Let’s go to a festival in Bilbao!
The first thing you need to know is that whatever time of year you travel to Bilbao, there will always be some celebration that you can take part in and enjoy. While it is true that there are certain special dates in the year, Bilbao is a city that always knows how to have a good time.
Every celebration in the city has some special significance—whether it is a traditional festival to commemorate its Basque roots, or one dedicated to food or music, or more recent celebrations to welcome sensational new musicians… Bilbao is the perfect place to combine taste with tradition and leisure.
The prospect of fun and the desire to get to know a city from a different perspective are the main reasons to visit Bilbao during one of its festivals. It is true that Semana Grande is the city’s biggest and most important festival, but it is by no means the only one.
Whether for its wonderful culinary tradition of pintxos or for its natural wonders, Bilbao is well worth a visit. And if you’re still not convinced, we’ve compiled a list of the city’s best festivals.
The city’s biggest festival is celebrated during August. Semana Grande (or to give it its Basque name, Aste Nagusia) is held in honour of the Assumption of Our Lady. The festival lasts for nine days, and begins with the launching of a flare (the Txupinazo) into the sky while crowds gather around the iconic Arriaga theatre, on the shore of the estuary.
The Festival’s mascot, Marijaia, opens a week crammed with cultural activities, traditional dances, exhibitions… All commemorating Basque culture. However, activities are by no means confined to the daytime, as in the evenings there are firework competitions, concerts and a buzzing scene for the youngsters.
Semana Grande is synonymous with pregón [proclamation] and comparsas, groups of citizens who lead and encourage the festivities. And the herald is always a prominent native of the Basque Country. The Txupinera [woman who sets off the flare to signal the opening of the festivities] belongs to one of the comparsas.
The ending of this festival week is symbolised by the burning of Marijaia, with the figure holding her arms up as a sign of optimism and dance.
The Festival of San Blas
In February, Bilbao honours the Christian martyr who is reputed to possess the power to cure sore throats. A mass is celebrated in his honour, and then the pilgrimage begins.
In the Plaza del Arenal, several stalls are set up where food is available, along with the traditional San Blas cords or laces. Tradition demands that the cord is first blessed in front of the saint, then worn around the neck, and finally burned after nine days. If all goes well, the wearer of the cord will not suffer from a sore throat or any throat infection for a whole year.
In Bilbao, gastronomy, culture and sports have their place in the spotlight during Semana Santa [Holy Week]. This festival brings together the traditional and the modern under the emblem of the Basque cross, known as the lauburu, which symbolises Basque culture.
Shows, music, workshops, sports such as estuary rowing, and gastronomic tasting events are everywhere you look in Bilbao during Semana Santa.
The BBK festival is a ‘must’ for music lovers. It has established itself as one of the best music festivals, both nationally and internationally.
During July, lovers of rock and Indie music from all over the world descend on Bilbao.
This urban (and in the words of its organisers) completely “offshore” festival, dedicated to music and gastronomy, has come ashore for the first time in Bilbao.
It focuses on modern music, supplied this year by Rone, Reykavik606 and Joaquín Pascual, in addition to Electropop and Indie performers. All this activity is complemented by gastronomic creations served throughout the festival. The pintxos are not the only stars of the show so we recommend you visit it next time around.
Feria de Santo Tomás
Turning once again to more traditional festivals, this one takes place in December, before Christmas. Here, traditional gastronomy shares the limelight with typical dances.
Baserritarras [farmers] exhibit their farm animals, and at the stalls set up all around the vicinity, you will find cheese, honey, sweets, doughnuts, fruit, vegetables, and even craft products.
Visiting one of a city’s traditional festivals is a different way of getting to know the culture. Apart from any of the festivals we’ve told you about here, there are also other activities that you shouldn’t miss on your Bilbao break.
Firstly, visit the Guggenheim Museum. Here, you can enjoy some of the finest exhibitions on the national and international scenes. That’s in addition to admiring the actual building, which is itself an architectural work of art.
Go on a pintxo trail: whatever you do on your trip to Bilbao is going to give you an appetite. A gastronomic trail through the city is all you need to get to know the most typical dishes.