The city straddles an estuary that wends its way towards the Atlantic, opening up to the first beaches in Bilbao. Between here and San Sebastián is a smorgasbord of coastline to walk, drive and surf. Although the weather is more unpredictable than the south, there's a Bilbao beach for everyone.
Half an hour from the city centre, Bisgane Hondartza or Playa de Bakio is one of the most popular beaches in Bilbao for good reason. This long, sandy shore stretches almost endlessly and is backed by a promenade with restaurants and accommodation close by. On most days, you'll see locals and tourists toting surfboards and plunging into the foamy waves until the sun slips below the horizon. However, if surfing and swimming aren't your style, it's ideal for walking and sunbathing. It's also a magical spot for a picnic and sunset photography.
Laga Beach really epitomises the rugged beauty of the Basque coastline. It's located in the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve approximately an hour's drive from Bilbao and is a popular spot with walkers, kayakers and surfers. The pristine sandy shore is hugged by rugged green hills and mountains, making it one of the most beautiful beaches in the area with a peaceful atmosphere. When the wind is right, the swell is big enough for adventurous surfers, but on calm days, the sea is a turquoise oasis. There's a surf club and lifeguards in the summer months.
Also in the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, Playa de Laida is another of the unspoilt Bilbao beaches not to be missed. This estuary beach is a spectacular stretch of golden sand that changes shape with the tides, with very shallow water that's ideal for families with children. Calm conditions make it perfect for swimming, renting a kayak and sailing, but if you prefer to relax on the shore, you'll have a beautiful view of the biosphere and out to Izaro Island. As the light changes throughout the day, the wild backdrop also makes it a stunning spot for photography enthusiasts to get creative.
Grab your camera – Karraspio Beach has to be one of the most photogenic spots along this stunning coastline. In the quaint town of Lekeitio, a sandy beach extends from the estuary, stretching towards San Nicolás Island, which is framed in the bay. The main draw of the beach, besides its sandy shore and shallow sea, is that the island is accessible on foot at low tide. The enchanting islet is inhabited only by a few hardy plants and houses a viewpoint at the top – perfect for an adventurous trip with the family. The beach is backed by parking spaces and a few eateries.
One of Bilbao's poster child beaches, Arrietara is a stunning, wide expanse that never feels crowded thanks to the sheer amount of space. Impressive green and white rock cliffs tumble down to a broad, golden-sand stretch characteristic of the Basque coast. Surf schools operate all along the beach when the wind conditions are right, and it's a great spot for beginners to take their first lesson. However, there's plenty of surfing for all abilities, and it's also a bodyboarding hub hosting many events. The expanse here also makes for an atmospheric walk, even in the off-season.
A stone's throw from Bilbao, La Salvaje (The Wild One) or Playa de Sopelana is a surfers' heaven and an absolutely breath-taking must-visit for fans of untamed nature and a good walk. This stretch of the coast is blessed with rugged and verdant cliffs, alien-like rock formations and a healthy wind, giving rise to white-crested rollers. The neon-toned sunsets are worth more than a passing glance too. There are few facilities, except for parking and the surf school, but it's a wonderful place to feel at one with nature. The next bay along, Playa Gorrondatxe, is a wild beach with no facilities but spectacular geology and good cliff-walking.
Itzurun is another Bilbao beach boasting spectacular geography and surfable waves. In the town of Zumaia, this stony stretch has intriguing rock formations and sweeping, spiny ridges like the backs of dragons – perhaps part of the reason it was used as a Game of Thrones filming location. It's a great spot for fossil-hunting too, as well as rockpooling and hiking the cliffs. Of course, like much of this wild coastline, it draws in surfers. If you find a moment between photographing the cliffs and exploring the caves, it's not a bad spot for sunbathing either.
For a classic beach day, close to all the culture and amenities of Bilbao, head straight for the wide, sandy shores of Playa de la Arena. With plenty of space, easy access via public transport, and a shallow slope into the sea, it's great fun for families. You'll find all the necessary facilities like parking, beach showers, lounger rentals and nearby shops and cafés. There are designated areas for surfing and swimming – which is lovely on a calm day – and there's plenty of pleasant walking nearby, as well as sand dunes.
Just half an hour from the centre of Bilbao lies Gorliz, a place where the countryside blends seamlessly with the coast, creating a surprisingly green urban beach. A long promenade leads from the volleyball courts at one end of the golden-sand shore all the way along to the pine-covered cliffs at the other. It's perfect for sunbathing, sandcastles and sea swimming. Behind the shore, a large park offers shade, picnic benches and even BBQ spots – ideal for a family day out. You're close to myriad cliff path walks and a geological site of interest, the Petrified Dunes: sweeping sandstone monoliths in a pine forest.