Why Bilbao is the Best Place in Spain for Christmas

One Week in Bilbao for Christmas: Reflections of the Guggenheim Museum
Could Bilbao be the best place in Spain for Christmas? I'd argue, "Yes!". We spent 7 days in Bilbao to experience Christmas in Basque Country. Bilbao is far-removed from the Spanish tourist routes and by exploring all the things to do in Bilbao in winter, you'll discover yourself surrounded by locals rather than visitors. Read on for a 7 day Bilbao itinerary filled with amazing food, art, history, and more. Visit Bilbao in December for the most authentic experience of Basque culture.

Why Spend One Week in Bilbao?

Bilbao Spain is a small, accessible city that is easy to explore on foot or by tram. Strictly speaking, you could hit the highlights of Bilbao in a couple days. However, we found that Bilbao was more amenable to exploration at a slower pace. Staying for a week makes it easier to stay off-the-beaten-path in an AirBnB rather than a hotel. Basque culture revolves heavily around food and Bilbao is very known for its foodie culture including a number of Michelin-starred restaurants within the city limits. The longer you stay, the more meals you'll have a chance to try without giving yourself indigestion trying to pack it all into a short trip.

Getting to Bilbao

You can get to Bilbao directly on select budget airlines in Europe (e.g., Vueling) or through the hubs of major carriers like Lufthansa or Swiss Airlines. Visitors from the U.S. should expect to make at least one stop along the way. For 3 EUR, you can make the 20 minute journey from Bilbao Airport to Bilbao City on Bizkaibus A3247. The Bilbao airport bus runs at least every 30 minutes every day of the year.

Day 1: Bilbao after Dark

Check out the Artwork Outside the Guggenheim at Night

Bilbao used to be a gritty Basque port city without much to recommend it to tourists. All that changed when a branch of the Guggenheim Museum was constructed along the Estuary of Bilbao and opened its doors to art-loving locals and visitors in 1997. All aspects of cultural life in Bilbao seem to radiate from the Guggenheim so upon arrival (and this itinerary assumes that you'll arrive in Bilbao in the late afternoon), take an evening walk along the river and admire both Frank Gehry's architectural masterpiece (the Guggenheim Bilbao building is a work of art in it's own right) and the spotlit art installations scattered on the riverside promenade along the Estuary of Bilbao.

Why Bilbao is the Best Place in Spain for Christmas: Spider sculpture outside the Guggenheim Bilbao at night

Light Bites for Dinner

Dinner in Bilbao doesn't start until late (after 9 pm at the earliest) which is consistent with other parts of Spain. We prefer to graze and Pintxos (Basque tapas) are an ideal way to eat earlier in a culturally acceptable way. Head over to Singular, a modern bar in Bilbao that also serves craft beer. Grab a glass of Txakoli (effervescent white wine) and a small sandwich filled with cured meats and enjoy the experience of being surrounded by locals. Pintxos are best enjoyed by bar-hopping from place to place. Head over to La Roca for a glass of red wine and a ración of squid ink or ham croquetas. Raciónes are sized for sharing while pintxos are strictly for one.
Things to do in Bilbao in winter: drink Spanish red wine at La Roca

Day 2: Exploring Bilbao's Casco Viejo (Old Town)

Experience Bilbao's Christmas Festivals

Bilbao is one of the best places in Spain for Christmas because of the local festivals based on Basque traditions. On the 21st of December each year, Bilbao celebrates Fiesta de Santo Tomas. Head to El Paseo del Arenal and join the crowds of locals out and about shopping the markets, eating, and drinking bottles of wine and Basque Cider. Definitely try the talo con chorizo (spicy sausage grilled up and served in a corn tortilla) and shop for some holiday sweets and cakes to take home for later. While the Fiesta de Santo Tomas only lasts for a day, there is a crafty Christmas market near Paseo del Arenal that is open for the entire holiday season. I bought a handmade leather belt that was sized and cut on the spot for me for just 30 EUR.
Bilbao Spain for Christmas: talo con chorizo at Fiesta de Santo Tomas

Take A Photowalk Around Casco Viejo

Once you've had your fill of the festival, wander through the cobbled streets of Casco Viejo, Bilbao's old town. Casco Viejo is anchored by Siete Calles (the seven streets). Casco Viejo is one of the most Instagrammable parts of Bilbao. Since you're visiting Bilbao in the winter for Christmas, pop into the various shops and cafes as the fancy strikes you to warm up.
What to see in Bilbao in winter: Casco Vieja

