Once famed for its shipbuilding, Bilbao is the new modern face of the Basque Country.
Its rapid turnaround from declining post-industrial centre to hotbed of innovation is a stellar example of urban reinvention that cities across the world have tried to emulate.
It is a city of many facets. Rooted in history yet bustling with new energy. Fiercely proud of its heritage but brazenly looking forward, with world-class museums and glittering architectural marvels that promise memorable moments.
What to do
The Guggenheim Bilbao put the city firmly on the map as tourists suddenly flocked to admire Frank Ghery’s swirling architecture of titanium, limestone, and glass when it opened in 1997.
Its ground-breaking design, moored on the banks of the Nervión River, not only captured worldwide attention. It set completely new standards for museum architecture.
Twenty-five years later, its cutting-edge collection of art from the mid-20th century onwards still makes a strong impression.
Avenida Abandoibarra, 2 48009 Bilbao +34 944 35 90 00 metro Moyua
The Art District, a circuit of galleries, museums, antique shops, old bookshops, and auction houses that stretches from the peninsula of Zorrotzaurre all the way to the Ensanche and Bilbao La Viejae, is a great place for discoveries.
Award-winning architecture, monumental sculpture, street art hotspots, alternative cultural venues etc. It has it all.
Best explored on foot, with plenty of bars and restaurants for impromptu stops en route.
On the other side of the Nervión River lies Casco Viejo.
Also known as Las Siete Calles after the seven streets that formed the heart of the medieval city, its winding, narrow cobbled lanes are made for pedestrians and home to Bilbao’s oldest monuments.
The Catedral Santiago de Bilbao, the Iglesia de San Antón, the Plaza Nueva and the steep stairs of the Calzadas de Mallona that lead to the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de Begoña are all within a stone’s throw.
There is no better place to dive into Bilbao’s history and soak up the atmosphere.
The area boasts countless restaurants and pintxos bars to experience the best of Basque cuisine - as well as the Mercato de la Ribera, Europe’s largest covered market, for fresh regional produce.
Bilbao's oldest church, the Catedral Santiago de Bilbao is one of the finest and most spectacular examples of Basque Gothic architecture.
Construction began in the late 14th century but the original temple saw a number of extensions and reconstructions in different architectural styles, including its impressive Gothic Revival exterior and 64-metre-high bell tower.
The scallop shells - symbols of the city's patron saint Santiago - that can be spotted above the main entrance mark it as a point of transit for pilgrims on the northern leg of the Camino de Santiago.
Plaza de Santiago, 1 48005 Bilbao +34 664 60 55 88 metro Casco Viejo
A reference point in the life of local residents, the Azkuna Zentroa once served as a wine and liquor storage facility.
Entirely revamped by Philippe Starck, the modernist warehouse designed by Ricardo Bastida has since morphed into a multifunctional, multicultural centre like no other.
Visitors stepping through the Atrium of Cultures are greeted by 43 sculptural columns in seven raw materials, inspired by different historical eras. On these rest three internal buildings in the shape of a cube.
Exhibitions, concerts, movies: there is always something going on. Not to mention the rooftop cafe overlooking the entire city.
Plaza Arriquibar, 4 48010 Bilbao +34 944 01 40 14 metro Indautxu
For unbeatable views of Bilbao, the lush Basque mountains beyond, and (on a clear day) the entire Bay of Biscay, a ride on the Artxanda Funicular or 'funi', as locals refer to it, will get you to the top of Artxanda Mount, 226 metres above the city, in barely three minutes.
Trains run every 15 minutes from Funikularreko Plaza, just across the Nervión River from the Guggenheim Bilbao using the iconic Zubizuri Bridge, early and late enough to allow for sunrise and sunset panoramas.
For the best viewpoint, pick a spot on the lowest car on the way up.
Carretera Artxanda-Santo Domingo Errepidea 27 48015 Bilbao +34 944 45 49 66 metro Abando
Basque cuisine is famous worldwide, and for a good reason.
Whether you're after a full Michelin-starred experience or traditional pintxos (small bites, pronounced 'peen-chos') washed down with a glass of local Txakoli (dry, slightly fizzy white, pronounced 'chock-oh-lee'), Bilbao is a bastion of gastronomy that will thrill gourmets and foodies alike.
Here's a selection of bars and restaurants in the vicinity of the BEC, and back in the historic centre, to help you start exploring. Enjoy!
12.3 km from BEC 18-min. taxi ride metro Casco Viejo (17 min.)
A STRONG PERSONALITY
Where to drink
In a city that is constantly evolving, finding a place to wind down after a busy conference day is easy. Bilbao's human scale and abundance of nightlife hotspots, from atmospheric cafes to cocktail bars to funky clubs, give plenty of options, to suit any mood and budget.