Bilbao: sights & museums

We spent a considerable amount of time walking around Bilbao. We only bought one 24-hour metro pass during our three day stay so most of our exploring was done on foot.

Our room wasn’t ready when we arrived so after grabbing a bite to eat at a nearby pintxo bar, we discovered the Arkeologi Museoa was free on Thursdays. We spied some giant puppets in the large open courtyard and decided to have a closer look.

posing w/ giant puppets   posing w/ giant puppets

Many Spanish festivals feature these puppets. One person controls the giant structure with a wooden frame and can see through a translucent veil stitched into the long fabric skirt. Slightly creepy and totally fascinating.

While we stayed in the Old Town, we walked across the Areatzako Zubia bridge daily to get to shopping and bars.

view from Areatzako Zubia bridge

One of the most famous sites in Bilbao, the Guggenheim Museum boasts a shiny undulating exterior and a giant puppy covered in flowers!


Guggenheim Museum Bilbao


Guggenheim Museum Bilbao

We opted not to go inside but enjoyed exploring the grounds and seeing how the shape of the building changed depending on where you stood and time of day.

There was a special exhibit going on at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao of life-like sculptures, so we decided to make that our museum visit choice. The materials varied but these sculptures were absolutely fascinating and incredible life-like!

Escultura hiperrealista 1973-2016 @ Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao  Escultura hiperrealista 1973-2016 @ Museo de Bellas Artes de BilbaoEscultura hiperrealista 1973-2016 @ Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao  Escultura hiperrealista 1973-2016 @ Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

Right by our hotel, there was a set of stairs that disappeared uphill. We decided to follow them and do some exploring…

Mallona Steps

scene on the Mallona Steps

The Mallona Stairs led us up past a large soccer pitch and an amusement park to a beautiful church.

Basílica de Begoña

We both preferred the Moyua area to Old Town as there was lots of shopping, bars, and beautiful squares to explore.

Moyua Plaza

Iglesia San José

On Sunday mornings, the El Arenal flower market appears with many locals picking up plants and bouquets for the week.

flower market @ El Arenal

Our last stop before heading to San Sebastian was Azkuna Zentroa. Boasting a movie theatre and swimming pool on the upper floors with a wide open gallery space below, it was a nice spot to rest our feet for a while and admire the unusual columns.

column @ Azkuna Zentroa

Bilbao: food & drink

Pinxos (small plates) are the thing to eat in northern Spain, so that was the plan. We were staying in Old Town, right next to Plaza Nueva, but our favorite pinxto bars turned out to be in the Moyua district.

pintxos!  our bill ~ $2 for a glass of wine
Bar Charley – pintxos and wine

pintxos place

grilled lamb skewers
lamb kebobs @ Café Iruña

delicious pintxos  more tasty pintxos
El Globo – easily our favorite spot in Bilbao – we visited three times!

oysters @ El Puertito
El Puertito (oysters & cava)

Bar Basque 
glass of wine @ Bar Basque; cheese and membrillo gelato from Tostadero Nosshbe Pasteleria Bombonería

Bilbao: daytrip to Getxo

Bilbao is along a river about 20 minutes upstream from the coastal towns of Portugalete and Getxo. Conveniently for us, the metro runs from downtown Bilbao out to both towns, so on a beautiful Friday morning we purchased a 24-hour subway pass and started exploring Portugalete. From the metro station we wandered through the side streets to the Basílica Santa María de Portugalete, which offers a beautiful view of the famous Vizcaya Bridge.

the famous Vizcaya Bridge

The bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage site and features a gondola that holds 6 cars and up to 200 people, hanging by cables from a steel structure. It’s a clever way to get from one side of the river to the other without blocking passage for ships, and at 45 cents one way on foot, it makes a fun 3 minute ride!

Vizcaya Bridge

Now on the Getxo side, we made our way to Camino de las Grandes Villas. I peeked inside a large church and found quite a modern interior.

Parroquia Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes
Parroquia Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes

For the next two hours we strolled along the beach boardwalk enjoying the beautiful historical mansions built in the early twentieth century. There were many people out and about, rollerblading, biking and strolling like us.

Puerto de Bilbao

Getxo building

Our feet were getting a bit tired, so we headed uphill to San Nicolas Plaza to grab a snack.

in Getxo

We found outdoor seating at Nikkou (a sushi bar) just up from the main square where I got salmon balls and a crisp white wine. Not long afterwards we heard bagpipes…

pintxos2  impromptu Galician band!

A Galician band! :) They played for about 10 minutes and then marched on. What a wonderful surprise!

The afternoon sun was quite strong, so after lunch we went back to Bilbao to find some shade.

Later that day we returned to Getxo for a quick stop at a beer shop that would be closed the following day, followed by a lovely sunset along the boardwalk.

sunset in Getxo

We definitely got our value from the 24-hour subway pass, and would happily return to Getxo in the future.

Bilbao: where we stayed

Eric had reviewed a bunch of hotels and narrowed the list to a handful to choose from, and I decided on the Caravan Cinema due to location in Old Town and the quirky room decor.

Checking in was a bit of a pain as the lobby is on the second floor and you need to be buzzed into the building. So, we had to telephone the cleaning lady to buzz us in, leave our bags and come back later — all communicated in very poor Spanish (me) and English (her).

Once we returned (had to call yet again), the owner was there to offer lots of advice on things to do, show us the room and set us up with the app that would allow us to buzz in to the hotel. Interestingly, we never saw this woman again during our three day stay!

The Fellini room was large and comfortable and located just off the landing on the third floor. The window was interior-facing, so even though we were on a busy street, we never heard any street noise, a big plus for us.

our room - bed  our room - bath

The amenities were fine and the bathroom had everything we needed. The faucets were a bit finicky but the shower had good water pressure.

No breakfast was included but there were plenty of bakeries and restaurants nearby. The location was very good, next to Plaza Nueva, which houses several bars and restaurants but we discovered that we would have preferred a location closer to Moyua as that was where our favorite pintxo places were, as well as most of the shopping.

Our biggest issue was the lack of a front desk presence. We checked at the reception several times during our stay, but no one was there in the late afternoon to ask questions. Our only option to speak with someone seemed to be calling the hotel phone number. This lead to problems at checkout since we wanted to change the credit card we had used to book the room and leave our bags while we walked around before catching our 3pm bus. After texting didn’t work, we called and apparently no one was scheduled to work until the mid-afternoon, on a day when they had several rooms checking out in the morning! And, of course, our ability to buzz back into the building expired right at noon. Thankfully the housekeeper was able to help us somewhat, but it should have been handled better.

Overall I think this was a fine place to stay if nothing goes wrong, but getting help from the front desk just wasn’t possible as no one was staffing it.

15 year anniversary trip overview!

It’s safe to say we love Spain with trips to Barcelona (1, 2), Madrid, and Granada & Malaga over the past eight years. When a good fare to Spain popped up again we decided to try Northern Spain for our 15th anniversary, eventually focusing on the Basque cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián.

bus_interiorTo get between cities we found buses to be the easiest and most direct option. For both legs we choose Alsa due to price and timing. For one leg we got Alsa Premium which was extra nice, with 2 seats on one side of the row and 1 seat on the other side, plus USB power and snacks.

The Bilbao bus station was easy to connect to from the metro, but many buses weren’t listed on boards, so it was a bit confusing. The San Sebastian station was quite easy and well-located too.

In both cities we shopped, ate pintxos, drank wine, visited museums, walked on the beach, and viewed sunsets. It was a very happy 15th anniversary for us!

Instagram photos | Bilbao flickr photos | San Sebastian flickr photos