Bilbao is thriving. But the Guggenheim Museum is not the only attraction for visitors. The former industrial city in the Basque Country is distinguished by its modern architecture, a relaxed way of life and delicious cuisine.
Approaching an unfamiliar city and understanding its essence, perhaps in a short period of time, always requires a decision. A stroll to the main sights? A first overview by bus or train? For Bilbao, two variants are recommended for convenient access. Either rock the four-minute Funicular de Artxanda funicular on the local mountain of the same name and look down at the city from above. Or you can take a boat and cruise along the arched Ria de Nervión.
Both times you get a good view of the Basque city’s main attraction: the Guggenheim Museum, shimmering with the futuristic architecture of Frank O. Gehry, to whom the port of Düsseldorf Media also owes its sloping buildings. The museum building, which opened in 1997, has been a huge boon for Bilbao, which was once dominated by industry, with up to one million visitors a year. Three amazing works of art even outdoors. While strolling along the Corniche, what suddenly rises nine meters on rickety legs and seems to be crawling towards you is the gigantic statue of the spider “Maman” by Louise Bourgeois. The glowing “balloons” are an installation by Jeff Koons, as is the 12-meter-high flowered dog statue “Puppy” at the upper entrance to the museum.
But it wasn’t just the “Guggenheim effect” that caused the tourism boom. The city has invested farsightedly in art and design and hired famous architects for the new face of Bilbao. Spaniard Santiago Calatrava designed the sweeping Zubizuri pedestrian bridge over the river, Sir Norman Foster the entrances to the sparkling clean metro, known as “fosteritos”.
The heart of historic Bilbao beats in the old town Casco Viejo. It’s also known as “Siete Calles,” although this lively district of bars, cafés and cute shops (hats!) has outlived its original seven streets. With all the temptations, one could almost forget to look up at the sky. Which is a shame, because the ornate facades of the houses are charming. At some point, everyone will pass through one of the 64 arcades to the majestic Plaza Nueva.
A gourmet’s paradise opens under the arcades. Luxuriously covered pintxos, not to be confused with Spanish tapas, are only found in the Basque Country. Served on slices of white bread or baguette, picked at the counter and paid for per piece. Connoisseurs like to go from one bar to the next, paintxo here, and paintxo there. In addition, txakoli, a gently sparkling white wine, is also a specialty of this region.
The uncomplicated appetizers delight the otherwise hungry tourists until around 10pm. Before that, locals rarely ate in restaurants, which were often expensive in the evening. It is a good thing that some offer an affordable lunch menu like the three-course “Menu del Dia” for currently €16 (including wine, water and bread) in the excellent “Agape” with Basque cuisine. On the outskirts of the old town, in the Art Deco jewel Mercado de la Ribera, there is another analog: the largest covered market hall in Europe with stalls on two floors and a large restaurant area.
One of the advantages of a beloved city is that it is easy to manage. You can see and experience a lot in two days. But the longer you stay, the more you can discover: the many parks and temples of museums like the Museo de Bellas Artes, the ninth largest in the world. The former Azkuna Zentroa winery, which star designer Philippe Starck transformed into a giant art and cultural center. Boutiques and antique workshops like fashion designer Alberto Etxeparita “Sinpatron” next to Santiago’s Gothic Cathedral.
Bilbao is not located directly on the sea, but is connected to the Bay of Biscay by the Ría de Nervion. You should definitely plan a short trip outside the city gates. Take the subway in 30 minutes to Algorta station, and walk through the romantic seaside resort of Getxo to the sea towards town, past beaches and stately villas. Three-quarters of an hour later, you reach another Bilbao attraction: the stunning Puente Vizcaya, which stretches for 160 metres. The brave dare to cross the footbridge to the other bank. The unique carriage bridge Puente Colgante, which has been a World Heritage Site since 2006, is even more comfortable. The subway takes you from Portugalete to the center.