Bilbao's Old Quarter
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If someone mentioned Bilbao 20 years ago, the reaction might have drawn a blank stare or "Bill who?" Now, with the arrival and huge success of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the mere mention of the city will elicit strong reactions and lots of animated discussion about architect Frank Gehry's magnificent piece of sculpture, the museum's mostly contemporary art collection and its winsome riverside setting. While the museum is extraordinary, there is much more to Bilbao than this single draw. The city, Spain's fifth-largest, will delight visitors with its charming Old Quarter, lively restaurants and tapas bars, excellent shopping, and the outstanding architecture that dominates the modern city center.
Bilbao was once a powerhouse of industry, based on mining iron ore, steel manufacturing, shipbuilding and ship repair, banking, insurance, and overseas trade. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the city's wealth gave rise to a most handsome new city across the Nervion River, called The Ensanche (or Extension). The new development featured the construction of wide boulevards, expansive plazas and a whole host of architecturally significant buildings. Yet, in the 1980's and the years that followed, most of the city's economic base slipped away due to cheaper production in emerging countries and the outfall from joining the EU. Only now are the city's fortunes finally returning.
Enter Guggenheim Bilbao, which provided the initial stimulus for resuscitating a moribund post-industrial port city into a vibrant urban center that is most assuredly worth more than the one day most people give it. The huge increase in visitors from all over the world has encouraged a revival of retail shopping along the smartened-up Gran Via; the creation of additional office spaces, including Cesar Pelli's elliptical Torre Iberdrola (2011), the tallest building in Spain; the rehabilitation of a monumental former wine warehouse into a handsome leisure, arts and shopping center (Alhondiga); and the rise of a bustling street life in the Casco Viejo, the Old Quarter. It's there that you will find what travelers say are some of the best tapas bars and traditional restaurants in Spain, set in a rabbit warren of medieval pedestrian lanes overlooked by stylish residential buildings with lively, patterned facades.
The city's museums and its Old Quarter are now linked by a linear park and pathway that parallels a revived riverfront. Several architecturally intriguing bridges give access to the river's north side and to the funicular to the top of Mount Artxanda for a view of the city and its hilly surroundings.
If you prefer not to take a ship's shore excursion, it's easy to explore Bilbao on your own. Once in the center, most everything is walkable, while a useful tram line links the museums along the riverfront to Casco Viejo.
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Spain is noted for its leather products (clothing, handbags, etc.) in varied shades like brown, rust red, orange and blue. Particularly attractive are bags with wicker detailing. El Corte Ingles (Gran Via Pasteleria, 7-9), the principal department store, is a convenient place to peruse the variety of leather goods and fashion items. Calzados Ayestaran (Gran Via, 27) sells good quality shoes and leather clothing. Loewe (Gran Via, 39) has smart and more expensive shoes, clothing and accessories.
Spanish and Basque are the principal tongues, and most Basques also speak Spanish. English is widely understood, except at some restaurants and tapas or pinchos (pintxos in Basque) bars. Ask for an English menu along with the Spanish version to build up your vocabulary. Bilbao in Spanish becomes Bilbo or affectionately Botxo (referring to the hole in which the city sits surrounded by high hills).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the euro; for the current exchange rate, visit oanda.com or xe.com. ATM's abound throughout the city. Many have an English-language option; look for the British flag. Not all the push-button steps may be translated into English, though generally most automatic tellers use the same system. You'll want some euros for small purchases, such as tapas, drinks and transit fare.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock in Getxo or the commercial port of Santurtzi, located on opposite sides of the Ria de Bilbao (also called the Nervion) from each other. Both are about 10 kilometers (just more than six miles) from the city center. There is also a cruise terminal on the Getxo side. For more information, see the port's Web site.
There is little reason to linger in Santurtzi, the container port and terminal for ferries to/from England, though basic services are available there, including ATM's, tourist information and a few souvenir shops. The new terminal will also have basic services for visitors, while the immediate neighborhood, Getxo, is an affluent suburb with a large marina and popular beaches.
Most cruise lines will provide a shuttle into Bilbao, usually to the plaza in front of the opera house at the edge of the old city center. Some lines charge for this service. The independent-minded can walk to the Bilbao Metro at Neguri Station (Line 1) in Getxo. In addition, Bilbobus routes 3411 and 3413 operate into Bilbao center from Getxo. Both stops are 10 to 15 minutes' walk from the ship. Nearly all the city center's principal sights are within walking distance.
Local transit includes the metro, Bilbobus (city bus) and EuskoTran (city tram). Creditrans is a reduced-fare debit card that can be purchased at transit stops for 5, 10 or 15 euro and can be topped up after the initial purchase. The BilbaoCard day pass provides low fares as well as discounts to museums, shops, attractions and some restaurants. The most useful transit line runs along the Nervion River, parallel to the river walk, with stops at Teatro Arriaga (opera house) and the Guggenheim Museum. Walking from the opera house to the Guggenheim will take about 25 minutes.
Taxis are available at the port and within the city. The green light atop the cab indicates it is available. Renting a car is not recommended, as the hilly topography makes driving very confusing.
