Located in the Bay of Biscay on Spain’s Atlantic coast, Bilbao had long been an important fishing and trading port before it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Castille in 1200. Over subsequent centuries its key location facilitated trade with the Americas and the rest of Europe which ensured its role as an important maritime centre.
By the 19th century the city of Bilbao was one of Spain’s most important industrial centres with its wealth based largely on mining, the iron and steel industry and shipbuilding. Such was its prosperity that the city experienced rapid population growth which necessitated the extension of its urban area beyond the Casco Viejo (Old Town) and Bilbao La Vieja. As a result the attractive and prosperous Ensanche (Extension) district was built on the other side of the Nervión River. Today this is the city’s vibrant commercial centre where visitors will find offices, shops and banks set amid beautiful historic buildings.
Changing patterns of world trade conspired to destroy the city’s industrial base such that by the 1980s Bilbao had experienced a near total decline in its key industries. It was in this post-industrial environment that the city’s fortunes would be transformed when in 1991 the Basque government and the Guggenheim Foundation came to an agreement to to build a museum in the city’s old port area. The opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 sparked a revival in the local economy as tourists began arriving in the city to admire the magnificent building and its world-class art collections. Nowadays there are more than a million annual visitors to the Guggenheim making it one of Spain’s top tourist attractions.
Getxo Cruise Terminal: The popularity of Bilbao has slowly caught the attention of the cruise line industry with a growing number of companies starting to schedule a day in the Port of Bilbao. This year an estimated 95,000 passengers will pass through the city’s new cruise terminal which is located in the pleasant suburb of Getxo, some 15km to the north of Bilbao’s historic centre. Some cruise lines provide shuttle buses from the port to Plaza Moyúa in the city centre. If this option isn’t made available to you there are a variety of convenient ways to visit Bilbao of which the excellent Metro service is most recommended.
Please note that Brittany Ferries’ services from England arrive in the Port of Zierbena to the north-west of Getxo. They do not arrive at the Getxo Cruise Port.
Transport into Bilbao from Getxo
By Metro: From the cruise terminal you can take a very pleasant 20-minute walk to the metro stops of Gobela or Neguri. There are frequent departures into the city on Line 1 (direction Etxebarri). Alternatively, you can wait for the free shuttle service provided by the port authority which will drop you off at the metro stations of Areeta or Algorta in Getxo which are on the same line.
If you’re heading directly to the Guggenheim Museum you should get off at Moyúa metro station otherwise continue for two more stops to Casco Viejo to reach the historic centre. Metro services depart from Neguri every seven minutes and take just 23 minutes to the Moyúa stop (take the ‘Ercilla Guggenheim’ exit) from where it’s a 10-minute walk to the Guggenheim. Fares for this journey are remarkably cheap (about 2 euros each way), just buy a two zone ticket from the ticket machine.
For the return journey by metro be sure to get on Line 1 trains heading for Plentzia otherwise you’ll end up on the wrong side of the river for the cruise terminal. For maps and further information please refer to the Metro Bilbao Website.
By Taxi: There is always a good supply of taxis waiting outside the cruise terminal when a ship is in port but the drive into the city may prove longer than the metro journey due to traffic congestion. In good traffic conditions the taxi ride shouldn’t take more than about 25 minutes and works out fairly cheap when shared amongst four passengers.
By Bus: The local Bilbobus service provides connections between Getxo and Bilbao centre on numbers 3411 and 3413. This is a cheap and efficient option though it is still slower than the highly recommended Metro.
Self-Guided Walking Tour
Your first reference point in the city is likely to be Plaza de Federico Moyúa as that is the location of the metro stop from Getxo as well as the drop-off point for most shuttle buses from the port. From here you can easily walk to the Guggenheim which is just 600m away from the northern side of the square. There’s a tourist information office conveniently located next to the entrance to the Guggenheim (Alameda de Mazarredo, 66) where you can pick up a city map and get other useful information.
What to See in Bilbao
Guggenheim Museum: Located on the banks of the River Nervión in Bilbao’s industrial heartland, this silver titanium structure was designed by Frank Gehry to reflect the city’s historic relationship with the sea. As soon as it opened in 1997 there was an a significant upturn in the local economy as tourists began arriving to admire the building from the riverside and visit the impressive art exhibitions within. Such has been its success that the term “Bilbao Effect” is used in economic circles when discussing urban regeneration projects. You can read more about the Guggenheim Museum here. If you are in time for lunch during your visit the Bistró Guggenheim Bilbao is available within the complex and has a terrace with river views. More upmarket is the Michelin-starred Nerua Guggenheim Bilbao which opens for lunch and dinner.
Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao (Ramón de la Sota Kaia, 1): The city’s maritime museum lies just a a 10 minute walk west of the Guggenheim along the riverside walkway. It is built on the site of a former shipyard and its exhibits focus largely on the city’s shipbuilding industry and show how the port was redeveloped in the post-industrial era.