Pintxos and Txakoli 

There are so many fantastic places to eat in Bilbao. Settle in at Bar Argia for endless pintxos that cost just one euro each and watch the world go by.
Christmas in Bilbao: Tapas at Bar Argia

Day 3: Take A Day Trip From Bilbao

Explore San Sebastian or Santander

Leave Bilbao by bus and travel to San Sebastian or Santander for the day. San Sebastian will take you deeper into Basque Country. Enjoy a walk along the beach or seek out San Sebastian's world famous pintxos. San Sebastian is about 2 hours east of Bilbao and can be done in one tiring day. Better yet, spend a day and a night in San Sebastian if you have extra time to expand your 7 day Bilbao itinerary. Santander is located about an hour and a half west of Bilbao by bus. Santander is a great day trip from Bilbao if you enjoy shopping, seaside walks, regional museums, and fantastic tapas. 

Pintxos on Calle Ledesma in Bilbao

Calle Ledesma is a great place to wander in Bilbao and sample creative pintxos after you return from your day trip. We had 1000 layers of potatoes, Camembert and mushrooms plus a fried banana filled with blue cheese and ham at Bar Molinillo.

Sample Basque Craft Beer and More Pintxos in Casco Viejo

Sip a cheeky Basque craft beer from Bidassoa Basque Brewery paired with empanadas La Ley Seca in Bilbao's Casco Viejo. Head to Plaza Nueva and enjoy another couple rounds of pintxos at La Olla and Sorginzula. There are tons of Pintxo places lining the square so I recommend doing a complete circuit to see what's on offer and select the places that best suit your appetite.
One Week Bilbao Itinerary: pintxos on Plaza Nueva

Day 4: Celebrate A Traditional Christmas in Basque Country with Olentzero

Olentzero's Parade

I can only describe Olentzero as the Basque version of Santa Claus. Olentzero is another reason why Bilbao is the best place in Spain to spend Christmas. Spot Olentzero statues outside different businesses or catch a glimpse of him sneaking up onto a balcony. Olentzero makes his official appearance in a parade on December 23rd. Local families line the street between Plaza Moyúa and Paseo del Arenal in Casco Viejo for a parade that ends with Olentzero's joyful and triumphant entrance. We couldn't help but joining in with the locals as they waved and shouted "Olentzero!"
Why Bilbao is the Best Place in Spain for Christmas: Olentzero Parade

Pintxos at Cafe Iruña

Many of Bilbao's cafe and bars specialize and have a signature pintxo. Cafe Iruña near the Abando train station specializes in lamb kebabs grilled over a charcoal grill. Give the lamb a squeeze of lemon to delight your taste buds. As a bonus, Cafe Iruña has fantastic atmosphere and has been standing on this spot for years.
7 days in Bilbao: lamb kebabs at Cafe Iruña

Day 5: Museo Guggenheim and the Best Bilbao Food

Inside Guggenheim Bilbao

No trip to Bilbao is complete without a visit to Museo Guggenheim, the premier fine arts museum in Bilbao. You could easily spend a few hours wandering through the Guggenheim's permanent and temporary modern art exhibits. I especially liked The Matter of Time, a giant installation of weathered curves and spirals by sculptor Richard Serra.
What to see in Bilbao in December: The Matter of Time sculpture by Richard Serra

Explore the Intersection of Basque and U.S. History in Bilbao

In the modern part of Bilbao, we made an unexpected discovery. There is a statue honoring 2nd U.S. President John Adams on the corner of Diputazio Kalea and Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro. Adams visited Bilbao in 1780 to learn about the Basque system of government.
What to see in Bilbao in winter: Statue of U.S. President John Adams

Skip Lunch in Favor of Pintxos

We were planning to have a multi-course Michelin-starred meal in Bilbao at 9 pm and didn't want to ruin our appetite. Pintxos at El Globo is the perfect solution for avoiding "hangriness" while making sure we were ready to experience the very best of Bilbao's restaurant scene.

Ten Michelin-starred Courses at Mina Restaurant Bilbao

Sample the 10 course tasting menu at Mina Restaurant for a real treat. Sit side by side on the comfortable stools (with back-support and everything) overlooking the kitchen. We were definitely stuffed by the time a plate of financiers arrived at the end of the meal. Opt for the wine pairings and give yourself a chance to try wines you'd never think to order. We were served a sweet wine and a fortified wine with two of the savory courses. In total, we tried seven wines with our 10 course meal.

