Spain doesn’t have to be about the sunny beaches of the Costas, or even the cities of Barcelona and Madrid. One part of Spain which has surged to the forefront of the tourist market in recent years is the northern city of Bilbao, which has lots to offer visitors from the UK.
Practicalities – Getting There
Bilbao’s airport is just outside the city, and there are direct flights there with budget airlines from several airports in the UK. If you are planning on exploring the countryside surrounding the city, another option is to take your car on the ferry from Portsmouth. The crossing takes 24 hours, and there are two sailings per week. Another option is to take one of the many services crossing the Channel to Caen, Cherbourg or St Malo in northern France and driving down. The drive down through France will take around 9 hours.
Top Things to See in Bilbao
Bilbao has transformed itself from a grim, steelworking town which was built around heavy industry into one of the main arts centres in the north of Spain. This is down to the building of the Guggenheim museum in the centre of the city, which opened in 1997. The mix of the ultra-modern museum with the traditional architecture of the old town has brought visitors in droves. As well as the modern art contained in the Guggenheim, don’t miss the more traditional Fine Arts museum, the narrow streets of the old town or “Casco Viejo”, the arched New Square or the Ribera market, where the region’s farmers and fishermen sell some of the freshest produce around.
Exploring the Surrounding Countryside
Take the train out of Bilbao up the coast to Plentzia where you’ll find a sandy beach and a pretty little town where city dwellers escape for the weekend. Further east along the coast is the tiny island of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, connected to the mainland by a causeway. The setting is stunning, and the island has been used recently for filming ‘Game of Thrones’. Heading west, it’s only an hour along the coast to Santander, an elegant seaside resort with broad sandy beaches and plenty of restaurants and bars. Head south, and you reach the Rioja region which produces some of the best wine in the country.
What to Pack
Northern Spain has quite a different climate from the centre and south of the country. It’s much wetter, especially in the autumn and summer. Pack a waterproof jacket, whatever time of the year you are visiting. Healthcare in Bilbao is good and your EHIC will cover you for treatment under the state system. Many local use their pharmacy as the first port of call for medical advice – just look for the large green cross. Like the rest of Spain, the currency is the euro. The Basque country has its own language, Basque, but in the city you will hear Spanish more often. Most younger people will speak English as it is compulsory in schools from an early age.