This mountain top festival takes place over the second weekend of July each year in the Northern Spanish city of Bilbao. Surrounded by the Kobetamendi mountain range you have two options – to camp or take a hotel but either way with the site not opening until 5.30pm each day you’ll be heading into the city centre at some point. I found almost nothing on what to do during the festival before I went, but there’s more than enough to see and do so don’t get stuck for ideas. This is my ‘during the day’ festival guide to Bilbao BBK.

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Biking

Tourné rental shop on Villarias Street is open 10am-9pm in Summer – sittting on a corner near the river Nervión this shop brands itself as the ‘best way to see the city’ which would be hard to disagree with. Stocking everything from rental bikes, bromptons, tandems and offering self or private guided tours this is the way to see the sights in a quick, stylish and affordable way. The city of Bilbao is perfectly laid out for travel by bike with flat stretches by the river, easily connected to the opposite ‘Old Town’ side by a range of bridges and easy to navigate long wide streets in the main part of town. From 8 euros for two hours on a solo bike or 12 for a tandem (which I’d recommend) it’s an ideal way to spend one of your days before the festival.

You don’t need to know where you’re going, there’s enough to discover in the city without a plan but if organisation is your thing you can book a guided tour which sets out in small groups (only 2-12 people) with guides to make sure you see all the highlights. For 28 euros you can enjoy the traditional tour with some hidden spots, or, for a completely alternative view you can book the ‘underground Bilbao’ tour for 30 euros per person.

Traditional – 10am every day – 3 hours, 6 – 7km

Underground – 11am Friday and Sunday – 3 hours, 10 – 12km

Walking

Using your little feet is the number one way to see this reasonably compact city. A long walk along the renovated riverfront will take in a mixture of urban architecture – Frank Gehry’s renowned Guggenheim Museum, the Iberdrola Tower the tallest building in the City – plus a whole array of interesting shapes and new green spaces. Once a tired and heavy industrialised area, the city has now become one of the most popular in Northern Spain and an outstanding centre of tourism.

Further still along the river pathway past various bridges, you’ll reach the old part of town known as the Casco Veijo. This is definitely where to head for food, drinks, classic architecture and a little bit of shopping. Mix with some locals who’ll also be heading to the festival and get a sense of the old vibe of the Basque City. If you only go one area in Bilbao it should be here.

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A Hike for a Birds Eye View

The steps outside Casco Veijo Metro station will take you on a hike up to look over the whole city. Parque Etxebarria is a huge green park which meets you at the top and overlooks the whole of Bilbao. There are some brilliant views – the mountains as the backdrop to an urban city with the river winding its way through the whole town. It’s a steep climb but you have to blow off the cobwebs somewhere.

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Arching up and over the hill you’ll make your way back down the other side to explore the opposite side of the river before crossing back over the ‘squinty bridge’ at the Guggenheim Museum. After taking this walk in early afternoon now would be an ideal time to head on inside. I’d recommend booking tickets online for a discount.

Art – The Guggenheim Museum

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Opened in 1997 this revolutionary building can be argued to have changed to whole face of the town. With the construction of such a forward-thinking and absurdist building came a whole cultural shift in the city turning it into the vibrant place we see today.

Titanium and twisting on the outside it glows in the sunlight, surrounded by a moat which regularly spills mist showers over passers-by. There’s a few nice independent stalls selling jewellery and prints and music floating by from nearby buskers.

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There’s also two spots outside the museum for some great pictures, probably the most posted on Instagram – Puppy, a 12-meter dog made completely from coloured flowers, and my favourite, Mama, a 9-meter high spider made in bronze which looms over the river.

The surreal architecture continues inside with glass and see through walkways, endless curves and sloping pillars holding up the structure. There are three levels to explore, each with a more bizarre and engaging installation that the next. We were lucky enough to visit during Andy Warhols ‘Shadows’ Exhibition and upstairs in the post-modern floor you’ll find permanent works of his famous ‘Marilyn’ prints. On level two as a gallery of Paris through the ages from 1900-1960 with original Picasso, Duchamp, Cezanne and Braque.

A huge maze by Richard Serra called The Matter of Time was on the first floor, a never-ending twist of towering bronze plates, this permanent installation connects in the strangest patterns to give a dizzy sense of space. You can definitely spend a good half hour in this room running around like big kids.

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The café and bar on the terrace serves great food and deserts and is a good place to end up if the sun is shining. The gift shop on the ground floor has some great prints and is right next to a ‘hands on’ area where you can create your own artwork. Even if you don’t think art is your thing I can guarantee you won’t be bored here and it’s a nice change from the madness going on at the festival site.

Entry is reasonable at 9 euros for under 26 year olds with free audio guide. www.guggenheim-bilbao.es

 Swimming

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A glass-bottomed rooftop pool is the main attraction of a former wine cellar in the city centre. Now the Alhóndiga Cultural and Leisure, the top level sun terrace is ideal for some sunbathing and a few drinks. Designed by French industrial designer Philippe Starck, a cinema, theatre, exhibition space, shops, restaurants and an auditorium fill 3 buildings throughout the existing wine cellar structure where the main ground hall is a maze of 43 unique pillars in a sprawling indoor plaza. The transparent bottom of the swimming pool up on the roof terrace would definitely be the reason for your visit, for a quick swim or to enjoy some cocktails if you fancy the more up-market end of town.

