz. 

If you intend to travel onward to San Sebastian I would recommend the bus over the train because the bus is just an hour and a half but the train ride (beautiful as it is) is around 4 hours! You can book it in advance here on

When to visit Bilbao

So, when is the best time to visit Bilbao? The best time of year to visit Bilbao is from May to September when the weather is milder, because there is a lot of walking involved in visiting this city. By May temperatures will be around 19-20 degrees and in the height of the summer (July and August) this can be around 25-29.

Bilbao has a massive 9 day festival in August. It happens starting on the first Saturday after 15th August and it’s called the grand week (although it actually goes on for more than a week!) If you are up for partying then you might want to time your visit with the festival, but if you are not a big party animal and you’re coming for the culture and sightseeing then you might want to plan to avoid this.

Amy Templeseeker at Guggenheim Bilbao
Here I am at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao on a sunny day in June

How long should I spend in Bilbao?

I stayed for 2 days in Bilbao and had a great time, but still there were a few things that I felt I missed. If you can spare a bit longer, I would allow 3-4 days in Bilbao. This will give you more time to go into some of the museums and a chance to explore surrounding areas as well.

Is Bilbao worth visiting?

I would say that Bilbao is absolutely worth visiting. The city is full of culture with some fantastic architectural delights from Gothic through to Modern. If, like me, you’re into church architecture then Bilbao does not disappoint. There is a gothic Cathedral, a basilica and several Romanesque churches. Bilbao is top of the list in Northern Spain for art is it is home to the world famous Guggenheim museum design by the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry.

Bilbao has a thriving food and drinks scene and so you will have a fabulous time if you do a Pintxos tour in the evenings (either guided or self planned).

Bilbao is also a very walkable city so it’s perfectly accessible on foot and great for solo travellers. Public transport within and around the city is reliable and efficient. In short, Bilbao has everything that you might look for in a European city and whatever you are into, you will have a good time.

Maman Aranha Spider sculpture Guggenheim Bilbao
Maman – The Aranha or Spider sculpture outside the Guggenheim Bilbao

Pros of Bilbao

Bilbao has many pros – it is extremely accessible and a city full of great architecture and art. You will eat well in Bilbao as it’s one of the most famous cities for Basque cuisine, with a range of traditional dishes including pintxos and bacalao al pil-pil. There are two universities in Bilbao and there is also a thriving music scene.

Bilbao is accessible and well connected

As I’ve mentioned, Bilbao is easy to get to and also easy to get around. It has a good public transport system and you can get monthly passes as cheap as €28 if you intend to spend some time there then this is worth considering! The transport system works with the Barik card and you can get 10 journeys for a 50% discount so if you plan on using the metro, trams or buses regularly then this could be worth it.

Bilbao is also relatively accessible for the disabled. It’s not too hilly (like many other Spanish and Portuguese cities that I have visited) and the streets are wheelchair friendly in the majority, with slopes to access curbs. 

Bilbao has an exciting old town with plenty of Churches

The old town is great for walking tours, and there are plenty of good free walking tours in Bilbao. I took the walking tour with Basque free tours – you can book a place online here. Remember that the free walking tours are tip based and so it’s not actually free – just that you are free to pay what you think it’s worth or what you can afford.

There are some great Churches to visit in Bilbao – don’t miss the Cathedral (Gothic), Iglesia de San Antón (Romanesque) and the Begoñako Basilika (Gothic). If you would like to go inside the Cathedral and San Antón then you should buy a combination ticket as it works out cheaper than buying them separately.

Bilbao Gothic Cathedral
The Gothic Cathedral of Bilbao – Catedral de Santiago de Bilbao

Bilbao is a very Arty City

If you like art then don’t miss the Guggenheim and the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao. If you want to go inside the Guggenheim you will need to book online in advance and it will quickly sell out most days. I looked for my ticket on a Sunday morning at 9am and the Guggenheim was already sold out until 12 noon. You will need to spend at least 2-3 hours inside the Guggenheim and exploring the surrounding sculptures.

Puppy Bilbao Guggenheim
One of my favourite Bilab sculptures – ‘Puppy’ outside the Guggenheim

There is so much phenomenal Architecture to be explored

Also, if you like architecture, then you will be pleased to know that there are still more stunning buildings for you to hunt down. Don’t miss these three architectural gems: Arriaga Theater, Estacion de Santander and the new Mercado. Estacion de Santander was built in 1902 in the modernist style with Art Nouveau influences (if you like this style you will probably also enjoy the art nouveau in Barcelona).

Estacion de Santander Bilbao
Estacion de Santander in Bilbao

The Arriaga Theatre was designed by Joaquín Rucoba, and the building is named after Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga, a Bilbao-born composer often referred to as the “Spanish Mozart.” He could play the violin at age 5, wrote his own first orchestral piece at age 10 and his first opera at age 20. This theater is an example of Neo-Baroque architecture, with its grand façade featuring ornate details and sculptures.