Bilbao at Christmas: Lea and Perrins and tamarind dessert at Mina Restaurant Bilbao

Highlights of our Mina Restaurant experience in Bilbao included:

1. We got to see all the action in the kitchen as our food was being prepared.
2. I tried sweetbreads for the first time ever and liked them!
3. My dessert was flavored with tamarind and Lea and Perrins, an unusual but delicious combination.

Day 6: Celebrate Christmas in Bilbao

Christmas Lunch in Bilbao

Christmas in Basque Country generally involves a quiet day at home with family. The one exception is when people emerge from their homes for lunch. We booked in to Premierk to enjoy a lovely three course Basque Christmas lunch served up with a bottle of Rioja.

Take an Architecture Walk in Bilbao

While shops and many restaurants are closed on Christmas Day, it turns out that this is a great time to take a walk and photograph the quiet streets. Seek out Osakidetza, a really bad ass piece of architecture made of glass. The angles of the glass catch the light and make for great photo ops. Check out the map at the end of this post for the location. Google Maps may mislead you as there are two locations listed if you search for Osakidetza and neither one is correct. We walked to the wrong places first and would love to save you the trouble of doing the same.
Instagrammable Bilbao at Christmas: Osakidetza

Outside the Guggenheim

What to see in Bilbao in winter: metal sphere sculpture outside the Guggenheim Bilbao
A walk around the Guggenheim is also a great Christmas Day diversion in Bilbao. In fact, the sculptures outside of the Guggenheim are probably my favorite part of the entire experience of visiting. Check out the enormous flower-covered Puppy. Pro-tip: bring a camera with a big zoom lens and photograph the reflections in the sculpture of metal balls outside the Guggenheim Bilbao. There is also a really cool park (Casilda Iturrizar parkea) not far from the Guggenheim near Euskalduna which is a great place to go when shops are closed on Christmas Day.
Things to see in Bilbao: The Puppy outside the Guggenheim Bilbao

Catch The Holiday Spirit with Bilbao Christmas Lights

Bilbao is definitely one of the best places in Spain for Christmas due in no small part to the amazing displays of lights. Walk up and down the Estuary of Bilbao and spot various works of art which are simply dazzling after dark.
Why Bilbao is the best place in Spain for Christmas: whale decorated in lights

Day 7: Portugalete and Getxo

Riding the Bilbao Metro

The Bilbao Turismo office is located near Abando Station. Definitely make a pitstop in the station and admire the historic stained glass. Bilbao Turismo can help you buy a 3 day Bilbao Bizkaia card which includes unlimited access to public transportation and is a good investment if you are planning some day trips from Bilbao. We bought a Bilbao Bizkaia card to enable us to make the journey from central Bilbao to Portugalete. It takes about 40 minutes to get to Portugalete from the heart of Bilbao.
What to see in Bilbao in winter: Stained glass at Abando Station 

Lay a Foundation of Pintxos in Portugalete

Txo is a great first stop in Portugalete for decadent pintxos. Try a small ceramic dish comprised of potatoes, bechamel, bacon and more cheese.
7 day Bilbao Itinerary: pintxos at Txo in Portugalete

Views of Puente Bizkaia

Portugalete is most famous for Puente Bizkaia, a historic bridge that you can ride across via a suspended cable car. The best views of Puente Bizkaia require an uphill climb to Andra Maria Basilika in Portugalete.

7 days in Bilbao in winter: Puente Bizkaia in Portugalete

Cross Puente Bizkaia

The suspended cable car that connects Portugalete and Getxo is not included in your Bizkaia Card. We were indignant at first until we realized that it costs 40 cents to ride the cable car. The price of the cable car is so low that it's not worth arguing over. 

Walk Getxo's Coastal Promenade to Algorta

While Portugalete has historically been a working class neighborhood, Getxo is considered to be 'posh'. The promenade along the coast in Getxo is lined with early 20th century mansions and is worth meandering. We hiked all the way to a small fishing village near Algorta which seems to spill down the hill into the sea. We stopped for pintxos at Bar Arantzale (eaten on a sundrenched terrace with a glass of white wine) before taking the metro back to Bilbao.
One week in Bilbao in winter: walk the coastal promenade in Getxo

Dinner at Michelin-starred Atelier Etxanobe Bilbao

Add another meal to your Basque Country experience by making a dinner reservation at Atelier Etxanobe in Bilbao. The meal is a decidedly high tech experience with the menu projected onto the table. There was also 3D printing, blow torches, liquid nitrogen and virtual reality for dessert served by Chef Fernando Canales.
7 days in Bilbao: High tech Michelin-starred meal at Atelier Etxanobe served by Fernando Canales