Location – Plaza Arriquibar – azkunazentroa.com

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Eating and Drinking

 You’ll spend about 90% of your time doing this, and you’ll soon see why. There are places on every single street with top quality food, drinks and wine.

Pintxos Bars in Old Part of Town

Casco Veijo which used to be the medieval area is now the number one spot for cosy and authentic food. Pintxos are the Basque version of Spanish tapas, usually a slice of fresh bread topped with amazing local produce. For drinks in this area head to the Plaza Nueva, built in neoclassical style, with a buzzing atmosphere – it’s a good place to grab some beers before heading back up the mountain to the festival. It’s hard to pick a few to mention, every one or two buildings you’ll find a bar or restaurant. Taking the Metro to Casco Veijo will cost you less that 2 euros for a single and once you’re out into the streets you can take your pick – a highlight is Santa Maria Kalea, good for a local crowd and if you’re in a big group.

We had breakfast one morning at the Beetle Bar at Umaungo Miguel Plaza (the one outside the Metro) 11 euros for a two breakfast pintxos – fried bread, Iberian ham, fried egg and cheese, a coffee and orange juice.

Café Iruna & the Main City

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Get off at Abando Metro for my favourite, the Café Iruna – this is one of the most iconic places in the town, sitting just off the corner of the beautiful gardens – Los Jardines de Albia. It houses both a dining room and bar area, still in its original 1900’s style, it’s usually bustilng with music, people and classic designs of days gone by – a mosaic tiled floor , elaborate décor, wood panelling, chandeliers on the ceiling and marble bar.

Serving classic Lamb brochettes or kebabs as the house speciality, this perfect dinner for two is made infront of you over an open fire. They taste fantastic, coated in a spice mixture and lemon juice and served with fresh bread. A house wine and beer will cost around 4.50 euros.

Cafe Iruna. Image shot 12/2010. Exact date unknown.

 The surrounding streets in this area are perfect for more drinks and dancing, particularly Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea. This is the one just behind Iruna for wall to wall bars, cafes and restaurants – snacks will be easier to come by with a sit down meal happening nearer 9-10pm. It’s an idea place for the first night before the festival if you have a hotel in the city.

Parks and Wildlife

Doña Casilda Iturrizar Park

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This huge city centre park features an elaborate original Victorian centre piece with palm trees, fountains and an undercover promenade with creepers and wall climbing plants covering the original red tiled exterior. Designed as an English Style garden you’ll find plenty of sunbathing spots on benches or the grass beside the vibrant flowerbeds.

Nicknamed the Duck’s Park by the locals, what’s great is that it’s home to many different species of waterfowl. Swans, ducks and geese of all shapes and sizes swim in a large custom built pond area while peacocks wander the grass. They have ramps and nesting areas, fountains and different shelters to hide in plus access to different clear water ponds via winding streams with miniature bridges over the top. Sloping over the side of the city the park is large enough to take a football or some bats, head to the basketball courts and pick up an ice cream at one of the many little cafes. You could also stop by the Fine Arts Museum which has more recently opened in the top end of the park.

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Beach Bum

Taking the Metro to Neguri Station you’ll only have a 10 min walk to the gorgeous Ereaga Beach. This route takes you on a stroll past huge period Spanish Mansions. The beach itself is on the mouth of the river estuary in the local Getxo area, a sleepy village if not for the stream of visitors from the train station making their way to this Blue Flag beach. Over 800m of soft powder sand and a long sprawling promenade for live music, ice cream and sports make this one of the most popular in Bilbao. There’s volleyball, surfing, canoes and sailing plus a large outdoor gym if that’s your thing or rentable loungers and umbrella for some decent sunbathing.

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For lunch while you’re out here I recommend the open air La Terazza Bar, right next to the beach with great views and amazing affordable food, after all the stalls at the festival you’ll be glad of a proper sit down meal.

To reach we took the train around 25 mins out the of the main city centre Metro station, if you stay on slightly longer following the coastal path, the train leads to many other beaches. Plentzia at the end of the line and Gorliz Beach are within easy access of the city but for a day at the festival where you want to be heading back for the bands about 7pm I’d recommend Ereaga over the others.

Shopping

Just before you enter the old part of town you’ll find Arizona Vintage Clothing on Viktor Kalea for some cool clothes and usually a good sale on some t-shirts and denim jackets. There are Scandanavian and Spanish design shops selling clothes and unique little gifts, and traditional Basque food and souvenir shops along the narrow streets in this part of town

For the main ‘high street’ shopping area if you’ve forgotten anything to wear/sleep on etc you should head to Ercilla Street. Around the area near Abando Metro station you’ll find Power Records for nice vinyl, books and vintage music related paraphernalia.

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There’s so much to keep you going, you’ll probably want to check out some of the main sites and spend of the rest of the time relaxing at the beach or park trying to shift the hangover for the next night of bands at the festival.

Last tip – Even after you get the bus to the site you’ve got a 15 min STEEP uphill walk to the entrance so make sure you grab some ‘get me up the hill drinks’ at the Mercadona supermarket just before the Termibus Stataion. 60 cent beer and 1 euro litre of wine and you’ll be alright.

Published by Kirsty Grant