Watch Out For
Basque and Spanish Language street signs are often both in use, so you may think you are in the right place on your map, only to find that the sign is in Basque, rather than Spanish. Keep looking, and you'll often find a translation nearby. Pickpockets are a problem, though no more so than in most European cities.
Museo Guggenheim is the city's biggest attraction. The exterior of architect Frank Gehry's masterpiece is made of angular shapes entwined with one another, and the stainless steel core is covered by a shiny titanium skin that will not tarnish nor rust. The complex rests by the river on land that was once a shipyard. The Bilbao Guggenheim was designed to reflect the city's industrial past, to be an icon for the future and to transform the former working riverfront into an attractive park. Before or after the visit inside, be sure to view the building from all angles and appreciate how well it fits into the landscape created by the red arched Puente de la Salvei Bridge.
Inside, the central atrium (photography allowed) soars around and above you, while visitors on the higher floors can look across, downward and out onto the river. The galleries, with different shapes and sizes, lead off the atrium, where photography is not permitted. Don't abuse the rule; you will be spotted.
The museum showcases large and small sculptural installations, photo collections and modern art by famous and less well-known contemporary artists. Noted artists exhibited are Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, Pollock, De Kooning, Lichtenstein and Miro. Don't miss the temporary exhibits on the second floor, which are often blockbusters that overshadow the permanent collection. (Guggenheim Avenida Abandoibarra, 2. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Open daily in July and August.)
Casco Viejo (Old Quarter): The Casco Viejo, about a half square mile, is characterized by rows of handsome five-story residences with balconies and colorful bay windows that hang over mostly traffic-free streets. Cafes, restaurants and shops occupy the ground floors. Small squares feature churches small museums as centerpieces. The best place to start is Plaza Arriaga outside the neo-Baroque Teatro Arriaga, located just across the Arenal Bridge from the two railway terminals and the main shopping street. A tourist office is located inside.
The Catedral de Santiago suddenly appears ahead and above as you walk into the Plaza Santiago. It was first built in the 14th to 15th centuries, but an elaborate Renaissance portico and graceful spire were added later. One block away in Plaza Miguel de Unamuno, Museo Vasco displays tableaux of rural Basque life, and in the cloister, the Idolo de Mikeldi, an Iron Age stone sculpture, looks like an early depiction of the cow that jumped over the moon.
From this neighborhood, most streets lead down to the largest covered market in Spain, the Art Deco Mercado de la Ribera, sitting grandly along the riverfront. (As of 2012, it was under reconstruction and not open to the public). Next door is the lovely San Anton church with an attractive bell tower and decorated portico.
Museo des Bellas Artes: Located adjacent to a beautiful park and across from the soaring elliptical Cesar Pelli's Torre Iberdrola, the city's original art museum houses a much more traditional collection that has greatly benefited from the influx of visitors to the city -- see its new wing. The comprehensive Catalan art survey begins in the 13th century, when the region became prosperous, with Romanesque panels, late Gothic paintings and altarpieces, Flemish works by Brueghel and Van Dyck, El Greco's Annunciation and Ribera's St. Sebastian Treated by the Holy Women, plus Murillos and Goyas. French artists are represented by Gauguin and Cezanne, and there are a few portraits by American Mary Cassatt. A fine collection of Basque art includes portraits and sculpture. (Plaza del Museo, 2. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
Been There, Done That
The Ensanche: Bilbao's industrial boom led to the creation of a major business center across the river. The area was bustling from the late 19th century through the Art Deco 1930's, and then again post-WWII, but it quieted down during the downturn in the cities fortunes around the 1980's. Now, greatly increased tourism has revived the Ensanche, and visitors to its vibrant city center can enjoy its rich architecture and stylish shopping options. From the Casco Viejo, cross the Nervion and continue up to the Plaza Circular. There begins the Gran Via de Don Diego Lopez de Haro (Bilbao's founder), -- lined with offices, banks and intriguing shops (note the haut-relief on the facade of the department store El Corte Ingles at numbers 7-9) -- that leads to Plaza Moyua. Facing the square is the Chivarri Palace, an early-20th-century Flemish-style building where every set of windows is different; it's home to the provincial government. Opposite, the three facades of the 1926-built Carlton Hotel face the plaza, and inside a graceful elliptical stained glass dome arcs over the main foyer. Divert three blocks along Alameda Recalde to the Alhondiga, an elaborate turreted former wine warehouse (1909) that was transformed by Phillippe Starck into a multipurpose site for restaurants, shops, meeting spaces, a library, a gym and a swimming pool. Enter through the open arches into a vast, if a bit gloomy, interior courtyard that's held up by decorative columns and overlooked by a massive sunburst.
