In September, we took a family trip to Bilbao, in Spain’s Basque County.
Best known as being home of the World-famous Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao is the fifth-largest urban area in Spain and has plenty to offer tourists. With a flight time of just over 90 minutes from Manchester, it’s a great choice for a weekend break. We travelled on EasyJet, who fly six days a week from Manchester, and as our plane came in to land, we were treated to our first views of the Basque Country with its rugged, green hills. Bilbao has a small but futuristic-looking airport situated a mere 9 km north of the city, so you can be at your hotel in the city centre with a €25 taxi ride.
Although the Hotel Gran Bilbao is just outside the city centre, Bilbao’s world-class transport system meant that this was never an issue. In fact, it only added to the enjoyment, as I’ll explain later. The hotel is spotlessly clean, and our family suite was huge – a corridor leading to the two bedrooms and a sumptuous bathroom. The buffet breakfasts, available for an extra fee, were excellent and featured a good selection of hot and cold food.
Although Bilbao is not a huge city, and you could walk everywhere if you are that way inclined, it’s worth buying a Bilbao Bizkaia Card. Available in 24, 48 or 72-hour versions (cost is €10, €15 or €20 respectively), this card gives you access to the aforementioned transport system: city buses (Bilbobus), metro, Euskotren (tram) and a real bonus, the Artxanda funicular. They can also be used on the Bizkaibus coach, but we didn’t use this form of transport.
Remember to validate your ticket for each journey – at the machine on the bus, on the platform for the tram and like London, at the gates on entry to and exit from the metro. It’s all very easy and once you’ve picked up your card from the helpful and friendly staff at the Plaza Circular in the centre of town, you’ll really feel like you’re getting your money’s worth from this seamlessly integrated transport system.
I particularly enjoyed the Euskotren. This is the green tram that runs from the Axturi station (that just happens to be a leisurely 10-minute walk downhill from the Gran Bilbao), along the river, past the Guggenheim and all the way to Las Casilla. At each station, there’s a machine where you can validate your ticket and a display that tells you how long until the next tram (and it’s never very long). For getting back to the hotel, the number 77 bus runs through the city centre and stops a 2-minute walk from the hotel. Like the tram, even the bus stops have digital displays allowing you to work out when the next one is due. It never bothered us, but a word of caution — I would advise you to check the time of your last bus because buses and trams stop running well before midnight.
The world-famous Guggenheim Museum is the big attraction in Bilbao. I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of modern art, and although I enjoyed some of the exhibits, the museum has far more going for it on the outside. There’s the sweeping bridge that curves around the foot of the building next to the river. When we approached in the morning, there was a mist, which I assume was artificial, rising out of the pool between the building and the river. Walk to the end of the bridge and you’ll find Maman, the 9-metre spider. On the other side of the museum, near the front entrance, is the 12-metre Puppy, a sculpture in the shape of a West Highland Terrier and covered in flowers. Then there’s the building itself. Designed by Frank Gehry, it is considered one of the world’s most spectacular buildings and when you get the chance to walk around it, it’s hard to argue. Constructed in a combination of limestone and glass, clad in curved titanium plates, it is absolutely stunning to behold, and you’ll find yourself snapping phots from all angles. For some good views of the building, I crossed to the other side of the river and climbed the pedestrian steps on La Salve Bridge. I won’t attempt to describe the building in words – my photos say it better than I ever could.
There’s a great little café on the terrace outside the museum and a lovely walk along the river Nervión, complete with some nice landscaping.
With a wife and two daughters who have zero interest in football, I wasn’t able to persuade them that we should book a tour of the fabulous San Mamés Stadium. Home of Athletic Bilbao, this wonderous new cathedral of football was opened in 2013, replacing the old stadium that stood on the same site. I did persuade them that we should take a walk up to the stadium as I knew, thanks to a tip from a friend, that there was a bar where you could have a drink overlooking the pitch. So, I was able to grab some photos both inside and outside the stadium.
Heading back from San Mamés, we took a walk around Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park. This is a nice green space in the centre of the city, and in addition to an English-style garden with curved walkways featuring pagodas covered in vines, there’s a duck pond and some picturesque stone-lined water channels that cut through the lawn areas.
There is plenty of choice when it comes to food and drink in Bilbao, including pintxos, the Basque country’s version of tapas. None of us is a big fish lover, and I have to admit that before we went, I was having nightmares involving counter tops laden with row after row of seafood. But I was pleasantly surprised with what was on offer – mainly combinations of hams and cheese-based snacks, Spanish omelettes and a fair number of dessert options too. There are plenty of little bars around both the old town and the city centre, in addition to a good selection of restaurants.
Azkuna Zentroa is a cultural and leisure centre situated in an old corn exchange building. This is worth a visit for two architectural oddities: the 43 brightly coloured and quirkily decorated columns that support the main part of the building, and the roof-top swimming pool that you can walk underneath and view from the ground floor!
Casco Viejo, the old town, is full of historic buildings, including Bilbao Catherdral. Plaza Nueva is the main gathering place in the old town, and when evening comes around, the square is packed with locals and tourists alike. It’s a nice place to sit and have a coffee (which, admittedly, we did in the morning when it was less crowded!)
For a great set of photos, take a walk up the Mallona Steps (Calzada de Mallona). This wonderfully gothic set of steps, running alongside a cobbled street, start in a square in the old town, before rising way above the buildings and taking you to Etxebarria Park.
Note – this walk is not for the faint-hearted, or those with health problems! But those wishing to see the park can easily get here by taking the lift from the Casa Viejo metro station – this must be the world’s longest lift ride to/from a metro station, because it takes you from a spot high above the city, to the station deep within the bowels of the old town!
Created in the 1980s in the grounds where a steel mill once stood, Etxebarria Park still features a brick chimney in homage to its industrial past. We took a walk around the edges of the football pitches for some spectacular views over the city. On the edge of the park is a curious-looking building that looks like some relic from Soviet-era Russia. Covered in graffiti, and visible from the walkway by the river where it towers above more classical buildings, it took some research on my return home to discover that it is actually an abandoned lift that was once used to reach the park (and I suppose the Steel Mill). I’m guessing that the ease of access provided by the metro lift led to its demise, but it has a haunting beauty and looks incongruous amongst the other buildings nearby.
The bus and Euskotren service was so good that we only made a couple of trips on the metro system, but as noted above, it can be a good way to access Etxebarria Park. Bilbao’s metro system is so futuristic and clean, and at some points, I felt like I was wandering around the set of the new Star Trek series.
I’ve saved what may be my favourite memory from our trip to Bilbao until last – the Artxanda funicular. Unlimited rides on this grand old mode of transport are included on the Bilbao Bizkaia Card, and the best way to reach the station is to cross the Zubizuri bridge and follow the signs. The trip up the hillside is brief but once there, you are treated to stunning views of the city. The best way that I can describe the view is to compare it to all those films you’ve seen where the protagonists look out over Los Angeles, spread out below them. We took a second trip up the funicular on our last night and hung around for an hour or so at dusk. Watching the sunset over the hills and seeing the city lights gradually turn on was the perfect end to our stay in Bilbao.
I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed my time in Bilbao. It has so much more to offer than the Guggenheim. It’s location in a river valley makes for some spectacular views that are within easy reach of the visitor and given the ease of travel, I can highly recommend it as an alternative to the more popular city destinations in Spain.
Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright”, a mystery that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.