Buzzing Bilbao for under £100 a night: How the old town, lively bars and Basque culture make for an ideal weekend break (and architecture nerds will be in heaven)

  • Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum – a ‘glory’ to behold – is one of Bilbao’s must-visit architectural sights 
  • Stay at Caravan Cinema, a movie-themed hotel where each room is inspired by a different director’s films 
  • Go for lunch at the ‘unassuming’ restaurant Eliptica – it offers three courses and wine for a bargain £13.90

Once just another industrial port, Bilbao’s fortune changed when the Guggenheim Museum arrived and put the Basque capital on the international map. 

Frank Gehry’s masterpiece and works from greats such as Santiago Calatrava make Bilbao a must for architecture nerds. 

Foodies flock here for pintxos — Basque tapas — while the old town, lively bars and Basque culture make for an ideal weekend break.

On a weekend break in Bilbao, pictured, check out Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum and works from greats such as Santiago Calatrava – the city is a must for architecture nerds

Where to stay

Caravan Cinema

Hidden behind a smart navy door in the heart of Bilbao’s old town is this five-room pensión inspired by the world of film. Each room takes its cue from a director, with the decor subtly nodding to their films. All have memory foam mattresses, air conditioning and Marshall radios. Rooms without breakfast from £50, (caravan-cinema.com). 

Barceló Bilbao Nervión

Enjoy light rooms with large, comfy beds at Barcelo Bilbao Nervion, a hotel that lies between the Guggenheim (pictured) and the old town

Located riverside, this modern hotel is right between the Guggenheim and the old town — just a ten minute walk each way.

It has light rooms with a clean and minimal finish and large, comfy beds. Rooms without breakfast from £89 a night (barcelo.com/en-ww/barcelo-bilbao-nervion). 

Pensión Manoli

Stumbling distance from pintxos hotspot Plaza Nueva, this guest house is in a pretty pink building. The simple rooms have traditional street-facing balconies, ideal for people-watching, while the shared bathrooms are spotless. Rooms from £51 a night without breakfast (pension-manoli.basque-country-hotels.com).

Pensión Basque Boutique

In this quirky central hotel, the eight thematic rooms are all inspired by Basque culture. For example, La Baldosa is an homage to the pavement tile that’s become a symbol of the city, with the blue and white flower pattern decorating the headboard of the bed and continuing across the tiles in the bedroom. Rooms start from £50 a night without breakfast (basqueboutique.es). 

Where to eat

Plaza Nueva

Fill your tummy with pintxos — Basque tapas — as you hop between the bars of Plaza Nueva. Bar Bilbao (pictured) is a good traditional choice with excellent tortilla

This neoclassical square filled with bars is the best spot to pintxos hop. These giant canapes — often meat or fish snacks on bread — line every bar so just order what you fancy then move to the next spot.

With its pretty blue and white tiles, Bar Bilbao is a good traditional choice with excellent tortilla (£1.80) while Gure Toki lives up to its popular status and offers a refined take — think yakitori chicken sticks or goat’s cheese with apple and rose petals (from £2.20).

Elíptica

Do like the Spanish and have your big meal at lunch — ideally an affordable menu del día (a daily changing set menu). This unassuming spot near the Guggenheim offers three courses and wine for a bargain £13.90. The generous portions of Basque regional dishes include simple fare such as anchovy and tomato salad, lemon sea bass with potatoes and homemade flan (Alameda de Recalde, 33). 

La Ribera Market

Wander through the maze of stalls selling everything from Iberico ham and salted cod to aged cheese and seasonal fruit at La Ribera Market (centre) 

La Ribera Market is a good pintxos spot

Claiming to be the largest indoor market in Europe, there’s no better introduction to Basque cuisine than a wander through the maze of stalls selling everything from Iberico ham and salted cod to aged cheese and seasonal fruit. Also a good pintxos spot — enjoy them on the riverside terrace. Don’t miss the extensive selection of Gildas at La Bodeguilla, these ‘pre-meal pintxos’ (from £1.20) are served on sticks and make an excellent salty snack (Erribera Kalea, s/n, 48005 Bilbao, Bizkaia).

What to see and do

Visit the Guggenheim

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, no visit to Bilbao is complete without a trip here. To take in all its glory walk on the opposite bank of the river, but don’t miss inside. Start with the permanent collection featuring Warhol, Rothko and Basquait, then the temporary exhibitions and outdoor sculptures. Booking online saves €2 (guggenheim-bilbao.eus, Abandoibarra Etorb, 2, 48009 Bilbao, Bizkaia).

UNESCO-approved Bridge

Watch the sun setting over the Vizcaya Bridge, pictured, which is the world’s oldest transporter bridge and a UNESCO World Heritage site

A 20-minute metro from the old town (£3 return) takes you to the world’s oldest transporter bridge and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Vizcaya Bridge. The best way to see this ‘hanging bridge’ up close is to take the gondola that runs underneath it (34p). It’s great at sunset (Puente de Vizcaya Zubia, Getxo, Bizkaia).

The city from above

For panoramic views, take the funicular from Matiko (£3.80 round trip). Whizzing you to the top of Mount Artxanda in five minutes, it gives a great perspective of the city, green hills and river (funicularartxanda.bilbao.eus). 

Explore the old town

Take in sights such as the Santiago Cathedral (pictured) on a walking tour of Casco Viejo – Bilbao’s old town

The best way to admire Casco Viejo — Bilbao’s old town — is with a walking tour (£5-10 donation). Take in sights such as the Santiago Cathedral and Bidebarrieta City Library and learn about Basque culture (civitatis.com). 

How to get there

Easyjet flies from London Gatwick to Bilbao from £35. The Bizkaibus line A3247 runs from Bilbao airport to the city centre every 15 minutes and takes 20 minutes (£2.55 one way).

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