Nervion Riverside Walkway: The former industrial waterfront has been transformed into a linear park that begins at the Arenal Bridge at the edge of the Casco Viejo and sweeps in an arc past the Museo Guggenheim to the Museo Maritimo de Bilbao. You can enjoy a leisurely walk from end to end in only an hour, and a tram line parallels the park if you don't want to walk back. On your walk, you'll pass the Ayuntamiento (town hall), an impressive row of houses and former warehouses that are now lofts and art galleries, and the Puente Zubizuri, a glass-decked pedestrian bridge. Around the halfway point, you'll find the Museo Guggenhiem; past that are the Palacio de Congresos y de la Musica Euskalduna, the curving arched Puente Euskalduna, and the Museo Maritimo Ria de Bilbao, where visitors of all ages can learn about Bilbao's maritime history with indoor and outdoor exhibits.
Monte Artxanda: For a terrific view of the city, cross the Puente Zubizuri, and walk three blocks to the Plaza Funicular for a ride (every 15 minutes) to the park atop Mount Artxanda. You can view the arc of the Nervion River as it encloses a large portion of the city on the flat land below. All around are more hills, and you can see as far as the Bay of Biscay. Located there are restaurants and picnic areas that are popular with the locals on weekends. (Funicular hours: Monday through Saturday, 7:15 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday and holidays until 11 p.m.; Sunday, 8:15 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
International visitors generally agree that Bilbao and neighboring San Sebastian offer some of the best food in Spain, especially if you are a seafood-lover. Try mussels in a tomato and anchovy sauce, squid cooked in its own ink (the first sight of the black goo takes a bit of getting used to), and salted cod with mushrooms in a garlic sauce or lemon and parsley. Another favorite is thinly sliced Jamon (ham) Iberico; it comes from local pigs that carry more fat. Hence, it can be cured longer to give a more intense flavor. Most restaurants will have multilanguage menus posted outside with prices. Lunch hours are generally noon to 3 p.m. No reservations are needed.
In the Casco Viejo (Old Quarter), one block in from the Teatro Arriaga, Berton -- at Calle Jardines, 11, with a second branch across the street -- is the place for pintxos (a kind of Basque tapas), with the tasty selections lined up on the bar. Choose what you want, no language translation needed, and add a glass of Rioja (txakoli) wine -- blanco (white), tinto (red) or rosado (rose). The selections will include croquettes stuffed with squid, smoked and thin-sliced ham, eggplant or sardines, anchovies, and eggplant, or stuffed egg and ham on sliced, toasted bread. It may be quite crowded during peak lunchtime hours.
Amboto, Calle Jardines, 2, has a bustling tapas bar on the street level and a handsome, wood-paneled restaurant upstairs away from the fray. Order a la carte, or choose from a set menu at a moderate price that includes an appetizer, main course, dessert, bread, water, wine and taxes. Tasty starters are a thick fish soup, king prawns, and mushroom pudding, as well as Iberian sirloin with blue cheese, peppers stuffed with crab, and hake (merluza, a fish) in a sauce made from crabs. Finish up with a puff pastry stuffed with cream and chocolate, or orange juice with ice cream and liqueur.
The Bistro at the Guggenheim Museum has tables with river views, and it makes an easy and convenient choice when visiting the galleries. Try the seafood soup with squid, hake and mussels; stewed baby squid in a creamy rice; or boned cow's tail, toasted with caramelized onions and its juice. Finish off with a fluid chocolate souffle with frozen cream.
Staying in Touch
Many cafes in Bilbao offer free Wi-Fi, and a few have computer terminals. If you take advantage of a cafe's free Wi-Fi, you are expected to buy something as a courtesy. Both principal museums have cafes with Wi-Fi. You can find more Wi-Fi Hotspots listed on bilbao.net.
Best for City Highlights: The "Bilbao and Guggenheim Museum" tour combines an hour's drive along the Nervion River with a visit to the city and museum. Stop first atop Mount Artxanda for a sweeping view down to the urban core. Then drive along the Gran Via, Bilbao's main business and shopping street. A guided tour visits Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum, which put Bilbao firmly on the tourist route upon its completion in 1997. Then drive the short distance to the Casco Viejo for a hosted walk through the Plaza Nueva and into the Arriaga Theater and the 14th- and 15th-century Gothic Cathedral.
Best for Foodies: The five-hour "Pintxos Lesson" tour has at its heart a 90-minute cooking demonstration at a restaurant. Participants may engage in some of the preparation and cooking as a chef shows them how to prepare a variety of pintxos (akin to tapas) for lunch or dinner using local ingredients. A wine-tasting session follows. The drive includes a stop outside the Guggenheim Museum and a steep climb by bus up to Mount Artxanda for a splendid view of the city. The drive to and from the ship takes 30 to 45 minutes.
Best for Basque Country: Further afield into Basque Country, the five-hour "Glimpse of San Sebastian" tour visits San Sebastian, a 90-minute drive from Bilbao. The Belle Epoque seaside city was built in the late 19th century on the Basque Coast to host the Spanish royal family and the aristocracy. It's now a family resort with fine sandy beaches, surfing, seaside promenades, great food including pintxos (tapas), scenic overlooks, historic churches, and the plazas and narrow lanes of the Old Quarter.
For More Information
Tourist information centers are located inside the Teatro Arriaga in the Casco Viejo (Old City) and in front of the Guggenheim Museum.
Bilbao Tourism Web Site: bilbao.net
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--By Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic contributor