Bilbao is supposed to be an ugly city, and people were supposed to
pass through it, but after
the Guggenheim effect... it has been a boom. I think we are a good starting
point to visit the north of Spain.
You could begin your day with a stroll along the old town. Go to the Market of la Ribera, huge, but not on Mondays. Mondays there is no fresh fish, and half of the fun is going to the ground floor and hear all the women shouting and seeing all the different kind of fishes. There are three floors, with fish, meat, vegetables stalls, flowers,... If you are lucky, the cathedral will re-open next year. It is a smallish gothic church, nothing fancy, but with a nice cloister, as it befits a merchant town from the Middle-ages. There are many bars where you can have a pintxo or two, lots of shops, the Plaza Nueva, with its arches, Victor Montes, tables to sit outside if the weather is fine... At the Arenal, just by the river, stands the Teatro Arriaga, plush red velvet and gold, and you might be lucky and get some good tickets for that night performance (last year we hear Carlos Alvarez in Don Carlo, and now he is the star in the Vienna production).
Across the river you walk along the new town. There are some good beginning-of-the-century buildings, a few examples of the rationalistic architecture, and one Gaudi (quite near the Guggenheim, in fact). You can visit the Guggenheim, and remember that there is a ticket that covers the admittance both to the Guggenheim and the Museo de Bellas Artes. You can find pictures by Goya, El Greco, Gauguin, Zuloaga, Zurbarán, in it. A bit more far away you can find the Euskalduna Jauregia, where the concerts of the Bilbao Simphony Orchestra will be held, the opera season, and many more things. Believe me, it is much better in the inside that in the outside, and with a perfect acoustic.
More things to do. Get the metro, go to the coast, get down in Las Arenas. Then walk up the Puente Colgante (hanging bridge, built by a disciple of Eiffel a century ago), go across the river to Santurce and eat grilled sardines, or walk in the other direction towards Neguri, Algorta, along the beach, with all the boats and the people walking around. Or you could get the funicular from Bilbao up to Archanda, the mountain above, and enjoy the view. Get a bus and go to San Sebastian or Santander or Burgos. Or rent a car and travel along all the small fishermen villages in the coast, both in the Basque Country and in Cantabria.
Hotels. I am not very good at that, I am afraid. There are a couple of nice hotels at Ereaga beach, in Neguri. They are called Igeretxe and Los Tamarises, around 13000 ptas, but you should check. Then I have seen that many of the tourists are staying in Hotel Avenida, just by the Begoņa church, because itīs quite near from a metro station, and that helps a lot. There is the new Melia Confort Arenal, well located at the Arenal, and the quality is assured by the chain that owns it. A friend of my sister has just stayed in a small, brand new 1-star hotel just by the river, and he said that it was cheap and quite good.
Covadonga, Bilbao, Spain