Bilbao, the fifth-largest city in Spain, barely registered on the tourist radar until fairly recently. But with the construction of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, a masterpiece of contemporary architecture from Frank Gehry, the city truly put itself on the cruise map and the increased focus on the city led to a major revamp of its port and its plazas and the city has much to offer even for those with little or no interest in art and architecture.
Tempting tapas bars, eye-pleasing plazas, a scenic and atmospheric Old Quarter and some really excellent shopping opportunities are just some of the features of a cruise stopover in Bilbao.
Cruise Stopovers in Bilbao
A visit to the Guggenheim Museum will be the first port of call for most cruise visitors to Bilbao and it would be a crying shame to visit the city without stepping inside. The building itself is magnificent, its riverside setting is incredibly scenic and the collections of mainly contemporary art are always worth a look. Nearby, the Torre Iberdrola, built in 2011, is the tallest building in Spain and worth a quick photo-call from outside, while a vast former warehouse has been transformed into an impressive shopping, arts and leisure centre, known as Alhondinga.
While the modern part of the city is worth a visit, much of Bilbao's charm lies in its rustic Old Quarter, which is home to what many gourmands believe are some of the best tapas restaurants in Spain. Winding cobbled streets lead through the historic part of the city and the handsome medieval buildings are home to arts and crafts stores and delicatessens as well as traditional restaurants and tapas bars. Seafood dishes are predictably good and Bilbao is known as one of the best places in Spain to sample Paella, the national dish. Visitors should note that many shops open early and close late, but are closed for several hours during the midday siesta.
Getting Around Bilbao
While many cruises offer organised shore excursions in Bilbao, independently-minded travellers will find it is easy to navigate the city on foot. A relatively small and compact city centre sees the Old Quarter connected with its museums via a pathway that runs parallel to the riverfront and, should time allow, it is worth crossing one of the bridges to the north side of the city, where a funicular railway makes the ascent to the top of Mount Artxanda, which offers splendid views across the city and its mountainous surrounds. There are several arresting cathedrals and historic buildings to be seen in the city itself, while those with a longer stopover may find it is worthwhile to hire a car and explore the famously beautiful Basque Country surroundings.
While many cruises will stop at Bilbao for just one day or even half a day - leaving just enough time for the obligatory shore excursion to the Guggenheim Museum, those with longer stopovers will find it is well worth venturing out to the mountains, forests and beaches that surround the city. Cruises with longer stopovers in Bilbao may offer excursions to local beauty spots such as San Sebastian and Biarritz. Take the time to sample local fruits, vegetables and cured meats - and grab some to take home if possible - and to relax with a glass of wine or Sangria in a traditional bar.
Post by Tony, a UK based blogger on behalf of the UK’s favourite cruise agent, cruise.co.uk.