Planning a Bilbao day trip from San Sebastian is an excellent idea for those who want to see more of Spanish Basque Country but don’t necessarily have heaps of time. While spending 2 or 3 days in Bilbao is certainly the preferred amount of time to spend in this Basque city, you can actually see quite a bit in the span of just a day.
Whether you’re simply interested in the Guggenheim Museum or are keen to wander the old town and experience a different kind of pintxos culture, spending one day in Bilbao is never a bad idea. This city has seen a massive transformation in the past few decades and is no longer the gritty and industrial centre it once was.
Lively and eclectic, planning a day trip to Bilbao from San Sebastian is a great way to get a taste of the metropolitan side of Spanish Basque country without having to take too much time out of your entire Basque itinerary.
Getting from San Sebastian to Bilbao
Bilbao lies about 100 kilometres east of San Sebastian and it is easy to get between the two cities via a multitude of routes. Whether you choose to go on your day trip to Bilbao independently or via organised tour, there are plenty of options available.
San Sebastian to Bilbao Tour
If you don’t want to visit Bilbao independently, then going on your day trip via organised tour is the best option for you. For instance, this full-day tour will take you from San Sebastian to Gaztelugatxe before arriving in Bilbao. Here you can tour the Guggenheim and explore the city.
If you’re interested in simply heading to Bilbao with a guide, this private tour will take you from San Sebastian to Bilbao and include a guided visit to the Guggenheim along with a tour of the city itself.
Finally, this small-group tour includes a visit to the Guggenheim in its price and will also give you time to explore Bilbao away from the museum.
San Sebastian to Bilbao by Bus
If you aren’t driving yourself and want to visit Bilbao independently, the bus is by far your best option. There are countless buses that go from San Sebastian to Bilbao daily and the journey time takes about 1.5 hours total. In the busier summer months, it can be a good idea to book your journey in advance. You can check schedules and book here.
San Sebastian to Bilbao by Train
If you want to visit Bilbao from San Sebastian via train, this really isn’t the best idea. As of writing, there are no direct trains between Bilbao and San Sebastian and, with transfers, it would take you over four hours to reach the city. Not the best route to take for a day trip!
San Sebastian to Bilbao by Car
If you’ve rented a car to get around Basque Country, this is a great way to get to Bilbao. You can go at your own pace and even make a stop or two at one of the many great places to see on the San Sebastian to Bilbao drive.
The drive takes roughly 1-1.5 depending on the route you choose and there are plenty of paid car parks in Bilbao where you can leave your vehicle for the day. If you’re interested in hiring a car, consider booking through Rentalcars.com where you can find deals across a number of car rental companies.
Bilbao Day Trip from San Sebastian
If you’ve chosen to embark independently on your Bilbao day trip, here is what to do when visiting this eclectic city for one day!
La Ribera Market
Begin your day at La Ribera Market. Situated on the banks of the Bilbao Estuary, this market hall is one of the largest in Europe and comprises a number of floors.
If fact, this market claimed to be the largest covered market hall on the continent and was, at one point, enshrined in the Guinness Book of World Records. Whether this stands true today, I’m not sure as the central market in Riga, Latvia can certainly give it a run for its money! La Ribera is still a worthy stop on your Bilbao day trip, however.
On the ground floor, you will find trendy “gastro bars” serving up inventive pintxos. On the upper two levels, you will find stalls upon stalls selling everything from fresh fruits and vegetables, butchers, fish and cheesemongers, pastry shops and aperitivo stalls.
Heading to the market is a great place to grab a quick snack before heading out on your day of exploration, however, it is also a perfect place to learn about Basque produce.
The cuisine of this region is world-renowned and the freshness of the local ingredients is at its heart. So if you’re interested in exploring Basque cuisine and culture, a local marketplace is an excellent place to do that!
From the market, it’s time to explore Bilbao’s Old Town. There is a lot to take in, but the area is quite small so you can definitely see it in your short time in the city. You can start at the San Antón Church which is located next to the market. From there, stroll over to the Arriaga Theatre and admire its architecture before wandering into the old town proper.
Take in the Plaza Nueva with its many restaurants and bars and then meander over to the Santiago Cathedral. You do have to pay to enter the cathedral, but you can also choose to enjoy it from the outside – and that is completely free.
There are a number of other great sites to see in the Old Town and plenty of charming, winding streets to wander along and explore, as well.
If you want some more historical context on the sites of the old town, then consider booking a place on the Bilbao Free walking tour or even investing in a paid guided tour of the city.
No Bilbao day trip would be complete without sampling the local cuisine and you will find the pintxos culture is a bit different in Bilbao compared to San Sebastian.
You can opt to stay in the Old Town to eat or, if you’re feeling like breaking up some stops, you can begin your pintxos crawl in the Old Town, do the Estuary Walk recommended in the next stop before visiting some places in the New Town.
Some of the pintxos bars we very much enjoyed in the old town included Taberna Basaras, Baster, Bar Rotterdam and Sorginzulo – the final one is located in Plaza Nueva. If you’re new to pintxos culture, it can be a bit overwhelming, but a bit of confidence is all you need to eat incredibly well in this Basque city.
