With my recent spell living in Bilbao still relatively fresh in the memory, I have decided now is the appropriate time to write my guidance on the best things to do around Bilbao.
A city which I had only really heard of due to its football team conquering my beloved Newcastle Utd in the early 90’s, and with a similar industrial past to that of my hometown, it turns out that once you look past the often frustrating climate (read – rain) there are an abundance of easily accessible locations nearby to satisfy a range of interests.
Please note the use of around rather than in Bilbao; I won’t be recommending anything in the city centre within this post as that deserves its own entry, from internationally iconic museums and cobbled old town streets to countless pintxo bars.
It will be a comprehensive list, but by no means exhaustive. In fact I am only going to recommend things which I personally did or visited myself in order to make my guidance more authentic. In no particular order at all, here goes.
San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
One of my personal favourites from the list. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is an incredibly photogenic church sitting atop an island, connected to the mainland by man-made steps.
The best photo opportunities are from the mirador looking out towards the steps and the church, but I thoroughly recommend you traverse the steps up to the church to complete the adventure. The breathtaking views along the coast from the car park are also an added bonus. Such is the beauty of this location that it is set to feature in Game of Thrones season 7, which will no doubt further increase its popularity .
Getting there – It is best accessed by car, but if using public transport the best option is a bus from Bilbao to Bakio, followed by a smallish walk along to San Juan.
I was in two minds whether to include this in my final list but it just made the cut. My visit to this castle was on the same day as San Juan Gaztelugatxe and that is how I would recommend you visit; combine it with a relatively nearby trip and only if you have access to a car.
As you can see from the photo, it is a very picturesque, almost Disney-esque castle (too far?). The trip there doesn’t involve much more as it is privately owned I believe. It has potential to be much more but it is still a great photo opportunity and pleasant on the eye.
Getting there – By car it could feasibly be combined with a trip to San Juan, Sopelana, or Plentzia without going too much out of your way.
A quaint little fishing town almost half way between Bilbao and San Sebsatian, Lekeitio is an interesting place for a day trip or perhaps for a relaxing weekend. It has a great beach, so try and coincide any visit with good weather.
The port there is a great photo opportunity and to add a sense of adventure there is an island connected to the beach by a fairy-tale style path that is only passable at low tide. The restaurants and bars of the port all have outdoor seating with excellent views, and the place we ate was very reasonable in both taste and price. A former student of mine reliably informed me that it is still possible to see dolphins and whales swimming close to here from certain vantage points, or from a boat.
Getting there – Any day trip could again be added to an itinerary with the previous two locations. A drive from San Juan to here is very scenic and interesting, and continues to be on the way to San Sebastian. Driving from Bilbao takes around 1 hour. There are bus options but I think it may involve changing en route.
My personal favourite from this list due partly to its close proximity to where I was living but most of all because I discovered it by complete chance when out running.
El Regato is as stereotypical a Basque village as you are likely to see. Hidden among the mountain paths only a stones throw away from the concrete and high rise dominated city of Barakaldo (where I lived for 8 months), it is a refreshing and interesting Pueblo that I visited as frequently as possible once I had stumbled my way through there.
There are a number of places to sample traditional pintxos and other foods – in fact for a village so small the level of choice is all the more impressive. The buildings here all retain an authentic Basque appearance, a white facade with wooden beams and a slightly slanting roof. Added to the aesthetic appeal to the village itself, there is also a lake/reservoir which has an extremely well maintained walking/running/cycling path around its perimeter. The forest covering the sides of the valley in which El Regato sits allows for a complete feeling of being in the countryside and escaping city life, without the need to travel too far. Perfect!
Getting there – By car, aim for Barakaldo or Gurutzeta and then turn off when appropriate. By metro get off at Ansio and then it is around a 40 minute walk or it is served by buses that go past that metro station.
Bidezabal – Sopelana – Beach walk
Having walked from Coogee Beach to Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia, with scenery that is at times breathtaking, I must say that this walk is up there if not even more impressive. That may be down to my expectation level but this is a must do for anyone who visits Bilbao.
It begins at Bidezabal beach, which provides panoramic views looking back over the city and the surrounding mountains. It is approximately 8km until Sopelana beach, some of which is up fairly steep hills so a moderate level of fitness is required if walking the entire trail. However the pathways are in excellent condition, and it is possible to run the entire way – which we did, struggling up and down aforementioned hills.
Throughout the walk there are endless uninterrupted views of the beautiful and rugged Basque coastline. Perhaps the cherry on the cake for this walk is the final stretch where you can observe para-gliders taking the plunge from the cliff edges before Sopelana beach. Once at Sopelana beach there are a number of bars where you could stop for refreshments and of course a beach to relax on.
Getting there – Algorta beach is around 10 minutes from Bidezabal metro station and Sopelana beach is around 20 minutes walk from Larrabasterra station – these both connect to Bilbao centre. There are various parking options at either end.
Home to the iconic Bizkaiko Zubia (Vizcaya Bridge), the oldest transporter bridge in the world, Portugalete riverside is a very popular destination for locals and visitors to the area. As this area was between my house and the beach, I spent a lot of time walking through and generally absorbing the atmosphere.
There are various restaurants and bars which are usually busy, particularly on the weekend when there is almost a holiday buzz around the riverside, more so on sunny days. The bridge is a necessary form of transport, taking both people and cars to the other side – and for anybody keen on heights you can walk across the top level for an extra cost. The walking route that connects Portugalete to Algorta is perfect for a casual stroll, or running/cycling/rollerblading, and also ends at a beach or lots of bars/restaurants.
Getting there – if travelling from the centre take the Kabiezes metro line and disembark at Portugalete or Abatxolo, or the Renfe C1 train from Abando or San Mames stopping at Portugalete.
The Old Port
Puerto Viejo ,the old fishing port, today is just a small makeup of the area of Bilbao. A traditional area, it maintains the whitewashed buildings and cobbled streets that I had ignorantly presumed existed throughout all of Spain (and the Basque Country). I was happy to occasionally visit this place and briefly get lost in the cobbled streets feeling like I had travelled in time. The only downside is that the streets don’t last long enough. As I am not a seafood lover I never ate here but for those who are I am informed it is the place to go. It is adjacent to Algorta beach and the upmarket suburb of Getxo.
Getting there – To access from the beach side, which is nicer, alight at Neguri station. The other option is Algorta station.
I hope you enjoyed reading my insights and even more so, I hope some of you get to visit some of my recommendations. I have purposefully omitted some obvious choices as I didn’t feel my knowledge of the area was sufficient or simply because I didn’t experience it myself. Has anybody discovered their own hidden gem? Feel free to add some of your own suggestions below.