DUBLIN: Bilbao — in the heart of Spain’s Basque country — has undergone a profound change in recent decades, being transformed from a fading industrial city to a vibrant cultural capital — largely due to a single building.
Yes, you can’t talk about Bilbao without talking about the Guggenheim; the enormous, Frank Gehry-designed masterpiece that dominates the city both architecturally and culturally. It’s a stunning monument to both Gehry’s genius and Bilbao’s ambition to reinvent itself as an artistic hub. Even now, more than 20 years after it was first built, its sweeping curves are breathtaking, and it dominates the river front. There is a huge amount to see inside it as well, and we’d advise you to give yourself at least half a day to take everything in.
Since the Guggenheim opened, Bilbao has become a cultural hub, with myriad examples of cutting-edge architecture and public art alongside the traditional buildings of the Casco Viejo district. There’s the Norman Foster-designed Metro, the Philippe Starck-designed cultural center and the spectacular Santiago Calatrava bridge. The city is bisected by the Bilbao estuary and surrounded by lush mountains. Get your bearings by taking the three-minute Artxanda Funicular railway to the top of Artxanda mountain, which offers cafés, a leisure centre and spectacular views over the city to the coastline further north.
Foodies are in for a treat here, as Bilbao has some of the best food in Spain. The city is dotted with pinxto bars, (serving the Basque version of tapas). These are small slices of bread topped with everything from chorizo, cheese, ham, and anchovies, as well as a host of more ingenious ingredients — from wild mushroom croquettes, to octopus, to potato omelet. If you are in the mood for something more upscale, head to one of the various Michelin-starred restaurants in the city. Both Boroa Jatetxea and Etxebarri offer amazing gourmet Basque cuisine and are rightly feted as Bilbao’s culinary high points.
The center of the city is dominated by Casco Viejo — the old town — which is filled with narrow streets, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and lots of independent shops. At the center of the Casco are the city’s original seven streets, Las Siete Calles, which date from the 1400s. From there, head to the Plaza Nueva, which is filled with pinxto joints and cafés. There’s a flea market here every Sunday morning, which is a great place to pick up second-hand books, records and bric-a-brac. We recommend staying in this area; the atmospheric streets are dotted with small hotels and pensions, perfect as a base for exploring the city. We like the Caravan Cinema, which has only six rooms, each with a movie theme. If you want a room with a Guggenheim view, visit the Miro Hotel, which features sleek, minimal rooms and the requisite views of the iconic museum.
One of the city’s most vibrant areas is the former mining neighborhood of Bilbao la Vieja, which has a rough-and-ready feel, as well as lots of ethnic restaurants, plenty of independent galleries and the Miribilla Parkea, a large park that offers views across the estuary. Bilbao is a city that loves its football and nowhere is that more in evidence than at the 53,000-capacity San Mamés Stadium, home to Athletic Bilbao. Founded in 1898, the club only features players born or raised in the Basque region, and there’s an intensity to home games here that’s hard to beat. If it’s not possible to watch a home game, take a stadium tour, which offers a wonderful insight into the club’s history and operations, including a visit to the pitch, the dressing rooms and the trophy room.
If you want to explore the coast, take the Metro from Moyua station and head to the seaside suburb of Getxo, which is centered around a charming fishing village, filled with pinxto restaurants, a busy beach and some mansions oozing faded glamour. The town gets busy at the weekend, particularly in the summer, as locals escape the city heat. If you want to explore the rest of the Basque region (and you should), both San Sebastian and Santander are under two hours away by bus. Both are charming seaside towns, with countless restaurants, cafés and art galleries.