A glimpse of Guggenheim Bilbao Museum's curved walls, at the end of a busy street

Bilbao surprised me, repeatedly and to my great delight. Sure, I expected Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao Museum architecture to dazzle. I expected to find delicious pintxos, the Basque version of tapas. Even in summer I was prepared for some rainy days, this being a port city a few kilometers from the Bay of Biscay. I did NOT anticipate Bilbao to be a pleasant, walkable city filled with green spaces, beautiful architecture and public sculpture; nor local restaurants eager to cook way beyond a pintxos menu; nor a Guggenheim Museum-adjacent restaurant worth the price of a tasting menu. It was the cherry on top to find a special exhibition that made Guggenheim Bilbao Museum impressive both inside and out.

Bilbao is the capital of Bizkaia in Spain’s Basque Country, and the province’s largest, with more than 1 million inhabitants. Until the turn of the 21st century, it was also an industrial city in decline, grimy and polluted. The Guggenheim opened in 1997 and over the following decade, played a leading role in bringing the city into the light. The works of contemporary architects abound here, along with museums devoted to fine art, sacred art and Basque culture. Even the metro stations put out a welcome mat, with their friendly entrance canopies, called ‘Fosteritos’, after famed architect Norman Foster, who designed them.

Glass-covered metro entrance on city plaza
The ‘Fosterito’—glassed entrance canopy at a Bilbao inner-city metro station

A greenway through the city

The Nervión river—also called “la Ría”—sinews through Bilbao, from medieval Casco Viejo quarter to the Guggenheim Museum, built on land once occupied by old shipyards, and beyond. Walk along the Abandoibarra, as it traces a path from the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art through town to San Mamés Stadium. Or take the pathway on the river’s eastern bank, and be rewarded with the company of locals out for a jog or a walk. Everywhere, there is a sense of walking through an open air contemporary architecture museum.

Cross the river over Santiago Calatrava’s Zubizuri footbridge or take the stairs or elevator up to reach the bridge connecting directly with the Guggenheim. Stroll across the Pedro Arrupe footbridge that connects Deusto University with Plaza Euskadi, and visit the Maritime museum, with its docks and boats, as well as indoor exhibitions. So many options!

Sculpture and Calatrava bridge
A bronze by Jesús Lizas fronts Santiago Calatrava’s Zubizuri footbridge

Historic buildings and public art

As we wandered Bilbao at different times of day, we happened on works commissioned for public spaces and enjoyed stepping in close to find out more about the artists who created them. We admired the architecture of a bygone era—homes, government buildings, and Spain’s largest covered market.

On a day trip to Gexto, we followed an architecture trail along the estuary, identifying prestigious homes of an earlier time and the architects who designed them. Not least of the striking structures was the Bizkaia Bridge, the world’s oldest hanging transporter bridge, designed by Eiffel disciple Alberto de Palacio. It was completed in 1893 and still carries cars and pedestrians across the river between Gexto and Portugalete.

“Big art” shows its muscle

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened in 1997, and has attracted visitors to the city every since. The museum’s titanium cladding changes color from morning to afternoon, and with changes in the weather. It is a spectacular structure any time of day. It’s been said that artists can have problems with the display space at Guggenheim Bilbao: the building is so “in your face” that it can overpower the art on show here. That may be true, but at least for art such as the larger-than-life metalwork of artists such as Richard Serra, the setting is ideal. I especially enjoyed hearing Serra describe his work on the audio tour of the museum.

A surprise for us was ‘Motion: Autos, Art, Architecture’, a special exhibition celebrating historical moments that brought intersections for industrial design, art and architecture. The thoughtful display of the “art of the car” reminded us of the best of the automobile collections and exhibitions—from Baden-Baden, Germany to Modena, Italy—that we have visited in the past.

Pintxos in good company, and then some

Everywhere in Spain, restaurants with good food are magnets for locals who demand quality and hospitality from the establishments they frequent. We had recommendations from Spanish friends, and from our hotel, but the final decider of where to eat was intuition.

In Basque Country, pintxos, small tapas-like snacks, are in a class of their own, and a key culinary attraction. Concentrations of pintxos bars in several Bilbao neighborhoods made the local tradition of a pintxos crawl an easy one to adopt. We followed the locals and time and again, enjoyed the fine result.

Guests at a neighboring table in one bar insisted on ordering for us, and treated us to their favorites. When we were too tired to explore further, the owner of a restaurant around the corner from our hotel—simple but bustling—added a plate of grilled anchovies topped with padron peppers to our dinner order, just to be sure we tried it. And on our last morning, when we had to leave for an early train, a coffee bar around the corner from our hotel prepped and packaged delicious sandwiches and snacks for our journey.

A Michelin resto worth its star

Spain’s Basque region boasts nearly 40 Michelin-starred restaurants and with a baker’s dozen of them located in Bilbao, there are simply too many to make deciding where to splurge an easy matter. For this trip, we had a friend’s endorsement of Chef Josean Ajila’s handiwork, so my husband booked a table at Nerúa Guggenheim to celebrate my birthday. Our meal coincided with our visit to the museum, and proved a marvelous way to celebrate a special event!

If you go

  • Take a metro out to Getxo or Portugalete and cross the Bizkaia Bridge, as a passenger on the pedestrian/vehicle gondola or overhead on the bridge’s wooden walkway.
  • Stroll the seven streets (Los Siete Calles) of Casco Viejo, the city’s medieval quarter and admire  La Ribera Market, said to be Europe’s largest covered market.
  • Go on a pintxos crawl and consider joining a guided food walk, to learn all you can about this Basque pastime and the cultural origins of dishes and drinks.
  • Exercise your shopping muscles along the Gran Vía, Bilbao’s hub for high-street brands and stop for a rest on a bench in Plaza Moyúa.

Give yourself time! You’ll need more than a day or two to take in all the art, eat well, and walk the city’s greenways.

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