Barcelona vs Bilbao – 7 key differences to know before you travel

At either end of the narrow Pyrenees region – where France meets Spain and Andorra lies somewhere in the middle – are the two cities of Barcelona and Bilbao. Both belong to Spain, but one identifies as Basque and the other as Catalans. Both are nearby or on the coast and are famous for their historic districts and great food. But where should you travel to see it if you only have time to choose one?

Although they’re practically interchangeable on paper, there are differences that a first-time visitor should take into account when planning a closer look at northern Spain. From the location to the size, the sights and day trips to the weather and the food, everything makes a difference.

Having visited both cities repeatedly and I like both, I don’t know which one to recommend to you as both cities are worth visiting. But maybe these key differences will help you make a decision.

Port Vell in Barcelona

Port Vell in Barcelona

Photo credit: Nasty-N /

1. Location

Bilbao is near the Atlantic coast

Bilbao is the de facto capital of the Basque Country (Basque and Spanish are the official languages ​​here) and is situated on the Nervion River, which flows into the Bay of Biscay, part of the Atlantic Ocean, about 13 km from Bilbao. Officially part of the Basque Country in northern Spain, Bilbao is only 120 kilometers from the French border. The gourmet capital of San Sebastian is 100 kilometers away. Bilbao is also part of the Camino de Santiago and therefore popular with pilgrims.

Barcelona is on the Mediterranean Sea

Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia (where Catalan and Spanish are the official languages) and is located on the Mediterranean coast about 150 kilometers south of the French border. The coast along Barcelona is the Costa Brava, a popular beach destination for Europeans and foreign visitors.

The narrow streets of Bilbao

The narrow streets of Bilbao

Photo credit: Pavel Vatsura /

2. Size and locomotion

Bilbao is tiny

Bilbao is a city of just 350,000 people nestled between two ridges on the Nervion River. Its compact size makes it easy to explore the city on foot. However, there is a subway that connects more distant places like the Fine Arts Museum to the old town and the sea.

Barcelona is sprawling but has excellent public transport

With a population of 1.62 million, Barcelona is nearly five times the size of tiny Bilbao, and getting to the city’s sprawling attractions can be a hassle. Still, the subway system is quick and easy to use. The most popular sights are concentrated in the old town and its surroundings, only a few outliers – like Mount Tibidabo or the Sagrada Familia – are accessible.

Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Photo credit: Pajor Pawel /

3. The weather

Bilbao can be rainy

Because the Atlantic is very close by, Bilbao tends to have fewer sunny days than Barcelona. On average, it’s about 5 degrees Fahrenheit colder, with an average annual temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit. There is an average of 163 recorded rainy days, about 44 percent of the year, and I can confirm that it has rained the last two times I have been there. But it never lasted all day.

Barcelona is a year-round destination in summer

Barcelona has an average of 55 rainy days per year, making it a true desert compared to Bilbao. The average annual temperature is around 23 degrees Fahrenheit, with summer temperatures even exceeding 30 degrees Celsius. When it gets sunny in Barcelona, ​​it can quickly get too hot due to the density of the buildings.

Puppy flower sculpture by Jeff Koons at the Guggenheim

Puppy flower sculpture by Jeff Koons at the Guggenheim

Photo credit: Dolores Giraldez Alonso /

4. Attractions

Bilbao has the Guggenheim

There is no doubt that Bilbao’s main attraction is the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Bilbao Museum. Towering over its riverside setting in all its silver glory, the indoor and outdoor art installations and exhibitions are truly world-class. If you don’t see anything else in Bilbao, this is sufficient. But there is more. The old town of Casco Viejo is beautiful, smaller than the old town of Barcelona and therefore much more manageable. There are mountains on either side with great views as well as fantastic shopping along Gran Via. Within the old town, the Gran Via is (dare I say it) better than in Barcelona because it’s more compact. Not to be missed are the Art District, the Santiago Cathedral, the Maritime and Archaeological Museums and much more.

Barcelona is all about Gaudi

Barcelona has Gaudí, whose presence can be felt everywhere, not only in the Sagrada Familia cathedral, but also in Park Güell, Casa Mila and various other buildings. Together with the main street Las Ramblas, these attract so many tourists to the city that the locals are getting fed up. Add in an old medieval and Roman centre, the beaches and modern and traditional art museums and there really is too much to mention. Another attraction that might be a bit unusual – but one that I love – is Sant Jordi Day, celebrated on April 23rd every year. On this day, the Spanish equivalent of Valentine’s Day, couples give each other roses and/or books and the whole city is packed with bookstalls and rose sellers.

Tapas exhibited in Barcelona

Tapas exhibited in Barcelona

Credit: Salvador Aznar /

5. Eating and drinking

Bilbao has pintxos

Pintxos, pronounced ‘pinchos’, are basically the Basque version of tapas – small bites served with a glass of wine. For a small town, the food scene in Bilbao is great, with plenty of small eateries in the old town as well as international restaurants. Head to Plaza Nueva in Casco Viejo to fight your way through all the little pintxos bars. Local specialties fresh from the Atlantic to try – included Bacalao Pil Pila dish with the omnipresent Bacalao Cod – it’s everywhere. Most of the specialties here are seafood, from cod to hake to tuna, and spider crab is also very popular. But there are also bean stews like Alubias de Tolosa, often with chorizo. For dessert, try the pastel Vasco, a light and fluffy vanilla tart.

Barcelona makes tapas

Tapas are basically the same as pintxos and small snacks that are best enjoyed with a good glass of wine. Then there’s paella (although it originated further south), churros (freshly fried sticks of dough covered in sugar, cinnamon or chocolate) and a wide range of delicious hams (like the Iberico ham). This ham is available in small paper bags directly from the city’s finest food market, La Boqueria. For the rest of those delights, you can get a good grasp of the variety of food on offer in Barcelona with a food tour.

On top of the Vizcaya Bridge

At the top of the Vizcaya Bridge in Bilbao

Photo credit: Francesco Bonino /

6. Day Trips

Great food and drink destinations in Bilbao

A day should be spent taking the subway to the coast. It’s easy and cheap. You can’t just spend the day at the beach; Make a stop at the Vizcaya Bridge – the world’s first transporter bridge and an engineering marvel. You will then spend a day exploring the Rioja region with its wonderful wines, but also some great architecture to see along the way, such as the winery designed by Frank Gehry and another by Santiago Calatrava. And for true foodies, a visit to San Sebastian is a must.

Beaches and another country from Barcelona

Barcelona’s Costa Brava is – as I have already mentioned – a very popular summer beach paradise. The entire coast is dotted with pretty villages and well worth a visit. You can also take a look at Girona, which is a bit further north towards France while you’re there. Although Bilbao is quite remote, there are numerous day trips from Barcelona, ​​all within easy reach.

Es Portixol beach in Ibiza

Es Portixol beach in Ibiza

Photo credit: davidgomezplaza /

7. A trip into the distance

Bilbao is on the Way of Saint James

If you have time, you can visit France’s Atlantic coast from Bilbao, with cities like Biarritz and Saint Jean de Luz right on the bay. And then you can always head to Santander for a week on the Camino del Norte.

Barcelona offers the possibility to go out by boat

Fancy island hopping? Then head to the Balearic Islands from Barcelona. On my first visit to Barcelona, ​​my parents and I drove on to Ibiza, but you can also take the ferry to Mallorca. Menorca and Formentera? Even better. If you have a rental car, you can take it with you.

Verdict: I’m still unsure. Bilbao is small and manageable with world-class architecture in and around the city, while Barcelona is big, crowded and yet so attractive. Maybe see both?!

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