Bilbao was never going to be great. My sister had visited a few weeks before us and when someone describes a place as nice you know they’re just gently letting you down for a disappointing trip. Still, we had to keep our hotel reservations as our ferry left from there in two days time. However, if the drive up to it through Star Wars appropriate landscape and lush vegetation wasn’t a good enough prequel for the beauty that lay ahead in this Basque city then what is the point of the first few minutes to every Bond or Bourne movie – you know, where you get a 5 minute fight scene in the most picturesque of locations? It turns out my sister just doesn’t have a ton of descriptive words in her vocabulary.
Bilbao – The Perfect City For Kids
Bilbao was our first city break with children. So, obviously the Guggenheim is iconic, San Francisco neighbourhood is cool, and the old narrow streets of Casco Viejo are great to wander but what sealed the deal for us as a family was the way the Bilbaoans eat : I had no idea how much of a cornerstone element pintxos would have on our visit to the city but I think we struck gold with this choice, seeing that all three of our kids are proper foodies, and let me tell you – pintxos are perfect for kids!
We came up with a genius food-crawl concept that we’d have difficulty executing in any other city without needing to sell a lung. Pintxos are small finger foods served in bars in the Basque region of Spain. They differ from tapas in that they are a lot smaller, just one or two mouthfuls and usually held together with a cocktail stick. Often on a piece of bread, although not always, and the idea is that you snack on them when you meet your friends for pre-lunch or pre-dinner drinks. It’s a lovely custom and one that my kids got to grips with straight away! Bars are competitive and strive to produce elaborate mouthfuls so everywhere you go the choice is amazing, and the best bit – they’re so cheap! Most are €1 a piece and so we developed the game; Each person was allowed one pintxo per bar, we’d walk a little, discover more of Bilbao then stop at the next bar for more pintxos half an hour later. Bars start serving pintxos at noon and carry on until about 9pm when most Spaniards start thinking about their official evening meal but by 9pm for us we’d racked up 9 or 10 pintxos (plus a fair few glasses of Rioja for me) and were officially stuffed and with our belts of no further use to us we were ready to resume a horizontal position. Just writing this makes me want to be there right now because this was definitely the best bar-crawl I’ve ever done. Plus, the kids were in tow!
I have put together a little two day itinerary of things the kids enjoyed seeing the most and thrown in a few good Pintxos bar recommendations of places where we had some great food. My aim : to convince you that Bilbao is a great city break for families!
A Perfect Hotel For Families In Bilbao
We stayed at the 5 star Ercilla Lopez de Haro hotel in the Abando (or central) district/barrio. Not as expensive as you might think, it cost the 5 of us just under £200 for 2 nights and the family rooms were large with 2 bathrooms. There was also a communal area which had complimentary hot and cold drinks and a few snacks. The concierge also took great interest in the children and they even lined up all of my daughters teddies on her bed and gave them each a chocolate – it’s all about the little things isn’t it. Conveniently, our most favourite pintxos bar was right across the street – Mr MLLH snook out a few times for a solitary beer and mouthful whilst the kids and I were having a rest in the room! I would’ve too but I can’t bare the thought of people thinking I have no friends!
Bilbao With Kids – Day One
Casco Viejo, or Old Town, is the liveliest barrio of Bilbao – the streets are narrow and tall but they’re not cramped on style – it’s romantic and fizzing with energy. This was the area my sister spent her 24 hours in and I can almost see why she wasn’t bowled over – it’s a little run down when compared to other Spanish old towns like Salamanca and Palma, but even so – it’s not a reflection of a lack of investment, Bilbaoans are artists and a bit of Gothic rustic charm is no more appreciated than with the bohemian set. You could easily spend the morning wandering with a plaguing sense of deja vu as you get lost in the maze of a medieval labyrinth. Casco Viejo’s old name meant ‘seven streets’ and this grid used to be inside the old city walls.
Best Places For Food
- Irrintzi was on a few travel bloggers top 5 lists that I read before our trip and they were right – cheap and cheerful with plenty of choice in their €1 selection, excellent local wine and a laid back atmosphere perfect for kids.
- El Txoko – more of a dining experience; just a plain door on the outside but a beautiful restaurant indoors. €10.50 for the 3 course lunch menu which will definitely not disappoint.
- Mercado de la Ribera – Europe’s largest indoor covered market in a very stylish Art Deco building, if you’ve only got time for one meal in Bilbao then make sure you come here – it’s a real must.
What’s Worth Seeing In Casco Viejo?
Plaza Nueva (or Plaza Barria) is a great place to dodge seagull poo. It’s like a Spanish version of the hunger games – a small enclosed square, framed with arches, that has you trapped save only for a few small (unobvious) exits, with kamikaze seagulls taking aim if you don’t share your ice cream. It’s a hive of activity and if you can find a seat at a cafe in front of the arcades, a great spot for people watching as the gulls cause pandemonium. On a Sunday morning there’s even a flea market, with little birds in old wooden cages and terrapins and other tiny pets to keep the kids amused. Nearby in Plaza del Arenal there’s also a pretty flower market – also Sunday mornings, so if you just want to take in the city don’t miss this square off your travel plans.
A number of alleys, or cantons, in the Casco Viejo suddenly open up into little squares imposed upon by looming churches and you will pass a few if you’re making your way to the Mercado De La Ribera. Even if you’re not planning to eat here this is still worth seeing for its Art Deco architecture and style but also because the food is so lovingly displayed to a level of high presentation you do wonder about the stall holders Obsessive Compulsive Disorders.
Funicular De Artxanda
Once you’ve discovered the maze that was Casco Viejo, it might be worth heading over to the cities funicular for a sit down with some epic views thrown in. There’s always the option of cutting through one of Bilbao’s green spaces on the way too – Etxebarria Park, where the kids can let loose and run free for a while.