Nervion Riverside Walkway: This walkway follows the river from the Museo Marítimo Ría de Bilbao to the west of the Guggenheim as far as El Puente del Arenal (Arenal Bridge) on the edge of the Casco Viejo. If you’ve visited the Guggenheim and are heading for the Casco Viejo simply turn right as you walk out of the museum and enjoy a pleasant 30 minute (2km) stroll along this riverside path to get to the Old Town. If this is too much walking for you then simply hop on the EuskoTran tram from outside the Guggenheim and get off at Teatro Arriaga in the Casco Viejo.
The ‘Creditrans’ travel card is handy if you plan on using multiple travel services as it covers all journeys on the metro system, city buses (Biblobus) and city tram (Euskotram). You buy it at any ticket machine and top it up with 5, 10 or 15 Euros depending on how much you plan to travel around.
Casco Viejo: If you’re walking from the Guggenheim Museum just go as far as Puente del Arenal where you cross the river into the Old Town. Historically this was a walled city made up of seven parallel streets. Today it remains a residential area where buildings display traditional medieval façades but is also a popular tourist destination. Highlights of this compact area include:
Plaza Berria: Also known as Plaza Nueva, this square is home to some of the city’s oldest taverns and restaurants which are tucked away behind its many stone arches.
Catedral de Santiago (Plaza Santiago 1): The city’s beautiful yet understated cathedral dates back to the 14th century making it one of Bilbao’s oldest religious buildings.
Museo Vasco (Unamuno Miguel Plaza, 4): The city’s Basque Museum provides a fascinating history into the history of the Basque Country and its people.
Teatro Arriaga (Arriaga Plaza, 1): Overlooking the river, the city’s historic Opera House dates back to 1890. Today it is plays host to a number of musical, theatrical and operatic events throughout the year. You can check out what’s on during your visit on the Arriaga Theatre Website.
La Iglesia de San Antón (Erribera Kalea, 24): Thanks mainly to its much photographed bell tower the Church of Saint Anthony the Great is one of the best recognised features of the Casco Viejo. The building originates from the 15th century but has had to be renovated on numerous occasions due to flood damage.
Mercado de la Ribera (Erribera Kalea, s/n): Located right next to the Church of San Antón is La Ribera which is reputedly Europe’s largest indoor market. Visitors can wander around a vast selection of stalls selling fresh food products from the sea and the Basque countryside.
Museo de Arqueología (Mallona Galtzada, 2): This small archaeological museum provides an interesting insight into the Basque region and its people with exhibits dating back to Prehistoric times.
Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao (Plaza del Museo, 2): Located just a 5-minute walk south of the Guggenheim, Bilbao’s Fine Arts Museum is regarded as one of the finest museum’s of its type in Spain. Its exhibits date back to the 12th century and include a fine selection of Basque art. Highlights of the museum include works by Goya, Velazquez, El Greco and Picasso as well as pieces by French artists Gauguin and Cezanne.
Puente de Vizcaya: Located just 3km south of the Getxo Cruise terminal, the Vizcaya Bridge is the world’s oldest transporter bridge. Built in 1893 it connects the towns of Portugalete and Las Arenas (part of Getxo) across the Nervión River. It has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in the Industrial Heritage category. Cruise ship passengers can walk to the bridge or take the port shuttle as far as the Areeta metro station which is close to the bridge. Visitors can either take a lift to the top of the bridge then walk across it or take the gondola to the other side.
Funicular de Artxanda (Funikularreko Plaza): On the opposite side of the river from the Guggenheim and a 20 minute walk north of the Casco Viejo is the funicular which transports passengers up Monte Artxanda. At the top there are some beautiful gardens from where you get great views over the city and the Basque countryside. This is a nice place to have lunch before walking back down into the city.
Bilbao Shore Excursions
If this is your first time in Bilbao and you’re only in port for the day then you should head into the city, visit the Guggenheim and discover some of the other tourist attractions. However, if you’ve been in Bilbao previously and are keen to discover what else the region has to offer the most popular shore excursions are as follows:
Guernica: Located 45km east of the Getxo cruise port is the historic Basque town of Guernica which is famous for the horrendous bombing it suffered during the Spanish Civil War. This event was later portrayed by Pablo Picasso in his famous work of the same name.
San Sebastián: Located some 110km along the coast to the east, San Sebastián is a resort city is best known for its beautiful beaches, its old town which is packed with tapas bars and for its wealth of Michelin-star restaurants (9 at the last count).
Cruise Extension: Practicalities
Bilbao Airport: If you’re flying to Bilbao, the airport lies 10km north-east of the city and 20km south-east of the Getxo cruise terminal. There’s a frequent airport bus service to the city’s main bus terminal (Termibus) with stops at Alameda Rekalde, Plaza Moyúa and at Gran Vía, 74. Otherwise you can take a taxi or arrange a private transfer.
Tourist Information: For more information about the city including advice on transport, what to see and hotel recommendations please refer to our Bilbao Travel Guide.