Having spent our 24 hours in Pamplona, we set off the next morning for Bilbao. It was a 2-3 hour picturesque drive. You could end up paying € 70 in tolls between Barcelona and Bilbao. Depending on the route you take, you could drive pretty damn fast, save time and get some scenery on the way, or you could pay close to nothing in tolls, but drive longer on smaller country roads and enjoy a lot more scenery. We found something in between, combining some smaller roads with larger tollways, trading off some time in exchange for some scenery.
At first when we were entering the city, everything seemed fairly old, grey and industrial. The Honey Bee was worried whether we had mistakenly chosen the wrong destination. However, as we got closer to the center, it became a whole lot prettier. The large central area was full of wide promenades, lots of greenery, water features like fountains, futuristic looking entrances to the underground metro system, the Nervión river snaking through the city, and lots more. Our hotel was situated on the river front, with beautiful views.
It is interesting to point out here that until the late 1990s, this might have been the worst place to stay. Back then the river smelt foul. Polluted with industrial waste, it was a real eyesore and a health hazard for the city. Since then, however, the government has taken measures to clean up, beautify and put Bilbao back on the map.
The most obvious place to start sightseeing is the Casco Viejo (Old Town) neighborhood. Located in the heart of the city, it is full of small pedestrian streets, lined on both sides by shops and restaurants in old stone buildings. We had a fun lunch at an over crowded Pintxos restaurant. Pintxos (pronounced pin-choes) are single serve food items that are usually sitting on a small piece of bread, and pierced with a long wooden toothpick. You usually pay either by the pintxo, or purchase a combo of pintxos in advance to get a better price. They are best eaten at crowded restaurants, standing up at the bar, and accompanied by a cold beer.
Wandering in and around the old neighborhood, we discovered a number of the must-see attractions this city has to offer. Next, we crossed over to the other side of the city on one of the many picturesque bridges (San Anton, La Ribera, La Merced, Arenal, Salve, Zubizuri, Udaletzeko, etc). The other side is relatively better maintained and has all the higher end stores, government buildings, large green plazas, and parks. We honestly liked both sides of the city, and we’d recommend spending 2-3 days just walking around the city, and its riverfront.
Even without a list of must visit sights, you will inadvertently stumble upon most of them wandering through the city. After you’re done with wandering around, and in case you haven’t seen them yet, in addition to the locations mentioned above, we recommend:
1) Bilbao Cathedral (Catedral de Santiago de Bilbao): One of the sights that fall along the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, this is located pretty much in the center of the old neighborhood.
2) La Ribera Market: Located in the old neighborhood on the riverfront, this buzzing local market sells seafood and local produce, and also has a number of small bars/restaurants where you can grab a couple of pintxos for lunch. Interesting fact: It is the largest covered market in Europe.
3) Plaza Moyua: A big green plaza with fountains in the center of the city, it is a welcome respite for tired tourists.
4) Dona Casilda Park: A beautiful green park close to the city center with a duck pond. A nice place to go and relax after a long day of sight-seeing.
5) Guggenheim Museum: A modern and contemporary art museum that was built in 1997, it is located along the riverfront in a modern complex that is clad in glass, titanium and limestone. Also one of the focus centers of the city’s cultural activities with a number of outdoor performances on a regular basis. It also has a number of outdoor exhibits, like Puppy, Tuilips, Spider, etc.
Bilbao is a beautiful city worthy of spending a couple of days visiting. We really had a great time, and hope you will too.