Don’t be alarmed if the bar is very busy – it’s incredibly common to have standing room only in a pintxos bar and you will need to pack in and even yell to place your order.
The custom is also only to order a drink and one or two pintxos per person before moving on to the next place. It’s not like going to a “tapas restaurant” in places like the UK or US where you will order 4 or 5 dishes at one place.
If you end up venturing into the New Town for pintxos, then you can’t go wrong with visiting Bar El Globo where they are famous for the crab gratinade pintxo – it’s delicious.
And if you’re wondering what to order at any of these places, make sure to at least try a Gilda. Though this pintxo was invented in San Sebastian, it was the original pintxo and can be found throughout the Basque Country.
They generally consist of olives, anchovies and pickled peppers impaled on a skewer, however, each bar tends to have its own twist (or offer multiple different “flavours” of Gildas).
After eating your fill at the pintxos bars, you’re likely going to want to have a good walk and there is no better place to do this than along the Estuary of Bilbao. This riverside stroll is absolutely lovely and you will be able to take in a lot of great sites of the city and really experience the eclectic architecture that makes Bilbao unique.
If you want to make it even more leisurely, you can choose to sit down and people-watch on one of the many benches that line the Estuary. It’s also worth knowing that the pathway is flat and the walk is very easy.
Mosey your way over to the lovely Zubizuri Bridge, which is a unique footbridge over the Estuary. Don’t cross quite yet, however, because crossing the estuary at the later Sabelko Bridge will give you a great vantage point to take in the Guggenheim Museum.
There is an elevator that you can take to get to the footpath on the Sabelko Bridge, or you can opt to go up the stairs if you want more exercise!
The Sabelko Bridge will lead you directly to the Guggenheim Museum which is, incidentally, the next stop on this itinerary!
No visit to Bilbao, day trip or otherwise, is complete without mentioning the Guggenheim Museum, which is the main draw for those visiting this Basque City. And even if you’re not particularly interested in going inside the museum, you cannot miss heading to this area and admiring the building itself, along with the public art installations that are outside.
This Frank Gehry-designed building is absolutely spectacular and a true testament to artistic modern architecture. It is gorgeous from whatever angle you choose to admire it.
At the front of the museum lies my personal favourite part of the Bilbao Guggenheim, the Puppy sculpture. This is a sculpture of a giant West Highland Terrier that is completely covered in seasonal flowers. It is absolutely delightful!
If you plan to visit the Guggenheim Museum itself, it is best to book your entry tickets online in advance. They are less expensive and then you are guaranteed entry should you be travelling in a busy season. Depending on how interested you are in the exhibits of the museum, plan to spend about 1.5-2 hours in the museum itself.
After taking in the Guggenheim Museum, end your day in Bilbao by experiencing one of the best views of the city – at the top of Mount Artxanda! If you wander back along the Estuary and cross the Zubizuri Bridge, you will see signs for the Artxanda Funicular.
The funicular runs frequently and a return ride is €4.30 per person. You can use the Bilbao public transit card (the Barik card) to tap onto the funicular, or you can purchase single-use tickets from electronic kiosks if you don’t happen to have a Barik card.
Artxanda Park at the top of the hill is complete with some fantastic, panoramic views of the city and it makes for the absolute perfect place to spend your final moments in Bilbao.
Where to Stay in San Sebastian
If you’re going on a day trip to Bilbao from San Sebastian, you’re going to need to find a great place to stay in the latter city. There are countless places to choose from in San Sebastian so if you’re struggling with the sheer amount of accommodation options, have a look at these suggestions
Hotel Boutique Villa Favorita – This swanky hotel is an excellent choice if you’re after a luxury hotel in San Sebastian. Centrally located on La Concha Promenade, they have a number of great rooms available and the perfect location for exploring all that this beautiful city has to offer. There is also an on-site bar and free parking for guests! Click here to see their availability
Hotel Villa Katalina – This hotel is a fantastic option in San Sebastian if you’re travelling on a mid-range budget but still want some comfort. Situated within easy walking distance of all of the city’s top attractions, they have a number of lovely rooms available and plenty of amenities to ensure you have a great stay. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental – If you’d like to experience San Sebastian like a local, then a private rental is an excellent choice for you. Places like this sunny apartment near La Concha beach can give you a great idea of what it might be like to live in this beautiful Basque city. Click here to browse more San Sebastian rentals
Surfing Etxea – Located in the Gros neighbourhood, this hostel is a good choice for budget and solo travellers – or simply people who are looking for a social atmosphere. They have both dorm and private rooms available and this hostel is great for those who want to try their hand at surfing or simply want an affordable and amicable place to meet other travellers! Click here to see their availability
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more San Sebastian hotels!
Planning the perfect day trip to Bilbao can prove somewhat difficult when you consider how much there is to see in the city and how little time you have. However, spending 24 hours in Bilbao or less will still allow you to get a good feel for the city and enjoy its main sites.
Are you planning a Bilbao day trip? Have any questions about this itinerary? Let us know in the comments!