The Arriaga Theatre Bilbao
The Arriaga Theatre, Bilbao

The Mercado de la Ribera has a long history dating back to the 14th century, although the current structure was built in 1929 (in art deco style). The market underwent extensive renovations after the great flood of Bilbao (in August 26, 1983), reopening in 2010 with updated facilities while preserving its historic charm.

The Mercado de la Ribera
The Mercado de la Ribera, Bilbao

Bilbao has a world class food scene! Great Pintxos

Bilbao is part of the pintxo scene which I absolutely adore! If you don’t know what pintxos are then think mini tapas! I would recommend a food tour in Bilbao if you have time, so that you have a guide showing you the best restaurants! Most of the tapas restaurants are located in the 7 main streets coming off from the cathedral. For cheaper ones go to the centre of Abando (between the Guggenheim and the old town) where you can grab €2 pintxos quite easily!

Pintxos in Bilbao Cafateria Abando y Barra
Pintxos in Bilbao at the Cafateria Abando y Barra

If you find yourself getting a little ‘pintxoed out’ then there are some other great local dishes to try including Bacalao al Pil-pil – this a favorite meal that locals will always recommend that tourists should try. There are also some great steakhouses such as Gozkoetxe Berria and Restaurante Amaren Bilbao.

Bilbao is affordable

With regards to cost, Bilbao is not the cheapest city in Spain, but not the most expensive either. I found Bilbao very affordable, especially compared to Barcelona which is another Spanish city that I had recently visited. You can get pintxos for €2 and a glass of Txacoli (local wine) for around €2 as well. If you want a good value lunch then look for the menu del dia – you can find three course meals for between €12-20. Regarding accommodation, you can get a dorm bed in a hostel for €30 a night, an Air BnB room for around €40 a night and a mid range hotel room for around €140.

Fantastic day trips to surrounding areas

Many people take the bus to San Sebastian for a beach day from Bilbao – this is totally doable. You can also easily visit Vitoria in a day or book a guide for a trip along the coast to some of the lesser known destinations such as this fantastic tour to Gaztelugatxe, Gernika and Mundaka. Gaztelugatxe is a popular Game of Thrones filming destination!

Tap water is very drinkable on Bilbao!

Finally, let’s talk about that gorgeous Bilbao tap water! There is no need to buy bottled here because their tap water tastes so good, and I hear that it is the best in Spain. Bring a water bottle to refill as you walk around the city too, and you will save yourself a fair amount on drinks, as well as getting the opportunity to refill at Romanesque style fountains like this…..

Bilbao drinking water Romanesque fountain
Bilbao drinking water from a Romanesque fountain

Cons of Bilbao

Like many major cities in Europe, Bilbao has its issues with drugs, prostitution and petty crime. Bilbao is not unsafe to walk around as a solo traveller, but have your guard up and know in advance where you are going and where to avoid.

Grittier and not as classy as San Sebastián!

Bilbao used to be a heavily industrial city and also has a port and this brings with it a few inner city problems. you will find that the city itself is not as beautiful or classy as some neighbouring cities such as San Sebastian for example. You might see a bit more rubbish and you might smell a bit more weed!

Crime and neighbourhoods to avoid

Violent crime is rare in Bilbao but there are pickpockets and petty theft is more common than in San Sebastián. I was fine walking around all of Bilbao as a solo traveller, but I did this in the daytime and not at night.

There is one area that I would particularly avoid and that is the Main Street of San Francisco and the surrounding streets between the river and the railway track. I didn’t realise that this was the area where all of the criminals hang out, and stupidly walked through, but thankfully it was in broad daylight and I didn’t have much on me. There were gangs of young men hanging out on the street, many who would stare at me as I walked past, making me feel quite uncomfortable. I can see that after dark this would be a place where muggings would occur.

4 days in Bilbao
The area to the left of Santander station between the railway and the river is called San Francisco and is best avoided.


There were a few few smokers around bus stations and outdoor tables at cafes. Although there is not a lot of smoking indoors, there is still more of a prevalence of smokers than you might be used to at home in the UK. This is not ideal if you are asthmatic or have allergies, but sit inside at the cafes to avoid this.

Language can be confusing

A little Spanish will go a long way in Bilbao. However many people in the tourist industry will speak English. I used Duolingo to get my basic Spanish up to scratch and it helped a great deal.

The confusing thing in Bilbao is that it is in the Basque country and they also have their own language which is Euskera (the oldest living European language). This is totally unrelated to Spanish as well, and for someone just starting to learn Spanish this can throw you off track if you’re not aware of it! 

The weather can be dull and rainy

Unfortunately, being the north of Spain, don’t expect the weather to be great. When I arrived in May it was 14 degrees and raining, so that puts you in the picture of what to expect! It’s not an ideal beach holiday or a place for guaranteed summer sun. You might want to pack a raincoat and a travel umbrella just in case.

Onward travel in the Basque Country

I would recommend staying in the area to further explore the Basque Country. If you are looking for ideas for onward travel then I would highly recommend San Sebastián or Vitoria. Both are accessible by bus in just over one hour.

Further reading on travel in Spain

If you would like to read more about travel in Spain you might enjoy some of these blogs…