Funicular De Artxanda is a 3 minute cable car ride that takes you to the best views of Bilbao. On the weekend the park at the top is busy with locals and their picnics, escaping the hustle and bustle for a while, but don’t worry – there’s plenty of room for everyone. Cable cars depart every 15 minutes from 7.15am till 10pm and you can purchase your return ticket from the station at the bottom for €0.95 each. It’s almost a kilometre long and at an incline of 45 degrees so that bit of mild peril sings every child’s tune – ‘what if the cable snaps!?’.
Last stop of the day, the Zubizuri Bridge. Definitely one of Bilbao’s famous landmarks and quite an impressive structure. We do have a thing for bridges in our family but this one is particularly special and looks even more dramatic at night time when it’s all lit up. Some people, the kind who like to complain about twerking and revolving doors, say that the bridge is a health hazard : apparently the glass blocks at the side can get slippery when wet. They should try wrapping elastic bands around their shoes and get back to watching the international darts championships because I think they are missing the point – this is Bilbao, an open-air modern art museum, a place where every corner turns up another splendid sight, where creativity thrives and aesthetics are so important, even if you are looking at them from your bottom on the floor. Big love to the Zubizuri.
Bilbao With Kids – Day Two
The Guggenheim Museum
World reknowned, I would like nothing more than to spend a whole day in this place, but alas, my brood are not yet impressed by Gauguin, Goya and Greco, so unless it was pouring down the whole time you’re in Bilbao, I think I would recommend restricting your Guggenheim experience with kids to just exploring the grounds for free. However, if you really did want to subject your children to some of the world’s best art, tickets are only €10 per adult and children under 12 are free (with an accompanying paying adult) which personally I think is very reasonable.
I mean, this is what attracted you to Bilbao in the first place, right? The Guggenheim really is the top atttraction of Bilbao, if you’re not here for long then be sure to put this place on your list of places to visit – don’t miss it! Outside, you could easily spend an hour taking in the sculptures and fountains. You’ve heard of the flowery dog, yes? Plus the creepy metal spider? But there’s also the bridge which changes colour and emits a dramatic mist every now and then, alongside street performers and souvenir sellers, and don’t forget the actual architecture of the Guggenheim itself. This museum is the epitome of Bilbao and kinda sums up the rest of the city to me. It is a must see.
- Beware of pick-pockets, they seem to be more prevalent here than other places.
- Visit both in the day time and in the evening for the different perspectives – it’s amazing all lit up.
- For the best photo’s make your way onto the Salbeko Zubia bridge.
The Abando Neighbourhood
If only my sister had had the time to visit the elegant district of Abando she’d have left Bilbao with a much prettier picture. Tree lined boulevards sit just behind the Guggenheim and supply Bilbao with upscale apartments, hotels, bars and shops. The architecture is much newer than Casco Viejo and kept very pristine and handsome. This was actually the area that we discovered the most cool pintxos bars and to be honest, the area where I didn’t feel so aware of the children’s safety. On an evening we were mingling with other Spanish families and kids were not unwanted at the bars and restaurants, even up to 10pm.
During the day the Torre Iberdrola can be seen from most intersections to give you your bearings, and if you’re heading in that direction to take a closer look then you must visit the lovely park, Doña Casilda de Iturriza, just behind the Museum Of Fine Art (which is free on Wednesdays). This was our favourite park in Bilbao with all the right distractions for kids – a duck pond, pergolas and fountains : the perfect place to enjoy the Basque sunshine. It’s also very convenient for a riverside walk too, following the peninsula back around to the Guggenheim.
Best Places For Food
- Bar El Figon. Situated right opposite our hotel and with one of the best selections in Abando, customers spill onto the street.
- El Globo, not far from Bar El Figon, is cosy and casual and has a great cocktail menu.
- Monty, on the corner of Heros Kalea and Calle Juan Ajuriaguerra Kalea, has outdoor seating for a balmy summer evening.
A continuation of Abando, there isn’t much of a difference in style of buildings here, if just a little less manicured. Shopping is the main focus of this area which admittedly isn’t many children’s idea of fun but one little secret gem of Bilbao that not many tourists seem to have heard of is the Azkuna Zentroa Centre (formerly known as La Alhondiga). A contemporary space which seems to house shops, cafes, a library, swimming pool, movie screenings and offices is definitely worth twenty minutes of your time. The centre regularly hosts events and exhibitions so be sure to check their calendar ahead of your visit.
Philippe Starck is the mastermind behind the amazing design of this centre and there are several aspects which will grab your attention : the swimming pool is on the top floor and has a glass bottom so if you’re standing in the main atrium you will see the swimmers above you – how cool! Downstairs on the main deck are elaborate columns, 43 in total and all very different – great for photographs. And, light boxes which double up as seats and bottom-warmers. It’s a cosmopolitan phenomenon and again, a symbol of this wonderfully dynamic city. Entrance is free and it is open from early till midnight most days.
Travel Advice For Families Visiting Bilbao
- Bilbao is relatively small and if you break up your trip into two sections – north and south of the river – there is no need to have to use public transport.
- Bilbao’s climate is such that the winters are mild and the summers can be humid. It is also the wettest area of spain so pack accordingly – light cagoules are ideal waterproofs.
- There are several other museums in Bilbao that I haven’t mentioned here but that get very good reviews; The Basque Heritage Museum and The Maritime Museum are the 2 I would have liked to explore with the children.
So there you have it – how to spend a fun 2 days in the easy going city of Bilbao with your family and find something for everyone. Having snack-like food on tap at the pintxos bars and plenty of open space to run around makes it the perfect location for kids and the inspiring modern architecture is surely enough to encourage an enquiring mind and a desire to see more of the world!
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