Having emerged into the twenty-first century from a period of industrial decline, Bilbao is today a vibrant and cosmopolitan city. It has acquired a new metro system, airport, urban motorways, railway lines and a “super port”. The streets of the city have been refreshed by innovative new structures built by the world’s great architects, making contemporary Bilbao a superb place to live, work and visit. Here’s our guide to where to stay in Bilbao.
Bilbao city centre can be best thought of as separated into two parts by the ria. On the right (north) bank is the older section, Casco Viejo, while the much more expansive Ensanche spreads southeastwards from the left bank. The newest architectural developments of the latter are in the area of Abandoibarra, around the Guggenheim Museum.
Be sure to book ahead for peak periods when Spain is on holiday – especially Easter Week and in August. Watch out too for fiestas and other big events.
Bilbao’s oldest surviving buildings are concentrated in the Casco Viejo, including many ancient mansions built on the wealth brought by international trade. This area is filled with bars, restaurants and chic shops and is even more lively by night than by day (especially at weekends).
If you want somewhere with more character than the upmarket hotel chains, you will want to base yourself in Casco Viejo, where there are more budget choices. Because you’ll be right in the action, be aware that this area can get noisy at night.
Best for movie buffs: Caravan Cinema
Each room in this comfortable little boutique hotel, just off the main square, celebrates a specific movie director, with all relevant films pre-loaded to the TV. Five, including “Pedro Almodóvar”, are normal-sized doubles, but the real joy is the retro-furnished, two-room Hitchcock apartment, which sleeps up to seven guests.
Best for those on a budget: Estrella Ostatu
If you want a simple place to lay your head and in a good location for walking to the sights, this pensión near Plaza Unamuno will give you no-nonsense service at a decent price.
The Ensanche is the nineteenth-century enlargement of Bilbao. The buildings here – many on wide and elegant avenues – speak of mercantile wealth, civic pride and modern Bilbao’s taste for cutting-edge architecture. Bilbao’s luxury hotels tend to be scattered across Ensanche; many feature hip contemporary architecture and highly regarded restaurants, and can be amazingly good value.
Best for style and luxury: Carlton
The grande dame of Biblao hotels, built in 1919 and still an atmospheric place to stay, with its abundant marble and dramatic stained-glass cupola. The rooms are tasteful and extremely comfortable, and several boast huge arched windows.
Best for family-run fun: Zubia Urban Rooms
Veteran family-run hotel, near the left bank of the river across from Casco Viejo, where the plain modernized rooms share bathrooms. The friendly staff are more than happy to share their local expertise; pets are welcome.
Until the mid-1990s, the area now known as Abandoibarra was as scruffy as the Ensanche was smart. Today, it’s Bilbao’s zone of luxury and leisure. It is simply a stunning example of redevelopment which has stimulated the transformation of Bilbao as a whole and has become a template for what can be done to post-industrial cities around the world. The rescue and revaluation of Abandoibarra began with the decision to site a European branch of the Guggenheim here. This may be the largest and most memorable piece of modern architecture in the area, but there are plenty of buildings to admire. You’ll find more upmarket hotels in Abandoibarra; some are monuments of contemporary architecture in their own right.
Best for a show-stopping lobby: Gran Hotel Domine
The work of designer Javier Mariscal, this is a wonderfully inspiring five-star hotel, appropriately close to the Guggenheim and sporting one of the most imaginative lobbies you’ll ever see. Each floor has a unique design, while the luxurious rooms have bathrooms with transparent glass, and tubs designed by Philippe Starck.
Best for the sleek and chic: Miró
Attractive fifty-room hotel, with minimalist décor, bathrooms finished in black marble (and separated from the chic, white-toned rooms by a curtain) and a decent spa.
Deusto and Castaños, on the river’s north bank, make good alternatives when deciding where to stay in Bilbao. There may be little in the way of traditional sites over here, but staying north of the river will allow you to get away from the crowds and start to see a bit of the “real” Bilbao.
Best for a smart hostel: Bilbao Akelarre Hostel
Modern, well-run and well-equipped hostel near the university, a short walk from the Guggenheim. There are a few double rooms – albeit with individual bunks – plus dorms sleeping from four to twelve. Rates include breakfast, coffee and tea.
Best for clean design: NH Collection
Smart, modern riverfront hotel, in a funky contemporary building fronted by pastel-coloured glassed-in balconies. The sizeable rooms have sleek minimalist furnishings, and there’s on-site parking. Close to the Zubizuri footbridge.
Another option for accommodation is to stay on the coast and commute into the city for sightseeing. The Basque coast, north of Bilbao, is a picturesque succession of beaches, bays, cliffs, headlands, inlets, green pastures, scenic drives and holiday resorts and fishing ports filled with bars and restaurants. The western part – the coast of Bizkaia province – is easily accessible to and from Bilbao by bus or train.
Best for clifftop charm: Caserio Arboliz
This conspicuous white-painted house, perched on a clifftop in Ibarrangelu, 1km southeast of Elantxobe, has been converted into a comfortable rural agroturismo, with kitchen facilities available, and a lovely sea-view garden.
Best for sea views: Saiaz Getaria
Magnificent fifteenth-century mansion, topped by formidable stone towers, and stylishly converted to hold seventeen exceptionally comfortable bedrooms. It is worth paying more for a room with a spectacular sea view.
Header image: Bilbao © Shutterstock
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