This past weekend in Spain was the last puente (long weekend) of the semester, which hit me like a ton of bricks realizing that I only had two weeks left of my study abroad journey. Since I was lucky enough to have the time and resources, I decided to visit one more place in Spain that I’ve been aching to visit—the Basque Country.
Last year, I took a class with a Basque professor (hint: and my soon-to-be adviser) about the Pais Vasco and all of the rich, complex culture embedded in this northern region of Spain. Immediately, I was drawn to Basque culture, language (Euskara, it’s a linguist’s dream!), and symbolism. I even found out that I had Basque heritage on my mom’s side! Something about the quiet, compelling nature of the Basque Country has called to me ever since I took that class, so I took the leap and decided to plan a trip.
My friends in my program had already planned trips for the puente much before I decided to go to the Basque Country, so I decided to go it alone! Normally, travelling alone to a new place where I don’t know anybody, have no concept of the layout of the city, or have mastery over the language would scare me. But if this study abroad journey has taught me anything, it’s that I am capable and if I could come to a new country alone, I could definitely handle a new city.
I knew that one of the girls in a dance class I am taking in Granada is from Bilbao, so after class one day I decided to ask her for suggestions and tips. She was so thrilled to help out! She gave me contacts for friends and family in the area in case I ran into any issues, sent me a list of places to visit, and eased my mind about exploring alone as a woman—she had done it many times! It didn’t take much to convince me, I booked my flights and hostel.
Something that has always been important to me is understanding a loose history of the places I visit. So before I left for Bilbao, I spent time reading about the history of the city and its evolution of a port town to a dazzling city home to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Everything I read made me more eager for my trip, and although I felt mostly prepared, there were still some things I didn’t expect.
For example, it was shocking to me to see signs, street names, menus, and pamphlets in a language I didn’t recognize. Most things were translated into Spanish and a few things into English, but for the most part everything appeared in Euskara, which made my heart so happy to see the institutional revitalization of this beautiful and enigmatic language!
I also did something very unlike the Type A in me…I didn’t make an itinerary. I know, I know. BUT my justification to myself was that I would let the spirit of the city guide me day-to-day and I would take a more relaxed approach to life instead of planning every detail (am I becoming a true Spaniard?!). It sounds crazy, but it was the best thing I could’ve done.
I should say that the things I did were generally in close range to the hostel I stayed at, which I highly recommend to any travelers! Latroupe La Granja is beautiful and upscale (but still cheap somehow?) hostel in the city center of Bilbao. It’s a 2 minute walk away from the tram station, the metro station, the tourism office, Starbucks, and a wok restaurant that will hit the spot every time (shout out Wok Vista!).
Now let’s get into what you really came here for which are the top 7 things you should see and do while in Bilbao:
1. Take the airport bus to and from the city center
One of the best decisions I made when visiting the Basque Country on my own was taking the airport bus to the city center. The bus tickets are available for purchase at the airport and arrive about every 30 minutes, which is super convenient! The tickets are only 3 euro, which is much cheaper than taking a taxi alone would be. By taking the bus, I was able to take in the landscape while traveling cheaply and sustainably. My bus dropped me about 7 minutes away from my hostel walking! When I used my Bizkaia transit card to return to the airport, the fare was even cheaper! I highly recommend it.
2. Get a Bizkaia transit card and take the Tranvia!!
The first thing I did after checking in to my hostel was visit the tourism office across the street to ask about recommendations and for maps of the city. The tourism office also hosts guided walking tours of the city if you book in advance, which is a safe alternative to exploring the city by yourself if you feel nervous. They suggested that I purchase a Bizkaia transit card across the street at the metro station, and assured me that 5 euro would be more than enough for the long weekend. This card was the best purchase I made! Buying a card gave me access to all of the buses, metros, funiculars, and trams in the city at a discounted price. At the Funicular Artxanda—which is usually 4.5 euros to ride—I tapped my card and got to ride for only 32 cents! I also rode the tram everywhere as the stop was super close to my hostel. It took me from end to end of the city and had stops at the Guggenheim and the Ribera!
3. Visit the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
This is a must if you're in Bilbao. The construction of the building in 1997 totally revitalized the city and is one of it’s proudest achievements. It is a huge modern art museum with rotating exhibits next to a beautiful river. The entrance is 6.5 euros for students under 25, and I spent close to 3 hours there.
4. Meander around the Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts)
This museum is a special place to visit in Bilbao. It houses paintings from as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries! Since the museum was undergoing an expansion while I was visiting, entrance was free for everybody!
5. Visit the mall and see a movie
Bilbao in the winter can be very rainy, which makes it a little difficult to walk sometimes. I decided a fun activity would be to go to the mall and see a movie by myself! (Another low price, high entertainment time activity). I was surprised that I could watch a movie entirely in Spanish without any subtitles and understand about 95%!
6. Take the funicular up Artxanda
The funicular is an uphill tram that takes you to a beautiful lookout over the entire city. It’s something you can’t miss!
7. Visit the museum Arkeologi Museoa Bilbao
Finally, an expected activity I decided to do was visit an archeology museum. Entrance for students was 2 euro. I had to put my Spanish skills to the test at this small museum as all the signs were only available in Euskara (Basque language) and Spanish. The audio tour was also only available in Euskara in Spanish, which made it a fun time walking around and seeing things like sabertooth tiger and neanderthal teeth found in the Basque Country!
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<p>Hi, I'm Kat! I'm a junior at Scripps College and come from a small town called Beaumont in California (about halfway between L.A. and Palm Springs). I am a Linguistics and Spanish, Latin American, and Caribbean Literatures and Cultures dual major. I would describe myself as a Netflix junkie and culture enthusiast. I love to have movie nights with my friends, talk to people about their ancestry, check out museums, and cook Buzzfeed Tasty recipes!</p>