Casco Viejo Bilbao and Beyond: Spain’s Basque Gem

June 3, 2021

Casco Viejo Bilbao

The largest city of the Basque Country might be its best representative. With world-renowned cuisine, rich culture, and the oldest living language in Europe, the region is a must-visit for any passionate traveler.

Bilbao is one of those cities where classical and modern architecture coexist in peace, and traditional and avant-garde complement each other perfectly, rivaling even the most beautiful cities in Europe. With impressive historic buildings, charming streets offering gastronomic delicacies, and museums that should be on everyone’s bucket list, Bilbao is one of Spain’s most interesting cities.

Here’s the list of some of the best places to visit and things to do in this Basque city.

The Guggenheim Museum

The symbol of the city, and the entire Basque Country, the Guggenheim Museum is an impressive modern and contemporary art museum that has put Bilbao on the map. Before it was built more than 20 years ago, that part of the city was an industrial and highly polluted zone with no appeal for either locals or tourists.

The curvy titanium and glass building designed by Frank Gehry is as much a piece of art as the collection it hosts. Before entering the building, visitors like to admire it from the outside first, as well as take a picture with Jeff Koons’ giant flower-clad “Puppy” that stands guard in the Art District outside the museum.

Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo Bilbao

Arguably the best part of visiting a history-rich city is exploring its historic core, i.e., its old town. The old town of Bilbao — Casco Viejo — is the medieval riverside quarter of the city, whose pedestrianized streets offer an immersive experience full of colorful architecture, boutiques, shops, and bars.

The quarter used to be walled until the end of the 19th century when they tore the wall down. It consists of seven parallel streets connected by narrow cantons or alleyways, which is why natives also call it Las Siete Calles — The Seven Streets.

A casual stroll through the old town can reveal many hidden gems. The quarter itself is a sightseeing attraction, but it also contains other landmarks of Bilbao that deserve special attention.

Catedral de Santiago

catedral de santiago

Catedral de Santiago is one of those landmarks in Casco Viejo that deserve special attention. It’s one of the most popular attractions in Bilbao since its imposing gothic style makes it a truly breathtaking sight to behold.

The cathedral is one of the oldest monuments in the city, dating back from the 15th century. It’s dedicated to St. James, the apostle, which is why it’s a notable stop on Camino del Norte, a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.

The dramatic Gothic Revival-style main portal and the awe-inspiring spire in the same style leave observers astounded. An interesting addition is a 16th-century relief detailing Basque merchants.

Teatro Arriaga

Casco Viejo Bilbao

The Arriaga theater is a stunningly beautiful building in Casco Viejo inspired by the Paris Opera sitting on the Nervión River next to the bridge that leads to the Ensanche Neighborhood. The 19th-century furniture and decor are still intact, and visitors can admire them either by taking a tour or seeing a performance.

It takes its name after a Bilbaoan musical genius who sadly died of tuberculosis at the age of 19. He was known as the “Spanish Mozart.” The ostentatious Baroque Revival architectural style of the building means that no matter where the eye wanders, there’s a wealth of details to explore and soak in.

Pintxos Bars

Bilbao is a proper gastronomical paradise that has something for everyone’s taste buds. However, the city’s most famous foods are pintxos — bite-sized pieces of fine bread topped with all sorts of interesting local ingredients.

To try these out, people usually go to Plaza Nueva and explore the various eateries on the square. Bilbao is famous for its great number of Michelin-star restaurants, so wherever they turn, tourists can stumble on a fantastic restaurant.

There’s a culture of Txikitear among locals in Bilbao. The word is Basque for a type of bar-hopping. Locals tend to go from bar to bar, tasting wine and nibbling on pintxos as a form of social activity, which is one of Baby Boomers’ favorite travel pastimes.

Mercado de la Ribera

mercado de la ribera

Another great way to experience the famous local cuisine is to head to the La Ribera market. Spanning 110,000 sq. ft., La Ribera is the largest covered market in all of Europe. It sits on the river next to the old town.

The market has existed here for centuries, but it didn’t get a building until 1929. The building itself is a sight for sore eyes. La Ribera is a great place to go to for a hearty lunch or even for buying local products to take home. There’s a variety of stands offering fresh produce from the neighboring villages, as well as amazing restaurants to sit and enjoy the great service. The market experience has a soft jazz musical accompaniment, which is unobtrusive and pleasant.

Museo de Bellas Artes

The Museum of Fine Arts or Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao is an art lover’s paradise. It’s easily the most important art museum in the Basque Country, and it boasts an impressive collection of 10,000 pieces.

Visitors can get lost in the works of great masters from the 12th century onward. It features some of the biggest, world-famous names, such as El Greco, Francisco Goya, Van Dyck, and more.

It’s virtually impossible to see everything in a day, so it’s best to prioritize by preparing in advance.

The Lookout of Artxanda

Bilbao is nestled between mountains, and Mount Artxanda offers a spectacular view of the city and its cozy position. The best way to get to the lookout of Artxanda is to get to the Plaza del Funicular, which is a short walk from the Guggenheim. There, visitors can take the funicular cable railway to the top, where they can bask in the glorious view.

There are also beautiful gardens and restaurants at the top to suit every appetite.

Bilbao has a lot to offer to any wandering visitor. The best thing about it is that every return trip makes people fall even deeper in love with this Basque gem.

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Casco Viejo Bilbao

About the Author

Anna loves getting out hiking during the weekend and has completed a few long multi-day hikes including twice on the Camino de Santiago for 4 weeks and then a Camino route in France for 2 weeks. She has also had the pleasure of hiking up Ben Nevis, hiking all over Ireland, and her favorite: 3 weeks in the Canadian Rockies. She started the Camino Adventures site to write about all things hiking.

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