Bilbao: The moody and quirky Spanish port city with ancient streets and lively venues

Embrace the true spirit of Basque culture with a summer trip to this often overlooked corner of Spain

Bilbao is the quirky younger brother of Spain’s more polished and fashionable cities. Photo: Jorge Fernández Salas / Unsplash
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While many holidays in Spain conjure images of packed beaches and seaside resorts, Bilbao, the moody industrial port city near the French border, offers the polar opposite.

A hotspot for street artists and rockers, it’s the quirky younger brother of Spain’s more polished and fashionable cities, a far cry from the glitz of the Costa del Sol or the trendy locales of Barcelona.

Nestled between lush green mountains in the heart of the Basque Country, Bilbao's ancient narrow streets are packed with lively venues and cheap places to eat.

It's a particularly popular spot during summer, as it maintains a cooler climate than the rest of the country. That makes it ideal for sightseeing, hiking or biking around the surrounding hills, and visiting the surf-friendly coastline.

Marvel at the Guggenheim Bilbao

While they couldn’t be more different in every other respect, Abu Dhabi and Bilbao are soon to have one significant similarity: a Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum. This is the ultimate, must-see Bilbao attraction and general admission costs about 12 euros ($13).

The permanent collection is incredible, with work from world-renowned contemporary artists, from Mark Rothko to Anish Kapoor and Jenny Holzer. There is also a revolving series of temporary exhibitions taking place in its various spaces, with a focus on the museum's collection of Pop Art and a retrospective on Italian ARTE Povera pioneer Giovanni Anselmo on the agenda for the next few months.

Outside, walk along the waterfront to get up close to some amazing sculptures, including Jeff Koons’ Puppy, a 12-metre-high West Highland terrier made from thousands of live flowers, and Maman, the fearsome giant spider created by Louise Bourgeois.

Sample pintxos in the Old Quarter

No Bilbao itinerary should miss getting lost in Casco Viejo, or the Old Quarter, a maze of tightly-packed cobbled streets and charming squares.

The 700-year-old area is entirely pedestrianised and filled with tiny delis, boutiques, dramatic medieval churches and overflowing restaurants.

It is also covered in tasteful street art and graffiti, and offers some of the best pintxos in the Basque Country. A bit like tapas, these tasty morsels consist of small pieces of bread topped with myriad delicious toppings, from Manchego cheese to piquillo peppers and even smoked salmon. They are designed for leisurely grazing and heading out for post-work pintxos is an established Bilbao ritual.

Every bar serves them, so you can’t really go wrong with where you choose to sample this long-standing tradition. Just start at one end of the old town, and venue hop your way along to the River Nervion, the wide stretch of water that runs through to the Cantabrian Sea and the Bay of Biscay.

Party in the street at Semana Grande

Home to its own language and traditions, the Basque Country is entirely different to the rest of Spain, and nothing symbolises its proud individuality more than the Semana Grande festival.

The riotous nine-day street party, known as Aste Nagusia or Big Week, takes place every August, featuring fireworks, traditional music and sports such as wood chopping, stone throwing and bull fighting. Basically, everything you’d expect from a Basque festival.

People travel from all over Spain and the world to experience the festival, so accommodation prices increase during this period, but it’s still possible to find a good deal if you book far enough in advance.

Walk in the footsteps of sporting legends

Unlike other football clubs around the world who exchange players in much-talked-about million-dollar transfers, Athletic, Bilbao's team, only sign footballers who were born or raised in the Basque Country.

Head to the team's home at San Mames, where you can take a tour of the stadium and on-site museum for 32 euros or even try to catch a match if your trip coincides.

Another Basque sporting landmark is the nearby coastal town of Pedrena, home of the late, legendary Spanish golfer Seve Ballesteros. You can book in for a round at Seve’s home club, Real Golf de Pedrena, or stop to pay your respects at the Seve statue in the local park.

On your way back, making a slight detour to the bustling port of Santander is well worth your time. Offering a waterfront filled with lively cafes and ice cream shops, it’s a pleasurable place to relax for a few hours.

Climb the steps of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe

It would be difficult not to be blown away by the dramatic beauty of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, the rocky island that served as the setting for the formidable fortress of Dragonstone in hit TV series Game of Thrones.

The site, whose name means ‘castle rock’ in Basque, is topped with a terracotta-roofed church and surrounded by choppy blue ocean and natural rock arches, looking like a scene taken straight from a fairytale.

The jewel of the Basque coastline, the otherworldly islet that's linked to the mainland by a zigzagging, narrow stone bridge attracts thousands of tourists every year. Entry tickets are free, but you need to reserve them well in advance.

It's about 45 minutes from Bilbao, but the drive is all part of the experience. Pass by stunning viewpoints and thick, green forests, up steep mountain sides, getting a welcome glimpse into the wild and untamed nature of rural Basque Country.

Updated: February 08, 2024, 9:31 AM