Day 8: Maritime Bilbao

La Carola Crane

Explore Bilbao's maritime history with a quick tram ride to see La Carola Crane. Bilbao was once a bustling port and would have been a very industrial place to visit prior to reclaiming the land around the Estuary of Bilbao for art and the community. La Carola Crane remains in place as a reminder of the past.
What to see in Bilbao in winter: La Carola Crane

Explore Museo Maritimo de Bilbao

Enjoy the interactive exhibits at the Bilbao Maritime Museum. Be a witness to history and to the transformation that occurred throughout the ages.

Artxanda Funicular

The Artxanda Funicular is another popular thing to do in Bilbao in winter or whatever season you happen to be visiting. Ride the funicular up to Mount Artxanda for sweeping views over #Bilbao. We visited in the late afternoon, but I suspect the light is much better for photographs in the morning. Regardless of the time of day, it's worth riding the funicular.
Why visit Bilbao for Christmas: Bilbao sign on Mounta Artxanda

Graze at Mercado de la Ribera

Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao Casco Viejo is worth a browse for the architecture alone. It's even better if you go hungry. Enjoy some pintxos from the different stalls at Ribera Market and a last taste of fabulous Bilbao food.
Bilbao One Week Itinerary: Mercado de la Ribera in Bilbao

Toast Your Trip with a Basque Craft Beer

Before heading to the airport to conclude your one week Bilbao itinerary, make time for a pint of Basque craft beer from The Basquery. The Basquery also sells fresh bread and gourmet products if you'd like to pick up a few souvenirs or a snack for the plane.

Add On Additional Day Trips from Bilbao

As you can see, there are some amazing things to do in Bilbao in winter and you can easily fill a 7 day itinerary. Bilbao is also a great home base for further exploration of Basque Country and other nearby Spanish cities. We've already talked about day trips to San Sebastian and Santander in this post. If you buy a 3 day Bilbao Bizkaia card, you can also use it to go on a public transportation adventure to some smaller coastal cities that are accessible on Euskotren Trena.

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: What other places vie for the best place in Spain for Christmas? 5 days in Granada for Christmas and a week in Malaga to celebrate the New Year was another of our favorite winter holidays.

Bilbao to Bermeo

Take the Euskotren to the end of the line in Bermeo. Start the day with coffee and a pintxo at Joshe Mari Taberna. The Bermeo tourism office is super organized. Pick up a map which includes a walking tour of this Basque fishing village. Follow the detailed route outlined on the map and enjoy the picturesque architecture and sea views of Bermeo. Finish your stop in Bermeo with more pintxos at Cafe Oker, a tiny no-frills establishment along the town square.

Bilbao Day Trips: Bermeo harbor and sailboats

Detour on the Way from Bermeo to Gernika

The Bilbao Bizkaia Card is definitely handy. As we've already seen, public transportation including Euskotren is covered. We took the opportunity to get off the train one stop earlier than expected to check out a birdwatching trail near Institutoa in Gernika.

Exploring Gernika

Gernika (also known as Guernica) is most well-known as the subject of Picasso's famous painting which is permanently on display in the Reina Sofia in Madrid. Picasso's painting was an immediate response to the Nazi bombing of Gernika during the Spanish Civil War. The Museum of Peace in Gernika is the biggest tourist attraction in this Basque town but was unexpectedly closed for a month for maintenance when we visited over the Christmas holidays (even the tourism office was surprised when we mentioned it). At least we got to see the Basque Assembly House, Assembly Room and Tree of Gernika. The Tree of Gernika was the historic meeting point of the different districts of Bizkaia. The stained glass of the Basque Assembly house was especially impressive.

Bilbao Basque Country Day Trip: Stained Glass at the Basque Assembly House in Gernika

Map of Points of Interest in Bilbao

Check out this helpful map showcasing the location of the various things to do in Bilbao in winter. 

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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: Why Bilbao is the Best Place in Spain for Christmas
Why Bilbao is the Best Place in Spain for Christmas
Find out why Bilbao is the best place in Spain for Christmas. Learn about a one week Bilbao itinerary. Explore Bilbao Spain in a week. Experience Bilbao at Christmas and for New Year's Eve. Discover why Bilbao is worth visiting in the winter. Spend Christmas in Basque Country. Check out sights in Bilbao like the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum.
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