Bilbao (Photo:Migel/Shutterstock)
4.5 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Cruise Critic Staff

Port of Bilbao

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.

About Bilbao


Pro

Visit a world-class Guggenheim museum and some of the best tapas bars in Spain

Con

Ships dock in ports that are more than 6 miles from the city; you'll have to take a shuttle

Bottom Line

Cultural attractions abound (and are mostly within walking distance) in this industrial port city


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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.

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.

Good to Know

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.

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.

Language

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).

Shopping

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.