Flying visit: 48 hours in Bilbao

Home to the dazzling Guggenheim Museum, a buzzing nightlife and an enviable food scene, Bilbao is the beating heart of the Basque Country. 700 years of rich culture and tradition merge with modern design and architecture to make Bilbao a truly special city. 

Emma Lahiffe spent 48 hours in the Spanish metropolis ahead of Leinster’s European Rugby Champions Cup clash

GETTING THERE: Dublin to Bilbao is a two-hour flight. The city centre is very accessible – take a 20-minute taxi ride or hop on one of the regular buses from the airport.

Bilbao is an easily walkable city, but it’s also very well serviced by a Metro system (designed by master architect, Sir Norman Foster), local buses, and a tram line.

Bilbao cityscape
Bilbao cityscape

SLEEP: The elegant Hotel Silken Bilbao in the city’s Indautxu neighbourhood (a 15-minute stroll from the Guggenheim) is a gorgeous place to stay on a city break. Guests can look forward to a warm welcome, luxurious rooms, and a first-rate breakfast.

EVENING ONE

VISIT A HIDDEN GEM: Down the street from Hotel Silken is the Azkuna Zentroa, one of the city’s most iconic buildings. Fondly known as ‘Bilbao’s Living Room’, the former wine warehouse is now a unique space designed to cater for the everyday needs of local residents and visitors to the city.

Inside you’ll find restaurants, bars, exhibitions, a rooftop café, library and more. Spend time admiring the 43 pillars showcasing architecture from around the world. Look up and watch people swimming laps in the glass-floored pool. Don’t miss the quirky ‘armchairs,’ ‘lamp’ and ‘mirror’ on the way out.

10 CENTURIES OF ART: Art lovers visiting Bilbao should spend the first afternoon exploring the Fine Arts Museum (€9 entry). Perched on the edge of the Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park, the Museo de Bellas Artes houses a superb collection of classical, contemporary and Basque art. Admire masterpieces by the likes of El Greco, Goya, Gaugin and Francis Bacon over three storeys of beautiful galleries.

€1 PINTXOS: Just around the corner from the museum is popular local pintxo bar, Restaurante Casilda. This is the perfect no-fuss place to get a first taste of the local cuisine.

Traditional Basque pintxos
Traditional Basque pintxos

Grab a table and head to the pintxo-laden front counter to choose from plates of scrumptious traditional snacks. Wash down with txakoli, the local sparkling white wine (€2 for a generous glass). Repeat the process until satisfied!

DAY TWO

MORNING AT THE GUGGENHEIM: Opened in 1997, the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim is one of Europe’s most spectacular buildings. Nestled on the Nervión river, the museum takes on new life in every light and from every angle.

The Guggenheim is a shining example of the transformative power of art – it was the centrepiece of Bilbao’s ambitious regeneration plan. Once an industrial port city, Bilbao now welcomes more than one million visitors every year.

The world-class museum houses three floors of extraordinary art installations – take a look at what’s coming up this summer (general admission is €10).

Beautiful limestone tiles from Granda line the floors and twisted sheets of glimmering titanium snake their way up the walls. Wander through the corridors and take in the views of the city from the upper floors  – there’s a beautiful view of Bilbao out every window.

The Guggenheim Museu, Bilbao | @SteveAllenPhoto via Twenty20
The Guggenheim Museu, Bilbao | @SteveAllenPhoto via Twenty20

HIGHLIGHTS: Popular permanent pieces include Richard Serra’s Matter of Time sculptures (go to the third floor and look down to see the full scale of the sprawling installation), Jenny Holzer’s powerful electronic LED Installation for Bilbao and Andy Warhol’s iconic One Hundred and Fifty Marilyns on the top floor.

Don’t miss the monumental outdoor spider sculpture, Maman, by Louise Bourgeois. Round off your visit with a selfie at the remarkable 40ft flowering plant Puppy by Jeff Koons, which stands guard outside the museum entrance.

Jeff Koons' Puppy at the Bilbao Guggenheim | @michaelasherry via Twenty20
Jeff Koons’ Puppy at the Bilbao Guggenheim | @michaelasherry via Twenty20

RIVERSIDE STROLL: From the Guggenheim, take a 20-minute walk along the beautiful riverside promenade towards Bilbao Old Town.

This is a great way to experience the mix of elegant nineteenth-century architecture and extraordinary modern design that make up the cityscape.

As you cross the Zubizuri footbridge, note the mat covering the glass floor. The architect behind the bridge, Santiago Calatrava (who also designed Dublin’s Samuel Beckett Bridge), has a fraught relationship with the city. The original design was not only too slippy for Bilbao’s rainy climate, the glass also cracked underfoot!

LUNCH AT THE FOOD MARKET: Overlooking the river on the far side of the Old Town (metro stop Casco Viejo) is La Ribera, the world’s largest indoor food market. The beautiful Art Deco market showcases the best of Basque cuisine over three floors.

Choose from the finest local produce for a picnic, or head upstairs to the fabulous array of tempting food bars and sample everything from fresh pizza slices to tasty pintxos. Sit outside on the terrace and admire the colourful buildings across the river.

TAKE A STEP BACK IN TIME: After lunch, spend a couple of hours exploring Bilbao Old Town. The pedestrianised cobbled streets are lined with interesting design shops and great bars – head to Calle del Perro for the best traditional pintxo bars.

Bilbao Old Town
Bilbao Old Town

Pay a visit to the beautiful Santiago Cathedral – the northern route of the Camino de Santiago runs through the city. Don’t miss the pretty Plaza Nueva, where you’ll find Casa Victor Montes. The historic restaurant is well worth a visit.

BEST FOR DESSERT: Head to El Tilo for the best sweet treats in Bilbao. The chic Belgian bakery is at the edge of the Old Town, across from the Arriaga Theatre. Stop in for an excellent cup of coffee and a melt-in-the-mouth cupcake. The New York Oreo cheesecake is a must-try.

SKY-HIGH VIEWS: Take a trip up the Artxanda Funicular (€3.25 for a return ticket) for a spectacular vista of Bilbao. The funicular leaves every 15 minutes (it’s a 15-minute walk from the Old Town) and whizzes to the top of Artxanda mountain in just three minutes. Bring your picnic, take a stroll through the park and soak in the incredible sweeping views of the city below.

View of Bilbao from Artxanda mountain
View of Bilbao from Artxanda mountain

EVENING FIRE SHOW: Come nightfall, head back to the Guggenheim for the outdoor Fire Fountain installation. Watch as the Yves Klein-designed fire fountains blast flames into the sky and Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Sculpture springs to life at the back of the museum. The nearby La Salve Bridge also lights up simultaneously. This is a truly special experience not to be missed.

HEART OF THE ACTION: Restaurant Blueizar in the centre of Bilbao is a great choice for a gorgeous dining experience. Make sure to book a table in advance.

Head to nearby Calle Ledesma for a fantastic array of lively bars. The area comes to life every evening with locals and tourists alike spilling onto the street enjoying food and drinks.

There’s not much not to love about a flying trip to Bilbao – check out flights here

Planning your next city break? Check out our guide to 48 hours in Lisbon or find out why Bordeaux makes for an incredible city break.